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Fantastic Four by John Byrne Omnibus (Review/Retrospective)

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Fantastic Four, I’m taking a look at some of the stories featuring the characters over the past half-century.

John Byrne’s Fantastic Four run is pretty major as Marvel comic book runs go. It’s generally regarded to be one of the better comic book runs of the eighties, alongside Frank Miller’s Daredevil and Walt Simonson’s Thor, but it’s also widely regarded as the best run on Marvel’s flagship family since Stan Lee and Jack Kirby finished their record-setting run establishing both the series and the shared Marvel Universe. (The length of the run has since been surpassed, appropriately enough, by Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley on Ultimate Spider-Man.) This was my first time reading the run, which has received the massive omnibus treatment from Marvel. I have to admit, while not quite blown away by it, I was remarkably impressed by the love and craftsmanship that Byrne poured into the run. I wouldn’t class it as iconic or genre-defining, but it’s a remarkably solid examination of the franchise that launched the Marvel Universe.

Fantastic!

Of course, it’s hard to talk about the series without discussing John Byrne, the writer and artist behind the book. Byrne was arguably one of the truly iconic powerhouse comic book creators of the eighties and nineties. His Fantastic Four run is famous, but he was also the man tasked with revamping the Man of Steel following the relaunch of Superman in the wake of Crisis on Infinite Earths. He was also allowed to re-write Spider-Man‘s early history in Chapter One. That’s a lot of power to give to one writer, and it’s sad that he has since been relegated to writing Jurassic Park tie-in comic books. It’s fascinating that there’s no introduction here.

The reason for this is that John Byrne doesn’t seem like a pleasant person, based on the way that he interacts with everybody on-line, from fans to fellow writers to former collaborators to comic book companies. Brian Bendis famously created “Byrne the Living Ego” in “homage” to the creator. The internet has not been kind to Byrne, with a large majority of his work being ignored or readily-trashed, regardless of how it might have been received upon publication. Man of Steel is widely dismissed by fans, despite being massively influential throughout the nineties, and writers ignored Byrne’s Spider-Man: Chapter One while he was writing it.

Thus Spake Galactus…

Even his Fantastic Four run, collected here, has come under fire from modern day critical revisionists, keen to tear it down. I wonder how much of this modern dislike of Byrne’s work stems from the his on-line persona. Does the fact that he has used his message board to deliver any number of potentially racist and sexist declarations diminish the work that he did decades ago? It is very hard to separate a controversial creator from their work – in any medium. It’s easy for the two to become tangled in the public mind – and many would argue that it’s actually proper that they do. Still, I tried to approach his Fantastic Four with an impartial eye.

Byrne came to the book off a long and distinguished collaboration with Chris Claremont over on Uncanny X-Men. While Byrne joined the book after Claremont had established his new model for Marvel’s merry mutants, it was arguably with Byrne that the title really came into its own – the pair collaborated on the iconic Dark Phoenix Saga, which remains one of the most beloved Marvel story arcs ever told. I’ve found this X-Men connection fascinating, because I’ve always thought that Fantastic Four and the X-Men served as interesting counterpoints to one another, as the two faces of two very different versions of Marvel.

It’s not a stretch to say it’s a good run…

The Fantastic Four helped establish Marvel, under the pen of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. Coming into the sixties, it was one of the Marvel books that really resonated with readers, and helped typify the “Marvel method” of collaboration between writers and artists. The book was never as popular as it was during that initial run, and has gradually slipped further away from the centre of Marvel’s publishing line. Sure, there’s occasionally a high-profile event or writer, but the Fantastic Four have never been able to flood the market in the same way that the Avengers or the X-Men have. In many ways, despite seeming fresh all those years ago, they now seem like one of the most conservative franchises in American comics, a very conservative medium.

In contrast, the X-Men started as a book written by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby that never found a proper footing. The pair didn’t hang around on the title too long, and it floundered out of the gate. It wasn’t long before it was being published once every second month, housing reprints of earlier stories. It was only when Chris Claremont took over that the franchise gathered steam, moving away from the hokey science-fiction of the Marvel template (though there was still lots of it) with a timely a relevant social message and a core cast that didn’t seem so much like an old-fashioned family unit.

