Thursday, February 22, 2018

Fantastic Four #544

Black Panther
Fantastic Four #544

Good and bad ideas

"Reconstruction: Chapter One – From the Ridiculous to the Sublime*
*but not necessarily in that order”
Writer – Dwayne McDuffie
Penciller – Paul Pelletier
Inker – Rick Magyar
Letterer – V.C.’s Russ Wooton
Colorist – Paul Mounts
Asst Editor – Molly Lazer
Editor – Tom Brevoot
Editor-in-Chief – Joe Quesada
May 2007

From bad ideas sometimes good stories spring.

I’ll get this out of the way right up front my feelings on a thing, because as you all know I’m the soul of restraint when it comes to these Crapbox articles. Not. These articles often times become my way of venting years of frustration about a thing, making the Crapbox almost a form of therapy. Hopefully an entertaining one, at least.

The marriage of T’Challa to Ororo was a bad idea.

I list just a couple of reasons as we open this issue today that is another bad idea. The most compelling argument against the idea of Storm of the X-Men and the Black Panther deciding to get hitched was the fact that it flew in the face of both of them having several years of developed storylines showing other people to be their soul mates. For Storm it was the mutant machinesmith Forge, who we spent an entire Barry Winsdor-Smith X-men issue #186 called Lifedeath: a Love Story exploring and afterward years upon years of character pining going through. As an audience, we knew Storm was destined to hook up with Forge. Wasn’t even a question. 

For Panther it was the aforementioned Monica Lynne, the poor girl having been through the entire nation of Wakanda happily putting her to death for a murder she didn’t commit level of “mountain to overcome” love test and still prevailing. She struggled with Panther breaking things off, but we the audience KNEW she was going to come back stronger because she was an American woman in love with a man. And American women don’t give up. 

But rational, logical storytelling didn’t get in the way of the Joey Q era of “make a big newsbreaking event regardless of how much it screws up continuity.” As a comics fan I could only stand on the sideline as the stories flowed out where the Marvel bullpin had to CREATE history of the two characters together in books that retconned events in a ham-fisted fashion. These solicits coming alongside the same press revealing that prior to the announced wedding the two characters had appeared in one issue together as children. And no other issues. Ever.

The feeling at the time was that this was forced. And it was. It was a top-down drive to have the first-ever Black Superhero wedding. And not to a non-superhero. Panther had to marry another superhero. So…Storm. This happened during Civil War and both sides stopped fighting just to go the wedding. I kid you not. The event was crammed down our throats with such force that we were supposed to believe that the superheroes themselves took a day off of hiding from and shooting at one another to attend. Dumb.

And it’s not that they characters aren’t good characters and couldn’t have been brought to the point of marriage had their two stories progressed naturally. It’s the way that the Joey Q slice of Marvel history seemed to just poop all over the readers when it came to expectations of treating the material with respect. Surly someone at the Marvel offices had to say “If you don’t give readers some history of these two liking each other in our current ongoing issues for several months to a couple of years, the readers are going to feel cheated.” The idea that their couplehood just appearing out of thin air would sail past everyone makes it seem like Marvel thought we were all dupes. Which they did, at the time. Remember what I said about The Sentry? No respect for readership.

But the story went forward as planned. They got married. Queseda got “the first black wedding in comics” badge. Their books moved on and some good stories came out from it. But yeah, bad idea.

The second bad idea at play here is splitting up the Fantastic Four.

In hindsight, the team split up a bunch over its years. All the time we had Medusa or She-Hulk or Crystal or She-Thing or someone helping out while one or more of the team took a break or nursed emotional wounds that come from being a part of Marvel’s first superhero family. So maybe this wasn’t such a bad idea? And given the Panther’s history with the group, his part is almost natural. Storm’s introduction seems a bit odd, but that could work too.

The weird part was this came directly on the heels of said marriage and this hard patch the four had been through in Civil War. Like Marvel’s plan for the quartet depended on supplanting the Reed and Sue character dynamic as the “parents” in the room over Johnny and Ben’s clearly more immature actions with a different set of grown-ups.

And as resistant to the idea as I initially was, this first set of three issue by McDuffie proved enjoyable. It even salved some of my hurt feelings over how out-of-character Reed had been written during the Civil War event.

Let’s jump in so I can show you what I mean…

The first two pages setup the backbone story of the arc and don’t seem very promising. We have an unseen entity speaking in the cosmic void about having obtained a chrysalis that has forced it into hiding. Whatever it is hiding from approaches. The entire first page of the book is all a light show and I’ll admit, this is irritating way to start, art-wise. Show us SOMETHING at least.  

Next we get the following being appearing, searching the stars for whatever was just speaking to us. 

This is Stardust, the current Herald of Galactus. Whatever she/he is searching for, it is so well hidden that her/him needs help finding it. So while she summons help from “the Sentinel,” we turn our eyes toward Earth and more mundane goings on…

Which just so happen to be Reed and Sue announcing to Ben and Johnny that they are taking a hiatus after the separation we saw in Civil War (which looked pretty much like the couple were going to split for good) to work on their marriage. Oh, and that while they while they are out T’Challa and Ororo would be staying with the pair for a while. 

Which feels awfully like they are leaving Black Panther and Storm in charge. Not that I blame them. No one wants a repeat of the stories we got when Thing led the team.

From this point on, Pelletier, Magyar, and Mounts do an impressive job with the visuals. I am not one to crow over all the latest slick paper books, but this one was a lot of fun to read.

