#561: The Galactus Engine (***), #562: Requiem (***), #563: Mr. & Mrs. Thing (***),
#564: The Christmas Monster (***), #565: Don't Eat Valeria! (**), #566: Doom's Master (**),
#567: Doom's Master Part Two (**), #568: Doom's Master Part Three (**),
#569: Doom's Master Part Four (**), #570: Solve Everything Part One (***),
#571: Solve Everything Part Two (***), #572: Solve Everything Conclusion (****)
2009 was where the title went into previously unchartered areas of out-of-character plotting and inexplicable scripts. Whereas 2008 had given us Ben begging for mercy on a cover and Johnny expressing fear of a foe, here we have a cover where Doctor Doom kneels before his 'master'. That's Doctor Doom, the man who acknowledges no superior, the man who took on and beat The Beyonder. Doom, the man who would put nothing before his overwhelming sense of pride... calling another being 'master' out of 'respect' and kneeling before him. You suspect, as you read the issues, that Hitch-Millar have something great up their sleeves to explain why the guy's behaving so far out of character he's in orbit, but they never do. No, Doom really is kneeling before another being and calling him 'master', and in front of the whole of Latveria. His hidden plan is to eventually grow in power so he can defeat said 'master', yet the loss of self-respect is genuine.
Even the plan is flawed... Doom only gets to defeat the 'master' because the Fantastic Four have given said 'master' a good kicking beforehand, and Doom's plans to become super-powerful involve getting destroyed by the 'master', being thrown back into the past so he can be eaten alive by a giant prehistoric shark and then existing only as a pure essence of hate, rebuilding a completely new DNA and killing a Watcher during the event. No, honestly. Along the way Doom kills a future Sue and not only does Sue rebuke herself for getting upset at her own funeral (as if seeing yourself get murdered in the future is a trivial matter not to get concerned about) but Reed, acting on some sense of moral fair play, puts himself forward as Doom's defence council. No, really. Some guy murders your wife in her old age, so the first thing you do is offer to defend him in court while your wife tells herself off for getting alarmed about the whole thing?
In amongst this Ben almost gets married to his new girlfriend Debbie Green, though gets put off when he thinks of all his superhero friends, like Spider-Man, who had girlfriends killed... something which he couldn't possibly know. Debbie's a strange character in that we're never privy to what Ben sees in her or why he'd want to get married to her so quickly. We hear about an awkward dinner party where Ben meets her parents, but we're only told about it, we never actually get to see it, so when their wedding doesn't come off, it's difficult to be invested in it, or to care. Mind you, Ben appears under some form of mind control for much of the run, even using the term 'Euro-trash' during issue #565. Oddly enough Ben using a term like that seems even stranger than him being prepared to commit murder in #569.
Meanwhile, Valeria has developed an intelligence level of almost Reed-proportions and designs her own TARDIS (based on the Doctor Who BBC TV series, of which Bryan Hitch was the designer) and introduces each issue in the form of a 'blog' from #563 onwards. There's also more of Johnny's sexual urges, with the book rated 'T+' for teens and up throughout the year. A particularly galling image concerns Johnny having a threesome with women dressed up as Storm and the Scarlet Witch, with the clear implication that the two women are involved in a lesbian tryst during the early stages of #563. Don't misunderstand me... the notion of two lesbians dressed up as superheroes and making love is a truly beautiful thing, but does it really belong in a comic for kids? Oh, and a future version of Wolverine has healing powers so great he can grow back a head.
The major theme of Millar's work on the title is 'big'. Every storyline involves some enormous, Galactus-level menace there to threaten everyone... Galactus even appears, though is unconscious, because even the Big G is small fry in 2009. Yet whereas Galactus's first appearance back in the classic 1966 issues involved both philosophical and religious debates, as well as a creature beyond concepts of good and evil, here the big bads destroy because... they can. Even Doom's 'master' is tied into this 'way coooool!' mentality, whereby we know that something must be really bad if even Doom's subservient to it. There's no subtext, no motive... no interest. Just dumb-headed blockbuster filler as the book becomes more and more art-based and far less dense in text. Towards the end of the Hitch-Millar run it's almost possible to read the books in ten minutes flat, while the art becomes so chaotic and confusing that we see events like Debbie Green's flat on fire without even being shown what caused it.
