Sunday, 18 November 2012

On "Thor God Of Thunder" #1 & "Fantastic Four" #1

In which the blogger reviews several of Marvel's  new Now! titles, a business that inevitably involves spoilers;

      
Jason Aaron's script for his first issue of Thor focuses on the not inconsiderable drawbacks of a prospectively eternal life. Portraying his protagonist during three key moments of his past, present and future, Aaron succinctly sketches out Thor's absurdly powerful capabilities while simultaneously suggesting their limitations. To the ninth century's God of Thunder, what passes as immortality has brought with it an overconfidence bordering on arrogance. To Thor's future self, besieged alone in the Great Hall Of Asgard by an army of terrors, century upon century of life has brought incalculable loss, senility and infirmity. And where today's Odinson is concerned, nothing so accentuates the pitfalls of the possibility of athanasia as the sight of a room full of the corpses of giant alien gods, left hanging from meat hooks for several hundred years after having been slowly tortured to death. Artist Esad Ribic's impressively disturbing depiction of the relatively tiny and agoraphobically isolated Thor faced with a room of murdered colossi is perhaps the single most unsettling sight in any superhero comic this year.


To the reader who's either unfamiliar with Thor or unconvinced about why they ought to be interested in his adventures, this debut is an impressively tense and engrossing introduction. To those of us who've enjoyed something of the character's adventures before, this innovative and fresh take - far more Robert E. Howard than Hal Foster or Stan'n'Jack - suggests a fusion of outright horror with fantasy that promises to be well worth the sticking with.

      
Matt Fraction's script for Fantastic Four #1 makes for an awkwardly disjointed if often undeniably charming experience. It jumps backwards and forwards through time and situation as if Fraction had been concerned that his tale just wasn't as compelling in itself as it ought to be. As such, it's far easier to remember the issue as a number of discrete and on-occasion entertaining scenes than it is to recall being caught up in the forward momentum of it all. At moments, it's even hard to tell what the relationship between a particular incident and the story as a whole might be. Why, for example, were three pages given over to the Thing's interruption of a street-fight in his old neighbourhood, and why was he so very concerned about footage of his doing so appearing on the net? The intention appears to have been to give each cast member a defining moment of their own. Sadly, doing so reduces Ben Grimm to an easily embarrassed and largely ineffective old curmudgeon, while Sue Richards is portrayed solely in terms of her being a loving and attentive mother to the Baxter Building's extended family of super-kids. Though the scenes of her matriarchal duties are the most touching in the book, they also carry the unfortunate sense that the Invisible Woman's defining characteristics are those of a housewife. She's in charge of meals, comforting distressed nippers and even supervising the kid's pre-bedtime rituals. Anyone new to the Fantastic Four could be forgiven for thinking that they were being told Sue Richards was the ideal homemaker and little else. Even when the formidable artistic team of Mark Bagley and Mark Farmer show her touchingly tucking in one of her charges while Dragon Man sweetly reads in the background, it's hard not to wonder why the men of the household aren't helping.

      
Yet threaded through the longueurs and miscalculations are a series of undoubtedly fascinating enigmas. How will Reed Richards save himself and his team-mates from the fatal condition which is afflicting him and threatening them? What will the planned voyage through time and space in search of a cure involve, and why has Richards decided to hide the truth of both illness and mission from his wife, his brother-in-law and his best friend? Match those narrative snares with the appeal of scenes showing, for example, the Human Torch dining Darlo in a flying saucer in the Negative Zone, and there's an inarguable agreeableness about much of what's on show. It may not be enough to convince the curious and as yet uncommitted to return next month. But it will most probably encourage a significant number of readers to keep an eye on things in the hope that reports of tighter storytelling on Mr Fraction's part begin to appear..

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17 comments:

  1. Excellent commentary, Colin. Call me old, but I was really hoping I'd open the FF and see a splash page with story title in a spiky balloon, starburst, whatever, something like 'If this be doomsday'. It's such a classic FF device that I'd find it irresistible. I suppose today's creators don't wish to invite comparison with the FF's glory days, and of course (of course? Sorry, that's presumptuous), the likes of Mark Waid and Mike Weiringo didn't need to inject us with nostalgia in order to entertain and impress.

    Anyway, indeed, not a bad beginning. I hope Fraction breaks away from the Jonathan Hickman set-up ... Franklin and Valeria are neglected enough without all those other kids vying for attention. Send them to live with Loki's hell hounds.

    Which brings me to the Realm Eternal, and Thor. Wow.

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    1. Hello Martin:- I will readily admit having read your own review several days attempting my own. In fact, I read your review before my own copy arrived in the post. I tip my hat to you.

