Marvel NOW! Test Case 001: Caleb reads <i>Fantastic Four</i> #1

As most of you are well aware, Marvel NOW! is Marvel's new initiative to re-brand and re-freshen its line of superhero comics, which seems to be a sort of undeclared response to DC Comics' 2011 New 52 relaunch.

Whereas the Distinguished Competition rebooted its continuity as well as giving all its series new No. 1 issues, Marvel's effort is more akin to the branding enterprise that followed past crossover events ("The Heroic Age," "Dark Reign," "The Initiative," etc), albeit to a far greater extent: In addition to bearing uniform cover design, many of the NOW! books are also being relaunched with new No. 1 issues and getting new creative teams (although many of those teams are simply swapping assignments; for example, the guy who was doing Avengers is now doing an X-Men comic,while a guy who was doing an X-Men comic is now doing an Avengers comic, and so on).

The idea, one imagines, is, as always, to sell more comics — to lure lapsed readers, Marvel-curious readers and (judging by the numbers of variants being published) collectors and speculators to try out some of the new and/or refurbished comics. It worked on me, so I thought it might be interesting (or at least something to write a blog post about, which is basically the same thing for me) to use myself as a case study to examine a single instance of a new reader trying out a Marvel NOW! book.

The first of the NOW! releases that jumped out at me as purchase-worthy was this week's Fantastic Four #1.

My Background: I've read Fantastic Four on a monthly, buy-the-new-books-off-the-rack-every-Wednesday fashion before, although it's been a while -- the relatively short, 12-issue  run of the title by the late, great Dwayne McDuffie, who wrote it during the post-Civil War "Initiative" branding effort (which, it turns out, the NOW! version suggests in at least a few ways).

I'm never averse to picking up FF specials or one-shots that seem interesting, either; I really liked those Tom Beland/Juan Doe bilingual efforts, for example. At the moment, the only Marvel comics I'm reading on a monthly basis are Daredevil and Hawkeye.

What appealed to me about this one: The creative team on this consists of writer Matt Fraction and artists Mark Bagley and Mark Farmer. I've found Fraction's Marvel work to be hit or miss, but the last new comic of his I've read, Hawkeye, has been a success as far as I'm concerned. It's one of the best super-comics on the stands, as near as I can figure, and if Fraction could bring the same virtues he's brought to that particular book to a the Fantastic Four, well then, this should really be something to read.

Bagley isn't an artist I'd necessarily go out of my way to read, but neither would I cross the street to avoid one of his comics. I've quite liked a lot of his work in the past, and his style seems like a fine choice for a straight-forward superhero property like the Fantastic Four.

Additionally, the book is only $2.99, which is the most I'll pay for a Big Two super-comic. In an era in which everything the publishers release will be available in a book-length collection within a matter of months, it seems like simple madness to blow $4 on 20 to 22 pages of comics. (Hell, $2.99 still seems like a lot versus waiting for trades, but it's 33 percent cheaper than, say, the Marvel NOW! Iron Man #1 was.)

Finally, this particular book is apparently going to be one-half of a two-book franchise; Fraction is also writing FF, another of the NOW! books I'm interested in reading, which will feature the artwork of Mike Allred, one of my favorite superhero comics artists.

New Reader Friendliness: The book begins with a page of prose, two paragraphs in gigantic font meant to bring readers up to date on who the Fantastic Four is. The first paragraph is basic stuff, that which anyone who has seen any of the movies or cartoons (or read or heard about them) already knows. The second is about The Future Foundation, the school for young geniuses that was established during writer Johnathan Hickman's just-concluded run (which I meant to read in trade some day, but, like a lot of super-comics I tell myself I'll read in trade someday, I haven't gotten to it yet).

Marvel wasn't kidding during its very insistent "It's not a reboot!" PR campaign; this is obviously not  a reboot, and, in fact, seems to follow what I understand occurred in the previous run so closely the fact they they relaunched the book at all seems a little curious.

The team members are still wearing their white uniforms, they're still running The Future Foundation when not off adventuring. I was mildly confused by a few things that I guess I wouldn't be if I were reading the previous run. For example, Johnny Storm has just gotten mildly serious with a woman whom I guess is going to be the mysterious "Miss Thing" in the sister FF book, and he's wearing some sort of weird arm brace thingy in one scene for some reason ...?

