Comic Review: Fantastic Four #1

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Cover of Fantastic Four #1 by Mark Bagley, Mark Farmer, and Paul Mounts. Copyright 2012 Marvel Entertainment.

I’m not sure when I first started reading comics, and couldn’t tell you what the very first comic I ever consumed was.

But I *can* tell you the very exact moment when I really and truly got hooked and my near-lifelong fandom of the medium began: the spring of 1982, when Fantastic Four #242 hit the stands.  I was ten years old.  My comics purchasing at that point consisted of me being on my best behavior when accompanying my parents to the grocery store, and getting to pick a single comic from the wire spinner rack as a reward.

(Yes, Virginia, they did, once upon a time, sell comics in grocery stores.  Hard to believe, I know: you could get a quart of milk, a dozen eggs, and the latest issue of Amazing Spider-Man in one fell swoop.)

My buying habits at this tender age pretty much boiled down to two factors:

a) Was there a comic with Batman on the cover I didn’t have?  If so, pick that one.  Double score if it was World’s Finest, Brave and the Bold, or Justice League of America because it had Batman and other superheroes, too.  More bang for my folks’ 60 cents.

b)  If no new Batmans were available, then pick the comic that had the coolest, most interesting cover.  I wasn’t too discerning at that point, any comic would do — I sure wasn’t leaving empty-handed, but I really didn’t read or favor one particular non-Batman comic over another.  I might choose, say, Captain America one time, then not bother with Cap again for months, even if it ended on a cliffhanger that was continued in the next issue.  I didn’t even realize that comics came out only once a month.  I just went back to the rack and some comics were gone, and new ones took their place.  You couldn’t get too upset when you missed the next part of the story when you couldn’t drive yourself to the store to get it.

This naiveté ended thanks to the FF and writer / artist / legend John Byrne.  Looking at my collection, I did have a handful of Byrne issues prior to #242, so I did favor his work, even if I didn’t understand at the time that different people wrote and drew different comics.  For all I knew, comics sprung directly out of some magic printing press and ended up in the store.  But there was something about the pictures and the story in the FF that obviously appealed to me, and I think I did recognize that they were done by the same person each time, even if I couldn’t identify what the credit box was.

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Fantastic Four #242 was the first part of a trilogy that set the FF up against a vengeful Terrax, rogue herald of Galactus, who came to Earth still possessing the Power Cosmic and with a huge bone to pick with the Fantastic Four.  After trading blows with the FF, Terrax — holding the entire island of Manhattan hostage — tried to force our quartet of heroes to destroy a weakened Galactus, who was hot on his former underling’s trail.  (Did I mention Daredevil, Iron Man, Thor, and Spider-Man got caught up in the chaos, as well?  And this was back in the day when not everyone in the Marvel Universe wearing long underwear was a card-carrying Avenger, so guest appearances and team-ups were far more of a treat.)

My fragile little mind was completely blown, and I was totally and irrevocably hooked.  For the first time, I *had* to have the next issue, and not just because Batman was in some way involved.  (Actually, now that I think about it, this was the first time I really took into consideration issues were sequentially numbered.)  With the advent of this pre-adolescent OCD came anxiety, and for an agonizing month I scoured the racks for the next issue.  I think I may have even enlisted my mom to call the local newsstand to see when FF #243 would be available.

This was a big deal, because back then, before the advent of the Internet and the direct market (at least in my neck of the woods), if you missed a comic, it was gone FOREVER.  There was no waiting for the trade, no back issue bins (well, outside of mail order and that might as well have not existed for ten-year-old me).  When you saw a comic, it was buy it now or maybe never, and comics were created to reflect that: sales of the individual issues alone kept a title afloat, and each one had to be as good and exciting as the creators could make it.  And no one seemed to bat an eye that most long-running comics were well into the hundreds when it came to issue numbers.  That was a badge of honor back then — it meant the title and character had longevity and wasn’t some flash-in-the-pan that might just up and disappear.

Flash forward twenty years and I’m reading Fantastic Four #1.  It should probably be #607, if not farther down the line, but here we are, back to the start — and not for the first time, either.

Now, if I say that comics were better back in the day, I come across as a stick-in-the-mud curmudgeon viewing the world through nostalgia-colored glasses.

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But that’s what I’m going to say, at least in this instance.  Fantastic Four #1 is one of the most egregious offenders I’ve seen in terms of decompressed storytelling — or call it ‘writing-for-the-trade’, if you like.  Writer Matt Fraction meanders through a twenty page prologue where very little actually happens.  There’s exactly one scene of dramatic tension in the entire comic, and the rest is a series of character vignettes that do little to nothing to provide background for the lapsed or new readers the Marvel Now! promotion is designed to snare.  The snail-paced events do set up what is obviously going to be a longer arc, albeit on what I think is a somewhat shaky foundation, but we’ll get to that in a moment.  Decompression first.

