Saturday, July 31, 2010

Stying Current Annual Edition: Fantastic Four Annual #32

Fantastic Four Annual #32-"A Little Stanger"
Cover Date: Aug 2010 Price $4.99
Cover Tagline: "Annual" (how creative!)
Writer/ Artist: Joe Ahearne/ Bryan Hitch

(Editor's Note- This issue came out about a month ago, but it's "current" in the sense that it's this year's annual. Since it's an extra long issue, it's kind of a long review. Apologies to those who share my attention span, but I implore you to take it all in!)

What Happened: This issue opens in dramatic fashion with a young woman looking for the Fantastic Four at the front entrance of their headquarters, and being scared out of her wits by the deadly security measures she encounters. Reed, Sue, and Ben rush to save the woman, and when Mr. Fantastic angrily enquires about how she was able to get into the building, she tells him she was given a clearance card by Johnny Storm. Apparently the young woman, who reveals her name to be Amy Brys, needs to talk to the Human Torch about some a very serious matter. And of course Johnny, being the giant cad he is, has been avoiding Amy's calls. Reed covers for Johnny, saying he must be in the Negative Zone or something, once again proving that having the world's smartest man for your brother-in-law pays off in new and fun ways all the time!

After Amy leaves, Johnny reappears, having been shielded with invisibility the whole time by his sister Sue (man everybody's helping him avoid this chick! Now that's FAMILY). The Invisible Woman begins to chide her brother's womanizing ways, when suddenly an alarm goes off. The alarm goes off because it detects a special kind of energy. Apparently the signal the alarm detected was a "variation" of the cosmic energy that powers the FF. This "variation" is the same energy that almost killed Sue when she was pregnant, meaning someone who was just in the room is pregnant with a cosmically irradiated Fantasti-baby. Since Sue knows it's not her, the Thing had his tubes tied, and Reed and Johnny are hot blooded super studs who are too masculine for pregnancy, it must be someone who recently visited that set off the alarm. It becomes very evident why miss Brys was had such an urgent need to talk to the Human Torch- she's about to be his baby mama. Johnny flies off and finds Amy down the street, looking to discuss the situation (as well as a weekend visitation schedule I assume). But before you can say "shotgun wedding", the two are attacked by machines with robotic tentacles.

The FF break the robots, save Amy's bacon, and fly off with her in the Fantasti-Car. The team takes Amy to the Baxter Building, and place her in an examination room to do an ultra early paternity test. Since Amy was with Johnny only 2 months prior, the only safe and logical course of action is for Sue to shrink down to a molecular level and get a D.N.A sample from the fetus. Look, I'm no doctor, so I won't argue too much, but really?

As Reed and Sue chat with the mom-to-be, Johnny and Ben have a "man-boy to rock-man" discussion in the other room about fatherhood. The only thing is, Johnny swears he didn't even kiss the girl, let alone get freaky deaky (his words, not mine...ok, you got me!). This leads Reed to send Johnny and Ben back to da club where Johnny and Amy met with a chornal scanner (It's like a viewmaster that shows you what happened in the past) to look into back in time and figure out what happened...Ah, comics.

Reed Sends Sue into Amy's womb, which makes my mind wander to disgusting jokes about both Storm siblings venturing there, and Sue indeed encounters one of God's greatest!

Meanwhile, in a less miraculous place, Johnny and Ben use the Viewmaster of Time to see what the Human Torch and Amy were really doing on the night in question. It turns out that both Amy and Johnny were not in the champagne room getting hot and heavy, but instead getting violently ill. Ben uses the Viewmaster of time to scan the residual images of Amy and Johnny's bodies, and finds out a darkhaired woman used some microscopic bugs to infect the two young clubgoers and then disappeared, most likely inside of Johnny. Man, that chronal viewer can do anything!

