With the announcement yesterday that Jonathan Hickman will be leaving The Fantastic Four (and I assume that includes the newer FF book) I was thinking about his run and the others that I have enjoyed.
The FF was the first of three books that I read regularly in the wayback times. The other two being Uncanny X-Men and The Avengers, both of those are now books I have almost no interest in since they became incomprehensible at several points in their history. The X-Men, shortly after Chris Claremont was pushed off the book in favor of the soon-to-be Image guys (Bloody well ruined that book). The Avengers just slowly descended into dazzling mediocrity over the years, with only a few bright spots since.
The first issue of FF I picked up was #203. Marv Wolfman had started his run on the book a few issues prior; Keith Pollard and Joe Sinnot were doing the art. Pollard would soon make way for John Byrne for his first stint on the book. I read sporadically for the next dozen or so issues and was completely hooked by issue #218 or so and as Byrne began to really sink his teeth in, I decided I was there for the long haul. There was a break in the Byrne run in the 220’s where Doug Moench and Bill Sienkiewicz did some pretty nice issues, then Byrne returned to both write and draw things with issue 232. He stuck around until 294. For over 5 years the book was as good as it could possibly be. Most readers and critics favorably compared the book to the Lee/Kirby run. At the time, I had not yet read the Lee/Kirby run, but now I can see what everyone meant. The book really was worthy of the title “world’s greatest comic magazine” again. Then the book went off the rails; not because the writers were all that bad. Some were awful, but most were very good at what they do; they just didn’t get the book. Many have tried since, and most have come close, but still they’ve missed the mark.
Then Jonathan Hickman came on board in 2009 with issue #570. He immediately reset the tone and style of the book back to the core concept of family. He did not jettison all the previous continuity, even in cases where the stories they came from were less than great. Instead of a full reboot, he just started a new story of his creation that incorporated the elements from the past he wanted to use. I had to catch up fast since I had not been reading the book during the creation of Nu-World, or the birth of Valeria, or any of the odd changes that had happened in the intervening years. Once I had done a little back-story research, everything clicked. This was a family. All the characters were fully realized and had a believable quality. Even all the odd supporting cast of kids and other misfits that were there or brought in over the course of the story were fun, interesting and real. The threats in the book were threats to the family first and as dangerous as any other in the past. This time, because you care about the family, you are far more invested in what happens. In the past, sometimes even in the Byrne run, Franklin was an afterthought. The issues of family only entered into things AFTER the villain was dispatched. Now the family is standing right there as the Annihilation wave approaches. Calling this book the Fantastic Four almost doesn’t work. This may explain some of the motivation behind the creation of the separate FF book. The main catalyst for that was, and I don’t think I am spoiling here since everyone saw the press on this, the “death” of the Human Torch. Everyone knew he was not really dying. He didn’t even die on panel. Everyone knew he would be back. The main thing was that the story was good. It was good. The “death” never seemed forced and yet it was not something that came out of left field either. In most pop culture stories, death is a result of an arbitrary change. In TV, it is because an actor is leaving. Those deaths are almost always poorly done. They feel rushed and simply do not fit what has gone before. Anyone recall how Jadzia Dax was written out of DS9 when the actress could not come to contract terms with the studio? It was a slap in the face to the fans, the actress and the character. In many comics, they are the result of the need for a stunt. This felt like it was an organic part of the story being told and never felt like a stunt. It WAS a stunt, but not being done just for the sake of a stunt. Upon re-reading the series, it now feels like it was always leading to this organically, not just by Hickman’s design.
While this run on the book, even if you include both titles, is far from the length of the Byrne period, this feels no less satisfying. There are currently four collections of Fantastic Four and two of FF, with one or 2 more of each coming before the end of the run later in 2012. At that time I will feel a little depressed about then end of Hickman’s run. Yes, there are other books he has done. His creator owned stuff at Image has been very good, for the most part. But I want to have a good FF book. Until I started reading this run, I had forgotten how much I had missed these characters. They are like family or friends that you reconnect with after years apart. Not exactly the way you remember them, but still special.