Friday, January 17, 2014

Review # 92: "Fantastic Four by John Byrne Vol. 2"

If you look up a summary of John Byrne's career and come across the section on the Fantastic Four, you'll get a list of all the major changes he made to the title during his time as writer and artist. What you won't find is any mention that he peaked before any of those changes happened.

The second "Fantastic Four by John Byrne" omnibus features nearly every instance for which his run is remembered: Sue suffers a miscarriage, Alicia Masters leaves The Thing for The Human Torch, The Thing leaves the team entirely and She-Hulk is added to the roster. Unfortunately, while Byrne could seemingly do no wrong in the first volume, this stumbles. By the time he was done, it was clear much of his lustre for the material was lost. The writing wasn't as gripping and the art - while still great - was not nearly as vibrant and eye-catching. That is not entirely his fault.

One of the reasons Byrne had begun to lose interest in the series was because of the interference of line-wide events in his work. The first major example is "Secret Wars." Byrne had just killed off Doctor Doom only for the villain to pop up alive and well in the benchmark crossover. It seems that Byrne had not quite been made aware of this development, as the Fantastic Four continued to speak for months as if ol' Victor had kicked the bucket. See, while the ramifications of "Secret Wars" were reflected instantly (such as Ben leaving and She-Hulk joining up,) the actual series hadn't been released yet. This sticks out like a sore thumb for months until what is actually a damn good retcon tie-in to "Secret Wars II" with the Beyonder, which explains the entire series of events despite the shady memory of Reed Richards and company.

Speaking of the Beyonder, he manages to ruin what is quite possibly the best story in this book. It focuses on a young lad harassed by bullies and exploited through his obsession with The Human Torch. If Byrne ends this issue on the child's pivotal contemplative moment, it ranks alongside "Terror in a Tiny Town" as his best Fantastic Four story. Unfortunately, it somehow turns into a Beyonder-led version of "It's A Wonderful Life" with a bizarre attempt at a happy ending.

I can't blame everything on editors, though. I believe the reason this volume doesn't match up with the first is because the subject matter just isn't as good. Byrne's earlier stories were packed with the likes of Doctor Doom, Galactus and various creatures from the Negative Zone. They barely appear here. Also, while She-Hulk has one of the better stories (where she's shot while sunbathing in the nude by paparazzi,) she fails to be adequate replacement for Ben Grimm.

However, this set is not without its bright points. While the catalyst is a little hokey, Susan Richards' evolution from the Invisible Girl to the Invisible Woman is the best thing Byrne did for this series. Sue was treated terribly for years (though not by Byrne,) and her development of a more aggressive and independent attitude has reaped many rewards.

Also, this omnibus collects a rare gem: the unfinished "Last Galactus Story." Set millions of years in the future, it's a bleak, dark tale about the end of the universe. The art may be Byrne's best ever, inked by his definitive partner Terry Austin. The ending as it stands (without a final issue) is strong on its own based on interpretation. Having read what was supposed to happen, it remains a shame that the grand finale may not ever come.

In the end, I still feel this collection is worth owning. However, if you have to make a choice, picking up volume one instead of volume two is a no-brainer.

Rating: 7/10

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