Monday, August 17, 2015

An Album Of Snapshots

It's hard not to go into a Fantastic Four album issue with high expectations--and indeed, the cover of issue #190, rendered by classic FF artist Jack Kirby, gives an indication of being something special. Yet as an album issue, which presumably would cover a considerable amount of ground in the career of the Fantastic Four, this issue may not be quite to your liking.

Part of the reason for that is that there is a lot of ground to cover with the FF, so much so that cramming the bulk of it into one standard-sized issue and putting all of its material into context would be a challenge for any writer/artist team--and this particular team (Marv Wolfman and Sal Buscema, respectively, with Tony DeZuniga) doesn't go nearly as far with that material as we might hope. In addition, the fact that its story centers on the theme of the FF breaking up limits its scope to that subject, which gives a retrospective of this sort a rather pessimistic tone and doesn't fully bring the Fantastic Four to life for the reader who might have picked up this issue wanting some idea of what makes this team so reputed in the world of comics.

What is also disappointing is that, with a cover depicted by an artist whose work can't help but serve as a reminder of a period when Fantastic Four was at its peak as one of Marvel's top comic books, the artwork that's turned in for this story is something of a letdown. With Buscema simply doing layouts and DeZuniga finishing, everything appears and reads like a rush job or a fill-in (and follows a reprint issue, if that tells you anything), while much of the story simply plugs in events almost in their entirety, panel by panel. And the general theme of the issue--the Thing recalling the circumstances of past times that the FF have disbanded--is insufficient to support these segments, or lend any sort of distinction to the lives of the FF or illustrate why this is "the world's greatest comic magazine." It's plain to see why the FF often fell apart, yes--but on the eve of yet another breakup, is it really the best time for a milestone issue whose pretense is expected to be one of affirmation?

"The Way It Was" comes ten issues before Fantastic Four #200, and precedes the real breakup issue that immediately follows with issue #191. Ben Grimm is commiserating with his girlfriend, Alicia Masters, following Reed's decision to leave the team due to the loss of his stretching powers. The segue to this encapsulation of the FF's history (at least in part) is easy enough to set up, with Ben reminiscing by way of a diary he's been keeping of "all the good times... an' all the bad" he's had with this team--though it might have been nice for Wolfman to actually have presented a mix of the two (how about, say, Franklin's birth?), since the FF is much more than just a fighting team, and certainly much more than an infighting team. But it seems that Ben is in the mood to focus squarely on the bad times.

As breakups go, the first harbinger of one came fairly early, with the Torch abandoning ship and ending up in the Bowery trying to keep a low profile. But his discovery of the Sub-Mariner (and thereby unleashing the menace of this long-dormant sea prince) made for possibly the shortest FF near-breakup on record.

In going back through his diary's pages, Ben can't help but be reminded of the many times he himself has turned against the team, either because of his own rage and frustration or due to the fact that he was being controlled by outside forces. It was a combination of the two that he recalls next, following his rampage against Dr. Doom:

...after which he fell into the clutches (and under the control) of the Frightful Four.

But while the story continues to set Ben on a path of regret and self-recrimination, credit must be given to Wolfman for including the events of "This Man... This Monster!" here, which no collection of noteworthy FF scenes should be without.

From there, the story picks up pace, and things with the FF turn considerably more dour, and dire. Ben is again mentally corrupted--thanks to the Thinker, who pulls a one-two punch by first turning the Thing against his teammates and nearly leading to their deaths, and then unleashing a super-android which comes within a hair's breadth of finishing the job. And with Sue Richards now expecting, Reed can only react one way when the crisis has passed.

Which may tie with Johnny's departure as the team's shortest breakup period, since the Watcher virtually recalls the departing and in-transit Reed and Sue back to duty. Of course, with Ben's sour mood in this story, he even has a problem with the Watcher (even though it can hardly be argued that the Watcher isn't looking out for the FF).

Ben makes a good point about the Watcher that bears further thought: Does the Watcher really know everything ahead of time? The short answer is, yes and no. Perhaps not "everything." For instance, he wouldn't have been so frantic about the coming of Galactus if he'd known all along that he would be sending for the retrieval of the Ultimate Nullifier and that Reed would be successful with it. Also, the question begs: What point is there in having your occupation be that of "watching" if you already know what you'll be seeing?

As this story winds down, so unfortunately do the efforts of Wolfman and Buscema to format it in a creative and compelling way, to say nothing of giving the reader some sense of how the FF have established themselves as such legendary comics figures. The following scenes seem to have been cherry-picked to show the FF at their worst--while only the interjection of Alicia's comforting words to Ben act to break up pages of panels that read and appear almost precisely as they did when they were originally published.

And so when Ben brings us up to date--or, rather, gives the illusion of doing so, since this album issue has sacrificed so much of who these people are for the sake of a self-destructive theme--his closing words serve not to launch the stories of the FF to new and greater heights, but to stay in character and instead write off the team and move on.

Ben's rationale is curious, since Reed has quit the FF before, not to mention the fact that everyone on the team has lost their powers at one point or another--and, as he notes himself, "things usually worked themselves out" in terms of the FF overcoming their difficulties and getting back into harness. In other words, the circumstances that Wolfman has so firmly based this story on have been overcome before--and the irony is that Ben knows that, even at the end when he's resolving to shut the door on this chapter of his life. It makes the experience of reading this issue a very frustrating one, since Kirby's cover promises much more of an album issue than what the Thing feels like delivering.

Fantastic Four #190

Script: Marv Wolfman
Layouts: Sal Buscema
Finishes: Tony DeZuniga
Letterer: John Costanza

No comments: