Monday, March 28, 2011


FF #1

Tucker wuz right, naturally, but Mighty God King was right, too. Even though the two reviews are saying pretty much the exact opposite of each other, both Tucker's critique and MGK's praise hit fairly near the mark. The truth is somewhere in the middle. By which I mean: it's a good comic if you like the Fantastic Four, and fairly well-constructed as well, but hardly perfect and in some ways a lot worse than it should be.

It's frustrating to be a Fantastic Four fan, it really is. Batman fans - people like Tucker - get tons of awful Batman stories to sift through, but the higher volume means that simply by dint of stochastic reasoning more good Batman stories will be produced. If 10% of all Batman stories are good, than the chances of their being good Batman stories on any given month with at least ten Batman comics being published is usually pretty strong. And again, the high volume means that even if only 1% of all Batman comics are great, that means there will be at least a handful of truly great Batman comics in any calender year. The same math works for Superman, Spider-Man and the X-Men (although Superman's percentage might be lower simply by virtue of the fact that no one at DC seems to have a vested interest in producing good Superman comics anymore). But if you buy into this logic - a simple extrapolation of Sturgeon's Law - characters who appear at a far lower frequency than Batman or Spider-Man have a much harder road to hoe. If only 10% of all Fantastic Four stories are worth reading, and there are only twelve issues of Fantastic Four printed in a calender year, how many of those comics are worth reading? The math is not encouraging.

Because - as I discussed briefly in the context of eulogizing Dwayne McDuffie - Fantastic Four has always been the symbolic flagship of Marvel's fleet, the book has traditionally attracted top-tier creators even though it has rarely sold in numbers directly proportional to this esteem. Looking back over the last twenty five years of Fantastic Four, you see a murderers row of top-shelf mainstream creators - Byrne, Simonson, Jim Lee, Jeph Loeb and Carlos Pacheco, Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo, JMS, McDuffie, Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch. Even those creators who were considered either subpar or past their prime - I'm thinking the underrated DeFalco & Ryan run, and Chris Claremont's underwhelming run - still considered themselves to be "standing on the shoulders of giants" in a way that you can't quite argue for any other long-running franchise. New creative teams on Fantastic Four are a Big Deal. Just because it's a hard book to get right - and an even harder book to make a consistent commercial success - doesn't mean that some of the biggest names in comics haven't spent decades trying.

So maybe the math on Sturgeon's Law is skewed the other way for Fantastic Four? I would argue - and there aren't many properties in corporate comics you could make this argument for, but I'll make the exception for the House Stan & Jack Built - that the relative scarcity of Fantastic Four writing gigs, and the commensurate prestige that comes from writing the characters, actually brings out the best in most of the creators involved. Everyone loves Batman, but there are so many Batman comics produced on any given month that there's hardly any prestige left. No one gets the gig of writing Detective and talks about following in Bob Kane and Bill Finger's footsteps - or if they do, it doesn't really carry any weight.

Here we are, then, with one of Marvel's periodic attempts to pump new life into the book. It is by no means a new observation that it is simply impossible to boost readership by producing a good comic on a monthly basis and building a new readership through the accretion of word-of-mouth. FF #1 is in no way shape or form substantively different from what Fantastic Four #589 might have been. It's equally certain that FF #12 will probably once again be Fantastic Four #600. (What this tells me is that there is literally no good way to effectively build audiences for serial periodicals anymore: it seems as if emphasizing a new storyline through heavy promotion merely results in costumers choosing not to spend more money on comics but to shuffle their purchases. I think it's probable that every time they promote a new book Marvel is competing with their own long tail as much as with any "Distinguished Competition.") So, what's the deal? In choosing to push FF #1 as hard as they are, Marvel are effectively putting their weight behind the creators themselves. Jonathan Hickman is the name above the masthead, and his stories are the stories that have effectively built the head of steam that brought us to the point where a major media initiative was deemed necessary in order to expose the book to a slightly larger pool of readers than those who might otherwise have been willing to purchase Fantastic Four.

