Comics

Through-Narrative: "Fantastic Four #10"

Since leaving Earth, the adventures through spacetime seemed random, even arbitrary. But in this issue, Matt Fraction writes out his great reveal--cluing us in to what Mr. Fantastic's reason for visiting each of these different cosmic locales…


Fantastic Four #10

Publisher: Marvel
Length: 22 pages
Writer: Matt Fraction, Mark Bagley
Price: $3.99
Publication Date: 2013-09
Amazon

"Self-Evident Truths!," the tenth issue of Fantastic Four brushes up against the uniquely American promise of Walt Whitman, as well the suicidally egocentric brio of Harry Houdini, even if it does so in the most elaborate way. It's not simply the case that uniquely American values are tapped by the Fantastic Four traveling back in time to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Rather, it is the hopefulness and the resilient optimism that the Signing represents that writer Matt Fraction taps into.

Fraction has been writing Fantastic Four since the series' soft-reboot with Marvel NOW! late last year. The book has presented him with a very different kind of conceptual challenge to his previous mainstream superhero book, Invincible Iron Man. While Tony Stark's Iron Man has always been dependably predictable in his transgressive nature (dependably vice-ridden, dependably driven, dependably genius), Reed Richards' Mr. Fantastic has always suffered under a philosophical problem ushered in by the Silver Age--can anyone be a superhero?

In the pre-atomic culture of the Golden Age, when comicbooks as much told the story of burgeoning urbanization as of superheroes, the heroes' alter egos were themselves spectacular. Batman wasn't only Batman, he was a millionaire playboy. As a newspaperman, Superman's Clark Kent was on the cutting edge of current affairs. Wonder Woman wasn't only an Amazon princess, but an intelligence analyst for the Department of Defense. But a philosophical problem that the superhero genre wrestled with after the War, and one that lingered right to the birth of the Silver Age in the 60s, was whether or not alter ego could be an actual "secret" identity. Spider-Man was nothing more than a kid with special powers. What's worse, his heroic deeds were the target of a smear-campaign by the city's number one daily newspaper. Thor, the physically imposing Viking god of Thunder was a physically challenged physician "in real life." And Mr. Fantastic was a father.

It was a calculated risk that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby took in scripting Mr. Fantastic particularly in the role of fatherhood. Golden Age comicbooks seemed to rely on boyhood power fantasies--Superman, Batman, represented what all of us might yet become. But who would want to imagine themselves already married to girl of their dreams, and mentoring two "foster-children" in the persons of their best friend from college and their brother-in-law?

While erstwhile Fantastic Four scribe Jonathan Hickman focused on the grand-scale space opera that seems to be the unique legacy of Jack Kirby, current writer Fraction has taken a different path altogether. What Fraction offers is an ongoing and engaging drama about a family, while not facing imminent meltdown, that is however forced into a more traditional structure than any one member, including Mr. Fantastic, may be comfortable with.

The basic premise that Fraction ushered in all the way back in the first issue of this Marvel NOW! phase of the Four, was the notion that the "unstable molecules" that gave the Fantastic Four their powers was now entering into a state of molecular decay. This wouldn't signal the end of the Four as superheroes, but the end of the Four themselves. As a consequence, Reed Richards packs up the original Fantastic Four and his children Franklin and Valeria, and undertakes a cosmic roadtrip through all spacetime to search for a cure.

But since leaving Earth, the adventures through spacetime seemed random, even arbitrary. We've seen the Four travel to a world that behaves like a carnivore, to the assassination of Julius Caesar, to the rebirth of Viktor von Doom as the supervillain Dr. Doom. It is only in this issue, an issue that comes some nine months on, that Fraction writes out his great reveal--cluing us in to what Mr. Fantastic's reason for visiting each of these different cosmic locales was.

And it is in this issue that Fraction's vision of Marvel's First Family is made abundantly clear. Fraction's project for the Fantastic Four scans as a success, not merely from this one issue, but from the accumulation of narrative and theme that was evidenced over the past 10 months. Fraction's treatment of the Fantastic Four, in contradistinction to Hickman's which focused on a Kirby-esque ascension of the (super-)human into the cosmos that is already an ecosystem rife with post-terrestrial life, is a focus on the family. In this regard, Fraction offers a seductively incisive take on the nature of family drama. We've seen families that work as convivial units, we've seen the Huxtables. We've also seen families in breakdown, we've seen the Simpsons and the Osbournes. But what we haven't yet seen is a family forced into a more traditional family structure, without the family unit itself in crisis. And it's this take on the Fantastic Four that has allowed Fraction to produce a sublime vision of Mr. Fantastic himself, one that is fraught with almost the same power and risk of the original Lee-Kirby vision.

Because of the risk faced by the Four, because it's a risk that Mr. Fantastic has himself refused to share with his family, he's trapped himself in a sterner, more authoritarian kind of fatherhood. This is the "let-things-spiral-as-they-may-I'll-survive-or-bounce-back-or-evolve" roll of the dice kind of attitude that Iron Man's Tony Stark usually leaves himself open to. With this problem, the stakes are too high for the entire Fantastic Four, perhaps even for Franklin and Valeria. This is a measured, slow-to-react Mr. Fantastic, who has shouldered far too much responsibility and is now just a few short steps ahead of a critical implosion.

What Fraction has offered us is a vision of Mr. Fantastic at the strange crossway between Walt Whitman's optimism, and an unapologetic belief in established identity being the equal of whatever challenges might come, and the suicidal brio of Harry Houdini who invited his loved ones to watch him perform escapes during which he could easily have died. It's the idea that Fraction offers identity as a kind of through-narrative, and as a meta-theme for the Fantastic Four that makes Fraction's vision of the characters so alluring. Added to that, a postmodern nod with which Fraction refuses to employ the idea of through-narrative in transmedia terms, or in co-promotional terms (as described in Morgan Spurlock's beautiful Pom Wonderful Presents: the Greatest Movie Ever Sold), and instead insists on focusing on the comicbook and the family itself.

For these reasons Fantastic Four #10 comes with substantial praise.

7

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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