“I’ve written myself into my own script.”
“That’s kinda weird, huh?”
“It’s self-indulgent! It’s narcissistic! It’s solipsistic! It’s pathetic! I’m pathetic and I’m fat and pathetic!”
Nick Cage as Charlie and Donald Kaufman, Adaptation
Patrick: Adaptation is the best narrative I’ve ever encountered that directly confronts the challenges of portraying beauty abstractly. The screenplay works incredibly hard to achieve this, constantly doubling down on both its own cleverness and its disdain for said cleverness. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman does this my making himself a character in his own movie about adapting the book he’s been hired to adapt. If that sentence seemed to loop back on itself — and consequently, not make any sense — that’s because the film really needs to be experienced to be understood. Matt Fraction inserts himself, artist Mike Allred and editor Tom Brevoort into this issue of FF, but the lessons he offers have more to do with history than with expression. Plus, he makes himself say “ginchy,” like he’s Velma from Scooby-Doo, so you know it’s a home run.
Before they split up for their discrete adventures, the entire FF is having a nice breakfast in the Baxter Building. But it’s only nice until Old Man John Storm freaks out – claiming to smell Doom all over Alex Power. In fairness to everyone’s favorite wayward time traveler, Alex is being blackmailed by Doctor Doom, and has been tasked with murdering the Human Torch. Anyway, he’s not going to get any adult guidance, because the grown-ups go on a Fantastic Voyage-esque adventure with Fraction, Allred and Brevoort (all playing dopier versions of themselves). They all have a little (ha!) adventure, whatever – the real interesting stuff happens when Alex seeks out the advice of his classmates in the FF. Alex is, understandably, worried about fulfilling his end of the bargain with Doom, so Ahura cavalierly offers his uncle “Maximus the Mad” as a font of knowledge on the subject of murder. Okay, right away, these kids should know to stop fucking around for a second.
He’s kept blindfolded in a glass bubble on the floating Inhuman city of Attilan, his arms and legs shackled. Plus he corrects his nephew when he’s referred to simply as “Uncle Max” — anyone that insists on being called by his title, “the Mad,” is clearly going to be a problem. He tricks the kids into playing a game of twenty questions, which they promptly lose, setting Maximus free.
I didn’t see it at first, but these two stories actually dovetail, thematically. Let’s start with the goofy creator cameo, because that’s a big enough elephant to obscure the other cool shit happening in this room. Fraction et. al don’t really add much in the way of perspective on the storytelling process — they’re just sort of present to witness an adventure and makes side-jokes. They do get in a few comments that undermine the unique way FF expresses itself: like when Brevoort mentions that the stories need to be “spectacular enough to be engaging.” Ant-Man questions the wisdom of that statement, and it seems like Fraction and Allred (the creators of this book, and not necessarily the characters in the book) share his objection. The very next spread is about as un-spectacular as any two pages of a comic book can be — it’s simply kids talking to each other for a dozen panels, nothing much happens and the camera is static throughout.
So, what’s that about? There’s a healthy history of writers, artists and editors appearing in their own comics. DC even hinges some of their biggest Crises on the actions of people in the “real world” (Superboy Prime — and everything surrounding him — is a great examples of this). But the convention goes back even further, with the great Stan Lee inserting himself into Silver Age stories, just for funsies. Hell, he’s like a billion years old and he still makes a point to pop up in every Marvel movie ever made. So when Fraction employs the trick here, he’s simply engaging in another Silver Age-ism. It might not be a trick that’s particularly fruitful for his story, but Fraction knows that there’s no such thing as cherry-picking history: you can’t embrace some conventions of the age while ignoring others. In that way, the creator cameos are like a fun — albeit dangerous — toy for the team to play with. It could unravel the series’ tenuous verisimilitude, but it’s also too tempting not to try.
That’s exactly what Ahura, Alex, Bentley, Onome and Tong are doing with Maximus the Mad. They know better than to trust this guy — they must. But the possibility that he might unlock the secrets to killing a man is just too much to ignore.
