As I noted yesterday, I just received a copy of the first collection of Fantastic Four stories by Jonathan Hickman and Dale Eaglesham. It's the first FF story I've read since issue #555 from almost two and half years ago.
There are essentially three stories here, coming from five individual issues (#570-574). The first story revolves around Mr. Fantastic being approached by several parallel universe versions of himself, who've gathered together to solve all the problems of the universe. They collectively pool their resources to create a series of what appear to be technocratic socialist states, centrally governed from a sort-of pocket limbo dimension. During an invasion by some Celestials, Mr. Fantastic learns that he must give up everything else in his life to pursue the goals of group, and he chooses to return to his family. The second story is an adventure on "Nu-Earth" in which the Torch, Thing, and Franklin and Val Richards find themselves dropped into a war zone, and they have to fight just to make it back home. The last story, then, changes pace a bit and presents Franklin's birthday party as a light-hearted gathering of friends, but ends with an ominous warning from a future version of himself.
What I did like about the book was that the main characters seemed more familiar than when I had last read the series. I had some concerns about the Reed-as-socialist-savior bit, but was pleased to see how he renounced that path in favor of being a better father/husband/friend. In fact, there was a scene that almost literally erased the character assassination that Mark Millar inflicted on Reed, and I was quite pleased with that. I was a little disappointed that the Invisible Woman was given so little attention here, but I also understand that I'm catching just a snapshot of the overall series and that might not be indicative of Hickman's approach on the whole. I could make the same comment, too, on the very distinct separation of adventure stories and family stories; we don't see them acting as a family during an adventure. But, again, that could be just because we're seeing a snapshot of Hickman's larger work on the characters.
What struck me, though, was how dense the book was. I am pretty expert when it comes to the Fantastic Four, and reasonably familiar with writing techniques, but there were some parts of the book that I had trouble following along. Not because they were poorly written (they weren't) but because they were so tied up with recent continuity that it was exceptionally difficult to follow those pieces along. I was vaguely aware of Nu-Earth because that was just getting started when I stopped reading, but everything within that part of the story seemed... well, it just seemed like there was a lot of action predicated on the fact that the reader already understood what was going on. Oh, there was enough exposition within the story that I didn't feel totally lost, but it was mostly along the lines of, "Hey, this is why things look a bit different from the last time anyone saw Nu-Earth" not "Hey, this is what Nu-Earth is for anyone picking this book up for the first time."
How much exposition you need in any given story can be debated and, as I said, there was enough here to follow along with the basic plot. But it didn't strike me as inviting. I didn't get the sense that I was being asked along for the ride, but rather that I had to ask what was going on and the conductor reluctantly agreed to tell me after I spent an hour pestering him. I had less of a sense of that with the first story, probably because it was largely all new ideas, but even the birthday party seemed a little dense in that manner. Yes, the Power family was identified by name and there's an implied history with Franklin, but there's no mention of who they are and what that relationship with Franklin is. Same with Artie and Leech. If I wasn't as familiar with the long history of the FF as I already am, I most certainly would not have understood their relationships.
Random: And who, by the way, was Johnny's date in that story? It looked like it might be Alicia Masters, but she's never named in any capacity.
The stories weren't bad. I don't particularly care for Eaglesham's drawing style, but his storytelling abilities were smooth enough. Hickman did a fair job, too, making sure that new readers weren't left totally out alone to fend for themselves. But I can totally see the argument that the book isn't very friendly to new readers. I kept getting the feeling that I was trying to climb over the walls of some secret club that only really wanted people who were already members. There was a reluctance to letting outsiders in, even with my only having been an outsider for a very short time.
"Nope. You said weren't going to read this comic any more, so we're going to make sure you have to work your ass off to get back in."
I don't think that's deliberate. I don't think Marvel is intentionally trying to dissuade new readers. But it seems as if that it's become SO insular and self-referential that there's a kind of comic myopia that's going on. Despite clear efforts to make sure there's sufficient exposition for new readers, there seems to be an inability to see that the larger story is inherently closed to outsiders. The exposition that's there, then, just serves to puncture small holes in a very large wall.
Lest you think I'm hating on Marvel because I'm anti-superheroes or whatever, bear in mind that prior to 2008, I had read and absorbed not only every issue of every Fantastic Four title every published, but the vast majority of FF appearances in any title and a good number of comics in which any one member of the team, regardless of how short-lived their tenure was (Yes, I'm talking Power Man here), made an appearance. I had Mark Waid asking me continuity questions when he was writing the book. I have a long and deep investment in the characters, but I still felt like that book was written for people who have never stopped reading the title.
It was good to see the FF acting something more like how I remember instead of how I left them. But it was disappointing to feel like I wasn't being invited back, but was only allowed to watch from afar. I might try to go back and visit with the team again some day, but I don't expect it will be any time soon.