First, an example of just how compulsively readable Jonathan Hickman’s Fantastic Four run is.
After years of not reading any new comics I ended up with, entirely by accident, issues 20 and 21 of FF, which is a sort of spin-off book that Hickman writes concurrently with Fantastic Four at the moment. (Although his run, in both books, ends next month.) Of the two, FF seems to be the one that really deals with strange side-stories and consequences sparked by the intensely complex story that Hickman has built over the last few years. As such, two random issues of FF, in a vacuum, made no goddamn sense to me. None. I knew most of the characters in it, but had no idea what was happening.
I also didn’t care, because it was just that good. It did what intensely serialized and continuity-heavy superhero comics should do: instead of eliciting, “I have no fucking clue what’s going on here, this is impenetrable and confusing,” it got a “I have no fucking idea what’s going on here and I really, really want to!” out of me. So I bought the first four volumes of Hickman’s run and read them pretty much immediately. I’ve now seen the beginning of the story, and a few segments of its epilogue. It’s great.
The Fantastic Four aren’t the most popular superheroes around, and there’s a good reason for that, which is that they don’t have an obvious hook. Not anymore. Spider-Man and the X-Men, for example, clearly do: they’re obvious outsiders in different ways, with the former never able to make ends meet and the latter part of an oppressed minority. But the main hook that made the Fantastic Four so popular in the ’60s (along with the fact that the art was unlike anything most people had seen before) was just that they were a team of offbeats who didn’t get along very well. This was revolutionary in superhero comics back then, but has since become such a part of the genre’s DNA that it, on its own, doesn’t stand out anymore.
What still makes this team stand out in this day and age when superheroes are all fighting each other all the time, is just how far Reed, Sue, Johnny, and Ben still are from any recognizable superhero mold. After all, in the ’60s this series tried a lot of new things, and only some of them stuck around in the larger landscape. I think a lot of readers have trouble connecting to the Fantastic Four because, again, they’re kinda weird with no clear hook or theme (I once saw someone try to graft a “fire, water, earth, air” theme onto their powers, but it really doesn’t wash) beyond “superhero family” which is itself a cliché by now.
But when they’re written right (and many would argue that Hickman’s run is only the third time this has happened, I’m not enough of an expert to agree) Fantastic Four comics can do things that no others do, and still feel as though they have one foot happily planted in the Doc Savage-era of adventure stories. Except with these bickering weirdos and no Doc Savage.
Hickman gets all this. He gets the sense of scale a good Fantastic Four story needs to have, (volume two of his run is literally just four different stories, each about a crazy sci-fi city of some sort) and the best ways that small interpersonal stories are reflected from that. He also gets that Reed Richards’ real superpower isn’t that he’s all stretchy and stuff, it’s that he is (Or was… Foreshadowing!) the smartest goddamn person in the world.
These four volumes are clearly a lot of place setting for the larger story, but they work because that place-setting is fascinating, poignant, and full of crazy ideas. By far the best of these is in the first book, when we are introduced to an interdimensional council of Reed Richardses from different realities, with all sorts of strange powers and back-stories, who get together to harness the power of their huge intellects for one simple purpose: to solve everything. This works both as a a great comic book concept and perhaps the best distillation of everything that makes Richards so fascinating and frustrating as a character… when he’s written well.
From there it’s off to the Mole Man and Namor and the Inhumans and the Negative Zone and Ben Grimm turning temporarily human (again!), and some of my favorite more obscure Marvel characters (Artie! Leech! Power Pack! Arcade!), as well as, of course, Doctor Doom — the most versatile villain in comics. Oh, and there’s also The Death of one of the Fantastic Four. It is, of course, a death that’s already been undone (Comics!), and as part of Hickman’s run even, but it’s still handled very well, and the grief feels very real, whether or not the death is.
It probably didn’t hurt that the last issue of volume four, when this grief comes into play, has my favorite art in the series so far, by Nick Dragotta. The art throughout has a lot of great compositions that really drive home the bigness of everything, although Neil Edwards’ faces tend to… leave something to be desired.
Hickman’s Fantastic Four reminds me why I love superhero comics. Why I love Marvel comics specifically, even. It has that whirlwind of grand ideas that gives me a genuine challenge in putting down the book, like when I was 12 and it was time to get out of the car already, and it juxtaposes grand wars and time travel with equally important things, like a kid’s birthday party. I don’t know how these comics would read to someone with no prior connection to these characters and their universe, but for a lapsed fan they were pretty much exactly what I wanted. I can’t wait to see what happens when the larger story really gets going.