GRAPHIC NOVEL AND TRADE
PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm


THE FANTASTIC FOUR - PAGE 5

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coverUltimate Fantastic Four: Doom 2005 (SC TPB) 132 pages

Written by Warren Ellis. Pencils by Stuart Immonen. Inks by Wade vonGrawbadger.
Colours: Dave Stewart. Letters: Chris Eliopoulos. Editor: Ralph Macchio, Nick Lowe

Reprinting:Ultimate Fantastic Four #7-12 (2004-2005)

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Marvel's Ultimate line is kind of a second Marvel "Universe" in which many of their signature series have been re-imagined and their stories retold from the ground up (including an Ultimate Spider-Man series, Ultimate X-Men, etc.) The reasons are, presumably, myriad. Ranging from a chance for modern, "sophisticated" writers and artists to put modern, more sophisticated spins on old, childish comics...to the desire to attract newer readers intimidated by the decades' worth of accumulated continuity associated with the regular comics...to the novelty of seeing "alternate reality" takes on familiar icons (ala DC's old Elseworlds line)...to simply a mercenary desire to put out more comics featuring (more or less) the same characters.

The first Ultimate FF collection (The Fantastic) told the origin of this version of the FF...this TPB follows directly on that and collects their first battle with their arch foe: Doctor Doom. Here, instead of being the monarch of a European country, Victor Van Damme was part of the same youth think tank the others were a part of (the FF having been re-imagined as young adults) who was caught in the same mishap that imbued the FF with their powers.

Doom was teleported to Copenhagen, and has begun mutating into a metal-skinned creature (curiously, one wonders if the makers of the Fantastic Four movie read the Ultimate FF comics, as opposed to the original Lee/Kirby comics, when fashioning their plot, as some concepts used in the film seem closer to the Ultimate interpretation than to the regular FF). Setting himself up as the leader of a ghetto/squatters community, Van Damme sends a horde of mechanized insects to attack the Baxter Building -- the think tank where dwell the FF. The FF back track the bugs to Copenhagen and an inconclusive fight ensues.

And that's about it.

On one hand, there's nothing egregiously terrible about Doom -- writer Warren Ellis writes decent enough dialogue and some cute wisecracks and artist Stuart Immonen delivers some attractive if a little caricaturish art. There seems to be a bit of a right wing/neo-con undercurrent to the story, particularly toward the end, but that's not really right or wrong: you can enjoy it if you're inclined that way, ignore it if you're not.

But overall, it kind of leaves you going...so?

Maybe I bring the wrong baggage to these Ultimate series, wanting them to justify their existence. If you're going to re-invent the FF, if you're going to re-imagine Dr. Doom, it must be because you've got something pretty special in mind, something to really show up those 1960s "hacks", Lee and Kirby -- right? Which maybe is unfair.

This suffers from the whole decompression movement in comics, where writers desperately stretch out minor plots over a bunch of issues to justify the TPB collection that's scheduled a few months down the line.

This isn't an epic, a re-inventing of the FF's battle with Doom as a multi-issue saga rich in twists and turns -- a "graphic novel"! This is a pretty thin, minor story that makes no effort to be anything more than one adventure in an on-going series -- as mentioned, it ends inconclusively with the adversaries going their separate ways while basically promising "next time". A whole issue is devoted to the battle with the robot bugs -- even as it never really generates much suspense or tension given the powers of the FF. Another issue is devoted to the characters planing to go after Van Damme -- yup, a whole issue! The climactic battle basically takes two issues...without really being more than a minor dust up.

And if the thin plotting and slower, decompressed pacing was to make time for deeper, more thoughtful character insight and themes...I didn't really see it. You could drive the Fanasti-car through the logic holes, while the only characters in the story are basically the FF and Van Damme -- none of which seem any better or more subtlety crafted than in the original comics. Some are basically the same as their progenitors...some tweaked a bit (Reed isn't really the decisive leader anymore). The youth of the characters seems mainly there to appeal to younger readers than as something integral to their personalities -- they speak in youthful slang (Reed saying "sucks") but, unlike, say, Jim Shooter's more recent return to the LSH, Ellis doesn't really play up the notion of them being inexperienced and even immature heroes.

The only character the Ultimate FF has added to the original mythos is Sue and Johnny's dad, who is head of the think tank -- and yet over the first 12 issues of the Ultimate FF...he still isn't given much of a personality or a purpose. 12 issues! While Van Damme's motive is that he's a power mad nut because, well, basically he comes from a family of power mad nuts (and we can infer, his mutation hasn't done any wonders for his sanity) -- a far cry from the original Doom as the persecuted Gypsy.

