Monday, May 27, 2013

Review # 10: "Fantastic Four by John Byrne Vol. 1"

John Byrne is quite possibly the most underrated comics creator of all time. He's one of the greatest writers, plotters AND artists in the history of the game but you rarely see him mentioned along the likes of your Lees, Kirbys, Millers and Moores. Maybe it's because he didn't really create any enduring characters or properties. What he DID do, though, is take a character that already existed and made them the best they could possibly be.

I've admitted it before and I'll admit it again: I do not read very much in the way of DC. But I have several friends my age who do. Chances are if they picked up a Superman comic before they turned ten, it was written by John Byrne. Tasked with relaunching Supes post-"Crisis on Infinite Earths," he took a character that at the time was still very much alien and made him much more human. He introduced a reality where Ma and Pa Kent were both alive, where Clark Kent never donned the costume until he was an adult, cut his power level to something more resembling the 1940's and eliminated all the goofy aspects that had clung to Superman through the years. "Kal-El of Krypton" became far less important and "Clark Kent of Smallville" became far more. This version of the character - along with his brilliant work with Lex Luthor - had a dramatic impact on the perception of Superman in popular culture, heavily influencing both the shows "Lois and Clark" and "Smallville."

Despite that, most of the people who watched those shows have no idea who the f*** John Byrne is. Compare that to Stan Lee, who has cameos in films with characters he didn't even come up with and everyone recognizes him.

That was not the only mark John Byrne left. He insisted that Chris Claremont keep Wolverine in the X-Men, then pushed a darker, edgier side for his development. A single panel he drew during "The Dark Phoenix Saga" of Wolverine emerging from sewer water swearing revenge against the Hellfire Club and the following issue where Logan makes good on his promise gave the character its jump start. Speaking of that arc, he was the one who pushed hardest for Jean Grey to die. That decision took a great storyline and made it - without a doubt in my mind - the greatest in the history of Marvel.

Despite all of what I've outlined, it's widely considered that Byrne's best work was done as the writer-artist for The Fantastic Four.

Now, up until a few weeks ago I didn't get it. I've read early day FF, and I've read latter day FF. What I've found and what I'm sure several people will also find is three of the four main characters really have not changed at all. The Thing is tortured by his appearance. The Human Torch is a spotlight hog who ironically gets "burned" by his bad judgement. Mr. Fantastic is a genius whose obsessiveness with his work is used as a writing crutch to create dramatic tension with his wife. Susan Storm-Richards seems like the only character who has truly changed, going from damsel in distress (as the Invisible Girl) to the most powerful member of the team (as the Invisible Woman.) Byrne is credited for that transition. However, the major changes that he made - the ones you'll find in online character recaps and wikipedia articles - occurred during the latter half of his run. So I was reluctant to buy an Omnibus covering the first part. But when I saw it for only 50 bucks at Ottawa Comiccon.... there was no way I could pass it up. I expected something that would be good to very good. And after the first third where Byrne was just an artist backing up Marv Wolfman, things were looking mediocre.

Then Byrne's run begins and all of my preconceptions are thrown out the window.

While he doesn't make sweeping changes, there are noticeable subtle adjustments that start to seep through while keeping the core characters in tact. Ben Grimm slowly accepts his fate as the rock-skinned monstrosity, fearing he would lose his blind girlfriend Alicia Masters if we were to once again become human. The Torch instantly recognizes his own mistakes and adapts. Reed Richards' absolute love of science is pushed to the forefront, but he does it in an inclusive, enthusiastic, infectious way. While Sue Richards' full transition doesn't happen here, there's also a big shift: she's not useless. I know that sounds harsh, but the way she was written by Stan Lee during his 100-issue run was embarrassingly sexist. Sue holds her own here, though she isn't quite kicking ass yet.

Sound good? Great. Here's what's better: Byrne is just getting started.

Faced with writing an A-list title all on his own for the first time, Byrne's storytelling rises to the occasion with a style that's part Twilight Zone and part Star Trek. There are stories where you feel like you could swap out the FF and replace them with Kirk or Picard's crew, like an arc where they revisit the Negative Zone and encounter a different alien race each issue. However, these are balanced by inclusive issues that almost seem straight out of the mind of Rod Serling mixing tinges of horror and illusion with the - no pun intended - fantastic. Two issues really stand out in particular: one where the FF wakes up in a world where they're all powerless, have no memory of their previous life and live in a small village instead of New York. Slowly but surely, the veil is lifted and the reveal of who's ultimately behind what has happened is a great moment. The second is an annual where one of Johnny's friends' car breaks down outside a strange rural village. It's actually an unlikely callback to one of the very first issues where surprising repercussions are revealed in a story that reminds me of a lot of good horror movies.

Now, I've talked a lot about the heroes and the situations they were put in. Looking back, though, I feel like the most indelible mark left on me - the reader - comes from the villains.

Byrne's take on Doctor Doom is inspired and is by far the best I've ever read of arguably Marvel's premiere bad guy. He's painted as an almost necessary evil, showing how his horrible actions have benefits to those he rules in Latveria. Byrne also establishes that Doom has a code of honour, and accentuates a major flaw: if he can't destroy his nemesis Reed Richards, then there's no point for him to take down the Fantastic Four. Now THAT is hatred.

But I think my favourite piece of pure villainy comes from the world-eater Galactus. Just before Byrne's run, he was painted as being damned-near benevolent. Then the Four along with several more of earth's heroes manage to beat him in a weakened state to near-death. Reed Richards, of course, does what every naive hero would do and saves the entity's life - though it unexpectedly leads to personal cost to one of teammates. Galactus departs swearing never to harm earth or another sentient world again.

Then, suddenly, swiftly, and at the advice of someone you wouldn't expect (maybe two entities, in fact,) he devours the Skrull homeworld. It's cold. Total. Fatal. An act of sheer brutality. Sheer villainy.

And it's one of the best damn things I've read in a comic book.

That sentiment seems to pop up a few times during the course of this, whether it's one of the twist endings, a great speech... even an "is it intentional or unintentional?" hilarious moment where Annihilus - bent on destroying two universes - decides to answer a telephone. The image of him crushing the receiver in a sequence that made ZERO sense gave me a giant belly laugh.

I'm knocking off a point for how bland the first non-Byrne written section of this seven pound, 1000+ page tome is, but his run is pure 10 out of 10 stuff. I don't expect to ever read anything better starring the ever-loving Four.

Except for part two. It's out this December.

Rating: 9/10

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