Monday, December 19, 2011

Fantastic Four: Unthinkable and 5th Wheel by Mark Waid, Mike Wieringo, and Casey Jones - A Comic Book Review

Rereading Empire made me dig out my Unthinkable trade paperback. I only reread Empire because I had recently read some Incorruptible/Irredeemable, and therefore Mark Waid and his supervillains were on my mind… Funny how that works out.

I’ve got love for the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby stuff, of course, but Waid’s and Mike Wieringo’s modern take on the Fantastic Four is my favorite run of FF stories.  Waid did an excellent job building up the team as a family of adventurers (or, more accurately, “imaginauts”) and most of his storyarcs organically link to each other. Instead of a series of different, unconnected adventures, Waid’s FF felt like he’d actually mapped out all the major character beats and plots. Even though his stories had clear endings, it was easy to see how one story flowed into the next.

The Unthinkable trade, which is the second book collecting Waid and Wieringo’s run together, is probably the pinnacle of their work.  It actually collects two stories: “Unthinkable,” which is their grand Dr. Doom epic; and “5th Wheel,” a two-part, character-driven epilogue.

Unthinkable begins with an entire issue devoted to Doom. After years of being unable to definitively conquer his enemies through his scientific knowledge and technology, he decides that sorcery is the way. Thus, he makes a pact with a cabal of netherdemons. Obviously, there’s a catch to the bargain, and he ends up sacrificing the one true love of his life to gain magical power and knowledge. The twist is that the he doesn’t just sacrifice her love, he sacrifices her life, and his new mystical armor is made from his dead lover’s skin. That sounds pleasant.

Doom’s vengeance strikes deeply in this story. To kick things off, he uses Valeria, Reed and Sue Richards’ toddler daughter, as a conduit for his threats. Then, using his newfound sorceries, he sends Franklin, Valeria’s prepubescent older brother, straight to hell. (Or at least the Marvel universe interpretation of hell.) Needless to say, the Fantastic Four go all out and storm Latveria to beat up Doom and force him to remove Franklin from hell.

It’s a grand adventure against exceptional villainy. Although every member of the team takes their lumps and suffers quite a bit, ultimately the story boils down to Mr. Fantastic versus Dr. Doom in a battle of intellects, egos, and wills. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to tell you right now that the Fantastic Four manage to defeat Doom (and Mark Waid comes up with a very clever way for all that to happen, I assure you) and save Franklin from being trapped in hell; the catch is that they do so, but not without cost to themselves.

You have to love how Waid writes Dr. Doom, probably one of the most iconic villains of 20th century American popular fiction, as completely egotistical and unrepentant.

For a while, starting in the eighties or so, there was a minor trend to sort of humanize supervillains in comics. Characters like Magneto and Dr. Doom moved away from their diabolical roots and took on more noble traits. Magneto, in particular, was painted as misunderstood and even reformed and led the X-Men for a time. (Clearly, The Uncanny X-Men is a soap opera on paper. Personally, though, I never really cared for making Magneto a victim of misunderstanding.) While I do think there’s merit in the notion that everyone thinks he’s a hero in his own mind, it’s a bit tiresome to always seek to portray supervillains (especially one named “Dr. Doom”) as sympathetic characters. (This is actually one of the reasons I so enjoy Joe Casey’s superhero comics: Casey doesn’t shy away from writing supervillains who are so reprehensible that they outright revel in their own evil.  Some people are just born to be bad.)

And honestly, I don’t think Waid really deviates from who Doom is. Waid still manages to capture the aristocratic nobility in Doom’s persona, and the way he carries himself, even if, essentially, he is driven by hate.

The “Unthinkable” arc could have been a much darker story, but it’s tempered by Wieringo’s magnificent art, which just happens to evoke enough wonder and imagination that all the really dark stuff (like Doom wearing his dead lover’s skin, or the scenes of Franklin in hell) just comes across as unsettling. Wieringo’s style isn’t necessarily one that you’d expect for a dark story, but it works well enough and I think it’s fair to say Wieringo and Waid have a particular synergy when they work together. I think it actually takes more talent to be able to successfully illustrate a dark script in a cartoony style without actually disrespecting the script. “Unthinkable” is all the better for Wieringo’s contributions. (And Paul Mounts’ lively colors, too, make Wieringo’s art sing.)

“5th Wheel” is the epilogue to “Unthinkable” and these are actually my two favorite issues of the entire Waid run, and they’re certainly among my all-time two favorite issues of Fantastic Four in general.

A lot of superhero stories would typically work with the standard formula. They start off by giving the reader a taste of the characters’ personalities (usually by showing you their relationships or private, nonsuperheroic lives). Then the big bad gets a little build up before launching his plan or attack. The supervillain puts the heroes through the wringer, pushing them to the brink, and testing everything they stand for and believe in. After they get a chance to regroup, the heroes make their big comeback, they just lay down a fat whoopin’ on their antagonist, and all is well. Anyone they rescue ends up being grateful to be saved, and then by the next issue, everyone moves on to the next big adventure.