Is it good? Well, it's as good as Hickman's run to date has been, which is to say, good but . . .

For those of us who love the Fantastic Four, it's a pleasure to see the characters written well. Hickman knows how these characters think and act, knows how they interact as a family, and is very much intent on putting the dynamics of these familial relations front and center. I've been reading Fantastic Four for a good long time, and I've suffered through things like battling Kraven the Hunter over a Lockjaw puppy in the sweres beneath the Baxter Building and Reed Richards defending the HUAC, so I appreciate the fact that Hickman cares enough about the book to let the characters' actions dictate the plot, and not vice versa. (How Hickman plans to rationalize this issue's last-page reveal is another matter - as has been pointed out, accepting the gentleman in question as a "family" member will be significantly more of a stretch than Spider-Man.) I like the what is happening generally: I've liked Hickman's run since those first three truly cosmic issues with the "Council of Cross-Time Reeds" and the Celestials taking on the Star Brand. That's good stuff, and even if subsequent issues haven't been anywhere near as high-stakes, we have every indication that Hickman is building gradually towards something very big indeed.

The problem is that the book, as presented, is just terribly, terribly slow. While, as I said ,I'm generally a fan of what actually happens in this book, precious little actually happens. We don't hear as many complaints about "decompression" as we used to, and I think the reason why has as much to do with readers' adjusted expectations as it does to any increase in storytelling density on the part of the creators and editorial. (I think both factors are probably at work across the industry, but a grossly decompressed storyline - such as Fraction's Thor - still sticks out like a sore thumb.) This comic could easily have done with a significant increase in plot, or even just more character interaction - there's a lot of big silent panels, and splash-pages, and quiet looks, and all sorts of stuff that might add up to good "Merchant-Ivory"-type superhero storytelling, but precious little in the way of energy and verve. There's a fine line between respectful and stolid, and I hate to say that Hickman's obvious reverence for the characters risks throwing the balance of his storytelling towards the latter, but it's hard to argue with Tucker's rationale when he says:
Underneath bland covers that answer the brain tickler of what it would look like if an Alex Ross obsessive finished a John Cassady convention sketch (hideous n' sickly), you'll find what seems to be the past and future Hickman ideal: multiple splash pages of mid-to-high end website design, which is what settles for art amongst those whose dvd collection ranges from Shaun of the Dead to Spaced.
I have more affection for these characters and ideas than Tucker does, I think it's fair to say, but I share his frustration that such a well-meaning comic - and a comic which, at least from my perspective, nevertheless possesses much to recommend it - is still quite damningly imperfect. The characters are right-on, the plot whirs smoothly, the big moments are well-balanced with the small moments and all those other things that traditionally stand for "quality" in mainstream comics - but it still can't help but seem a bit boring.

And it hurts me to say that, because there aren't many fans who are more invested in the perpetual hope of a truly great Fantastic Four run than myself. The earliest issues with Dale Eaglesham, were - as I said - great, but the art since then has been perfectly competent and otherwise completely unexceptional. Steve Epting is capable of doing great work but his strengths are perhaps not those of an artist best suited to the Fantastic Four. The visual remit here seems to be blandness for the sake of blandness. This is not good news in a book that desperately needs to sing.

Is Hickman's respect - respect for the characters, respect for the book, respect for the fans - just another kind of pandering? Because I get the respect: I recognize it and appreciate it. But respect shouldn't be the destination, it should be the launchpad. It's where you go that matters. So far the book is perfectly "good," but Hickman so far seems unwilling or unable to turn the corner and really run with the ideas he's very painstakingly established. His writing, at least on this book, is extremely methodical. He needs some jazz. So far, as much as it pains me to say it, we're stuck with the superhero comics equivalent of Wynton Marsalis: accomplished craftsmanship, obviously a very respectful approach to the source material . . . but man, this is supposed to be fun, not a damn mausoleum. You don't have to top the King but you at least have to try to top yourself. Go Kirby or go home, dog.

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