And why he decides to try and kill Reed and the others in the first place...well, I dunno.

The unhurried pacing doesn't really seem to be turned over to better fleshing out of the concepts. Near the end, Reed taunts Victor by criticizing his relationship with his father...when nowhere earlier that I recall did we see any indication Reed even knew anything about Victor's family life!

Ellis tries to throw in some novel twists to the old ideas, such as by having it be Reed has no internal organs -- but it's not like it somehow makes his abilities any less implausible.

I know I'm being unduly harsh here, because it's not really that there's anything especially terrible here -- except that you've got basically enough plot and character development for one or two issues, that's stretched out over six. And the result is just a kind of bland little effort which, as mentioned, doesn't even satisfy as a "story" since, though not "to be continued" by the end, nonetheless, doesn't really resolve anything. After all, this is just introducing Van Damme as an arch foe, all set up to return a few story arcs down the line.

This is a review of the story as it was serialized in the monthly comics.

Cover price: __ 


coverUltimate Fantastic Four: The Fantastic 2005 (SC TPB) 132 pages

Written by Brian Michael Bendis, Mark Millar. Pencils by Adam Kubert. Inks by Danny Miki, John Dell.
Colours: Dave Stewart. Letters: Chris Eliopoulos. Editor: Ralph Macchio.

Reprinting:Ultimate Fantastic Four #1-6 (2004)

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Comics are an unusual -- perhaps unprecedented -- narrative medium, where characters and their adventures are chronicled over decades! Which gives birth to what some would argue is both the medium's greatest strength...and greatest hinderance.

Continuity.

Stories are built upon events that didn't just happen last issue, but hundreds of issues earlier. It allows for tales full of resonance and nuance...as well as incoherent tales accessible only to the most anal retentive fanboy.

We've seen a move in recent years toward the idea of re-starting long established series to make them accesible to newer readers -- either through "rebooting" a series, or by creating parallel series meant, not to replace the "real" series, but to sit beside them on the shelf. Part of the gimmick was also to placate "hot" creative talents who wanted the freedom to do their own thing with established properties. In the 1990s Marvel did their "Heroes Reborn" series, while DC has recently started its "All-Star..." comics. And, of course, there's Marvel's on going Ultimate line, which has included The Ultimates (a.k.a. the Avengers), As well as Ultimate Spider-Man, Ultimate X-Men and, of course, Ultimate Fantastic Four.

So the premise here is to take the Fantastic Four...and start from the beginning, retelling and re-inventing their origins and adventures.

Now, I'll admit, the cynic can dismiss these as a crassly mercenary effort by writers and artists who want to pretend they're doing something "creative", when they're really just piggy backing on the creativity of those who went before. The implied undercurrent is that these will be smarter, more sophisticated takes on older, childish comics -- and they sort of are...and they sort of aren't. Like with movie remakes, for every good change, there can be a dumb change. I had read a couple of Ultimate X-Men story arcs and my ambivalence was left pretty much intact -- they were okay, but not any better or smarter than the regular comics. And, of course, the whole idea of "let's start from scratch so newer readers won't have to deal with all this continuity baggage" quickly gets negated after a few issues as the Ultimate versions build up their own baggage of continuity.

But I was kind of grudgingly impressed with the first issue of the opening Ultimate FF arc. I won't say it was better or more sophisticated than the regular series, but it was certainly interesting. Instead of leaping into the action, the first issue chronicles the birth and childhood of Reed Richards, with nary a super villain in sight. It's a drama, carefully establishing the character of this prodigal genius and the strained relationship with his "average" parents. The first two pages, alone, is a memorable, powerful intro to the character. So it's not super hero hijinks, but a nonetheless interesting kitchen sink drama, a character study.

I've had mixed feelings about Adam Kubert, but the art was really quite impressive (perhaps Kubert was aided by smooth inking of Danny Miki), his faces rich in emotive nuance and character, his storytelling composition compelling and effective. Granted, his women tend to run toward a single archetype -- when we first see Reed's mother, I assumed she would be Susan Storm's mother. But the art is generally quite exceptional.

Ignoring whether this was better or worse than Lee and Kirby's original, but accepting it as "different", as if a movie was made of the FF, I kind of was grooving to its deliberate, thoughtful pace, its lack of histrionics.

Unfortunately, it doesn't really last.

By the end of the first issue, teenage Reed is recruited by a government think tank gathering together teen geniuses. And once we're into the second issue...it all seems pretty comic booky and super hero. Oh, sure, there's still no action (that doesn't really occur until the fifth issue!) but the surrounding milieu seems more comic booky, the characters and dialogue less grounded and textured. After the first issue seeming as though this would be the FF re-told as a character study of Reed, by the second issue, the focus seems to have shifted, no longer filtering the action through Reed as our primary hero.

