ADVANCE REVIEW: Fantastic Four #554

Fantastic Four #554

Writer: Mark Millar

Artist: Bryan Hitch w/ Paul Neary

Marvel Comics

They’ve hyped, they’ve teased and they’ve flat-out lied about it and now it’s here – – well, it will be this Wednesday…

The Ultimates team of Mark Millar (Marvel’s Golden Boy) and Bryan Hitch (Marvel’s Tardy Boy) have set their sights on Marvel’s original super-hero team/family; Millar has been making his usual playful declarations and promises of restoring this title as ‘the World’s Greatest’, playing it a short breath away from Hubris (they actually named their first storyline thus) – but who could blame him after his proven sales-topping track record? Meanwhile, ‘Hitchy’ has himself promised a smooth schedule with no delays after the increasingly erratic Ultimates 2 schedule. Start your betting pool!

Millar is of course no stranger to the team, having launched the Ultimate Fantastic Four, with a dodgy rocky first arc and a brilliant follow-up with the Marvel Zombies/Frightful Four and President Thor. But can he handle the real deal?

At first glance, Millar seems to be going back to the evolved archetypal characterisations of the Foursome: the absent-minded genius, the immature hothead, the good-hearted monster, and the MILF keeping the balances. Of course Millar takes each of them a step further –or in some cases a step too far:

Reed is the one most benefiting from Millar’s touch, gaining a level of smart sexiness that makes sense, as school-teachers start melting away at his super-hero good looks and brains. Thankfully that pesky ‘I clone my dead friends and send them out to kill and incarcerate my family and other friends’ characterisation from Civil War has been locked away safely. Wasn’t that Reed erased by Mephisto anyhow?

Sue is the voice of reason for the team, and it usually gets boring fast; here she goes all suburban Desperate Housewife and starts a charity in the form of a new all-girls super-team in the legacy of the original Miss America, grabbing She-Hulk and the Wasp as the Edie and Gabrielle to her Lanette.

Johnny always reverts back to ‘frat boy’ mode as soon as a new writer comes on board, as they figure the readers will be thrilled at yet another chance to see him go through a maturing character arc. (… NOT!). That’s usual writers. With MM everything gets upped a level into super-characterisation, making FlameHead into the super-hero equivalent of Paris Hilton. I quite like this change for the worse, and this shallow fun attitude suits him just fine.

Finally, Ben. Oh, dear Ben. Gone are the days of ‘This Man, This Monster’, the self-pitying, the romantic awkwardness which nicely contrasted the kind soul and fun-cracking characterisation. The MillarWorld Ben now wears form-fitting Tees, has chiselled himself a bodybuilder’s physique (Note To Hitchy: The Thing’s a Square-shaped rock monster. Look it up, honest! He does not have normal legs and a waist), and is hitting on pretty ladies. Did they swap minds with Johhny in the interim issue? I didn’t mind the playful nudging towards Reed and guilt-tripping him into helping out, but having him so comfortable and confident in his monstrous appearance to hit on girls is a huge jump from the Ben who couldn’t even accept the blind sculptress’ affections.

The story beats are pure Millar. A big splashy attention-grabbing opener in a suitably off-beat scenario (the family escaping a cowboy stampede in the Wild West), followed by a lot of quiet moments, a chance to get acquainted with the new take on the family, lots of snarky and silly odd bits thrown around the coffee table, closing with a mouth-watering double-page spread Bryan Hitch panorama and the trademark last splash page: an extreme character close-up giving a short marketing-friendly power-phrase.

Millar gets a tad carried away with his ‘funny and ironic’ dialogue, and you’re likely to have hours of fun at home playing ‘spot the Millarisms’ in every single panel – we recommend Tequila Shots for maximum effect. Not saying it’s bad at all, I actually enjoy the queer notes here and there as long as they don’t get too intrusive. If anything, the Fantastic Four’s original concept as the Big Idea book is the most appropriate venue for this particular flavour of super-heroic irreverence. Who else could pick up their family for a weekend trip back in time to DisneyWorld’s Grand Opening, with antique collector’s item tickets they bought on ebay? And who else could have thought of it and put it in the issue as nothing more than a passing mention between panels. This is the most appropriate book for Millar’s talents.

Bryan Hitch is on an allegedly (ok ok, I’ll stop the vile stabs soon) faster mode while working on this title as he’s approaching it a regular super-hero book instead of the more realistic Ultimate assignment. I’ve always been a fan of his, going back to his fill-in assignments in the X-Office, and he’s only been getting better with each year, so it’s hard to spot how this piece of work lacks in comparison to the Ultimates issues which required four times the work. Hitch is in the uber-quality league with the likes of Cassaday, Quitely, McNiven etc who can manage to pull off this deflated plot deal and make me drool for more double-page (or 12-page) spreads to show off their excellence.

Overall, a quirky arrogant fun look at superheroes. It will take some great effort to bring this title back to its cover blurb’s promise as the World’s Greatest Comic Magazine, but we’re off to a promising start. I haven’t been this confident in this title’s direction since Scott Lobdell and Alan Davis’ Heroes Return relaunch.

Grade: 8/10