Holding it together…

The X-Men felt “real” and “raw” in a way that the Fantastic Four didn’t: while the Fantastic Four were loved for their gifts, the X-Men were persecuted for theirs. It’s a key difference, and one that I think speaks volumes. As the X-Men emerged as Marvel’s cornerstone franchise, the Fantastic Four were still looking to find a footing. Arguably, even today, they still are. It’s only under Jonathan Hickman that the team got a second book, and popular writers like Mark Millar have failed to stir up much interest in the title.

I can’t help but think that John Byrne carried over quite a bit from his run on Uncanny X-Men, learning a bit about adapting a long-running franchise and making it fresh and new – relevant for the modern age. Of course, you can see numerous superficial references to the other franchise, from the way Sue begins to use her force fields (likening it to Iceman’s mode of transportation) to a guest appearance from Gladiator in the 250th issue of the title. Hell, the Inhumans even settle on the moon in the same area where Jean Grey passed away, an overt reference to Byrne’s tenure on the title.

City on the edge of the moon…

Still, Byrne shrewdly tries to suggest that the Fantastic Four aren’t quite the idealised family unit that we tend to think of. Despite their pristine public image, their flashy headquarters in the centre of Manhattan and the wonderful technology on offer, Byrne makes a point that they don’t live an easy life. There’s a wonderful sequence early in his run, one that Mark Waid would borrow from for his own Fantastic Four run, where a priest is invited into the headquarters. Byrne skilfully uses the opportunity to demonstrate just how “freaky” Marvel’s First Family must seem to any normal human, as if making the case that they’re just as “weird”as the merry mutants.

The Fantastic Four are so comfortable in themselves that they don’t even notice how surreal they must seem – perhaps Byrne commenting on how easily the “fantastic” can be rendered “mundane” through mere exposure. “Oh,” Sue remarks, realising that the priest couldn’t see her, and sounding like she forgot to ask him if he wants a cup of tea. “Sorry I startled you, Father. I’m afraid I’d quite forgotten I was still invisible.” We’ve been reading about these characters for over two-hundred issues, so it’s easy to take these things for granted.

Final Four?

Explaining how Reed chose the building’s security mechanism, she states, “He’d considered something keyed to our fingerprints, but the Thing has no fingerprints.” Anybody who has really thought about that shouldn’t be surprised – he is a lump of orange rock after all – but it’s the kind of clever little idea that subtly illustrates how far any of the team are outside the range of normal when it comes to thing that ordinary folks take for granted. I think that this is where Byrne’s run really works best, in reevaluating and restoring the team’s position within the wider Marvel Universe, trying to contextualise them decades after they were introduced, when the world has truly changed.

“Face it, pal, the world just don’t need the Fantastic Four anymore,” the Thing remarks in the twenty-fifth anniversary issue – an edition that would probably be best used for a celebration, instead treated as a solemn reflection. Comic books have changed, and it’s easy to make the case that the Fantastic Four have simply been left behind. “The universe has proved a place more complex than even Galactus dared suspect,” Galactus laments at one point. One of the most fascinating things that John Byrne does in his opening year as writer is to explore the team from the outside in – he looks at the group as what they aren’t, and then defines them through contrast.

Benevolent dictator…

In one great little chapter, Johnny storm finds himself trying to prove the innocence of a man convicted of murder and sentenced to death. In the old days, the idealistic days, Johnny would have solved the murder in time to save the kid. Instead, he has to offer post-mortem vindication for an innocent soul. It puts the Human Torch well outside the role he traditionally plays, and puts him in a world where he isn’t comfortable. He thinks, “The Fantastic Four has no official jurisdiction in any criminal cases. We’ve never been crime-fighters like Daredevil or Spider-Man, either, but…” There’s no “but.” Johnny solves the crime, but is alarmed to discover that it brings the accused’s mother no peace. He can’t understand, and she claims she isn’t surprised. “You’re a hero,”she states, as if Johnny doesn’t belong in this gritty underworld. She’s right.

In another solid early chapter, we meet L.R. “Skip” Collins. Like the Fantastic Four, Skip was granted spectacular powers by virtue of a freak accident. However, unlike his heroic counterparts, Skip doesn’t use them to save the world or anything. His life is so mundane, so starved of curiosity or intrigue, that he doesn’t even realise his gift. “And it becomes a half-an-hour earlier,” we’re told, “simply by virtue of the fact that ‘Skip’ desires it so. The effect on ‘Skip’ is negligible. He is simply relieved that he will not, after all, be late for work.” He’s a character who has none of the real thirst for knowledge that the Fantastic Four have, and thus lives a mundane life – he’s proof that the powers don’t make the hero, and an example of what the Four might have been had they been more boring individuals.

