Not-Yet-But-Soon: “FF #15” Harnesses the Drama of Reading Comics

I think something got broken on the inside of me, since last winter’s Fantastic Four #587, but broken in that way that ultimately ends in growth rather than limitation. Broken like how Hemingway meant it when he said, “The world breaks everyone and after many are strong in the broken places”. You’ll remember this issue well, you’ve heard about it, even if you never read a page of Fantastic Four your entire life. This was the issue that Johnny Storm faced unbelievable odds, the entirety of the Annihilation Wave, while trapped in the Negative Zone. There was no way he could survive the onslaught. When that issue closed, on that last page (stark and black), we saw the Fantastic Four logo we all know so well, and a single title. Well not the logo we know so well, not at all that logo of the peerless blue “4” appearing against a bold white circle, ringed around with an even bolder blue band. No…this logo was of a different character. A “3” appeared, and below the logo we read the bleakness of the moment in every letter of that title: “The Last Stand of Johnny Storm”. Hemingway echoes, those sublime piano chords from Kanye’s “Runaway” play as soundtrack.

The moment was as powerful as any. Johnny Storm and Ben Grimm, half of the Fantastic Four, as well as the entire class of schoolkids from Reed Richard’s Future Foundation found themselves trapped on the upper floors of the Baxter Building as the Annihilation Wave poured out of the Negative Zone. This was a full-scale invasion. And the only way to shut it down was from the other side. As Ben cowboyed up to remain behind and shut down the gate, Johnny sucker-punched him, trading places. Ben was left in our universe, holding the children as they say the last moments of Johnny’s life play out.

“When you see Reed…tell him…tell him this is where I made my stand”, Johnny had said in parting. Harking back to an interaction Johnny and Reed had had in the closing pages of “Prime Elements”. Reed talking about unexpected changes within the Fantastic Four, within each member of the team and within Reed and Sue’s children. A change that would no doubt come to Johnny also, and soon. That change played out to magnificent effect in “The Last Stand of Johnny Storm”.

But despite that magnificence, my undermind reached for something darker. Why would my thoughts return to Wally Wood’s suicide? The anger and frustration Woody must have felt at what he perceived as Marvel and DC stifling his genius (no doubt his work was genius, think of the “22 Panels That Always Work”), the anger and frustration that drove him to mounting a plaque on the wall of his studio, “There’s only one Wally Wood and I’m him!”, those seem to be the exact opposite of the sheer resilience Fantastic Four writer Jonathan Hickman scripts for Johnny Storm in the last moments of his life. So why return to Wally Wood?

Maybe because it is the opposite. Something written by Stephen Elliott recently on The Daily Rumpus might hold some clues, a piece titled “Luck”. This is a deeply personal account of a human being treating himself, and his past with kindness and compassion. A human being writing himself free from something. I’m humbled each time I read it. “I’ll spell out the moral of this story”, Stephen writes, “When I left my home and began sleeping in broom closets and rooftops things started getting better. I have the scars of six suicide attempts from that year. Were they real attempts? Here’s a secret, there’s no such thing as a suicide attempt that isn’t real. Still it was an improvement on the place I left. It was dismal, but better. I never once in my life regretted leaving home. And the mental hospital was better than the street, and the group home was better than that. For ten years, just about everyday was better than the one that came before it.

“That kind of success breeds optimism and self-esteem and you start to look at yourself as a person that makes good decisions… It was the best lesson to learn. I needed just that much luck to get to a place where I could survive. It was a false lesson. It turns out it’s all cycles. You go up and down, things work and then they don’t and then they do again. When you convince yourself things won’t get better you’re in trouble, and you’re wrong. It’s just that things will also get worse”.

