Review: Fantastic Four By Jonathan Hickman (Volume One)

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FF Hickman Omnibus Vol 1

During Jonathan Hickman’s original 2009-12 tenure on Fantastic Four¸ everyone was raving about it. I was sceptical. I’d read them on and off, and they seemed generally great to look at but otherwise a bit of an unfinished muddle.

I was wrong.

The true beauty of Hickman’s style can’t be grasped in a few issues picked up intermittently. You need to have faith in the writer. This story is a long, but ultimately rewarding, one. He’s playing with the core foundations of the FF, and drawing threads throughout. This much should be evident from the very first storyline, The Bridge – not technically part of the main title, but essential if you’re to get to grips with why the following events take place.

It’s tied into Dark Reign, in which Norman Osborn is in charge of – well, essentially world security, and unlike many tie-ins, doesn’t suffer from this tether. There’s a heightened tension as Osborn and co. storm the Baxter Building, while the actual FF are otherwise engaged. That means it’s down to Franklin and Valeria, Reed and Sue’s children, to fend them off.

In order to do so, Valeria uses all her wits, and Franklin dresses like a cowboy.

The Bridge doesn’t entirely work as a narrative because it may be fun, but it also appears pretty pointless, at least what’s happening to Sue, Ben, and Johnny. Yet in hindsight, it sets up the rest of this omnibus surprisingly well. First off, we get to see how capable the kids are, and how they can be relied upon. Franklin may seem like he’s messing about, but you shouldn’t underestimate him. Valeria, meanwhile, is arguably smarter than her father. These two are absolute joys to read about, not just in The Bridge but in the omnibus as a whole.

FF Dark Reign Franklin Richards

Otherwise, there’s Reed’s hopelessness at facing the future, a major motivation throughout, and foreshadowing an uneasy feeling that all that’s about to happen is his fault, especially the direct consequences on the rest of his family.

After a brief interlude focusing on the secret intentions of both Namor and Dr Doom (both of whom get up to some interesting things later on in the book), we come to Idea #101: Solve Everything, also the title of the second storyline (or the debut of Hickman on the proper Fantastic Four series).

That the writer’s plans are ambitious should be immediately obvious. Reed meets the Council, an interfering bunch of arrogant know-it-alls with God complexes. They’re all Reed. That is, they’re all different versions of Mr Fantastic from alternating universes. It’s an exceptionally intriguing idea, one that ends by re-establishing a key part in FF lore: that each member is an oddity, but that their sense of family will always draw them back together.

Interestingly, it may seem that ‘our’ Reed proves himself a superior being because he can let the rest of the multiverse get on with whatever it’s doing, that he can leave behind his ambition to solve everything, to come back, as ever, to his loving family and friends. But it’s not all it appears: Reed is indulging in his own God complex, fulfilling that same desire through different means to be “a better man.” Needless to say, this isn’t fully wrapped up: the Council remains an undercurrent, as does Richards’ connection with his father.

This omnibus collects six graphic novels (the Dark Reign prelude, debut arc of FF aka the Future Foundation, and four of the core title), but it feels like more than that and, paradoxically, only one. That’s because it’s one ongoing narrative, separated into loose parts, and further segmented into chapters. Prime Elements, the third collection, sets up many principle ideas, but, let’s face it, is also a bit of a mess.

FF Mole Man Eaglesham

Certainly, if I’d have picked it up as a lone graphic novel, I would’ve been disappointed. It feels like samplers: small notional injections, not full explorations. They’re typically-single issues used to remind you of particular sections of the FF mythology.

They draw on the bases of the team, established by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in those early years: Mole Man and Subterranea; Atlantis; the Inhumans; Annihilus and the Negative Zone; space exploration; and evolution. Hickman has looked back at the successes and said to himself, ‘how can we move these on?’ On the whole, this has been a very positive idea, but some, at least with this initial omnibus, come across as half-baked. The potential return of the Inhumans, in particular, seems like a pointless thread. The final page of this omnibus (the storyline, rather, not the extra cover gallery, and script – both excellent inclusions) hammers this home. It’s such a strange place to leave the readers. But then, with Hickman’s intricate storytelling technique, where else would be appropriate?

Some may argue it should’ve concluded with Three, the tale that hit the headlines upon its initial release. One of the Fantastic Four, we were promised, would die. It would change the series forever. Even if the inclusion of Tomorrow (the first volume of the FF) feels like a jolt, it’s nice to see the further shockwaves of this death. I won’t spoil that revelation – although a quote on the book’s back cover does so regardless.

