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Marvel Slugfest: Fantastic Four #554

Posted: Friday, February 8, 2008
By: Keith Dallas

Mark Millar
Bryan Hitch (p), Paul Neary (i)
Marvel Comics
EDITOR'S NOTE: The first issue of Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch's tenure on Fantastic Four arrives in stores this Wednesday, February 13.

The following reviews are spoiler-free.

Kelvin Green: 3 Bullets
Paul Brian McCoy: 3 Bullets
Dave Wallace: 3-1/2 Bullets

Kelvin Green 3 Bullets

Fantastic Four is a venerable classic, and one of the cornerstones of the Marvel Universe, but it has not always been well served, and even the best creative teams have often struggled to emerge from the long shadow cast by the title's original creators. However, Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch have proved the strength of their creative partnership on The Ultimates, and Millar alone has produced strong work on Ultimate Fantastic Four, so expectations are high for their run.

Millar starts well and kicks off with an efficient opening sequence which shows us exactly what we need to know: the kind of things the Fantastic Four do (time travel), how they use their powers, what they're like as people (Reed is a borderline autistic asshat, Johnny is fickle, etc), and so on. There are no great insights here, but it's a solid introduction to the Fantastic Four concept for those who may not be familiar with it. That said, Millar is less successful at setting out what he specifically is going to do with the Four, relying on some very clunky exposition here and there in order to set out his vision for the team.

There's also a sense of hollow detachment to things, as if Millar is ticking the boxes on some sort of Fantastic Flowchart Marvel hands out to incoming writers. The big cliffhanger, for example, is clearly supposed to be awe-inspiring and exciting, but it just doesn't seem to click, and Millar doesn't do a great job of selling Reed's reaction. He's the biggest, brightest genius in the Marvel Universe; what supposedly shocks him here is exactly the kind of thing he dreams up on a regular basis. I just don't get it. Still, Millar is at least trying to claw back the characteristic sci-fi feel of the title, all the more surprising considering that he previously dragged the team through the down-to-earth and decidedly un-Fantastic Civil War. The Four should have been exploring beyond the edge of the universe, or holding dialogues with eight-dimensional beings; they had no business scrabbling around in bad political metaphors, and this is a welcome return to those big concepts. The most compelling thread, however, is the re-introduction of Reed's first love, Alyssa Moy; while Millar isn't exactly famous for his subtlety, I am keen to see where he takes this particular plotline.

Bryan Hitch's artwork is as sharp and detailed as ever, and he does impress with his depictions of the big, epic visuals, but all that good work is undermined somewhat by some very odd poses and facial expressions, and at times there's even a suggestion that the characters are breaking the fourth wall, all of which is quite off-putting. I'd guess that Hitch is making heavy use of photo-referencing, and while he's much better at it than many who use the technique, it is still quite easy to tell the difference between someone who's looking at a camera and someone who's looking behind the camera at an onrushing horde of angry Native Americans. Too often here, Hitch falls into the former trap. It's also a bit disconcerting when Sue turns into Reese Witherspoon for one panel, but perhaps that's to do with the upcoming Skrullabaloo.

(As an aside, we see yet another Marvelman t-shirt in this comic, the second I've noticed in Millar's Marvel work, so I'd guess it's the writer who's requesting it. But what does it mean?)

There is some promise here. We've got a return to the epic science fiction concepts that are the bread-and-butter of the title, and we've got an artist who excels at the kind of visuals that accompany those ideas; on the other hand, we've got some clumsy writing and unsuccessful shortcuts in the art. None of these problems ruin the comic, and it's still quite competent, but I can't help but feel that "competent" is just not good enough from this creative team; Millar and Hitch are better than this, and I hope that future issues are more representative of their abilities.

Paul Brian McCoy: 3 Bullets

The Fantastic Four is a hard sell for me. Always has been. The original run with Stan and Jack was great, as were the Byrne years. Beyond those two sets of stories, there really hasn't been much that has kept my attention. In the name of full disclosure, I admit, I do have all of the JMS issues, but really only continued to buy them in the hopes that something interesting would eventually happen. It didn't.

So now, Millar and Hitch are giving it a go, and while I loved The Ultimates, I'm not sure how their style is going to translate to the regular MU, especially after the way Millar botched Civil War.

If their first issue is any indication of what's to come, it may just be a question of throwing every idea they can come up with into the mix and plowing on full steam ahead. On the plus side, each character seems to have a storyline devoted to them, although only Reed's seems to have any traction. Sue's lining up charity work, Johnny's got a harebrained scheme to make some money while looking cool, and Ben ... um, Ben seems to just be horny all the time (and that's not something I really want to think about). Right off the bat, none of the subplots seem to have any interrelation, but it's early yet. On the minus side, it's all pretty boring.

Reed's story, on the other hand, could go somewhere. We see the return of a character from the late 1990s (with whom I was completely unfamiliar), who was retconned into existence by Chris Claremont and fleshed out by Peter David. There's also a top secret science project going on that is interesting, but if I think about it too hard, it seems to be on such a scale that one would think it would be impossible to keep secret -- especially from someone who's cozy with the director of S.H.I.E.L.D. and should have his eye on the types of people, money, and technologies that would be necessary for the project.

