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by The Masked Bookwyrm


THE FANTASTIC FOUR - PAGE 3

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The Fantastic Four: The Trial of Galactus 1989 (SC TPB) 176 pages

cover by John ByrneWritten and illustrated by John Byrne.
Colours: Glynis Wein (a.k.a. Glynis Oliver). Letters: Jim Novak. Editors: various.

Reprinting: The Fantastic Four (1st series) #242-244, 257-262, What the...? #2 (1981-1983, 1988)

Additional notes: This is another one of these book where my review is based on the original issues, not the TPB collection. According to some sources, some of the issues were edited a bit (presumably dropping a few extraneous scenes more relating to on-going character things or sub-plots).

Rating: * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1 (some of it more)

Even today many would argue John Byrne's run on the FF was the best, the most creative, the most definitive, second -- if even that -- only to the FF's inaugural creative team of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Unfortunately, I never quite agreed. I have a large run of Byrne's FF, collected for various reasons that seemed reasonable at the time. One can't say I haven't given him a try. Nor am I completely unsympathetic to his work on the magazine. The first issue I bought -- #239 -- still stands as a great, and somewhat unusual story.

The Trial of Galactus collects two or three interconnected stories, beginning when Terrax, the herald of the world-devouring Galactus, arrives on earth, demanding-on-threat-of-mayhem that the FF destroy Galactus. It doesn't go the way Terrax wants, but results in Galactus near death. Reed Richards decides that since Galactus is not technically evil -- he may have killed hundreds of billions, but only to survive -- it is incumbent upon them to save his life. Which they do. Jump ahead a few issues and Terrax is back, teamed with Dr. Doom, for a knock down drag out fight, and, in an unrelated turn, Reed Richards is shanghaied to a distant Galaxy to stand trial for his saving of Galactus -- the trial forming the collection's climax.

The art on the first few issues is decent enough, still echoing Byrne's clean, detailed work on the X-Men. But in later issues there's a muddier look, with less care paid to detail. The problem is that the weaknesses of Byrne's style -- a certain cardboard flatness to his figures -- remains. In other words, he loses some of the appeal of his art, without substituting any improvements in his basic technique. As well, Byrne the writer-artist seemed as though he was so desperate to prove his writing chops, that his art became secondary. He employs lots of verbiage and dense text panels, which can be good. The opening scene of Terrax flying through space, complete with omniscient captions ruminating on the universe, are moodily effective...and are precisely the sort of things comics writers rarely try anymore. But at other times, Byrne describes in text what's being depicted in the panel, as if Byrne-the-writer didn't trust Byrne-the-artist. As well the art seems often to just illustrate a scene, rather than to tell the story through the pictures. Byrne relies on a lot of bland long shots that can make for an oddly impersonal story at times.

Writing-wise, Byrne clearly likes these characters, but I was never that big on his interpretation. The original FF, as done by Lee and Kirby, seemed very much like a family that happened to fight crime. Later writers continued this theme to varying degrees. Byrne tries, but at other times, his FF are more like generic super heroes, as he blunts their more eccentric and volatile edges. The Invisible Girl, long reviled by fans as too mousey and passive, is reinvented by Byrne as a tough-gal super heroine. But as I get older, I realize there was something interesting about the early Sue, precisely because she seemed like she'd be happier as a homemaker. Like so many Marvel Comics heroes, she didn't want to be a hero, but had heroism thrust upon her (and by extension, the FF). Despite using more modern dialogue styles, Byrne's FF seem less complex and human than Lee and Kirby's. And, to put my biases up front, a little too Republican.

The plotting seems a little like he's rushing through things, tossing in one half-formed idea before moving on to the next, often resulting in unsatisfying resolutions -- in much the same way that he throws in guest appearances by other heroes (the Avengers, the Silver Surfer), often to little effect. And the FF often stand on the sidelines watching someone else save the day. In the opening story line, Terrax literally holds the island of Manhattan hostage and the reader thinks, "Gosh, how're the FF gonna save the city?" Suffice it to say, the solution is a let down.

Byrne mixes talky, low-key scenes with big action set pieces. But while I normally like "domestic" scenes, Byrne's tend to run on a bit (maybe my ambivalence stems from the fact that, as noted, I'm not that smitten with his characterization or art). And some of the action is just, well, monotonous, such as the second Terrax battle which is stretched over two issues and is basically just a drawn out slugfest, lacking much of interest. Even the fact that Terrax self-destructs, consumed by his own power, isn't a cleverly ironic solution...since we were told right from the beginning, by Dr. Doom, that this would happen.

