Today, Drew and Patrick are discussing Fantastic Four 6, originally released April 10th, 2013.
Drew: “Take only pictures, leave only footprints” has long been the rule of thumb for eco-tourists — or really anybody visiting nature. The point is simple: don’t change things (and indeed, many ecologists now advocate for “leave no trace” practices, which argue that even footprints are too disruptive). This idea is quite common in sci-fi as well — the Star Trek had the prime directive, and Ray Bradbury’s time traveler had the butterfly effect — which exaggerates the danger of changing things to potentially harming history itself. You’d think, then, that a group as smart as the Fantastic Four would be especially careful when encountering alien cultures while time traveling, but issue 6 proves yet again that they can’t really be bothered with such concerns, willing to alter things at the very dawn of time itself.
At first, it seems like a great idea to visit the big bang — Franklin and Valeria have been doing there homework, and the family will actually be viewing the events from a time-isolated bubble, so there’s really no chance of them changing anything, anyway. That is, until they see some kind of prisoner strapped to a rock out in space, and decide to intercede. It turns out that prisoner is none other than Blastaar, an old Fantastic Four baddie, who was sent back from the future to the dawn of time as punishment for his crimes. Blastaar is incredibly powerful and incredibly pissed, and is all but unstoppable, so the team has to rely on Franklin ex machina to magic them away from their problems.
I’m always nervous about giving superheroes too much power — you want there to be some chance of failure to increase the drama — but Franklin’s flexing here is especially problematic. It would be bad enough if Franklin was going to be used as the ace-in-the-whole every time the family ran into a problem they couldn’t solve, but the whole motivation for this series is a problem nobody can solve. So…why doesn’t Reed just ask Franklin to fix his dry rot, or Ben’s rage headaches? Deus ex machina is a shitty way to end a narrative, but at least it works at the end — the magic has to come at the end of the trick. Introducing a magic solution to the problem in the middle (or at the beginning) of the story makes everything else seem kind of frivolous.
Don’t get me wrong — I entirely expect Fraction to come up with a reason why Franklin can’t do this anymore (maybe whatever is killing his parents will also start killing the kids, too?), but I don’t think there’s any way it won’t feel contrived. Part of my lack of confidence may stem from this issue itself feeling a little contrived — particularly the dialogue. Take, for example, the argument about whether they should rescue the mysterious creature they’ve just seen:
Early on in the argument, Johnny makes a very succinct point about how dangerous an unknown life-form could be: “Didn’t you ever see Alien?” Later, he suggests that it would be immoral to let someone or something die, which I think totally contradicts the fear that this thing might turn out to be some kind of horrible killing machine you probably don’t want on your spaceship (which, coincidentally, it turns out it to be). It feels like the Alien line is just in there for a giggle, but I think anyone who thought it might actually have trouble with bringing a random alien onto their space ship.
Reed is the lone naysayer, probably remembering what happened to the time traveler from that Ray Bradbury short story (or the adaptation from the Ray Bradbury Theater, or maybe from the Simpsons-ified version of the story from Treehouse of Horror V), and extrapolating that changing things at the dawn of time would likely have a MUCH bigger effect than killing a butterfly. Then again, he was the one who had no qualms about altering the course of an alien civilization as a personal reminder, so maybe he was just worried that this might turn out to be one of their old enemies. Remind me to go back in time to write a note to myself to always listen to Mr. Fantastic.
I don’t know, Patrick, I was really excited at the idea of this title as an adventure serial, but it hasn’t really clicked for me yet. Maybe it’s that the worlds and creatures they’ve encountered so far have been pretty standard comic book faire? Something is definitely missing, but I can’t yet put my finger on it. Any help?
Patrick: I’ve actually really enjoyed the last couple issues of Fantastic Four – the one-off adventure nature was fun because so many of the issues tossed around neat ideas with the strong foundation of the characterization of the family. Not necessarily that each member of the family is strongly characterized, but that their relationships are realistic and compelling (even if Shelby finds Reed too aloof to be likable). I think this issue’s biggest misstep is in how achingly simple the conflict is. They encounter an unstoppable alien force and then Franklin magicks them out of harm’s way – no room for any clever twists or turns, but also no room for any dynamic play between the family members. In short, this issue didn’t contain any of the heart or brain that I’d grown accustomed to reading in this series. I read this one on Wednesday when it came out and had totally forgotten about it by Tuesday night — as I’m writing this — which doesn’t bode well for a story about the beginning of the universe.
Which isn’t to say that the whole thing is a wash. I always think the Fantastic Four are intended to be read by younger audiences, so maybe it’s not fair to blow off something that was never meant to blow my mind. Val and Franklin’s presentation on the Big Bang is a great example of this. As a thinking adult with a rudimentary understanding of physics and astronomy, I’ve wrestled with the question of what space expanded (and continues to expand) into, so Franklin’s noodle-scratcher ends up falling flat for me. But that would have rocked my world in junior high school. This appropriately derails the kids, only to be snapped back to reality — without an answer, mind you — by Reed.
It’s a weird dynamic between Reed and the kids. He obviously loves their endlessly inquisitive nature – it usually seems like they’re the only ones even close to keeping up with him intellectually. In fact, when they need to explore solutions to the Blastaar problem, he specifically solicits solutions from Val and Franklin. His wife or Johnny? Never mind that they have more combined heroing experience than just about anyone else you can think of – he asks the kids.
On the subject of why/how Reed has the balls to so blatantly mess with history over and over again on this time travel trip, I’m reminded of the words of the Professor Farnsworth on the evening of Fry becoming his own grandfather: “You mustn’t interfere with the past. Don’t do anything that effects anything. Unless it turns out you were supposed to do it. In which case, for the love of God, don’t not do it!” That’s basically a logical cop-out – changing the past is a problem only if the author wants it to be a problem. I don’t think this series is particularly interested in these kinds of questions. Sure, Fraction goes out of his way to justify how they’re able to view the passage of hundreds of thousands of years over the course of a few hours (copy-pasting achronal time-fields! yay!), but that ends up simply explaining how our heroes are able to stage a battle in front of the Big Bang. And as far as backdrops for punchy-punchy fights, you could certainly do worse.
Plus, the simple thrills are at play in this issue too. We see all Four main Fantastics use their powers in action, with a special bonus-showing of Franklin’s powers. The only bummer there being that it’s not teamwork, but Franklin’s god-like powers, that gets them out of their jam. Also, Drew, maybe we’re too quick to call out Franklin’s powers as stupidly-powerful. What if the work-around is that using his powers comes at a cost? Maybe we didn’t just read a one-off tale from life on road, but the first part of a multi-issue arc.
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?