F4: THE GOOD AND THE BAD
Marvel is releasing two new FANTASTIC FOUR books this week. One of them is really good, and the other is so bad that I hardly know where to begin.
Let's start with the good: Dwayne McDuffie's run on FANTASTIC FOUR so far has been spot-on. He's got the characterization thing down pat. He has interesting plots. He has Marvel Universe-spanning adventures. He has a little bit of science and technobabble. It's a great take on the title, with a firm grip on the characterization and plots. It's so strong that I'm considering picking up his take on JUSTICE LEAGUE when that starts, over at Marvel's Distinguished Competition. This week's issue, FANTASTIC FOUR #549, is no exception. It may even be the best of his run, for a few reasons.
First of all, he doesn't waste a page. I noted through the second half of the book that there's a new twist on each page, well introduced and well executed. Any of those pages could have been the cliffhanger for the issue, but McDuffie's plot keeps churning along. It leads to a very satisfying feeling, in the end.
Secondly, he doesn't forget character. Everyone acts right here, and Sue Storm has a show-stopping scene in the middle of the book that should pacify those who think modern superhero creators treat women as wimpy weaklings. Her big moment is so strong and yet so perfectly in character that you'll want to get up and cheer by the time she's done.
Paul Pelletier is one of the great unsung artists of the last 15 years. I first saw his art on THE INCREDIBLE HULK, as I recall, though I know he did work at Malibu before that. His style started off a little more bubbly, perhaps, but it's still distinctively his. It's got a nice weighted line to it, with a nice set of curves and a soft feeling that too many of today's comic artists just don't bother with. Think Alan Davis here, instead of Jim Lee. Think Dale Keown instead of John Romita Jr. Rick Magyar is a great inker for the style, which I think requires a thicker line than an inker like, say, Scott Hanna or Scott Williams might give it. And, it goes without saying, Paul Mount's coloring work is top notch.
So, yes, I like this book a lot. I'm sad to see that this creative team doesn't have too many more issues to go, but I'm glad I read this monthly instead of waiting for collections -- the first one is due out in October, in case you were waiting.
On the flip side, we have THE LAST FANTASTIC FOUR STORY, the long-awaited Stan Lee/John Romita Jr. one shot that gives us just what the title suggests. I'm torn on how I'm supposed to react to this book. Am I looking at a book written in an older style that seems out of place in today's market? Is it a deeply metatextual book from Stan Lee that I just haven't been able to fully comprehend? Or am I looking at a pretty crappy comic that asks way too much of its readers?
I'm going with that last option. The book might get a bit of a pass because it's Stan Lee, but that only goes so far for me. It feels a lot like Lee adapting his 1960s style for today's audiences, attempting moments of decompression without much success. Characters talk in very staccato rhythms, with single sentences broken up into multiple balloons across successive panels for melodrama's sake. The dialogue is expository and emphatic at every given turn. There's some nice banter between the Thing and the Human Torch but it all seems out of character. The book starts with the Thing, the Human Torch, and Sue Storm belly-aching about how they save the world but never get rich off of it, and why should they bother? Woe is me, alas alas. Some heroes these guys turned out to be. Johnny Storm might get away with saying that in the main title every now and again, but he'd quickly be put in his place by his sister and feel sorry for it.
Most characters in the book have moments of stupidity or weakness. Half the book could have been lifted for a special one-off comic called MARVEL SUPERHEROES GIVE UP AND GO HOME BECAUSE THE VILLAIN IS JUST TOO BIG! #1. Some characters do leap into action against the villain, though: Namor and Doctor Doom lead the way out of enlightened self-interest. Doom's reasoning is particularly funny, the stuff of which comic blog material is taken. And, to be fair, a couple of powerful heroes work their magic to no avail.
The rest who do act, do so stupidly. After establishing for the whole world to see that the big bad guy cannot be defeated by fisticuffs and explosions alone, hero after hero after villain (!) take turns trying to punch the bad guy into submission. The Thing, for reasons of filling a page count only that I can see, suddenly decides that it's clobbering time. Yeah, because after the bombs and en masse hordes of Atlanteans fail to take the bad guy out, one rocky guy with two big fists is going to save the day.
Miraculously, by the way, no good guy humans die. It's the ultimate G.I. Joe cop-out, as pilots parachute out of planes after the big bad guy destroys their planes. And you wonder why there's no sense of dread or fear in the book? Everyone takes a swipe at the guy, and the only harm done might be to a few trees in Central Park and a Latverian pilot or two.
The biggest problem with the story, though, is the way that everyone gives up. Maybe it's because I just recently finished reading the ULTIMATE GALACTUS TRILOGY, but it seems to me that the Marvel superheroes shouldn't give up so easily. In that book, a swarm of ships that had never been defeated before -- and their herald warned the earth of that -- came into earth's orbit, and still the good guys kept fighting, making up plans, and devising strategies. In THE LAST FANTASTIC FOUR STORY, half the heroes go off to be with their girlfriends and wives before they die after a battle that lasts 15 minutes or so. That's probably more productive than Daredevil throwing a billy club or Spider-Man unloading a cartridge of webbing, but it's hardly heroic.
