Marvel Runs in Preview: Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch's Fantastic FourA column article, Comics Bulletin Soapbox by: David Wallace
EDITOR'S NOTE: In anticipation of Fantastic Four #554 (arriving in stores next Wednesday, February 13), Dave Wallace provides his perspective on what readers can expect of Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch's run on "The World's Greatest Comic Magazine!"
And on Friday, February 8, Comics Bulletin will present an exclusive advance Slugfest review of Fantastic Four #554.
Unless you've been living under a giant orange humanoid rock for the last few months, you'll know that Marvel's Fantastic Four title is being handed over to a new creative team this month. After some fairly well-received recent runs from the likes of Mark Waid, J. Michael Straczynski, and Dwayne McDuffie, the book is being handed over to Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch - a team that has become famous through their stellar work on the Ultimates (and who are together known to many readers by their unfortunate hybrid nickname of 'HitLar'). Whilst they've demonstrated their ability to gel as a team on Ultimates, both creators also have prior experience with the FF - albeit separately - and anyone hoping to get a flavour of the book under Hitch and Millar could do a lot worse than to check out their earlier work with the characters.
Mark Millar's relationship with the Fantastic Four is a rocky one, as although he's done some highly enjoyable work with the FF, his most well-known take on the team was also one of the most controversial. Civil War, Millar's blockbuster crossover event, saw the FF family split over the issue of Superhuman Registration, a breakdown which was facilitated by a characterisation of Mr. Fantastic which many readers found dubious. Reed's indifference over Johnny's injuries in the first issue of the mini were perhaps justifiable as a result of him being too wrapped up in his pro-registration work, but this was the tip of the iceberg: over the course of the miniseries (and its tie-ins), Reed grew more and more removed from his relationship with Sue, explained to Peter Parker why following the rule of law is always more important than following your own moral compass, and helped to design and build a super-prison in the Negative Zone to house any of his former comrades who stepped out of line. Whilst it might have made for some compelling drama, many people felt that the writer was forcing Reed Richards into acting in an out-of-character manner to suit the needs of his story, and vilifying the character as a result.
That said, there's a possibility that this is simply how Millar views Reed Richards, as you can see the seeds of the character’s single-minded, distracted, borderline antisocial characterisation being sown in Millar's earlier run on Wolverine (with John Romita Jr.). Over the course of Millar's "Enemy Of The State" story, we got our first glimpse of the futuristic thinktank which is comprised of Reed Richards, Hank Pym, and Tony Stark, and it was an element which played neatly into the writer's plans for Civil War. Here, the FF's leader demonstrated that he would rather spend time deep in thought - wrapped in a rubber ball whilst an imitation computer program reads bedtime stories to his children - than spend the time with the children himself. I'll be interested to see whether Millar maintains this characterisation of Reed Richards in his future stories with Hitch. Indeed, it might be that Millar can somehow use his new FF run to retroactively improve his past characterisation of Reed, exploring and reinforcing his take on the character as a brilliant scientist, but one who has limited social skills and who uses his work to escape from the problems of a family life which can't be solved via complex equations or the application of scientific principles.
Regardless of the flaws in his characterisation of Reed Richards, Millar evidently recognises that the central concept of the Fantastic Four is one of family. The group is regularly portrayed as a bickering and dysfunctional group of characters, but there's an unshakeable foundation of love and mutual care and affection which makes them one of the most solid superhero teams in comics, and whilst Civil War might have seen Millar break up that happy home - albeit temporarily - it also demonstrated the writer’s willingness to focus on their various inter-personal relationships. With only seven issues of a major crossover series to work with, Millar never had the time to go into much depth, but his story hinted at an interest in some of the less obvious relationships between the group members - particularly the rapport between Sue and Johnny Storm. Their brother-sister relationship is often neglected by writers in favour of the more dramatic possibilities offered by the love story between Reed and Sue, the practical jokery of the Human Torch, or the tragic and bittersweet elements that are provided by The Thing, but Millar's transformation of the siblings into a pair of fugitives on the run from S.H.I.E.L.D. - along with his novel perspective on Sue's decision to break up with Reed for the good of the family - showed that he was prepared to explore the FF's various relationships from less obvious new angles. Hopefully this bodes well for the originality of the soap-opera storylines that he has promised for his run with Hitch.