I mentioned earlier that during the course of “Unthinkable,” each member of the FF took their lumps, even though they won the battle. This includes Franklin, who just suffered an excruciatingly traumatic experience. Can you imagine a little kid being thrown into the netherworld and being mucked around with by demons?

“5th Wheel” is the story that deals with the consequences of such a harrowing ordeal. Instead of just letting the heroes have their comeback victory and moving on, Waid chooses to spend some time examining the ramifications an ordeal like this would have on the characters. Sure, they’re superheroes, imaginauts, even, and they’ve been through a whole lot of crazy sci-fi stuff in their lives. But at the end of the day, if you’re trying to portray these characters as people, you need to give them human reactions.

Casey Jones, not Mike Wieringo, illustrates this two-parter. I’m actually not too familiar with Jones’ work. I remember he did some issues for Warren Ellis’ Excalibur back in the late ‘90s. Did he draw the Jubilee miniseries for Robert Kirkman back in the early 2000s? I’m sure I’ve seen him do some other work here and there, but nothing much comes to mind as I write this.

Jones has a cartoony style, with thick lines, that isn’t too far off from Wieringo, so the transition between the artists isn’t jarring at all. Like Wieringo, Jones excels at conveying his characters’ emotions. His characters’ eyes, in particular, are especially expressive. Very impressive how he’s able to have the Thing express emotions through his eyes and facial expressions.
One thing I think Jones does even better than Wieringo is to illustrate the quiet scenes. Scenes with people just having a conversation are often difficult to pull off, but Jones uses facial expressions and body language to add an extra layer of depth to Waid’s script.

It would have been easy to gloss over the fallout of their previous adventure, but Waid writes the FF as an actual family of people who love and care for each other. They each find their own ways to deal with the aftermath, and it isn’t necessarily easy to just move on.

As “5th Wheel” kicks off, we see that the biggest problem the team have to deal with is Franklin. Being trapped in hell and getting tormented by demons has really messed him up. You can’t help but feel sorry for the kid. His parents have been taking him to see a therapist, but he’s unresponsive and completely withdrawn. Franklin won’t talk. He won’t respond to people’s gestures of affection or anything. He just sits around looking shell-shocked and depressed.

What he does do is draw pictures of the vile things he saw while in hell. It’s at the point where his mom takes one horrified look at his journal, sees the images he’s been drawing, and all she can do is cry and use her powers to turn the journal invisible. (Of course, the therapist tells her, “You can make the pictures invisible if you like, Mrs. Richards, but he’ll probably just draw more.”) It’s one of the most genuinely motherly scenes you’re likely to ever find in a superhero comic.

One thing I really like about how this story begins is that, in the first panel, we see words being written sloppily in a journal: “things are bad” in childlike, inky handwriting. Then, a panel of Sue looking anguished while Franklin loses himself in something. (We later see that Franklin is journaling.) The third panel: “really bad,” again in the childlike handwriting. But we then learn that Franklin has just been drawing those messed up pictures.

A couple pages later, some narration, clearly from the journal, kicks in: “They all need me to do something. But what? It’s not like I’m staying quiet on purpose. I’d give anything to say something that’d make it all better. I wish that a lot actually. But I can never find the words.” Then we see that it’s actually been Ben Grimm who’s been writing in his journal. With his chunky rock hands, he holds a marker like a joystick and awkwardly writes down his thoughts.

The whole fake out between Franklin’s and Ben’s respective journals is an example of some clever execution of the craft of comics. It also positions Ben as the heart and soul of the Fantastic Four. I guess we can say that Reed is the leader, the voice of reason, and the intellect of the team. Sue is the mother, the guiding light, and moral compass. Youthful and emotional Johnny represents the passion. Ben, despite his powers being all about being rock-hard on the outside, is the heart and soul of the team, the rock that everyone else can rely on through the storm.

Anyway, the therapist tells Reed and Sue that the best thing they can do for Franklin is to surround him with love and the things he enjoys, and hope and pray that he’ll come around eventually. Later, Sue decides to take him to Coney Island. Ben insists on tagging along but, of course, as The Thing he’s sure to attract a bunch of attention. Sue makes him invisible so he can accompany them, but he’s lovably grouchy about the whole situation. Waid’s characterization for all these characters’ personalities just feels absolutely spot-on.

[Here's a link to some of Casey Jones' original and unlettered artwork from the story:]

In another scene, while Sue, Ben, and Franklin are at Coney Island, a recovering Johnny (who had the most severe physical injuries from their battle with Doom) asks Reed why he didn’t go with his son. Reed, who was physically scarred after his final encounter with Doom (he basically has Doom’s handprint etched across half his face) can only say that the sight of his face disturbs his son. It’s a sobering statement and Johnny’s wordless reaction to it is so real and so human that I have to emphasize again how great Casey Jones’ artwork is.

Johnny and Reed have their own subplot in the epilogue as they recover from the trauma. Their subplot involves time travel and has plot ramifications for the next storyarc. As far as time travel stories go, it’s thought out cleverly and definitely works in context of what Waid’s trying to accomplish in his overall Fantastic Four run. However, I’ll leave it at that for now because what I really want to focus on is Franklin’s character arc and how Sue and Ben help him.