Sue, still up in Amy's business, finds out that she's is trapped by some kind of force field. It turns out the same tentacled robots from the street earlier are hanging out inside of Amy too. Sue destroys them, and the team reassembles back in the lab. Reed discovers that the microscopic bugs that affected Johnny and Amy in da club had a very specific mission- 1.) Go into Johnny, get some Man juice 2.) Leave Johnny, go into Amy's nether region 3.) Inseminate Amy with the man juice, making Johnny Jr. We find out that the whole ordeal was a great success and that Johnny is in fact going to be a daddy. Unfortunately this doesn't answer who that lady who disappeared into Johnny was. The team decides to go inside him to find out. Do you kind of get the feeling Reed just likes shrinking people and putting them inside other people?

As Sue and Ben explore the inside of Johnny, Reed remarks how there is something familiar about the design of the tentacled robots that have been plaguing them all day. As Johnny mentions that microscopic androids fit the Psycho Man's M.O. quite well, Ben chimes in over the com link and says they have company inside of Johnny. Apparently he has a visitor in his brain--

That's right, it's the Psycho Woman!

The Psycho Woman turns out to be the daughter of the longtime FF baddie, the Psycho Man. The Psycho Woman, who will be known from this point as P-W goes on to use her mind altering powers against Ben and Sue, and they lose contact with Reed. Apparently the P-W wants to use Johnny's baby to create an army of super warriors (????).
Being the all-American husband and superhero he is, Reed shrinks himself and has Amy inject him into Johnny's body (again Reed? You're sick, dude) to find the other members. After Reed is in Johnny's body, ANOTHER set of tentacled robots busts in to attack!

The major problem (besides the fact that there is a Johnny-spawn on its way into the world) is now that the Human Torch can't activate his flame powers, because the intense heat will melt the rest of his teammates inside of him. The Torch and Amy avoid the tentacled monsters, as Reed, Sue and Ben fight against the P-W. Unfortunately the battle inside of Johnny ends up hurting him, and the FF is in a tight spot.

The P-W thinks she has the upperhand by inducing the emotions of fear, disgust, and envy in the 3 members she's up against inside the Torch, but Ben quickly overcomes these emotions and clobbers the yellow faced villain. The battle continues and ends up being so rough that it knocks Johnny out the window. As he falls, The Thing knocks out the P-W and finds the heat shield that she was using to stay inside of the Torch. The three inside of Johnny get in a force bubble and Reed tells the freefalling Johnny to flame on, but he doesn't want to incinerate his family. Johnny eventually turns his flame on, and burns the robots that we're following him, and presumably the Psycho Woman.

Johnny thinks he just burned up his whole family, and Amy consoles him. Just then, the three other members of the team enter the room and reveal they were able to get out in time. The question shifts to what to do about the baby, and the team decides to go back in time and stop the Psycho-Woman before she can even impregnate Amy, effectively giving time and space an abortion (Ben calls it a "morning before pill"). Johnny vetoes the idea, but Amy tells him it's too dangerous for him to have a child, due to all his foes. To protect the child, Amy ganks the time remote control from Johnny's hand and jumps in the chronal portal.
Of course the FF could find her somehow, but Sue says that Amy made her choice. The issue ends with the Human Torch reflecting on the fact that she could have gone anywhere in time and given birth, and that his child could be out there somewhere.

What I Thought: After finishing this issue, I felt...discombobulated. Part of the reason I took my sweet time getting this review out to my adoring public is that I had to reread the comic like 4 times to really understand the main story. I'm still not sure I fully understand the Psycho Woman's motivations. She obviously wants revenge for the FF destroying her father, but why does she need to do all the stuff with the baby? Apparently she wants Johnny's tissue to make super warriors, so shouldn't she just knock him out and experiment on him?

