Thursday, May 08, 2008

Made Me Quit (Adventureblog Edition): Fantastic Four

Siskoid's Blog of Geekery has a cool feature called "Made Me Quit" (the most recent one is here) in which he talks about the final straws that got him to stop reading comics series he was no longer enjoying.

I thought about that feature a lot as I was reading the most recent issue of Fantastic Four.

When I started regularly reading comics in high school, I was a fan of the characters. Who was writing or drawing a comic were secondary considerations to who the comic was about. As long as it had a member of Alpha Flight in it, I bought it. After a while I got into the X-Men and I had to have all the comics about them too. I still have some of that in me. Any comic that features Alpha Flight (or Wonder Woman, Shang Chi, Black Canary, etc.) is going to at least get my attention.

But after a while I started realizing that just because a comic had my favorite characters in it that didn't mean it was good. I should've learned that lesson as soon as John Byrne left Alpha Flight, but I didn't. Eventually I figured it out though, and I started buying comics based on who created them.

I should've known better than that too. I mean, I loved John Byrne's Alpha Flight and Next Men, but I didn't care at all for his work on Wonder Woman. I loved Denny O'Neil's first thirty issues of Azrael, but after that it became apparent that he'd told the story he started out to tell and was keeping the series going anyway. I guess I'm a slow learner.

But I finally learned too that just because I love Brian K. Vaughan's The Hood or Y: The Last Man doesn't mean I'm also going to love his Ex Machina. Or just because Bill Willingham rules the universe on Fables doesn't mean that I'm going to dig the way he writes Batman comics. In fact, I can't think of a single writer or visual artist where I've loved absolutely every single thing he or she has ever created. Nor can I think of a single writer or visual artist where he or she has loved absolutely every single thing they've ever created. Art just doesn't work that way.

So these days, I'm more into "runs." I'm looking for that combination of creators who absolutely get the characters they're working with. That happens all the time in independent, creator-owned comics, but it's rare in the work-for-hire superhero world. Every once in a while though you'll get Stan Lee and Jack Kirby on The Fantastic Four. Or Stan Lee on Spider-Man. Or Jim Shooter and then Paul Levitz on Legion of Super-Heroes. Or Walt Simonson on Thor. Or Chris Claremont on X-Men (at least during the first go-'round). Or Frank Miller on Daredevil. Or Neal Adams on Batman. Or David Michelinie and Bob Layton on Iron Man. Or Mark Waid on The Flash. Or Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting on Captain America. Or Greg Pak on Hulk. Or Jeff Parker on Agents of Atlas and X-Men: First Class. Or Gail Simone on Birds of Prey and Wonder Woman.

That's a long list, but there are so many others I could mention. Those are the great superhero comics and they're the standard I'm trying to use these days. I'm trying imperfectly, because dang it I do like Alpha Flight and Black Canary, but I'm trying. I even passed up a recent issue of Marvel Adventures Iron Man because it made Alpha Flight look stupid and amateurish. I wouldn't have cared a few years ago. I'd have had to have it anyway just because it was them. These days, I try to have standards.

Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch's Fantastic Four doesn't meet those standards. This most recent issue has a few examples of why that is, which is why it's my last issue of the series until a new team comes on. And that's kind of ironic, because Millar's Civil War was at least part of the reason I started reading Fantastic Four in the first place. I'd always sort of liked the Thing and the Invisible Woman, but it was Millar's horribly out-of-character writing of Reed Richards in Civil War that made me curious about checking out FF to see how the Invisible Woman would respond to him.

When Dwayne McDuffie took over the book after Civil War, I stuck with it and was glad I did because McDuffie's an idea machine and filled the series with lots of cool, crazy adventures. The Michael Turner covers were a drawback, but I could deal with those to get at McDuffie's stories.

Millar and Hitch though are doing some things that I really hate. Their story has a cool idea at its core though. A think tank of scientists has constructed a duplicate of Earth so that when the real version is inevitably destroyed humanity has a place to go to. Of course the scientists can't help but make a few "improvements" as long as they're starting from scratch, so they build in some rules and safeguards to make sure that they'll have ultimate power in the new world. It's an interesting twist on the old take-over-the-world scheme and it would be really snazzy if Millar and Hitch weren't taking so doggone long to unfold it.

Their dragging it out isn't even one of my big problems with it though. Millar's writing always seems to be winking at the audience and saying, "Yes, I know superheroes are dumb kid stuff, but I'll make it all realistic for you and we can pretend it's grown-up. But we all really know it's not."

His use of the term "costume" to describe superheroes is an example of that. Any time I hear that or "cape" or "tights" to describe superheroes, I hear a writer who's really not comfortable in the genre. He's not embracing it, so he's got to poke a little fun at one of the tropes - the superhero costume.

