Friday, September 02, 2005

Guest Entry - "Comics Sometimes Suck"

Hello, Wesley Dodds here, guest-blogging -- on how sometimes, comics just suck. You know the comics I mean: The Crossing, Spider-Man’s clone saga, Hush -- sucky, sucky comics. Comics like today’s focus, Fantastic Four 260.

John Byrne’s Fantastic Four had many high points. Fantastic Four 266, where Reed Richards sought the help of Doctor Octopus to deliver Sue’s baby. Fantastic Four 280-83, where Sue was twisted by Psycho Man into Malice -- and became The Invisible Woman. Fantastic Four 242-244, where the Fantastic Four and the Avengers teamed up to trounce Galactus -- only then to save his life. Even Fantastic Four 258, a clever and subtle one-issue focus on Doctor Doom -- but also the first part of the story that concluded in the sucky, sucky Fantastic Four 260.

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What’s wrong with it? Well, let’s start with Namor. The issue begins with three pages of Namor investigating a mysterious threat and ends with Namor asking Sue for help. OK. The Fantastic Four are fighting Doctor Doom and Terrax, herald of Galactus. Pretty exciting stuff. Why are we supposed to care what Namor’s up to? It doesn’t even set up the next issue -- it sets up a crossover with Alpha Flight. That’s four pages gone. The Fantastic Four are fighting their ultimate enemy and Byrne decides to spend four pages on Namor. Fantastic.

Then there’s the Identity Crisis-like failure of the narrative. The problem with Identity Crisis was that the mind-wiping was completely unrelated to Sue Dibny’s murder. The mind-wiping should have somehow caused Sue’s death -- for example, Doctor Light murdering Sue in revenge, or some villains brainwashing Jean to get back at the heroes for what they did to Doctor Light.

There’s a similar problem here. In 258, Doom kidnapped and restored Terrax’s power to set him against the Fantastic Four. In 260, Doom confronts Terrax -- and Terrax turns the power cosmic on Doom to… fuse his armour. No, he doesn’t use the power cosmic to incinerate Doom, as he should have -- he fuses his armour. Great. Doom ends up dying later in the story (sort of) because he couldn’t get out the way of Terrax -- but it’s just not the same. If Doom’s to die as collateral damage, well -- Byrne should have just had Doom walk over a manhole and been done with it.

A premise creates an expectation -- in this case, that Doom would face a serious consequence for unleashing Terrax’s evil. Having Terrax only fuse Doom’s armour isn’t enough.

And the Silver Surfer! Three members of the Fantastic Four are losing against Terrax -- so, the Silver Surfer flies in and defeats Terrax. Sorry, what’s the title of this comic again? Oh, right -- the Fantastic Four. To the protagonists go the climax. Since this arc was set up to have a special focus on Doom, it would even have been alright for Doom to get the climax. But, no, it goes to the Silver Surfer.

Ann Nocenti used the same device in Daredevil 282 -- with the same character, actually. But it worked there because Daredevil was hopelessly outclassed fighting Mephisto. Also, Nocenti made the structural choice of not showing us the result of the fight between Mephisto and the Silver Surfer -- instead, the action followed Daredevil. The Fantastic Four had at the point of this story defeated Galactus several times. Even without Reed, Terrax is a threat they should have been able to handle. Having the Silver Surfer defeat Terrax instead is like reading all 7 Harry Potter books and then seeing Neville defeat Lord Voldemort while Harry’s in bed with a bad cold.

Worst of all, this issue -- the climax of a major story arc -- is just a glorified set-up for another story. Reed’s missing, where could he be? This should be the satisfying conclusion to a battle between the Fantastic Four and Doctor Doom. That’s what we were promised. Instead, because of this new plot point Reed’s absent and the chief conflict between Doom and the Fantastic Four is gone. Worse, the story focuses on Reed’s absence so much that it actually prevents the current arc from having a satisfying climax. So, what should have been the thrilling conclusion to a three part story is just… the prelude for another, less important story. Pathetic. It would have been more acceptable to lead in to the new story after the battle with Doom.

Doom doesn’t actually die in this story (duh) -- he transfers his mind out before his body is destroyed. A mistake. Stan and Jack always left how Doom would survive unanswered. Part of the fun of a Doom appearance was seeing how he escaped certain death in his previous encounter with the Fantastic Four. See how sucky this issue is? It’s even so sucky that it actually weakens the subsequent appearance of Doctor Doom, where the reader will already know how Doom survived.

The image of the fragment of Doom’s mask doesn’t work either. Doom had already transferred his mind out -- it’d have been better to see the broken body of the monarch of Latveria. Doom’s survival has already been established -- come on, John, let us see the body. Instead, we get to see Sue credulously pronounce Doom gone forever because she has a fragment of his mask. That wouldn’t be enough to call any villain in the Marvel Universe dead, but Doctor Doom? He could be atomised and he’d still find some way to come back.

John Byrne, good writer and artist -- creator of Fantastic Four 260, sucky, sucky comic.

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Blogger Doctor Sordid said...

This was the very first American comic I read, as a wee boy in a wee Scottish village, and, along with about a dozen other issues from that month and the following, introduced me to the whole Marvel comics universe. I doubt, therefore, that I can defend it dispassionately, but to the eleven-year old me, it served a very useful purpose, demonstrating to me the whole "shared universe" concept (fortunately the stack also included AF #4-5 & the next issue of FF).

