Ryan North's Fantastic Four

By | Tuesday, May 16, 2023 Leave a Comment
As I mentioned yesterday, I've fallen notably behind in my current comics reading as I've been up to my eyeballs in 2022 material to judge the Eisners. So I'd only read the first two issues of Fantastic Four (which both came out in 2022) until this past weekend. And while I've generally liked what Ryan North has done in the past (at least what I've read) this FF series has so far been mediocre at best.

The first issue had an interesting premise, but it's kind of faulty as a first issue in that it's entirely centered around one fourth of the team. To the extent that none of the other members even appear. The full team doesn't actually show up until issue #4, underwhelmingly, in a flashback where we finally learn why the team is broken up. And the reason why they broke up is basically because Reed suddenly became the unsympathetic, borderline sociopathic "solve everything" Reed from the Civil War era. We later see that he does cry about his decision, but that still strikes me as an uncharacteristically callous move on his part. No attempt at all to remove innocent bystanders? Like, you know, every other time they've had to launch their building or part of Manhattan into space? We've literally seen exactly that at least half a dozen times that I can think of offhand. It seems like North is really twisting Reed's character to force a plot point.

And you could maybe excuse that as ignorance about continuity -- after all, six times over a sixty+ year span isn't exactly frequent -- but North pulls out some really obscure continuity bits, suggesting he knows more than a little casual FF history. Although that bit with Merrill being from an old John Byrne story? I recognized the reference immediately and thought, "That... that doesn't make sense." A small-time goon that is scared out of crime and somehow becomes owner of a Shoptastic big box store? And holds a grudge against the Torch for it? And somehow is a better fighter than Torch, even though Torch was shown -- during that very John Byrne run of stories -- to be a more-than-capable fighter without his powers. It's just a weird callback that seems to only be there to say, "Look, see, I know about continuity!" Like, the bit about Johnny being horrible at keeping a secret identity? That's how you should work with continuity; it's an oblique reference to the old Strange Tales stories but doesn't call attention to itself and works whether or not you know of Johnny's failed secret identity attempts in the past. But the flashback scene? Forced and clunky, and doesn't serve any purpose besides calling out that original story.

Then there's this whole thing about Sue making sunlight invisible for an area covering a good chunk of the American southwest for three days. First, we've got Reed still in the "solve everything" mode where he claims to know what's best for everybody, irrespective of everything else. Then we've got Sue apparently using her powers casually at a scale she's never even attempted before. Somehow, Reed doesn't have any means to communicate with the Fantasticar, which apparently also no longer has any self-enclosing functionality. Then there's this whole mob about ready to attakc Ben, Reed, and Alicia but just... go home once the sun comes back out.

I get why a creator might want to set up the Fantastic Four in a situation that is unusual for them -- without their headquarters and equipment and seemingly infinite wealth at their disposal. Putting the characters on their own, so to speak, should allow the story to showcase the contents of their characters, without having to rely on Reed whipping up some save-the-world gizmo. However, none of the issues so far have done a very good job of showcasing their characters any more or less than any other story. There's barely any indication that they're doing anything differently or experiencing any additional challenges by not having their usual resources. In the second place, what we do see from the characters is largely showcasing their talents not their character.

I don't 100% agree with the characterizations North is using here in the first place, but I can chalk that up to a difference of opinion on what makes each character who they are. The bigger issue here is that I don't think these stories are doing what North is trying to make them do, and he's using an extremely contrived set-up to tell these stories in the first place. If these were dropped into a middle of a longer run, I'd write them off as adequate but ultimately forgettable filler between creative runs; I'm not sure why they've opted to relaunch the entire series with these, though. I can only assume it was a gamble that just didn't pan out the way anyone at Marvel had hoped.
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