Tag Archives: fantastic four

Unboxing: October’s Comic of the Month Club

Comic of the Month Club is a new monthly comic subscription box for comic book fans everywhere. Subscribers receive 8-9 personally curated comics every month and fill out a preference form as to what they’re interested in.

You can subscribe now. Please include “Graphic Policy” in the referral space. You as a subscriber receive an extra bonus and we do get something in return.

Find out what’s in this month’s box!

 

This post contains affiliate links, which means that if you click on one of the product links and make a purchase, we’ll receive a percentage of the sale. Graphic Policy does purchase items from this site. Making purchases through these links helps support the site.

Unboxing: August’s Comic of the Month Club

Comic of the Month Club is a new monthly comic subscription box for comic book fans everywhere. Subscribers receive 8-9 personally curated comics every month and fill out a preference form as to what they’re interested in.

You can subscribe now. Please include “Graphic Policy” in the referral space. You as a subscriber receive an extra bonus and we do get something in return.

This month’s comics with “rough value.”
X-Men #41 – $3
X-Men #42 – $3
X-Men #59 – $3
Avengers: The Initiative #22 – $2
Avengers: The Initiative #23 – $2
Avengers: The Initiative #24 – $2
Fantastic Four #38 – $2
Fantastic Four #39 – $2
Fantastic Four #41 – $2

Total: ~$21

 

This post contains affiliate links, which means that if you click on one of the product links and make a purchase, we’ll receive a percentage of the sale. Graphic Policy does purchase items from this site. Making purchases through these links helps support the site.

Have Them Fight God: Everything Starts on Yancy Street

I’m reading every Fantastic Four comic and posting four thoughts on each. The concept of articles about the Fantastic Four was invented by Rich Johnston. No infringement is intended.

Today it’s…

Spider-Man #90

Spider-Man_Vol_1_90

… from April 1998. A Spider-Man/Fantastic Four team-up with a difference.  

Written by Howard Mackie. Penciled by John Romita Jr. Inked by Scott Hanna. Coloured by Gregory Wright. Lettered by Kiff Scholl. Edited by Ralph Macchio.

ONE

This issue is a prelude to an event called ‘Identity Crisis’ which….WAIT! STOP! COME BACK! It’s alright. It’s alright. Different ‘Identity Crisis.’ This one’s a bit of harmless fluff about Spider-Man dressing up in four different costumes as part of an elaborate plan to beat a murder rap. It’s bags of fun. Fun which I’m over-simplifying it a little, as Spidey doesn’t just adopt four new costumes but four new names, four new personae, four new fighting styles, and three new speech patterns. The costumes are what matters here though, as this issue is the origin of one of them.

The ‘Hornet’ costume he gets given by a friend, the ‘Ricochet’ costume Mary Jane puts together in a charity shop, the ‘Prodigy’ costume he and MJ design together, and the ‘Dusk’ costume is inherited from the figurehead of a revolutionary uprising within a universe of antimatter. Only that last costume is thought to need a whole introductory issue rather than a brief introductory flashback, which probably sounds fair enough until you know that the look the spider-spouses collaborated on is the one that involves Peter slathering himself in gold body paint and gluing on a big fake nose. My opinion on how entertaining their marriage is to read about could be completely reversed by twenty pages of them workshopping that. Trying on different noses. Brilliant.

But this issue is about introducing the Dusk costume, so let’s try concentrate on that. Which won’t be easy because the issue doesn’t. Before it gets to Dusk it introduces another new costume that’s got nothing to do with any of this. Another new costume that serves no narrative function whatsoever and which only gets referenced once in the text. “A little costume change,” notes Peter as he takes stock of the effects of being converted into anti-matter and crash-landing on an alien world. After that no more is said about it. Not much is shown of it either. Three pages pass between Peter noticing that he’s wearing something different and us getting a proper look at what it is he is wearing.

littlecostume   

That one panel, bunched up at the top right of a page, is as good as it gets for full-length looks at this outfit, which is then just shown in head shots, long shots and ass shots for another four pages before he changes out of it and into into the Dusk clobber. There is an implicit rationale for the design – Peter has been gifted part of the Dark Force of a vigilante called SHOC and this get-up shares some features with SHOC’s costume to the extent that it’s monochrome and John Romita JR-ish – but it’s still incredibly eccentric. We’re given a new costume for Spider-Man that isn’t talked about or shown off, and we’re given it in an issue whose purpose is to introduce a different costume for Spider-Man. What’s going on there?

I’ve got two guesses! Maybe you could look this up somewhere, but guessing is fun. One is that Romita Jr designed this costume for the ‘Identity Crisis’ event without it having been explained to him that the concept wasn’t ‘four different Spider-Mans’ but ‘Spider-Man dressed up as four different people who aren’t Spider-Man.’ The mix-up having left him with a spare spider-look, he decided to get some use out of it here whether the story called for it or not. Does that sound plausible? I don’t blame him at all if that’s how it went. This costume really is pretty cool. Monochrome Spider-Man outfits are almost always onto a winner – the symbiote costume, the Future Foundation costume – and this is no exception.

My other guess would be that JRJR was maybe just trying to put off drawing the Dusk costume for as long as possible because it’s a bit shit. It’s a featureless silhouette, such as could only be of any possible interest as a move in the Anish Kapoor/Stuart Semple artwar, and it’s got those stupid flying squirrel wings that join your arms to your legs. You know the things – Banshee has them sometimes and Spider-Man threatens to go that way whenever his armpit webs are getting out of hand. Here they’re even worse than usual. Take a silhouette, join its arms to its legs by big flaps of material, and put it in an action pose and all you’ve got’s a big ol’ blob. Monochrome Spider-Man outfits are almost always onto a winner and this is the exception.

I might hate the Dusk blob but it means a lot to the people of Tarsuu, the planet within the Negative Zone where all this is going on. There’s a heroic rebellion against an evil empire underway round those parts and Dusk was its inspirational leader until he went missing and a second Dusk took on the identity. That second Dusk  gets wounded in this story and passes the identity to Peter. At this point you’ve probably got suspicious that this is all a bit like the Dread Pirate Roberts from The Princess Bride and that there’s no single individual who is the authentic ‘Dusk’, just a myth and a lineage. Doesn’t seem to be the case though. The leader of the evil empire understands his opponent to be a singular, recognisable individual and the later Dusks to be imposters. The second Dusk believes that the first is out there somewhere, that he’s just keeping his seat warm, and his final words are an unheard repetition of his plea that Peter find the true Dusk.

So becoming Dusk, as it’s explained to Peter, doesn’t mean that you actually become Dusk. Just that you take on his responsibilities and the further responsibility of having a look round to see where the original’s gone. Which I think makes what he does next a little bit rude.

He deals a big blow to the evil empire, which is helpful. Then he gives a speech to the grateful rebels about how Dusk will always be with them when their need is greatest, which is a big fib but also probably helpful. Then he vamooses back to Earth, which is fair enough as it would have been a big ask for “Dusk fights an endless war across the Negative Zone” to be the new status quo of the Spider-Man titles, but the least he could have done is leave the costume behind for a fourth Dusk to stick on. The very least! What’s he need it for back on Earth? He can get new identities just by rummaging around charity shops and gluing on comedy noses, while these beleaguered rebels are short a mythic figurehead now he’s run off with their vantablack pyjamas! What a dick.

Look at what goes through his mind regarding the Dusk role. As he leaves Tarsuu everyone’s cheering him and he’s loving it. As, still dressed as Dusk, he returns to New York with some rescued kids then everyone there is cheering him and he’s loving that too. “I don’t mind basking in a little hero worship for a change,” he tells SHOC. Peter ends this issue thinking about how much he likes being Dusk because everyone likes Dusk.  But once ‘Identity Crisis’ starts then he’ll opt to play Dusk as a sinister crook and disgust himself so much that he’ll start showering excessively. Starting to suspect this boy doesn’t want to be happy.      

Someone else inherits this identity after Peter, so maybe she eventually returns to Tarsuu, finds the original Dusk and sorts it all out. Looking her up, it seems like she falls off a roof and dies in her first appearance so it doesn’t sound too promising.  

TWO

There’s a lot of overlap between the world of Spider-Man and the world of the Fantastic Four and many team-up stories explore that, but there’s another sort of Spidey/FF adventure that works by putting Spider-Man in the parts of their world that are not part of his. Often those stories are written by Dan Slott and often they’re my favourites.

