Saturday, 1 November 2014

Fantastic Four Visionaries: Walter Simonson volume 1 review

Walter Simonson is one of the great writer/artists of the comics industry. His spectacular run on Thor during the 80s is loved by fans and critics alike. While I regret to say I haven’t read the entire run what I have read is nothing less than spectacular. I was able to collect three of the older trades which were out-of-print for years and I refuse to buy the one volume omnibus that was release because it’s incredibly impractical. Sure, Marvel has rereleased the five trade paperbacks but the colouring has been redone and I do not like the sample’s I’ve seen. I’m sure I’ll give in and buy the last two volumes eventually but that time isn’t now. When I encountered the three also-out-of-print Fantastic Four Visionaries: Walter Simonson volumes I jumped at the opportunity to buy and read Simonson’s run on the title.

This volume, the first of three, collects issues #334-341 of Fantastic Four. Issues #334 and 335 are pencilled by Rick Buckley with Romeo Tanghal on ink, issue #336 is pencilled by Ron Lim with Mike DeCarlo on inks and the remaining issues #337-341 are pencilled and inked by Simonson who also wrote all of the issues in this collection. The book ends with an interview with Simonson circa 1989 which was originally published in Marvel Age #80.

The collection is made of two separate stories. Issues #334-336 begin with a story of everyday life at the Baxter building. Reed has been updating the security system and a slew of D-list villains, barely associated with the Fantastic Four in the pass (if at all), are coincidentally testing those system updates as they try to barge into the tower and cause a ruckus. The issue ends with the team having recently left the building and on route to for Washington where they will be appearing as witnesses to a senate hearing on a bill proposing superhuman registration. The first issue of his run is a fun introduction to the incarnation of the Fantastic Four team at that point. We’re reintroduced to all the main characters including Reed and Sue’s children and the Thing’s replacement on the team as he is currently depowered. The multiple fights with the D-list villains make for welcomed action breaks from the day-to-day activities of the heroes but it also serves a purpose in the larger three issues arc.

Things get kicked up a notch when they arrive at the senate hearing. The following couple of issues focus on the hearing itself where the Fantastic Four get regularly interrupted by relatively unknown Marvel supervillains. Again the arrival of the villains and the subsequent fights provide much needed humorous interludes to the political debate. That’s truly what Simonson gives us during the hearing issues, a debate. Reed Richards and his team provide arguments and some evidence against legislation that would force all superheroes to register with the American government. Comparisons are made with the mutant community and with firearm registration. Differentiations between teams such as the Fantastic Four who do not have a secret identity and publically share their identity are made with other teams and heroes who hide their identity for necessary reasons, not least of which is to protect their family and friends from being dragged into the dangerous and regularly lethal occupation of vigilantism and superheroics. While some of the arguments are simplistic they kind of have to be because this is still, after all, a comic book about a superhero family. The fact remains these are engaging issues that adequately reflect the more wholesome title of Fantastic Four as Marvel’s First Family of superheroes. The B-plot about the D-list villains also plays out effectively in the end but really, the best thing about their inclusion is preventing this storyline from taking itself too seriously.

I appreciate that Simonson kept the Fantastic Four’s first adventure in this volume grounded in the Marvel universe. Not only do we get plenty of guest-villains but Ms. Marvel makes appearance too. The art by Rick Buckley and Ron Lim with inks by Romeo Tanghal and Mike DeCarlo also kept us in a more realistic setting with their down-to-earth art. I’m not familiar with any of their work aside from Ron Lim but their style is classic 1980s art and it works very well. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same thing about Simonson’s art in the second story. He’s out of this world, as is the story taking place, and while I marvelled at it for the first two issues or so, it got rather tiring by the last few issues. Mostly because it’s nearly five complete issues of characters zipping through Time and Space on Reed Richard’s time sled and battling larger than life cosmic entities. It’s bad because the story is stretched out over too many issues. Moreover, the main story itself feels like something Simonson carried over from his time writing other Marvel series, particularly The Avengers. There are also so many guest characters that they all contribute to nullify the effect of the other guests stars. To name most of the big one, Iron Man, Thor, Galactus, the Black Celestial, Gladiator, Death’s Head and Kang the Conqueror all make appearances in this story. There are also a couple villains which had appeared in The Avengers during another storyline but are finishing up their own story in the pages of Fantastic Four.

The problem with the second story is that it’s a poor story that is nicely illustrated by a skilled artist. Writer-Simonson did a poor job but Artist-Simonson did a good job. The biggest problem is that this story feels very self-gratifying, in part because it feels like a continuation of stories began in different titles, and the result is a disappointing story for the reader. The whole thing would have been better if there was a few less guest stars and a couple issues where shaved off. The stakes get so ridiculously high so quickly and things just continued to get more ridiculous with each issue. There is so much pseudo-science psychobabble that it’s difficult to be invested in anything that’s happening. There are too many wild concepts at play and they’re battling with one another. To end, there are so many strong antagonists at play that the story can’t help but be resolved in a disappointing way. How can the Fantastic Four, Iron Man and Thor believable defeat all those villains?

Truly, the highlight of this collection is the first three issues. I’d like to think that the rest of Simonson’s run is better and I hope it is. He’s good at playing with big ideas but apparently a little restraint on his part is needed. I still look forward to the following two volumes but I admit it’s mostly for the art at this point but there is still hope that he’ll write an engaging story. This collection is an oddity as one story shows him as a skilled writer working with other artists and the other story shows him as a poor writer but a good artist. I’d rather read a comic by Simonson that is both well written and skilfully illustrated. Don’t disappoint me, volume 2.

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