Although since these issues are edited somewhat for the TPB, some of the draggier scenes might be tightened.

This collection isn't without its pluses. For one thing, Byrne is clearly trying to write a "cosmic" saga of the type that Marvel used to do in the 1970s, where big philosophical ideas are bandied about between fist fights. He doesn't pull it off as well as some of those earlier epics, but the intent is there. Byrne loses some of the metaphysicality by literalizing too much -- losing that sense of ineffableness -- while, at other times, the very vagueness of his ideas is what makes it insubstantial. Still, there are some grandiose scenes and the final issue, the trial, is actually one of the more effective issues, benefitting from a cleaner art style. And this despite Byrne employing what could've been a destructively "cutesy" idea by having himself -- as then chronicler of the FF -- appear in the story!

But the very reliance on "ideas" also forces a writer to justify them.

When first confronted with the dying Galactus, Reed doesn't miss a beat before deciding to save him. It's an intriguing ethical dilemma, but one that could be debated. Yet instead of treating it as a chance to have the heroes debate -- not just the FF, but guest stars Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and Dr. Strange -- only Iron Man objects, and not very strenuously. It might have made the story more interesting -- and made Byrne's argument more convincing -- if Reed had had to win over his fellows with his moral/logical argument. But that's where the story gets wobbly. In those early issues, Reed (and Byrne) seem to be taking a moral stand, that all life, even Galactus', is sacred. Yet later, Reed (and Byrne) switch to a more wishy-washy metaphysical argument, arguing that Galactus serves a cosmic purpose. The discussion shifts from the "life is sacred" argument, to the even shakier Nietzschean one of "what does not kill me, makes me stronger" expanded to a cosmic scale with Galactus weeding out the unworthy. I would've been more comfortable with the practical -- if harsh -- argument, that Galactus prevents the universe from becoming over populated, rather than suggesting that there's a value judgment inherent in his destruction. What? 'Cause your planet can't fight off the big G, your race deserves to die? Besides, the argument that mortals have no right to judge or interfere with Galactus because he is an agent of the universe is faulty...after all, it was Reed's interference that saved Galactus. By that reckoning, didn't the universe intend Galactus to die?

Big philosophical sagas open themselves up to all sorts of ideological nitpicking.

Even the characters are re-written. In the final issue, Ben and Johnny claim they didn't want to save Galactus, but Reed convinced them of the rightness of his argument. But what makes the earlier issue weak is that there isn't a big pro-con debate. Ben and Johnny are on side right from the get go.

Also included in this book is a Fantastic Four parody by Byrne from the pages of a satire magazine, What the...? (not to be confused with What If...? which, in fact, did do an alternate version of the Trial of Galactus). But since this review is based on the comics, and I don't have What the...?, I can't comment on it.

So how does one rate The Trial of Galactus? Given that Byrne's run on the FF is almost dogmatically cited by fans and critics alike as the series at its peak, the fact that I seem to be in a minority in my mixed feelings toward it might be seen as suspect. And given that the FF -- despite being one of Marvel's flagship titles, and long carried the tag line "The World's Greatest Comic Magazine" -- has only been featured in a handful of TPB collections, you have to take what you can get. But ultimately, nothing much here really excited me in the writing or the art, though Byrne's lofty ambitions are laudable. But I'd still give my vote for The Silver Surfer: The Coming of Galactus (the first FF-Galactus tale) as a better read.

This is a review of the story as it originally appeared in Fantastic Four comics.

Cover price: $__ CDN./ $14.95 (?) USA. 


Fantastic Four versus the X-Men 198_ (SC TPB) 102 pages

coverWritten by Chris Claremont. Pencils by Jon Bogdanove. Inked by Terry Austin.
Colours: Glynis Oliver. Letters: Tom Orzechowski. Editor: Ann Nocenti.

Reprinting the four issue mini-series (1987)

Rating: * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Fantastic Four vs. the X-Men (one of two unconnected, but conceptually related mini-series -- the other was X-Men vs. The Avengers) takes place at a time when, in the regular X-Men comic, Kitty Pryde's phasing power is out of control and she will literally dissipate to death in a matter of days. Desperate, the X-Men (Storm, Magneto, Wolverine, Rogue, Dazzler, Havok, and a few others) turn to the Fantastic Four's Reed Richards. Unfortunately, the discovery of Reed's old diary seems to reveal a hitherto dark secret about the FF's origin -- threatening to shatter the team and causing Reed to refuse to help as he no longer has confidence in his judgements. This then leads to arch-villain, Dr. Doom, offering to cure Kitty...putting the X-Men in a moral dilemma. Eventually the FF do offer their help, but Reed is still plagued by self-doubts, jeopardizing his effectiveness.

