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Thursday, August 25, 2011

'FF' rises from ashes of 'Fantastic Four'

THE COVER DOESNT DO IT JUSTICE
The Human Torch, a.k.a. Johnny Storm, died in January of this year, reducing the membership of the Fantastic Four in the eponymous comic book to three. Writer Jonathan Hickman took opportunity to add Spider-man to the team, change their costumes, rename the book FF, for "Future Foundation," and renumber the title starting with #1. Of course, big deaths, new looks and other gimmicks are familiar tropes in comics, but Hickman revitalizes FF with a hungry intellect and a sense of what makes the title fantastic. With art by Steve Epting and Barry Kitson, FF's first hardback collection comes out in comic book stores this week and in book stores on Sep. 7.

It turns out that the demise of Johnny Storm, last seen engulfed by a horde of insectoid aliens from The Negative Zone, wasn't the grand finale of a far-flung adventure story. Cosmic cliffhangers notwithstanding, it was more like an act break of an even more intricate, drawn-out storyline that Hickman's been setting up since he took over the book in 2009. While appreciating The Thing and the Invisible Woman, Hickman's focus rests on Reed Richards, a.k.a. Mr. Fantastic, but with less concern over his elasticity powers than his intellect. As the most highly intelligent human being on earth (with possible exceptions, including his own daughter Valeria), how much responsibility does Reed Richards have for addressing mankind's problems?

Hickman appreciates Fantastic Four's roots as Marvel Comics' first superhero title and the fact that the title characters aren't crime-fighters so much as explorers and adventurers. FF features plenty of exotic locations and monstrous entities. The current storyline involves a crazy number of variables, including subaquatic and subterranean civilizations, an alien outpost on the moon, a time-traveling grandfather and a council of alternate-universe Reed Richards who believe the ends justify the means. FF is the kind of book to appeal to fans of "Doctor Who's" lighthearted sci-fi humanism than, say, Batman's grim vigilantism.

The Future Foundation itself is a kind of high-tech seminar Richards leads of a small group supergeniuses whom are primarily children. Kiddie characters normally make grating addition to superhero comics, but Hickman strikes a fine balance between comic relief and debates over scientific ethics. Valeria, despite being the age of a kindergartner, takes her duties with grave responsibility. The group includes a supervillain's young clone with a hilarious evil streak: when the extended family says grace before a meal, the "bad" one insists they thank the devil in addition to God, evolution, et al.

FF delivers insanely imaginative action sequences, and the new book culminates with fish-people and the Mole Man's creatures attacking a frozen city at the South Pole. Epting isn't the best artist at conveying the subtleties of facial expressions, but his composition and sense of movement is excellent. Overall, however, FF feels like a commentary on the concerns of the scientific community, with occasional flashes of Ivory Tower satire. At one point Doctor Doom holds a symposium, with the FF's approval, titled "Conquering the Mount Fantastic: How To Finally Defeat Reed Richards." A lesser-known bad guy called The Mad Thinker looks at questions from so many angles that he ends up paralyzed with indecision.

Most changes don't last forever in comic books, and eventually the Human Torch will make some kind of comeback and the group will go back to the old name and blue jumpsuits. Superhero stories tend to be predictable. With FF, however, Hickman brings so many fresh ideas to a book with such a rich history that there's no telling where he could take the team. It's like FF has ambitions to live up to Fantastic Four's old motto, "The World's Greatest Comics Magazine."

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