I’m thinking of things like that abortive trip to ‘a weird dimension’ from Spider-Man/Human Torch #2 or the two different jaunts to the Macroverse we see in Amazing Spider-Man #590-1. Stories that have the Fantastic Four going about their most generic day to day work of travelling to new realities with different laws of physics and finding themselves in circumstances where they have to decide the fate of entire alien civilisations, some of which will probably be some kind of techno-barbarians who’ve glued canons to big lizards. The sort of FF stories that can become very overfamiliar, but defamiliarised by having Peter Parker along to be freaked out by it all.

HTFGjaunt  

Beyond having Spider-Man be alarmed and refreshed by the technobabble and the Kirby dots, stories that contrast his life with the Fantastic Four’s tend to want us to notice two big differences; Scale and integration. Swapping jobs for a day in that Spider-Man/Human Torch issue then Peter wishes Johnny good luck with saving the city and Johnny tells him he’ll need good luck with saving the universe. We’ll investigate scale below, but the basic idea of having Spider-Man visit somewhere called ‘the macroverse’ is obviously to put forward the idea that he’s stepping into a bigger world.

Integration’s where the real emotional stakes are in contrasting Spider-Man’s life with theirs. His life is defined by a harsh separation of its components and by the horrors that arise from his struggles and failures to keep those walls up. The Fantastic Four’s lives are defined by the absence of those walls. Being adventurers and being a family are the same thing for the FF, family is the word for the adventure they’re on, and so there’s a real poignancy in seeing Peter Parker on a Fantastic Four adventure. They’re inviting him into their family, where they all have reasons to want him, and there are limits to the extent to which he’s capable of accepting. Limits set by his inability to imagine living one life where the pieces fit together. Imagining being five different people is easier for him than that.       

Spider-Man #90 has almost all the features of a story in which Spidey tags along on an FF romp. We open on Yancy Street, part of their New York, not his. Mary Jane immediately understands that they’ve stepped out of their personal story space and opens the issue with the words, “I told you we shouldn’t have gone walking in this part of town.” Sure enough, this part of town soon leads us to the Distortion Field, and the Negative Zone, and Blastaar the Living Bomb-Burst and having to decide the fate of entire alien civilisations, and everything short of techno-barbarians gluing canons to big lizards.  As soon as he swings down on to Yancy Street then, other than a brief appearance by SHOC, everything he encounters originates from, or is typical of, the Fantastic Four mythos. Spider-Man spends none of this issue in a Spider-Man story.

One odd thing though. The Fantastic Four aren’t in this comic anywhere.

That’s annoyingly disruptive for the rules I’ve chosen for what this project is and isn’t supposed to cover, but really interesting in terms of what it reveals. How does Spider-Man cope with a Fantastic Four crossover to which only he’s shown up?

The answer is “Um…kind of…better?” Or at least with much more comfort and confidence. Part of that is because they’re with him in spirit as a knowledge base; He can remember what Reed once told him about surviving the Distortion Area. He can remember what Johnny once told him about fighting Blastaar. With all these facts in his head he breezes through this issue with aplomb, leaping between worlds and toppling empires without breaking a sweat. He has a lovely time and everyone’s very pleased with him.

If Spider-Man’s life contrasts with the Fantastic Four’s in terms of scale and integration then it’s clearly not the scale part that spins him out. He ignites flames of revolution that burn from world to world without really stopping to reflect that this is an unusual day’s work for him. When it does register then it’s with mild approval. “This is cool! I get to fly… and have an entire world singing my praises!” is as reflective as he gets.  

Spider-Man can step out of his life and into the Fantastic Four’s and it doesn’t rattle him at all. As long as they’re not there. As long as there’s nothing to remind him that the parts of one’s life are parts of a whole.  

THREE

In Onslaught/Heroes Reborn, as I find myself summarising most weeks, the Fantastic Four and the Avengers died, only to be somehow transferred across to a new universe of Franklin’s creation. A lot of things happened and then they sailed back to their original lives in a big space boat.

I am fascinated by every trivial detail surrounding the journey in that big space boat. It feels to me like such a strange and poetic move between the physical and the metaphysical. The heroes who Franklin initially shunted over into his world have different bodies and minds to those that died in their own, so if we grant that he really did save anyone then he can only have done so as an essence distinct from both physicality and consciousness. Those who entered Franklin’s world did so as souls. Then they left it by all physically getting on a big space boat.

How they reenter their original universe is not consistent. The boat explodes and the heroes return home at different times, in different places, with different mental health problems and with differing levels of memory regarding the alternate lives they’ve just lived. Nobody just passes from one world to another as a stable object; They’re run through Google Translate and then run back through it again the other way.

This comic is unusual in that it addresses Spider-Man having been on that boat.

Spider-Man didn’t die in Onslaught, nor did he get reborn in Heroes Reborn. He was kind of just along for the ride. Heroes Reborn: The Return saw him accidentally dragged into Franklin’s universe because he was holding the Hulk’s hair while the Hulk was being accidentally dragged in. Once there he performed his plot function of being an independent witness who could confirm to the Avengers and Fantastic Four that a bigger world existed and they were all from it. Then he stood politely in the background as he caught a lift home. He was with the Avengers and the Fantastic Four as they returned. He was on the boat when it exploded in the gulf between realities.

Then next we see him, in relation to these events, is in Marvel Team-Up #6, where it’s still the night of the Heroes return but now Peter is sat at home learning about it with Mary Jane. She’s keen for details and he’s not really got any to give, unable to recall what Franklin’s universe was, how anyone got there in the first place, or who made it back. The most he can manage is to say that it was “Weird. Very weird.” We don’t know how he got from that inter-reality explosion to that sofa, but the process seems to have left him with less than perfect recall of the details. Then, in Amazing Spider-Man #360, we see him swinging about shouting “They’re alive! They’re really alive!” as if this is information which he’s either only just learned or only just been convinced of. Everything suggests that, for Spider-Man, his late game involvement with Heroes Reborn has been left as a bit of a blur.

Here, however, he seems well appraised of the specifics. Passing through the Distortion Area, he thinks to himself, “I recognise [this] place. Made a trip through it not too long ago… during the return of the heroes from that strange universe. I think I heard Reed Richards call this the Distortion Field. A Portion of subspace where matter is converted into anti-matter and vice versa.”

What’s interesting about this isn’t the inconsistency but rather the consistency with how Heroes Reborn frames the Negative Zone. In Heroes Reborn it’s the place you go to remember things that happened to you outside of your life. The Reborn Fantastic Four visited there from inside Franklin’s universe, met Blastaar the Living Bomb-Burst, and received visions of their lives in their previous continuity. These visions changed Sue, who would continue to dream of a son she’d met but never had. Later, Reed proves to Tony Stark that their lives aren’t what they thought they were by getting him to carbon date some old rock; dating it within the world showed it to be a sensible age for some old rock to be, but taking it outside of the world and into the Negative Zone to run the test showed it to be less than a year old.       

If the logic of Heroes Reborn positions the Negative Zone as a figurative space between the Fantastic Four’s two lives, the logic of the boat trip home goes further, making it the literal gulf between the two realities in a complex multidimensional geography that brings in the Distortion Area and the literal boundaries of Franklin’s imagination and invokes the Microverse. All these bits of what Sandman calls “psychic real estate” are rezoned as places to be traversed in the act of translating yourself from one person to another. The Negative Zone is established as a space between who you are and who you aren’t. As places to acquire a new identity go, it’s at least as good as the rubber nose factory.    

FOUR

Some things become absurd when you try and systematise them (I’m reading every Fantastic Four comic and posting four thoughts on each). ComicVine’s summary of Fantastic Four #29, for example, lists the issue as featuring four different ‘teams’; The Fantastic Four, the Yancy Street Gang, Super-Apes, and Communists.

That FF issue is titled ‘It Started on Yancy Street…’ while this Spider-Man issue is titled ‘It Started on Yancy Street…Again!” but what event is recurring? Can’t find any Super-Apes or Communists round here.

They’re all over Fantastic Four #29 though. Especially the letters page, the story pages serving almost as a prequel to its debate over how Fantastic Four should address the Red Menace. Alex Nicholson from Nashville wants to see the FF continue to be pitted “against the forces of Communism, which is a much bigger threat to our nation than crime is” while Jim Gibson from Santa Rosa reckons that the book “should quit cutting down the Soviet Socialistic Republic’s leaders.” Jim is concerned that Fantastic Four might start to look a little like propaganda. Surely not!