Bending reality…

Continuing the theme, the twenty-fifth anniversary issue also defines the team by what they aren’t. The team find themselves living out mundane and boring (and “little”) live in tha appropriately-named Liddlesville. Though they have everything they could want, they each know that something is missing – they couldn’t be anything but the heroes they turned out to be. As Reed says, “We’ve all had a taste here in Liddleville of what it might have been like had we never become the Fantastic Four. But we are the Fantastic Four, Ben. And that means we have responsibilities.” In many ways, these early issues seem very aggressive in their attempts to define the Fantastic Four, and to assert what they are, by clearly illustrating what they are not.

Speaking of redefining the team, it’s interesting that Byrne revisits the team’s origin so frequently in these pages. In fact, the first two issues where he served as writer were, according to the notes in this hardback edition, “a story originally intended as a promotional comic.” His first regular issues as writer is titled Back to Basics. The origin of the Fantastic Four is revisited quite frequently in these pages, something I quite like – it gives Byrne’s run a sense of context, and it means that (despite his heavy reliance on past continuity) his run on the title is remarkably accessible for readers with a minimum amount of knowledge.

Herbie’s fully loaded…

Before we continue discussing the run itself, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the collected edition. I love these big omnibus collections, and this is certainly a big omnibus collection. Marvel have dedicated themselves to collecting a pretty comprehensive bibliography of John Byrne’s work on The Fantastic Four, collecting all sorts of odds and ends, instead of just the issues he wrote and illustrated. So we get a bit of a mess of storylines, including a pair of Marvel Team-Up issues written by Chris Claremont and parts of the Search for Galactus storyline, written by Marv Wolfman.

However, because Byrne was only an illustrated for the back-end of the story arc, we only get the last few chapters. It’s strange to just jump into a big storyline about half-way through. Thanks to the style of writing at the time, it’s easy enough to piece together what’s happening, but it’s strange to join a story where so much is in play. We join in the middle of:

  • the Sphinx threatening Earth;
  • the Fantastic Four on a spaceship, searching for Galactus;
  • Reed and Sue affected by a Skrull ageing weapon.

There’s a lot going on, despite the episodic nature of the plot. Later on, we join the second-half of a crossover with Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man, without the first chapter included. I know Byrne wasn’t involved and the story reads fairly okay, but it might have been nice to include it. Still, it’s nice to have the material, and it isn’t as much of a slog to get through as the early chapters of the Daredevil by Frank Miller Omnibus. It just means that you’re about two-hundred-and-fifty pages in before the story kicks into high gear.

Sphinx fast!

I have to admit that I find Byrne’s attitude towards continuity fascinating. I’m normally reluctant to jump into books that rely heavily of continuity – I like my stories to stand on their own two feet – but I think Byrne manages his stuff quite well. The author’s attitude towards the past stories featuring the characters has been fairly well articulated by the man himself, who seems to adopt a rather strong approach towards continuity:

Oh—and “but it’s a good story” is the biggest load of crap ever foisted on the reading audience. Any story which deliberately violates core concepts and themes of original materials is not, by definition “a good story.” Time some people pulled their heads out of various writers’ asses and realized that.

Sufficed to say that I disagree with Byrne rather strongly on that point, but it reveals a lot about how he wrote the Fantastic Four. As much as he “modernised” the team, he did so by contrasting them – he didn’t suggest that he was making them relevant, he stressed that they were still relevant. Byrne tells a lot of fascinating stories here, but they’re all anchored in the original comic books. When he gives the team a cosmetic makeover, it isn’t to give them a “new” look – it’s to give them a decidedly old one. Asked about the team’s new uniforms, Reed clarifies, “Actually, they’re our old uniforms, Janet.”

Wing and a prayer…

Drawing on continuity can be a risky prospect for a writer. It’s easy to look like the author has nothing new to do with or say about the characters, merely returning to the well. However, in the right hands, continuity can add a certain amount of depth and complexity to a work – creating the sense that the tapestry is expanding and growing, that the themes and characters have been developing all along. Of course, it’s hard for mainstream comic book characters to enjoy consistency, as they are switched around writers and editors and artists with wildly different versions of those characters in their heads. However, a smart writer can use continuity to create the illusion of consistency – to help foster the impression that Reed and Sue and Johnny and the Thing have always been the same people developing along a natural path, rather than simply stopping and starting with the changing of the writing team.