In the end, Reed Richards saves the day with one big off-stage deus ex machina. Stan Lee finds a solution somewhere out in left field and brings it home with a couple of panels of expository dialogue that lead into the only truly heroic moment of the issue, too little too late.
The heroism and feel-good victory is short-lived. The very last few pages of the story might just be the most mind-blowingly silly thing I've read in a Marvel Comic in years. And I read Clor. And an issue where Daredevil wears armor. And a few issues of The Clone Saga. And that Punisher story where he goes back in time to kill Al Capone. And a whole lot of X-Men.
After the book comes out, we can all gather round, roast a few marshmallows, and discuss spoilers. For now, just trust me that it's so bad that my first thought was that I was reading an issue of "What The --?!?"
This book is an utter train wreck. Stan Lee's plot is reprinted in the back of the book, along with some notes from editor Tom Brevoort that make sense, but don't go nearly far enough. This book didn't need a few editorial notes. It needed a rewrite. Pity.
On the other hand, what did we expect? We all love Stan Lee, right? But he's spent the last few years giving us Striperella, Who Wants to Be a Superhero? and an internet site's worth of Dot Com heroes that bombed faster than Pets.com. (To be fair, that wasn't solely the material's fault.)
Really, what did we expect? Let me say the kind of thing I'm not supposed to say: Stan Lee's greatest days are behind him. He's a great messenger for Marvel to the outside world that expects BAM POW superhero headlines, but his best comic writing days are long over. Anyone expecting an F4 tale to rival the first 100+ issues he did with Jack Kirby are setting themselves up for a fall. But even with those lowered expectations, this book is bad.
Sadly, Romita Jr. isn't without blame for this book. There's a splash page with Silver Surfer sitting astride his surfboard that would have fit in better in Giffen/DeMatteis' DEFENDERS mini-series. His Watcher looks like a puffy-faced middle manager in a toga. The first panel on page 49 looks lifted from a STAR WARS movie, with the Watcher and Galactus assuming the roles of ghostly Obi Won Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker. A lot of the finish work in this issue appears to have been done by colorist, Morry Hollowell. Did this issue get done in spurts between higher-profile books? Was it, dare I say the word, rushed? Or is Scott Hanna not the right inker for Romita's pencils, when we've seen such tremendous work lately highlighted by the ink slung by Klaus Janson?
Judge for yourself on Wednesday when the book hits the stands.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, OLD FAVORITES
You know what depresses me just a little? Tom Spurgeon sends out Happy Birthday wishes on The Comic Reporter most every day. Here are some highlights from the month of August of creators whose work I've enjoyed in the last 15 years:
Happy 42nd Birthday, Chris Bachalo!
Happy 55th Birthday, Terry Austin!
Happy 41st Birthday, Stefano Gaudiano!
Happy 41st Birthday, Charlie Adlard!
Happy 50th Birthday, Paul Dini!
Happy 52nd Birthday, Eddie Campbell!
Happy 43rd Birthday, Jim Lee!
Happy 47th Birthday, Bret Blevins!
Happy 57th Birthday, Gary Larson!
Happy 54th Birthday, Paul Gulacy!
Happy 51st Birthday, John Romita, Jr.!
Happy 40th Birthday, Brian Michael Bendis!
Happy 49th Birthday, Andrew Helfer!
All of the big names I recognize over any portion of the last 15 years are in their 40s and 50s now. You'll be hard-pressed to find a BIG NAME still in his 30s.
In some cases, it's not so surprising. I mean, Terry Austin was inking John Byrne's X-Men work before I hit grade school, I think. Gary Larson finished FAR SIDE while I was still in high school.
But there are others in that list I've watched come up, or who I can remember being young up-and-comers at Marvel or DC. They're all in their 40s and 50s now. I don't know how long it'll take to wrap my head around the concept that the youngest of the Image founders is probably in his 40s. I'm not sure which of the seven that would be. Probably Rod Liefeld, right? He turns 40 in October.
Are comics creators aging as fast their readers? Is Tom's lens just focused too far back? Am I an old man who doesn't enjoy the new stuff from the kids today? As I scratch my ever-thinning head of hair, I can't help but feel slightly old today.
PREVIEWS FOR OCTOBER
Yes, the new PREVIEWS catalog is out this week. What better time, then, to discuss last month's PREVIEWS catalog? Yeah, I ran late again and dragged Jamie down with me. But we came back over the weekend to record the latest installment of the Pipeline PREVIEWS Podcast for October 2007. If you've been wondering what you missed pre-ordering last month, now's your chance to find out! The conversation ran for an hour and 18 minutes, and you can find all the details at ThePipelinePodcast.com.
Once again, we will try to be more timely this month, just like we try to be less long-winded every month. It never quite works out, does it?
Next week: I'll be writing about something I haven't read yet, just to keep it fresh and interesting. Or, I'll be too busy reading Greg Rucka's new Atticus Kodiak novel to even pick up a comic, leading me into big trouble when it comes deadline time next week.
Now, for a quick list of links to all my Web 2.0 content:
More than 700 columns -- maybe even 800 -- are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically.