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Two Blind Men Describing an Elephant: The Current State of the Fantastic Four

So there’s been a bit of talk in funnybook circles lately about the Fantastic Four. It seems that big-time movie deals are in the making (if they don’t run afoul of monopoly laws and the like), and certain some-would-say-irrational proclamations from certain some-would-say-irrational Marvel Comics executives concerning the team may soon be rescinded because of it, leading the funnybook-making peons to start the long walk back to having an FF comic.

Meanwhile, across the country at DC, they’ve decided to leverage their new-found market dominance by doing a bunch of books that look like knock-offs of various Marvel characters (because imitation is the sincerest form of rubbing your face in it). And the book that everyone seems to be the most excited about is their attempt at doing the Fantastic Four.

So that’s an awful lot of talk. But how are the actual comics? I’m glad you asked…

The Terrifics 1
by Jeff Lemire and Ivan Reis

I like this comic.

I like this comic just fine.

But let’s be clear on one thing: it’s not the Fantastic Four.

It gets the surface gloss right: super-science, big ideas, interdimensional travel, etc. It also puts together a collection of characters who fit the requisite personality types, without hammering too many square pegs into round holes.

You’ve got your Woman of Quiet Strength, your Very Serious Science Man, your Gruff Monster, your Devil-May-Care Knucklehead… That’s pretty much the FF, and it shows a better understanding of the characters than some runs of the actual Fantastic Four comic.

But it’s not the Fantastic Four.

I mean… Obviously, it’s not. They’re different characters with different names and different powers, and they don’t have a big “4” on their chests. But that’s not what I’m saying. What really makes the FF work is the set of character dynamics that exist below the surface. Ben’s manic depression. Reed’s guilt over turning his best friend into a monster. Johnny’s temper, and how it makes him eternally teeter between “fun-loving” and “jerk.” Sue’s yearning for the passion that Reed too seldom gives her.

It’s about the characters themselves, in other words, and their specific situations. That’s something The Terrifics doesn’t have, and ultimately can’t have, simply because these are different characters who aren’t as complex. So this business of trying to position it as “the Fantastic Four book Marvel’s not publishing” is annoying, and inevitably just pisses me off as a fan of the real thing.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not a fun book in its own right.

Jeff Lemire’s at the helm here (in spite of what the credits would have you believe), and he’s a good kid. He’s got a good grasp of the things that make super hero comics work, and he’s clearly having fun. The ideas are big, the situations are wild, and he’s using two of my all-time favorite weirdos: Metamorpho and Plastic Man.

And though I don’t really care for artist Ivan Reis all that much (he’s good, but a little generic), this first issue has some nice touches. His first-page drawing of Metamorpho supporting cast member Java, for instance…

…has a lot of character. He also does a nice job with Plastic Man, not being afraid to go too cartoony with him…

…which adds to the book’s overall sense of fun. It would be easy to take that sort of thing too far, of course. But in this first issue, at least, Lemire and Reis have struck the proper tone.

It’s not perfect, mind you. There’s not much of a plot to speak of, as yet. We have some situations and mysteries, but mostly the story is driven along by action, broken up in the middle with exposition for anyone who doesn’t care to read Metal (which this book’s ostensibly spinning off of). And, holy crap, let me tell you… I am vigorously not interested in Metal.

(Pointy Things! MORE pointy things! And a blatant rip-off of Judge Death!)

Anyway. The plot. We start with a crisis situation involving Simon Stagg, Metamorpho, and something called the Negative Zone– Sorry. The Dark Multiverse. Then we’re yanked off into said Not-The-Negative-Zone, and there’s some Metal exposition, and then there’s some kind of beacon, and we’re off to investigate it even though we’ve been lead to believe that being in this place is really bad, and then we find out we’re standing in the ribcage of a dessicated Galactus corpse…

…which, I’ll grant you, is pretty cool…

…and then there’s an attack from some kind of space crabs, and then Phantom Girl shows up, and then there’s this machine that Mr. Terrific flips on, and then we find out that we’ve actually been reading a freaking Tom Strong crossover all along.

I don’t necessarily have a problem with someone using the Tom Strong characters, mind you. They were designed to be passed on to other hands after Alan Moore was done with them, and I’m sure Lemire will do right by them. If he were writing a new Tom Strong series, I’d be okay with it. But doing it this way opens them up to be part of the DC Universe, and that just strikes me as a really horrible idea. For one thing, I know what kind of inane bullshit the current braintrust at DC Comics is capable of perpetrating on Alan Moore characters (see: Doomsday Clock).

But making them part of the DC Universe at all ignores what makes them work. Off on their own, they’re special and unique. The kings of their own fictional kingdom. As part of the DC Universe, they’re mundane. Things there are bigger, stronger, faster, and a whole lot stupider. That’s not necessarily a critique, you understand. Stupidity is one of the charms of the super hero genre. But Tom Strong works on a higher grade of stupid, and jamming him into that world is very much like trying to hammer that square peg into that round hole.