Byrne cleverly brings quite a few old storylines back to roost. The Fantastic Four are confronted, time and again, with the consequences of their actions, as if revealing that the team hasn’t always exercised the very best judgment. The character of Terrax the Tamer, the herald they enslaved for Galactus, returns time and again to terrorise the team. “By your actions was I first delivered to Galactus,” he insists, explaining why he has targeted Earth, “by your actions shall I be freed!”Given the team forced a sentient being (even a nasty one) into slavery, it seems only fair that these decisions come back to haunt them.

Great view of the stars…

“Now my mind and body are restored to me,” Doom vows, confronting the team, “and you shall be forced to face the consequences of your actions.” For once, it isn’t grandstanding. He actually flies the team back to his homeland of Latvaria and illustrates how the Fantastic Four, through their “hit and run” effort to depose him, actually destroyed the once-thriving country. The team never pauses, never hesitates, never looks back. While the other members of the team aggressively challenge Doom, Sue dares to ask, “But — Reed, what if he is telling the truth? What if all this is our fault for helping to oust Doom?”

In the annual, the team tries desperately to figure out why the small town of King’s Crossing “dingles a faint bell.” Of course, it’s Sue who figures out the connection first. “The first Skrulls we faught!” she declares. Byrne goes back to one of the very earliest Silver Age adventure, where the Fantastic Four turned a bunch of evil aliens into cows, and cleverly wonders what the consequences of such a stupid action might have been. It’s a clever and bold way of challenging the team, adding a bit of depth by conceding that they didn’t always make the right choice. Some of their decisions were gambits and, by the nature of a gambit, it doesn’t always pay off. “We have inadvertently committed an almost unforgivable crime against the people of this community,” Reed suggest. “An old ghost has come back to haunt us, and we must exorcise it before this tragedy can achieve its full potential!”

You can’t go home again…

On the other hand, some of Byrne’s affection for continuity has some unfortunate implications, as a slightly disturbing conservatism seeps into his narrative. His characters always seem ultimately vindicated. Terrax was a horrible person, so his slavery doesn’t generate sympathy. The Skrull infestation of King’s Crossing has absolutely no long-term negative effects for the residents – only good ones! Even when they make a bad decision, it seems that good comes from it. I think that’s what truly frustrates me about Byrne’s run and his use of continuity. He very cleverly picks examples from the history of the franchise that could play out to make the team look bad – that could be seen as reckless or silly decisions – and then reveals that ultimately… absolutely everything is perfectly fine.

I don’t mine the Fantastic Four not getting dredged through their history of morally questionable decisions. The title would be just as good if Byrne ignored the rather suspect implications of these past stories. “Onwards and upwards!” we might declare, as we meet a new science-fiction high concept this month. These decisions weren’t made by Byrne, and it’s not his job to “fix” them. It just feels a little pointless for Byrne to shrewdly identify some mistakes in the team’s past only to then spin the story that absolutely everything is perfectly fine. The Skrull incident at King’s Crossing not only avoids harming the residents, but it also has the side effect of making them healthier and stronger! Part of me wonders if it might have been braver to end the story with Reed accepting that a decision he made when he was younger was reckless and has a significant cost. It removes a lot of the weight of the observation if there are no consequences.

Terrax to 20,000 feet!

However, there are other implications of Byrne’s fixation on past continuity and his desire to vindicate the team and their world. One gets the sense that Byrne loved the Fantastic Four a particular way, and that he feels a need to defend that era against certain criticisms that have been made of it. Sometimes, this revisionism is not for the best – with the author making suspect observations to validate past plot points. We’ll discuss The Trial of Galactus next time, but there’s an example or two to be found here. During Exodus, the story which sees the Inhumans relocating to the surface of the moon, Byrne reestablishes the “Alpha Primatives” as slaves to their Inhuman masters. He tries to justify this within the story itself, observing, “Once, not long ago, the Inhumans freed their mindless drones. It was a noble experiment. And a failure.”

It seems like the type of attitude that suggests that such creatures are not fit to govern themselves – which is disturbingly like a rationale used by many anti-abolitionists in the lead-up to the American Civil War. it has some pretty unfortunate implications, not least of which the simple fact that the Inhumans didn’t try to teach their former subjects to live independently, but just reintroduced slavery as a means of “protecting” their “lesser evolved” brethren. I don’t think that Byrne agrees with any of this, but it illustrates the worrying implications of the logic he might use to return to the status quo. (Similar to the unintentional, but worrying, implications about the resurrections of several Silver Age characters in recent times.)