Newness: While Fraction does a fine job of reintroducing the characters and their various personality tics, they are all very, very familiar. Sue is a concerned mother. Reed is easily distracted and kind of a jerk to his loved ones. Johnny is shallow. Ben Grimm's dialogue is about 15 percent catch phrase, and he's always in conflict those rassafrassin guys from Yancy Street.

The premise of what I imagine will end up being Fraction's run on the book is that Mr. Fantastic discovers the unstable molecules that give he and his family their powers may actually be killing him, and, with little time left to live, he decides to pack up the school on a space-time ship  for a year-long field trip, during which he will secretly be trying to cure himself and his family (Elevator pitch: The Fantastic Four as The Magic School Bus); while they're gone, they will pick out a replacement Fantastic Four, as they seem to do fairly regularly now (the last time I was reading the book, Black Panther and Storm were filling in for Reed and Sue; Hickman's run included a stretch where Spider-Man was filling-in for Johnny), and those are the heroes that will be starring in Fraction and Allred's FF book.

Reader-Friendliness: I suppose Daredevil and Hawkeye may be outliers, because I was pretty shocked at how truncated and unsatisfying this single-issue installment was. Going back, I found there were only 20 story pages, and, counting those in Daredevil #19 and Hawkeye #3, I see there are only 20 story pages in those as well. (When DC dropped its page count, I recall the company making a big deal out of it; did Marvel not announce its drop, or was I just not paying attention?)

I sure as hell noticed that the book was short, whereas Fraction's own Hawkeye features panel-packed pages that extend the reading experience. So far, each issue of Hawkeye has been a complete story of its own, and been and offered a satisfying chunk.

Fantastic Four #1, by comparison, takes mere minutes to read. The most panels any page had was seven, and a couple of them have panel counts as low as two or three. There are two full-page splashes, both of which are indulgent and space-wasting, including one in which Reed realizes he's probably dying, and we get a full-page image of him standing sadly in front of his floating computer screens, saying "Uh-Oh."

Obviously the idea was to slow the book down to match the importance of the discovery for Reed, and while that would work fine in a graphic novel, we've only got 20-pages here; the facing one is a full-page ad for Red Baron pizza, and the two images bleed into one another. Reed facing mortality is obviously meant to be important, but only looks equally important to the fact that it takes only five minutes to fill up on a Red Baron pizza, thanks to their new feasts for one.

Also, I was confused and annoyed to see a big, stylized "AR" in a red box in the lower right-hand corner of the first page of the book, a splash page set "One Year From Now." The same panel appeared a few pages later, when the team is stuck in the mouths of a huge dinosaur. And a few pages later when Johnny and his girlfriend are on a date in the Negative Zone.

I eventually hit an ad asking, "Notice the AR icon during this Marvel comic book?", as if one could miss it. The ad helpfully explains it stands for "Augmented Reality," and if you download an app for one of your newfangled phones you can hover it over that graphic and "sit back and see the future of comics in action!" This "future of comics" could include "Action-packed trailers, visual character bios, creator video commentaries and much more!"

So I can see ads, Wikipedia entries and creator interviews about what I'm reading, while I'm reading it? If I stop reading it to do something with my phone? Awesome ...?

Anyway, this is old hat to a lot of you, I imagine. I do recall skimming articles about it on some of the comics news sites awhile back, but I guess the few Marvel books I've read since haven't had any "AR" thingees added to them, so I've yet to see them cluttering up the art. Hopefully they're not present in the trade collections, as between those and the sheer volume of ads in this particular issue (it's sort of rare to encounter two consecutive pages of the story unbroken by an ad, most of which, it turns out, are house ads), it's not much fun reading this comic.

Ultimate Assessment: It's a decent but unremarkable comic, and one made disappointing by the fact that Fraction is obviously capable of producing better work featuring Marvel super-characters and the push it's getting. The Marvel NOW! campaign functions to raise expectations, so decent just isn't good enough to avoid disappointment. Rather than NOW!, this read like last year...or 2007...or 1997. I guess I'll wait for the trade on this one, but I'll go ahead and try the other two "NOW!" titles that piqued my interest: FF and Young Avengers.

Nitpick: The scene set inside a dinosaur's mouth includes a box reading "Two-point-six-six million years before now." That's 2.66 million years ago, right? The last dinosaurs died out about 65 million years ago; 2. 7 million years ago would have put the Fantastic Four back in the Paleolithic period, way into the age of mammals, to the point where human beings were already in existence. Of course, in the Marvel Universe, dinosaurs still exist in the 21st century in The Savage Land, so maybe I should just award myself a No-Prize and then shut up.

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