Saturday, April 16, 2016

Arc Review: Fantastic Four, Unthinkable

In a previous post, I talked about how I didn’t share in the relatively common sentiment that J. Michael Straczynski’s take on Spider-Man was a sort of Renaissance, ruined only by editorial marriage-meddling, organic web meddling, Civil War meddling, and “Gwen Stacy secretly had Norman Osborn’s kids” meddling. In my review of the “Spider Totem” arc, I think I explained why JMS’s work didn’t do it for me, even coming after a truly dire run by John Byrne and Howard Mackie.

I bring this up because recently in my Fantastic Four re-read I’ve reached Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo’s celebrated run on the book, and while I enjoyed the first arc quite a bit, I found their much-touted “Unthinkable” arc to be… not good comics. Which stinks, because I love Ringo’s art and Waid can be one of the best comic writers in the business when he’s on; I have no vested interest in disliking a story made by creators I like. The story, for those unfamiliar with it, is that Doom, tired of his failures(???), embraces magic, sacrificing his teenage love Valeria in order to gain new mystical powers, which he then uses to capture the Fantastic Four and torture Franklin Richards by sending him to, as the comic puts it, “hell.” This is controversial to some fans, as apparently there’s a sentiment that this goes against Doom’s characterization as made famous by John Byrne and others, but the general consensus is that the vileness of Doom’s actions makes this a more memorable story. In 2011, it was ranked the #11 Dr. Doom story by Comic Book Resources.

I have quite a few problems with this story, so I’ll go over them one at a time. My first issue is: why does Dr. Doom feeling like he’s a loser? The idea of the story appears to be that Doom is tired of losing to Reed Richards, but that characterization doesn’t really make any sense. It’s the perception of Doom impotently shouting “RICHARDS” in Wizard magazine given form in a comic when it doesn’t reflect the comic’s reality. In Doom’s last appearance in FF, he’d successfully delivered Valeria, naming the child and one-upping Reed, who had failed to save Sue’s second child in one of Byrne’s best issues. So in his last appearance, he wasn’t “defeated” at all- he totally won. He's also the head of a small but important country. Before his latest appearance, he showed up at earth’s doorstep with an invading army after successfully conquering Counter-Earth. On earth, he rules a small country that he’s managed to keep independent from either Western or Eastern or Middle-Eastern powers, and he’s got diplomatic immunity: his previous story appearance prior to Unthinkable featured him offering asylum to the Inhumans. But for the purposes of this story, he feels like science isn’t working, and chooses magic, in what is a perfectly good prologue issue that doesn’t feature the FF at all. I’m fine with this issue showcasing Doom, and there’s a nice little fake-out that might surprise new readers, as Doom ups his magical powers at the cost of personal happiness.

So what does Doom want to do with these new powers? Humiliate Reed Richards, I guess? Now you can argue that Doom’s acted this way before, carrying petty grudges against the team, but there doesn’t seem to be any reason for Doom’s actions in the story beyond “Grr I hate Reed Richards.” But worse than his motivation is his execution, my second issue with this arc: Doom targets the family through their children, possessing Valeria, and mystically sending Franklin into “hell,” where he is tortured, presumably for hours if not days, by demons. Just so we’re clear, Franklin is 6-7 years old in this story. I get it, Doom’s the bad guy, but this is pretty bizarre stuff from the character, and seems to exist only to show that “this ain’t your daddy’s Dr. Doom!” It’s poor characterization that only makes sense from the outside looking in, trying to show that Dr. Doom isn’t just going to tie up the heroes and force them to dress as Blackbeard any more.

In the story, Doom then fights the team, whose “this time, it’s personal” response to their children being attacked is to bring guns. Also, Ben snaps Doom’s neck. But of course, since Doom is magic now, he Linda Blair’s his head back and captures the heroes. Except for the team immediately crossing their own moral event horizons, this is all pretty standard, but again, what bothers me is that Doom, who has engaged the team just because he hates Reed, then tortures the rest of the team too. Look, I’m not saying I oppose torture in my superhero comics (although I don’t like it), but here it’s just gruesome and needlessly grim. And unlike the old comics, where the heroes would be put in some sort of deathtrap and have to get out of it, the rest of the family just sort of sits there being tortured for the rest of the story until Reed saves them. I guess it’s nice in theory that we’re fridge-ing male characters now? Franklin, Ben, and Johnny’s literal torturing is just a means to make Reed feel bad. But don’t worry, Sue is tortured too, in that she is given an uncontrollable version of Johnny’s powers, leaving her painfully on fire. We cut to Reed, who has been left in Doom’s library, where Doom promises the tools to beat him are in some magic books he’s left scattered around a big library.

Reed, a character who regularly uses energy drawn from other dimensions and who hired a literal witch to be his child’s nanny is like “pff, magic is fake, I hate magic," as his characterization is somehow confused with Tony Stark's, and Dr. Strange appears to lecture him about magic technique (badly characterized Dr. Strange is apparently a favorite deus ex machina of early 2000’s comics: he had similar roles in JMS’ Spider-Man and the disaster that was Disassembled). Because this isn’t the focus of the story, Strange disappears and just leaves a vague ‘magic gun’ for Reed to use. He frees the team and they fight Doom for awhile, magicking him into the hell dimension, where Doom magically scars up Reed’s face. And it’s PERMANENT (for like, one arc). The rest of the team, uhhh, congratulate Reed for doing all the work, I guess?

And that’s that, except for a really tasteless denouement where Franklin is hugely traumatized and we need a two issue arc of him literally attacking people on the street because he thinks they’re monsters, and needs to be told it’s okay by Ben and Sue. Arguing with a friend about these issues, he pointed out that a “lesser writer would’ve skipped over Franklin’s trauma.” I think maybe a “lesser” writer wouldn’t have based a story around torturing children and the psychological damage it can do (that’s solved in two issues). I don’t want to read about psychologically damaged seven year olds in superhero comics, so maybe don’t base your storylines around total “Dr. Doom is EVIIIIIIL” mustache-twirling villainy stunts.

Maybe it’s just my own hang-ups, but Marvel in this period was really not what I wanted from comics. This was during the time Bill Jemas was trying to “fix” Marvel by focusing less on continuity and more on selling six part stories at Borders, and the rejection of the comics code resulted in some truly dire material as Marvel really wanted to sell ultra-violence and teased “adult content” in the most juvenile way possible. (Aren’t you glad none of this is a problem in mainstream comics anymore?) The whole story reads like an attempt to do “Ultimate”-style Mark Millar bleakness; the arc after Franklin’s PTSD has direct references to the Authority, after all (it's bad too). There’s a demographic that this sort of story appeals to: a demographic that thinks Kirby comics are uncool or that the FF in general or Dr. Doom is lame; unfortunately, that’s not me. I think there’s space on the shelves for gritty, realistic, Nihilistic comics, but I don’t think Fantastic Four should be that comic. There’s some cool visual moments by Ringo, but overall, there’s much, much better stuff out there that’s truer to the spirit of the characters and is just in general more enjoyable to read than this.