It’s Inhuman!

Perhaps Reed Richards himself is the most obvious example. Most of Byrne’s most frequently discussed storyline, The Trial of Galactus, is not included here, so we can’t really dwell too much on the pay-off to what Byrne is setting up. However, Reed seems like a massive hypocrite throughout these pages – some of it is undoubtedly an attempt to add complexity to the character by giving him a particularly rational and dispassionate mindset, but I’m not sure that Byrne recognises some of the more worrying characteristics he brought out in Reed. Of course, it goes without saying that, as far back as the very first issue, Reed has been a slightly “ambiguous” figure (note the way Kirby introduced him), but here he seems quite worryingly disconnected from the implications of his actions.

Arguably the most obvious example in the collection actually pre-dates Byrne’s arrival on the title, as Reed agrees to capture Terrax for Galactus, condemning the alien to a life of slavery in order to save Earth. It’s a cold and rational decision, but nothing resembling a heroic one. “It is for Earth’s sake that I’m willing to help Galactus acquire a new herald,” he insists. In fairness, Byrne seems to call out Reed on this, by having Terrax return time and again, but there are numerous smaller examples to be found within Byrne’s Fantastic Four.

Some Thing’s gone wrong!

At one point, he coldly calls out Frankie Raye for attempting to stop an abusive father from victimising his young daughter. “It’s not for us to sit in judgement over our fellow man, Frankie!” Reed insists, rebuking the young woman. Of course, the team could contact social services or the police, but there’s no indication that Reed does that either. It’s a very worrying indifference to the obvious suffering of others, particularly given how Reed seems to treat his obligation to help others. It might seem like an interesting character development, and it leads into a lot of Reed’s subsequent portrayals by authors like Mark Waid or Mark Millar, but the problem is that Byrne doesn’t seem to accept that this is a flaw in Reed. In fact, and we’ll discuss this in more depth next time, The Trial of Galactus is built around vindicating Reed’s world view.

Meeting aliens stranded on Earth in Byrne’s second issue as writer, Reed assures them, “The Fantastic Four were formed to help people in need… even non-human people.” This seems like “a noble sentiment”, but I wonder how much Reed actually agrees to it, and how much value he extends to “non-human people.” A worrying amount of Byrne’s stories feature Reed offering justification for violence by his team mates. In the same story, the Thing asks, “This is a little bit like murder, ain’t it, Stretch?” Reed replies, without a hint of explanation, “No, Ben, not at all.” Later on, forced to elaborate, he explains, “It was no more cold-blooded than any scientific procedure, Ben.” His argument is that Ben and the Torch were merely attacking Ego’s autoimmune defenses – but, when they’re the size of people, what measure is life?

Some Ego…

“There’s thousands of them!” Johnny insists. “They’re committing suicide trying to reach us!” Reed corrects him, “No Johnny! The antibodies have no life of their own! They are just cells of Ego’s body. You destroy more ‘living things’ each time you get a haircut.” It seems like a fairly convenient analysis. Later, he has Johnny burn Ego’s “ersatz brain” on his suspicion – seemingly indifferent to the fact that he would be lobotomising a sentient creature if he was wrong. Of course, he’s never wrong, and – as explored earlier – even when he is wrong, there aren’t generally too many consequences.

Maybe it’s a measure of consciousness, but it seems strange that the Fantastic Four are so indifferent to the risks of killing some Skrulls. I know they’re bad guys, but the team traditionally uses some measure of care not to fatally wound human villains. Instead, the Thing seems to use the fact that they’re Skrulls as an excuse to brutalise them. “See,” Ben states, “us good guys have a code that stops us from hurtin’ even bad guys too much… but when it comes to Skrulls… Hey, even Nazis are nicer than you creeps! So I don’t hafta hold back at all!” The Skrulls seem as self-aware as any other foes, so the brutality seems rather strange. And, given that the Skrulls are the race we see suffering from Reed’s decision to help Galactus, it’s an interesting point to make – if the Thing doesn’t feel too bad about brutalising them “too much” by virtue of their breed, will the Fantastic Four care too much about the death of their home planet?