Yeah, after thinking about it, I don't really buy it. I mean, how many "most highly classified organizations in world" can there really be? And "only four hundred people even know it exists"? There would be more people than that just involved in the food services contracting work for their top secret project.

So I guess none of the main characters' storylines are all that, and it all seems to have been done before.

Hitch's art is par for the course, which is good, but it brings nothing new to the project. In fact, if anything, it's a little dull this issue, too. Now all this could change, but Millar's story seems pretty grounded in the everyday with nary a super villain in sight. Once we get to the science fiction elements (at the very end of the issue), Hitch's design work really comes into play, and the high tech machinery involved with the top secret project is about as realistic and believable as could be. At the same time, though, it sacrifices the flair of Kirby or Byrne for photo-realism, in much the same way Millar is sacrificing the flair of Lee or Byrne for the mundane.

All in all, it seems like Marvel would have wanted to start this off with more of a bang. As it is, there's hardly anything that would make me want to check back next month, beyond just the hope that eventually something interesting would happen. And after being burned by the JMS run, I don't think I'm willing to drop my cash on this.

Dave Wallace: 3-1/2 Bullets

I've been looking forward to this issue for a while. I've never been a huge Fantastic Four fan, but having really enjoyed Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch's Ultimates, I was keen to see whether their follow-up project could recapture the same creative spark. I was also a big fan of Millar's run on Ultimate Fantastic Four, which demonstrated his ability to provide a fast-moving and exciting story to go along with his brisk dispensation of outlandish ideas and imaginative concepts. It's perhaps inevitable, then, that this first issue of the team's run on the regular FF title feels somewhat disappointing, failing to recapture the same qualities that characterised these well-loved previous works, and falling short when it comes to providing a really compelling alternative.

The opening pages of the issue bode well, seeing the FF embroiled in a time-travelling misadventure in the Old West, with shades of Back to the Future III as viewed through the lens of a super-powered family unit. However, that soon gives way to more mundane scenes which seem to have been provided in order to introduce the characters, whether it's the ADD-afflicted Johnny, the responsible, maternal Sue, the big-hearted but grumpy Ben, or the distracted, scientific genius that is Reed. Considering how traditional and respectful these takes on the characters are, I'm not sure we needed to see so much time devoted to establishing their well-worn personalities, especially when it's at the expense of any real action or adventure. These extended moments of banter and character interaction make the issue feel less like the “World's Greatest Comic Magazine” and more like the Fantastic Four played as a soap-opera or sitcom, with far less of an immediate and attention-grabbing appeal than I expected - especially since I've enjoyed Millar's work on the Ultimate version of the team so much.

Of course, the regular Marvel Universe team is different from the Ultimate version, but that shouldn't mean that the book has to be any less exciting or imaginative. Indeed, considering the creators' reference to the current title as one of the “safest” Marvel books at the moment, I was hoping to see them inject some new life and energy into the characters - but if that's in the cards for Millar and Hitch's FF, it's not apparent yet. Millar even has Sue Storm speak about how being in the FF means having to deal with world-threatening threats for ten minutes, followed by nothing happening for three months - and that doesn't exactly help to sell the team as an exciting group of fearless and imaginative explorers. That said, if Millar and Hitch are actually using this issue to set up a fairly dull status quo for the team before introducing plenty of fresh ideas in future issues of their run, then I'll probably enjoy it more in retrospect. Things bode a little better for this department with the issue's cliffhanger, which introduces a suitably large-scale idea to the book (which I won't spoil here), with a high-concept that should give Millar and Hitch a fun playground to explore in the next few issues. However, even that is a slight disappointment in that it feels somewhat derivative (reminding me in particular of a major plot point from The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy).

One area that certainly doesn't disappoint is the artwork. From the opening display of the team's powers to the grand imagery which closes the issue, to the more down-to-earth splash page of the Thing and a group of schoolchildren, there's already a feeling that Hitch is comfortable drawing these characters and the many aspects of their world - and he incorporates the more fantastical aspects of the FF's powers smoothly into his realistic character designs. There's also a certain softness to his work here which wasn't apparent in Ultimates, indicating that Hitch has effectively modified his style to suit the demands of a different flavour of comic. The reported increase in his page rate is a happy side-effect, and promises a slightly more reliable schedule than we've been used to in his previous collaboration with Millar. Paul Mounts reinforces the grounded tone with some delicate colours, only employing more vivid shades during the more exciting moments which open and close the issue.

Maybe it's the weight of expectation that has led me to feel a little disappointed by this issue, or maybe it's just that I expected a different kind of book from Millar and Hitch. The more character-based approach of this first issue isn't without its merits, as it allows Millar to showcase the day-to-day realities of the FF as a family unit (including his setting up of a potential love rival for Reed), enables him to include some fun scenes which are more grounded in reality than followers of the book might be used to (such as the dull speech given by an oblivious Reed to a group of schoolchildren), and gives him the space to kick off some potentially interesting subplots (including Sue's involvement in a charity support group for victims of "Superhuman Incidents"). However, it just doesn't convey the excitement and wonder that is one of the defining characteristics of the FF, and if I wasn't such a fan of the creators' previous work, I'm not sure that I'd be convinced to stick around for future issues. As it is, I'll give Millar and Hitch's Fantastic Four the benefit of the doubt for the moment, and hope that bigger and better things are on the way.

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