Sunday, May 20, 2012

Fantastic Four #605.1 by Jonathan Hickman and Mike Choi

As much as I enjoy superhero comics, I don't always fully understand the impulse towards them. Similarly, I don't always understand why comic readers should stick with the world of comics where maintaining a status quo often hinders the kind of plot progression, thematic exploration and character development which would be considered essential in other genres and other media. This is one of those comics which helps me understand that relationship.
Jonathan Hickman's run on Fantastic Four is well-regarded but one I haven't fully explored. He's made a lot of interesting moves, like killing off the Human Torch (as temporarily as can be in comics), replacing him with Spider-Man, changing the team and the comic itself into something different in the form of FF, the Future Foundation, and having Doctor Doom ally himself more permanently with his erstwhile foes by actually joining their organisation. None of these are particularly original concepts as far as Fantastic Four and comics in general go, I believe, but they've been combined and spun in such a way as to be a reinvigorating take on Marvel's First Family.
Fantastic Four #605.1 is the first single issue of Fantastic Four I've purchased, trade paperbacks and the now spin-off FF series aside, and I was surprised and intrigued by its contents. Marvel's "Point One" initiative has been an effort to bring new readers up to speed by giving a one-shot insight into the relevant backstory of their characters before the series embark upon new storylines. It's a good idea in the world of Marvel which, having never been totally rebooted like DC's Universe, now has some astoundingly complex continuity. Hickman, however, takes this concept in a whole new direction. This "Point One" is an Origin Story for the Fantastic Four, but not the Fantastic Four we may know.
Put simply, this is the Fantastic Four in a world where the Axis Powers won in the Second World War. Once again Hickman reveals his aplomb for reinvigorating old clichés with New York as a "Province of New Berlin" and Doktor Reed Richards as a ruthless Nazi scientist seeking to push the Reich towards new frontiers. Add the impulse towards a world of Axis victory as another fascinating yet inexplicable narrative convention. Why are we so intrigued by a world under Nazi domination? Of course it's an interesting idea to explore, but why do we come back to it time and time again? Maybe it's that morbid human tendency towards examining things which repulse us. The fetishisation of the Nazi aesthetic in art must certainly derive from the sense of unease and lurking horror which is an inevitable atmosphere in a world of fascist dominion. The Nazis are a disturbing item of history in themselves, yes, but they are also a regime which was utterly defeated and destroyed. The thought of a Nazi world at peace and operational is one which cannot sit well with us; it conveys a sense of wrongness beyond that of either a generic dystopia or a flashback to real Nazi history. We see this world's Invisible Woman and Human Torch, the "Sturm" siblings, brutalising competitors in a New Berlin gymnasium for their places in Reed's mission, and worst of all Ben Grimm being escorted from a Boston concentration camp in shackles, and it really hits home: the perverse, backwards ideology of an unjust regime applied sickeningly to a world which normally seems so wholesome by comparison.
Hickman achieves a master stroke in the next section by delving back into this Nazi Mr Fantastic, and what better way than by confronting him with the fifth person who is inextricably tied to the Four? Viktor von Doom has a brilliant but unconventional mind, so what does our pragmatic Nazi Reed do? He removes part of his brain and surgically adds it to his own. This is a strong method of realising the psyche of this Reed Richards, so far seen only as desiring the future achievements of the Reich, as more ruthless and horrific than his regular foe. Introducing Doom, who would seem like the perfect candidate for success in a fascist world, only to have his character immediately murdered a page later by Nazi Reed, is a disturbing revelation of just how wrong this world is. Not sure how Doom got even that far given his Romani heritage but there you go. Combine this unsettling role-reversal with Nazi Reed's intention to deliberately be bombarded with cosmic rays as opposed to the accident of the traditional origin and we have the whole drama of the Fantastic Four turned on its head.
