26 Nov 2011

Cover To Cover: FANTASTIC FOUR #600

Writer: Jonathan Hickman
Art: Steve Epting, Rick Magyar, Paul Mounts, Carmine Di Giandomenico, Andy Troy, Ming Doyle, Jordie Bellaire, Leinil Francis Yu, Gerry Alanguilan, Javier Tartaglia, Farel Dalrymple & Jose Villarrubia
Marvel $7.99

Stewart R: So the milestone issue that we all smelled, well, a mile off when the title became FF following a barnstorming, poly-bagged bang in 2010, has hit the shelves around the globe with a mighty thud! Marvel’s first family reach 600 issues and to celebrate, the House of Ideas have decided that every reader can hand more of their money over to them - a cent shy of a whopping $8! - in exchange for 108 pages of comic. I winced a little when catching sight of the cover price but to be fair to the publisher, only 10-11 pages of the whole thing are not dedicated specifically to story and that has to be applauded as it could be tempting in these financially testing times to go gung-ho with the exploitation of advertising revenues in a book this size.

What then should also be applauded is the sheer amount of work that Jonathan Hickman invests here, carrying the entirety of writing duties through the book from beginning to end. In other milestone issues celebrating the longevity of Marvel’s top properties we’ve tended to see a host of different writers contributing to these heftier tomes which can occasionally leave the read feeling a little fractured and jarring. Thanks to Hickman’s dedication we end up with a comic that, yes, does split into several parts that look at different stories and characters, but they do tie together so very well as a whole.

The initial chapter, pencilled by Steve Epting, focuses on the continuing threat that the Reeds of other dimensions have proven themselves to be, either directly or indirectly, as the newly resurrected Kree Supreme Intelligence sends an Armada to Earth to wipe the Inhumans from the Universe in an explosive coup. To be brutally honest, I’m still a little fuzzy with Hickman’s high-level plotting and, having just read back briefly through FF #9-11 to try to jog the memory, I’m not a great deal clearer as to why everybody is doing what they are here. Regardless, it’s plain to see that Hickman is starting to bring all of the threads together and it culminates in a, ‘would you believe it?’... invasion of New York City! The Kree Armada swoops in from the sky and there’s an attempt to do the same by Annihilus and his Wave from the Negative Zone. This gives the opportunity to remind us once again that the Fantastic Four are an important piece of the Heroes of Earth puzzle (lest we forget), the battle involving as it does, every member of the Avengers.

The destruction that befalls the city is certainly nothing new and I will mention that I did feel quite ambivalent about it having seen similar occur just months ago in Fear Itself and, let’s face is, yep pretty much every bloody year for the past half dozen or so. It is necessary though, considering the scope and politics involved in what Hickman is crafting, and so I don’t begrudge the familiar ground trodden here. Thankfully the secretive machinations of Annihilus actually raise the tension stakes and the genuine plight surfaces when the children of the Future Foundation find themselves in harms way. This leads to the big moment that a hundred and one media outlets - and Marvel themselves!!?? - spoiled for many this week and which will not be mentioned here.

We then jump back, all those many months ago, to the Human Torch’s death and follow what has been happening in the Negative Zone since that fateful and sad day. This actually makes up the majority of the issue, coming in at around 48 pages worth of story, and for me is the best part of the entire comic. Hickman ties things occurring in the Negative Zone into the events transpiring with the Inhumans quite subtly and it will be interesting to see just what part these newly discovered characters play in future storylines. I like the way that he characterizes this young, calculating version of Annihilus and the clicking subordinates at his command and Di Giandomenico is the perfect fit for capturing the the hive-like surrounds of the horde’s grounds on the page. In fact, should Marvel pull their fingers out and continue with a Cosmic title such as The Annihilators anytime soon they really should look in this artist's direction as his work is really quite something...

...anyway, back in Fantastic Four land! We then get three shorter stories that look at the relationship between Black Bolt and Medusa, Reed and Galactus and then finally Franklin Richards, Leech and a mysterious being respectively. The Black Bolt chapter was much needed and looks at the relationship between King and Queen, how they communicate and just how things stand now that Mr 'Strong and Silent' seems to have himself a harem of queens at his disposal. It’s well handled by Doyle who offers up an almost avataristic representation of the couple’s telepathic discussion while also giving that teasing wink that things may not be as they seem.

The last two chapters, while vastly different in artistic tone, both look at plot points that have been left lingering on the backburner for a little while as Galactus informs Reed and Susan of the situation involving Odin and the Galactus seed - which could well lead to his forseen demise - and we get to see what Franklin and Leech have been up to behind the closed doors of the Baxter Building which even has the Great Devourer concerned. Leinel Yu’s been on something of a hot streak lately with some superb work on Mark Millar’s Superior and here he does a fine job of capturing the silent majesty that a discussion on the lunar surface about greater cosmic consequences deserves. Dalrymple on the other hand gets to deal with Franklin’s story from a brilliant ‘children’s adventure’ perspective and his simplified line work comes up trumps.

All in all this bumper read is a proper, bona fide success and one that Marvel are sorely in need of following something of a lacklustre year. It’s certainly given Jonathan Hickman - one of Marvel's 'Architects' it should be noted - the opportunity to deal with the myriad of plotlines he tends to have weaving in and out of any given issue and I believe that clarity is now almost within my reach thanks to the care and attention he has sunk into this endeavour alongside the very competent work of his retinue of artists. The big problem may possibly be for readers returning to the Fantastic Four title who perhaps jumped ship when the Future Foundation was formed or when the Inhumans started sticking their nose in as it looks like those elements will still be heavily involved moving forwards, for the near future at least. The even bigger problem for me now is deciding what to do about the two titles that will focus on Marvel’s First Family from this point onwards as they both seem tempting prospects, not least when this delightful comic book is worthy of a 9/10!

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