It’s not bad work, per se, but I think it perfectly illustrates the problem with single issue format comics.  The trade paperback / collected edition market is huge, and where a vast majority of sales come from.  Without getting into a lengthy side discussion, that’s just the way it is.  And it might make sense to approach writing the material with an eye toward that format.

But as an individual format single comic, this is a first issue, and it’s supposed to get its hooks into me and make me want to sign on board to pick up this comic every month from now on.  It failed at that because there was no dramatic tension.  In the context of the larger whole of a hundred or so page storytelling unit — the eventual collected edition — this might be a fine prologue.  As an individual thirty-two page comic, it’s very unsatisfying.  It might be acceptable for later issues or ‘chapters’ of the larger story to fall into odd and uneven pacing, but there’s no excuse for the first issue to be this ‘meh’.

On top of that, in this particular instance, Fraction is coming in following a lengthy and very well-received run by writer Johnathan Hickman, so the bar was set high: this issue should’ve been so written so taughtly it practically reverberated with a metallic twang when you pick it up.  Instead, it was just as limp and flimsy as the paper stock it was printed on.  Even taking it as someone paying $2.99 for a teaser for the eventual collected edition it’s not particularly appealing, because there’s not nearly enough story here to actually judge whether the entire arc might be worth reading.

I do understand that modern comics have a different creative process due to the economics of the industry — writers and artists get page rates, and to keep costs in line, there aren’t nearly as many pages to tell a satisfying story in.  It’s a much tougher row to hoe.  At the same time, in this issue, there are no less than five pages which are either splash pages or near-splash pages with three or less panels.  I’ve got nothing against splash pages, per se, they can be an important dramatic technique in comics.  But it also means that in terms of writing, one-fourth of the available space in this story was underutilized.

Take this in comparison to John Byrne’s FF #242, which had 22 pages of story, one splash page, and the majority of the remaining pages had five panels on average, with a few being seven or even nine.  Even though that issue was the opening chapter of a trilogy, as an individual unit it was very satisfying.  He made the best use of his available storytelling canvas, and if anyone had reason to decompress and cut corners, it was Byrne, since he also had to draw whatever he called for in the script as a writer.  But Byrne also didn’t have the luxury of falling back on sales of the collected edition — the monthly comics had to be well-crafted and good, or he was looking for work.

If you want to write graphic novels, write graphic novels.  If you want to write comics –that is, sequential art storytelling serialized into a monthly format — then dammit, WRITE COMICS.  Don’t just take the tube of cookie dough and hack it into five equal parts when I’m expecting a handcrafted individual dessert.

I don’t mean to take Matt Fraction to task or hold him personally responsible for decompression storytelling as a whole, but at the same time . . . you get paid the same page rate for writing a dialogue-less splash page as one that has six or seven panels, right?  Do your job and write a great and satisfying comic.

So on to the set-up here: during a time-traveling jaunt to the distant, dinosaur-ridden past, Reed Richards is inexplicably injured when his arm suddenly loses its natural pliability.  After doing further examination upon returning to the Baxter Building in the present, Reed discovers that the cellular structure of his body is breaking down — in short, he’s losing his powers and his body is deteriorating with it, and “nothing in the known universe” can fix it.

Really?  This is REED !#$%ing RICHARDS and he’s essentially throwing in the towel in the space of a couple panels?  No confab with the Marvel Brain Trust, calling up or sending data to Tony Stark, Stephen Strange, Henry Pym, or Hank McCoy?  Heck, at this point, with his life on the line, he should at least send Uatu the Watcher a tweet.

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No, Reed gets fixated on the idea that while there’s nothing in the known universe that can improve his condition, there’s plenty of unknown universe out there.  So he misleads his family and teammates and suggests that they should take Franklin and Valeria on an educational field trip into the unknown and while the whole family gets some nice bonding time, hopefully, at some point, he’ll stumble across a cure for his malady.

Which is like discovering you’ve got cancer, you’ve got almost unfathomable resources at your personal disposal to treat it, but your solution is to pack up the kids and head deep into the uncharted Amazon rainforest because there might be an as-yet-undiscovered sloth there from which you can craft a live-saving serum.

Or maybe the writer needs a highly contrived plot device to get the Fantastic Four off into space and time so he can also write a sister book about the replacement heroes who will watch over the Earth in their stead.

But it gets even better: Reed acknowledges that his condition may not be unique to his physiology alone, that the other three members of the FF might also suffer the same deterioration.  You know, his wife, brother-in-law, and best friend — the same best friend that he’s been wracked with guilt for decades about being responsible for his transformation into a ‘monster’?

Now, Reed’s not the perfect husband, father, or friend.  Those flaws are what make him so charming.  I’m not looking for realism in my superhero comics, but fantastic or not, there’s still an internal logic that needs to be adhered to, and this set-up forces you to suspend your disbelief enough to be able to leap over a Fin Fang Foom-sized pile of B.S. in a single bound.