As for the introduction of the Psycho-Woman, I will admit to being shocked by that reveal. I knew going into this book that the story somehow involved Psycho Man, and was a little let down to think the pregnancy scare was going to be another "it's all in their heads" kind of plot. To that end, the pregnancy being real and not just some faux hype Marvel made up to sell the issue was a good step towards truth-in-advertising. Of course, the whole idea of how to undo the pregnancy at the end treads so close to ground that a book like Fantastic Four just shouldn't go. Although Ben makes a somewhat good point that if you stop the Psycho Woman from engineering the ensemination, it's more like preventing a crime than aborting a child, but it still left me feeling weird. I was actually a little relieved that Amy made the choice she did, although it was a really awkward ending.
I guess the other two things that really stick out about this specific issue are the art and the format. Bryan Hitch is one of the best contemporary comic book artists of the past decade, and he really does great work with whatever assignment he is on. I quite enjoyed Hitch's tenure as the artist of the main FF book a while back, but this issue had a noticable difference in quality. While the writer Joe Ahearne gives Hitch a lot of splash pages and great action shots to play out, the inking of Hitch's work isn't as strong as previous outings. I believe it may be due to the fact that Hitch normally works with artist Paul Neary as the inker of his work ,and this time around Hitch himself and fellow artist Andrew Currie are responsible for the embellishments. It's odd to think a penciller could make his own art less dynamic by inking it himself.
Overall, I think this is one annual that deserved more varied material. I'm fairly certain editorial could have cut out some scenes, cleaned up some of the plot threads, and lowered the page count on the first story, opening up more space for another Fantastic Four related tale. While I generally don't advocate for the inclusion of filler material that tends to litter the back pages of annuals (the backups in annuals usually have as much substance as the final 30 minutes of SNL), I found myself wanting the pregnancy story to just get over with . Maybe a "Franklin Richards: Boy Genius" type comic strip or a "future foundation" backup would have been a nice way to offset the other story. I think annuals in general have gotten too far away from tying into the current continuity, and it seems like a missed opportunity with all that Jonathan Hickman has been setting up.

Wow. I'll stop here. Like Valentine's Day, I'm glad annuals only come but once a year! Until Johnny stops scammin on hotties in da club, vive la Fantastique!

God Bless America.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

More "3" Spoilers?

In a bit of interesting news to come out of the Spider-Man panel at San Diego Comic Con, a teaser image showed Peter Parker in a rather remarkable new costume:

It's looking more and more like Johnny Storm is going to be the one to leave the team in the upcoming "3" arc.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Staying Current- Fantastic Four #580

Fantastic Four #580-"The Frank-Tastic Four"
Cover Date: 2010 Price $3.99 (because I had to buy the newsstand edition!)
Cover Tagline :"I promise...I've Given Up On Games Of Murder
Writer/Artist: Jonathan Hickman/ Neil Edwards

What Happened: We open the issue with the image of someone holding an invitation to the debut of a new toy line at a local toy store. The toy line features products with the likeness of the Impossible Man, the green skinned Fantastic Four ally with the same shapeshifting powers and annoying demeanor of the DC Comics hero Plastic Man.

We find that the person holding the invite is none other than young Franklin Richards, the son of Reed and Susan Richards. Frankie is sitting with his mutant friend named Leech, one of the filthy wretched Morlocks whom the Fantastic Four recently adopted. The two decide they're tired of waiting to leave for Arcade Toys, and it's time to go.

We cut to Reed Richards, talking to the "Future Foundation", his new think-tank of young super geniuses. The purpose of the group is to solve the world's greatest problems, and Reed and the "FF" are discussing the first issue they want to tackle. Reed mentions that he is surprised that the group chose the subject they did, and before the readers are let in on what this means Franklin enters. Reed, being the world's greatest father (to Valeria), gives his son the brush off in light of the group's work. He tells his son that Johnny will accompany the two, and the following soul crushing scene occurs:

