Collecting Marvel Knights 4, issues #1-7
Writer: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Artists: Steve McNiven (p) Mark Morales (i), Morry Hollowell (colours)
Publisher: Marvel Comics
This week, I did something I don't normally do - I bought a TPB solely on the strength of the art, with little or no idea of what the story was actually about. Steve McNiven has impressed me with the work he's done for Marvel on Ultimate Secret, New Avengers, and Civil War, and this collection comprises his stint on Marvel Knights 4, the now-defunct Fantastic Four book which predates his work on those titles. Writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa is a completely unknown quantity for me (although I understand that he's a respected playwright), but on reading his work here I was impressed, and actually found it quite refreshing to come to a book without any of the usual preconceptions that come with more familiar territory.
Marvel Knights 4, it seems, is Marvel's attempt to give the Fantastic Four their own mature-readers title, in keeping with the adult sensibilities of the Marvel Knights imprint (that's 'adult' as in 'more sophisticated', although some of the provocative poses that McNiven twists the Invisible Woman into might suggest an alternative definition). From the very start, Aguirre-Sacasa sets out his stall with scenes which depict the FF as a family, first and foremost, with an obvious understanding of how the team dynamic works. In order to create some compelling drama, the writer immediately places the team in jeopardy, but doesn't resort to colourful super-villains or cosmic threats to do so.
Instead, he conspires to undermine the group in a far more human way, by making the team a victim of bankruptcy at the hands of a shady accountant, and forcing them to be evicted from their home at the Baxter Building and find proper jobs in the "real" world. Whilst this isn't the most original idea (Lee and Kirby did something very similar way back in Fantastic Four #9) and is hardly logical when you think about the money-making potential of Reed Richard's genius intellect, it's excusable in that it provides a solid framework for Aguirre-Sacasa to explore the characters that have been the lynchpin of "The World's Greatest Comics Magazine" for almost 50 years, rather than the fantasy concepts with which they're so often associated.
The book captures the essence of the characters well, with the usual tics in evidence (Reed's preoccupation with science at the expense of his family life; Sue's maternal, protective instincts; Ben's salt-of-the-earth, heroic outlook; Johnny's hot-headed immaturity) without ever feeling like it's all been seen before. The casting of the team in various new occupations gives a fresh spin on their characters, and Sue and Ben are particularly well-suited to their respective new jobs as a substitute teacher and a construction worker. The way in which we're treated to solo scenes of the characters adjusting to their new lives as well as ensemble family sequences helps to reinforce the idea that each one of the FF is a rounded personality in their own right, but that they're also all important members of one big family. What's more, Aguirre-Sacasa also makes the team convincing New Yorkers, reinforcing an element of their characters that is often forgotten - I guess that, since the majority of the Marvel Universe's heroes inhabit the city, writers often don't see the need to make this an important part of their stories, but I appreciated its inclusion here. Whilst the last few issues do introduce some slightly more fantastical elements (with a plot involving alien abductions in New Jersey), the book stays relatively grounded and focused on its characters, showing some real progression - particularly in the case of Johnny Storm's maturation - and ensures that all of the drama and emotion springs directly out of the characters, mixing moments of humour (the bickering between Johnny and Ben over ownership of some Sopranos DVDs is a hoot) with some truly touching moments, such as Reed's counsel of a bereaved and suicidal office worker who is afraid of dying alone.
Steve McNiven's artwork is decent throughout, and it's interesting to see the subtle evolutions in his style between the first and last issues of the collection, with an increasingly solid grasp of his character models and a progressively higher level of detail apparent in his linework. McNiven's facial expressions are particularly engaging, and come off as realistic without looking photo-referenced in the slightest. Whilst some critics have accurately pointed out one of the weaknesses of McNiven's work as being a plasticky feel to his human figures that makes everyone look a little doll-like, it's actually quite fitting here: the rubbery Reed Richards and inhuman Thing both lend themselves to a less realistic texture, and even if Sue and Johnny don't quite look natural, McNiven injects enough character into them in other ways that it's not too distracting. Although there isn't a huge amount of superhero action to illustrate, the artist shows his versatility, with "big" moments such as Reed Richards scaling a skyscraper or Ben Grimm rescuing a construction worker coming off just as effectively as more subtle moments of quiet beauty such as the lovely splashpage of Reed and Sue looking out over the New Jersey Pine Barrens.
I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that a writer with a background in theatre should be able to put characterisation in the spotlight and still make his stories very readable and compelling, but considering the lack of genre clichés or stock superhero elements employed by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, this still feels very true to the original spirit of the FF. Although the pacing is fairly pronounced and there's not much action to speak of, this first volume of Marvel Knights 4 tells a couple of decent self-contained superhero stories whilst also setting some longer-running subplots in motion, and ones that I'm keen to see develop. This might not be a perfect Fantastic Four story (people who love the FF's more fantastical, adventurous elements might feel short-changed by the very grounded, character-based tone of the book), but it's a good enough start that I've already ordered the second volume in the series - this time, on the strength of the writing rather than the art.
What did you think of this book?
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