      I've not got a copy of the comic right in front of me, but memory says that the opening page was a homage of sorts, using the visuals for the cosmic ray storm from FF #1 for the "in one year's time" scene. Yet that's hardly the kind of fully-blown homage you're playfully suggesting. Perhaps we'll see something of that in the months to come. It's the kind of conceit which I think MF could play well with, though it may be that Kirby-esque visuals will fit in better with Michael Allred on FF.

      (I'm rather fond of the Fantastic Four-as-orphanage. And it makes me smile to note how the FF has changed; when they were introduced, it was as a dysfunctional family. Now it's taken for granted that they're the ideal family for poor, homeless nippers.)

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    2. ps: Quite agree with you about Thor, as I guess is obvious. A terrific first issue and no mistaking ...

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  2. Hey Colin:

    Just writing to point out some parallels between the opening of Hickman's run and Fraction's first issue. It seems that you can't have a story-line in the Fantastic Four any longer that doesn't begin with 1) Sue being presented as a 1950s housewife and 2) Reed keeping a terrible secret from his family. Hell, you even got some of that in Waid's run.

    Am I missing something? Why do writers seem to gravitate toward these same ideas? Is this something common to FF stories in the 60s, 70s, and 80s? Because I don't recall this behaviour in the (admittedly terrible) 90s. Is this the post-Civil War Reed Richards? Or is it simply that writers are trying to evoke the same 'reckless genius' beat of the FF's origin and accidentally including the era's attendant misogyny? I'm both baffled and bored by the entire thing. Finnaganbeginagain.

    Thor was wicked though. Good call.

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    1. Hello Zig Zag:- I didn't read the first Hickman FF at the time, and I've very little memory of it. (I've only taken to JH's writing this year, and I fear that if I go back, I still struggle to warm to his earlier stuff.) But I'm not a big fan of the two situations you mention. I tried not to overstate the case in the above, but the whole business of Sue-The-Matriarch in the above was unfortunate, to say the least. As for Reed keeping a secret, and a major one too, well; if he hasn't learned after all that's happened, then I fear I don't care to be reading about him. I've enjoyed alot of MF's work recently, and I'm not saying he won't turn this around. But if Reed's NEVER going to learn his lesson, then it's an example of narrative conservatism too far for me.

      I certainly think that Civil War was a watershed in how Reed is seen, and written about. A shame, because the finest - bar none, in my book - take on the character can be seen in the very first Mark Waid issue. THAT's the Reed I believe in, and that's the guy I'd prefer to be reading about. He reappeared in Dwayne McDuffie's all-too-brief, caught-between-the-crossovers issues. I'd like to see him again.

      Thor? Yes, it's every bit as various creators from Marvel have been promising. I'm very much looking forward to the next issue. This version of Thor may not be very likeable, but everything about the story is interesting. Huzzah!

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  3. Being a truly MASSIVE FF fan, I found this issue a reassuring transition from Hickman's convoluted run. All the tropes are still safely there in evidence; Reed keeping his secrets, Sue being mum, Johnny the super-stud and Ben going back to his Yancy roots. We have the idea of a space holiday masquerading as an exploratory expedition for Reed [keeping to Waid's 'Imaginaut' roots - hate that term, btw] and plenty of familial wrangling.
    Yes, its cliched, corny as hell, you can see the storylines coming an eon off but I adore it. Even Bagley's ugly art has been softened somewhat by Farmer's inking, which reminds me of the FF mini-series 'The End' from a few years ago.
    Poor continuity ref though; unstable molecules dont originate from their costumes, but from the FF themselves [oh dear, black mark there, Fraction]. Oh and how will the family get 'cured'? Have a splash page of them [Ben in human form, did you notice] bathed in cosmic rays in some rocket/capsule. On the first page! Yes, Fraction give the ending away[!].
    Some good refs; Johhny and his armlet [from his Negative Zone inprisonment] the sticking around of the Future Foundation [one of the things most FF fans feared was Fraction phasing them out by ignoring Hickman's run altogether; so far theres been a seamless transition] Reed's continuing self-assesment that he knows best and his family will be told the real reason for their 'Magic School Bus' trip soon enough. Tho why he dosent entrust his health to his newly-empowered son to fix I dont know.
    I do love it though.