As ever, the story itself has no interest in considering or discussing Communism as anything other than a Foreign Threat. It likes the idea that it’s Totalitarian, because that’s a bit like Nazis, but that’s about as concerned as it gets with any ideological critique.  But the story is very interested in puzzling through questions such as those raised by Nicholson from Nashville’s letter. Who should the Fantastic Four be fighting? Nicholson’s approach to answering the question is to consider various real world threats (“Crime! The Commies!”) and rank them in order of danger, with the FF best advised to direct their efforts against the most severe. That’s fine as far as it goes, but is sod all help in working out how they should prioritise time travelling Pharaohs and pranksters from the planet Poppup. Where do they fit on your national threat scale, eh Nicholson?

As Superman says in JLA Classified #3, superheroes live in a complex world. Comicvine has it right; Fantastic Four #29 has the Fantastic Four, a street gang, communists and super apes. It has all those things and a real interest in sussing out how they fit together. Does Spider-Man #90 have similar interests, or it it happier to live in the desert of the toybox? Let’s play both stories out alongside each other.

The Spider-Man of Ninety Ninety-Eight visits Yancy Street to investigate some Algerian cuisine he’s read about. The Fantastic Four of Nineteen Sixty-Four visit there to investigate a drastic rise in crime they’ve read about. One is under the impression that they’re someone who gets to go out for a nice meal and the other under the impression that they’re suited to investigating urban crime. Both are swiftly disabused of these notions, Spider-Man by witnessing some teenagers being dragged into another reality and the Fantastic Four by having some cabbages and things thrown at them. Spider-Man throws himself into the portal and the Fantastic Four just go home to have a think.

It starts on Yancy Street for both of them , but it leads them to very different places. On arriving in the Negative Zone, Peter clocks the space war that’s going on around him and thinks, “A good old-fashioned, George Lucas inspired, rebels versus the evil empire rebellion is taking place.” He’s keen to pitch in but unable to tell which side’s which. “Oops! Problem solved!” he says a panel later, “The bad guys would be the ones blasting the buildings with women and children.” His conclusions are shown to be uncannily correct, right down to the rebels being called ‘The Rebels’ and the empire being called ‘The Empire.’

Peter’s journey has two stops; from Yancy Street to the Negative Zone. The Fantastic Four’s has several. From Yancy Street back home to look up who might be behind all this in their Big Book of Baddies, then back to Yancy Street to fight Super-Apes, then to the Moon, then to the Watcher’s home. Each move comes with an escalation of scale; our first visit to Yancy Street deals with spiralling crime so petty that it would be truer to say the area has seen an alarming rise in the prevalence of pranks, our second visit deals with a Communist plot enacted with the help of super-apes, and from there the sky’s the limit.

“Let me warn you that this ship works on magnetic power and can be controlled only by my orangutan!” cautions the Red Ghost, and you’re not going to read a better sentence than that today. Magnets and monkeys lift us off to the moon, where our concerns eventually move beyond the solar system as the Watcher shows off his treasures from other galaxies and our dastardly communist foe falls through one of them and off into infinity.

That’s a move from the criminal, to the super-criminal, to global politics, to the solar system, to intergalactic space, to a vastness beyond knowing; Fantastic Four #29 but every time it gets faster. What’s remarkable though is, as we shift scales, everything remains in play. There’s a little of this in the Spider-Man comic. Peter found himself in the Negative Zone because of his attempt to rescue those teenagers and so, when the rebel leader asks him what he’s doing there, he answers “the protection of innocents” and the rebel leader concludes they are in the same line of work. But other than the endorsement of this uncontroversial principle, there’s no interpolation of the two worlds. Peter is not left with any impetus to fight crime on Tarsuu or incite revolutions on Earth. It starts on Yancy Street, but it will not continue there.

The Fantastic Four issue is the very opposite, in that story then everything is part of everything. Supervillainous microdrones buzz unnoticed around Yancy Street. Familial proximity to supervillains forces Ben to reevaluate his love life. The Russian space program begets super-apes. Super-apes fund street crime. The Fantastic Four may operate more effectively at certain scales, as they abandon their efforts at community policing Johnny comments that he hopes Spider-Man never hears of it, but once again it’s less a matter of scale than of integration. Because what happens on this one New York street happens because of Space Gods and the Cold War and what happens to Space Gods and in the Cold War happens because of one New York street. It starts on Yancy Street and it never leaves.

       

Have Them Fight God: Luke and Danny Destroy the World

I’m reading every Fantastic Four comic and posting four thoughts on each. If DC are putting out FF material now, can I do any less?

Today it’s…

Heroes for Hire #12

Heroes_for_Hire_Vol_1_12

…from June 1998. A comic in which Sue Storm appears in a one panel flashback to something that happened in Alpha Flight.

Written by John Ostrander. Pencilled by Pasqual Ferry. Inked by Jaime Mendoza. Lettered by Jon Babcock. Coloured by Joe Rosas. Edited by Mark Bernardo.

ONE

The phrase ‘Heroes for Hire’ suggests Luke Cage and Danny Rand having Blaxpolitation/Kung Fu Buddy Movie adventures. Marvel almost once put out a collection called Marvel Bromance and the Power Man and Iron Fist issue it would have contained is exactly the sort of Marvel bromance that ‘Heroes for Hire’ brings to mind. But the first series to actually carry the title wasn’t that sort of thing at all. The second wasn’t either. Or the third. Comics called Heroes for Hire are never what you think of when you hear the phrase ‘Heroes for Hire.’

That said, this particular series, which ran between ‘Ninety-Seven and early ‘Ninety-Nine, did have Luke and Danny. Not only that but they both joined, resigned from, and rejoined this iteration of Heroes for Hire frequently enough to be considered the book’s leads. But…look. This is a series in which Luke Cage is collaborating with the Master of the World to kill off seventy percent of the world’s population in as hygienic a way as possible while Danny’s busy preparing for the culmination of his entirely separate plan to destroy all technology and impose an absolute monarchy across the face of the Earth. The Heroes for Hire are open for business, but it is far from business as usual.    

What’s changed the economic conditions so drastically is Onslaught/Heroes Reborn. Like Thunderbolts, this comic launched into a Marvel Universe where the Fantastic Four and the Avengers are thought to have died in that event. Also like the Thunderbolts this version of Heroes for Hire is offered as the sort of institution that might rise to take the place of those fallen Great Houses. Where it differs from Thunderbolts, however, is in that that superhero team secretly exists to fulfil a villainous agenda, while this superhero team exists to fulfil LOADS of villainous agendas.  

The stated agenda of Jim Hammond, the original Human Torch, is not a villainous one. True, he eventually pitches in with helping the Master of the World try to become the master of seventy percent fewer people, but it doesn’t look like that was his goal from the start. Jim’s been left running Oracle Incorporated, Namor’s surface world corporation, in light of Namor’s ‘death’ and Namorita’s efforts to cover it up. Over the course of the run we learn three things about how he’s making use of the company’s resources; that he’s not been directing them to the environmentalist causes they’re intended for, that he’s been buying enough minoxodil to grow a beard on an android, and that he’s set up these Heroes for Hire.  

The times are dark and hopeless and people need heroes to inspire them, reason both Jim and Danny. Danny’s response is to set in motion the unstoppable process of aligning our reality with that of K’un Lun, bringing about the end of the age of science and the eternal reign of the Dragon King over all nations. He later admits this was a bit of an overreaction. Jim’s response is to start up a new superhero team, one that will work “not as vigilantes, but as hired employees for those needing help, working for a nominal fee” with the nominal fee going to charitable causes.

Now, while not as out there as the whole ‘eternal reign of the Dragon King’ stuff, I still think this is an eccentric model. Jim’s goal is to inspire people with heroic displays, but he’s built in an pecuniary transaction that the ‘nominal’ bit admits is unnecessary. The helping people in need bit? Fine. The donating money to charity bit? Fine. The association of those two into “We’ll help people in need if they donate to other people in need”? A bit weird.

Which is perhaps why nobody’s quite got their head around Jim’s big idea. The team’s first mission is just them hearing some scientists are in trouble and rushing right off to save them with nary a contract being signed. Come the second issue then the wicked Nitro is taunting a SWAT team by telling them they’re not paid enough to stand against his explosive evil, when Danny leaps into action with the words, “Some of us just do it for fun!” Danny, Danny, Danny, what are you doing? You’re pretending to be here to garner charitable donations while secretly working to assemble a round table of warrior knights that will enforce the Dragon King’s autocratic will. Don’t go complicating things further by putting it about that this is all for larks!

