I haven’t said much about Matt Fraction’s work on the relaunched Fantastic Four as yet, and that’s because… well… I’m not sure I actually like it. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not shy about writing a negative review when I think it’s warranted, but… To say that I’m a tough audience when it comes to this book is an understatement. Not because I don’t like the series; Fantastic Four is, in fact, my all-time favorite super hero comic. I love this book, and these characters, and I have some very definite ideas about how they should be done.
This, of course, violates my number one critical rule: my expectations for something don’t mean shit. If it’s well-done, it’s good. No matter what I thought it was going to be beforehand. It also violates my number two critical rule: there is no one right way to tell any story. If it works, it’s good. Period. But Fantastic Four may be the one thing that can make me abandon my critical principles. I’m not proud of that, understand. But I’m afraid it may be the truth. And so I held off on writing about it until I’d read a little more of the work, and had some time to let Fraction’s approach sink in. And now, after two issues… I’m not sure I like it.
I do like his intended approach: to take the team off on space adventures that focus less on their role as super heroes and more on their role as scientific explorers. As a big fan of Fraction’s recently-concluded run on Defenders, I was really looking forward to seeing him tackle the same kind of weird, larger-than-life pulpy adventure concepts with the super-team that was created specifically to deal with that very kind of stuff. That’s what attracts me to the Fantastic Four the most, in fact: they don’t just exist to punch stuff. They’re explorers and researchers and adventurers into the mind-bending fringes of science. So I’m all down for that.
What bugs me is that the writing feels very surface. The characters are fairly two-dimensional so far, depth (or even basic common sense) taking a back seat to comedic family hijinks. It’s not the light tone I object to so much; I quite liked it on Defenders, and currently really dig it on Fraction’s Hawkeye. And, I mean, considering this scene from the most recent series of Casanova…
…I really shouldn’t be surprised to see Fraction’s subsequent writing take a lighter tone. But I have a hard time, for instance, accepting that The Thing would be so concerned with making sure the Yancy Street Gang (!) takes care of the neighborhood while he’s gone, but not make a single attempt to say goodbye to Alicia Masters. I might also feel a little better about it if the comedy elements were funnier. But they just feel kind of forced. There’s a weird jock rivalry between Thing and She-Hulk that makes sense, but just doesn’t play. And the scene where Medusa is confused that the kids of the Future Foundation don’t bow when they’re introduced to her is just… painful. It’s not all that funny in general, but it’s doubly not funny because it’s so out of character for Medusa.
But I had similar complaints about the early days of Jonathan Hickman’s run on the book, and that turned out just fine. And it’s not all bad. The second issue has a great cameo appearance from Moon Boy and Devil Dinosaur that’s exactly the kind of thing I want to see here. The writing just feels dumbed-down to me so far, and I’m annoyed when whatever growth or depth the team has accrued over the years is ignored. That’s the danger of getting too attached to any long-running corporate spandex characters, though: they can never actually grow or change, and whatever depth they’re afforded is only going to last as long as they’ve got a good writer guiding their adventures.
Of course, that’s part of the problem for me here: Fraction IS a good writer. I generally like his stuff, so it’s even harder for me to tell if he’s off his game on this book thus far, or if I’m just being hard on him because I know the series too well.
And speaking of knowing the series… Stuff like this makes it even harder for me to get into what Fraction’s doing on the book:
Not the artwork, certainly. I’m not the biggest Mark Bagley fan on Earth, but that’s a really nice panel, weird and visceral and capturing the microscopic world in a way that puts me in mind of Steve Ditko’s other-dimensional landscapes.
And it’s not the idea being illustrated there, either. The core motivation for everything in Fraction’s run to date is that Reed Richards has some kind of weird super-cancer that’s complicated by the nature of his stretching powers. He can’t find a cure, and can’t be sure that the rest of his cosmic-irradiated family won’t get it. So he contrives the space outing, on which he hopes to find a way to fix it before the rest of them even know it’s happening. Putting aside for the moment that we’ve seen Reed learn the lesson that he needs to let his family in on stuff like this a million times already, I like the idea.
So what’s my problem with this plot element? It’s that Reed keeps referring to his body’s cells as unstable molecules, and they’re not. Unstable molecules are what the FF’s costumes are made of, not their bodies.
Which may very well be the dorkiest reason not to like a funnybook I’ve ever admitted to in public.