However, despite his occasional and uneven experiences writing the regular Marvel Universe's version of the team, it was with the Ultimate Fantastic Four that Millar accomplished his most impressive FF work. Millar co-wrote the opening arc of Ultimate Fantastic Four with Brian Michael Bendis, acting as plotter for a story which was then polished up with Bendis' dialogue and story specifics for the final script. In theory, bringing together the larger-than-life imagination of Mark Millar and the character-based, idiosyncratically-scripted dialogue of Brian Michael Bendis should have allowed UFF to have the best of both worlds.
In fact, it feels like the writing was largely dominated by Bendis for the first arc, and this impression is confirmed by the foreword to the collected edition, which suggests that Millar’s involvement in the opening arc was largely confined to providing an overall plot and issue breakdowns. Indeed, when you compare it to Millar’s subsequent work on the title some twenty issues later, you can see just how surprisingly thin the book’s first six issues are on the kind of big ideas which tend to dominate his work – but that’s not to say that the decompressed initial arc doesn’t offer its own attractions, with some neat artwork from Adam Kubert, and a fun, light script by Bendis. Millar's initial proposal for the book (reprinted in the back of the first Ultimate Fantastic Four hardcover) implied that he hadn't contributed as much as he might have liked to the launch, and suggested that he had lots more ideas for Ultimate Fantastic Four that he would have been keen to explore further if circumstances had allowed.
Happily, readers didn't have long to wait for Millar to come back to the book, as after a year’s worth of issues by Warren Ellis and a couple of fill-in issues by Mike Carey, the writer returned to helm his own yearlong run (from issues #21-#32) during which he was partnered with artist Greg Land. These twelve issues (thirteen if you include the first UFFAnnual with Jae Lee) proved to be by far the strongest of the book's relatively short lifespan. Millar's year on the book was divided into four short story arcs, which stand alone as thoroughly enjoyable stories in their own right but are tied together by recurring characters and themes which bind the book into a cohesive whole. Millar's penchant for high-concept blockbuster storytelling suited Ultimate Fantastic Four to a tee, and there was a real energy apparent in the book as he "ultimized" existing FF concepts such as Namor and H.E.R.B.I.E., whilst at the same time introducing plenty of all-new ideas, all of which are thrown out left, right and centre in a burst of rampant creativity.
Millar's first arc teased readers with the possibility of a crossover between the Ultimate and regular Marvel Universes before revealing the writer's true intent and making way for the hugely successful Marvel Zombies. A fun, tight little burst of sci-fi horror, these opening three issues got a lot of mileage out of the novelty of the zombified incarnations of much-loved Marvel characters without ever making the concept so ridiculous that it lost its scary edge. It's testament to the writer's creativity that a throwaway idea like this proved to have such a life of its own beyond the original book, becoming such a hit with readers that it went on to spawn more than one spin-off series for the Marvel Zombies, as well as numerous other zombie-related projects.
Later arcs of UFF saw Ultimate Namor make his debut, a time-travelling adventure result in Thor becoming president of the USA, a de-powered Ben Grimm single-handedly see off a Skrull invasion, and the return of Doctor Doom, as the Zombie FF made a bid for freedom at the thrilling climax of the writer's run. However, as strong as these core story ideas were (and Millar's slick, straightforward approach to writing made them sing), the devil was in the detail: whether it was the gloriously comic-booky Fantastic-Oh-Five robot (Kirby would be proud), the hard-light clones based on baby versions of the Ultimates, the opening mission to stop time-travelling terrorists from holding hostage the first animal to crawl from the primordial soup, or the spectacle of an entire planet of super-powered individuals, ideas which might be the basis for entire story arcs in other books were thrown away with gleeful abandon in an effort to move on to the next big thing. It kept the book racing along at a pace that ensured that readers never had the chance to be bored, and I can only hope that his run with Hitch displays the same momentum.
However, in addition to the many weird and wonderful ideas that Millar brought to UFF, there was an evident concern for characterisation, too. The writer never lost sight of the fact that the Fantastic Four are the first family of comics for a good reason, and the strong personalities that each member brings to the group are each given a chance to shine over the course of his twelve issues. Millar's take on Ultimate Reed Richards is particularly intriguing, painting him with a shade more arrogance and recklessness than his classic counterpart (perhaps paving the way for his characterisation in Civil War?), and showing how his desire to play superhero can often lead to catastrophe. Ultimate Sue Storm was given a strong personality which made her the equal of her boyfriend, Johnny was the dimwitted comic relief who nevertheless maintains a strong heart and a loyalty to his teammates, and a hilarious practical-joke-gone-wrong led to a note-perfect examination of the constant pain of The Thing's existence, underlining his status as a tragic hero but never allowing things to get so morose that it takes away from his immensely likeable personality. In addition to his strong grasp of the core team, Millar also managed to single-handedly redeem the slightly botched ultimate version of Doctor Doom, bringing him slightly more in line with the regular Marvel Universe version, gifting him with a knowledge of magic to go along with his mastery of science, and giving him a certain regal aura that was missing from his kooky introduction under previous UFF scribe Warren Ellis.
