Sunday, June 29, 2008

The New Fantastic Four (2008)

I remember in the early days of my internet experience, I'd occasionally stumble upon fan fiction. These were typically plain text pages, without so much as a jpeg to illustrate the piece. The novice writer typically struggle to capture the feel of bad 70's comics in worse prose, while my eyes glazed and my mouse clicked to greener pastures. Imagine my surprise all these years later to find professional quality fan fic being sold direct from Marvel! I'm not even mad about having paid good money for it, but I've still got to call it.

Dwayne McDuffie is a talented writer and a damned nice guy who's rarely been allowed to play with the good toys in the Marvel Universe. As I understand it, he's very busy working in animation, but is also a big Fantastic Four geek. I assume he couldn't bring himself to turn down the role of filler between the Straczynski/McKone and Millar/Hitch runs, but also had to type this up by the seat of his pants on a tight schedule. That's my best explanation for this ridiculous mess of a plot sporting delightful dialogue and fine artwork.

First off, I'm a Black Panther fan, and very much prefer the Machiavellian schemer of his earliest appearances to the pitiful soul of the 70's & 80's. Christopher Priest deserves commendation for elevating T'Challa's status, but unlike those that followed, he retained the charm that allowed the monarch to get away with murder. Under Reggie Hudlin and now McDuffie, the King of the Wakandas comes off as an International Thug of Misery-- too much Putin, not enough Reagan. For no other reason than to set up an aggrandizing line of dialogue, the Black Panther pulls an Ultimate Nullifier on Uatu the Watcher. Even if he's staying in the Baxter Building, is it really reasonable to expect a weapon that kills anything, plus its wielder, to be left available by Reed Richards? Assuming by some complicated means more interesting than the story being related, T'Challa acquired the device, what would motivate him to use it? Likely not a "bad cop" scenario where he's looking for evidence of who robbed the grave of minor hero "Gravity."

Maybe I should track backward for a bit of exposition. After the first family was torn apart by Civil War, Reed and Sue decided to take a second honeymoon to rekindle their love. As the New York Wakandan embassy had been wrecked during the aforementioned conflict, Reed offered up both his home and remaining teammates to Black Panther and his new bride Storm. That marriage in and of itself reeks of ill-conceived fanfic, but that wasn't McDuffie's fault, so we'll move on. Now that the two most prominent black heroes in the Marvel Universe were married and being written by an African-American writer, the former second Deathloc (of color) gave the team a ring. Now, I'm not aware of any connection between any of these characters, as I think the former Deathloc didn't meet Black Panther until after co-creator and intitial writer Dwayne McD--oh, wait. There's the source of awkward connection. Michael Collins, when he was Deathlok, was also mentioned as having fought Doombots with Thing at some point. If you say so...

Now, Collins joined a bunch of heroes in a mini-series also written by McDuffie called "Beyond!" Another was Gravity, who died at the end, and I guess Collins and/or McDuffie felt bad about that, so they both visited the emptied plot where he was buried. The latest New Fantastic Four (there've been a few, y'know) investigated, because they're not busy doing anything that matters with Reed gone. Still, this is only a seven issue stint, so why waste time fielding a proper investigation when you can just have Black Panther threaten a Watcher with the Ultimate Nullifier, and maybe a broomstick.

But the WTF? doesn't end there: Gravity has been resurrected by Epoch the Living Planet as the latest cosmically-powered protector of the universe. Wasn't that Quasar's job, or something? Is there a reason weiners like these keep becoming grand poobahs of the cosmos, and shouldn't they at least have a pulse to qualify? Also, Silver Surfer and another herald of Galactus showed up to invite the Devourer of Worlds to dine on Epoch. There's some lip service given to the whys and wherefores of all this, but neither this reader nor the characters themselves seem convinced of why we should give a shit beyond going through the motions. Again, the dialogue wasn't bad, and everyone was in character, so the lot of us tried to make the best of it. Black Panther will always have bragging rights that he put the friggin' Silver Surfer in a submission hold. Norrin looked pissed that in every versus thread on a message board until the end of time, some asshole will bring up the time he was put in a fucking submission hold by friggin' Black Panther. It sucks to be him, but he's more than willing to get all emo about it, so fuck 'im.

Again raiding the Priest chest, T'Challa finally gets to employ at least a portion of his Galactus Protocols, not to mention King Solomon's Frogs, and-- waitaminute! Human Torch! Johnny Storm is in this book, gets some funny lines, and fights that other herald. I didn't want people to think he or Ben were slighted in the book. Sure, virtually every significant action is performed by Black Panther, including a rematch with Silver Surfer where he steals the Power Cosmic and then beats Surfer's ass, but this is still the Fantastic Four! Just some members present are more fantastic than others, y'see? Oh hey, spoiler, Gravity placates Galactus while being restored to his normal powers, returning everything to the status quo. Exciting!

Next story, things go slightly Grant Morrison with the Big Idea menace fighting for space with the Old Super-Villain Team Staffed With New Members and Edgy Attitudes. Heroes are held hostage and brutalized, shit blows up, bad guys act all foreboding, opponents are obliterated in kewl fashion only to inexplicably reappear, oversold grudge matches-- its like we're working off a script program here. The dialogue and McDuffie's obvious enthusiasm are all that's saving this from being rote.

The whole boondoggle closes out on a half-baked cosmic spectacle with a bunch of guest appearance, and then the black people are shown the door. Normally, that would piss me off, but you'll notice I hardly mentioned the Thing, either. Reed and Sue have to come back in a big way just to represent, and they do, but its all a bit contrived and galling. Again, I can't find it in my heart to hate, as this was ultimately and enjoyable book making characters I like look bad ass. It's just that the whole thing is preposterous.

Not helping my conflict was some of he best art of Paul Pelletier, likely in no small part due to inks from the vastly underrated Rick Magyar, a man capable of making Denys Cowan look bankable. Scott Hanna also assists, and it's all good, while also being exceptionally bad.

Look, if after reading this review, you still have any positive inclination toward the book, just go ahead and buy it. This is a total summer blockbuster action fest/check your brain at the door good time. If you're one of those people, typically me, who can't forgive mammoth plot holes and dubious motivation... maybe not...

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