It feels weird reading this when I still haven’t finished Jonathan Hickman’s run on the title (the last volumes of “FF” and “Fantastic Four” will be arriving in June and July, respectively). However, Marvel has decided to be more judicious with their premiere hardcover line so we’re getting this first collection of Matt Fraction’s take on the franchise now. Some of you may recall that I was looking forward to picking up spinoff title “FF” instead of “Fantastic Four” itself as the former has art by the incredible Mike Allred and a quirky storyline -- Ant-Man, She-Hulk, Medusa of the Inhumans, and Johnny Storm’s girlfriend Darla Deering stand in for the team -- that looked to play to his strengths. As for the main title, it was going to feature art from the ever-reliable Mark Bagley as the family left on a year-long expedition to the far reaches of the galaxy.
In what is one of the company’s best marketing ideas in some time, they’ve collected the first three issues of both titles here. So if you’re like me and were planning on skipping one while buying the other, you get to see them both and maybe find something to like about that title you weren’t interested in. Having read both now, I can say that while Fraction/Bagley isn’t bad, Fraction/Allred is the real deal here.
You’d think that nearly being eaten by a dinosaur 2.6-million years in the past would be the worst thing that could happen to someone in any given day, but it runs a distant second for Reed Richards today. During that encounter, he sustained an actual injury to his arm and made the disturbing realization that the unstable molecules which grant him and his family their superpowers are starting to decay and will likely take him along with them. So to make sure that doesn’t happen, he decides to explore the unknown universes with Sue, Johnny, Ben, Franklin and Valeria after telling them that this will be a fantastic science expedition. Now where do Ant-Man, She-Hulk, Medusa and Darla come in? Through the magic of time-travel, Reed only expects to be gone for four minutes; but, for the sake of preparedness he asks his family to find their replacements while they’re gone for that time. No points for guessing whether or not they wind up taking over things for longer than four minutes.
I’ll say this, Fraction has an unenviable task in trying to follow Hickman’s stellar run. Even if he manages to completely drop the ball in his final two volumes, Hickman told a compelling story with epic stakes and made the characters interesting to me in a way that no one really had before. Fraction is more of a down-to-earth guy who tends to do his best work when he’s out of the spotlight and not driving a major franchise. See “Casanova,” “The Immortal Iron Fist,” and “Hawkeye” for examples of this, though I will concede that “Invincible Iron Man” is an exception to this rule. Mostly.
Though he’s good with dialogue and capturing the feeling of “family” that the core cast is supposed to have, the main story already feels like an also-ran. That’s because we just came off of a run where Reed hid something from his family and wound up paying the price for it later. However, what he’s covering up is far more serious than a collection of alternate universe versions of him who are trying to fix the universe’s problems. This time Reed is covering up something that directly affects him and his family and effectively lying to their face about it. Of course it’s a given that they’ll find out, fight about it and reconcile while the scientist finds a cure, but that just sounds predictable and boring. Fraction could have some good twists up his sleeve, like having Reed find the cure in the next volume and have it lead to an even bigger problem, except that what we’re given here doesn’t have even the hint of that right now. While the writing is competent and even occasionally humorous, there’s no real excitement to be had here. Bagley makes it all look professional, yet he can’t elevate what he’s given.
Mike Allred, on the other hand, does exactly that with his side of the equation. The man’s off-kilter sensibilities are a perfect fit for following the exploits of an oddball group of replacement “Fantastic Four” characters as well as all of the kids from the Future Foundation. I’m sure Fraction had the man’s skillset in mind, and he gives Allred lots of stuff to play around with in the three issues here. There are the missives from the kids asking Scott “Ant-Man” Lang to join the group, Reed’s constantly-stretching form, the Mole Man’s attack, and “Old John Storm” for starters. It’s great, fun stuff with an energy that keeps you constantly looking forward to what’s going to be on the next page. Yes, the story in the first three issues is a little slow as we go through the motions of the team coming together while the main plot looks to be focused on Scott dealing with the death of his daughter at the hands of Dr. Doom. That being said, there’s more interesting potential in that -- along with finding out just what the hell “Old John Storm” is actually up to -- than seeing the real Fantastic Four explore the cosmos.
In fact, this seems to be more reflective of Fraction’s limitations at a writer as well. The “Fantastic Four” requires someone with giant, outsize ideas to match the characterization of the cast. Finding a planet that is being used as bait by a giant space-monster doesn’t quite cut it when compared against previous sights from this title. Yet Fraction has always been more of a down-to-earth writer, more concerned about the thoughts and feelings of B-list characters and what makes them tick when compared to their more famous counterparts. Of course, focusing on such characters gives him the freedom to spin them in more interesting directions and that’s quite true here. Allred’s work helps even more in this case.
So I’ll be leaving “Fantastic Four” by the wayside, confident in knowing that Reed will find a cure for his disease and everything will be back to normal before the next writer takes over. As for “FF,” Ant-Man is planning to “End Doom,” and I can’t imagine that ending well or even how it’ll play out. That’s why getting the next (first, really) volume of “FF” is a no-brainer for me.