This is my very first Blog, the beginning of what I hope will be a weekly get-together. But while this Blog is a first, its subject will be the last. That is, The Last Fantastic Four Story.
Really, the last one. That’s it. Finito. No more after this one. It’s all over. Truly the last.
Of course, you know that’s not exactly true. The real, regular Fantastic Four comic book will go on until the grandchildren of its current fans are old enough to read it (in fact, its latest issue was released simultaneously with this one-shot special), and on beyond that. There will still be other comics based on The FF. And I expect there will still be FF films and TV programs and video games and whatever other forms of entertainment people may invent in the future. But for the purposes of Stan Lee, the creator (with Jack Kirby) of Marvel’s original heroes, this is the last Fantastic Four story. Stick a fork in it; it’s done.
The Last Fantastic Four Story is not to be confused with Fantastic Four: The End. That latter was a six-issue miniseries by writer/artist Alan Davis, which concluded early this year. Actually, Stan Lee’s project with artist John Romita Jr. was the thing that Marvel originally wanted. When they first coined the concept of imagining the possible last stories and adventures of their heroes, they immediately determined to do the last adventure of the Fantastic Four, and very fittingly they wanted Stan Lee himself to write it. Stan was there at the beginning of The FF, which was the beginning of Marvel as we know it; he should tell the story for the end. The trouble was that the artist selected for the project was their very best artist, John Romita Jr., and John Jr.’s dance card was very full. Aside from his work on Spider-Man (to which he’ll be returning in the latter part of next year), John has been busily making the rounds of the Marvel Universe for the last several years, doing stints on Wolverine, The Black Panther, The Sentry, and The Eternals. His and Stan’s “End of the FF” project kept getting put on hold and pushed back, even though it was at the top of Marvel’s agenda.
What this meant to me was about five years of salivating over the prospect of seeing an entire, full-length Fantastic Four story illustrated by John Romita Jr., who has become the only serious rival to the great George “Pacesetter” Perez for the position of my favorite artist in comics. Over these years I’ve seen tantalizing glimpses of what John Jr. would do with the FF, including a gorgeous issue of Wolverine in which old Insubordinate Claws gets his regenerating butt handed to him by our cosmic-powered cadre. (Odds are that in future Blogs we will be discussing my feelings about Wolverine and other things that turn me off about today’s comics; suffice it to say that I found a whole issue of Edward Talon Hands taking on Marvel’s first and finest characters and getting a righteous clobbering, and having it all drawn by my favorite artist #1A, deeply gratifying. Every so often I just have to take out that issue and admire it—and that’s about what it takes to get me to buy a comic book starring a character I detest.) But still, I wanted to see an actual FF book by John Jr.—and I especially wanted to see an actual FF book by John Jr., written by Stan Lee himself! What is it going to take to get this damn thing out already, I wondered.
I wondered this for five years. Five years I wondered, five years I waited. And at last, this year, with the approaching release of the movie Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, Marvel got the lead out of its and John Jr.’s respective cans, got him hunkered down at the drawing board, and had him finish this book! In the interim, they commissioned Alan Davis to do Fantastic Four: The End, which turned out to be a really sweet piece of work; I’ve reviewed it and a lot of other FF material over at my friend Sean Kleefeld’s site; www.ffplaza.com. Stan and John Jr.’s project was retitled The Last Fantastic Four Story and scheduled for release on August 1, 2007.
And so what did Marvel do? As I waited with worms on my tongue (baited breath) for the first of August, they DELAYED THE DAMN THING! Five years I’d been waiting, and THEY DELAYED IT! Pushed it back from the beginning of the month to the END of the month! I swear, I could have killed them. I could have gone up to 417 5th Avenue in Manhattan and gunned down the whole freaking lot of them like the Punisher--another character I hate. See how P-O’ed I was? They had me relating to characters that I can’t stand! FIVE YEARS of waiting, and they keep me waiting for ANOTHER FREAKING MONTH ON TOP OF THAT? For that, I should have gotten The Last Fantastic Four Story hand delivered to my house with Stan and John Jr.’s autographs on it. Five years and a month, I’m telling you… In the immortal words of Irving Forbush (look him up if you don’t know classic Marvel), “SHEESH!”