Sue, Franklin, and Ben spend the better part of the day at Coney Island. They check out all the rides and stuff, but it’s clear that Franklin is still withdrawn and his favorite amusements just aren’t having much of an effect.  (There’s also a funny scene where Ben, still invisible, wants to ride the Ferris wheel with them. Bad idea, naturally.)

Later on that day, some dude tries to hit on Sue, so she makes Ben visible again. They end up attracting a large crowd of autograph seekers, but then Franklin just flips out and starts acting violent. He just starts whaling on people and screaming at them to get away! After Sue and Ben disperse the crowd and calm Franklin down, they realize that the reason he’s been acting the way he has is because he still thinks he’s trapped in hell.

Sue gives him a long, motherly talk and explains how they would never leave him trapped anywhere, and that she’d do anything to protect her son. She goes so far as to make everything around them, everything(!), invisible to demonstrate to him that she can make his fears disappear, that she will always make sure he is safe no matter what.

Still, even after all that, he’s withdrawn again and doesn’t seem to be affected by his mother’s words.

“It’s crap,” Ben says, because Franklin knows that his mom is just using her powers – just because something’s invisible doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Ben takes Franklin and props him on top of his shoulders as they go for a little walk. This then leads to one of my all-time favorite scenes ever:

Ben goes on to say:

“Yeah, I got sandbagged by fate. But that wuz one day. I lived another. And another. Safest bet wuz t’ stay in my room, but sometimes I found th’ courage t’ live like I wanted t’ live. And those’re the days I saw alien planets ‘n’ancient pirates ‘n’ goblins ‘n’ underwater cities ‘n’ … ‘n’ for all my crabbin’ and complainin’, I wouldn’t trade my life for all the safety there is. … Sure, I coulda wallowed over one lousy break instead o’ facin’ the world. An’ some days, I still do. I backslide. And yer gonna do that, too. It’s hard not ta. Yer gonna get lost in th’ bad. But so long as ya got folks around who love ya, ya gotta remember tomorrow c’n always be better.”

As Ben finishes his speech, we see from Franklin’s perspective that the images of hell are fading from his sight. Eventually, he doesn’t see himself still trapped in hell any longer.

“You understand?” Sue asks him.

“Yeah,” Franklin replies. They hug.

I have to say, I really like how Waid resolves this little arc. Internal, psychological conflicts are challenging to pull of successfully but Waid does it. Ben’s long monologue to Franklin at the end there is one of those chunks of writing that just resonate with me.

And the thing is, it’s totally earnest stuff that Ben says there. He’s just pouring himself out to Franklin. He’s baring his vulnerabilities to the kid, even though the Thing is one of the physically toughest characters on the planet. I love that. It’s a rare thing to find in superhero comics. Usually, superheroes solve their conflicts by punching them in the face or dropping them into the heart of the sun. Not so here, where Ben basically solves the conflict with sheer honesty and a loving heart.

What Ben says to Franklin is pretty much the only thing that anyone could possibly say to get through to him. Helping Franklin make a breakthrough is basically a job that only the Thing could have accomplished. No one else has his depth of experience, his understanding of what it’s like to suffer and feel trapped. Only he can explain what it truly means to change one’s mindset and keep on living.

Ultimately, Ben’s testimony is enough for Franklin to start living his life again. It’s a somewhat quiet moment but, nonetheless, an impactful one when Franklin lets the Thing’s words pierce his soul. Suddenly, the scales are lifted from his eyes.

With skillfully heartfelt writing and equally emotive artwork, “5th Wheel” genuinely stirs me.

I also like that this is a Fantastic Four story that really cuts to the core of what the team, and the series, is all about. On one hand, Fantastic Four is about adventures in imagination. “Unthinkable” certainly covered that aspect of the series. But it’s also about family, and “5th Wheel” is one of the clearest examples you’ll find of the familial themes in the Fantastic Four series, and probably superhero comics in general.

I’m kind of hard-pressed to think of many superhero comics that so overtly deal with familial love in such an honest, real, and affecting manner. Even simply taking two whole issues to basically tell the story of the aftermath after a big storyline, just to examine how the characters deal with the crazy crap they’ve had to endure still feels fairly uncommon in superhero comics. (I’m reminded of Ed Brubaker’s run on Catwoman when he and Javier Pulido did a three-parter called “No Easy Way Down,” which was an epilogue examining the cast of that title after they just endured some harsh business of their own. Those three issues are probably the most “indie” superhero comics I’ve ever read. One of these days, I’d like to do a proper write-up of those issues.)

At the end of “5th Wheel,” Ben and Franklin relax in the Baxter Building somewhere. We see a pensive Franklin sitting by a window, reflecting on what he’s been through. Ben reclines in a seat, journal in hand, as he stares tenderly at Franklin.

“I don’t know that we’ll ever be the same,” states the narrative caption from Ben’s journal. “But maybe that’s okay.”

After their battle with Doom, the Fantastic Four, including their kids, have been deeply affected by their tribulation. There aren’t any easy answers to get through it. We change or we die. Sometimes that’s all you can do: Change. Sometimes that’s good enough.

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