A dejected Franklin meets up with his Uncle, who consoles the child and teaches him to drown his sorrow by spending Reed's money.(Johnny also ominously mentions that he'll never have kids, which is the theme of this month's FF annual) As Johnny, Leech, and Franklin marvel at the size of "Arcade Toys", Johnny is alarmed by the presence of the villain known as Arcade! Arcade, a former X-Men villain whose shtick involved placing heroes in elaborate death traps he controlled like a video game, scolds Johnny for behaving so brutishly. Before Johnny can do any harm, the aforementioned annoying jade alien known as the Impossible Man appears and tells him no to be so confrontational. Arcade explains that he has given up games of murder, and that he and the Impossible Man are out to make some scratch by selling toys. The toys are made with little pieces of the Impossible Man's D.N.A., and have the same malleable qualities as Impy himself. As the kids in the toy store start clamoring for the toys as fervently in a toy store, Arcade decides that it's time for one more "little" death trap. The play things in the store start coming to life and attacking the patrons, and the little mutant Leech gets knocked out by some debris. Franklin, understandably upset, uses his recently restored mental powers to bring a stuffed dinosaur to life. He tells his uncle to fry the rest of the toys, and Johnny obliges. With the threat thwarted so quickly, the Impossible Man tells Johnny that he'll wrangle up Arcade. Case closed, I guess....

We cut back to the Future Foundation, who have invited Ben Grimm to come and join them. They tell the ever lovin blue eyed Thing that their first order of business is to solve the one problem Reed Richards never could: being able to change him back to his human form. The members of the foundation go on to scientifically explain the reasoning, but the gist of it is that the Thing will be able to change back, but only for one week out of every year. The Thing decides that one week out of 52 is worth it, and decides to take the cure.

(I should add that this issue had another two page interlude featuring the history of Nu-World, but I have no idea what the scenes mean to the story yet.)

What I thought: This issue was fun, but it's a bit of a detour from the high concept work Hickman has been doing. I liked seeing Arcade, a villain I've never really read about, but the reasoning for him attacking his customers as well as the resolution to the story are left unexplained. And as far as the Thing being able to transform....we've seen this story many times before.

This issue, much like December's 574, seem like stops along a much bigger road. For me, the most interesting dynamic I see coming to light is the sibling rivalry between Franklin and Valeria. As a super genius, Valeria is taking a lot of her father's attention, while Franklin is more of the nurturing type like his mother. Unfortunately, with Sue spending so much time as the human ambassador to the Old Kings of Atlantis, poor Franklin is getting the short end of the stick.

And I would be remiss not to mention that Neil Edwards did a great job with the art in this issue. Although he only has one more issue left, I wouldn't mind if he stayed on the book for good. He reminds me of a mixture of Scott Eaton and Bryan Hitch.

Well, now you're current with the FF. I made it in on time this month! Until I start getting these reviews done on the same day the issues are released, vive le fantastique!

Saturday, July 3, 2010

One-Shot Showdown! Stan Lee Edition

It’s One-Shot Showdown! In which I compare the merits of two Fantastic Four related one-shots and render a verdict as to which one’s better. All decisions are final, written in stone, and utterly absolute…something around here has to be, right?

Today's Theme: Stan Lee+ Iconic Marvel Artist= $5 one-shot?

Today's Contenders-

2007's Last Fantastic Four Story
2008's Fantastic Four: The Lost Adventure

Greetings True Believers! Today's match up has some truly excellent potential for comparative points to ponder. Both of the specials featured in this titanic tussle were penned by none other than the Fantastic Four's very own co-creator, Mr. Stan "the man" Lee! What's even more exciting is that the artists on these issues are both seminal masters in the mighty Marvel manner. Excelsior!!*

*(For those of you that don't speak Stan Lee's native tongue of "Stanish", that means both of these comics were written by Lee, and illustrated by artists who are synonymous with drawing Marvel heroes.) Without further ado... Fight!

The Last Fantastic Four Story

The Plot: "The Universal Tribunal", a collection of minds that communicate through thought alone, decide that Earth serves no purpose and decides to destroy it once and for all. The Tribunal sends its envoy, the indestructible behemoth known as the Adjudicator, to pronounce that the human race has one week left to live.

The entire Marvel race attacks the Adjudicator to no avail, and finally Reed Richards hatches a plot. He sends the Silver Surfer to find a race of unthinking creatures that could defeat the Tribunal. These Decimators attack the Tribunal, and then the Marvel heroes go and save the Tribunal from the Decimators. HUH??

