REVIEW: FF #21

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Is FF about the Fantastic Four or about the Future Foundation? Ha! Trick question. This month it’s about the Inhumans, with cameos by both the FF and the FF (respectively). But can a book starring the silent king quench your FF thirst? Well, if the name “Blackagar Boltagon” means anything to you, you can go ahead and read this issue. For the rest of you, please read on…

FF #21
Writer: Jonathan Hickman
Artist: Nick Dragotta
Letterer: VC’s Clayton Cowles
Colors: Cris Peter
Editor: Tom Brevoort
Publisher: Marvel
Cover Price: $2.99

Previously in FF: Black Bolt, king of the Inhumans, wrenched the throne of the alien Kree empire from the Kree Supreme Intelligence (aka Supremor) and sealed the deal by marrying off his sister-in-law to Kree super-hero, Ronan the Accuser. As this was all in accordance with prophecy, Supremor had previously created a back-up of himself which was then activated to take back the empire by any means necessary. Just before the seemingly-inevitable war could erupt, Franklin Richards from the future arrived to warn Black Bolt of what the future holds, convincing the King that war was not the answer.

ANOTHER MOMENT IN TIME

As Jonathan Hickman nears the end of his run on FF and Fantastic Four, he’s been trying to tie up the loose ends of his very intricate run on the titles, which, if you are any kind of continuity nerd, you will love. This issue addresses the dangling plot thread with the Inhumans having conquered the Kree. This is a pretty big game changer for the Marvel cosmic status quo, which usually means that once the book changes writers everything needs to go back to the way things were. I find this a little sad, because I loved the way Hickman juggled the myriad plot threads into a fantastic tapestry. But juggling threads is harder than mixing metaphors, so even though the incoming writer is super-skilled Matt Fraction, it’s not reasonable to expect him to just step into Hickman’s shoes and run the same trail. So Hickman has to undo some of the ancillary changes he made to the universe before he hands it over.

At its worst, this issue feels like a victory lap—coasting on the nostalgia of the stories we’ve just read. There are a couple panels where Johnny runs into a former comrade-in-arms and stops to reminisce. This does nothing to advance the story, but it gives a little glimpse into Johnny’s character and gives Spider-Man the opportunity to embarrass himself in front of the royal court. Similarly, there’s a scene between Reed and Sue on a space station that gives a cute character/relationship moment that also doesn’t advance the plot. I forgive it, though, because Hickman has made me like these characters and the relationships between them have always been the heart of the Fantastic Four.

The actual plot feels a little rushed. There’s no stopping for introductions, so if you’re not familiar with the characters or situations, you’re out of luck. But if you are familiar with the story then you’ll be entertained without a moment of boredom. Not that it’s all action. On the contrary, the fighting takes a backseat to the talking, but in a good way, highlighting characters making tough choices and sacrifices for the greater good. It’s nice to read a book where the heroes are heroic through actions other than just punching/stabbing things.

The weakness of the issue is really a weakness of the comic book medium–the stories can get so big and fantastic that it can be difficult to reel it back in to tell a smaller, emotional piece. The crux of this issue is that the peace treaty between Black Bolt and Supremor dictates that Ronan must return home without his Inhuman wife Crystal. Thus we have the heart-breaking decision whether they can give up their love for inter-world peace. Which is dramatic, sure, but we’re talking about a title where we recently had Franklin come back in time, raise Galactus from the dead to become Franklin’s sidekick and overcome impossible odds to kick Celestial ass. After that, am I supposed to believe that they couldn’t find a way to prevent war and preserve a marriage? That Black Bolt couldn’t have negotiated just a little harder?

But as I said, that’s more of a problem with comics in general and hopefully hits those of us who analyze comics en mass more than it bothers the average reader. Taken in its own context, this issue is a touching, personal story… about genetically-engineered aliens trying to avert an intergalactic war. And the fact that we can get a story like that is one of the strengths of comic books.

YOUNG RONANCE

The art here is an obvious homage to Kirby, as befits a Fantastic Four-based comic. (As befits most comics you could name, but anyway…) Most of the pages, especially the faces, look like they were swiped from Young Romance, only with updated coloring technology. It’s simple, emotive, and beautiful to look at… Except for the one scene where Black Bolt looks like a constipated professional wrestler who escaped from Ren and Stimpy. Even this is executed well, but the decision to go with that design drew me out of the story, although just for a page. On the whole the art is great, which is especially critical when depicting Black Bolt, who does not speak and requires a lot of attention to facial expression and body language.

THE BOTTOM LINE: HAIL TO THE KING, BABY

I didn’t used to like the Fantastic Four, only picking it up occasionally to read about the real protagonist: Dr. Doom, but this run won me over, even getting me to add this spin-off title to my pull list. I give FF #21 4 stars–A good issue continuing the plots and characters that we have come to love. It may not be as shocking and action-packed as other parts of the run, but it demonstrates that sometimes “not fighting” can be a good story, too.

Rating: ★★★★☆