The reward for all that waiting is, visually, one of the most satistying comic books you’ll ever see. John Romita Jr., reunited here with his former Spider-Man inker Scott Hanna, has done as beautiful a job as I’d hoped. It really is 48 pages of loveliness, generally speaking. (I was hoping for the 64 pages that Marvel indicated on its company Website.) Okay, I question his use of the pudgy, professorial Watcher instead of the slender and more alien Watcher with a head reminiscent of the flying saucer jockeys of urban myth, which is the more preferred version. And John seemed a little confused about the Thing’s attire. Was Benjy wearing his trunks or his long shorts, with or without an FF insignia on the belt? The answer appears to have been “yes”. And I would have liked to see the traditional Fantastic Four logo on the cover, the way it is on the poster of the cover, which I picked up the prior week. But otherwise, it’s a great-looking book. My greatest “Oohs” and “Aahs” go to pages 15-18, 25, 26, 28, 29, 34, 36, and 41 and 42 (a sensational double-page spread—and by the way, I’m counting the page after the frontispiece, the page with the sparrow falling to Earth, as page 1). Outstanding!
As for the story: This is a very classic Stan Lee plot that would have notched in very comfortably with the FF stories that Stan and Jack were doing in the mid-to-late 1960s. In a nutshell, a super-race called the Cosmic Tribunal has decided that we of Earth are too greedy, prejudiced, and warlike to live. So they send a creature called The Adjudicator, who is bigger than a Celestial (from Kirby’s The Eternals), to pass sentence on us. The Adjudicator appears in multiple bodies across the globe to tell us that we have been selected for extinction in a week, and don’t bother doing anything but set our affairs in order because the Cosmic Tribunal is so powerful that they need only think something and it happens--or doesn’t, if they so desire. (This begs the question of whether the Cosmic Tribunal is any relation to the Living Tribunal from Dr. Strange, but let’s not give ourselves any more headaches than we need…) They are essentially a race of Cosmic Cubes. Naturally, Earth’s super-heroes, led by our Fantastic Four, try to stand up to The Adjudicator anyway (after he obligingly reduces one of his bodies to about ten feet in height and stands implacably in Central Park), and the result of their efforts is about equivalent to the temperature on Pluto; namely, absolute zero. It bears mentioning that The Adjudicator is a bizarre-looking creature with hooks for hands and peg legs. He should have had a parrot on his shoulder and an eye patch, and I kept mentally putting pirate dialogue in his word balloons: “Avast, ye Earthers! Ye’re a lot of scurvy swabs, and it’s the deep six for the lot o’ ye! AARRR, shiver me timbers! Hoist the main sail and swab the poopdeck, ye’re doomed every one!”
I think you can pretty much tell from this story that Stan Lee is basically out of the loop about all the characters he (and Kirby, and Steve Ditko, etc.) created in the 60s. This yarn, which is understood to be occurring in a possible near future of the Marvel Universe we know, must be set in an alternate reality. (But then again, so was FF: The End.) The opening scenes touch on a premise that goes back about as far as Fantastic Four #9 and The Amazing Spider-Man #1; namely, that the FF’s wealth does not match the team’s glamourous image. Supposedly they’re not in it for the money and they’re not getting rich this way; the Fantastic Four is a purely humanitarian effort. The trouble is that this has more recently been changed. Particularly in the modern FF stories of Mark Waid and J. Michael Straczynski, we learn that Reed’s inventions and patents, and the Fantastic Four Corporation that handles all the team’s commercial licensing and endorsements, have all indeed made the FF wealthy. In fact, when the government seized the FF’s assets a while back, we learned that Reed had put Ben’s earnings into a separate trust, and Ben himself was phenomenally rich (at least until he was on his way out of the country during the damn Civil War—I’ve no doubt we’ll be talking about that event and that epithet in weeks ahead—and the Feds caught him at the airport). But at the beginning of this story, it’s back to the old “We don’t make a cent doing this; what are we in it for?” I wish editor Tom Brevoort had brought Stan a little more up to speed about that.