I'd read some good reviews of this story arc...but for me, it so doesn't work in so many ways and on so many levels.

Just as a petty aspect: I prefer a mini-series that is self-contained. Although the FF aspect is original to this story, the X-Men/Kitty Pryde stuff is tied into then on-going X-Men comics. It's not confusing, per se: it's all explained. But still...

My other complaints are a more substantial.

Since it's called FF vs. the X-Men...there's a lot of the two team's fighting each other. I tend to regard the whole "heroes have a misunderstanding and fight" idea as problematic, though it can work. But here, the characters fight for reasons that seem kind of ridiculous and childish: Reed refuses to help because he says he is worried he might kill Kitty if he makes a mistake -- cue big fight scene; FF show up to help later -- cue big fight scene.

Of course, because the plot is largely about abstract dilemmas and character conflicts, without those occasional dust-ups, there'd be no action (hence why the X-Men also find time for some combat sessions -- shoe horning action scenes into a non-action story).

The tale could've been told better in half the pages -- the rest just feels repetitious.

Claremont clearly wants to tell a story that's rich in character exploration and dilemmas...but kind of has them do personality gymnastics to get them to that point. As mentioned, Reed's old diary is uncovered, revealing a dark secret that threatens to tear apart the team (I'm being vague because I knew what it was going in, and that may've hurt my enjoyment, as Claremont teases out the revelation for a couple of issues) -- but Reed says the diary entries are faked.

Um, the team is faced with a book on one hand...and the word of their friend, husband, team leader who they've know and trusted for years -- and they opt to believe the book? Really? Okay, maybe in a real world context where it would be hard to explain the book, but in the FF's reality, they've encountered so many impersonators of themselves (shape-changing Skrulls, robots, and alternate earth dopplegangers) that a forged diary doesn't seem like a stretch.

Claremont clearly wanted to explore the idea of something threatening to break apart the team (which, let's face it, is hardly a radical idea for the FF), but to get them to that point, it just seems implausible (and the reconciliation is pretty abrupt, too).

Claremont also wanted to explore the idea of Reed as being almost ruthless in his conviction of his own rightness -- hence why the team are willing to believe the diary, as it jibes with darker aspects of his character. But I'm not really sure that's an unassailable take on his personality (many-a FF comic had Reed planning on going alone on some risky mission because he didn't want to jeopardize his team mates). Ironically, 20 years later, with Marvel's Civil War story arc, it could be argued we see some of that Reed -- but at the time this mini-series was written, I'm not sure it stems from the last 25 years of FF stories.

The X-Men's dilemma also seems like Claremont is struggling to force a moral conflict. Doom offers to help, no strings attached. And the X-Men worry about their "souls" accepting help from the evil Doom, and wondering what he'll demand in return. But, um, maybe it makes me a moral pragmatist, but if a guy says he is asking nothing in return...then you don't really owe him anything. End of moral dilemma. Maybe Claremont should have had it be that Doom was demanding a favour up front (maybe he vaguely states he is in the middle of a project and he wants the X-Men to vow not to interfere if their paths should cross over it).

And for all their hand wringing, it doesn't prevent them from kicking back or going shopping in Doom's kingdom of Latveria.

Claremont's stories can be full of a desire to explore his characters' motivations. But...the downside to that is he can write with a heavy handed clunkiness that borders on goofy, as characters mouth verbose, tongue-twisting dialogue meant to articulate a point of view, rather than sound like something that character would actually say...or even think! Perhaps a good example is the climax, where Reed is working to cure Kitty, but still struggling with lingering self-doubt. The X-Men figure they could resolve his doubts...but decide it's something he must work out on his own, or else it would linger with him forever. Um...one moment, they're so concerned about Kitty that they'll sell their "souls" by accepting help from Doom...the next minute they're willing to risk Kitty's life so that Reed can find peace of mind? And even the whole notion of Reed being plagued by self-doubts is awkward...as he was the one insisting the diary was faked, so why should its "revelations" unsettle him?