Taken as a whole, Millar's run on Ultimate Fantastic Four presented some of the best FF storytelling that I've had the pleasure to read, and it was the closest that the Ultimate incarnation of the team came to capturing the spirit of the Lee/Kirby originals before things started to go south for the book after Millar left. However, whilst most readers are probably aware of Millar's involvement in the inception of Ultimate Fantastic Four, they may be less aware of Bryan Hitch's contribution. In fact, Hitch was one of the first artists - if not the first artist - to work on the Ultimate versions of the characters (not counting their anomalous first appearance in Bendis' Ultimate Marvel Team-Up #9, in which the team appeared in a very similar form to their regular Marvel Universe incarnation - an issue which has since been declared out-of-continuity by the creators and publisher). Hitch contributed character designs for Ultimate Fantastic Four whilst the book was still in its planning stages, and although the Ultimate redesigns aren't as groundbreaking or distinctive as some of the other Ultimised characters from Marvel's stable, they update the original look of the group for a contemporary book with more modern sensibilities.
The main difference between the Ultimate and original versions of the Fantastic Four is the age of the team members. Whereas Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's original concept cast Reed as the middle-aged leader father figure to the group, with Ben Grimm an established Air Force test pilot and the younger siblings Johnny and Sue Storm rounding out the team, Millar and Bendis' Ultimate reinvention skewed younger. Hitch's redesigns reflect this more youthful characterisation, particularly where Reed and Ben are concerned: gone are the silver streaks of hair which emanate from Mr. Fantastic's temples and the lines on his face, replaced by a far younger-looking but no less adventurous scientist. The artist's new takes on Johnny and Sue storm were slightly more conventional, updating their classic looks with younger character models and slightly more modern hairstyles (although Johnny would later suffer a hideous perm at the hands of Greg Land).
In fact, it was only with Ben Grimm that Hitch really took a chance, and even then it didn't make it past the planning stages. As this early sketch shows, Hitch had toyed with making the Ultimate Thing a black character, but the change was ultimately rejected (for whatever reason) in the final design:
Hitch also came up with a more modern look for the FF's costumes, giving them impact suits which drew heavily on the kinds of textiles and details which had characterised his run on the Ultimates, replacing tight spandex with ribbed leather and giving the costumes a more functional, practical look. Warren Ellis also came up with a canny explanation for the branding of the suits with the FF's "4" logo, justifying it as a plausible exercise in public relations - an explanation which evoked the reasoning provided in Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's Fantastic Four #3 (the first issue in which the classic blue costumes appeared).
Previews of Millar and Hitch's Fantastic Four have already showed the subtle tweaks that Hitch has made in redesigning the characters, with more modern costumes (not dissimilar to the UFF outfits), a sleeveless Sue, and a chunkier, rougher than usual take on the Thing all evident. It's difficult to judge these changes fairly without seeing them in action - Sue's bare arms look a little gratuitously fleshy, for one thing - and it remains to be seen how well they will work in the context of the interior art. However, anyone who wants a taste of Hitch's sequential work with the Fantastic Four in advance of this month's debut issue may want to check out the final few issues of Ultimates 2 (in which the Ultimate version of team made a cameo appearance), as well as the Thing and She-Hulk: The Long Night one-shot from a few years ago, which saw a younger Hitch draw the ever-lovin' blue-eyed idol of millions for half an issue.
With all this in mind, I'm optimistic about Millar and Hitch's upcoming run on Fantastic Four. Millar's UFF was the Fantastic Four as it should be - consistently imaginative, exciting, and fun, with a great mixture of modern details and a good old-fashioned adventuring spirit - and Hitch is a proven talent, both in his Ultimates work with Millar and in his previous work on such books as The Authority and JLA. The only concern that readers might have is over the scheduling, especially after the delays to the team's recent work on Ultimates. However, with recent reports indicating that Hitch is already well into drawing his seventh issue, and both creators already showing their enthusiasm for the book by extending their run on the title from twelve to at least sixteen issues, the book is already looking like a more well-oiled machine than we saw in operation during the painful release of the final issues of Ultimates. I'm looking forward to seeing whether Millar and Hitch’s Fantastic Four can once again lay claim to their title of being "The World's Greatest Comic Magazine!"