We get four issues of superhero punch-ups before anyone presents themselves in any sort of ‘client’ role. It’s Sersi in issue five, who is very keen to transmute objects into gold as payment while the Heroes are very keen to tell her that the fee can be waived. After her the next formal client we see is a kid in issue eight who Luke charges a buck. Namor comes back in issue nineteen, checks in on how Jim’s been running his corporation, shuts the whole enterprise down and cancels the comic.  

It’s fair to say then that what makes this book a book about hireable heroes is less to do with their direct relationship with money and more to do with their relationship to being on a team. Deadpool explicates things on issue ten’s cover when he turns up saying, “Somebody call for a temp?” He has understood this book perfectly. This is a book about casual labour.

The Great Houses have fallen. The big employers have gone. But if we’re going to imagine the power structures of the Marvel Universe as a labour market then we have to remember that what us real humans typically want from a labour market, a wage, isn’t something that superheroes ever really need unless they’re in stories specifically about getting paid. Most of the time in superhero universes then money invisibly takes care of itself and the real wealth is the sense of one’s self as a valid and meaningful hero. The measure of how much a superhero signifies as a self-actualised individual, the semantic weight of the symbol on their chest, is the capital produced by the Marvel and DC Universe’s internal fictional economies.

What we’ve got here then, is a look at being a superhero under unstable conditions in the superhero sector. The superhero-and-related-professions sector, really, as Bambi Arbogast and Jennifer Walters are here in office roles and Jane Foster’s here as a medic.   

Nobody is on this team for long. Deadpool’s here for two issues. The Hulk’s here for one. Scott Lang is on the team from the start, but nobody notices him until issue six and then shortly afterwards he has to take extended periods of absence due to childcare issues. Hercules drifts in and out, leaving the first time because he got drunk and the second because he got distracted. Jen has to negotiate to stay on her hourly legal rate when pitching in with superheroics. Dane Whitman finds himself trying to juggle two jobs once the Avengers are back. The doors revolve so fast that when Danny, the leader of the team, quits in issue eight it gets presented in a perfunctory flashback.    

The White Tiger’s employment status is particularly interesting. If you’re anything like me then you might sometimes get a bit confused about Marvel’s five different White Tigers, but this one’s easy to remember – this is the one who is LITERALLY A TIGER. A tiger who can adopt human form and an attendant human-ish consciousness in order to do superheroing and get in inappropriate love triangles. I bet she’s only on the books when she’s human.    

The issue we’re talking about today, a Double-Sized Anniversary Spectacular, finds the series at some sort of equilibrium. We’ve got a sense here of who officially ‘counts’ as having been a member of this team, a sense arising partly from which of them show up for the anniversary issue and partly from which of them the Master of the World has troubled to make evil duplicates of. We’ve also got everyone’s cards on the table; Danny has half-apologised for inflicting a mystical dictatorship on the world but said there’s not much he can be expected to do about it now, while Luke is about to reveal that he was only pretending to want to dispose of most of humanity even if he does still think there’s a lot to the idea. Issue twelve is the first point in this series where we’ve got a clear idea of who this book is about and what they all want. The only point, really, as after this then we’re into the chaos of how they adapt to a world in which the Avengers and Fantastic Four have returned. This comic looks a lot like a big climactic showdown, but really it’s an island of calm.

TWO

How much does it matter to people who’ve been in the Fantastic Four that they’ve been in the Fantastic Four?

Here in issue twelve we, briefly, have a concrete sense of who this book’s heroes are; Iron Fist! She-Hulk! Black Knight! Thena! Hercules! Luke Cage! The Scott Lang version of Ant Man! The Jim Hammond version of the Human Torch! The LITERALLY A TIGER version of the White Tiger!

That means a whole third of this line up are people who have, by this point in their lives, been members of the FF. Two of them, She-Hulk and Ant Man, will be again, on the same squad no less. When that day comes it won’t particularly matter to either of them that they’d been Heroes for Hire together. That’s as it should be, as this book ends with a decisive “oh well then.” Namor sells the company and everyone goes their separate ways, Luke and Danny resolving that this will have no effect on their friendship and everyone else just being quietly dismissed with a “see you round, maybe” from Danny. Nobody leaves with any sense that having been part of the Heroes for Hire was a part of who they were. It was only ever just a gig.

What then, for the three (Luke, Jen and Scott) who have spent time  in the FF, did that time represent? Was that something that was just a gig for them, or something that they’ve carried with them as part of their identities?

Previous team affiliations are very important here. The whole logic of Namor trusting (to a point) Jim to run his corporation comes from them having been Invaders together, and this issue taps into that with Jim taking command and the team feeling all inspired as they imagine how it would have felt to serve with him in WWII. Having been an Invader matters in this book.

As does having been an Avenger. Dane is forever knowing important information because he was once an Avenger or holding people to the standards he would have expected from them back when they were Avengers. Then, once the Avengers are back and reformed, the Heroes for Hire frequently find themselves short-handed as their roster struggle to manage their commitments. Hammond’s grumpy about everyone being off doing Avengers stuff in issue eleven as they absent themselves for Busiek’s tellingly named ‘Once an Avenger…’ arc, and then again in issue thirteen as Jen and Herc wander off to help out with what’s going on in Waid’s Captain America. Only one of them wanders back.     

People who’ve been Avengers or Invaders want to talk a lot about those associations, but at no point do the three Fantastic Four members feel like talking about that being a thing they have in common. It comes up for each of them individually though. For Scott, and his daughter Cassie, it’s a very material concern. They’re not happy living in the Oracle Corporation’s HQ but, well, they were previously living at Four Freedoms Plaza and that’s not an option now. That their roles with the Fantastic Four have been taken from them is what’s put them in these circumstances.

For Jen it comes up as part of her reluctance to work on the team in a superheroic role. “I’ve done the group thing with the Avengers and the Fantastic Four,” she says in issue eight, I’m here strictly in a legal capacity.” It fits into her sense of identity in terms of where she sees herself in her career.

Most interesting is how it comes up with Luke. That happens in issue nine when Jim’s wondering if Luke’s been dragged off to Busiek’s Avengers book with everyone else. “Cage was never part of the Avengers, Mr Hammond,” Mrs Arbogast corrects him, “He was part of the Fantastic Four.” Not having been an Avenger is is presented almost as a corollary of him having been part of the FF. Arbogast has a strong sense of what it means to be aligned with a Great House, and of which Luke is aligned with. I love the irony of this in light of how firmly Luke will eventually find himself cast in the role of the One True Keeper of Avengers Values.

People in this series then have very pragmatic takes on their own involvement with the Fantastic Four. Yet there’s a real mythologisation of the Fantastic Four as an institution.

“The Avengers are dead, the Fantastic Four are dead,” complains Dane in issue two, “I have no money, no job, no purpose.”

That a team he never had anything in particular to do with is gone is his second biggest problem. Higher on the list than the money, job and purpose stuff. A sense that there is something wrong with the world is the backdrop to this series and the absence of the Fantastic Four comes up every time that wrongness is discussed.

That’s where the characters of Heroes for Hire seem to be with the FF. That Sue, Reed, Ben and Johnny are gone from the world represents a catastrophic existential shift. But that two of their own number once filled in for Ben and one of them once filled in for Reed… those were just gigs.

THREE

Although She-Hulk has been in the book for a couple of issues now, this is the point where Jen begins the character arc that will see her through to the end of the run. Before we can talk about that though there’s something you have to know.

This comic hates her. Really hates her.

Take this sequence, where Jen’s facing off against a duplicate of the Hulk, looking confident and assured that whatever version of the Hulk this is, she can handle the situation.

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She’s then just punched in the stomach in a panel that doesn’t look anything like superheroic action.

Because this is how superheroic action looks in this comic…

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And this is the punchline to Jen’s conversation with the duplicate Hulk…

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That’s just a woman being punched in the stomach, that is. Her cheeks comically inflating as the reader is invited to enjoy her being punished for her smugness and presumption. The pleasures being offered by the two depictions of violence couldn’t be more different.    

Whatever has she done that’s made the creators suppose that her humiliation there will be a satisfying moment?

Part of it is that, by the time she’s introduced, the book has become acutely aware of the fact that it’s called Heroes for Hire and that nobody in it is motivated by money. Jen therefore gets the job of being the one who cares about money. You can see the logic. ‘She-Hulk is a lawyer’ is a thing. ‘Lawyers are greedy’ is a thing. So we get a greedy She-Hulk who’s here because the Oracle Corporation made her a better offer than the DA’s office and who does not take her eye for a moment off how much she’s getting paid for all this.

