Friday, October 20, 2017

The Better Man

From the Tribunal to the Council of Time to the Council of Cross-Time Kangs, no doubt by now you've seen your fair share of such assemblies of judgment in Marvel's wide range of stories, featuring gatherings of characters or entities that decided matters so wide in scope that our own concerns on Earth seemed trivial to inconsequential by comparison--a description that carries a bit of irony, since often the actions of such beings had an impact on or otherwise directly involved our world. Yet such councils have also originated on Earth, headed by those who are native to it and working behind the scenes with everyone's best interests at heart (the Illuminati being a distant example)--while in other mediums, gatherings such as the one in 1983's The Star Chamber more flagrantly abused their power to effect change.

Few if any of these councils considered themselves accountable for either their formation or their actions, needless to say. Even altruism can be in the eye of the beholder, a well-meaning individual or group that believes they've taken into consideration any possible objection to their goal(s). With that in mind, it's difficult to apply any of these labels to a body of men simply known as The Council, the 2009 brainchild of Fantastic Four writer Jonathan Hickman which pooled the talents of one man whose mind had recently become fixated on a single ambitious idea:

And who better to pick up that kind of gauntlet than Reed Richards? Perhaps Tony Stark, yes... but while both men were members of the Illuminati, and both made decisions they regretted during the events of Civil War, Reed might be the more likely person to emerge on the other side with his soul intact. And that's indeed the premise at the core of this three-part story.

There is also a single device that plays a part in Reed's efforts to be more proactive and develop a much more comprehensive agenda in addressing universal problems that continue unabated.

From Hickman's summary:

"In an effort to come to terms with the decisions he'd made in his life, Reed constructed a device, The Bridge, that enabled him to scan alternate timelines and realities, so that he could witness the outcome of having made different choices. ... Despite the fact that he promised Sue that he'd dismantle the Bridge, Reed later reassembled it within one of the hidden rooms in his lab."

The fact that Reed apparently keeps a number of rooms in his lab hidden even from his teammates is rather alarming, considering the direction Reed is headed in; his hidden "room of 100 ideas," for instance, had been in existence since the beginning of the FF. But Hickman is aware of the facets which we've become used to with Reed--the complex and often preoccupied scientist who is also a loving father and husband and a friend to Ben Grimm and Johnny Storm--so we at least are reasonably assured that this story won't "get away" from its writer. On the contrary, it's clearly apparent from this story's beginning pages that Hickman has Reed's position as a family man firmly in mind--and by the time the circle is closed, the choice that Reed makes is one which the reader has likely been rooting for all along.

But rather than get ahead of ourselves, let's check in on Reed as he accesses the Bridge once again to investigate a group of mysterious beings who had previously contacted him and invited his participation in their own activities to better the world. Their identity comes as a surprise, to say the least.

But the greatest surprise comes when Reed is introduced to the Council--not only in terms of its rather familiar membership, but also its purpose, which in his current frame of mind appears to be the means to achieve the fulfillment of his 101st idea.

The presence of not one but several Infinity Gauntlets is understandably a cause for concern for the rest of us--but given what Reed has seen of this organization thus far, for him it's more of a matter of curiosity. As it turns out, the Gauntlet's power is limited to the universe it originates from; though for the reader, that bit of assurance doesn't really explain why Hickman has included it so prominently in the first place, and multiple gauntlets at that. In theater, there's a term for that sort of thing--where an item is accidentally left in a spot on stage where it shouldn't be, distracting the audience's attention from where it should be focused.

Reed's tour of the activities of the Council begins favorably, with a first-hand view of "the Farm"--an entire planet dedicated to providing food for anyone, anywhere. To Reed's amazement, he discovers that the Council has created hundreds of such terraformed planets. As one of the Council-Reeds explains:

"It takes a while for one of us to get acclimated to being a member of the Council. To get used to what it is that we can do... Your entire life you've had to think in terms of 'What's the most one man can achieve?'--as if choosing between things is a requirement. You're going to have to stop thinking so small."

And of course there's nothing that Reed has experienced quite like personally delivering bountiful food to any number of needy races, with no strings attached.

Yet there is also a darker side to the Council's operations, as Reed discovers when an alternate reality version of Dr. Doom is defeated--and consequently suffers a fate that Reed ordinarily wouldn't countenance. Yet he is, after all, hearing the rationale for it from himself.