He is become Death, the destroyer of worlds…

It seems strange then, that Reed is so impartial on Galactus of all things – something that would come back to bite him in the butt in The Trial of Galactus, which we’ll discuss next time around. “We have been at odds many times before,” Reed states, “but I have never thought of you as an enemy — not as evil!” I like the idea that Reed is so scientific to classify Galactus as beyond mere good or evil, but I have a bit of difficulty in how he seems able to use that to get away from the rather real harm that Galactus does. Earthquakes aren’t inherently evil, but we still monitor them and try to avoid them. Famine isn’t something that can be morally judged, but we try to prevent it. When Byrne refers to Galactus as a “brother” of Death, I fail to see how defeating Galactus is any different from an attempt to cure cancer.

That said, I really like Byrne’s portrayal of Galactus, as much as I dislike Reed’s reaction to him. Galactus is – despite his humanoid form and fancy ship – a primitive force of nature. He simply doesn’t comprehend the universe in the same way that we mere mortals do. “Galactus has seen the end of forty times four billion worlds!” he explains, in one of his more contemplative moments. “Must we know grief for each of these? Had he but tears to cry, Galactus could weep oceans in their memory, and in the end, they would still be dead, and madness would at last have claimed me.” To him, remorse and grief are just… pointless.

Doom’s Doom…

“Galactus is not a God,” Reed suggests at one point, “at least not as we define the concept, but he is nearly omniscient.” Arguably the differences are semantics, given his power over life and death. Arguably it’s only his complete indifference to smaller life forms that distinguishes him from the deities of the Marvel Universe. “I am Galactus!” he declares. “I am power which is beyond power, knowledge which is beyond thought!” Death describes the two of them as primal forces within the cosmos, “the shepherds who guide it to its proper purpose.” It’s a clever and a thoughtful portrayal, and something I really like about Byrne’s Fantastic Four. it’s also worth mentioning the fantastic chapter where Galactus lays siege to the Skrull Throneworld, a story which beautifully illustrates the destruction he causes as a mere matter of course.

The structure of Byrne’s run fascinates me. These stories are mostly “done in one” adventures, developing long-term story points while making sure that each chapter of the adventure is solidly entertaining in its own right. “But we will have to wait until next issue to share in Johnny’s knowledge,” John Byrne teases at one point. Occasionally, for a particularly large story (like a big Galactus one), the writer will spread the story over multiple parts, but most stories tie up fairly neatly in the space of a single issue, with long-term plot points pushed forward. I like this approach in theory, as it’s something we’ve generally lost in this era of decompression.

Who says space is cold?

However, some of his plots feel a little too condensed crammed into a single issue. Byrne has a wonderful knack for fun high-concept science-fiction, but cramming so much into so tight a space usually involves a lot of awkward exposition to set-up everything to pay off by the end of the chapter. The most obvious example of this is Exodus, which really introduced enough plot points to deserve at least another issue. I suspect Byrne is leading into some nice pay-off in the next edition, but it’s frustrating when so many great ideas are thrown together so fast they barely have room to breath. It’s a small point, as it does add to the fun of things.

There’s a nice pulpy feel to this – something Byrne is wryly aware of. After all, Johnny confesses in Terror in a Tiny Town that he has “dreams that read like reject scripts from The Twilight Zone.” Byrne’s first story actually reads like an affectionate homage to The Thing, with an alien spaceship trapped under the ice forever. “We have been asleep here half-a-million years!” the creatures suggest, as the adventure does play out remarkably different to the original short story (and its adaptations). At one point, in another pulpy homage, Ben Grimm even shows up as “Idaho Smith”– presumably because George Lucas would sue if he referred to a certain archeologist by name.

Field of view…

There are some silly ideas populating the run. I do wonder about the story featuring Spinnerette, an alien who gets drunk on air. She’s presented as a member of “a race of natural clones” — however, the race has two genders. Surely that’s a bit redundant. “Reed!” Sue shouts. “They all look like her! Even the men!” Surely if all the aliens are clones, they’d all be the same gender? And, if they weren’t, wouldn’t there be other differences beyond gender? I don’t know. It’s the exception rather than the rule. Most of these are good, pulpy high-concept fun.