There’s also a lot of awkward, and perhaps thankfully not unpacked, stuff about her gender identity – Mrs Arbogast refusing to consider her a ‘lady’ – but to be honest this series will beat her with any stick that’s to hand. There’s a scene where the narration boxes are endorsing the idea that her meanness and size identifies her as being a Skrull, when push comes to shove and…

…oh. Before I can tell you about that, I have to talk about the narrator. Heroes for Hire has a sense of itself as a retro comic. We’ll talk about to what extent that’s true in the next section, but we know that’s part of the remit here because issue eleven opens with narration about how “people say this is a ‘retro’ type comic.” And we know what doing a retro type Marvel comic involves, don’t we? Only the sensational stylings of Smilin’ Stan’s blistering baloney, True Believers!

Stan-Speak is what this book seems to call for, but what John Ostrander delivers is something far more fun. Ostrander gives us a narrator who’s trying to be Stan but who hasn’t quite understood what’s being asked of him and is spiralling wildly out of control. More than one issue involves the narrator in a genuine state of panic that the dangerous events unfolding are going to result in everyone’s death and his own unemployment. For one issue he decides to withhold useful information from the reader and have a fun quiz instead. Stories that start in medias res see him furious with the reader for turning up late and trying to hurry things along by asking any New York based readers to skip text boxes explaining local features. Much confusion arises from him inviting the reader to put themselves in the White Tiger’s place and then getting in a flap about whether or not the reader is literally the White Tiger (they are not. The White Tiger is LITERALLY A TIGER).   

The chaotic narration and the comic’s poor treatment of Jen come together in an incredible scene that might genuinely be one of my favourite ever She-Hulk fourth wall breaks as it also brings together her metafictional awareness with her legal role.  

Yes. She-Hulk fires the narrator.

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It’d be nice if the comic got more sympathetic to her after that brilliant play for control, but a text’s voice is not only expressed through narration. Two issues after this she’ll be drawn flouncing absurdly off while Luke makes shrugging “Dames, eh?” gestures at some random bloke. Heroes for Hire continues to hold her in a pointedly gendered disdain. This, at times self-aware, conflict between She-Hulk and the comic she’s in is the backdrop to the weird character arc that begins here in issue twelve.

It concerns her attitude to ex-cons. An attitude that’s very distinct from her attitude to anyone else that’s doing wrong. She’s the very first to tell Jim Hammond that he shouldn’t feel bad about almost destroying the human race and doesn’t seem bothered in the least by Danny Rand compelling all to bow before the Dragon King. Her heart bursts with forgiveness for any wrongdoers who haven’t been tried, convicted and sentenced. But as regards anyone who’s ever been through the criminal courts and been found guilty, She-Hulk’s putting the vert in Javert.

The arc starts here with Danny incredulous that Luke might have betrayed him. “He’s an ex-con, what do you expect?” she says, with poor Scott Lang stood right there. The arc ends with her speaking up for Luke and Scott to make sure they get their severance packages in the final issue.

What happens in between to change her mind seems to be one adventure and one date with Luke Cage, both in issue seventeen. The adventure sees them rescue several girls who’ve been kidnapped to serve as a harem by a couple of teenage terrorists. Luke strips the boys to their boxers and has the girls spank them. It is this “nasty sense of justice” that causes Jen to start to warm to him, even though one of the abductors is shown to be very much enjoying his punishment. It is uncomfortable.

Having won her favour with his ability to organise Abu Ghraib-esque spectacles of atrocity, Luke then takes her out for a meal and tells her his origin story. She listens attentively and then starts talking about the mechanics of them having sex. Immediately. No “I see now that people have the capacity for change.” No “I see now that the US justice system isn’t perfect and, y’know what, there might just be a racial element to that.” None of that. Straight to, “I don’t break. And I’m looking for a man who doesn’t bruise when I hold him tight.” It is uncomfortable.  

FOUR

Although a flashback to Sue’s adventure in John Byrne’s Alpha Flight is what qualifies this comic for inclusion in this project, there isn’t terribly much to say about that flashback itself. Yet Byrne’s fingerprints are necessarily all over the continuity of a book that is essentially a confrontation between a baddie he invented in Alpha Flight and a corporation in invented in Namor. The prevalence of Byrne material brings us into a very Eighties space, as do Luke and Danny themselves since nobody until Bendis will solve the problem of moving either beyond where Priest left them.

One more important Eighties element factors in. John Ostrander’s writing this book. We know what we want from Ostrander here, don’t we? Mark Bernado, the editor who assembled the creative team, wanted him because he knew he was “great with juggling lots of characters in a mission-orientated setting from his days writing DC’s Suicide Squad” and so much of this book makes sense when you realise that Marvel fancied this as their version of the Squad. The unstable cast. The extent to which everyone is both morally and operationally compromised. Even the way this book sits in relation to Onslaught/Heroes Reborn recalls Suicide Squad’s relationship to Crisis on Infinite Earths.  

A lot of fun can be had playing with how this sits next to DC material. We’ve got the adventures of the Oracle Corporation here as a follow up to the run that established Barbara Gordon as Oracle. That’s pleasing even before you get to that fact that the Oracle Corporation has a relationship with Misty Knight and Colleen Wing’s PI firm; Nightwing restorations.

So that’s a big wodge of Eighties material informing a book with a Sixties-style narrator who isn’t really a Sixties-style narrator at all. How that guy works becomes clear when Deadpool joins the cast and the narrator announces that there’s no way he’s going to compete. The narrator that She-Hulk fires is a post-Joe Kelly version of Stan Lee.

Because that’s the amazing thing about this volume of Heroes for Hire, and this issue especially, the way that it’s a massive nexus of anything that could possibly be an influence on it. Think of something that might have been informing a superhero comic in Nineteen Ninety-Eight. It’s in here somewhere.

Watching the art provides the big clues. Ferry and Mendoza start this run serving up the extremities of Nineties Image books. Their early Hercules looks like the kind of dude who’d stand at the back in Gen 13 and their early White Tiger is an unsolvable knot of Liefeldian jumblewumpf.  

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There’s none of that by the time we get to issue twelve. Its spaceships might still be zooming around a cosmos of limitless speedlines and crosshatching, but everything surrounding its human figures has calmed the fuck down. There’s a resurgent sense of ‘classicism’ happening around Mark Bagely on Thunderbolts and George Perez on Avengers and a sense of the collapse of Heroes Reborn having represented a final failure of the extreme early Image style. Looking at the compositions here and they’re very comparable to how Howard Porter’s JLA is looking. You could hand someone this and the first couple of issues of ‘Rock of Ages’ and they would absolutely tell you that they were the same sort of thing.              

As much as this comic is trying to present the recent past through a reinvention of the distant past, there’s so much here that’s forward looking. The very idea of the Corporate Superteam will be a huge concern in the decade ahead, from Milligan and Allred’s X-Force to Arcudi and Huat’s Doom Patrol, so Heroes for Hire is undeniably ahead of its time on that one. 

This is an artefact from an interesting and uncertain time for Marvel. It was obvious that the Nineties were dying but they weren’t sure what came next. They’d narrowed it down to either the Sixties, the Eighties or the Twenty-First Century but were reluctant to commit.   

The Fantastic Four Returns…. to Marvel Legendary from Upper Deck

For years now there’s been persistent rumors there’s been a ban/lower prioritization of the Fantastic Four and X-Men from Marvel due to their movie ownership at Fox. No actual evidence has been presented, just conspiratorial connect the dots that ignore the creation of new X-Men characters, the licensed material that does get released, and use of some of the Fantastic Four characters in the comics themselves. While it is clear “something” was up, exactly what isn’t beyond a “deemphasis.”

Part of the fuel to the fire was the discontinuation of the Marvel Legendary: Fantastic Four expansion by Upper Deck for their popular deck-building game.

As reported by ICv2, Upper Deck Senior Brand Manager Jason Brenner has said that the “company has been authorized to immediately go back to press on a new printing of the product, which will be available in six to eight weeks.”

The expansion was originally released in the fourth quarter of 2013 and went out of print due to a “licensor-controlled issue.” This out of print status has led the expansion to be covetted and the aftermarket price to incease over 10x. Originally retailing for $19.99, expansions are being sold for over $300.

