I was hesitant to put the term “retcon” in that title for what I think are obvious reasons. In comics, “retcon” is almost a dirty word often signaling hack writing and misguided narrative malarkey.
Still, I can’t think of a more appropriate term for what writer James Robinson has done in this issue by introducing a hitherto unknown and undepicted element of past Fantastic Four continuity which has repercussions in the current storyline. Far from contrived nonsense though, this retcon is handled beautifully in a way that honors and fits perfectly into past continuity. It feels completely natural and rather than tainting the reading of past issues, it merely informs the current plot in a way that is entirely supportive of what Robinson appears to be trying to accomplish in his run.
I admit that I was skeptical of the direction Robinson was taking at first and have been since the solicit for the previous issue was made available, but he has proved me entirely wrong with this issue. He and artists Leonard Kirk and Dean Haspiel have produced another excellent entry in what is shaping up to be a truly memorable run for Marvel’s First Family.
In order to discuss this issue in detail, let’s start with a brief synopsis… SPOILERS!!!
Fantastic Four #7 opens with a continuation of last issue’s flashback to an attempt to turn Ben “The Thing” Grimm human again. It fails spectacularly with Ben reverting back to his standard orange, rocky form. Johnny “The Human Torch” Storm and Reed “Mister Fantastic” Richards then talk and it turns out that Johnny entering the transformation chamber and sitting down inside it in the last issue is what caused it to malfunction catastrophically. Reed is outraged and Johnny apparently horrified, but they agree to keep the truth from Ben as telling him will only hurt him further since this method of turning him human can never be tried again.
The story then cuts to present day where Ben is berating Johnny for having kept secret this from him and tells him he never wants to see him again. Later, Ben is called by his girlfriend Alicia Masters asking him to save her from her stepfather Phillip “The Puppet Master” Masters. On the way, Ben speaks to Reed who meets him at the scene. When Reed arrives, he is shocked to find Ben holding the dead body of Phillip Masters in his arms disclaiming responsibility for the man’s death.
Wow, some cliffhanger, right? Anyway, on to the breakdown…
As I already stated, retcons can be horrible things. Here though, it works completely. This flashback depicts a perfectly believable scenario that might have happened back in the FF’s history. Attempts to turn Ben human happened regularly back in those days, nobody acts out of character, and it doesn’t really change how one would read or interpret any of the team’s history that would have taken place after this event. Amazingly, I can even roughly place this in FF continuity since Robinson referenced at landmark FF story as having recently occurred and editor Mark Paniccia actually used an honest-to-god editorial caption. Truthfully, you have no idea how excited I was to see that little tan box telling me that these events took place not long after Fantastic Four #40.
Having located this story in time, I applaud Robinson for choosing to set it at this time and for how he crafts Ben’s response to this revelation. Placing it here means that Ben’s reaction to this failure at the time of the event, coming as Ben states “after [he] was [human] again… then turning back voluntarily ta save ya all from Doom when we battled him for the Baxter Building,” is particularly strong, emphasizing as it does the weight of this failure and what he has lost. It also provides a nifty Easter Egg since #40 was actually titled “The Battle of the Baxter Building.”
Turning to Ben’s present day reaction, I am thrilled at how Robinson has written him. Ben’s anger is not primarily about being human. That is certainly part of it but if that was the main problem, I would have called foul since so many other influences had Ben turning back and forth from human to orange rock since this event. No, here we see Ben angry about the lie and about the way Johnny has treated him over the years. Almost more important is his bemoaning “all the years [he] could’a had with Alicia.” This is powerful since Ben has only recently gotten back together with Ms. Masters and his relationship with her plays into the ending cliffhanger.
Really considering the implications of this quote brings up an interesting line of thought. If Ben had turned human permanently way back during the events depicted in the flashback here, he could have had many years with Alicia. At the time of the flashback, his relationship with Alicia was particularly strong. In theory, if he had become human as a result of that experiment he would never have stayed on the Beyonder’s Battleworld following the events of Secret Wars. In fact, Ben remained on Battleworld because staying there allowed him to change back and forth from human to rocky form at will. It was this absence that allowed a relationship to blossom between Johnny Storm and Alicia (who would later turn out to have been replaced by a Skrull but that’s another story), who would later marry. Ben’s relationship with her would never fully recover; the two only drifting farther apart as the result of the Onslaught and Heroes Reborn events.
In short, through beautiful writing and a canny knowledge of Fantastic Four continuity, James Robinson has taken a plot point that could have severely damaged this story and turned it into something beautiful. I give him all the respect in the world for pulling this off.
It’s worth noting that Robinson excels in other areas as well. I already mentioned the ending cliffhanger and it really worked for me. Seeing Ben standing there holding the dead body of Phillip Masters after Ben only recently started seeing Alicia again and elements of this issue tying back to Ben’s relationship with her was powerful. Additionally, his writing of Reed in the flashback is spot-on, especially for the period in which these events took place. Reed really goes off on Johnny showing how much he cares about Ben and how much this failure meant to him. As far as the period goes, Reed is somewhat callous in just how cutting his dialogue is toward Johnny which is appropriate for Lee/Kirby Reed who could be kind of an insensitive jerk at times.