There are some good bits, such as Franklin Richards trying to entertain Kitty by telling her a bedtime story Reed told him (though the idea of little Franklin hanging out with a perpetually naked Kitty is a bit, um, awkward).

The art is by Jon Bogdanove (inked by one time "classic" X-Men inker Terry Austin). I went into this not necessarily expecting much from the art, thinking of Bogdanove's style as being rather cartoony and caricaturish -- but I guess that was a style he later evolved. This, slightly early work from him, is much more straightforward and appealing for that -- but maybe it's also a little blandly non-descript. It tells the tale, but there's nothing that interesting or compelling about the composition or the storytelling. It can serve the script...but can't really overcome it..

Having just finished this, my overall impression is fairly negative: a thin story, struggling to justify its page count, rife with too much poor logic and unconvincing characterization. But, I realize I can be harsh -- sometimes expecting too much from a first reading. A second reading, prepared now for the shortcoming, I might breeze through it with less criticism. Maybe. But this is my take on it for now.

This is a review of the story as it was serialized in the mini-series.

Cover price: ___


Fantastic Four Visionaries: by George Perez 2005 (SC TPB) 200 pages

cover by PerezWritten by Roy Thomas and Len Wein. Pencils by George Perez. Inks by Joe Sinnott, with Vince Colletta, Dave Hunt.
Colours/letters: various.

Reprinting: The Fantastic Four (1st series) #164-167, 170, 176-178, 184-186 (1975-1977)

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by Marvel Comics

I was watching Ebert & Roeper's TV review of the new Fantastic Four movie when Roeper remarked that the Fantastic Four were like the Dave Clark Five to the X-Men's Beatles -- in other words, compared to the X-Men, the FF seemed square and staid. I'll be coming back to that in a moment.

Marvel's "Visionaries" books collect works of specific creators (usually artists) and, though some books have sampled work on various projects from throughout an individual's career, most tend to focus on specific titles and specific periods -- hence, Fantastic Four Visionaries: George Perez, which collects issues of the FF drawn by George Perez in the mid-1970s. But this isn't the entirety of Perez's art on the comic (a second volume was subsequently released).

So was Perez a "visionary"? Certainly in the 1970s and 1980s, Perez was a jaw-dropping wonder for his often extremely detailed panels, with richly rendered backgrounds ranging from city skylines to the bizarre mechanics inside the Baxter Building (the FF's HQ). And his approach to people was in a realist and accurate (if coldly precise) style, eschewing exaggerated contortions, or anatomical inconsistencies. Plus, Perez evolved a style in which his use of composition, and how he broke down a scene into panels, could be eclectic. So, yeah, maybe he was a "visionary".

Of course, fans of his even more detailed contemporary work might be less impressed with this decades old art, and many of the things that made Perez so cool back then are more common place today. As well, even here Perez's art seems to evolve, with the earliest issues not quite as well drawn as the later, as he became more comfortable with the series and the characters (particularly the Thing). But it's still good work throughout. He's mainly inked by Joe Sinnott, who's inking over a succession of FF pencillers helped maintain a consistent feel to the title.

And yet, as good as Perez was, he was pretty evenly matched by the writers.

Roy Thomas writes the lion's share and -- you know what? -- there's a lot of fun and energy in these issues. The stories selected often tend to seem a bit more prosaic, a bit more run-of-the-mill super hero stuff than some FF adventures. This collection begins just after some epic adventure in an alternate reality, then skips over a saga set on counter earth involving the world-devouring Galactus. But those stories weren't drawn by Perez, so instead we get more down-to-earth battles with the Frightful Four and the Hulk. Over these issues Thomas, ever the nostalgist, resurrects a 1950s hero, Marvel Boy, as a tragic villain (whose costume and powers later inspired Quasar), throws in Power Man, the Marvel Comics bullpen, and recurring villains like the Puppet Master. Yet, though many of these issues don't rise to the level of classics...not one of them dips below the level of eminently readable as Thomas and company veer from super hero battles to silly, comic relief (as the Impossible Man is reintroduced into Marvel comics after some 12 year absence!)