Three out of the four of the Fantastic Four appeared in the first Dice Masters set, Avengers vs. X-Men by WizKids released in 2014. They haven’t appeared in the game since. The Thing was one of the releases for Knight Models’ Marvel Universe Miniature Game and was released last year.

Can the team’s return to comics be far behind?

Unboxing: March’s Comic of the Month Club

Comic of the Month Club is a new monthly comic subscription box for comic book fans everywhere. Subscribers receive 8-9 personally curated comics every month and fill out a preference form as to what they’re interested in.

There’s five different types of boxes ranging in cost from $9.99 on up to about $30. This is the high end “Collector’s Edition x2” version of the box.

You can subscribe now. Please include “Graphic Policy” in the referral space. You as a subscriber receive an extra bonus and we do get something in return.

This month’s comics with “rough value.”
New Warriors #1 – $5
Marvel Comics Presents #72 – $6
Detective Comics #18 – $3
Batman Blackgate Isle of Men #1 – $2
Batwing #16 – $2.50
Adventure Comics #397 – $4
Fantastic Four #248 – $3
Fantastic Four #249 – $2
Fantastic Four #250 – $4

Total: ~$31.50

 

 

This post contains affiliate links, which means that if you click on one of the product links and make a purchase, we’ll receive a percentage of the sale. Graphic Policy does purchase items from this site. Making purchases through these links helps support the site.

Underrated: Six Comic Book Movies

This is a column that focuses on something or some things from the comic book sphere of influence that may not get the credit and recognition it deserves. Whether that’s a list of comic book movies, ongoing comics, or a set of stories featuring a certain character. The columns may take the form of a bullet pointed list, or a slightly longer thinkpiece – there’s really no formula for this other than whether the things being covered are Underrated in some way. This week: Six Comic Book Movies.


You’ve probably noticed that I’ve written an entire column about some movies, but I’m doing something a little different this week and we’re having a brief overview of six comic book movies, although we’re not ruling out revisiting some of these movies in a longer column down the road.

A few things before we start; firstly, these comic book movies may have been well received when released, but may never have garnered as much attention as they deserved. Secondly, some of these movies I’m probably viewing with the rose tinted glasses of nostalgia, and as I haven’t seen many of them in years be prepared for some potentially foolish claims. Thirdly, this isn’t a complete, or inclusive, list and it is completely subjective. Lastly, I am aware that at least two of these movies are borderline comic book movies, but this is my list and I’m including them anyway.

  • phantom-movie-posterThe Phantom (1996)
    This is probably one of the only comic book movie on this list with an actual spandex bodysuit in it, and Billy Zane does admirably well in the roll. I haven’t seen this movie since the 90’s, but not for lack of trying – it is very tough to track down for a reasonable price. The Phantom is a hugely enjoyable movie, so long as you take it for what it is (Guardians of the Galaxy, it is not), you can’t fail to not enjoy it. But do yourself a favour and skip the two part mini series released in 2010.
  • Batman Forever (1995)
    Joel Shumacker ruined the Batman movie franchise with Batman and Robin, that’s no lie, but before he did that he madeBatman Forever. I still enjoy this flick to this day. It echoes the Adam West TV show of the 1960’s, updating the camp foolishness of that time into a slightly more modern and darker time, bridging the gap expertly between Tim Burton’s films and the TV show. The movie stars because of its villains; Tommy Lee Jones’ Two Face and Jim Carry’s excellent portrayal of the Riddler.  No, the film isn’t the best batman movie out there, but it isn’t as bad as Shumacker’s other offering.
  • Watchmen (2009)
    Watchmen did have some success, there’s no denying that. But the true brilliance of the movie lies with the version that has the animated Black Freighter edited in to the live action movie. Although it clocks in at around four hours long, this version trumps the theatrical version significantly. If you haven’t, and you have the time, give the full version a try.p8022770_p_v8_aa
  • Solomon Kane (2009)
    Originally character created by Robert E Howard (if that name doesn’t ring a bell, you may recognize another of Howard’s creations: Conan) Solomon Kane originally appeared in 1928 in pulp magazine Weird Tales, but has since then starred in several comics through the 70’s and 80’s, and three miniseries published by Dynamite in the last ten years or so. Solomon Kane is probably one of the best films on this list; starring James Purefoy, the film (intended as the first of a trilogy, but it does stand alone) is a dark action adventure that perfectly encapsulates the characters pulp roots.
  • Fantastic Four (2005)
    Say what you want about the new Fantastic Four movie (and people have, and loudly, voiced opinions – even myself), the first one wasn’t horrible. It was actually quite good, all things considered. The main downfall of the movie lies in the conflict throughout. I was happy just watching the F4 simply be themselves and felt that the Dr. Doom final conflict was shoehorned in to a comedy movie because the superhero movie need A Big Final Conflict. The movie would have been far stronger had they used Doom to set up the second movie; have the first movie be more about the the-crow-salvation-movie-postercharacters finding themselves and maybe foiling a more mundane threat to New York City. This isn’t a great movie, but it certainly isn’t as bad as the sequel.
  • The Crow: Salvation (2000)
    Sequels to the 1994 The Crow movie generally range from absolute tripe, to just a little bit above bad. The reason for this is that they all try to follow the same formula. Well, Salvation is no different, but something here clicks. As far as sequels to the original movie go this is the best of the bunch, but that’s ultimately not really saying much. Not the best Crow movie out there, but if you’re a fan of the first movie it’s worth a rent.

There we have it – six underrated comic book movies. Are there other comic book movies out there that are, for whatever reason, underrated and under-appreciated?

Absolutely.

Because of that, expect a sequel to this Underrated at some point in the future. In the meantime, if you do get a chance to look for Solomon Kane do it; it’s probably one of the easier movies to track down (with it being on Netflix) and is well worth your time.

Flashback Friday Friday Review: Fantastic Four #281

fantastic_four_vol_1_281New York City is in flames due the hatred stoked by the Hate-Monger and his crew including the mysterious Malice (in bondage gear) and Psycho-Man, a concept and story you’d think was rather appropriate for this day and age. The issue is broken up with a few storylines including Daredevil leaping around attempting to stop a hate crime. Reed Richards and Johnny Storm are hold up at the Avengers Mansion attempting to figure out what’s going on and Johnny is more focused on a missing Alicia Masters.

All of that eventually leads to Mr. Fantastic, the Human Torch and Daredevil battling Malice to eventually learn, it’s really Sue who has been brainwashed by the Hate-Monger who has brought out her anger towards her brother and Reed. A slap in the face later Sue is snapped out of it breaking down into tears.

Released in 1985 for a pocket breaking 65 cents, Fantastic Four #281 is a comic that can be read on its own but is best as part of the multi-issue story arc that’s going on at the time, which includes Secret Wars II.

Much of the issue is a set up for those final few pages featuring the confrontation with Malice. And lets focus on this incarnation of Sue Storm. There’s the skimpy bondage like out which you can catch some of on the cover. What’s missing is the leather mask featuring spikes an amazing top ten for questionable comic costumes of the time. There’s the motivation of Sue too which is chalked up to jealousy of everyone. And her being snapped out of it by a slap is icing on the cake of this particular issue as if Sue is “hysterical” and this will wake her. It just reeks of the trope of the hysterical woman and it’s almost comical if it weren’t so odd.

honkyThe oddity includes Daredevil’s segment which begins with his swinging around the city dealing with crime and protecting a woman who is being assaulted by two individuals. All of that leads to a rather infamous scene of the hero being punched by the woman who states:

Don’ touch me! I don’t want no jive honky touchin’ me!

This was 1985! Did anyone talk like that in 1985? I was all of six so don’t remember. Has anyone talked like that period!? It’s bad writing drawing upon a stereotype that today is humorous in how bad it is. And this was written by John Byrne who is considered a legend by many!

The art too is by Byrne with inks be the also legendary Jerry Ordway, colors by Glynis Oliver, and letters by John Workman. As I mentioned, Sue’s “Malice” personality is utterly hilarious in the design. Generally, everything is classic Byrne in its style and for those familiar with his work seeing the pages, it’s clear it’s him. None of it is absolutely amazing, but it’s classic for the time.

The issue is infamous for so many reasons, and what’s interesting is that the story and issue could easily be updated for today and be relevant in some ways. The idea of a person driving NYC to hate and tearing the city apart is a story that could easily fit in 2017 and with some tweaks, it’d be absolutely amazing. The parts that had me sighing are par for the time period with horrible costumes, moments that just don’t fly today, and a very different flow of the comic and dialogue compared to today.