So, yeah. Good lord. If ever a book seemed designed to try my patience, this one is it.

And yet, I still like it. It’s good-natured and fun without being too glib. The only times it’s too self-aware are when they’re really trying to hammer home that Fantastic Four thing, and Lemire has a sufficiently light touch that even that’s not so bad. The rollicking action approach makes it a bit of a shallow read, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. With some tweaks and a bit more development down the line (which Lemire can probably deliver), it could really turn into something interesting.

But it ain’t the Fantastic Four.

And then we’ve got this…

Marvel Two-In-One 3
by Chip Zdarsky and Valerio Schiti

We’re three issues in on Chip Zdarsky’s “Thing and Torch: Adventure Buddies” comic, and this issue… things fall apart a little. Zdarsky’s still dealing well with the fascinatingly messed up friendship between his two leads, with his take on Ben seeming especially sharp to me.

In short, Ben wants to help Johnny, who’s kind of self-destructing without the team to give his life focus. But Ben is also lying to Johnny. He’s trying to fulfill Reed’s (apparently) dying wish that they continue to explore, but to get Johnny to do that, he’s had to make up a fake (as far as he knows) quest to rescue Reed and Sue from being lost in the multiverse. So it’s a white lie, told to help his friend. But it’s a pretty freaking huge white lie, and one that he’s got no plan for dealing with when Johnny learns the truth.

Of course, the actual truth is that they actually are alive out there somewhere in the multiverse, but Ben doesn’t know that. Plus, he really wants to go out exploring himself, because truth be told, he misses it too. Which makes the lie a little less white, and a little more self-serving. Only a little. But enough.

And in addition to that, this issue, we find out that Ben and Johnny are losing their super powers because they’re not in the same universe as Reed and Sue (which is not a great idea, but there you go). And that, for Ben, has to be an incentive NOT to find them. If he loses his powers, after all, one would assume that he’d return to human form. Which brings an extra layer of moral dilemma to the proceedings.

So. Everything’s really complicated, and kinda messed up, and Our Heroes’ feet of clay are showing.

Which is as it should be.

But on the other side of the equation… the awe and wonder side of the equation… things are lacking a bit. I mean… There IS amazing super-science on display, and the book DOES have a certain sense of adventure. But the way it’s presented is a bit… mundane? That may not be the right word. But I get no sense of awe and wonder from it, and that’s… wrong.

The problem, I think, is that Zdarsky is a bit too glib to really pull it off. He’s too interested in the jokes and the surface gloss of plot twist and super-fight. This issue, he reduces the Mad Thinker to a pathetic has-been, inserts a dull and entirely unnecessary fight with Hydro-Man (?!), and brings Hercules along for extra yucks. But the science is ill-defined and matter-of-fact. And the adventure is non-existent. There’s no… GRANDNESS to any of it. And GRANDNESS (yes, it does require all those capitals) is an essential aspect of the Fantastic Four. It should be undercut with jokes and seasoned with trauma, but it still needs to be there. And so far, Zdarsky’s not delivering.

So this book ain’t the Fantastic Four, either.

I’ll take it, because I love these characters, and Zdarsky writes them well.

But it ain’t the Fantastic Four.

So we’ve got one book that gets the grandeur right, and one book that gets the character dynamics right. It’s like the parable of the blind men and the elephant. Both are describing what they see, but neither one quite hits the mark.

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About Mark Brett (478 Articles)
Shaved Yeti. Alien. Writer of stuff. Read my fiction at http://reportsfromthefieldblog.wordpress.com/. Read my thoughts on comic books and other dork culture ephemera at https://dorkforty.wordpress.com/.

2 Comments on Two Blind Men Describing an Elephant: The Current State of the Fantastic Four

  1. Mr. Morbid // March 6, 2018 at 10:37 pm // Reply

    The Terrifics do look good, truly, but as I’ve said, and you yourself pointed out, they’re basically DC publishing their version of the FF. Good art, good story, but that’s it. Missing the heart the FF have.
    That being said, I wouldn’t be against this creative team tackling the real FF at Marvel. Or at least Doc Evaner. He seems like the sort type, like Jeff Parker, who’d be both creative and respectful of the FF, but come up with an entertaining story.

    Speaking of, what’s Marvel, sorry Ike’s position on the FF this week? Are they finally going to stop trolling their fans and bring the FF back on a monthly basis again or what?

    Like

    • Scuttlebutt has it that, if the Disney buy-out of Fox goes through, they’re clear to do FF comics again, because it will bring those copyrights home. And that the Zdarsky series will be building to that very thing. We’ll see.

      Like

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