If Jonathan Hickman's scripts didn't make such a play of his work belonging to a more deliberately adult approach to the super-person comic-book, then the lack of sense in a great many of them wouldn't be so obvious. But Hickman's style is one of never-apparently-ending stories which proceed at a purposefully ponderous pace, with the reader's attention quite intently drawn to the reputed layering of meaning and the slow accumulation of momentum in the plot. The pleasure lies, it seems, in the reader actively enjoying the delayed gratification offered by a tale which requires the retention of the details of months if not years of backstory combined with a willingness to indefatigably persevere for months if not years more. These are, Hickman's scripts seem to declare for themselves, comics for the more literate, the more laudably patient reader, who's concerned with the virtues of subtlety and guile and the nuance of character rather than the matter of who-hits-who and how hard? Yet if this is so, and if Hickman's work is to be taken as it seems to be intended to be, then why is so often difficult for the less-committed reader to just work out what it is that's actually happening on the page? For Hickman's eye seems to be so focused upon tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow that he repeatedly ignores the imperative to explain what's actually going on in his stories to anyone other than the month-by-month diehards. Worse yet, a great deal of the little that Hickman does deign to spell out in any particular single issue can often appear, at second glance, to be little more than careless nonsense, and that's especially true of the opening five pages of Fantastic Four #600.
I will admit, at the inevitable cost of seeming to be neither literate nor patient, to having been repeatedly defeated by the first 5 pages of the appropriately named Forever, the lead and yet very much not finite and self-contained feature in the title's "100-page 50th anniversary 600th Issue Extravaganza". To be frank, the book's opening sequence isn't just obscurely told, but it's also profoundly unconvincing too. This would, of course, be of no real consequence in a typical silly superhero story, where all the spectacle and energy can compensate for the sheer and essential daftness of the sub-genre. But the work of Hickman and artist Steve Epting sits poorly with the conventions of the aliens-invade-NYC story. On the one side the creators are dolling out great dollops of cod-sci-fi goofiness, and on the other, there's the comics-realism of the art and the dopey empty solemnity of the script. Nothing makes the lack of energy and sense in Hickman's work seem so obvious as the presence in it of a great super-heroic set-piece. The qualities of verve and fun necessary to obscure how stupid the very idea of such an alien assault is are entirely missing here, and so all the reader can see is how poorly-constructed and utterly implausible - even by the logic of a superheroic universe - the whole set-up is.
We might expect that the introductory text page of Forever would have provided the essential minimum of backstory for the reader who selfishly consumed the preceding issue a few months before without bothering to take and memorise a few sides of notes, but nothing of the sort is so. It's not that there's a lack of information on the text page, but it's almost utterly unhelpful in the context of the story which follows. And so, the editorial staff responsible for this issue informs their audience that "The Supreme Intelligence orders the Kree Armada to burn the Earth, leaving nothing alive". Why this should be so isn't explained, and so it's impossible to know what anyone's motives and ends are beyond the issue of the attempted destruction of the Earth and the efforts on the superheroes part to prevent it happening. Yet even that apparently straight-forward aspect of the plot collapses into confusion when the story itself eventually kicks off on pages 4 and 5.
For the dastardly determination by the Kree to "burn the Earth" apparently involves using highly advanced alien craft to attack and bombard New York City just as a squadron of bombers might have attacked London, Berlin or Tokyo in the Second World War. It's such an entirely unconvincing portrayal of hi-tech warfare that it carries a deep sense not of absurdity, but stupidity. Whyever would a "full Kree armada .. in orbit" assault New York with weapons no more powerful than the standard payload of a Lancaster Bomber circa 1944? The attack is well underway as the story opens, and yet all that's been achieved for such a massive investment of interstellar forces is the blowing away of a few top stories of skyscrapers. This isn't mass destruction, and it's certainly not the end of the world, and, as such, it makes no sense at all. That's a fact that's particularly obvious given that the Supreme Intelligence cannot help but be aware that NYC is home to a cadre of Earth's most meddlesome and powerful super-people. There's simply no excuse for the Kree not nuking the entire planet, or raking it with death beams from orbit, or using whatever science-fiction conceit might be pressed into service to do the world-scouring job.
Yes, the scene as depicted by Epting makes a pretty enough picture, and if the antique space operatic riffs had been played with a tongue in the cheek and some relish in the script, then who would have noticed or minded? But Hickman is determined to play this ridiculous scene straight, and so he has Iron Man declare that these ships are "Kree warships. Configuration suggests the central shipyards -- old-school." Gawd knows how Stark would know which interstellar shipyards produce which particular types of Kree ships, but then, gawd only knows why Hickman has the character say all of that in the first place. It doesn't advance the plot a whit, but it does immediately throw the reader out of the story. It's cleverness for the sake of cleverness, and it tells us, with a deeply meaningful frown, that we're in a cleverly written story. When Hickman wants to produce a story which is profoundly dumb, he chooses to present it with a facile covering of seriousness, as if the latter quality won't actually accentuate the former.