It’s an interesting comic for the time showing off the good, the bad, and the just plain weird.

Story: John Byrne Art: John Byrne Inks: Jerry Ordway
Color: Glynis Oliver Letters: John Workman
Story: 7.0 Art: 7.75 Overall: 7.0 Recommendation: Read

Underrated: Fantastic Four (2015)

Before you start yelling at me for writing a column about why the worst reviewed Fantastic Four movie doesn’t entirely suck, I’m not saying the movie is the best thing since sliced bread. It’s not. But it is unfairly shit on by so many of us, and that’s the whole point of Underrated. This is a column that focuses on something or some things from the comic book sphere of influence that may not get the credit and recognition it deserves. Whether that’s a list of comic book movies, ongoing comics, or a set of stories featuring a certain character.

The columns may take the form of a bullet pointed list, or a slightly longer thinkpiece – there’s really no formula for this other than whether the things being covered are underrated in some way.

fantastic four featured

This week I wanted to talk about the much derided Fantastic Four movie from 2015. Or Fant4stic, as the stylized logo goes, which is how I’ll be referring to the movie from here on out. The flick was directed by Josh Trank and starred Micheal B. Jordan as Johnny Storm, Miles Teller as Reed Richards, Kate Mara as Sue Storm, Jamie Bell as Ben Grimm and Tobey Kebbel as Victor Von Doom. The relatively unknown director Josh Trank had previously directed the cult hit Chronicle and one other movie that I’ve never seen before being handed the reigns to Marvel’s first family, but based on Chronicle there was hope that Fant4stic would be on par, with, or better than, the other superhero flicks of the year.

Obviously that wasn’t the case. But was the movie really as bad as we think it was?

Sure it was certainly disappointing when it came out, almost entirely failing to meet the vast expectations heaped upon on it – of course, I’m being facetious, because almost from the get go it seemed this movie was doomed to fail. From the way people turned their nose up when talking about the rumours swirling about choices made around Doom’s origin, at one point he was supposed to be a Russian hacker called Victor Von Domashev; the reprehensible reaction to the casting choice of Micheal B. Jordan as the Human Torch (yes, there were some who were more worried about the lack of perceived blood relation between the Storm siblings rather than the colour of their skin, but the sense that many – myself included – got was that the outcry was a bit more racially tinged); and the dreaded Studio Involvement toward the end of the filming and editing process.

By now I’m sure you’ve heard of the strife between the director and the studio (if you haven’t there’s a good account of it here), but when Trank tweeted his frank tweet about Fant4stic you could hear geekdom cry “I knew it! It’s so bad even the director hates it!” And Tobey Kebbel seemed to agree with Trank in an interview given last year, saying that “the honest truth is [Trank] did cut a great film that you’ll never see.That is a shame. A much darker version, and you’ll never see it.”

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Kebbel goes on to say that much of the footage of Doom in the movie isn’t him, due to the amount of the film that was reshot “I played Doom in three points: Walking down a corridor, killing the doctor and getting into the time machine, and lying on the bench. They were the only times I played Doom. Everything else was some other guy, on some other day… doing some other thing. I was infuriated that he was allowed to limp like that!”

With all the vitriol surrounding the movie prior to it’s release there was realistically no hope for the movie (indeed it barely made enough money to cover the budget, let alone the marketing costs), and many people took a rather large shit on the movie because they felt that they had the right to do so – whether they’d actually watched the movie or not.

Almost a year after the movie came out, I sat down and watched it on Netflix for the first time. And you know what? It wasn’t anywhere near as terrible as I expected it to be.

Fantastic Four The ThingNow I did go in with some pretty low expectations but, dare I say it, I actually enjoyed the movie; even though it seemed to do everything possible to prevent that from happening. Yes, there are moments that seem contrived only to move the plot from point A to B in the most straight forward manner, and there is a sense that there are two visions on display here due to the reshoots, but this isn’t as bad a movie as you’d expect based on the hatred and criticism that Fant4stic received upon it’s release.

While some of the acting is questionable, the performances of Jordan and Teller (and Bell’s vocal performance) are pretty solid. While we’ll never get to see the original version of the movie, the one we did get does have a visual punch that’s better than you’d think. As a slow burning action movie, this isn’t too bad.

Was this a great Fantastic Four movie? Hell no.. but it’s not as bad as you’d think, and if you look at it as a movie very loosely based on the Fantastic Four rather than an actual Fantastic Four movie, then it’s actually watchable.

That’s why it’s Underrated.

Have Them Fight God: Prince Philip and King Ben

I’m reading every Fantastic Four comic and posting four thoughts about each.

So far we’ve focused on the MC2 imprint, with articles on Spider-Girl #0 and #3, but this week we’re talking a break from that line’s retro take on Marvel‘s future to look at a comic from the same year that attempted a contemporary take on the past.

Today it’s…

SHADOWS & LIGHT #2

…from April 1998, an issue of an anthology series whose lead story explores the Thing’s monstrosity and demonstrates it to be lesser than that of the British royal family.

Story and art by Lee Weeks.

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ONE

In 2014, if you wanted to buy a lovely statue of Babs Tarr’s Batgirl then you were buying it in greyscale. By 2015 there was a coloured-in version, but that first item of merchandise for that notably colourful version of the character was notably devoid of colour. That seems weird. Even weirder is the reason why. It was a matter of prestige. They hadn’t run out of paint. This was an honour.

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The Batman: Black and White brand still matters. Twenty years on and ‘Batman: Black and White’ still means something and can have an effect on properties as remote from it in terms of DC’s publishing history as the Babs Tarr Batgirl. Batman: Black and White, a four issue miniseries from 1996 which I’m not sure anyone actually reads any more, has punched well above its weight in terms of brand endurance.

A lot of the little oddments you find coming out from Marvel in the late nineties are the company’s rather blunt ‘answers’ to some sales or critical success that DC was enjoying. The DC of that period had many of both. Shadows and Light is Marvel’s answer to Batman: Black and White. Marvel’s own black and white, artist-led, four issue anthology. Shadows and Light is not a brand that has similarly endured. There will be no Shadows and Light statue of Spider-Gwen.

Shadows and Light is okay though. It’s not embarassing like Marvel’s attempt to do VERTIGO or interminable like Marvel’s attempt to do Kingdom Come. There’s some quality stuff in here. This second issue has got a nice little Jim Starlin thing with Doctor Strange, a Jill Thompson Spider-Man story, and Liam Sharp using Man-Thing to play about with the style of Bissette and Totleben’s Swamp Thing. It’s all fine. It’s only been forgotten because Batman: Black and White is an immediately exciting and focused concept while “Here’s some black and white stories about a random selection of Marvel characters is not.

TWO

Our lead story is a Ben Grimm piece by Lee Weeks. To foster the sense that these are important works by important people then each story is introduced by an interview with its creator about its function and themes. In his, Weeks shares a couple of interesting thoughts about Ben. One is that “he’s the Detective Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) of the Marvel universe.” Park that for now, but remember it for later weeks. That’s going to come up again.

Because the other Ben theory that Weeks states here is the meat of this specific story. It’s the idea that people see Ben as a monster “mainly because that’s the way he views himself […] he’s mostly responsible for the way he’s perceived and should give people more of a chance to see him as a man.”

Ben is, most comics agree, a monster.

Ben has, most comics agree, a body that can be thought of as disfigured.

Those are more or less constants. What varies wildly is the relationship between Ben’s disfigurement and Ben’s monstrosity. In the Mark Waid run, for example, Ben’s a monster to Ben and to Ben alone; He sees himself as a monster while the world, regardless of his disfigurement, sees him as nothing of the sort. In the John Byrne run, on the other hand, Ben’s ongoing disfigurement is a consequence of his monstrosity; his own psychological flaws are what invariably revert him to his rocky form despite all of Reed’s successful cures.

So to get a handle on what’s happening in a Ben Grimm story the first thing to look at should probably always be how that story relates disfigurement and monstrosity. Lee Weeks’ take is that Ben views himself as a monster on account of his disfigurement, this causes him to act like a monster and that consequentially he’s viewed as a monster by others. That’s the mistake this story reckons Ben is making and it reckons it has a device with which to expose it.

What if, it asks, Ben didn’t know what sort of body he had, but that everyone around him did? How might he behave then? And how might he be perceived?

