August 8, 2016

NEW: 2013

#1: Unstable (****), #2: Voyagers (***), #3: First Boots On The Ground (***), 
#4: My Funny Valentine (***), #5: I Killed Julius Caesar! (***),
#5AU: The Death of the Family Richards During the Bloody Age of Ultron! 
Or, "Everything's Going to be Okay." (***), #6: The Big Bang! (***), #7: The Big Crunch! (***), 
#8: The Mobsters Are Due On Yancy Street! (***), #9: Nativity! (**), 
#10: Self-Evident Truths! (**), #11: Planet Future (**), #12: Planet Future, Part Two (**), 
#13: The Fantastic Four Are Doomed! Part One: The Scorched Earth (**)


The main reason why yearly summaries of the comic usually get published on this site around 2-4 years after the release dates is in order for history to fall upon the book. As a site that attempts to piece together where the title fitted in its own environment, then often certain elements will still be too fresh or hidden in order to really assess their impact. As an example, even all these decades later, there’s still fierce debate as to who really did what with Stan and Jack, an event that this site has discussed, but refused to take sides on.

With 2013 rumours that the title was facing the end were loose in the book’s declining fandom, with many believing that it was a calculated act to avoid publishing a comic where the movie rights were owned by Fox. As a business model, then focussing on the movie characters was perhaps a sensible decision, though many of the characters in the comics scarcely resembled their original form, and, consequently, the versions in the films. (As just one notable example, Thor was now a woman in the comics, despite appearing as a man in films that grossed billions of dollars). While such rumours could just be wild speculation, it was worth noting that many poster reprints from Marvel at the time – such as the cover of the original 80s Secret Wars - featured newer characters replacing the Fox characters, and not only were the X-titles reduced, in 2014 Wolverine was killed off in the comics.

2013 was Marvel suddenly opening up into a worldwide marketing phenomenon. The year before, The Avengers movie had cracked $1.5 billion and became the third highest-grossing film of all time, while in 2013 Iron Man 3 became the fifth, banking over $1.2 billion in box office. Although increasing ticket prices and the continuing production of 3D has seen both those positions slide in the interim, the studio had become almost a guaranteed money-making resource, where even obscure characters like The Guardians of the Galaxy could be in films breaking $770 million. All of which in comic book terms only affected the status of Marvel as a global brand, and barely registered in sales terms. Iron Man 3 was the biggest box-office hit of 2013, but the comic based on the character was struggling to sell much more than 40,000 books throughout the year; even the release month of the movie wasn’t enough of a boost to get it into the top ten.

For the comic line, Marvel had retitled itself “Marvel Now!”, and set about restarting lots of titles in new volumes as a sales pitch towards readers who liked to collect a brand-new Issue No.1. For The Fantastic Four, it worked: The debut of volume four saw it get over 114,000 sales and become the 7th best-selling comic of the month. Sadly, it didn’t stick, and over 56,000 readers abandoned it by the second issue; sales declined so rapidly that by the end of the year sales had dropped to below 28,000. An attempt to start a fifth volume, and a new No.1, in 2014 met with the same success: a sales boost for the first issue (this time to just over 65,000 sales) followed by declining sales month by month. It was a futile attempt to resuscitate the title’s fortunes, and, regardless of whether the FF were victims of a plot to scupper the forthcoming third Fox movie, the FF was a title that simply wasn’t selling any more. Even an attempt to tie it into that year's "event", Age of Ultron (see "Required Reading") added no significant extra sales to the title. While many observers suggest that Marvel's actions in removing X-Men and FF characters from merchandise is churlish, the answer may be tied up in legal rights issues and not a deliberate attempt to sabotage their own characters; certainly, both Wolverine and Sue play a pivotal role in the Age of Ultron saga.

The new creative team attempting to reverse the FF's fortunes in 2013 were initially Mark Bagley on pencils, inked by Mark Farmer, with Matt Fraction the writer. Other inkers took over from Farmer, and Christopher Sebela co-wrote a couple of issues, before Karl Kesel took over and completed the run from Issue #13 onwards. The issues are generally fine if unmemorable, but go even further into the concept of “decompressed storytelling”. Inspired by Manga and an increasing trend since the early 2000s, decompressed storytelling saw mood and ambience take priority over event and action, with more panels dedicated to shorter spaces of time. Given that The Fantastic Four was more of an action-based book, it took longer for the trend to reach its pages, but with the Fraction-Bagley era we reach a point where a relatively thin story takes 16 issues to tell. True, most of those issues have mini stories within them, as the FF explore space looking for a cure for Reed developing cancer. Yet the Sphinx-Skrulls-Galactus epic back in the late 70s spanned a far wider canvas in just 13 issues, and was an exception at the time. Purely from a business model, expecting readers to get on board for 14 months’ worth of issues, at a price of almost $50, just to read what is tantamount to a single story is not delivering value to the customer. This is not to suggest that such a form of narrative is not worthwhile to the art form, and perhaps lies at the centre of the argument about whether superhero comics should be for kids like in the old days, or teens and adults. But The Fantastic Four isn't an underground indie comic or, say, the work of the Hernandez brothers, and in such a medium its extremely high art-to-word count makes it feels like the readership is being cheated.