We're confronted with more disturbing imagery as the space mission takes place. With Grimm bearing the "Yellow Badge" Jewish identification mark on his space helmet and the swastika on the shuttle partially obliterated to leave only a "4" it's haunting how subjective heroism can be. Afterwards we see the space explorers honoured, with Reed and the Sturms bearing a "3" on their costumes; the Jewish Grimm only partially included, still shackled and restrained but seemingly honoured. This scene presents us with what I felt was the one piece of weak dialogue in the comic: Jonathan Sturm describing his sensations as he is transformed, this time into an ice creature rather than a human torch: "Skin... turning ice cold. Freezing." Now there's a cliché that even Hickman can't bring back to life, but it's one rather cheesy moment in a comic of otherwise strong dialogue which bears re-reading. It's astonishing how much Mike Choi's straightforward, concise art can convey with an equally concise script, and each transition of time and place is evocatively realised. The characters in particular are strikingly represented, with the monstrous unusually Thing and the strangely grandfatherly Hitler  alongside an increasingly sinister Reed, first a youthful figure, then a bald "mad scientist" type, increasingly unshaven and scruffy-looking, and finally the sagacious bearded figure he becomes, in unsettling contrast to the story of his origins.
Reed of course encourages Grimm to kill Hitler in front of the Sturms and so eliminates his teammates and political rivals in one stroke. Just to ram the point home of Nazi Reed's despotism and villainy his soldiers now bear face plates reminiscent of Doctor Doom's mask, and when he's attacked by heroes it's the traditionally super-villainous Magneto who is in the forefront of the assault - fitting, I suppose, given his history with the Nazis. Together Hickman and Choi weave an intricate symbolism both historical and internal to Marvel Comics to convey the villainy of a Nazi Mr Fantastic and explore the ramifications of how easily great intelligence can be misdirected towards power-lust and domination.
The utmost extension of this is that Nazi Reed, under attack by both the X-Men and the Avengers, opts to use the Infinity Gauntlet to destroy the world. He creates a portal to a pocket dimension and the big revelation at the end is that he is one of the founders of the "Interdimensional Council of Reeds" who served as the villains in the pages of FF. So this tale of parallel worlds and Nazis comes to its fruition - with the desire to "solve everything". Hickman's depiction of a character "bigger than Nazism" as it were yet nonetheless still over-ambitious and villainous is well constructed, although I feel that the appearance of the Infinity Gauntlet could have used some explanation. Indeed this is far from an introductory instalment to the world of the Fantastic Four no matter what the intentions of the "Point One" initiative so it may be rather confusing to someone who hasn't read Hickman's recent run or Fantastic Four in general or, like me, done a combination of some of this with a little prior research on one's own.
Yet while not necessarily being the most accessible story it's very effectively realised, and at no point between the young pipe-smoking SS Doktor Richards and the bearded Reed-Sword in the Interdimensional Council does the narrative progression not make sense. Hickman's portrayal of this cold, calculating figure is effective in how simultaneously like and yet unlike he is to our mainstream Mr Fantastic and his depiction of a world which would bear such a man to fruition is depicted with confronting clarity. Despite the fact that this was my first acquisition of a regular Fantastic Four comic and that I wasn't really expecting this counterfactual history I was deeply impressed by what a haunting tale Hickman and Choi managed to weave over the course of a few pages. It may not be your run-of-the-mill Marvel comic but it's definitely worth a look.
This is what comics need: a succinct and sensible storytelling which nonetheless possesses an eloquence and willingness to explore or reinvent existing tropes and familiarities. The impulse of superheroes is still something with which I have not yet gotten to grips, but comics like these reconfirm my impression of the validity of the comic medium, and the superhero genre within that medium. Stan Lee once considered that superhero comics were like the mythology of the modern world: tales of larger-than-life protagonists and extraordinary events embodied in some modicum of reality; this gave rise to Thor. Tom Hiddleston, who portrays Loki in the Marvel cinematic universe, recently reinforced this notion in a persuasive article for the Guardian newspaper in which he argued for the value of superheroics as a "shared, faithless, modern mythology" through which to explore "truths". This is of course a valid argument, and one equally true of many forms of art. The value I find in comics like these, however, is in their ability to compellingly question our sense of convention and the status quo, and to invert the accepted symbols and expected dialogues of the genre to expand our perceptions. To argue that intelligence will not always lend itself towards society's conventions of justice, to explore the limits of the tension between progress and morality, and to make us see how easily the symbols and images which comfort us can be turned against us and used to reinforce something we despise is the ground which comics have so much room to explore. Good stories and good art are of course good enough for a good comic, but while we cannot expect many superhero comics to be capable of much more we shouldn't make the mistake of thinking that it's all the superhero genre is capable of. Hickman's confrontation of the nature and conventions of the genre permit new insights into the purpose and value of superheroes and how the mirror of art reflects all the extremities of human nature, to press the frontiers of our self-exploration into places we may not wish to but must admit within ourselves.