Thomas clearly doesn't believe in taking things too seriously, so there are plenty of wisecracks and facetious captions -- yet neither does he forget the characters or the underpinnings of drama, particularly in regards to the grotesque Thing (the most human of the FF, though the most inhuman looking). Thomas makes the unlikely concept of the Thing siding with the Hulk against his own teammates surprisingly plausible as he subtly reminds us that the Thing, ultimately, can feel like an outsider, even among his friends. And the humour often stems from the Marvel Age concept of keeping it real, of creating gags by setting the adventures in a messy reality. The Frightful Four appear, looking to recruit a new member, and as the FF are held captive they watch as one inept applicant after another shows up -- the FF (well, the Thing and the Human Torch) heckling their foes. "Yer little idea's a real bust so far, ain't it?" mocks the Thing. A joke where the evil Wizard fumes that he couldn't restrict his want ad to just male applicants (his previous female allies had all betrayed him) because the newspaper in question had an anti-discrimination policy is goofy...but also has a ring of plausibility to it. Would-be super villains may rob banks and plot villainy, but if they want to run a personal ad, they have to obey the editorial edicts.

Even the Impossible Man is fun. Normally I dislike comic relief characters, but he's used sparingly, and there's a manic insanity to the character that makes him a personality in his own right, so that he still seems to fit into this ostensibly straight-faced reality.

Thomas also just has a nice sense here for keeping the stories interesting and even off beat, not relying too much on pointless fight scenes. When the fight scenes do ensue, because this is the Bronze Age of comics -- full of dialogue captions, thought balloons, and text boxes -- even these scenes seem rife with character nuance, and are more than just a lot of mindless thumping. In some issues, the crucial action scene is about rescue attempts (a plane knocked out of the sky) and testing the heroes' will, rather than battling a foe. Not that the fights with foes aren't fun but, as noted, enlivened with quips and some character shading.

Len Wein comes in for the final trilogy, and it's one of the best in the book. A little more sombre than Thomas' run, Wein's issues also reflect the more off-beat, fantastical nature of some of the FF's classic stories, as a quest for their kidnapped son and nanny, Agatha Harkness, leads them to New Salem, an eerie, isolated village in the mountains...all wrapped up with one of Wein's trademark ironic endings.

Although most of the stories are self-contained, plot threads carry over into issues that aren't reprinted, including one pretty major cliffhanger. But the advantage is that, since the comics pick up a few issues later, we can generally learn the resolution of such threads, if only through recaps. As such, we can still follow stories of the Thing reverting to his human, Ben Grimm form for a few issues, or a plot thread of an imposter infiltrating the group, even if we're just getting the Reader's Digest version. In fact, that's the fun of this collection. I had been toying with getting a TPB that reprinted a more diverse collection of tales...but decided I kind of liked the idea of getting something closer to a "run" of issues, precisely so I could enjoy the greater sense of continuity.

Of course, Marvel might have made the gaps between issues more obvious (such as inserting the cover galleries as demarcations). Else a fan, not realizing three or four issues have been skipped over, might wonder why there suddenly is a jump in the plot threads. There aren't a lot in the way of extras, just a cover gallery page. But they did think to reprint the editorial first printed in issue #176 which details the behind-the-scenes of that issue...and it's an enjoyable read.

Getting back to that Dave Clark Five reference I alluded to. The funny thing is, I'm not a huge Fantastic Four fan, per se, but I've enjoyed the group's adventures over the years. The Fantastic Four is largely credited with establishing the so-called Marvel Age of comics, when creators Jack Kirby and Stan Lee first introduced character quirks and foibles into formerly two-dimensional super heroes. Comics writer and commentator Gerard Jones once claimed that most super hero comics published in the last forty years owe something to the Fantastic Four. And the funny thing is, even if comics have come along with more complex characters, more nuanced emotions, the core elements of the FF's various personalities and powers means that in a collection like this, they're still interesting and can keep you turning the pages. Sure, this is a team so conservative that when they talk about their "old" and "new" uniforms, it took me a while before I could even see the difference! And they rely on certain recurring hooks (how many issues have ended with one member or another threatening to quit and a someone bemoaning: "Is this the end of the Fantastic Four?!?") But I guess what I'm saying is, sometimes, being the Dave Clark Five isn't such a bad thing.

Many critics and fans argue the FF's greatest eras were the original Lee-Kirby issues (numbering close to a hundred) and then John Byrne's tenure as writer-artist in the 1980s. I agree with the former, though have mixed feelings about the later. But this collection shows there have been other entertaining runs as well. Now maybe Marvel should consider a TPB collecting the sagas that fell in between these issues, drawn by the likes of John Buscema and Rich Buckler.

Cover price: $__ CDN./ $19.99 USA
 

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