Some thoughts on my latest borrowing from the New York Public Library:
Okay, first, a little bit of comic book blasphemy: I really don’t like the Fantastic Four. (It’s not terribly surprising; they’re among the 99% of DC and Marvel’s pantheons that I’d say the same about.) The characters’ creators, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, authored some wonderful comic book yarns starring this family, but somehow, they established the characters’ voices so firmly, so rigidly, that nearly every creator to follow them onto the magazine has driven Reed, Sue, Ben and Johnny into cliché. Yet, as has been the case with others among the seemingly infinite number of comic book superheroes I’m cold to, occasionally a creator comes along who thaws my sensitivity to the sometimes mind-numbing repetition of good vs. evil and thematic redundancy of the superhero genre.
Walter Simonson’s Thor is among my favorite comic book series of all time. His work on DC’s Orion is, for my money, the last true, must-read superhero series. With this in mind, I came to Marvel’s collection of his early 1990s Fantastic Four run with mild trepidation, but hope that Simonson would join Stan & Jack and John Byrne as FF creators worth the price of admission.
Packing each story with time-hopping, dinosaur-battling, powerless, political, and outrageous adventures, Simonson could’ve inserted any character into these adventures and won me over. That he managed to find facets of the characters that I was able to enjoy is all the more impressive. Sharon Ventura, a character I’d never read an appearance of prior to vol. 1 of this series, has several terrific scenes, a twist on the classic “Ben Grimm tragedy,” given sufficient uniqueness when viewed through the prism of her character. Ben’s role as the team’s surly uncle is perfect, and Simonson’s patter between Reed and Sue made them seem like an actual couple for one of the rare times in their history.
Simonson jams each issue with a zany, anything-goes plot style that keeps the reader engaged on every page, and his art is up to his usually high standards. One meta-level highlight is seeing Simonson’s dinosaur-like signature at the bottom of a splash page depicting a more ferocious lizard bearing down on the team. The offbeat political humor of a two-parter that finds the FF in a parallel world where the Cold War is about to go hot, and Dan Quayle as president, well… the references are a little aged these days, but the tongue-in-cheek quality still plays effectively.
If there’s a problem with Fantastic Four Visionaries: Walter Simonson vol. 2, it definitely lies in some of the peculiar decisions made by Marvel’s collected editions department. The book contains only five issues – two two-parters, the Cold War dramedy and a dinosaur island romp – one of which is a fill-in issue by creators named neither Walter nor Simonson. If the issue were important to the unfolding Simonson storyline, I could understand its inclusion, but it’s a fairly ordinary “dark night of the soul” melodrama starring the Torch, the sort of thing that Stan Lee did much better. Essentially, the issue has no place in a Walter Simonson Visionaries book. With only five issues, one that doesn’t belong, this trade is very light and not quite up to its cover price. Fortunately, I and many other lucky readers can still experience the good times of Walter Simonson’s Fantastic Four via their local library.