Today, Drew and Shelby are discussing FF 5, originally released March 27, 2013.
Drew: Comics have a LOT of history, which is precisely what makes them so intimidating. Marketing ploys like the New 52 and Marvel NOW are designed specifically to minimize the cost of entry — sure, there may be decades of dense continuity to follow, but why bother when you can start with a brand new #1. As someone who was enticed by those ploys, I often have the false sense of security that I understand the universes these stories are told in. Sure, there are references to events and characters I don’t know, but I continue on the faith that, if it’s important, everything will be explained. For the most part that attitude has served me well, but every so often, I’m reminded of just how my ignorance might color my readings. The recent twist ending in Age of Ultron 3 is a great example — everything about the reveal told me that this was a big surprise, but I completely lacked the knowledge to understand what actually happened, forcing me to consult the Marvel Wiki for answers. Of course, the long, convoluted histories that most characters have often make that experience more confusing than helpful, which is exactly the experience I had trying to parse the ending of FF 5.
I’ll get to talking about the issue in a moment, but first, a note about the cost of entry in comics: I absolutely appreciate that, having decades-long continuities, comics are going to require some foreknowledge. It’s hard for me to fault long-time fans for wanting this kind of depth, or writers for delivering it, but revealing the limits of my experience never fails to yank me out of the narrative. I understand how difficult the balancing act between pleasing old and new readers must be. To the credit of comics creators, I never feel ignored — it’s more of a “you must be new,” than a “you’re not welcome” — but it’s sometimes very clear when they’re aiming for the in-crowd. I have every bit of faith in this particular instance that Fraction will tell me what I need to know when I need to know it, but I still feel like I’ve missed something by not “getting” the big reveal when I read it. I can’t really blame anyone for this phenomenon other than myself, but you’ll see that it’s affected the way I interpret the ending of this issue.
Speaking of which, this issue opens on some of the day-to-day goings on at the freedom foundation. Medusa is teaching Herodotus, Scott is beating himself up over Alex Power’s running away, and Darla is trying on an array of headgear. Old Johnny Storm has a bit of a literal meltdown in the Bowery, ending in a rampage that threatens to burn down the entirety of New York City. The Fantastic Four are quick to action, but most of the heavy lifting is done by Vil and Wu, who summon a massive sea monster to put out the fire. Meanwhile, Alex has found his way to Dr. Doom’s doorstep, while Bentley 23 makes connections with his own supervillain, as Medusa brings him to the Wizard.
Here’s what I knew about Bentley 23 before reading this issue: that he was the clone of a supervillain. I’ve had no experience with the Wizard before, and new nothing of his personal life. I knew enough about Medusa to know that she is married to the Black Bolt, so I’m not entirely sure what to make of his “wife” remark. Could this be Salamandra — Wizard’s ex-wife — in disguise? Does he have a new wife? Is Medusa under some form of mind control? I’m not sure I have the familiarity with these characters to really start to guess, but it’s clear that something is up with Medusa. She gives an odd speech as they rush out to stop Old Johnny, and her niece senses that she is “un-good,” but I’m still not sure what that might mean for her — or her son Ahura, who apparently joins the FF this issue.
A little clearer is Fraction’s opinion of the gentrification of the Bowery. The establishing shot actually finds an old-timey journalist photographing a homeless person as “above-the-fold human drama,” but the important piece is the man in the background photographing the same scene with his phone. In case it isn’t perfectly clear that Fraction holds the hipsters currently moving into the bowery in droves, Johnny encounters another one inside.
Curiously, he puts out the fire on his “precious beard” with an issue of Fantastic Four 4 (that is, Vol. 1). I initially saw that as a commentary on hipsters co-opting bits of culture with no respect for their history (which fits the anti-gentrification sentiment), but the fact that it’s issue 4, specifically, gave me pause. Leaving aside that it’s kind of odd that there is a Fantastic Four comic in the same universe where the Fantastic Four actually exist, surely the first issue would have been a more logical choice for the history of that title. Instead, we get issue 4, which is notable, among other things, for featuring the first utterance of “Flame On!”, which Johnny is also crying in that panel. It can still carry all of those commentaries, but it’s also just a clever reference to the Fantastic Four’s own history.
And cleverness continues to be the selling point of this series. My favorite sequence has to be Darla’s search for an appropriate hat, which made for several great visual gags, as well as one great Groucho Marx joke.
How can you not love that? This series is a blast, even when I feel like things are going over my head. Shelby, I’m curious to hear if you were as distracted by not knowing all of the details as I was. Is that a problem, or am I just over-thinking things?
Shelby: I wasn’t especially distracted. I know there’s a lot I am not getting, but I wasn’t even worried about it enough to check Wikipedia. Between Medusa’s niece “looking into her” and the color change of her speech bubble in the last panel, I just assumed she wasn’t Medusa/was possessed. That lines up with the harsh scolding she delivers to her niece; Medusa maybe royalty, but she’s never struck me as particularly cold, especially towards children.
I think this is where Fraction’s strength really lies; we have no idea what’s going on here, but we’re still enjoying the ride. We’ve got enough context clues with Medusa to know that something isn’t right, we’ve got the FF kids being weird, we’ve got Scott bumbling around in a totally charming way: there’s enough here on the surface for us n00bs to enjoy while Fraction dives into Fantastic Four history and teaches us a little something. I mean, Scott’s call to arms is “Let’s go save the city from a burning madman from the future,” and how can you not love a headline like this one?
Fraction and Michael Allred make such a charming team on this title. Drew, I’m so glad you included the panels of Darla trying out new headgear. Allred gives us a hilarious visual with the repeated, static panels and crazy hat gags, and I love that she is using her phone to look at the reflection of the back of her head as well. I can personally attest to using my smart phone as a mirror to either check my makeup or make sure my hair doesn’t look weird in the back; I love that tiny, real-world detail making it’s way into such a bizarre comic book universe.
So, where does this issue leave us? Personally, I’m still not totally convinced Old John Storm is actually Johnny Storm, but now I’m more suspicious of the Wizard and Medusa’s (?) involvement; is the burning madman a ploy to keep the FF adults busy while the Wizard steals back his clone? Dr. Doom seemed pretty complacent about letting Alex Power in; what scheme does he have up his metal sleeves? Or does he even have a scheme? If he’s not the one who eventually hunted down the Fantastics and left poor, mad Johnny to burn up the Bowery, maybe Doom is as much a victim as the rest of the FF. Maybe next month we’ll see another crazy plot-twist that we don’t understand, but will enjoy continue to enjoy the title regardless? Actually, that last one is pretty much guaranteed, no need to speculate on that.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?