And McDuffie makes the team transition appear almost natural. T’Challa’s home away form home, the Wakandan Embassy was destroyed by the rampaging clone of Thor, who Reed feels responsible Thor. T’Challa forgives Reed, of course, as does Storm who helped destroy the monstrous abomination. But upon starting to rebuild the embassy, several troubling finds were discovered which causes Reed to extend an offer of lodging to the Monarch and his new bride.

As the pair discuss if there might have been more than the fourteen unexploded devices that they’ve come across, Tony Stark shows up in his role as the new director of Shield. Ah, how the mighty have fallen. Truly a dark period in the writing of my favorite character. Everyone treats him like he is a colossal dick.

…a dick that tries to use his friends to run game on his other friends, which makes him out to be this lame, unsympathetic figure…

…who ends up the villain at the butt of many jokes. 

But McDuffie even smooths that over with a word from T’Challa that sounds a bit like a complement to Tony in this discussion with the members of the FF. And this all dovetails in to how we get the Panther and Storm staying at the Baxer Building for safety’s sake.

As to how we move to them sort of taking command of the team…well, that’s best explained at the press conference the next day. I love this shot of the six of them on stage. Note the outfit change in Johnny and Ben, a sort of united front with the status quo of the new team.

And again the explanations are recounted on why this is a good idea all around, which might seem to be treading the same ground again, but really eased me as a reader into a idea that this wasn’t Reed and Sue being kicked aside by the writer and/or editor, but really had good story logic as well.

What can I say, I bought it. I bought that this was a very good fit by the end of this. I turned from skeptic that this was just a way to increase diversity and pump up sales numbers, to starting to feel these might be some fun, well written stories. Right down to the team uniform changes and…

…Ororo’s declaration that they would help out if needed.

Which the scene above allows McDuffie to soften Ororo’s normally cold exterior. She’s been the X-Men’s aloof and emotionally distant leader for a long time. Showing her with a bit of warmth and love goes a long way toward setting up an identical team dynamic as Sue but with Ororo’s distinctly less motherly approach.

Likewise, we get a look in on T’Challa’s redecorating and an appreciation for how Ben is still Ben even without Reed to rib on.

But enough of this setup, let’s get cracking on our mystery of the hour, which on Earth starts with a visit to the Black Panther from our old buddy and ex-cyborg, Michael Collins – the man formerly known as Deathlok.

The scans reveal a thread for a later storyline, but what Michael is here for is the missing body of a dead friend of his. That friend being Gravity, a superhero of minor note who fought alongside Michael when they were abducted by The Stranger who was playing at being the Beyonder. That entire “secret war” was covered in the HIGHLY recommended mini-series Beyond! Go get a copy if you haven’t read it.

We get some neat little parallels being setup between Reed and Panther that even filter down to Ben’s sarcastic surliness.

Next thing we know, the five of them have hopped into Reed’s new fold ship for a quick jaunt to…where exactly?

Seems like the blue area of the moon will be stop one, as they plan to drop in on our old pal, The Watcher.

T’Challa proves he’s all about planning…

…but we suddenly realize that this isn’t the way the FF have operated. They seem to all know their roles and following his lead is going to be second nature to them. Johnny even cracks wise a bit. And with that they are instantly at the Watcher’s house.

As they search for and find the big bald voyeur, we get some of the patented banter from Johnny and Ben, still the cut-ups of the quartet.

However, even their patented humor does nothing to crack his stony silence. So T’Challa resorts to using…well, SEVERELY drastic measures.  

Uh, please don’t blow up the entire universe just to get the Watcher to talk to you? Please?

Uatu gives them what they want, which is access to his library archives, however before they part, he leaves them with this bit of future trivia, which as we all know now will possibly never come to pass. *sigh* Remember when Marvel had the resolve to drop in story elements that wouldn’t come to fruition for years and STICK to them? I miss those days.

Promised but unlikely progeny aside, Ben quickly finds the information they seek from Uatu’s glowing mentally connected library and the group is on their way to find Gravity’s body…

…which is hanging out in the last place you’d look for it. Appears Epoch, the daughter of Eon, stole the corpse. There’s a bunch of threats made back and forth…

…with the FF deciding to just take what the need, which sounds like easy picking until Epoch starts eye-beaming at them. Not sure what kind of damage they can really do to her in return. Not like Thing can punch an entire planet.

But that’s okay, because she had a change of heart and starts begging them to leave her undisturbed with Gravity’s dead body (sounds kinky)…

… and THAT’s when the sentinel mentioned by Stardust at the beginning of the book shows up. And we all know where this will end up going – right up the scale to the level of “All-out Cosmic Clamity.”

Great way to pull us into the new team. Book sets up really good reasons for all the character’s actions, attitudes and emotions. We get that Ben and Johnny are showing off a bit. We see that Panther wants everyone to fall in line and has concerns over running the team. However, in the end they all fall into place when the going gets right down to it and we feel that flow of the old FF energy. After the mess the Civil War tie-in issues were, this was a dramatic and welcome change.

We’ll continue on with this storyline next review (whenever that may be..sorry for the delays. Work has been a Galactus-sized bear lately) and see if there are more surprises in store for us.

1 comment:

  1. Turner was truly a master of great covers! R.I.P. Thanks for another great review. I usually skip all crossover shenanigans, so I've never looked into any issues of FF during Civil War. I think I might go try and find this one just for the cover on it, though. . .


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