And the rest of the arc is basically, well, what you might expect. Okay, but nothing really to blow the cobwebs off a forty year old franchise. The characters are "teened" up for the target audience -- Reed no longer a greying scientist and Ben Grimm an established test pilot, but both fledging young adults. The Moleman is here introduced as a disgruntled teacher at the think tank. And the whole "decompression" movement of modern comics is in full swing -- not because the pacing is slow, but not a whole lot actually happens, plot or character wise.

We get the characters discovering their various powers, but without much that's fresh or reinvigorating about it all...or realistic. The scientists want to figure out the psychological/emotional "trigger" that allows Johnny to combust...so he says "Flame on!" and "Flame off!" which, um, doesn't really tell us much. Ben Grimm is angry and bitter about becoming the grotesque Thing, but not really in a way that seems particularly penetrating or profound (in a way, the very youth of this Ben should make him more poignant than the original, as his life is barely getting started). Even the characters' discovery of their powers seems kind of pre-ordained. I mean, they eventually leap into battle -- but why would Ben assume he was as powerful as he is? Why would Johnny think he can fly?

The creators have a check list to mark off, but that's about it.

For that matter, the Moleman, here depicted even more physically grotesque than in his original incarnation, actually is given less pathos to his origin.

There are ways the comic seems as though it's going to embellish and enrich the story, such as by detailing Reed's childhood, or throwing in a sister. A sister! Wonder where that's going to take us? But it turns out: nowhere. She disappears after the first issue.

There are cute quips and wisecracks, and maybe that's all that's needed. Maybe the creators would argue they never intended this to seem more sophisticated or "realistic" than the original FF. But if not, what's the point (and why take four issues to get to the super heroic battles)?

One can't even entirely say the comic puts a modern spin on the series. The fact that the motivation for the original FF to go into space (where they gained their powers) was simply to beat the "commies" may seem kind of goofy and right wing...but at least it reflected its time period. Here, with a story about a government think tank under the auspices of the U.S. military, experimenting with teleportation...there's little in the premise here that couldn't have been written anytime in the last forty years (in fact, the premise has echoes of the Philadelphia Experiment, one of those Bermuda Triangle/Big Foot style conspiracy legends/urban myths that sprung up in the 1970s).

I didn't dislike The Fantastic. It's visually attractive, and as a super hero origin goes, it's okay...but that's all it is. Okay. At six issues, it fails to be a thoughtful, richly detailed epic, despite the promise of the first issue. And by chronicling the team's origin, and throwing in a battle with the Moleman, the creators basically take six issues to do what Lee and Kirby...did in one.

This is a review of the story as it was serialized in the comics.

Cover price: $12.99 USA 


The Villainy of Doctor Doom 1999 (SC TPB) 176 pgs.

cover by Jack KirbyWriters: Stan Lee, John Byrne. Art: Jack Kirby, John Byrne. Inks: Chic Stone, Joe Sinnott, John Byrne.
Colours/letters: various

Reprinting: The Fantastic Four (1st series) 39, 40, 84-87, 246, 247, Annual 2 (the 12 page "Origin of Dr. Doom" story) - plus covers.

Additional notes: introduction by Marvel editor Tom Brevoort.

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Featuring various battles between the Fantastic Four and the villainous Dr. Doom, this collects three Stan Lee-Jack Kirby tales, including a short piece that was the first to fill in the background of comicdoms most notorious monarch, Dr. Doom (from Fantastic Four Annual 2). There's a two-part tale in which Doom takes control of the FF's Baxter Building home, forcing the team to invade their own H.Q. while temporarily deprived of their powers (but teamed with Daredevil); and a 4-parter in which the team confronts Doom in his homeland of Latveria. The final two-part tale jumps more than a decade and is by John Byrne, in which the FF reluctantly help Doom reclaim his throne.

The Lee-Kirby tales demonstrate the evolution in the duos style through the 1960s, as Kirby's art becomes more extravagant, utilizing bigger panels (forcing the stories to spill over more than one issue), and the characterization and ideas become a little more complex.

The 12 page origin story is intriguing, revealing Doom as a Gypsy whose later cruelty can be attributed to the persecution he experienced as a child.

The two part siege of the Baxter Building story starts out well, though it becomes a little too much of just running about, dodging booby traps and the like, and there's a little too much of the characters fawning over each other. At the same time, there is some emotional character conflict and a nicely dramatic climax between Doom and a rewly restored Thing.

