From the title, I think you can guess how I feel about this comic. Yup, I'm comfortable saying that this run has hit something of a stride here. We're only three issues in and things aren't quite pitch perfect yet, but I thoroughly enjoyed this issue. Writer James Robinson has officially won my confidence over with this issue and at this point it's his to lose. How did Robinson achieve this remarkable feat? Part of it is just good writing, part of it is sticking true to the characters, and part of it is showing a very welcome knowledge of and appreciation for past continuity. On top of that, the art… Well, let's just get right to the breakdown. SPOILERS!!!
The Good: While I am a bit disappointed that there is no definable threat that is encountered, engaged, and neutralized over the course of this issue as in the past two (i.e., Fin Fang Foom and the Franklin-verse Bug Horde), there is something even better here, character development and exploration! I feel like it's been a while since the readership has been treated to a decent chunk of page real estate devoted to the Fantastic Four just being human beings and relating to each other like actual fleshed-out characters during legitimate downtime. In my mind, the best issues of this series have been able to showcase interpersonal relationships, advance ongoing subplots, and have their own self-contained and satisfying arc. While this issue doesn't really have a traditional three-act structure and a defined obstacle that is overcome, it is still remarkably satisfying in how it lets the characters breathe. I feel like we haven't really had this since Hickman's winding-down issues at the tail end of his run. Perhaps the character who gets the best treatment here is Johnny Storm. At the end of issue two, he lost his powers and I called out the corny "single, manly tear" that he shed in response. You can forget about that though, because this issue nails his response to this situation. He doesn't cry, he doesn't throw a tantrum, he doesn't lash out at the rest of the team, what he does do is act like a mature adult and decide to focus on elements of his life that aren't dependent on his powers. He doesn't give up on getting them back and tells Reed that he has confidence in him, but he is a realist and decides that his life isn't over just because he can't "Flame On." In this context, I can totally accept that his initial reaction might have been the sort of sense of loss that would prompt a tear, as trite as the image was. Robinson has earned tons of brownie points with me by allowing Johnny to act his age and appropriate maturity level in this comic. He is allowed to reminisce about his early days fighting the Asbestos Man and reminiscing is something adults generally do! We even acknowledge Johnny's relationship with Lyja, the Skrull who impersonated Alicia Masters and married him once upon a time. For once, Johnny is acting like the earnest young man originally envisioned by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. He even references Lyja as possibly being the "love of [his] life" which totally flies in the face of his image as a skirt-chasing womanizer that was largely invented following Heroes Reborn: The Return, the miniseries that kicked off the third volumes of most of Marvel's flagship titles.
Mentioning Lyja is part of another reason why I love this issue. Readers get to see a number of elements of past Fantastic Four continuity and the continuity of its individual members referenced. We get continuing references to the Franklin-verse, Johnny's deaths/resurrections in the Negative Zone play a part, Ben Grimm's team-up series Marvel Two-In-One receives an oblique nod, Damage Control pops up, and Giganto (the bipedal whale version as opposed to the Mole Man's pet) and Namor swim through a few panels. Heck, even Wyatt Wingfoot and Darla Deering who figured prominently in the last run are name-checked. Miraculously, none of this feels forced or gratuitous and shouldn't detract from the enjoyment of newer readers. While this issue does lack a central villain or threat, its three biggest developments set up two for the future and further what seems to be a central mystery of this run. During the very well-written interaction between Alicia Masters and Ben Grimm, we see that they are being spied on by Phillip "The Puppet Master" Masters. His dialogue makes it clear that he disapproves of their reunion. While I'm slightly critical of his reaction (see below), I am quite excited to see how this plays out. While the Masters situation doesn't quite qualify as a cliffhanger, the next two developments do. Over the course of this issue, Reed is studying the Franklin-verse horde and discussing them with Nick Fury, Jr. and just before the end of this issue drops the bombshell that they are actually human. I don't know how that works but I'm keen to see this mystery develop. Arguably though, the biggest cliffhanger is the confrontation of Ben Grimm and the powerless Johnny Storm the Wingless Wizard and the latest incarnation of his Frightful Four, revealed on the comic's final page. Really, that's a bit of a misnomer though as the situation could be more accurately described as the Wizard taking leadership of the Wrecking Crew. Personally, I'm just confused about why there appears to be a new and possibly female Bulldozer on the team. At any rate, these are all great developments and cliffhangers, and I can't wait to see where they go.