Also, Reed and Sue Richards have two children now. Franklin doesn’t show up until the United Nations sequence and the farewell scene at the end, but where is little Valeria? And the Inhuamans—have they relocated back from the Moon to the Himalayas, or are they just being territorial or trying to help out in that sequence on pages 30 and 31?
For the biggest disappointment of this story, I need drop only one name: Doctor Doom. In interviews about this book, Stan mentioned the world’s greatest arch-villain—and the FF’s number-one nemesis—would be playing a major part in the proceedings, at which point I had to get a napkin to cope with the salivating. “Yes…Stan Lee, John Romita Jr., the FF, and Dr. Doom! Yes, must see it! Must see it!” And what role does Doom actually play? He’s present for about five panels and proves as ineffectual against The Adjudicator as everyone else. This is Stan’s idea of a major role? Heck, they might as well have brought on Willie Lumpkin to twitch his ears at The Adjudicator! I mean, by my thinking, if you’re going to do “The Last Adventure of the Fantastic Four,” it really ought to be a clash between the Fantastic Four and Dr. Doom that is so big, so nasty, so devastating, that it shakes every part of every continent on the globe and is felt as far out as the Shi’Ar Galaxy. It ought to be the throw-down to end all throw-downs between the greatest comic-book enemies there ever were. It should be an FF/Doom fight that would have people’s teeth rattling over at DC Comics! “But no…!” What a bummer. (Actually, Alan Davis in his miniseries did a better job with Doom, but even that left you wanting more.)
To his credit, at least Stan demonstrates one more time how to write the Silver Surfer correctly. Too many writers since the 1980s have taken the lofty, lonely, poetic quality out of the Surfer’s words and made him sound too much like a regular person. Stan reminds us of how to write this character, whose speech pattern Stan himself established: “ Though my heart and soul ever crave companionship, none who live are as lonely as I. Yet, ‘tis here among the stars that I am most at peace…” The Surfer doesn’t talk like someone you’d meet at the Mall, and Stan brings us back to that. And on the subject of the alabaster altruist from outer space, I’ve never considered the Surfer to be one of John Romita Jr.’s best characters. On the fleeting few occasions before this that John Jr. has drawn the Surfer, I never thought he quite “got” the character. But here, he’s risen to the occasion and brought his best game. The renderings of the Kelly Slater of the Cosmos in this tale are really nice; I especially love the shot of the Surfer jumping on his board on page 25. Good job, John.
One rather worrisome thing about the plot (and I’m not the only one to bring this up; it’s also mentioned in the review of this book at www.comicbookresources.com) is that the gathered Marvel super-heroes are too quick to accept the apparent futility of the situation. After attacking The Adjudicator for a few pages to no effect, they all decide they’re doomed. Is this what we expect of the Fantastic Four, who have beaten back Galactus more times than Rachael Ray has beaten egg whites? Is this what we expect of Captain America, who took on the Red Skull when the Skull had the Cosmic Cube and licked him within ten pages? Or Thor, who has stood up to everything from the Destroyer to Mangog to the Celestials to a bad Movie of the Week? I understand what Stan was trying to get across here, that the Cosmic Tribunal is a lot of bad mother-shut-your-mouths and this time we’re really up against the wall and it’s never been so desperate, but the Marvel super-heroes are not quitters. They—and we—would never have survived to face the Cosmic Tribunal if they had been. This part of the story really doesn’t ring true.