It was years before I found out what had happened in the issues prior to this, but I was never as baffled by it as your review suggests. Even rereading it now, I think it stands up well. Yeah, the scene with Aunt May and the Doom-possessed bloke does ruin any suspense over the fate of Dr Doom, but it also gives us insight into his thought processes when Tyros fuses him into his armour. While you or I might be thinking "D'oh!", Doom has already worked out a way of getting out of this. Course, if he's that smart, why didn't he send a doombot..?

As for the Surfer Ex Machina problem, even rereading it now, I don't think it's a problem. Thanks to sub-plottery, Reed is missing (an absence which prompts Doom into show up in person, not wanting to destroy the FF unless Reed is there to witness it), and Tyros is handing the rest of their team their asses. I'm still not sure what the power cosmic is meant to be, but this issue demonstrates that it gives its wielder more raw power than the FF can handle, in a straightforward fight. The Surfer, being the only other cosmic-powered dude out there, is the only person able to stand toe-to-toe with Tyros, and Tyros knows it (and thanks to omniscient narration, so do we). It's not like his appearance was completely out of left-field, as we see he's following up Reed's disappearance.

Regarding Namor, yeah it sets up a crossover with Alpha Flight, but, seeing as both titles were being worked on by Byrne at the time, I'd say it's a legitimate cross-reference: you weren't being conned into buying a title written or drawn by someone who's work you hated. And as for spending four pages setting up the crossover, to be fair, in those days, the comics were dense enough that the remaining 18 pages still held more excitement than many of the comics of today.

9/02/2005 09:38:00 AM  
Blogger John Lombard said...

D’oh -- every comic is somebody’s first.

Well, I did like that Doom has a logical reason to enter the battle. He doesn’t come down to gloat, he comes down because he doesn’t want the Fantastic Four destroyed without Reed there. That’s good storytelling.

(That said, it was incredibly stupid for Doom to attack Terrax directly -- that’s almost beyond even Doom’s arrogance.)

Now, on the Surfer ex machina. His involvement in the battle is weak storytelling -- actually, come to think of it, it contrasts very badly with Doom’s reason for getting involved. The Surfer seeing the battle while looking for Reed isn’t a very strong reason for him to get involved -- it’s too much of an ex machina.

It wasn’t really necessary, either. In 258 it was established that Terrax only had a short time before the power cosmic consumed him. In fact, that’s what actually happens -- all the Surfer does is slug it out with him and then claim victory. All this being the case, it would have been much easier for a member of the Fantastic Four find a way to either defeat Terrax or find a way to stall long enough to survive. (In fact, Dazzler had defeated Terrax in her own title.)

Take Sue. This was a period where Byrne was developing Sue’s character and expanding her role on the team. It would have been interesting to see Sue, in Reed’s absence, do the very thing the team depends on Reed for -- thinking. I can imagine a scenario where Sue notices that Terrax is burning up and then comes up with a clever way of stalling. There -- one of the title characters wins the day in a way that builds into the character’s development arc.

The focus of this issue should have been what was promised by the cover -- Doom’s death at the hands of Terrax. The drama of that moment was severely weakened both by having Doom escape his body before it was destroyed and by the circuitous way it happened. The giving over of a fair bit of the issue to Namor and the Silver Surfer and Reed’s disappearance didn’t help, either. It’s the curse of the writer artist -- a full page splash of Namor might have been fun to draw, but it was a terrible way of leading into a story about Doctor Doom, Terrax the Tamer and the Fantastic Four.

9/02/2005 11:58:00 AM  
Anonymous spencer said...

Say what you want about Byrne, that is one damn good looking cover.

9/02/2005 02:13:00 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

I have to disagree with you about Silver Surfer's role in this. It makes sense for him to appear and deal with Terrax... both are ex-Heralds of Galactus, after all. Both weild the power cosmic. Both have been used/manipulated by Doctor Doom (in fact, I believe Doom repowered Terrax using some of the Power Cosmic he'd earlier stolen from Silver Surfer). Silver Surfer even debuted in the Fantastic Four.

I remember when I first read this comic, back when it came out, that I was jazzed to see the Silver Surfer appear. It completed the story for me.

As for Doom, I think even he admits it was a mistake to confront Terrax directly... but this was a point where Doom was making a lot of mistakes and was clearly blinded by his arrogance.

Anyway, I rather enjoyed this comic.

9/02/2005 03:09:00 PM  
Blogger John Lombard said...

The letters page was fun:

"Killing Phoenix obviously wasn't enough for you. Now you have to stick your bloodied fingers into..." (etc.)

"I quit! You've lied to me for the last time... This is just a stupid lie to sell comic books, and you aren't going to fool me anymore."

"I have been watching you. All of us fans have been watching you. And you make us SICK!"


9/02/2005 04:14:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re: fusing Doom's armor

It's Terrax putting Doom in his place, as Terra sees it.

He's saying 1) you're helpless against me, 2) you're not worth just destroying, and 3) I'll take care of you later after we've both had time to think about how.

9/04/2005 02:09:00 PM  

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