Understandably there’s a lot of work needed to create a situation in which somebody has no idea that they’re an orange giant made of rocks but that everyone around that person can see that truth plainly. How do you tell a story where somebody just doesn’t notice that they’re an orange giant made of rocks?

Naturally you start with amnesia and a blindfold. They don’t solve everything though. Take away a man’s sight and his memory and he’s still got many other means by which he may swiftly apprehend that he’s an orange giant made of rocks, should he indeed be such. The story being in black and white only helps hide the ‘orange’ part.

There’s a gesture at his sense of touch having been compromised too, but little to explain why, during the three days his spends in the community where this story is set, his suspicions about his physicality aren’t aroused by the people around him saying things like “He’s as big as five men!” and “He’s like a great warrior made of stone!” and other subtle clues.

The weirdest thing though is what we’re to understand about Ben’s sense of proprioception here. He spends the story mostly performing manual labour, so he’s obviously able to effectively co-ordinate his body. Yet a climactic moment is him remembering how many fingers he has and how large they are.

He remembers this in the process of saving a life. Chucking himself off the edge of a cliff to grab and save someone who’s falling off it. Ben remembers who he is and performs a heroic action. Hero Reborn? No. This is the moment when Ben becomes a monster.

While saving his friend’s life, all Ben can think about is that this is not what he wants to be or do. “I just wanted to be be pilot,” he complains, “Just wanted to fly.”

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Having saved this guy’s life, Ben then tells him that he doesn’t see any value in him having done so. Then he throws a massive stompy temper tantrum, terrifying all around. Lee Weeks has told his story; The Ben that is seen as a monster is the Ben that acts like a monster because of how Ben feels about looking like a monster. My macro level view of the massively multi-authored, multi-decade continuity that is the Fantastic Four can’t sign off on that exactly, but we’ll hang onto it and compare it to other Ben Theories as we go along.

What I find more interesting, to be honest, is the question of what Ben wants. This is a Ben who receives no emotional reward from acts of heroism. He takes no pride in it and takes no joy from gratitude. There’s nothing in being a hero for Ben. Action is not his reward. What does he want?

THREE

And what does the industrialised world want from the idea of the cargo cult?

We kind of love it.

In Britain the right-wing press never misses the most tenuous opportunity to remind us that the Yaohnanen tribe of Vanuatu worship Prince Philip as a god.

Even though they sort of don’t really.

What’s happened sounds to be more like the Yaohnanen tribe got a whiff of Prince Philip’s importance via some obnoxious seventies display of imperialist majesty and made a reasonable association between the divine and the British Monarchy. The British Monarchy being  an institution that was then literally claiming to own the Yaohnanen’s world. The tribe making that association was reasonable because not only only was the material history of why the British were co-owning Vanuatu with the French much more absurd than divine mandate, but because an association with the divine is the actual foundational justification of the existence of monarchs in the first place. The link between monarchs and the divine that the Yaohnanen had made was far weaker and less fanciful than the link asserted by Britain’s own constitution.

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Right and Left: People behaving reasonably. Centre: Someone being a dick.

Despite the miniscule amount of self-awareness the British Establishment would need to apprehend the above, they never have. They probably don’t know how many fingers they’ve got either. So they’ve spend the last forty years egging the Yaohnanen on for the lulz and sending Karl Pilkington over to smirk at them. Karl fucking Pilkington.

We do this because we are deeply and depressingly flattered by the idea of indigenous peoples worshipping our detritus. Cannibal tribes bowing in obeisance to Radio Luxemborg appear in Will Hay’s smash hit 1936 comedy Windbag the Sailor and we’ve never got over the idea. Our response to the existence of cargo cults is to take it as evidence of our sophistication over peoples to whom even our trash is of value. Though I suppose it’s encouraging that we understand that Prince Philip is trash.

So here is a story where an amnesiac Ben Grimm crash lands on an isolated South Pacific island. It’s Lee Weeks’ solution to the problem of how to provide him with a community who can respond to his behaviour but who won’t mention that they’ve seen him on the telly. It can’t just do that though. The set up is to provide an economical solution to the problem of putting Ben in a social vacuum where there is also society, but it’s denied that economy by crash landing in a tradition of dodgy writing about South Pacific tribal peoples encountering things that have washed-up on their shores or fallen from their skies. The simplicity of a story about how Ben presents to others is complicated by its proximity to stories of how the Other processes the industrialised world’s bits and bobs.

The first move the story makes here is the sort of thing Carl Barks liked to do. Ben is not the first intercession into this tribal culture. That was ‘Kelmack’, who we later learn to be Lt. Kelly MacCormack, a WWII fighter pilot. Ben is interacting with a culture that has already been influenced by the choices of a previous visitor. Reading MacCormack’s diaries towards the end of the story, Ben notes that he “went primitive” but that doesn’t seem to have been quite what he did at all. Rather he seems to have exploited his technologies to set himself up as a king.

How the inhabitants of this story’s unnamed island are to understand Ben is in light of not just their beliefs but in light of prior colonial activity. Already this story is one up on press coverage of the Godly Prince Philip.

The islanders are named, distinguished, and have differing points of view.

Taree understands Ben to be a new king, as promised by Kellmack. Her logic is that there is obviously something special about someone who just walked away from an explosive spaceship crash. Nuntoo takes him to be a demon. Takar confines himself to the immediate material evidence and goes with “great warrior made of stone.” Pakai, and eventually the tribe as a whole, seem mostly convinced by Taree’s arguments and by Ben’s feats of strength and so they settle on “he’s a king.”

But what is the role of ‘king’ here? We don’t see Ben performing any role that looks either executive or ceremonial. We see him in two roles; Patient and construction worker. Regardless of what they think he is, how they mostly treat him is as someone who needs to recover from a spaceship crash. And regardless of this, how Ben mostly behaves is as a construction worker.

That’s not unusual for Ben. Along with ‘wrestler’ then it’s one of the two most frequent things for him to be when he’s not being a superhero. But what isn’t usual is the way that ‘construction worker’ and ‘king’ interact here. Everyone would like Ben to perhaps have some rest and have a go at recovering from his massive ordeal. But, as per Two-in-One Annual #7/Secret Wars: Siege #4, Ben is the man who won’t lie down. He’s up and about carrying heavy objects and building big useful things.

It’s this behaviour, that comics usually have Ben default to because it’s manual and coded as working-class, that here guarantees his kingly nature.

“It’s not possible!” says Nuntoo as Ben carries a big rock.

“It’s for a king!” says Taree.

“Our great king!” chants the crowd as Ben builds a bridge.

The islanders have taken external material and accorded it value, but that’s because they’re getting their big rocks moved and bridges built. They’ve done what every cargo cult does; taken something from outside and put it to a purpose for which they have a cultural use.

FOUR

But what do the Fantastic Four want?

This story’s Fantastic Four is an oddly half-baked attempted at a modernised view of the Silver Age. It’s a generic version of the early team in which Sue has big hair and no discernible personality and everyone talks in a weird mixture of Stan Lee shtick and phrases that have no place in it. Johnny’s line “Cut the crap, big brain!” is my favourite example, but I’m also partial to Ben name dropping Timothy Leary like he’s forgotten which Sixties he’s from.

The situation that’s put Ben on the island is that NASA have come to him asking him to test pilot a rocketship for them. He accepts, the controls freeze up, and it explodes.

Johnny’s understanding of the situation is darker. He seems to think that Ben has purposefully killed herself. Not only is he certain that Ben’s dead, but he’s furious with Reed about it and furious with Reed for continuing to search for Ben.

“You should’ve been so concerned before NASA approached him. You saw him. He hadn’t been that down since he became the Thing.”

Everything’s interesting there. That Johnny’s teasing and provoking of Ben is a strategy to help keep the guy alive is a popular interpretation, but this really shows the sort of responsibility Johnny feels the FF have towards Ben. They are, Johnny here believes, his suicide watch. To let him go off and fly missions for NASA is to fail him because…look! This is what happens.

But what does Ben want? Ben wants to fly. That’s why he takes the NASA mission. That’s what he says he’d rather be doing than saving lives. That’s what he eventually does at the end of this story as he takes the controls of the Pogo Plane.

Reunited with his family, Ben is able to fly.

That’s what he wants and that’s what his family want for him; to create a space where he’s able to. Ben’s not a superhero. He’s part of the Fantastic Four, which is a structure built to allow its members to support each other in perusing their own weird ideas of happiness. And this is one of the foundations on which that structure’s built. Ben wants to fly. The earth loves the air.

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