FF Galactus Silver Surfer

Three, it initially seems, is the storyline in which all these dangling tales come together. Indeed, it’s masterfully done. The team are separated and each member faces a huge threat. All are in danger. The actual death is done beautifully. Really, you can’t fault it.

It’s plotted sublimely, and Steve Epting’s art just heightens the experience. It looks so lifelike and rich. The small moments are as important as the big. In fact, seeing the Silver Surfer again, combined with a truly breathtaking cliffhanger to the opening part of Three – “unacceptable” – is spine-tingling.

Elsewhere, much of the art is the same, largely provided by Dale Eaglesham and Neil Edwards, two artists whose work is always solid and nice to look at, but are nonetheless similar. Maybe that’s to its advantage, but it comes as a shock when the more stylised visuals of Nick Dragotta, Sean Chen, and Barry Kitson are thrown into the mix. It admittedly is a beautiful omnibus to flick through – and nothing important is lost to the gutter – and this is aided by the colours used to maintain the same tone, no matter where the action takes us.

There’s a cinematic, landscape look from start to finish, and the artists make appealing directorial choices. Edwards especially plays with page layouts in the fourth volume, Future Foundation: he explores great vistas before cropping close to the central characters for reaction shots and body language.

This storyline follows Prime Elements and acts best as a prelude to what happens after Three. It celebrates what makes Fantastic Four so special in the comic book world, encompassing a jovial interlude with Arcade, a time-travelling twisting tale taking us back to Reed and Ben’s college days, and wrestling with the Thing’s problematic appearance.

FF Thing Three

Aside from that, Reed actually sets up the Future Foundation, perhaps as a reaction to seeing distorted versions of himself. Instead, he realises that the children are the future.

The Foundation plays a huge part in what’s to come, but we only get a taste of this with the final collected story, Tomorrow. The good news is: Spider-man’s part of the team! That’s awesome. Spidey is a much-loved character who’s always been on the periphery of the FF; to have him right in amongst it all bodes well for the second volume.

And that’s the biggest problem with this book: it’s incomplete. Threads are left hanging. The future is uncertain. There are still so many imminent threats. Mind you, if you’ve read this omnibus, you’ll definitely want to pick up volume two.

Jonathan Hickman’s run is perfect for this omnibus range. You need to read it in one go (or rather, in two volumes) to get the full impact and to properly see what he’s doing. Fantastic Four by Jonathan Hickman: Volume One is a great read; certainly not one you’ll want to miss out on.

And a large part of this fascination is the magnetism of the phrase, “all hope lies with Doom.”

FF Hickman Omnibus Vol 1 Rating

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Review: Ultimate Avengers By Mark Millar Omnibus

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Mark Millar is a controversial figure.

No one can doubt what he’s given to comics and, indeed, films. He changed the Marvel landscape with Civil War, gave us London’s Kapow! convention, and launched CLiNT magazine. Oh, and supplied us with possibly the most violent and swear-ridden comic known to man.

It’s been ten years now since the critically-acclaimed Ultimates hit the shelves, introducing warped versions of the familiar MU Avengers. And in Mark Millar’s latest omnibus collection, we’re introduced to warped versions of the warped versions.

Ultimate Avengers By Mark Millar Omnibus collects the first three volumes of the titular comic book (each comprising of six issues) and Ultimate Avengers vs. New Ultimates #1-6 in a beautiful white and gold/green exterior that won’t break your wrist unlike some other omnibuses. And with an RRP of £55.99, it’s pretty reasonably priced, considering that you can typically get a copy for about £35. As ever with the omnibus range, it’s wonderfully presented, with nice glossy finishes, a stand-out, white spine and a few ‘special features’ at the back, like variant covers, sketchbooks and cover ideas; it’s fleeting, but a welcome addition.

It begins three weeks after Ultimatum, an event generally considered as bad as comics get, and immediately sets up the premise of the whole book, even though this won’t become apparent until quite a way in. This first arc ushers in the return of Carlos Pacheco (Avengers Forever; Fantastic Four) to Marvel, and his stunning art echoes the widescreen-work of original Ultimates illustrator, Bryan Hitch. He’s a perfect choice for the book, and, coupled with colourist, Justin Ponsor and a plethora of inkers, gives the volume a fresh and exciting feel. The spreads and flowing layouts really help its pace, which has the feel of a blockbuster movie to it. And this is something Millar is often criticised for.

