Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Enough to Make a Grown Man Cry: FUNNYBOOKSINREVIEWAREGO!!

So I’m gonna let you in on a little secret: I’m a complete romantic sap. It ain’t a side of myself I show much here on the Dork Forty. One sign of weakness, after all, and the nerd wranglers start forgettin’ who’s the farmer and who’s the hired hand. So I keep it light. Jaunty. Glib. I act like I don’t take nothin’ too serious (except my personal vision of what makes good funnybooks), and we all get along fine. But give me a sad story well-told, about characters I’ve invested a little somethin’ in, and I cry like a little girl.

I mean-- I cry manly tears of sorrow at the tragedies that befall my fictional heroes.

(Yeah, that’s the ticket!)

It doesn’t happen often, mind you. Not too many funnybooks are written well enough to draw a tear from my eye: even in times of sadness, I still have my standards. But just a few minutes ago, I finished reading something that really got me…

Fantastic Four #588
by Jonathan Hickman, Nick Dragotta, and Mark Brooks

This is the funeral issue of Fantastic Four, the follow-up to last issue’s death of Johnny Storm, the Human Torch. As with the death issue itself, we’ve all seen this sort of thing before. Lots of characters stand around in funny costumes looking sad, and therefore faintly ridiculous. I mean, it’s a funeral, for god’s sake! Couldn’t you have at least worn a tie?! Then (much like at real funerals), somebody gets up and says a bunch of heartfelt nonsense about the deceased. The funeral issue is harder than the death issue, I think; heroic deaths come naturally to adventure fiction, but writing a really good funeral scene means dealing with messy emotions, and that’s a bit outside the escapist bounds of most adventure writing. This is especially true in super hero comics, where prose that already tends toward the purple usually amps up to the freaking ultra-violet.

Jonathan Hickman avoids that pitfall, though, by doing this as a silent issue. So there are no overblown speeches, just the honest and pained expressions of the surviving members of the team as they each mourn Johnny in their own way. Sue, surprisingly yet not-at-all-surprisingly, withdraws, as you can see here in this rather well-realized page by guest artist Nick Dragotta:

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This rift that forms between Reed and Sue forms the backbone of the issue. Shut out by his wife, Reed opens a window into the Negative Zone to speak to (well, yell at) Annihilus, the creature behind Johnny’s death. But Annihilus shows no freaking sympathy at all:

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(An aside: I always forget that, when Annihilus doesn’t have his Cosmic Control Rod, he’s actually a shrimpy little thing. Dragotta depicts this as an infantile, almost super-deformed, version of his full-sized self, which is creepy as all hell. Nice choice!)

I like this scene a lot. It shows Reed seemingly taking decisive action, going into a dangerous part of his lab to do something drastic… only to have Annihilus essentially shoot him the bird for his troubles. And what the hell did Reed even think he was doing, anyway? It’s not like he could have marched into the Negative Zone to take on Annihilus and his insect hordes by himself! And even if he could have, what good would it have done? Johnny’s already dead, and that wasn’t gonna bring him back. This is Reed lost, taking action when there’s no action to be taken, his own best qualities working against him, and winding up only frustrated and angrier than he was to start with.

And Ben… Well. It’s Ben’s response that puts this book over the top for me. The next scene is Johnny’s funeral, and it’s the usual mildly ridiculous collection of super heroes standing around in a formal environment looking sad. Except…

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That is some bravura storytelling right there. The slow pan in through the crowd, Reed looking reverent but almost unmournful, Sue standing apart and staring at him reproachfully, Namor staring at her with a creepy intensity, and through it all the Thing. Sitting alone and inconsolable at the back of the room, head down in abject sorrow, finally revealed with eyes red-rimmed from crying. On first reading, he’s literally all I saw on this page. Everything else was just noise. My eyes fixed on him in the first panel, framed so small and so sad at the back of the room that my heart broke just looking at him.

And oh the manly tears did flow.

Would that have worked for any other character? I don’t think so. But because it’s Ben… Big sad funny grumpy loveable Ben, my favorite member of my favorite super-team from the moment I laid eyes on him at age six… Holy crap, that hurts. I’m getting a little misty now, just writing about it.

The story moves on, and so do Our Heroes. Eight days after Johnny’s death, a monument is erected in his honor. The family is gathered before it, Reed and Sue still standing separate, when we get this:

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Such a nice panel. Reed’s still stoic, but the strain’s starting to show on his face. Sue finally sees how he’s been mourning, and in the next panel takes his hand. Their rift is healed, and it starts the healing process for the rest of the family. The kids both get little scenes, with Valeria’s being pretty chilling. Her to-do list for the children of the Future Foundation consists of one item:

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On Day 26, the Thing goes out to the desert somewhere to meet Donald Blake and Bruce Banner (that’s Thor and the Hulk for any non-uber-dorks reading), who give him an opportunity to work out his emotions in the only way he knows how to express them: violence. It’s another really well-constructed scene. Blake and Banner only want to give him a little holographic remembrance of Johnny, but Ben flies off the handle and decks Thor. The fight escalates as the Hulk steps in, and Thor’s about to bring the smackdown when Hulk waves him off. Ben then proceeds to beat the complete hell out of the passive Hulk before collapsing in a heap, all his pent-up emotion finally spent. Then Thor all but ruins that great Thing moment by actually shedding a manly Viking tear for him, and stepping the issue over the line into maudlin for the first and only time.

Thanks, Goldilocks!

The issue ends with Reed on the 29th day after Johnny’s death, deeply troubled by all the potential dangers looming. He gets a big surprise to end the issue on, and we get the first words spoken to end the story. The silence broken, Hickman then takes a step backward for the issue’s back-up story, with young Franklin talking to his buddy Spider-Man a couple of weeks earlier. (This is a running sub-plot in the book: Spidey is Franklin’s favorite super hero, something that stuck in Johnny’s craw to no end.)

I’ve often criticized Hickman’s handling of the Richards children in his run on this book. He usually writes them a little too cute for my taste, but this story is a nice little coda to the issue that hits just the right tone. Spidey’s doing right by the kid here, trying to help him get past the death of his uncle, which is something that Spider-Man knows a thing or two about. They share a secret with each other that I won’t spoil here, but it’s a nice moment nonetheless, and (I have no doubt) a good segue into next month’s FF #1, when Spidey joins the team…

Before I go tonight, I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t take a minute to especially praise guest artist Nick Dragotta for his work here. Dragotta’s one of a small group of really interesting cartoonists who’ve been doing work for Marvel in recent years. He occasionally filled in for Mike Allred on Pete Milligan’s X-Statix years ago, and he’s popped up here and there since, but this may be the best stuff I‘ve seen from him. Not every panel in this issue is a complete winner, but he does such a nice job with expression, and tells the story so strongly without words to back him up, that I was blown away overall. That Marvel went to someone with such a relatively uncommercial style on such a big issue is impressive, and something I’d like to see more of.

And… That is all. This final issue of Fantastic Four was a very well-executed portrait of mourning, a fitting farewell to the Human Torch, and just the sort of cathartic exhalation that the FF (and their readers) needed to move on.

Grade: A


  1. I got the sense that Reed was thinking about killing Annihilus with the Ultimate Nullifier, but when the bug showed him Johnny's uniform it reminded him he couldn't undo what had been done.

    Oh and I agree about the Thor-tear... I'm not even sure he cried when his pop died. Sure he was pissed, but tears...I don't think so.

  2. I was a bit confused about the Nullifier, I must admit. I thought he'd just used it as a key to open the Bridge back up. Of course, I've missed a few issues that dealt with the Bridge, too, so I really have little idea of how it works.

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