Although the individual issues do make an effort to tell new tales, some of them, by sticking to previous continuity, unwittingly contradict it. Most notable is an appearance of Aunt Petunia in #7, when Ben travels back into the past and meets her as a young woman. Yet the character was even younger when readers saw her in the 1980s during the Byrne run, in a twist on expectations that even John Byrne admits was a mistake. Then there’s an attempt to make the creation of Doctor Doom Ben’s fault, which makes next to no sense at all, and #5AU having Reed explain that, as a man of science, there's no Heaven or Hell... despite the fact that he's visited both places in the title. But silliest of all is just how far into out-and-out fantasy the series has gone. A comic book title about a man who can fly and shoot flame and a man who can stretch his body was never going to be a gritty and realistic title, but we’re now in an era where a toddler can design a time machine from scratch, while her brother can build entire universes with the power of his mind. There’s a kind of “anything goes” to the rules of logic in the title, and consequently there’s precious little tension in any of it, with even the action containing post-modern self-referencing, and Johnny in full “jerk” mode.

In terms of trivia, then while it’s been long accepted that references to dates, fashions, etc., are there just for background purposes and not to be taken literally as part of the story, Issue #3 states the date as the first of January, 2013. Along the same lines, Ben gets one of his annual “change back to human for a week” moments so we can assume a year has passed since the previous run. As Val appears to be aging in almost-regular time, then perhaps Franklin is using his powers to stay young? 

Accompanying the run was the continuation of the FF spin-off title, the review of which will take place in the “Other Titles” category, as it branched off into its own narrative, running parallel with the main title. Sadly, the spin-off was not a commercial success. As with the core title, sales declined, so much so that by the time the series wrapped, it was selling less than 22,000 copies a month and wasn’t even in the top 100 selling comics.


Required Reading:

Marvel's "event" title for the year, The Age of Ultron, took over an issue of the Fantastic Four, with the confusingly-ttiled "5AU" making up the year's issues. In order to get the full story, readers first had to check out  Avengers: Age Of Ultron Point One, Age of Ultron #1 (****)  and Age of Ultron #2 (****). After then reading the FF issue, the storyline concluded in Superior Spider-Man #6AU (****), Age of Ultron #3 (****), Age of Ultron #4 (****), Ultron #1AU (***), Avengers Assemble #14AU (****), Age of Ultron #5 (****), Wolverine and the X-Men #27AU (***), Age of Ultron #6 (***), Age of Ultron #7 (***), Avengers Assemble #15AU (***), Age of Ultron #8 (**), Uncanny Avengers #8AU (**), Fearless Defenders #4AU (**), Age of Ultron #9 (**), Age of Ultron #10 (**) and Age of Ultron #10A.I. (****). The first title was a part of "Free Comic Book Day", giving a free plug to a series of comics that would cost FF readers, in addition to their regular comicbook, a cool $71.82 to read. Practising more of the "compressed storytelling", the art was often beautiful to look at, but contained more of the current trend for graphic realism in violence, and all the issues of The Age of Ultron, including the FF's, were rated T+ for teens and above. After a strong start, depicting a world where Ultron had almost destroyed humanity, the power of time-travel felt like a narrative cheat to get out of the entire situation, and the event ultimately disappointed despite a promising start. The title of the event was, of course, used for the second Avengers movie in 2015.

More essential for the year was the FF title, which was spun off into its own alternate Fantastic Four, featuring Ant-Man, She Hulk, Medusa and Johnny's girlfriend, Darla Deering. As the title was so good, rather than cover it as part of this summary, it’ll get its own page in “Other Titles”. A small sticking point is that Darla is introduced in neither book, despite Johnny claiming to have been dating her for over six months; and as Johnny had last been seen dating Psionics, it makes him having a relatively long-term relationship seem out of nowhere. The titles make no efforts to make it clear where Darla originally came from, but her first, unpronounced, appearance can be read in Marvel NOW! Point One.

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