The four parter is entertaining, though a little slight considering its length. The claim was that it was intended as an homage to the cult TV series, The Prisoner, which was airing around that time (and which Marvel, at one point, considered doing a comic based on). In the story the FF find themselves trapped in a seemingly idyllic village. But ultimately the "homage" aspect is minor. The story logic is pretty tenuous at times, but there's robust action and some clever scenes of Doom justifying his deeds -- scenes that chillingly echo sociopaths of all stripes. Kirby's art is beautiful -- not simply in the obvious action scenes, but even in the "talky" scenes, where his use of minor characters or body language is quite effective, adding an eerie realism (Doom standing on a chair to reach a device). And his vistas of the town are equisite (aided by Joe Sinnott's inks). While Lee's handling of the characters and interplay (particularly Ben's remarks) lends real breath to the characters. And there's a subtlty to Doom that is often lacking from his portrayal.

Though John Byrne has been heralded in some circles as the only true successor to Lee and Kirby, I'm considerably more ambivalent toward his tenure on the team. But his contribution to this collection is certainly O.K. But it's as provocative as it is...uncomfortable. Doom had been usurped in a previous story, and this was an attempt to put Doom back where he belonged as a super-villain: as a head of state. Putting forward the idea that Doom gave his people a decent standard of living at the expense of freedom, and that this might not be such an unreasonable trade, provokes interesting debate (the same has been argued of Fidel Castro). Indeed, when communism lost its stranghold on Eastern Europe after glasnost (some years after Byrne's tale)...many people in those countries actually longed for a return to the ordered rule of tyranny. But when Doom cites as one of the benefits he brought being that he kept the communists out, one can be forgiven for squirming in one's seat (partly because Byrne has developed a bit of a conservative/right wing rep in comicdom). Is Byrne, through Doom, really suggesting that crimes against humanity can be mitigated by the ideology of the perpetrator? That it's somehow better to be tortured by a fascist than a communist? Besides, despite the old joke about making the trains run on time, fascist regimes tend to be anything but efficient or prosperous. Still, more likely Byrne was just grasping at anything that would justify the premise of the FF, however reluctantly, helping Doom -- after all, it's not like his Doom suddeenly becomes a "nice" guy, being still full of bluster and murderous rage. And Doom without a nation would be like Magneto without his magnetism.

Of course, reprinting issues written years apart can demonstrate the problems in maintaining consistent continuity -- on one hand, Byrne's idea of claiming Doom brought peace and prosperity to his nation has its roots in the earlier origin tale from the FF Annual (and a panel from FF #247 -- page six -- deliberately homages a panel on the 12th page of the origin tale)...yet his claim that Doom loved and protected his people stands in contradiction to the 4-part tale reprinted here where Doom is happily prepared to sacrifice an entire village for an experiment. Another continuity glitch (though not as obvious just going by the issues here) is that in one comic reprinted here, the Thing remarks that a Latverian tavern was once the HQ of an anti-Doom resistance movement from a story later collected in The Overthrow of Doom -- yet aside from there having been no tavern, that I recall, in that story...the Thing spent most of that story in the castle, with only Reed having had any interaction with the resistance.

There's also some awkwardness to these pieces. The four parter is edited in spots, often for no good reason that I can fathom (having compared the TPB to the original issues). I don't think it makes the story incoherent, but it begs the question: why? Unless Marvel was just too cheap to spring for an extra couple of pages. And the two parter with Daredevil has the order of a couple of pages mistakenly reversed!

The main problem with collections focusing on one foe is that they can be a bit repetative. In one story, the FF are deprived of their powers and lay siege to Doom (in the Baxter Building); in another they are deprived of their powers and lay siege to Doom (in his castle) while battling an army of robots; in the final story, they lay siege to a castle and battle an army of robots. Hmmm. It's the irony of comics that recurring villains are popular, but stories with recurring villains are rarely the best -- or at least most innovative -- stories.

And why these particular stories were selected is unclear. If the book was meant to showcase Lee and Kirby, why throw in the Byrne story? If it was meant to chronicle different periods in the FF, why not include stories by more creative teams? Finally, the collection isn't called "The Fantastic Four: Villainy of Dr. Doom" (despite my placing it in my Fantastic Four section), so why focus solely on FF stories? Doom's conflicts with other heroes might have added some variety. The book could've even included reprints from Super-Villain Team Up, a 1970s comic in which Doom was paired with comicdoms most reluctant superhero, the Sub-Mariner (the only guy who's both hero and villain, sometimes at the same time) -- a comic that wasn't as lame as it soundds.

But that's judging what it ain't. Judging what it is, it's nothing classic, but reasonably entertaining, particularly for a hardcore Doom fan.

Cover price: $__ CDN./$17.95 USA.
 

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