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X-Men: Inferno – Fantastic Four (Review/Retrospective)

With our month looking at Avengers comics officially over, we thought it might be fun to dig into that other iconic Marvel property, the X-Men. Join us for a month of X-Men related reviews and discussion.

This weekend, we’re taking a look at one or two of the smaller Inferno crossovers. These issues are collected in the crossovers companion book.

I have to admit, one of the best things about these companion books collecting the tie-ins to mammoth crossovers like Acts of Vengeance or Inferno is that way that they seem to capture a particular moment in time. In the Inferno collection alone, you get a taste of Walt Simonson’s Avengers, Ann Nocenti’s Daredevil and Chris Claremont’s Excalibur. I will confess that I am woefully poorly versed in the history of The Fantastic Four, arguably Marvel’s “first family.” The issues collected here, for example, are my first sampling of Steve Englehart’s tenure on The Fantastic Four.

A good old fashioned death trap!

Of course, you might argue that it’s a little pointless to try to judge an entire writer’s run based on a collection of issues designed to tie into the massive “event” crossover of the year. I can understand that logic, and I freely concede that these three issues represent the sum total of my experience with Englehart’s work on the team. Indeed, it feels especially like a random sampling of the writer’s run, as we join a story in progress and the issues end on a cliffhanger. I’ll probably never know how Johnny and the Silver Surfer dealt with Kang as he returned to Earth.

Part of me does wonder if it might have killed Marvel to throw in the rest of the storyline, even if it wasn’t officially branded an Inferno crossover. As it is, it feels like my television cut out half-an-hour into a forty-five minute show. Sure, there might not have been too many demons at play towards the end of the story, but the invasion of New York was never really the focus of Englehart’s story here. Rather than allowing his subplots to get hijacked by the massive X-Men event unfolding, he elected to tell his own story with relatively minor overlap.

Preying on Mantis…

Sure, there are references. Kang the Conqueror, for example, cites the demonic infestation as the perfect opportunity to carry out his villainous plan. “But this invasion of Earth by the demon-caste of limbo was a once-in-a-lifetime chance for an unparalleled coup!” It’s not a bad way of tethering the story to the crossover branded all over the book’s cover, but it’s tangential enough to allow Englehart to tell his own story. Indeed, Englehart seems quite intent on telling his own story, even going so far as to dismiss the version of Kang appearing in Walt Simonson’s Avengers. Apparently it’s not the same character, or at least not the same version of him. “Bah!” Englehart’s Kang declares. “He is not me and will thus fail!” And people say that time travel is confusing!

I’ll actually confess a fondness for Kang the Conqueror, despite knowing the character has a tendency to induce continuity-related headaches. Sure, he’s been connected to countless other characters, and been accused of being alternate versions of several of them, but there’s something deliciously pulpy about the notion of a time-traveling invader. I’ll freely confess that The Kang Dynasty, while flawed, is my favourite of Kurt Busiek’s Avengers stories, and that probably explains my affinity for the character.

He doesn’t understand the Graviton of the situation…

Englehart’s Kang is deliciously camp and evil. There’s the strange misogyny that I’ve come to expect from the character. “Your spirit was always brighter than other women’s, Mantis!” he gloats at one point, which seems a little sexist. I’ve found that aspect of the character interesting, the idea that he could come from the future and yet hold such awkwardly backwards views.Indeed, I think that his somewhat hokey background (an invader from the world of tomorrow) excuses much of the one-dimensional villainy he seems to get tied up in. “But I will not be beaten by a petty wizard!” he declares at one point, a line that demands to be read aloud at the highest volume.

That said, the character does, but his nature open himself up to relatively interesting plot devices. There’s obviously Roger Stern’s “Council of Kangs”, an inter-dimensional conglomeration composed of multiple iterations of the same guy. In many ways, that seems to prefigure Jonathan Hickman’s “Council of Reeds”, created decades later. I also like the fact that he uses his status as a time traveler to try to earn the trust of the Human Torch. “Would that I could forget you,” he tells Johnny, as the superhero struggles with his powers, “but I’ve seen you in the future! You will recover!” It’s a nice way of acknowledging the fact Kang does come from the future, rather than being a generic invader from another universe or planet or whatever.

He Kang, he saw, he Conqueror-ed…

I’d also argue that the character hasn’t really been over-exposed in the years since Avengers Disassembled, and that also makes him a bit interesting. Of course, the fact that he appears twice within the same crossover probably suggests that the market might have been reaching Kang saturation, but it’s distant enough that I honestly don’t mind too much. I have to say, I’m looking forward to diving into Bendis’ first Avengers arc featuring the character as a villain.

Still, Kang notwithstanding, Englehart’s Fantastic Four – at least here – seems like a fairly conventional superhero story. He’s building off lots of other stories, involving characters like Mantis and Necrodamus, and it does feel a little bit like a standard superhero run-around as the team deal with two cosmic threats trying to kidnap Mantis.Still, the opening chapter, in which the villain Graviton returns to Earth and claims to be able to resolve the Infernoplotline is a clever exploration of the line between hero and villain, as Englehart explores what makes a character either – Graviton might be able to help, but what he expects in return prevents him from claiming the title of hero.

Blade of glory…

That said, Englehart’s line-up is fascinating. He famously expelled Susan and Reed from the team (to the point where they ended up in Avengers), and wanted to take the title a bold new direction. He faced any number of editorially-mandated problems (this crossover probably counting as one of them) to the point where he eventually wrote the book under an alias and wrote his last story as a fairly direct attack upon Marvel.

I will confess, however, that Keith Pollard’s pencils are absolutely awesome. I can’t believe I haven’t seen more of his work. They are very “comic-book-y”, but that a huge plus on a book like this. They are clear, easy-to-follow and capture spectacle well. I especially like his version of Kang, who looks like a real person with a very strange face – Kang is beautifully expressive as he makes his way indignantly through the crossover. I also love that Pollard slips in a Doctor Who reference – at one point Kang’s ship makes a “TARDIS” sound.

Doctor Who, now?

These collected editions sometimes feel like a cross-section of Marvel’s publishing line, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. The Fantastic Four tie-in issues certainly feel like a slice of a much larger puzzle. There’s a lot of interest here, but I can’t help but feel like I’ve only been given the bare minimum in trying to make something of it.

In celebration of Inferno, we’ve taken a look at some of the more memorable tie-ins and crossovers:

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