I’m a fan of Marvel’s Visionaries series. It can still be hard to find old comics in affordable trades (though it’s easier now than it’s ever been) and the entire reason for being of the Visionaries line is to provide readers with a chance to discover classic runs by popular creators. While they tend to focus more on collecting runs by one particular writer, artists aren’t left completely in the dark as there are a small handful of volumes that are popular because of the artists. It’s sad to see that so many of these volumes are currently out of print but they can still be purchased easily enough at conventions or online. Regular readers will know that the latest Visionaries title I’ve been reading has been Fantastic Four Visionaries: Walter Simonson volumes 1-3. It’s taken me a long time (9 months!) to read them, even though I’ve enjoyed every volume. That’s because my general reaction has been one of passive enjoyment. They’re good issues, certainly, and I like Simonson as s writer and as an artist, but there hasn’t really been anything to make me give the run overwhelming praise.
This volume is split into two stories. The first is the best and one of the better stories of the entire run. Issues #347-349 are written by Simonson with pencils by Arthur Adams, penciling assists (issues #348 and 349) by Gracine Tanaka, inks by Art Thibert and Al Milgrom, lettering by Bill Oakley, colouring by Steve Buccellato, and edited by Ralph Macchio.
These issues are crammed with fun ideas and plenty of humour. They’re essentially a madcap superheroic romp with some of Marvel’s most popular characters from 1990. After a runaway Skrull lands on Earth, she quickly proceeds to incapacitate the Fantastic Four in pursuit of a mysterious goal. This sets the stage for a second Fantastic Four team to arrive and it’s composed of the Hulk, Wolverine, Spider-Man, and Ghost Rider. Adding to that, we get plenty of oversized, city-smashing monsters, Mole Man, hordes of subterranean humanoids, more Skrulls, an alien robot, and the Punisher. Simonson simply packs in several character appearances with plenty of snappy dialogue and humorous scenes. He’s clearly having a great time writing these issues and Adams’s detailed artwork makes it all come together into a cohesive story. There is nothing here to enjoy beyond the immediate satisfaction of having plenty of otherworldly insanity of all these different elements playing against each other. It’s simply delightful and tons of fun. Simonson doesn’t take himself too seriously here and his intentional goofing off translate well to the page and makes this three-part story work really well. One of the defining elements of these issues is that Simonson is also spending a lot of time making fun of Marvel and he does so with quite a bit of success. These are good issues and if you don’t believe me you’ll just have to go read what Greg Burgas has to say about it. According to him, these are ComicsYou Should Own.
The second story begins with the 350th issue of Fantastic Four, skips an issue, and concludes with issues #352-354. Once again they are written by Simonson who also handles the artwork. Al Milgrom provides the inks for issue #350 and Simonson takes care of it for the remaining issues. Bill Oakley letters all four issues. The colouring is done by Brad Vancata for issue and by Marie Javins with assistance from Renée on the final issue. Like all the other issues collected in this volume, the editing is done by Ralph Macchio.
This story marks the return of the original Dr. Doom (he’s been replaced by one of his Doom Bots) as well as Ben Grimm’s return to his super-powered form of the Thing. Doom is visited by Share Ventura who can no longer stand her appearance as the Thing. She asks him to do what Mr. Fantastic has proven he can’t accomplish: return her to her human form. Naturally this leads to a confrontation between the FF and their primary antagonist at Doom’s castle in Latveria. There are some interesting action scenes and I particularly enjoyed issue #352 in which Simonson tells two separate fight scenes happening in several moments in time simultaneously. What could easily have been a gimmick is instead a very interesting and skilfully executed duel between Mr. Fantastic and Dr. Doom.
The last two issues see the Fantastic Four once again on an adventure through time as the fight in Doom’s castle is interrupted by members of the Time Variance Authority. It seems that the TVA has had enough of the Fantastic Four’s tampering with Time. What follows is a self-aware conclusion to Simonson’s Fantastic Four run. There have been at least one time travel story in each one of these volumes and Simonson writes a story that acknowledges this and in so gives these final issues, and the run as a whole, a sense of closure. Unfortunately, the story can’t shake the sense of frivolity that has marked some of the weaker issues of this run. Thankfully, what these issues don’t lack is Simonson’s sense of humour and that’s what ultimately makes these an enjoyable reads. The story ends with the FF saving the world and our timeline, though they barely make it home in one piece. Simonson sure knows how to up the stakes and the heroes have to give it their all to prevent the destruction of pretty much everything in existence.
It might seem like a dumb thing to say but this run of Fantastic Four is distinguished by Simonson’s style as a writer and artist. He’s got a distinctive voice, one that is ambitious and grand, but one that can also be very playful. He backs this up with his art which can easily be described as energetic and grandiose. This run is characterized by a general lack of characters sitting around or by pages full of talking heads with little action. The reverse is what fills these pages. Even during the first storyline where the Fantastic Four are guest speakers at a superhero registration hearing, Simonson breaks up the story with plenty of action and minor villains getting beat up by our heroes. In essence, the FF are almost always in movement and it’s certainly something that I appreciate in my superhero comics. Action isn’t enough though, you’ve got to be able to feel the energy and this is something that Simonson, and even some of the guest artists (particularly Adams) are also good at. The plot is always moving forward, often at breakneck speed, and it’s genuinely exciting to try and keep up with the writer’s imagination and snappy dialogue.
I really do mean trying to keep up. Simonson throws in too much pseudo-science and technobabble into his stories for my liking. The upside is that he also draws all of the pseudo-science and technobabble, which can be a bit of a chore to read when it’s not done well. At the very least these issues offer you the pleasure of staring at Simonson’s pretty drawings. The guy’s got skill, it’s undeniable.
My reaction to this volume has been the same as the first two. My reaction can be accurately described as one of ambivalence. I enjoyed every issue in some capacity but once I finished reading a volume I wasn’t left with much. These aren’t the kind of comics that stick with you or make you think. They’re not the kind of comics I would give to introduce someone to the medium nor would I give them to someone I know doesn’t like superheroes. Heck, this run has its intended audience and Simonson writes for them. They’re fun, they’re full of energy, and the artwork has a kinetic quality to it that is exhilarating. There are enough ideas here to excite even the most serious and grumpy comics readers, as long as you’re not looking for any real depth of characterization or theme. In other words, they’re light reading with a good amount of humour to make sure you don’t take yourself or the Fantastic Four comics more seriously than the writer and artists do.