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Made my weekly comics-shop trip today, a bit late (Cerebus #298 was... rather different from what I'd dreamed; it includes an extended Citizen Kane homage, a pretty brilliant piece of drawn-out suspense, a Lawrence of Arabia look-alike claiming, in a very roundabout way, to be the Sphinx, and Dave Sim's assertion that ending the possessive forms of words that end in S as "s's" rather than "s'" is a feminist plot; oh dear). Also picked up Ultimate Fantastic Four #1, about which I have very mixed feelings.

The problem with reading any incarnation of Fantastic Four is that it's one of those comics whose entire aesthetic was determined by its original creators. The X-Men moved past Lee/Kirby to Claremont/Byrne, and more recently Morrison/Quitely (well, Morrison/whoever); Daredevil had no Platonic form until Frank Miller got his hands on him, and Bendis/Maleev seem to be moving toward another kind of way of treating the series altogether. Batman has no specific look-and-feel, aside from "sort of dark." And so on. Getting away from an aesthetic that's defined a series can mean rejecting it outright, and even that can't work without a very bold and original approach.

But, for the last few decades, Fantastic Four has been entirely about Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's issues, and specifically the span from maybe #25 (after they figured out what they were doing) to #75 (when they started to burn out and repeat themselves). When FF stories read like prime-period Lee/Kirby stories, they're derivative; when they don't, they don't work; when somebody tries to change the status quo, it reverts to the Lee/Kirby setup as soon as they realize they've made a terrible mistake. There hasn't been a memorable or noteworthy-in-a-good-way Fantastic Four story in a very long time--the only exceptions I can think of since Kirby left in the early '70s are bits of John Byrne's run and the Walt Simonson/Art Adams sequence, both of which were blatantly in thrall to Lee/Kirby. I may have missed one--I haven't read it regularly for at least 15 years--but every so often I pick one up, and I don't think I'm missing anything.

So Ultimate Fantastic Four--the latest of Marvel's "reboots" of their '60s series, for present-day young readers and (more likely) the older readers who like to see what they hope present-day young readers will get into--is an opportunity to put a new stamp on the concept. I've enjoyed a couple of the Ultimate series so far, but have regretted that none of them except The Ultimates (Mark Millar's Avengers re-think) have a strong writing-and-art identity of their own. (By "strong" in this context I mean "something that somebody might want and be able to rip off.")

It's got Brian Michael Bendis and Millar writing it (the dialogue is total Bendis); this time, all we get is a short history of the new Reed Richards' youth (he's a science geek, he gets picked on a lot, his best friend and protector is Ben Grimm, you could've told me this). By the end, we're seeing the Baxter Building and a whole lot of futuristic Kirbytech gear, and we've met Sue and Johnny Storm, and the Negative Zone has been namedropped as the N-Zone, and it's pretty clear where all of this is going: straight into prime-era Lee/Kirby FF, except with younger protagonists, possibly on the grounds that that's Easier for Young People to Identify With.

Here's their inability to identify the difference between Lee/Kirby's ideas and style, though. The meaningful concept of the FF is "interpersonal bonds pull people to places they don't expect," in the same sense that the concept of Spider-Man is "power carries responsibility" and the concept of the Hulk is "rage transforms the self." The shiny tech, the skyscrapers, the modernized-but-still-awful costumes that we see on the cover of Ultimate FF--that's all the Kirby touch, and it feels unpleasantly nostalgic, even vestigial. (Likewise with every "clever" little nod to the original series: Ultimate Willie Lumpkin must go away NOW.) I don't want to see modernized versions of Dr. Doom and the Mole Man and, I don't know, Blastaar--I want to see Bendis and Millar figure out what's compelling about this set of characters at its absolute core, and purge every hint of what the FF's creators did with that compelling idea.


James said:

Walt Simonson's run on FF (as both writer and penciler) included some great stories -- especially a brilliant Reed-vs.-Doom-crossed-with-time-travel-whimsy sequence that was flat out fun and exciting without heavy pretension. But... you're right, it still owed an enormous debt to Lee/Kirby (unlike Simonson's work on -The Mighty Thor-, which reinvented that title, IMHO). I gave up on the title when Simonson left; the next team (Tom DeFalco and I can't remember who the penciler was ) was pretty dull.

I have not read James Sturm's -Unstable Molecules- series, but maybe that's the FF reinvention you're looking for?

For what it's worth, between Claremont/Byrne and Morrison/Quitely on Uncanny, I really enjoyed Claremont/Romita Jr. (maybe because that was the X-Men I grew up with, but I think those issues hold up well enough).

The problem might be that these characters are too iconic to ever be reinvented. The reason why -Sandman- and -Uncanny X-Men- and -Swamp Thing- became as successful as they did was due in part to strong talent rebuilding characters who weren't fondly regarded to begin with (the story goes that Neil Gaiman was approached to write a new series for the Jack Kirby Sandman, didn't care for the character and built up his own ideas based on the title alone). If someone were to really create a new Fantastic Four, they might have to provide a concept so different that it would probably clash with Marvel's intentions with the Ultimates line.

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This page contains a single entry by Douglas published on January 13, 2004 12:41 AM.

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