I have to admit, I quite like Byrne’s work on the Shi’ar Gladiator. In a chapter entitled Man vs. Superman, Byrne takes to opportunity to use the alien to propose his own sci-fi theories about the source Superman‘s powers, which he would officially incorporate into his Man of Steel relaunch as“self-telekinesis.” Reed insists, in an observation that foreshadows Byrne’s take on the iconic character, “Although Gladiator possesses super-human physical traits, it was apparent that much of his power is actually psionic in nature — mental powers such as pyrokinesis, telekinesis, and levitation.” In fairness, it’s a clever idea that does explain some of the problems that people have if they think too hard about Superman’s powers. Of course, you could argue that you don’t need to think too hard – some things in comic books (like superpowers) can be accepted at face value.

Burnt out…

There are some other nice elements of Byrne’s extended run, with most of them involving characterisation. I like his take on Susan Richards, the Invisible Girl. The writer seems to concede that she hasn’t had the best time as a regular cast member. “Come now, Susan,” Byrne’s straw feminist remarks. “Anyone who studies the history of the Fantastic Four would quickly realise your primary function has been to be captured and terrorised by your foes.” It’s a fair comment, as is her other biting observation, “Those do not sound like the words of a modern liberated woman, Susan. Nor does your title, the Invisible Girl.” 

While Byrne does dodge the issue a bit by putting legitimate accusations in the mouth of an unlikeable and cynical character (derisively described as “Boss Barb” by her staff), he does make some decent in-roads in this portrayal. He offers proactive uses for Sue’s primarily defensive powers, as she uses force fields to glide and fly. Later on, she would take the code name “The Invisible Woman”, but even here she seems tired of Reed’s overly-protective attitude, “Please, Reed! Must we go through this every time a dangerous task falls to me?” Hell, you know the character is making progress when Doctor Doom acknowledges that she’s evolved significantly.

Not all Doom and Gloom?

I also quite like the way that Byrne introduces sexuality into the title. Hell, we can pretty much point to the page where Sue and Reed’s second shild is conceived. However, Byrne doesn’t play up the sexuality as an attempt to seem “mature” or edgy. Instead, he portrays it as a natural part of the married life of Reed and Susan Richards. He also gets bonus points for having the characters realise that the Baxter Building is not a safe place to raise a child – an interesting development.

Byrne’s portrayal of Doom is also fascinating, and I think that his portrayal of the character is even more definitive than Lee and Kirby’s. You can definitely see the hints of Mark Waid’s Unthinkable in these pages, as Byrne portrays Doom as a character who is a capable of being noble… if only when he wants to be seen as noble. “Evil Doom may be,” we’re told, “but also a man of honour. A man who pays his debts.” We’re shown a man who takes pride in loving his people, and is loved in return. He takes in an orphan boy to tend for him, and he listens to his people’s pleas, he compliments his chef. Latvaria seems a much safer place with Doom in charge, even if it’s not free.

Wor-ship…

However, Byrne also illustrates that Doom is petty. As much as he wants to be seen as noble, he also wants to win. When that young boy suggests that Doom might find an equal in Magneto, the dictator brutalises the child he seemed to love not a moment ago. Although she’s talking about a Doombot, there is something of Doom in the way that he strikes Susan Storm when she gets in his way. “Yet, with his strange code of honour I’m shock that he would strike a woman,” Sue observes, “Kill one, yes, but I thought him above simple brutality.” Even if the real Doom would not have hurt Susan, a man “above simple brutality” does not hurt a child. It’s a complex and a fascinating portrayal.

However, there are other problems. As smooth and as interesting as his character arcs for Susan, Doom and Galactus might be, I do feel a bit frustrated with his work on Ben. Of course, it seems mandatory for every writer to have a “cure Ben Grimm” storyline,but it feels kinda pointless for Byrne to change the Thing’s appearance and state that he is beyond the possibility of cure, only to completely reverse that through Franklin’s convenient mutant powers a few chapters later. It seems like a pointless little thread – particularly frustrating because I suspect there was potential there.

Doom hit a child? You must be kidding…

Byrne illustrates most of the collection, and his art is something to look at. Even when the plot goes a bit wonky, it still looks absolutely stunning. The man was incredible – and the sheer volume of work he put out on a monthly basis while keeping a high standard is absolutely stunning. I dare say that modern artists could learn a thing or two from him. It really is a great collection to look at, on top of the fun and interesting take on the lead characters.

