Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Planet Attacking? No Problem

Writer/artist John Byrne may have had his moments when he took over the reins of Fantastic Four:

...but this story wasn't one of them.

The problem with Byrne's "back to basics" approach to Fantastic Four was that he took us back to the days when the group's stories read less complicated than they actually were. Comics were much simpler when the Fantastic Four book began being published. Stories could more likely be fit into just one issue--which meant that whatever problem the FF faced, no matter how potentially world-shattering, it needed to be solved in that issue. So not only did things move along at a quicker pace, but exposition was at a bare minimum.

As a result, some of Byrne's stories tended to fall flat, because the threat was over before you knew it--and the FF, like those original early stories, were none the worse for wear. Just another day at the office.

Nor was Byrne in the habit of letting prior stories in other books stand as canon for what he could or couldn't do. That was something of a disturbing choice in comics, particularly when books reached issue numbers so high that it became either difficult to backtrack to be sure of prior events, or inconvenient to do so considering how much the characters had evolved since then. It became much easier to just disregard what came before. After all, we're talking about events that happened thirty or forty real-time years ago--why drag those forward into current stories?

Why, indeed. You might as well ask yourself, why bother with precedent at all when writing a story? Why not just make comics "what if" scenarios? Who's going to care?

The story in Fantastic Four #235 is a textbook example of both Byrne's writing style for the group, and his penchant for treating prior events as unimportant in the scheme of things. "Let's just make a fun story like they used to be," many of his stories seemed to say. For readers, it meant biting the bullet for the occasional Byrne story that adopted this mindset--for there were certainly stories when Byrne stepped up and delivered truly fine fiction in the lives of the FF. Take the prior issue's story, "The Man With the Power!", which not only elaborates in more detail on the attack the FF face in the next issue, but is also a decent story about a man who could inadvertently alter the very fabric of reality.

When read today, FF #235 is almost excruciating to get through. It's understandable that Ego, the Living Planet, is in search of Galactus and wants revenge--but it's never made clear why he would want to destroy Earth. The only reason, of course, is to provide a basis for the FF to battle him. And, believe it or not, they defeat an entire living planet, if only circuitously. The details would make your eyes glaze over--but basically, they cobble together an explosive device out of some hardware that Galactus had left on the planet, and the Thing travels to the planet's core where Ego's "brain" resides, in the hope of tossing the bomb into the brain and blowing it up. But the Thing misses (misses something that he himself calls "big as the moon"--he must aim like a Stormtrooper), and Ego, in a rage, inadvertently veers off course and sends himself towards the sun, where its gravity destroys him. And the happy-go-lucky FF head home.

Wasn't that fun, kids?

In the process, Byrne also cavalierly gives an origin of Ego that takes up a mere four small panels, and completely disregards the carefully thought out backstory which took place in another title:

Thor #228--where, six years earlier, Gerry Conway takes a more serious approach to Ego, detailing his origin for the first time. Egros, as he was known then in humanoid form, had thought of and implemented "Project: Worldcore," which was designed to shelter his planet's population before their sun went nova. Yet he had miscalculated the time factor, and wasn't able to reach safety and seal the project before the star exploded. Thus, Egros becomes Ego:

This origin, which Byrne was clearly aware of since he includes other elements of the same story within his own, took almost the entirety of the issue it appears in--yet Byrne, with just a few panels, sweeps it away as if it never happened, and replaces it with this unimaginative, one-size-fits-all origin:

Yet this knowledge, imparted to the Thing just before his pitch, is of no real use to him or to the reader, so it's not clear why Byrne includes it. It's but one confusing part of a confusing issue which takes the excellent setup in the prior issue and squanders it. Arguably, just a few issues into his FF run, you could say that Byrne was just finding his legs with the series. I've posted in more detail on my impressions of his work on Fantastic Four, and for the most part I think it's a fine body of work to remember. But I don't think I'm alone in saying that I'm glad this particular issue wasn't a portent of things to come.

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