But you know what? Superheroes are dumb kid stuff. That doesn't mean adults can't enjoy it. I think we should. But then, I also like The Wiggles. There's absolutely nothing wrong with grown-ups liking some kid stuff. And I don't even have a problem with superhero comics that cover some heavy themes. But damn it, Millar, if you can't call a superhero a superhero with a straight face, you should find something else to write about.

I'd cut Millar some slack if this was somehow in character for Johnny Storm to speak derogatorily of his profession, but as irreverent a character as he is, he doesn't strike me as the kind of guy who's embarrassed by what he does.

He is in Millar's Fantastic Four though. Last issue, he tried to tell a cute supervillain that he's not really a crimefighter. And while technically he's not (the Fantastic Four are really a family of adventurers, not vigilantes), he's certainly done more than his share of fighting crime over the years and I don't understand his quibbling over the semantics in the middle of a fight.

Of course, I also don't get why he'd rather sleep with a cute supervillain and let her go in the morning than put her behind bars, but Millar has him doing that too.

Okay, wait, I do get why he'd rather do that. I just don't buy that he actually would. Especially the letting her go in the morning part.

Enough about Johnny. The rest of my problem has to do with what happens when the Nu-World scientists' secret weapon gets loose on the real Earth. Again, the weapon is a cool idea. It's a giant robot called Conserve and Protect; CAP for short, and it's even painted to look like Captain America. But it's an idea that's presented in as dull and boring a manner as possible.

When the Fantastic Four (minus Reed Richards, who's off planet at the time) are called in to battle the robot, they go in expecting to join forty of the biggest hitting superheroes in the Marvel Universe. When they don't see any of the others, they and their think tank liaison call in to check up. "Where are they?" they ask.

"What are you talking about?" comes the response. "They got there about eight minutes ago."

So, the Fantastic Four look around and see this:

Look who's there lying unconscious. There are some lightweights, but you also have Storm, Ares, Iron Man, the Vision, Wonder Man, Ms. Marvel, and the freaking Sentinel. I don't care how tough CAP is supposed to be, it should've taken a lot longer than eight minutes to put down any one of that group. And even - just to give Millar the benefit of the doubt - if CAP could take them all out so fast and so easily, why the heck didn't we get to see it? I certainly would rather have seen three pages of that fight than three pages of Johnny Storm getting yelled at by his manager for missing band practice. I mean, honestly.

But then again, when the heroes regain consciousness and resume the fight, this incomprehensible mess is what we get:

I can't tell what's going on there, but I'm starting to figure out why we don't get more pages of fighting. There's no choreography; it's just a bunch of superheroes flying around, some of whom are unconvincingly attacking the robot. We get one other panel of the fight beside this one and it's just as bad. Millar and Hitch are faking it and they're not even faking it well.

And then on the next page, they quit even trying to fake it and just have some guys in a room describe the rest of the fight.

That's Mr. Fantastic on the speaker by the way. Fresh back from outer space and rarin' to go. That's right, ladies and gentlemen. The giant robot has kicked the butt of every single Marvel hero there is off panel, but now we're supposed to get excited because Mr. Fantastic is on the way.

I'm so done.


Siskoid said...

Millar's FF falls in the category of "I won't even flip through it at the store." Glad to see my instinct isn't wrong.

I started reading FF in the middle of Byrne's run whose Alpha Flight I equally liked, but if I didn't do a Made Me Quit feature on it, it's because I'm almost ashamed to say, I quit in the middle of Walt Simonson's run. Nothing to do with the book, actually. I was just dropping multiple books and the entire Marvel Universe was the casualty. Even the better stuff.

I like your essay. Runs are definitely the way to go, especially these days when comics are no longer 60¢ (75¢ Can). But comics fans of the 80s (like us) have title loyalty bred into us. Comics were relatively cheap and there weren't as many titles available from, I presume, newstands. So you bought most of what was out there, and you weren't really aware of who was writing what, etc.

My experiences with book loyalty, and later even creator loyalty, are very much like yours.

Michael May said...

"...comics fans of the 80s (like us) have title loyalty bred into us."

I hadn't thought of it in those terms, but you're exactly right.

chris said...

I won't touch a Millar book either, thank you for pointing out the reasons why.

I really dislike the references to "costumes" and such, and you just described the underlying attitude perfectly. Plus that "fight scene" is awful. Marvel dropped the ball letting McDuffie go.

(Oh, Ex Machina is getting better and better now that Y: The Last Man is over and Vaughan can concentrate on it more. Try it again. My two cents.)

Michael May said...

Thanks for the recommendation on a second Ex Machina look. Especially for not telling me I'm crazy for not liking it. :)

When it first came out I was looking for reasons NOT to buy new books, but felt like I had to give anything by Vaughan a shot. When it didn't immediately grab me, I was actually sort of relieved.

Maybe I'll take that Fantastic Four money and send it Ex Machina's way. :)


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