I do have some problems with Byrne’s run. As much as I like some of his application of continuity, I do worry that he uses it to justify a strange conservatism. More than that, I think his Reed Richards is a lot more ambiguous than his narrative seems to allow. Some of his done-in-one stories do feel a bit rushed, as much as I love his high concepts. Still, I really like this collection, even if I can’t bring myself to love it. Maybe the second volume will tie things up a bit, and bring his plots to a head. Still, as far as Fantastic Four runs go, it’s hard to beat the enthusiasm and wit that Byrne brings to the table – it feels fun, and feels like he’s loving what he’s doing. His Doctor Doom, his Galactus and his Susan Richards are all great takes on the characters, and it seems like he’s figured out what works for one of the more difficult Marvel books to get right.

Four panel beginning…

Roll on volume 2!

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11 Responses

  1. I enjoyed your article. I read John’s run on Fantastic Four before I read the Lee/Kirby run and in many ways I still prefer John’s. If however you take the 10 best issue of each run, Lee/Kirby win out for me.

    John likes to “stumble” upon websites about himself so he can go back to his website and complain about what he found to his faithful 5. I wouldn’t be surprised if this review will be talked about eventually.

    So John when you do see this eventually…. You’re still my favorite artist from the 1980’s but close down your website and stop talking. Things were much better when I could just look at your pretty pictures and not know what kind of person you are.

    • I guess that would be karma for the time Paul Cornell read my review of The Black Ring and liked it. I’d hope he’d see it as a fair an impartial review. (Not to mention that I really enjoyed the run, even if I thought it was flawed.) But I doubt that’d happen.

      Still, c’est la vie. Thanks for popping by!

  2. The second he’d get to, “it’s sad that he has since been relegated to writing Jurassic Park tie-in comic books” Byrne would stop reading and go to his site to complain about how uniformed you are.

    You see he chooses to do Jurassic Park books. Marvel & DC both offer him jobs but he chooses not to work with them. It has nothing to do with the fact he has burned every bridge at the big 2 and they no longer want him.

    I’ll have to go back and look for your Black Ring review. I found your site from a link on Twitter so I’ve never read anything else you’ve written.

    • He’s got a great review of the Walter Simonson Thor Omnibus — which is also a great read.

      • Thanks again, David! And Simonson’s Thor is a great collection of Thor stories. I think his initial dozen or so issues (the Surtur saga and everything leading up to it) might be my favourite Thor story ever.

      • Mine too. I think the scene where Hela arrives to collect Odin’s soul and Thor’s grief and wrath are so great she flees is one of my favourite moments in Simonson’s whole run.

  3. Great post, Darren! I came to Byrne’s run on FF late in his time there (I was a huge Alpha Flight fan first) but I really enjoyed what he did with them, even when he was wrangling to make goofy things like Secret Wars II make sense in his pages. I just got the Omnibus volume and am working through it — nice to see that Spidey/Super Skrull story too, since anyone who read Byrne’s AF run knows what he did with the Super-Skrull when he eventually made it back to earth. Some great art and storytelling by Byrne. Keen to get volume II if/when it is published.

    • Thanks David. Yep, I can’t believe they haven’t solicited volume II yet.

      • I’m definitely keeping an eye out for it, even though I still have a few of the back issues from that part of his run. I liked some of the Psycho-Man stuff, and the final arc that was basically completed by Jerry Ordway, when the FF find themselves stuck in the future.

  4. ” It’s generally regarded to be one of the better comic book runs of the eighties”

    No, it’s generally regarded to be one of the better comic book runs — period.

    • Okay. Different strokes for different folks, I suppose.

      I don’t think I’ve heard people include Byrne’s Fantastic Four in the same breath as Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four, Lee/Ditko Spider-Man, Moore Miracleman, Moore’s Swamp Thing, Miller’s Daredevil, Kirby’s Fourth World, Gaiman’s Sandman, Vaughan/Guerra Y: The Last Man, Miller/Hitch’s Ultimates, Morrison’s Invisibles, Ellis’ Transmetropolitan, Ellis/Hitch Authority, Moore/Williams Promethea, even Bendis/Bagley Ultimate Spider-Man. (Or even, although I accept this is more tenuous, Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men – including his collaborations with Byrne.)

      I’ll accept it gets ranked highly in the eighties subcategory (obviously behind Miller and Moore) and the Fantastic Four subcategory, but I’m not sure it really ranks favourably compared to all the other classic runs ever. The same is true of Simonson’s Thor, which is a fantastic run of itself and one of the strongest eighties comic book runs, but I’m not sure rank that highly among the best ever.

      But, as I said, each’s own and all that.

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