I’ve recently finished Jonathan Hickman’s run on the Fantastic Four, which I started reading when the original TPB of the Dark Reign: Fantastic Four mini came out and for which I held off reading the rest because that mini and the following two MPE hardcover where just so damn good. And while it’s been a veritable ride reading his entire run from start to finish with no breaks, there’s a tiny voice in the back of my mind niggling me that something just doesn’t fit.
Compared to other superhero comics, Hickman’s run is pretty damn good. Great, compelling characters who manage to come off as human, despite their superhumaness. All characters, from heroes to villains to secondary ones come off as well written and nuanced. Among the old, but slightly refurbished ideas are a few new ones that fit well with the old and expand the canon. The pacing is also well done, taking up speed from a brilliant setup until it leads into a big, satisfying conclusion.
So what’s wrong then? Hickman started the whole thing by posing one question: if you have the brains and then the means to solve all of the worlds problems, what would you do? Reed Richards, super-genius leader of the Fantastic Four discovers a group of alternative versions of himself that have pooled all their minds to solve all of humanity’s problems, not just on one world, but on all versions of Earth throughout the multiverse. But to the Reed from the 616 universe, something seems wrong.
Instead of diving headlong at the problem, Hickman first sidesteps the problem (if you lose your family and friends, it’s not worth it) and later completely buries it under generic (though fun and well written) superhero adventures. As expected, the alternative Reeds become a problem later, but merely because they play the old game of the greater good requires sacrifices (Earth 616 precisely). What it doesn’t explore is why their approach is problematic in the first place.
If you solve all of the world’s problems (hunger, energy, environment, etc.) without involving the people living on it (just handing it down like a good monarch or worse a far-away good god), you’re creating a host of other problems that in the long run will undercut everything you’ve worked for. Problem like these are never just technical, nor are they entirely self-contained and discrete entities. The council of Reeds would have failed, either by being forced to subjugate humanity completely or by abandoning their approach.
Though, Hickman’s a smart guy. The creation of the Future Foundation, Reed’s speech at the Singularity conference, all these imply a modest attempt by the 616 Reed to do what the council of Reeds did, but with a different approach. And maybe Hickman had a great concept for all of this laid out, indicated by renaming the Fantastic Four the Future Foundation. But how much Marvel’s editorial went with his concept or whether he himself abandoned it, there’s no denying that all those high-flying, exiting ideas got buried under the same old superhero stuff.
It’s a good superhero comic, sure, but nothing more than that. And that’s what’s bothering me.
Moore had Swamp Thing, Morrison had the Invisibles, Ennis Preacher, Ellis Transmetropolitan, Gaiman Sandman and for a newer name, Carey had Lucifer. All great, career-defining longish comic runs, that irrespective of whether they were part of a shared universe or not, will be read, referenced and talked about in the wider comic world, not just the superhero subset. I think Hickman has the potential to do similar great work, but so far he hasn’t. And I hope the whole superhero stuff isn’t dulling his edge before it’s too late.