Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Fantastic Four Visionaries: Walter Simonson volume 2 review (Unread 004)

When I read the first volume of Fantastic Four Visionaries: Walter Simonson I went in with some pretty high expectations. I wasn’t quite expecting something as good as his legendary run on Thor but I was still hoping to find a comic that was really worthy of the Visionaries title it was given. I’ve read of few collections in Marvel’s Visionaries line and they’ve all fluctuated quite a bit in quality. For the curious at home I’ve read Frank Miller’s run on Daredevil (excellent stuff), Alan Davis’ more or less solo run on Excalibur (quite good but degrades in quality with each volume), and Peter David’s first run on X-Factor during the 90s (plays around with some neat ideas and is mostly memorable for one amazing issue, the rest is basically exactly what you would expect for 90s era X-men). In terms of quality I would place the first volume of Fantastic Four Visionaries: Walter Simonson between Alan Davis on Excalibur and Peter David on X-Factor. It was good but nothing exceptionally noteworthy in terms of superhero comics. The second volume, much to my delight, is an improvement on the first.

It might help that I went into the second volume with lower expectations but the fact is Walter Simonson impressed me a little. He continues the story form the first volume not by giving you more, but by giving you less. The excess and decompression of the time bubble story was the cause of my disappointment with the first volume. With the second volume, Simonson tells two stories related to the Fantastic Four’s adventure in the time bubble but they’re shorter, more tightly focused stories that somehow also managed to be very fun and enjoyable without ever being juvenile. I would also argue that Simonson’s art is more interesting here than in the previous volume. All in all, volume 2 which collects Fantastic Four issues #342 to 346 suggests that Simonson’s run on Fantastic Four might just be worthy of the Visionaries title it received. I’ll have to read the third volume to in order to be certain.

The first story is titled “Burnout!” and it is written by Danny Fingaroth, pencilled by Rex Valve with Chris Ivy on inks. It’s a pretty bad story even though it’s an earnest attempt at telling an emotional story centred on Johnny Storm. In this standalone issue Johnny finds out not once but twice (once is in a flashback) that children who idolized him too their lives by lighting themselves on fire. For a while he wanders around a little aimlessly and decides to never use the powers of the Human Torch again. Naturally a few pages later the father of one of the kids attacks Johnny and a former member of the mutant team X-Factor. The father is a member of the Seekers, high tech bounty hunters from the Iron Man comic. The issue ends with the realization that the good that Johnny does as the Human Torch far outweighs the bad that occurs due to his celebrity. The whole thing is very after school special and it’s quickly forgotten once we move on to the second story in the collection.

“Nukebusters!!!” is written and drawn by Walter Simonson with help on inks by Art Thibert in the second issue of the story. The story takes place just after the Fantastic Four’s return from the time bubble as seen in the last volume. Every member of the team slowly comes to the realization that something isn’t right with the world. As it happens, their return trip was a failure. The Fantastic Four are stuck in an alternate timeline!

Before I get to that I want to talk about how the plot of issue #343 immediately undermines the first story in issue #342. Did “Burnout!” take place on the alternate Earth of “Nukebusters!!!”? If so, why bother telling such a personal story about Johnny Storm? These questions, and a few others, really don’t matter because the disconnect between “Burnout!” and the two Simonson issues it was sandwiches between only goes to show that the Johnny Storm issue was nothing but filler. If you consider the note at the end of issue #342 that Fantastic Four would be back in two months, rather than in one month, the only sensible conclusion is that Simonson needed some extra time to write and draw his next story. Issue 342 is classic filler and it also happens to be very bad.

Back to “Nukebusters!!!”. The idea that the Fantastic Four wouldn’t make it back to their timeline safely is a good idea. Better yet, it allows for Simonson to have some fun without having to worry about explaining things too much or worry about any collateral damage inside the Marvel Universe proper. It lets him let loose as a storyteller and have some fun and he succeeds admirably. The Fantastic Four are trapped on an Earth where Stalin is still alive and his body is sustained due to his living inside a large mechanical suit. It’s battle armour, essentially. After learning that Dan Quayle is President, the Fantastic Four find themselves in the middle of the Cold War which hasn’t ended yet on this alternate Earth. It’s up to the FF to stop nuclear Armageddon and they have to find a way to return to their Earth. It’s good comic book fun and it ends with a showdown against a robot armoured Stalin.

The third and last story of this collection is called “The Mesozoic Mambo!” and it’s is written and drawn by Simonson. Once again the Fantastic Four find themselves trapped in time. It’s not another alternate Earth. The superhero team finds themselves on an island in the middle of the ocean populated with prehistoric creatures. Along for the ride is an airborne infantry division of the United States Army who are mysterious lost with the FF. Together both groups try and find a way to get off the island and, specifically the Fantastic Four, a way back to their timesled in order to continue their journey home. The trouble is that the island’s time and space is unstable and parts of the island are disappearing, bit by bit. To make things worse, the Fantastic Four have lost their powers and even Sharon Ventura, the resident Thing during this storyline, is depowered. All of this is an excuse for Simonson to draw regular guys and gals fighting off dinosaurs with handmade spears and machine guns. It’s pretty awesome. He’s not satisfied simply doing a story about a dinosaur island as he makes sure to take enough time in the story to develop some characters a little bit. Sharon and Ben Grimm in particular get some nice moments in these couple of issues.

It’s pretty clear that the second volume of Fantastic Four Visionaries: Walter Simonson isn’t the best comic featuring the Fantastic Four. That said, aside from the original stories by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby I’d be hard pressed to suggest better stories since I haven’t read many issues of Fantastic Four. This volumes makes another thing pretty clear, it’s an improvement on the first volume. Both stories by Simonson collected in this volume show something that was lacking in the time bubble story in volume one: a sense of fun and good ol’ superhero shenanigans. The kind of setup these stories have is pure superheroics and the joy that Simonson is having writing and drawing these issues is palpable. Another thing the stories have going for them is that they’re short. Two issues a piece. Somehow the stories do not feel rush nor do they drag on. Simonson has the time to setup some threatening and thrilling scenarios for the heroes and they quickly respond by putting together a plan of attack and executing it without too much trouble.

I was pleasantly surprised to see proto-features on dinosaurs in a comic published in 1990!

Unlike Walter Simonson’s run on Thor, there is nothing ground-breaking about his run on Fantastic Four. The first volume showed promise in the first few issues only to fall flat with the second story. Thankfully he reaches a nice storytelling balance in the second volume and the results are good adventure comics that would certainly appeal to fans of superhero comics. If that’s not good enough for you, maybe the dinosaurs will help. There are dinosaurs! Dinosaurs, spears, and machine guns! How can you say no to that? 

1 comment:

  1. This art is beautifully vintage, and it sounds like the story line has that same Golden Age feel. And I agree—Dinosaurs make everything better.