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    1. Hello Karl:- My problem isn't with the likes of Ben showing his Yancy Street roots so much as how it was done. For me, I felt that I was watching a lot of the right boxes getting ticked, and yet the way in which that was done often seemed awry. I've certainly got a real problem with the idea of Sue as "mum". That wasn't so in such a straight-forward way even way back in the FF's very early days. She certainly played a subordinate role in many ways and her behaviour often conformed to traditional gender roles, and yet she was often something else entirely as well. In the origin issue back in '61, for example, Sue was a fierce cold warrior who forcibly shamed Ben into piloting the spaceship. Indeed, for my money, most the FF's golden age coincided with the period when Sue was - rather shockingly - obsessed with Namor even as she was going out with Reed. That was a norm-transgressing business in the context of the time. As time has passed, she's become more and more an individual rather than an expression of those TGRs, and it felt uncomfortable to me to see her fulfilling an outdated function here again. It strikes me that the FF best represents the modern-era family in all its diversity when the household responsibilities are shared around. I'm not suggesting that future issues of the run won't see her behaving in a far less stereotypical fashion. But if I were writing an issue in order to say who the various members of the FF were, I'd've been more careful about how I dealt with gender roles.

      Mind you, I'm not writing the FF, am I? And Matt Fraction is undoubtedly a fine writer. In fact, the provisional list of my favourite super-books from 2012 - which should be the next post after this - contains his splendid Hawkeye #3. But no, not to my taste.

      And of course, if a FF fan such as yourself is so chuffed with this issue, then MF is certainly doing more than just something right :)

      I agree entirely with your high opinion of Mark Farmer's inks, and I think he and Mark Bagley produced a splendidly clear and enjoyable issue. There were gentle, delicate moments - usually involving Sue and the kids - which were very well observed indeed. (I also especially liked the baby Annihilus who was leading one side of the fight which was taking place beneath Johnny and Darlo's flight through the Negative Zone.)

      Your theory about how they'll all be cured in the end seems to me to be a most convincing one. I've not seen the theory raised elsewhere, which means I for you will be throwing rose petals before you if it comes true. I certainly hope that any cure doesn't return the kids to a powerless state, for I too appreciate their presence as well as that of the rest of the Future Foundation. I'm afraid I don't know about the extent of Franklin's powers, but I know that you know your stuff. If that's a mistake, then it can be added to that odd reference to unstable molecules as the source of the FF's powers which seemed to be so out of place.

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  4. I was surprised to see the horror elements inserted into Thor. That splash page with the alien gods (which I agree is fantastic) has a touch of Ridley Scott's Alien, I think. And the future Thor, alone in Asgard, delirious and broken yet defiant? Possibly some of Jason Aaron's best Marvel writing in a while.

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    1. Hello Andrew:- I'd not thought of the relationship between that particular splash in Thor and Alien, but I can readily see why you'd suggest it. My thoughts turned to Moebius and several other continental artists, but then, there's a line which can be drawn to Alien through the continental SF/fantasy tradition anyway.

      I may suggest that Wolverine And The X-Men has also seen some fine - if considerably different - writing from JA in the recent past. Mind you, for me, those two titles mark Mr Aaron's best work for Marvel ever. Or at least, that I've come across.

      None of which means that I don't of course share your high regard for Thor God Of Thunder :)

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    2. Colin, I'm not sure why I didn't think of Moebius right away, now that you mentioned it.

      Wolverine and the X-Men I run hot and cold on. It's a comic I want to love, but it always comes across more like a collection of stuff I love (Doop! Howard the Duck! Nazi bowlers! Quinten Quire! and so on) than a storyline that utilizes those things. I pick it up whenever I'm in the mood for its brand of humor, though, which is more than I can say for most of Marvel's comics.

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    3. Hello Andrew:- I do understand what you mean about WATXM. I can't help but feel that it's the endless crossovers which short-circuits that book. With Events forever carving across the events in the comic, I think JA does a terrific job. It's not a consistent book, I certain agree. When JA has an issue - such as the Doop one - where he's solely determining the content, then it tends to shine. And, as you imply, a sense of humour in the superbook is a rare and welcome thing.

      But yes, I do know what you mean. :)

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  5. I'm glad to see that in your opinion of Thor #1 it turned out as well as I hoped it might. The premise for the series is certainly a lot more ambitious and inviting than any I've seen Thor since his breaking of the Ragnarok cycle and defeat of Those Who Live Above In Shadow (not wanting to denigrate the work of Gillen or Fraction here - Aaron's pitch is just plain great). I'm trade-waiting this one though, I can't stump up the hefty price tag for a mere 20 pages in these Marvel single issues.

    I've had a troubled relationship with Aaron's Marvel work. I've heard such good things about his Scalped but I never got on with any of his MU comics that I've read so far. Least of all WATXM, of which all of the issues I have read had too much fan-service and soap moments for my taste (which again isn't a denigration of Aaron's capabilities or execution, it just wasn't my thing). So I'm delighted to see JA is turning his highly rated talents to a different, more epic and grandiose kind of genre mash-up within the cape comics umbrella.