Positives: + This story draws you in with an interesting premise: "What would Marvel heroes do if they knew they only had a week to live?" Lee BRIEFLY explores the relationship of Ben and Alicia, as well as Johnny coming to grips with the fact that his playboy lifestyle will leave him cold and lonely. And I had to laugh because there is no mention of Valeria whatsoever here.

+ John Romita JR. pencils this issue and is brilliantly inked by Scott Hanna and colored by Morry Hollowell. This is one comic where I actually noticed the colors, which are usually lost on me.

Negatives: - While the premise intrigues, the plot fails to deliver. This story reads like the Second Coming of Galactus, except this time he's invincible.

And watching every single Marvel hero try their power on the Adjudicator gets pointless after a few pages. It's like they think he's the sword in the stone, and each hero believes he/she is King Arthur. Look, if Dr. Strange couldn't beat the thing by the hoary hosts of Hogwarts (or whatever), I doubt Ben Grimm's fists could do anything.

-The price/ format seem a little puffed up. It's a prestige format $5 one-shot. Granted John Romita JR. is great, but a lot of the material seems like filler.

- The whole plot of Reed unleashing the Decimators on the race that condemned Earth seems out of character to begin with, and then to have the heroes save the day by saving the very race they endangered just boggles the mind.

Fantastic Four: The Lost Adventure

The Plot: OK, promise you'll stick with me for a second. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the Fantastic Four, and worked on the book for 102 consecutive issues(as well as 6 annuals!). That's a lot. They had material for issue 103, but Jack Kirby quit Marvel. Marvel took some of the stuff from this 103rd issue and eventually put it into Fantastic Four #108, in a hodge podge of cut and paste storytelling. What "The Lost Adventure" does is takes Kirby's old pages and notes, and with the help of some current artists, issue 103 is presented in a form closer to what it was supposed to be.

In the issue, Reed Richards recounts a tale of how the team fought a man named Janus, who also goes by the name "Mega-Man." Insert Dr. Light or Zero jokes here. Anyway, Mega-Man has a power vest that has virtually unlimited capabilities, and he uses it to rob a bank. In the bank, Ben Grimm and Johnny Storm just happen to be making a deposit. Mega-Man wipes the floor with them and Johnny gets knocked out. Later, Reed figures that Janus is the Mega-Man, and when he goes to visit the guy at home in Kansas, he's surprised to see that his legs are all busted up. So he has Sue go and hide a spy camera in the guy's house, and they decide to watch him. In the end they figure out that Janus is two brothers, one handicapped version and one evil. Reed uses the Mega-Man's power to fix the guy's busted leg, and then condemns both Januses. One for being evil, and the busted legged one for not telling anyone about the evil guy.

Positives: + It's Jack Kirby on art. They didn't call him "King" for nothing.

+ The issue has the new version of issue 103, Jack's original pages, and a reprint of issue #108. You can see the way everything got all screwed up with the issue after Jack Kirby quit Marvel. It's the one time I've ever seen a relevant reprint that wasn't just filler!
Here's a page from the new version of 103-
Here's Kirby's original work for the sane page (notice the missing panel that Ron Frenz filled in above)-
Here's How Marvel originally used the same page, by cutting it up for Fantastic Four #108-

+ Stan Lee can write the Thing like no one else. I laughed out loud while reading some of his dialogue.
Negatives: - Thanks to this comic being a recreation of a deceased man's half erased notes, this plot gets jumbled. I know the creative team handled it with care, but the issue was still pretty convoluted.

-Stan writes some new things like "D.S.L. line" into this comic, making it feel a lot less representative of the time period it supposedly hearkens back to.

-Overall, I think this unpublished comic wasn't finished enough to warrant this type of presentation.

Winner: While I would not endorse either of these as possible purchases for readers out there, I can safely say that The Last Fantastic Four story is the winner here. With an interesting premise, a more current flavor, and some wonderfully illustrated images, "Last" at the very least held my attention until the end. While I would never disparage the "King", I wish Marvel would have respected him and fans a little more by leaving that particular adventure "lost."

So until Stan Lee and I team up on a comic, Excelsior and Vive le Fantastique!