Fantastic Four #1: The greatest adventure of all
Image credit: "Artgerm" Stanley Lau
We are adventurers. And we’re on the greatest adventure of all. Being part of a family.
And with these words from Susan Storm-Richards, Dan Slott sets the tone for the most momentous comics event of the year: the return of The Fantastic Four.
Heart before head
Slott has a tough task, plotting the revitalization of Fantastic Four. His work on the series will be judged not only by its own intrinsic merit, but also by whether or not it adequately fulfills the longing of any particular fan. How do you kick off something like this? That quote from Sue may as well be Slott's mission statement.
The FF have faced many colorful villains, and visited many exotic locales since their introduction in 1961, but the one constant theme throughout the years has been family—the hurt and the joy of it. We've seen members of the team quit, (seemingly) die, marry, have kids, find love. We've seen bitter partings and tear-filled reunions, the former most recently in Hickman and Ribic's Secret Wars. There, some of the family was spared, but we said goodbye—for years—to Reed, Sue, and their children. We have been due that tear-filled reunion, and while Slott and Pichelli only bring us most of the way there, the writing is on the wall—or perhaps, on a patch of space between the Earth and the Moon—and we know what's coming.
But even though the actual reunion has been saved for issue #2, Slott and Pichelli give us plenty of what we've been missing. In fact, I would argue that delaying the actual reunion was the right call. Not everyone has been reading Chip Zdarsky's run on Marvel Two-in-One, so not everyone has seen the pain and the guilt on Ben Grimm's face. Not everyone has felt the hopelessness creep in. Fantastic Four #1 reminds us of the pain of that loss from all the way back in Secret Wars. Johnny is in denial, Ben is lost, and the entire world has a dull ache in their hearts where the First Family used to reside.
We all lose family. We all struggle between denial and acceptance. We lose family, and then we carry on with the family that's left, sometimes expanding that family along the way. Slott writes this tug-of-war, and this resolve to live on, beautifully. Ben and Johnny sound authentically like themselves—an important thing, to be sure—but their emotions also feel genuine. I think back to the incredibly moving moments in Jonathan Hickman's run when Johnny stranded himself in the Negative Zone for the sake of the kids, and Slott and Pichelli measure up to that high bar here. This is a different scenario, and the swirl of emotions is of a different composition; but it is nevertheless just as moving.
Pichelli's aesthetic—particularly for Ben—was arresting at first. I loved her work with Miles Morales, and I think she's a first-rate artist; but her version of The Thing wasn't what I was seeing in my head. Her storytelling won me over, though, immersing me in the emotional struggle. Ben's posture and facial expressions are pitch-perfect, even if some of his shape and proportions aren't my favorite takes. And I am getting used to those things, too.
The inking is done by Pichelli herself, with some assists by Elisabetta D'Amico. I think D'Amico might have handled a few pages where Johnny is enjoying a baseball game with roomie (and long time friend of the FF) Wyatt Wingfoot, as well as some of the later pages with Ben and Alicia Master, and while the work on those pages isn't objectively bad, I prefer the cleaner, smoother lines in the rest of the story. And as much as I love Pichelli's style, I still kind of wish that more comics—including this one—took a more old-school approach to ink and color. I love the high-contrast, black-shadow approach, and Marvel largely seems to have moved on from that. The book still looks great, and this is completely about my own personal preference, but there you go.
Speaking of the color, Marte Gracia Is about as good as it gets in this sort of paradigm. I whine a lot about the overuse of reflective light in modern rendering, but Gracia doesn't fall into that trap. Neither is he afraid to keep things simple—the aforementioned pages at the baseball game, for example. Overall, this book just looks, well, fantastic, even if it took me a second read to begin warming up to some of the elements.
Letters for this issue are provided by the excellent Joe Caramagna. He does just fine on the dialogue, but he also has some tasty visual touches with personalized caption boxes for each of the Four, as well as some stylized shouting and singing that I really dig.
There's a backup story, too, and once again, I think Slott nails it. Joined by Simone Bianchi and Marco Russo, he wastes no time returning Dr. Doom to his rightful place as the brutal ruler of Latveria. The stage is now set for the inevitable collision between he and his old nemesis, Reed Richards, and I couldn't be happier. I'm not nuts about Bianchi's finishes, which often lack fidelity; but the layouts are positively outstanding, lending a sense of high drama perfectly fitting for Doom. I cannot wait to see him square off with the FF again. I'm hoping for some interaction between he and Valeria, as well—that's always a lot of fun.
I have a love/hate relationship with the bonus backup page. I love Skottie Young's artwork and the sound of the dialogue. But I hate the preemptive apology/assurance. There's nothing wrong with the way Slott decided to hold off on the reunion proper, so it isn't necessary to justify that decision. And if it did need justification, then the better solution would have been a different story in the main portion of the book. It was just kind of weird.
No book is perfect, and Fantastic Four #1 is no exception. There isn't enough narrative between Johnny's acceptance and the delicious, Sweet Christmas rekindling of hope, so that moment of acceptance is deprived of its full weight; and, for a #1, this book has a high barrier of entry for newcomers, who won't feel the same depth of emotion as the rest of us. But in spite of these shortcomings, I couldn't have hoped for a better return for these characters and this series. This feels like the FF through and through, and the reunion, though delayed, is right around the corner. And once it comes—once Reed, Sue, Ben, and Johnny again stand side-by-side—we will at last see what we have longed for in these dull, aching years—the greatest adventure of all.