    For veteran F4 readers the trotting out of the familiar roles and tropes (Reed's secrets, Ben's street-tough past, Sue-as-mother, playboy Johnny) is about as useful as a lead balloon but the company directive of the whole 'NOW' line is to make each first issue as "new reader friendly" as possible (with the exception of Uncanny Avengers #1 I presume) and after a run as complex as Hickman's it might be smart to return to some loose semblance of first principles. Still I can imagine that for followers of Hickman's run F4 #1 could be a serious turn-off.

    I'm not a fan of Bagley's art so F4 isn't a title I'll be picking up, but I did notice something which might explain the fragmentary feel of the first issue. The first issues of F4 and FF are going to be packaged together in the same trade collection along with the Ant-Man short from Point One, suggesting that there's a close relationship between the two at that point (to diverge after #2 I presume) and that the first arc of F4 might be better suited as a 'chapter' in the collected format rather than as a standalone monthly. Either that or I'm uselessly speculating!

    Roll on FF #1 I say - I want Fraction and Allred to produce something very weird and silly, partly just to see the bemused reaction of the 'Capes must be SERIOUS' crowd but mainly because that Ant-Man short was an absolute delight.

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    1. Hello Ed:- I'm not sure if I can afford to buy each issue of Thor, but I suspect it'll be a temptation that's hard to deny. As for its place re: the Gillen/Fraction era, what impresses me is how the two have so little that's apparently in common with each other. JIM in particular was a thoroughly daring comic, and it's inspiring that we're now jumping to something that's so different.

      I will admit, I find more issues than not of WATXM to be exactly as you suggest. But, as I fear I rambled on about in an above comment, there are issues when everything falls together. I will admit, however, that Thor is several leagues up.

      I've certainly no problem with the new FF re-establishing each of the leads for a new audience. In fact, I think it's essential. The key, as you say, is not to bore the readers who've hung around since the Hickman years, while actually defining the characters in a way that's helpful and accurate. I don't that MF really did that here. But the basic principle is, as you say, well worth the following.

      I didn't know that Fantastic Four and FF were going to be packaged together. It seemed plain that the Darlo/Torch scene was setting up the FF, but I hadn't realised that they were all going into the same collections. I look forward to seeing how all that works.

      The Capes Must Be Serious crowd? Let them eat Ant-Man. And Zaucer Of Zilk, and Low-Life, and Hawkeye, and just about anything that might counter all that Grim'n'grittiness.

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  6. I flipped through both these issues at the comic shop last week and grabbed FF#1 and put back Thor, but having read the former and now having read your review of the latter, I am feeling like I should have done the opposite. Let's hope there's some issues of Thor left next time I go back.

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    1. Hello Mr Oyola:- It's always the way, I find, that the book not chosen will appear the better prospect in retrospect. Having said that - and I speak as a man whose tolerance for Robert E Howardisms is Very low - I do think Thor God Of Thunder was the better prospect. Good luck on your journey to the shop :)

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  7. "To those of us who've enjoyed something of the character's adventures before, this innovative and fresh take - far more Robert E. Howard than Hal Foster or Stan'n'Jack - suggests a fusion of outright horror with fantasy that promises to be well worth the sticking with."

    I had originally given the new Thor title a pass (as I am with virtually all of the new Marvel books, save for Hawkeye and the upcoming Young Avengers), but this line intrigued me enough to pick up a copy today. I'm glad I did, as I enjoyed the issue quite a bit - my only minor complaint is that they're kicking off the title with yet another multi-part storyline (Hawkeye scored major points with me for having the first three issues actually be stand-alone stories). But that's a minor quibble, and as I said, I enjoyed the issue very much. So, thank you, Colin, for the recommendation, as I might well have not taken a chance on it otherwise.

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    1. Hello Knightsky:- If I wasn't blogging/reviewing comics for a few places, I too might have passed the Jason Aaron Thor by! But thank you for saying that the recommendation paid off. I'm glad you enjoyed it. By and large, the Marvel Now relaunches have proven to be underwhelming, but Thor really is one of the exceptions.

      I can't say I don't share your longing for stories which don't require a great long investment from the reader. (I appreciated the fact that books like Journey Into Mystery and Secret Six always "locked" their long-term arcs in discrete bundles of issues.) And yet, given the structure of Aaron's tale, with its different time periods etc, I suspect that this is one tale which couldn't be told in single-issue chunks without loosing its uniqueness.

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