Even Reed Richards, the ultra-rational, strangely avuncular Man of Science seems wizened.
Artist Bryan Hitch’s skilled lies in demonstrating how the Fantastic Four have aged. In World’s Greatest, his first collaboration with writer Mark Millar since their critically-acclaimed run on The Ultimates, Hitch shows readers a Four who have just barely weathered the years.
There are the familiar touchstones, of course.
At the story’s opening, a train from 1855 comes crashing into the Baxter Building. Aboard are Marvel’s First Family, sans Human Torch. A holiday planned for the Disneyland opening of 1955 has just gone awry. Hitch’s art proves so immersive it provides a detailed story of its own. Reed Richards, the eponymous Mr. Fantastic, stretches to save his son Franklin. Sue, shields their daughter Val with an invisible force-field. And Ben Grimm, unable find any part of the rickety train sturdy enough to secure his massive bulk, goes hurtling through the air. An almost silent “aww crap” escapes his lips as he falls.
But beyond these anticipated Fantastic Four visual “genre”, Hitch introduces a vibrant new vision of the Four that comes with them having aged. Even in the features of the eternally youthful Johnny Storm, fine wrinkles have begun to set in. His outrageous teenage years are far behind him. Susan Storm-Richards, his elder sister, settles into her role as matriarch of the clan. In Hitch’s hands it becomes plausible that she has begun approaching forty. Still visually captivating, but now more subtly elegant than openly provocative. Even Ben Grimm, the Thing, seems more rounded, the edges of his rock-hard skin having chipped away over the years. And his features have softened
This then, is not the media-sexy Fantastic Four readers would have seen in recent movies. Not the Fantastic Four with a Johnny Storm that stuns fictional audiences at X-Games, or where Reed and Sue have their nuptials broadcast live on E! Entertainment Channel. This vision of the Four is one where the Pioneers Of Imagination have become homesteaders on the frontier of tomorrow. There’s a sly usualness to everything at the opening of “World’s Greatest”, one that is sustained through the book’s second storyarc, “The Death of the Invisible Woman”. Just as readers would have, the Fantastic Four themselves have seen it all.
Hitch offers readers even more.
Beyond the visual feast of seeing the superheroes having ‘grown older together’, he articulates the story of the Fantastic Four as a comics of angles. The visual text of the story is replete with Dutch tilts, bird- and worm-eye views and sweeping foreshortening. Characters fall through the air, speed by near-as-makes-no-difference stationary onlookers, soar high above the Manhattan skyline. Hitch taps the same energetic vein as such legendary illustrators as Jack Kirby or Carmine Infantino. But like Frank Miller’s Daredevil, he suffuses the comics with modern relevance. Just as Miller’s Daredevil was of the 1980’s, so is Hitch’s vision of the Four equally a vision of the millennium.
While the artwork revitalizes the underlying principles that made Kirby’s original Fantastic Four so engaging, writer Mark Millar offers a profound shift in the direction adopted by Stan Lee. Arch-nemesis Victor von Doom appears as epilogue to the first storyarc. But what seems as stage-setting for a major conflict ends ignominiously with Doom’s capture by a shadowy cabal of fugitives. Galactus, the planet-devouring space tyrant, makes an appearance. But in Millar’s hands, he too is relegated to being no more that a plot device.
But Millar’s skill lies in his simple refusal to reheat well-worn story clichés.
Just as he invigorated The Avengers by presenting a cohesive theme of superheroes-as-A-list-superstars with The Ultimates, he offers Fantastic Four as an essay on superheroes in a media-saturated world. The real villains of the piece prove to be Reed’s college sweetheart and a group of renegade time-traveling superheroes. But behind even this, is the threat of global ecological disaster. Reed’s former crush and her angel investor husband have designed a second earth as haven in case of ecological devastation. The renegade superheroes exodus from the future to escape a resource-depleted earth. For Millar then, the villain pales against the motivations behind villainy.
Millar presents something new, and infinitely engaging; superheroes facing the cultural ramifications of global disaster. And in presenting this vision of the Fantastic Four, he presents the very heart of their story. Fantastic Four was never about confronting Galactus, or Doom, or the Mole Men from the Negative Dimension. Fantastic Four was always about the small folds of human life, even in the face of galactic-level threats, and unending adventure.