Vol 4, #14: The Fantastic Four Are Doomed! Part Two: Trial By Fire (***),
Vol 4, #15: The Fantastic Four Are Doomed! Part Three: The Elements of War (***),
Vol 4, #16: The Fantastic Four Are Doomed! Part Four: Four To The Fourth Power (***),
Vol 5, #1: The Fall of the Fantastic Four (Part 1, ***),
Vol 5, #2: The Fall of the Fantastic Four (Part 2, ***),
Vol 5, #3: The Fall of the Fantastic Four (Part 3, ***),
Vol 5, #4: The Fall of the Fantastic Four (Part 4, ****),
Vol 5, #5: The Fall of the Fantastic Four (Part 5, ***),
Vol 5, #6: The Fateful Four (Part 1, ***), Vol 5, #7: The Fateful Four (Part 2, ****),
Vol 5, #8: Original Sin (***), Vol 5, #9: East Of Eden (Part 1, ****),
Vol 5, #10: East Of Eden (Part 2, ***), Vol 5, Annual #1: Fairy Tale (****),
Vol 5, #11: East Of Eden (Part 3, ****), Vol 5, #12: East Of Eden (Part 4, ****)
2014 saw another new relaunch, a fifth volume written by James Robinson as a love letter to the past. Once more the title was given over to a single storyline, one that ran for 18 issues and an annual. While Hickman’s last few issues had experimented with shorter, two-part tales, it was essentially five years since readers had been able to buy a copy of the FF that didn’t require buying over a years’ worth of issues to get a single story. As with the other decompressed stories of this nature, they read far better as trades than as stand-alone issues, where the lack of true incident can cause the flow to drag in isolation. As with prior “relaunches”, the sales for the first issue peaked, then began to fall throughout. Although the storyline was split under half a dozen different story titles to make it appear to be smaller tales, readers still picked up the first issue as a “part one”, and over 42% of the readers didn’t return for part 2. Although subplots and cliffhangers are a standard way to encourage further readership, getting a fraction of a story for $3.99 was no longer a sound way to reward readers.
What did reward readers – at least long-term ones – was the sense of putting the group’s history in perspective. Sometimes this could be ridiculously anal, and focussed too much on some of comicbook writings’ unsayable tenets, such as superheroes having a discussion about how their lifestyle often involves coming back from the dead, or Johnny jokingly speculating whether or not Galactus uses underwear. It’s a story so in love with the series’ history that the striking art of Leonard Kirk is contrasted in some issues with other artists, illustrating in a deliberately retro style to capture the feel of 1960s adventures in flashbacks.
It’s a series that offers no way in for new readers, with Ben casually name-dropping a 1993 issue (in January 2015), or Johnny talking about his feelings for the Skrull he once married. A story that consolidates many past events, explains away what seemed like continuity errors and merges many disparate plot points into one whole… without ever questioning whether this is a right thing to do or not. Perhaps even worse, it makes pains to discuss the past, but often gets it wrong, such Ben talking about voluntarily changing back into the Thing to fight Doctor Doom in Issue #40, despite the fact that the entire point was that it was very much against his will.
It’s a story that takes in Franklin’s pocket universe (from way back in 1998), Marvel Two-In-One, Namor, The Puppet Master, Giganto, The Frightful Four (with the Wrecker and two of the Wrecking Crew), the original Human Torch, Doctor Doom, Malice, another Frightful Four (with the female members of Salem’s Seven), Psycho Man, a third Frightful Four (with the Sandman, Thundra and Sharon Ventura) and duplicate Avengers. There are many instances where the constant attempt at reassessing the past goes perhaps too far. Revisiting old Lee-Kirby issues and revealing that scared bystanders in comic vignettes went on to have heart attacks or suffer PTSD is applying a serious filter that didn’t exist at the time. It’s essentially misguided, asking questions that don’t need to be answered, almost akin to Sue attending an equality meeting for how sexist Reed was to her in many of the 60s issues. ( Hey, now there’s an idea for a 25-part storyline that’ll sell well in the trades…)
Issue #3 marks the unprecedented step of including a quote from a review on the cover - multiversitycomics.com’s write-up of #2 – in order to cement its appeal. The same approach was repeated for Issue #8, which had an extract of newsarama.com’s review of Issue #5, and a review of the same issue from craveonline.com was used on the cover of #9. While such things, along with the renumbering, are valid promotional tools, this was a book that once needed no such gimmicks to ensure it got read.
For the Fantastic Four’s final days then it doesn’t always show the team in the best light as Johnny even loses his powers. Although it adds to drama of the fall of the team, it doesn’t really help to restore value to a title that was dying out. Johnny also gets a subplot that he becomes a rock singer, despite never having sang in the title before. However, such ambitions towards fame are not unique, as he had a short-lived acting career in Volume 3, Issue #52, and his first shot at acting was with the rest of the FF in #9.