Drew, there’s a ton going on in this issue, and I’ve barely scratched the surface. I think if there’s one flaw to this issue, it’s that the microscopic adventure is achingly frivillous. I get that that’s probably the point, but that doesn’t exactly make it more fun to read. What do you make of the creator cameos? Is it about using all the tools in the Silver Age toolbox, whether Fraction knows how to use them or not? Or, do you agree with Donald Kaufman’s assessment: “That’s kinda weird, huh?”
Drew: Back in college, I had a short-lived op-ed column in the school newspaper about writing op-ed columns. I just wanted to see how much I could make the thing about itself. Nobody at the paper actually liked it, but I realized early on that they weren’t in any position to turn away content — as long as I kept submitting pieces, they would keep running them. Point is, if anyone has a soft spot for meta-for-the-sake-of-meta, it’s me. What’s different here is that Fraction ties the frivolous meta-commentary to some abstract expectation of what a comic should be, then contrasts the whole thing with actual plotting. He’s basically stacking the deck to build a case against having “capers” or keeping the action “spectacular enough,” but I have no idea why.
Here’s the thing: we already know FF doesn’t need that stuff — heck, I’d say the folks that are still here after nine issues might not even want that stuff. What Alex et al. get up to in this issue is a great example of the character-driven, action-free joy that this title brings. For evidence of just how strong the character work is here, just check out this little exchange in the bathroom graffiti:
Between the handwriting and the sentiment, “Bently don’t vandalize school property,” it’s absolutely clear that the author was Onome — even without the clarification Fraction gives us in Bently’s response. I might have a disproportionate interest in graffiti exchanges (who plays tic-tac-toe in a bathroom?), but there’s no denying the strength of these character voices to hold up even when the characters themselves are not present. Never mind that we’re also getting strong character work from both Alex and Turg (whose head you can see peeking out from just under the stall divider here). These are the moments FF is here for.
Why does Fraction need to make a case against some kind of action title? Is he getting pressure from editorial? Have the folks that have been reading this title for the previous nine issues suddenly decided that what they really want is a superhero punch-em-up? The contrast between the strong character work with the kids and the dumb action with the adults smacks of smug self-superiority, but without a sense of who it’s directed at, it comes off as being directed at everyone. I should stress that I don’t think this was Fraction’s intention — I think he wanted for us to be in on the joke, and join him in laughing at the troglodytes who would prefer stupid action — but the sentiment is so superior, it really doesn’t matter. It comes off as ugly no matter how you read it.
That’s the biggest shame, since this title has always reveled in the absurd goofiness of its comic book trappings. That’s still totally present in both story lines here, but it gets overshadowed by the commentary. Why not have Brevoort be supportive of telling the FF’s story like it really is? “We usually like to have more action, but people will love this!” I’m a little concerned that this issue might serve as a scapegoat to actually changing the series — a la Adaptation‘s final act.
In his last line of the issue, “Matt” asks “where’s the revelation? The shocking twist? The unseen surprise that makes us want to know what happens next?” Sure enough, the next scene ends with Mad Max (don’t pretend like I’m not going to call him that) escaping from his cell — a kind of classic comic book cliffhanger. If that reveal had closed any of the previous issues, I wouldn’t have thought anything of it (indeed, many issues have had similar final page reveals), but now, after first coming out of the mouth of someone who insists that FF isn’t interesting enough, it’s hard not to see the reveal as a condescending people-pleaser. Making the audience question whether or not it’s okay to enjoy a work of art is a fascinating trick, but I question its efficacy here.
Do we think that this title going forward will be written by Matt Fraction, the living, breathing human writer who has written the previous nine issues, or will it be written by “Matt,” the whiny comic book character who will insist on inserting capers and final page reveals? I’m not even sure there will be a difference in the stories, but the thought that I’m being made fun of by a comic for having bought it is kind of a turn-off. I sure hope next issue finds that “Matt” has to go because his home planet needs him.
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?