As the approach of Doom's 'master' gets heralded more and more ominously, any tension is broken up and dissipated by an indulgent 'Fantastic Four in Scotland' two-parter that would be hard pressed to fill a single issue, albeit beautifully illustrated in parts. With all this I haven't even mentioned the true identity of Doom's 'master'... it's Clyde Wyncham. You know Clyde Wincham, right? The guy who was mentioned in Fantastic Four issue..... wait. No, he was never mentioned in the Fantastic Four, but instead featured in Mark Millar's 2008 mini series 1985, a fact the creators seem so certain that readers will know we don't even get a handy box informing us. 1985 was a fine mini-series, so it's hard to know what's more demeaning to it... being spun off into this below-par storyline, or the lack of respect for casual readers by assuming they'd know about it in the first place. In the early issues of the Fantastic Four, such explanatory boxes were there not just to explain to readers what was going on, but also to promote sales of other titles. In the late 2000s, it seemed that Marvel no longer cared about either, and so readers of this single title were left in the dark.
For the final two Hitch-Millar issues then the duo called in help from outside. Joe Ahearne wrote the scripts from Millar's plot and Neil Edwards co-pencilled #568 with Hitch. (#568 being the issue that contains the afore-mentioned 'unseen Molotov cocktail'). By the final Hitch-Millar issue (#569) then Hitch contributes only the cover and Stuart Immonen does the interior pencils. Immonen's work, while attempting to mimic Hitch's, is arguably superior, and contains a beautiful splash page as Clyde and his future self duel throughout the whole of existence. It all ends with a bad taste in the mouth as Ben cruelly dismisses Johnny... but then, that's the Hitch-Millar run all over: a complete misunderstanding of character.
Two points of change marked the end of the year, one directly for the title, the other for Marvel as a whole. In August Marvel published the first issue written by Jonathan Hickman, a writer who had previously worked on a spin-off series Fantastic Four: Dark Reign. Hickman's first issue (date marked October, explaining why only three of his issues feature in the overview of "2009") most notably saw a return of Reed to his alpha male form of prior years. Whatever the plusses of the John Bryne era, one striking element there was a pig-headed insistence on returning The Fantastic Four to their ultimate roots, no matter how little it made sense. So it was that we got a Watcher with an angular, oversized head and tiny body, because that was the way Jack Kirby had originally drawn the character in Issue #13... this, despite the fact that Kirby himself had revised his own take on the character just seven issues later, and everyone else had drawn the Watcher to this revised standard for the following two decades. So it was that Reed was originally a skinny academic for the first three issues, but gradually bulked up more and more under Kirby's run into a more overtly masculine character that was remarked upon for his physique by bystanders. This form continued throughout the 1970s, until Byrne took over the book and regressed Reed back to a thin, physically ineffectual and passive character. Such a bloody-minded take on Reed caught on, and Reed spent the post-Byrne era as the weakest member of the FF and an emotionless thinker. Ultimately we're left with a percentage of the readership wondering how Reed became so muscular under impressive artist Dale Eaglesham... despite the fact that this was the norm throughout the late 60s and 1970s.
Another nod to the past is in the book possessing a new logo, one that closely homages the third logo introduced in 1975. The three issues represented a fine start on the book for the new team, allowing readers to forget the dire missteps of the much-hyped Hitch-Millar partnership. Finally, at the end of August Marvel was bought for $4 billion by the Disney corporation. How that would impact on Marvel's output remained to be seen as the year drew to a close with shareholders still to give their final agreement...
Doctor Doom's release is charted in Secret Invasion: Dark Reign and Dark Avengers #1-4, while the story of Clyde Wyncham features in 1985 #1-6 (****).