Snark aside, I’m sure Reed probably does have some aces up his now not-so-elastic sleeve, and this may be pure misdirection that will be resolved later.  Clearly — and clumsily — it sets up some internal conflict for the group when they eventually learn the truth, and a first page flash forward into the future provides a clue, of the FF (including what appears to be a fully human Ben Grimm) flying through another cosmic ray storm a year from now.  As it stands, though, this story almost seems designed to irritate the reader as an incentive to keep reading the book, to see if it’s going to end up being as big of a train wreck as it comes across in the first issue.

No thanks.  I don’t have a problem with Reed not being able to solve this problem, resorting to a last ditch Hail Mary attempt to save himself, and taking the kids along because if he’s going to die somewhere in the far reaches of the multiverse, at least he won’t have gone out as an absent father.  It could have been an interesting concept, but it suffers from some very sloppy and highly contrived execution.

While I feel Fraction dropped the ball on his end, the art team fares much better.  Mark Bagley is a very talented and versatile penciller, and his work here in FF #1 is no exception.  To me — and this isn’t meant as a slight — Bagley’s one of those artists whose overall quality depends greatly on the inks, and Mark Farmer does a great job here giving the visuals, particularly the figurework, a smooth, eye-pleasing look.  Paul Mounts rounds out the package with some nice color work, as well.

I really didn’t have plans on reading Fantastic Four, and only picked up this first issue on a whim — I stumbled across a new comics retailer in a mall storefront, and I wanted to make a couple purchases to show my support, and since I’m planning on following FF for Mike Allred’s artwork, I thought I’d give the main book a shot.  So I’m not that disappointed that it’s not all that great, other than feeling a little swindled out of my $2.99.

But I do have a fondness toward the characters and I wouldn’t mind seeing the material live up to the “World’s Greatest Comic Magazine” tagline on the cover, either.

— mal


Previous Public Domain reviews:

Wolverine and The X-Men #17   Uncanny Avengers #1   

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  2. I thought this issue was great. The family of adventurers angle is amiable and the idea of their powers breaking down has plenty of possibilities. I’m on board for the foreseeable future.

    Dude — my first ever comic book was “Fantastic Four” #345! My parents purchased it for me from a spin rack in Allegany State Park. I wanted it because of the triceratops on the cover!

    • I like the idea behind it — the FF aren’t a traditional team of superheroes like the Avengers or X-Men who just sit around and wait for the next major threat. They are explorers who sometimes end up stumbling into said threat of their own accord. The execution just seems weak and not necessarily true to the characters. I think having the whole team just arbitrarily go along with this after having witnessed Reed having an inexplicable problem with his powers comes off as contrived — he’s not asking them to just pop down to the Burger King down the street from the Baxter Building for some whoppers and shakes — this is a major expedition into the unknown.

      I’m also a little leery with the concept of time travel being used so freely and almost friviously in the Marvel Universe as of late, both here and in All-New X-Men (which I haven’t read yet, but intend to when my monthly shipment comes in via mail-order). There’s always been a great deal of restraint with that particular concept (well, all the X-Men refugees from dystopian / ruined futures aside).

      Hah, another fan old enough to remember spinner racks. Maybe that’s what we should start referring to ourselves as, Spinners . . .

      • I don’t think the decision is arbitrary — yes, there’s the main angle of Reed solving the problem of their cosmic powers breaking down, but there’s also the angle of father and son and a man’s duty to his family. Reed desires to bring the core group closer as a family, doing what this family does best together — explore the great unknown! It’s this angle that makes the series work.

  3. This a mighty and meaty post! This issue disappointed me as well. I always thought Fraction’s strengths were big, imaginative, cosmic-ideas and intimate character moments, so FF always seemed like the perfect book for him. But I don’t know, you’re completely spot on with that Reed stuff, that was just INSANE…that being said, I’m going to keep trying and I think he’ll turn this book into something special down the road!

    • Thanks for the compliments. It’s the stuff that I want to like but just have problems embracing that makes me want to pick it apart in detail. If I just don’t like it, it’s kind of, eh, not my thing and move on.

      I stepped away from comics for several years and missed Fraction coming up through the ranks, so it is tough for me to judge if this is a typical sort of thing to his individual style. The only other work of his I’ve tried is Defenders and I bailed on that after a couple issues for the same reason, sluggish pacing and decompressionism. I hear a lot of good things about his work, I just haven’t found something that clicks with me yet. Maybe FF will, I’ll be reading that if for nothing else than Mike Allred’s art.

      I’m actually trying to cut back on my pull list so I’m really stepping up my criteria for something being worth buying at full price and not picking up later out of a bargain bin at a con or a discounted trade. There’s just not enough cash in my budget to support something that I feel the creators aren’t really trying hard enough to make good or has too many flaws for my tastes. I’ll definitely keep tabs on this book, as I’m curious to see how it turns out . . . just not curious enough to buy it on a regular basis.

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