For the resolution of this whole mess, Reed has the Silver Surfer call Galactus, who tells the Surfer where to find the only creatures who can stop the Cosmic Tribunal: another new race of alien heavies called the Decimators. Creatures without thought who live only to kill (i.e., a race of rugby players), the Decimators are supposedly impervious to the Tribunal’s powers. This, I don’t get. Perhaps the Tribunal can’t attack the Decimators via telepathy or empathy, but what makes the Decimators invulnerable to the physical effects of the Tribunal’s powers? What stops the Tribunal just wishing these creatures into nothingness? There’s no time to discuss or elaborate on any of this, because by this point we have just a few pages to go, and Stan has one last plot twist to pull out of his hat. After The Adjudicator, in all its bodies, flees Earth, Reed decides the FF can’t just leave the Tribunal to its fate. Even as he decided to save Galactus’s life in John Byrne’s classic FF #244, he now leads the FF, the Surfer, and Galactus to the Tribunal’s planet to drive off the Decimators. This part, at least, rings true to character. Mr. Fantastic, like the crews of Star Trek, reveres all life—even life that wants to destroy him. So, after that gorgeous double-page spread on pages 41 and 42, the Cosmic Tribunal decides that if the Fantastic Four were willing to save them after the Tribunal wanted humanity wiped out, perhaps these Earth folk aren’t so bad after all. They send the FF home to a hero’s welcome, and in the end the FF decide that they have now officially “done it all” and they can retire and live like ordinary people. (Yeah, how many times have we seen this in the regular comic book: the FF trying to live like regular people—who can stretch and burst into flame and make themselves invisible, who’ve been to other galaxies and traveled in time and have portals to antimatter universes in their house? Marvel keeps trotting out this idea, and it never gets any less dumb.) So, with their Fantasticar and flying moving van all packed, they turn out the lights in the Baxter Building, and off they go into history.
Frankly, this whole mess could have been settled in just a few pages. All Reed would have had to do was say to The Adjudicator, “Listen, you don’t like our greed and bigotry and aggression; we understand. So why don’t you just take all the Republicans?” However, as we’ve seen, the leader of the Fantastic Four is just too humane for a thing like that. (Shucks!)
That’s it, then: THE END. This has truly been the last Fantastic Four story, after which there are no more!
All things considered, The Last Fantastic Four Story was fun to read in a way that Marvel comics really aren’t fun to read these days. It was a classic story of Marvel heroes in their classic form, battling an adversary—if not an outright villain—of terrifying power, and saving the day in spite of their own frailties and personal conflicts. It wasn’t an “edgy” or “cutting-edge” or overly long, “decompressed” story. It wasn’t a revisionist or deconstructionist piece of work. It moved along at a brisk pace, telling its story economically. It wasn’t verbose or wordy, with characters almost suffocating in their own word balloons. It didn’t try to take the basic principles of comic-book storytelling that Marvel originated to some esoteric or cynical extreme. It wasn’t created for kids who don’t know their history or (supposedly) have low attention spans. It was just the kind of story that Marvel invented, drawn in an exceptionally beautiful style. People who complain about it not being all the things that I just mentioned (like the reviewer at Comic Book Resources) are really not getting the point. In these days of Bendises and Millars and Gaimans and Morrisons, The Last Fantastic Four Story is a reminder of what pure Marvel comics were like. And I guess it was worth the wait, just to see Stan work with these characters one last time.
So, this was my first Blog. Every weekend, I’m going to do my damnedest to have a new one. Even if it’s just a drawing and a note, I’m going to try to be here with something. (And by the way, a lot of my drawings will be at www.comicspace.com/quantumartist.) Frequently it will be about comics, and the comic book that will come up here most often will no doubt be The Fantastic Four. And if you want to read any more of my ramblings about “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine!”, a lot of them are archived at www.fffplaza.com. When this Blog is not about comics, it will likely deal with other areas of pop culture, in particular television and film, sometimes music. (But beware: I AM A JAZZ FAN.) And when it’s not about comics you know, it will likely be about comics—or other storytelling or artistic projects--that I’ve created and am planning. My projects are like the Hordes of Hydra in Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD: Cut one off and two more will take its place! (And I should also warn you, you’re going to have to deal with a lot of pop-culture allusions if you’re going to hang out here, so be ready to look up things that I mention, because I can’t promise I’ll stop to explain everything.) Or, some weeks, it could be about almost anything that might be on my mind. I have something on my mind just about 24/7, and I’ve created this space to have a place to put it.
And if I’m so fortunate that you visit The Quantum Blog and acutally like what you see and read here, please do me the favor of telling and inviting your friends. I can use all the validation I can get.
Tell next weekend…