Thursday, September 5, 2013

Review # 41: "Fantastic Four - New Departure, New Arrivals" and "FF - Fantastic Faux"

The Fantastic Four have been on a hot streak when it comes to writers lately. Mark Waid's forced departure led to a fan backlash that extended his stay. Jonathan Hickman stretched the team to its limits, bringing characters like Spider-Man into the fold. Unfortunately, the run of his successor is being cut short as the red hot Matt Fraction is leaving a double 16-issue arc to pen a series about the Inhumans. He will still be plotting, just not scripting.

When I say "unfortunately," I'm actually referring more to his companion series "FF" than the main line. When Marvel announced he would be writing "FF" with Mike Allred as the artist, I was instantly on board. I read the first issue for free online, waited patiently for the first "FF" trade to arrive in the mail... and was stunned when it listed "issues 4-8" on the back.

Marvel, you see, had decided to include issues 1, 2 and 3 of "FF" in the first "Fantastic Four" Marvel NOW! trade along with issues 1, 2 and 3 in that series. It makes sense from a story standpoint - Reed, Sue, Johnny and Ben are leaving for a year to hop through time and space with the Richards' children, Franklin and Valeria, or at least that's what Reed is saying on the surface. The truth that he hasn't told them is their powers may have created what I like to call "cosmic cancer" as the Ever-Lovin' Four are breaking down on a cellular level. He hopes to find a cure in another dimension. While the plan is to return only four minutes after leaving, the team recruits four replacements just in case. As you have likely guessed by now, the Fantastic Four do NOT return as planned.

Despite the logical meshing into one trade, I'm still not convinced that this wasn't a sales ploy. Mike Allred has a cult following, myself included, and this seems like a deliberate attempt to get people solely interested in "FF" invested in the main story. Shocking, right? A comic that tries to convince you to buy more comics? Perish the thought.

With that out of the way, let's move on to what I actually wanted to buy in the first place: "FF." Making up the new Fantastic "Faux" are Scott Lang (aka "Ant-Man II," chosen by Mr. Fantastic,) Medusa (the Inhuman Queen, chosen by the Invisible Woman,) She-Hulk (a former fill-in member, chosen by Thing) and Darla "Ms. Thing" Deering (thrown in at the last minute by the Human Torch.) Joining them is an eclectic cast of characters made up almost entirely of children, including the daughter of a Wakandan engineer, several aliens, a few moloids and a young clone of the villain Wizard. There's also Dragon Man, who is neither dragon nor man and is actually a robot. Here, he's taking up an "Alfred the butler" role, and I can't describe why it works... but it really, really does. Everything about this motley crew clicks at the start and fits in with the lighthearted feel of the stories.

Don't get me wrong, though. Much like with Fraction's "Hawkeye," there is still some very serious stuff going on. Scott Lang, for example, is dealing with the recent death of his daughter Cassie, the Young Avenger killed by Doctor Doom in "Children's Crusade." I love Mike Allred's drawing and his wife Laura's inking is also really damn good. But I would have never expected to call any of his work "heartbreaking." Their depiction of Lang crying his eyes out as he cradles his lifeless teenage child in his arms in an included "Point One" issue shatters that preconception. Lang's resulting discomfort being around kids at the Future Foundation is an ongoing arc that I expect a big payoff to.

Lang's terrible burden does not dominate the series, and that's a good thing. There's a level of balance between all four characters, all having difficulty adjusting to their roles. Darla - a worldwide pop star now dressing up in a super-strength Thing costume - starts testing out headgear and taking snapshots which - through hackers - end up on the web. Medusa is forced to grow accustomed to not having people bow for her, or serve her breakfast as she waits endlessly in bed ringing a servant bell. She-Hulk goes on a date with old flame Wyatt Wingfoot as a few of the kids try to sabotage their date. You know... traditional superhero stuff.

Also, Doctor Doom kidnaps and tortures people, a psycho Johnny Storm from the future lays waste to NYC and the entire Baxter Building is sucked into a different dimension. But I don't want to bore you with those sidestories.

Anything I say is going to come across as a practical endorsement, so I might as well treat it that way: "FF" is fun, funny and entertaining. Exactly what I signed on for. It also has a feeling of depth right from the get-go, which isn't pulled off so easily, especially with a group of D-list characters. I have the feeling they'll be moving ALL the way up to the C-list when this story is through.

I really hope this momentum continues throughout the entire story run, despite Fraction's semi-departure. Coupled with "Hawkeye," he's on a roll.

Rating(s): 8.5/10 ("New Departure, New Arrivals"), 9.5/10 ("Fantastic Faux")

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