I'm also very happy to see that we are given being given a look into Valeria Richards' time in Latveria. I've always found it intriguing that she and Doctor Doom have something of an understanding and mutual respect/appreciation. It seems to have somewhat curtailed any overt aggression from Doom toward the Fantastic Four but after hundreds of issues of that status quo, I'm more interested to see where this goes. The only thing that would make this better is if Kristoff Vernard shows up and the death of Cassie Lang at the hands of Doom is dealt with, but I digress. The flashback to Susan Richards, the Invisible Woman, discovering Valeria's departure serves the added purpose of showing Sue in the black-and-white Future Foundation costume, which suggests that the change to red and black actually occurred for a story-based reason that will be revealed later and not just because it looks neat or for "funsies." I'm also really glad to see Sue mothering and teaching the Future Foundation in this issue. It's a nice look at her character and I'm thrilled that we're not forgetting about the kids. I'm also intrigued that Franklin and Val look a bit older and I wonder if they're being allowed to age a bit. Stepping away from the writing, the art in this issue is spectacular. Artist Leonard Kirk, inker Karl Kesel, and colorist Jesus Aburtov come together to make a truly beautiful book. Panel layouts are traditional enough to make this feel like a comic book, something I appreciate, but are dynamic and inventive enough to keep things interesting. All of the characters are rendered well and very expressively, and the action moments are very engaging. Aside from just going through the book and calling out specific panels and saying "that's awesome!" I'm not sure what else to say. Go pick up the book and look yourself! The Bad: I honestly have nothing I can say that was truly bad in this issue. Okay, if I had to pick something, I'd say that Johnny using the phrase "to no avail" feels out of character. Actually, that isn't entirely true. This cover kinda sucks a little. I love John Romita, Jr. but this feels phoned in. The characters are rendered well enough but they're fairly static and the background is just empty color. Also, the Human Torch's powers are gone in this issue, so why is he depicted flying off in flames? That, plus his statement, suggests that he's leaving the team willingly with his powers intact and that he's being a bit of a jerk about it which isn't the case at all. In this case, you certainly shouldn't judge this book by its cover. The Questionable:
Where we talk about things that are neither good nor necessarily bad, but are at least a little head-scratching. There are only a few things that made me raise an eyebrow in this issue but I would definitely like to take a moment to explore them. For starters, why is Ben Grimm where his trench coat, fedora, and dark glasses ensemble as opposed to normal street clothes? I honestly can't recall the last time in the main series when he just wore that over his costume for just walking down the street. Perhaps I'm misremembering but I've always associated that outfit with times when Ben was uncomfortable about his appearance, something which I don't recall being the case for some time. I think the last time he had a major crisis about his personal appearance and sense of identity was back in the 1990s when Wolverine slashed half of his face off. I'm a bit confused about why the Puppet Master seems so horrified by and/or dead set against the prospect of Ben and Alicia getting back together. When he and Doc Doom trapped the team in Liddleville back in issue 236, he seemed pretty content letting the two of them be together in the artificial "utopia" he'd helped create. Heck, in issue 357, he and Ben teamed up in mutual concern for Alicia to reveal that she'd been replaced by the Skrull Lyja. Perhaps most damningly though in Volume 3 Issue 45, the Puppet Master specifically manipulated Ben and Alicia into getting back together. That being said, since he does seem to have genuine concern for Alicia, I could see this as a protective reaction considering what Alicia has been subjected to in the past as a result of her association with Ben and the rest of the Fantastic Four. If that were the case, I would still be perplexed by the specific tone of his reaction. I'm still thoroughly confused by why Johnny is suddenly pursuing a career as a singer. As far as I can tell in past continuity, he's always tried pursuing acting when not engaged in superheroics. Maybe this has something to do with his former girlfriend Darla Deering who was a pop singer? I'm also a bit concerned about the way Johnny is referring to Reed's attempts to cure Ben Grimm. There's something about his statement to Reed of, "Look at Ben. How long have you been working on a cure for him to no avail…," that makes me think that we might be ignoring the complicated history of Ben's changing to and from his human form. Reed's work in that area hasn't exactly been a straightforward progression. At one time it was determined that Ben had the ability to change back to human at will but had developed a mental block because he thought Alicia only loved him as the Thing. At other times, he has been stuck as human until willing turning back to the Thing. Still other times, he has been able to change from human to Thing by use of alien technology. I even seem to recall a time when Ben could revert back and forth from human form at will following a fight with the Grey Gargoyle. At least he could until his skin started spawning mindless, destructive versions of himself that were shunted to a pocket dimension and his ability to turn human was removed by a hyper-evolved version of his own epidermis… It was complicated. Most recently, the Future Foundation kids developed a serum that gives Ben one day each year in human form which still seems to be in effect. Anyway, I just don't want to lose sight of the fact that Ben's status quo has always been a moving target. Conclusion: This book has officially achieved "must read" status as far as I'm concerned. Especially if you've been a fan of the Fantastic Four for any length of time, buy the first three issues and read them all right now. I'll keep you updated as we move forward but for now I've got really high hopes for the future of this series. For non-fans, maybe there will be another article coming in the near future to help you through some of the less obvious references… No promises but stay tuned. Anyway, I'm not going to go as far as the cover blurb and dub this run "undoubtedly classic" just yet, but this particular issue is certainly fantastic.