Turning to the art, I’d like to highlight artist Dean Haspiel and colorist Nolan Woodard first. They really knocked it out of the park in the flashback. I have literally nothing bad to say about their work. The bright colors are period-appropriate, faces are expressive, panel layouts are engaging, and the emotions are captured wonderfully for all of the characters. There is a lot of pain and regret here and you really feel it on the faces of Ben, Johnny, and Reed. Knowing roughly when this story takes place, I can also compliment Haspiel on using period appropriate costumes for the team. Technically the chest emblem should be blue instead of black (a minor quibble) but otherwise these outfits are perfectly mid-period Lee/Kirby. Further kudos to Haspiel too for mirroring Ben’s “This Man… This Monster” pose from Fantastic Four #51 for Johnny as the weight of his screw-up hits him. It’s a beautifully subtle touch with the water from the sprinklers echoing the rain of the first interior image from that same issue. Really, Haspiel and his style were a perfect choice for this section and his work here is excellent with Woodard’s coloring supporting his work all the way along.
Unfortunately, I have to say that the work from artist Leonard Kirk, inkers Karl Kesel and Rick Magyar, and colorist Jesus Aburtov, it a bit of a mixed bag. Starting with the good stuff though, some images are wonderfully captured. A minor flashback done by Kirk showing Johnny hitting Ben with pies is beautifully rendered in perfect detail. Similarly, the pages starting with Ben sitting in a bar and finishing with the ending cliffhanger are beautifully rendered. Faces are expressive, details are sharp, colors pop, and I’m still digging Kirk’s panel layouts. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the very first page of the comic which is an extreme close-up of an angry Ben Grimm simply saying “You lied, Johnny…” which is drawn, inked, and colored in wonderful detail, perfectly conveying Ben’s anger at this moment.
In particular, I got a real kick out of seeing the Puppet Master’s robots resembling different superheroes mashed up into disparate forms. The single best image though might be the final page of the book which depicts that ending cliffhanger of Ben holding a lifeless Puppet Master in his arms. It’s a wonderfully impactful image that really knocks the wind out of you and makes you excited for the next issue.
Kirk’s and the rest of the art team’s early work in this issue showing Ben’s confrontation with Johnny is not their best. For the most part, there are no backgrounds provided so the two characters might as well be talking in a blackish grey void. If you want Ben to look intimidating, show him hulking over furniture. If you want his punch into the floor to have impact, show me the hole it leaves or pictures falling off the wall and furniture flying around the room. I don’t know precisely what effect Kirk was trying to have by not drawing a proper setting but it didn’t work for me. Also, I get that darkness can be good for the mood of a scene but it begs the question of why Johnny doesn’t have any lights on in his house.
Another point worth making is that Kirk needs to decide precisely what the relationship is of Ben’s jaw to the rest of his face. I feel like he doesn’t quite know how Ben should look from every angle because he hasn’t thought it through completely. As a result his face looks odd and sketchily defined in the scene with Johnny both when he says “No, Johnny, ya didn’t think…” and again when he punches the ground saying “All that time!” If you look at the image provided illustrating variations on Ben’s face, I think Kirk might be going a bit too far into “Chin Too Wide, Too Badrock!” territory. I think that this contributes to the impression that Kirk has trouble deciding where Ben’s lower lip ends or connects to his upper lip from certain angles. Additionally, I’d be thrilled if he made his brow ridge just a bit more prominent but that’s purely a matter of personal taste.
Sticking with the art, it’s nitpicking time! Colorist Aburtov gave Reed Richards blue eyes in one panel when they ought to be brown. What can I say? I notice these things.
Where we talk about things that are neither good nor necessarily bad, but are at least a little head-scratching.
Unfortunately, I do have a minor quibble or two with Robinson. When Johnny suggests that Ben became more at peace with being the Thing over time, Ben’s response seems to suggest that he was only putting on a “brave face” and never really adjusted to his new life. While I don’t think that the content of past issues supports this reading of Ben’s relationship to his appearance and his personal development, I can see why he might say this in a moment of anger. As such, I’m ambivalent about this exchange, not entirely happy with it but not especially annoyed either.
Also, another minor quibble is Reed’s use of the term “cool” during the flashback portion of this issue. It really feels out of character. I feel like if he was going to say it in the context in which he’s using the term, it would need to be put in quotations to imply that he was using it to make a point.
Possibly the biggest head-scratcher of this issue though is the cover. When I saw last issue kick off a fight between Susan “The Invisible Woman” Richards and the Avengers, I expected it to continue in this issue given that it is depicted on the cover. However, Ben references the fight as already having happened by the time this issue has occurred. I honestly feel a little cheated as I was looking forward to seeing Sue kick some Avenger @$$. It isn’t every day that she gets to go full-on brawler and really mix it up so I was really looking forward to more of that altercation. I hope we somehow revisit it in a future issue and if we don’t I’ll be pretty disappointed.
I don’t want you to get the impression that just because I’m reviewing this thoroughly that I didn’t like it. I loved this issue despite its minor drawbacks. The plot is moving ahead beautifully weaving past continuity into forward progression as it goes in an exciting and rewarding way. I truly got a visceral jolt when I hit the ending cliffhanger and realized just how perfectly this issue had come together. The art is on balance excellent and engaging. This is a series that deserves to be read. I’m more excited to be reading Fantastic Four than I have been in a long time and I am thrilled to be able to say that.