Fortunately, the pros of the Council's works seem to heavily outweigh the cons. And eventually the time comes when Reed is faced with the decision on what to dedicate the rest of his life to--making a difference with the Fantastic Four, or pooling his knowledge and skills with those who are tackling and solving challenges on a far, far greater scale.

It's at this point that Hickman turns once again to Reed's recollections of his childhood and his talks with his father, who helped put Reed's intelligence in perspective and had every confidence in him that he would change the world for the better. They're important segments in and of themselves; but cumulatively, we'll see them play a valuable part in the decision that Reed must make going forward with his life.

For now, however, his decision is to accept the Council's offer and become one of them. But the joy of the occasion is marred by an alarm signalling a breach of the Council's primary gateway, and an admission of betrayal from one of their own.

The invasion of the Celestials into the Council's chambers, as handled by Hickman, is the one flaw in what is otherwise a thought-provoking and intriguing story. It would have been one thing if the Celestials' motivations were interpreted, rather than blatantly announced; but in presenting the Celestials to be two-dimensional, hostile aggressors that will slay all in their path to achieve dominance over the multiverse reduces them in stature (so to speak) in comparison to their prior appearances.

As the Celestials begin mowing down the many Reeds who seek to mount a defense, Hickman's opportunity to finally bring one of the Infinity Gauntlets into play arrives when a Gauntlet wearer entreats another Reed--one who has the ability to personally reach over to other universes--to provide a conduit to access his home universe so that his Gauntlet can be used in the fight. The gambit is successful; but though that kind of power is more than sufficient to deal with the Celestials, the situation is still dire enough to send a squad of Reeds (including ours) to their respective universes to retrieve any means which could help to stop the threat.

But while Reed is ransacking his lab, Sue shows up outside his room of 100 ideas and communicates via intercom with words that give him pause.

It bears mentioning that, with his father's advice taking priority in his thoughts, Reed didn't consult Sue at all when he was thinking over whether or not to accept membership in the Council, though he had earlier tried to impress upon her the responsibilities he had which he felt went beyond his association with the FF and the weight he felt in regard to his intellect. With Sue's words here all but waving a white flag, it's to his credit that her thoughts have an impact on him, even with the Celestials crisis demanding his return.

As it happens, one of the weapons Reed retrieves turns the tide, and the Celestials retreat. In the aftermath, the decision is made to go after the Celestials, with Reed being asked to stay behind and see to the wounded.

But it's his conversation with one of the survivors--the one who was forced by the Celestials to disclose the location of the Council chambers--that proves the most sobering to Reed. The experience the other Reed suffered resulted in the loss of his gift of intellect--yet he remains devoted to the goals of the Council, in spite of what--who--he sacrificed in making his choice.

Food for thought, to put it mildly. And when Reed returns home, Hickman picks the perfect point to introduce one last segment involving Reed and his father. The scene speaks for itself, and is presented without comment--but it serves as a reaffirmation of the character of Reed Richards, the Reed that has taken his father's words to heart and has unquestioningly made the right choice in how he wishes to dedicate his life.

Fantastic Four #s 570-572
(with scenes from #551 and Dark Reign: Fantastic Four #1)

Script: Jonathan Hickman
Artist: Dale Eaglesham
Letterers: Rus Wooton and Clayton Cowles


Big Murr said...

I enjoyed this story immensely. It squared Reed firmly on his foundation; philosophically, emotionally, intellectually. It humanized him and provided a background explanation as to why Reed Richards doesn't fix everything wrong on Earth. One of those reminders we readers need when we pout and kick as to why Superman doesn't do the same.

And, in addition to what Ben says, a happy Reed means a viable, working Fantastic Four (as a team at least, if not a comic that fails to generate sales)

If a person accepts the Prime Law of Comics Stories that there has to be some colourful violence every issue, then the Celestials were the only choice. The Council of Reeds dealt with Galactus easier than Spider-Man stops a purse snatcher. To provide adequate threat, without any space available for back story (eg Thanos), a group of rogue Celestials fit the bill. They're only names and alien armour who never say anything, so...let 'em loose!

Comicsfan said...

Yes, I really should profile a few more of Hickman's FF stories in the PPC--though I'll likely always point to this one as the one which best exemplifies his work with the book and his feel for the characters. It was a pleasure to revisit.

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