Monday, April 22, 2013

The Fantastic Four by John Byrne Omnibus (2011)

The Fantastic Four by John Byrne Omnibus Vol. 1 (2011)
Collecting Marvel Team Up #61-62, Marvel Two-in-One #50, Fantastic Four #209-218, 220-221, 232-260, Fantastic Four Annual #17, Avengers #233, Thing #2
Hardcover, 1096 pages
ISBN 9780785158240
Retail price: $125.00
Amazon price: $83.80

The problem with the Fantastic Four is that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (1) created a monster and (2) wrote/drew themselves into a corner. Actually that’s not true; they didn’t really do these things, but all those who came after them were so enamored of the FF Universe (not the same thing as the Marvel Universe) and fearful to dishonor it, that they usually rehashed the same themes and motifs over and over until The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine became The World’s Greatest Joke. (Mark Waid alludes to this in his essay “The Fantastic Four Manifesto” in Fantastic Four: Imaginauts (2003). 

Ben and Johnny trash-talk and fight, occasionally wrecking the Baxter Building. Reed neglects Sue in favor of another experiment. Another trip into the Negative Zone. Oh, wait, here’s Doctor Doom again.... 


John Byrne falls prey to some of this, but at least he makes a good (sometimes great) effort to make the FF fresh and exciting. Although Byrne’s run on the title goes from issue #232 through #293, this omnibus starts with Byrne’s art on Marvel Team Up #61-62, Marvel Two-in-One #50, then moving to FF #215-218, #220-221 before arriving at the meat of the Byrne work with #232-260. What I’m saying is that you should understand that you won’t see Byrne’s words and pictures paired up until after page 275. 

Those first 275 pages are generally okay, but you’re getting a lot of what Waid was talking about in his essay. Skrulls, the Watcher, Galactus, etc. 

For 275 pages.....

The shift comes at issue #232. You can tell from the cover that something’s different: no speech or thought balloons, no banners making bold proclamations about the story awaiting you inside, nothing but an image of Ben, Reed, Sue and Johnny, suspended above a fiery cauldron and Diablo (Sorry, Mr. Waid...) conjuring up some evil deed. Diablo’s not the villain I would’ve picked, but that’s the one Byrne chose (or maybe it was chosen for him) and it (mostly) works.

Byrne finds his footing quickly and understands that everything that happens in the comic doesn’t have to be a cosmic event determining the fate of the universe. Sometimes smaller stories work just fine, as in the case of “Mission for a Dead Man” (#233), which shows the Human Torch playing detective, or the lighter tale “The Man with the Power” (#234) about a seemingly ordinary man whose trip to New York City is one he’ll never forget (or will he?). Even the very unusual “Childhood’s End”  (#245) works in Byrne’s hands - although it would probably come across dismally in anyone else’s. 

Byrne manages to capture some of the light, carefree elements of the early FF issues without descending into goofy territory. The characters take on more human elements and we get to know Reed, Sue, Ben and Johnny more as people than as heroes or celebrities. We understand their wants and needs, their hopes, dreams, and fears in ways that are less superficial than they had been up to this point. 

Ah, but Byrne eventually does go cosmic. He can’t help it. The Negative Zone, Galactus.... I know what you’re thinking: “Here we go, break out the caffeine...”

Yet Byrne’s ventures into the cosmic are more than just trippy, mind-blowing adventures for the sake of mind-blowing adventures. He has something to say beyond saving the universe for the billionth time. Case in point: “Fragments” (#257) shows us something we’ve never really seen before - Galactus actually feeding on a planet. Even though it’s the planet of one of the FF’s greatest villains, Byrne shows us the devastating consequences of Galactus’s normal means of sustaining his life. Is it right? Wrong? You could think about this issue (no pun intended) for a long, long time. 

The Fantastic Four by John Byrne Omnibus takes awhile to get started, but once it does, the book frequently soars. Even when it stumbles, it’s still a fun read. Will we get another volume collecting the remainder of Byrne’s run on the title (#261-293)? I hope so.  

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