It's a statement that sets a tone which demands that we take the events before us entirely seriously, and in doing so, it simply draws attention to the essential implausibility and hollowness of events. Why aren't the alien ships at the very least bombarding the Baxter Building? If it's protected, why haven't we been told? Why don't the Kree have bunker-busters to take out cities or even continents? (How couldn't they have developed such technology?) Why are the Kree wasting time knocking over water towers and apartment buildings when their mission to raze the Earth as a whole? Are they going to blast the entire surface of the globe flat using such ineffective and fourth-division weaponry? How will they ever get the job done? Why are they dropping troops into New York anyway? (Did they have some shopping to do first? Are they going to execute Earth's people one by one, starting with the citizens of the Big Apple?) Look again at this apparently spectacular and supposedly informing establishing shot by Mr Epting and it simply defies the logic even of the wonderfully absurd Marvel Universe.
|Yet another example of Hickman's dialogue seeming to make perfect sense until the reader thinks about it. Here Hickman counter-productively diminishes the threat of the Kree attack by having, as now is canon, the eternally arrogant Captain America express contempt for their threat. Note that the apparent super-strategist of the Marvel Universe incorrectly analyses the situation as well, so that Reed has to correct him; we'd expect such a master of warfare to at least look for expert opinion before opening his vainglorious mouth, but he doesn't. Indeed, the master of America's defences doesn't even choose to check in with any of his own forces as far as we can see, let alone the irrelevancy of the President. But then what kind of battlefield genius is Rodgers? He seems to think that the Kree have picked the wrong time to attack. Yet the heroes already face a power so great they've had to combine together to challenge it, which must suggest the possibility of war on two fronts, an obvious military catastrophe. Not only that, but by the coincidence of their arrival, the Kree now have a great many of their most dangerous foes concentrated by chance in a single place. One nuke and that's it for the Avengers and their friends, but the not-so-good Captain thinks his side hold all the aces. He's obviously never to studied military history at all.|
The problem lies in Hickman's lack of interest in making his work as transparent as possible. From the evidence of just about everything I've ever read of his, from Fantastic Four to the Ultimates to S.H.I.E.L.D., the author just doesn't seem to care too much about such trifles. In these first few pages of Forever, we see all the well-established habits of this exposition-adverse, funophobic writer. In avoiding the responsibility to be clear and rational in the context of his own stories, he's presented a script which focuses on spectacle and moments of supposed character insight when he might have been more productively focusing on the basics of storytelling. Why didn't he consider the events on these pages as a sequence of plot-points which need to be established in as transparent and as logical a fashion as possible? In such a situation, Hickman and his various collaborators might have managed not to have undermined his own narrative with so much that's quite obviously dysfunctional. There might even have been time for a touch of a brief info-dump to explain why the Kree have sent such ineffective warships to destroy the Earth that they're being effectively resisted by the masonry of central Manhattan even before the super-people come out to play. But for all his reputation as a man who focuses on character and upon the subtleties of plot, Hickman consistently produces work which seems simply daft. But of course, he isn't really concerned with logic, anymore than he's concerned with sense. Instead, he appears to be fixated with the clever-sounding moments, the supposedly breathtaking scenes, and, presumably, the long-term twists and turns of his plot. But what his work doesn't often seem to suggest is a great many of the virtues which are commonly associated with it.
The sequences which focus on the super-kids of the Baxter Building are as enjoyable as always, and Hickman does have a knack for making it seem as if his characters actually do know each other in an intimate fashion. But that's hardly enough to justify buying one stupid, portentuous, short-changing issue of the Fantastic Four after another. My apologies to the friends of TooBusyThinking who carry a sincere and substantial regard for Mr Hickman's work, but if I can't make it past 5 pages of a comic without despairing, without its plot being quite obviously ill-thought through and poorly explained, then I don't think that I'm going to be back.
Here's another prime example of why the superhero comic-book of today simply doesn't sell beyond a tiny number of acolytes. And yet this book is apparently a symbol of excellence, of value for money, of the best that the industry can produce. Either I've gone absolutely mad, or several hundred thousand others have, and I know which explanation I'm sticking with. I've read and re-read the beginning of Forever and, no matter how I try, I simply can't shift the conviction that the necessary backstory for this issue is absent, that the Kree's invasion is 100% implausible, and that the behaviour of every single superhuman shown in those first few word-balloon bearing panels reflects an unbelievable ignorance of even the very basics of military strategy. In short, in just a few sides, Jonathan Hickman's work has sent me ricocheting out of his narrative and off in search of a quiet room and a calming cool drink of water.
How are we ever going to sell the superhero comic to anyone who isn't already a fully paid up member of the Rump, when the so-called best of the sub-genre is so often profoundly lackadaisical, so often lacking in either winning wackiness or even storytelling sense?
|If you tolerate this, the rest of the mainstream comics industry, or what's left of it, will be next.|