When a new creative team takes over a title, shifts in tone and style will, obviously, follow suit. Matt Fraction and Mark Bagley’s Fantastic Four is certainly no exception, and has, thus far, been a good example of just how jarring these transitions can be. Since its launch in November, the Marvel NOW! version of Fantastic Four has had its fair share of problems. Characters behave in strange, one-note sort of ways, as though the multifaceted cast of the previous run had suddenly un-learned everything they had experienced. The Johnny Storm on display in these pages does not at all seem like the guy who not only survived countless deaths in the Negative Zone but also gained control of the Annihilation Wave. Here, Johnny has reverted back to his jokey, hotheaded self—a boy rather than a man. Ben Grimm has been reduced to the role of “loudmouthed lout”, with the occasional periods of self-loathing, lacking the persona he’s developed in recent years. Reed Richards has always maintained a distance from his friends and family, but here he has been upsettingly withholding. Granted, anyone following Jonathan Hickman’s incredible run was going to have a lot to live up to, but Fraction has, so far, been trailing at a considerable distance.
Fortunately, Fantastic Four #5 brings the series closer to the entertaining and satisfying comic it should be. Much of Fraction’s run has felt heavily influenced by the classic Stan & Jack stories, although not always in good ways (notably, again, in the archaic characterizations of Johnny and Ben). There’s still a little of this to be found in these pages, but this issue, featuring a time traveling journey to the final days of Julius Caesar, harkens back to the fun of those early issues, sprinkles in a dash of modern-day time traveling sensibilities, and delivers a story that surprises, entertains, AND doesn’t feel too overcooked.
While Johnny, Ben, and the kids venture off to meet Caesar (and, somewhat paradoxically, not screw up history), Reed comes clean with Susan regarding the real reasons behind their “road trip”. While Susan is, ultimately, a bit too understanding, it feels just as good for us as it does Reed to have this burden of secrecy cast off. Hopefully the other characters will be made aware of Reed’s potentially devastating discovery and they can start approaching the problem as a family again.
The Julius Caesar portion of the story had me rolling my eyes initially, but quickly roped me back in when the character started quoting the Shakespeare play that shares his name, which wouldn’t be written for another 1,600 years. The explanation for this was fairly original and an interesting exploration of the lengths one person will go to in order to avoid altering the course of history. It also leads to an ambiguous and intriguing final page, a tease that suggests that maybe there are bigger things in store for Fraction’s run.
Mark Bagley has maintained a high profile in comics for over 20 years now, and I think the work he’s producing on Fantastic Four is some of his best. Having been synonymous with Marvel for so long, Bagley’s placement on the series that ushered in the “Marvel Age” is a no-brainer. Bagley has a reputation for being a fast artist (he used to churn out 18 issues of Ultimate Spider-Man per year, with no fill-in artists). At times, perhaps because of this speed, his work feels a little rushed. Not so in this book, where characters and the worlds they inhabit are handled with great detail. My only real complaint with his work here is the handling of Valeria, who is supposed to be a three-year-old but frequently looks at least as old as Franklin.
I’ve been on the fence about Fantastic Four since it relaunched, but if Fraction and Bagley can keep future stories more like this issue and less like the previous four, Marvel’s First Family should be in fine shape moving forward.