Yet making up for this somewhat is the vibrant art by Kirk, one of the few artists in recent memory to really enjoy drawing Reed using his powers. While this is not quite to the extent of his 60s origins, where he even appeared to have almost Plastic Man-level shape-changing powers, the Reed of volume 5 gets to bend, slip under doors, and stretch all over the place, and even – for just one small moment – get referred to by his old codename of “Mr. Fantastic”. There’s a sense that the most retro of all the FF’s names has been airbrushed out of history, so it’s nice to see it being used in 2014 without irony or embarrassment, and 2015 goes even further by having him joyously reclaim it. Sadly, Reed – arguably the second-most powerful member of the FF during its first year of inception – is knocked out cold by Sue during a battle with the Avengers, where his previously demure wife takes on the entire team single-handedly.
Perhaps the most humiliating sequence though features Ben being jumped in a prison with a power-dampening field, where he’s beaten and dragged to see Sharon Ventura, now openly calling herself the “She-Thing” and telling Ben she “owns” him. Things get potentially even worse for Ben when he’s attacked again in the prison showers, and a bar of soap is knocked out of his hand, before the naked Grimm is approached by three supervillains. Thankfully Sandman is on hand to help out - his body composition seemingly unaffected by standing in a shower block - and Ben doesn't get to star in a revival of The Shawshank Redemption.
Sharon Ventura was one of the great “misused” characters of the book, her life and events frequently lost and contradicted between creative teams. After she left the book in 1991, her next appearance wasn’t in the main title, but in two issues of Fantastic Four Unlimited, where she teamed up with The Frightful Four. It wasn’t until 2000 that she returned to the main title (Volume 3, #29), still allied with the Frightful Four and full of bitterness towards Ben and Reed. Her next appearance was a one-panel cameo in #543, where she said of the FF “you could not ask for better friends”, after having seemingly put it all behind her. As she originally left the team "between issues", it's an unsatisfying treatment of her already much-derided character.
Although the overall story is largely concerned with its own history, there are odd signs that it’s aware of the wider world. Valeria contacts Doom with a plan to put things right in the world, and references famine in Somalia, a drought from 2010-2012 having just killed an estimated 260,000 people. Less topical are the references to Reed owning “WMDs”, which, after its most recent popular usage in 2003, seem passé a decade on. Despite the many criticisms throughout this article, overall the 2014 issues are a fun and easy read that do, in their own way, celebrate the title just before its end.
Trivia, and Issue #5 makes the error of giving She-Hulk the name of “Jessica”. The same issue also has a prosecuting lawyer repeating a line, a very odd occurrence for a format where everything “said” is written down. The title gets almost certainly it’s rudest-ever innuendo, with Wyatt trying to save the team, his suggestion that he and She-Hulk come at it from both ends met with Jennifer’s “You know I always liked it when we did that.” The annual also confirms that Valeria is only three years old, which does somewhat make a mockery of all her many precocious traits. Thankfully the title focuses on the core four, rather than the children which no creator appears to truly know what to do with.
As for volume four, then it concluded at the start of the year, the final three issues written by Karl Kesel (co-plotted by departing Matt Fraction) and now with art by Raffele Ineco. The conclusion was a familiar trope of multiverses and Doom getting cosmic powers, which seemed somewhat played out. Karl was kind enough to give an interview to the site, where he discusses his time writing to others' plots, as well as inking many issues (including volume 5) and his thoughts for the future of the characters.
Lastly, the group spend the entire year during volume 5 dressed in new red costumes, which does make them, ironically enough, resemble the characters in the 2004 Pixar movie The Incredibles.
There’s a slight change to the title’s policy of no longer explaining where external titles fit into the run. Issue #12 brings back the old “additional information” box, explaining that the years’ annual fits into the storyline, a long-standing and logical tradition that's continued in 2015.
However, several events from other titles are still vaguely alluded to without ever being explained or confirmed. Namor had attacked Wakanda and massacred its people in AVENGERS VS. X-MEN #7 and #8, an event that gets a nod in Issue #5 but assumes that readers are aware of every event outside the book without having it explained.
The year’s big crossover event was Original Sin, which saw the Watcher killed, and heroes experiencing some of his memories as a result, an event which briefly ties in to FF issues #6 and #7. As referenced in the main article, Sharon's past interactions with the group leading up to her appearance in 2014 were featured in Fantastic Four Unlimited #4 and #5.
Lastly, the Sandman who Ben meets in prison is once more a criminal, albeit far more cordial than in the past. The issues where he returned to crime are Amazing Spider-Man (Vol. 2) #4, which seems to have him do it of his own free will, and Peter Parker: Spider-Man #12 retcons this as the Wizard using his ID Machine to brainwash Sandy and get him to turn bad again.