Ultimate Nick Fury sets out his agenda

I can see it both ways. Yes, comics are a medium of their own right; a medium that doesn’t have to be defined by or likened to others, particularly films. This is the reason Alan Moore doesn’t like to see V for Vendetta and Watchmen on the big screen. However, I also feel that as long as it sparks the imagination, it doesn’t really matter.

We also have to remember that many will be flocking to comics after seeing the big-hitters like Avengers Assemble and The Amazing Spider-Man in cinemas and on DVD, so these ‘widescreen,’ sweeping techniques are well suited as an introduction to the medium. As long as the characters are well-written, the dialogue is snappy, and the plot is interesting and relevant, does it really matter if an issue or storyline has the feel of a movie?

The Ultimate origin of the Red Skull…

And maybe this is an issue with Millar’s Ultimate Avengers. While much of the dialogue is good – “[Spider-Man] can drive a man to suicide in three or four exchanges,” someone remarks – and the characters involving, not all of them are particularly likeable. And this is surely a big problem with heroes you’re supposed to be rooting for. Indeed, some of the pointless deaths that occur hardly make an impact. Captain America and Hawkeye remain the most likeable, especially as the former is the personification of a one-man army, but many of the others are just there as replacements for the original Ultimates line-up. There’s a new Black Widow, a new Hulk (or two), and a new Iron Man (sort of) – and only the latter is remotely successful. In fact, I really hate what Millar’s done with the Hulk: the ‘original’ Hulk is a useless addition, while the ‘Nerd’ Hulk is ridiculous.

‘Nerd’ Hulk vs… Iron Man?

Oh, and in case that wasn’t enough, there’s a new Captain America too. Even though the original’s still there, on the whole. And this new Captain is… uh, the Punisher. Maybe this is why the deaths are meaningless: you know another replacement will be along any minute.

The low point for the team comes in volume two, where they’re overshadowed by an amazing Ghost Rider, awesomely drawn by Leinil Francis Yu (Secret Invasion; Wolverine), as he goes up against Blackthorn. (In fact, his Ghost Rider might be the best rendition I’ve seen!) It’s not that strong a story, mainly due to a ragtag team of Avengers who you know won’t gel. With the original Avengers and Ultimates, there were many arguments and fisticuffs, but you just knew that, in the end, Captain America, Iron Man and Thor would get along. But here, there’s too little chemistry and heart.

Ultimate Ghost Rider. Wow.

However, this isn’t a terrible omnibus, as many expected. Actually there’s a lot to enjoy.

As previously stated, Captain America really kicks butt, particularly in the first arc, which heralds in the first and only appearance of the Ultimate Universe’s Red Skull. The twist on his origin isn’t that surprising, but it’s still pretty cool, and suitably gruesome. The death of Nikolai Laskov is particularly horrible – so naturally, there’s some mindless violence lingering on from Kick-Ass.

The third arc riffs off the huge vampire trend of late, something which Millar has come under criticism for. But it’s actually a great move. Keeping up with trends, and predicting the next ones, will always draw readers in, and it’s something that Marvel – and, indeed, every noteworthy company – has always done. Plus there’s a fantastic Twilight parody.

 I was initially sceptical of Steve Dillon’s artistic contributions to the storyline that introduces us to Blade, but, actually, it’s very fitting. But Leinil Yu makes a welcome return in the final storyline, which pits the Ultimates against the Avengers. There are plenty of surprises throughout, but especially in this concluding tale, which starts off really strong. The addition of Spider-Man seems forced – as the Punisher aptly notes, “where the %&*# did HE come from?!” – but Frank’s guilt is great.

The ‘Hulked-out’ heroes in Ultimate Avengers vs. New Ultimates #5 is a bit too silly for my liking, but generally, Millar’s conclusions are really strong. The finale to the third arc is very visual and cinematic – clever too – as is the way the Red Skull is dealt with in the first storyline.

Yes, there are plenty of clichés thrown about, and character depth isn’t at its most fascinating, but there’s still a lot to enjoy here. Well worth thirty-odd quid.

If you want to see Mark Millar at his best, pick up The Ultimates. But if you want him in his “not-at-his-best-but-still-much-better-than-most” mode, order Ultimate Avengers now.

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