There’s such a strong backbeat of resilience to Stephen’s writing that I’m actually filled with a sense of loss. What if Woody had lived. What if he had lived to complete his long-promised History of War? How much richer would we all have been for Woody just having lived? The Hunter S. Thompson who shot himself a handful of days after George W. took the Oath of Office for a second time (are those two events really connected in the way that all the critics and commentators and friends and family seem to have suggested), is also the HST who missed the 2008 election, a generationally-definitional moment for the country. Suicide is a thief that steals from us all, as a species.

So when Freud writes that suicidal impulses are how children mature themselves, that suicidal patterns of repetition are there in the games that children play to amuses themselves, because of a deep psychological need, I reject that statement, and so do you, with the anger and the temerity and the derision that it deserves. There’s no intellectual argument to be made and won here. Rational argumentation is how Freud slips between the cracks and ingratiates himself into polite society.

But how do I really refute Freud? I read and I reread Hickman’s FF #15, each reading another step away from the hatred and the disgust and the violence Freud’s thinking seems to visit on humans as a species.

Although the issue is titled “The One Where Power Pack Shows Up”, this issue is told from the point of view of Franklin Richards, the Mutant child of Reed Richards and Susan Storm-Richards, who is just now rediscovering his reality-warping powers. And also from the point of view of an omniscient narrator. There is a moment, about half the way through, where Franklin breaks through the Fourth Wall (well maybe not Fourth Wall, but whichever Wall separates the characters from the omniscient narrator). This moment shows a single mastery of the medium of comics. But also a mastery of the self that undoes the polluting intellectualism of Freud.

When you read comics how do you read them? I don’t think there’s a way to read comics without it ending in Stephen’s false lesson, that “That kind of success breeds optimism and self-esteem and you start to look at yourself as a person that makes good decisions…”. But while it might be a false lesson for life when based on luck, this lesson certainly is true for the kind of mastery and self-reliance and sheer resilience that is fostered with reading comics. To read comics is to be thrown headlong into a state of panic. Which narrative flow will you follow, image or text? To read comics is to understand that each moment in each narrative flow is incomplete, and that only the entirety of that narrative flow will provide you with answers. Even worse, one narrative flow alone won’t do it, to read comics is to be fully aware that being immersed in one narrative flow also means being excluded from the other (you can only really pay attention to one thing at a time). To read comics is to be immersed in one panel in one narrative flow at any given moment, but also to sense the fractionated nature of that moment. To read comics is also to yearn for that defractionated moment, when, after reading all that you have, you can finally assemble all those parts for yourself, and construct a single story for yourself. To read comics is to be immersed perpetually in a sense of Not-Yet-But-Soon. To read comics, is to read yourself free, to read yourself into resilience. And there’s no better example of this, than the story of a boy, on the cusp of being overwhelmed by vast, fantastical things, harnesses the power of comics for himself and his readers.

This isn’t the first time the omniscient narrator appears. We’ve seen him before, drawn by Farel Dalrymple, written by Jonathan Hickman, in the backup story “Remember” that appears in Fantastic Four #600. This time appearing as a whited-out character, not the omniscient narrator who speaks through caption boxes, he provides a challenge to Franklin and Franklin’s buddy Leech. Franklin had made a baby universe, where he and Leech go to play superhero. It’s only after dozens of times of this play that the Narrator appears. “Playtime’s becoming predictably, isn’t it?”, the Narrator cautions, “Just twisty versions of everything we’ve seen before…We can do better than that”.

The Narrator shows Franklin the universe he’s created, and it is spectacular. Leech, awed by this, calls Franklin a god. And then the change happens inside Franklin, the good change, the growth. “I’m just a little boy, with a big imagination”, Franklin says. “Actually you’re too much of the one, and not enough of the other”, the Narrator rejoins. “That’s why we’re going to practice, everyday…Because if you can make everything, you can make everything better”.

Because if you can make everything, you can make everything better. By what mechanism can everything be made better? Months later, in this most recent issue of FF, Hickman harnesses the internal drama of reading comics to explain exactly those powers of resilience and self-mastery that is required for breaking the Not-Yet-Fourth-Wall, and making everything better.

RATING 10 / 10