It’s both strange and wonderful that Jonathan Hickman can find deep drama in a place where there should be no drama. Especially so, given the scope of this particular issue, the sheer number of moving moments from the previous major storyarc, “Forever”, and the state of society when Hickman began this project.
Issue #607 sees the new Fantastic Four storyarc, “Inert”, begin. As with “Forever”, the events and incidents that unfold to effect the Fantastic Four will be paralleled in FF, the other Hickman-written title that details the secret lives of the Fantastic Four children and their cohorts. “Inert” sees Reed Richards honoring a request from longtime friend and fellow superhero, the Black Panther. T’challa, the Black Panther and erstwhile the king of the African nation of Wakanda, is now betrothed to X-Men alum Storm, or more correctly now Princess Ororo. Princess Shuri, T’challa’s sister and herself a Black Panther, now sits upon the Wakandan throne.
A plague has beset Wakanda, the details of which T’challa is tight-lipped about, but insistent that only Reed’s help will suffice. The issue opens the storyarc apprehensively, with Reed and T’challa discussing the nature of precious resources, and the respective roles of their homelands, the US and Wakanda, in an increasingly plausible G-Zero world.
In contradiction to the Subsaharan Africa we encounter in the popular media, Wakanda is more like China, or like the US itself prior to the Day of Infamy, when isolationism seemed likely or perhaps even preferable. “We’re not peasants who fell backwards into wealth, Reed”, T’challa offers. And with that single, simple line, Hickman corrects decades of misperception, and offers the true power of Panther-creator Jack Kirby’s vision.
As the mythology goes, Wakanda is rich beyond measure, owing to its possession of the rare mineral vibranium. This rare metal that has formed the basis not only of Wakandan wealth, but of Wakandan culture. It is by vibranium that Wakandans first made contact with the supernatural entities, the Panther Gods. And vibranium that the original Black Panthers were empowered. “We stood alone, while Rome burned,” T’challa reminds Reed, “We’ve always been a nation on the horizon….”
And now, vibranium has gone inert, neutralizing whatever usefulness the already meager stores might have held. But even Reed makes the mistake of thinking that he was requested to Wakanda to help solve the problem of vibranium going inert. Decades ago already, T’challa had begun selling off vibranium and recapitalizing Wakanda. A diverse portfolio of bonds, including the purchase of masses of US debt, now ensures that Wakanda will remain that nation on the horizon.
The problem plaguing T’challa, and the nation of Wakanda, seems to be their connection with the preternatural. And not completely understanding how he has come here to help, Reed launches into a vision-quest with T’challa.
It’s poignant to read Hickman writing about the financial success and the cultural ascendancy of a place that often scans as a throwaway place in the popular imagination. Particularly given Hickman’s own background on Fantastic Four. Hickman began writing the book in the darkest days of the recent financial crisis—in 2009, when the first blows had been landed, but we didn’t yet know if we’d made it through. To read Hickman writing this now, while the Eurozone teeters on the brink of a financial collapse that might signal the worst backslide in human history, is as moving as anything.
It hauntingly reasserts the deep, meaningful storyarc with which Hickman kicked off his run on Fantastic Four, “Solve Everything”. “Solve Everything” was written in those darkest of months, and it saw Hickman craft a story beyond the financial crisis (imposing as it seemed at that point), a story about the structural failings that seem almost pre-engineered into human society.
But it’s also poignant to read Hickman find a moment of high drama here, at a point in the traditional adventure tale where the heroes would usually band together to explore the id-wracked African landscape. Instead, Hickman finds a moment of high drama by recasting Africa as the homeland of tomorrow, and an African prince undoing biased preconceptions of his home.
It’s for those reasons I’m intrigued by Fantastic Four’s “Inert”. For those, and perhaps one other. Over the years now, Hickman has crafted such fine moments of human drama. We’ve seen that terse defiance of Ben Grimm in last month’s “Adventures in Red”. “A miracle…,” Ben said when Willy Lumpkin was diagnosed as inoperable “Does that guy have any idea who he’s talking to?” We’ve seen Reed’s long voyage forward in time to see Ben die thousands of years into the future. We’ve seen Sue look to the sky, and Franklin contact his future self, both in “Forever”. We’ve seen “The Last Stand of Johnny Storm” in the magnificent “Three”.
How will Hickman surpass or even conserve the emotional momentum those moments? And yet, with an opening as powerful as this one to “Inert”, surpassing those moments already seems certain.