The Bendis Age: Hickman's Fantastic Four

Somewhat amazingly, I was not the only person to think of using the extremely clever and witty title Marvel Then for a series of posts on the Marvel era that started coming to a very slow conclusion last month. Because I'm that guy you go out to dinner with, you know the one, who refuses to order the same things as someone else, I've decided to retitle the series, this time emphasizing that its Brian Bendis's exit from The Avengers family of titles, more than anything else, that marks this as the beginning of a new era. Welcome to The Bendis Age. 

Why not start where all this began, right? Before I move forward, though, a quick word about what's going on here: these BENDIS AGE posts aren't going to be comprehensive, except in one very particular case. Instead, they're going to be quick and improvised, and they're going to reflect a very simple truth about me as a comic book reader: I'm not doctrinaire about my purchases. I don't have enough money to be. Every month, I have to choose what to buy and what not to buy, and every month I don't buy something that I did buy the month before, often because I want to try something new.

As a purchasing strategy, I think its the only viable one. As a strategy for keeping track of serial storytelling, though, it kind of blows. As I flipped through my shortboxes, picking out books I think would be interesting to reread at this particular moment in time, I'm struck by books I bought but didn't read-- much of Journey Into Mystery, until I realized I wasn't reading it and stopped buying it*-- as well as the books that I bought, but just not consistently. Hickman's neat little duo of Fantastic Four comics are among these.

Of course, the fact that Hickman got me to buy Fantastic Four at all is something of a feat, since I don't think there's a character in all of comics that pisses me off quite as much as Reed Richards. Although the insufferable smartest man alive is one of comics' greatest stock characters, Marvel has five such characters that I can think of off the top of my head. Reed doesn't have the charm of Tony Stark, the menace of Bruce Banner, the humor of Amadeus Cho or, even, the pluck of the recent iterations of Hank Pym. He's just kind of a know-it-all, and, worse, one who chronically doesn't seem to remember who he's got around him because he's got so many other things to do, because, more than he's interested in them, he's interested in solving puzzles and saving the world. Reed Richards simply isn't a very good dad.

Although I don't harbor quite the same distrust of the concepts of the other members of the extended Richards family, the only truly great character in the bunch is Benjamin Grimm, the ever lovin', blue eyed Thing. It used to be that Yancey Street's favorite son was the only good reason to tune into the book-- you could certainly be excused for getting your fix from New Avengers, at any rate. I don't think I'm the only person to think this way- the scuttlebutt on the book is that it never sells as well as Marvel thinks it should and I expect that this reason is this: the Fantastic Four, as characters, have a tendency to be grating at best and, at worst, simple and boring.

But it wasn't always this way. You only have to go so far as Matt Fraction's ongoing reading of the Stan Lee and Jack Kirby collaborations on the earliest issues of the book to see that, to see the extent of the universe that the Fantastic Four were born into, to see the sense of wonder that that classic team up evoked not only in the reader but, also, in the characters themselves. If you can, find some examples of Kirby's collage pages from this period, itself a suggestion that the drawn comic book was not the final frontier, that comics could be much more than illustrations and word balloons printed using a four color process.

Jonathan Hickman, as talented as he is, wasn't quite so ambitious, or at least he wasn't here. But, from the beginning, he was interested in reinvigorating a stagnant idea. In a postscript to his run, published instead of a letters page in the last issues of both Fantastic Four and FF, he writes about his first goal for his work with Marvel's first family:
I still remember how disappointed I was when I found out my boss, Tom Brevoort, wasn't going to put "THE WORLD'S GREATEST COMIC MAGAZINE" tagline of my first issue of FANTASTIC FOUR. The dispassionate, analytical side of my brain understood it, but I swear to God and I do mean Jack Kirby, the hopeless romantic in me was crushed.
The fact that Hickman was able, since that first issue of Fantastic Four, to cast aside that dispassionate, analytical side in favor of that crushed hopeless romantic is directly responsible for the success, artistic, critical and, in a relative sense, commercial, of his run with these characters. Because he was able to transform the Fantastic Four from insufferable super cardboard cutouts into heroes with significant and interesting pathos, he made them readable again. Hickman's take on the group, which pits love of the family against a responsibility for the world, the addiction to the puzzle against the embrace of imagination, chooses the latter in both cases and casts Reed in his own father's absent role, before revealing to him his own failings, evident to readers for years. For the first time in a long time, maybe for the first time since Lee and Kirby, Hickman was able to discard the cold stare of Reed Richards in favor of the ebullience, the straight wonder, of Reed's creators.

This last issue of FF, even moreso than his last issue of Fantastic Four, demonstrates that this is exactly what Hickman was trying to do, that focusing the book up rather than down was the plan from the start.
Reading the two first family books over the last little bit, and particularly before Hickman wrapped up his three year arc on the book twelve or so months ago, was to be convinced that anything was possible and that most things were plausible. Everything was fair game-- the death of Galactus, the death of the Human Torch, the Mad Celestials, an alliance with Dr. Doom. Anything could happen. Anything could be.

Process: Jamie McKelvie

Jamie McKelvie shares an uncolored page from Young Avengers #1

Today Is Election Day

Go vote. If you don't vote, shame on you-- whatever happens, you've lost the privilege to complain about whatever happens next.

To get you in the mood, go read Caleb Mozzocco's Super Endorsements series:

Remember that this is Bizarro. 
Update, from the desk of Paolo Rivera: