All orange rock. All the time.
Fantastic Four: World's Greatest, Master of Doom (Marvel) Arrowsmith: So Smart In Their Fine Uniforms (Wildstorm)
Hop in the handy time machine, folks. We're headed back to the early 60s, to your
average newsstand to pick up a few comics. (No, we can't go save the library at
Alexandria. Stop asking.)
Here we are. Smell the cigarettes and the nuclear tension. In these heady days,
comics are cheap little magazines printed on the same stock as newspapers, the
pages festooned with ads for X-Ray glasses and Charles Atlas's muscle course
with Dynamic Tension. Marvel is an upstart publisher, just different enough to
attract the college crowd but just fun enough to keep the kids reading. And the
leader of the pack for these Marvel comics is not Spider-Man, nor the X-Men
(whose sales are actually quite wretched) but the World's Greatest Comic
Magazine, the Fantastic Four.
You can always be sure that when the FF are done right, they will deliver
something entirely different from your average hero comic. Unlike all superheroes
out there, for whom family is a liability (at least according to the editors) the FF
work on a family dynamic. The Thing and the Human Torch are the quirky uncles
to Reed and Sue's children, Franklin and Val. While Batman and Spider-Man
shove around petty crooks in alleyways, the Fantastic Four's adventures take them
to hidden dimensions on the surfaces of electrons.
Jack Kirby and Stan Lee's early work was so great that the comic has often
languished in their shadow. It's not just how good the stories were; it's how well
the comic reflected the events of the time. In 1961's Fantastic Four #1, Reed and
Ben are old World War II buddies who steal a rocket in order to beat the Russians
to low orbit, where the "cosmic rays of space" transformed them into super-powered beings. Galactus was a personification of nuclear Armageddon, and a
good portion of the first FF run took place on the moon, fighting the Russkie Red
So any writer who comes to the FF is challenged to keep the dynamic fun of Stan
and Jack while making the comic different and relevant. Few can do it. John Byrne,
Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo did it, bringing the Four up to, alternately, the 80s
and the 21st century. Walt Simonson and J. Michael Straczynski almost made it.
Chris Claremont and countless others fell flat.
Add Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch to the A-listers.
Millar and Hitch are known for being "edgy" from their hard-edged work on The
Ultimates, where Millar followed the HBO aesthetic of making his characters
interesting, but not very likeable. But here, Millar and Hitch aren't worried about
being "edgy." They are having fun. The first issue opens with Reed, Sue, Ben and
the kids racing along a train track on Reed's newest time sled. Their trip through
time to the grand opening of Disneyland has gone awry due to a temporal storm.
They have rescued the Thing from 1682 and are now either about to hit the mail
train or, if Reed's calculations are correct, go home.
The sheer fun of this series is a pleasant surprise from Millar and Hitch's work on
The Ultimates. In the first few issues we get a killer robot versus an even stronger
killer robot, a substitute Earth, and Johnny Storm's forbidden relationship with a
super-villain. The Thing remains the heart of the book as he romances a
schoolteacher with his classic Brooklyn gruffness.
Millar is good, and his overexpository dialogue actually works here, but the book
might seem a bit fluffy with the wrong artist. Luckily, Millar got Bryan Hitch.
How can I describe Bryan Hitch? Think of one of the truly cinematic directors in
Hollywood; Ridley Scott or Peter Jackson or someone who communicates size and
Then imagine someone who can outdo them all and has a budget limited only by
No comic artist has the depth and power of Hitch. His art is dynamic but
photorealistic. Most of all it's big. The opening chapter of World's Greatest sets up
his brilliance: it closes with a double-page spread of Nu-World, the recreation of
our world set to house refugees from our eventual doom. Pylons the size of
Saturn's rings stretch into space from a framework around a dead moonish rock
that is gradually being transformed into a replica of Earth.
You can feel every inch of Hitch's bigger-than-life work, and Millar takes
advantage of it with these constructed planets, Lovecraftian sea-beasts and a vast
energy-sucking machine perched on the corpse of Galactus.
And yet Hitch is also a master of the close-up. No one since Jack Kirby has put this
kind of emotion into a face made of orange rock. Light and shadow play across the
Thing's craggy face around his exaggerated eyebrows and bright blue eyes so that
one can see Ben Grimm, the human, within the monster. And his women! Simply
let Hitch tousle the hair of Sue Storm and despite her simple blouse and skirt, she
is the sexiest woman on paper.
Despite the sheer fun, Millar does manage to pull off a touching and complex
ending to Master of Doom that shows why the Thing has always been the heart of
this team. And no, I won't tell you where the story goes. There are too many
surprises on each page to ruin them.
Arrowsmith: So Smart in Their Fine Uniforms is a blast, even though it's got its
dark moments. Arrowsmith's premise will immediately sound familiar to the
fantasy reader: World War I with sorcery. In recent years, Harry Turtledove did it
with the Civil War and World War II and Naomi Novik wrote the Napoleonic
Wars with dragons in her Temeraire series.
Now if only they had been drawn by Carlos Pacheco. Too often comic artists who
draw historical scenes skimp on the detail that makes such things more fun. Not
Pacheco. He creates an alternate New York, a magical battleship, and combat
between sea serpents and flying troops, but he is just as detailed in his creation of
quaint European towns, trench warfare and life hiding in an old cathedral. Should
an artist take on Ms. Novik's work, I think Pacheco might even outdo my other
suggestion, Ryan Ottley.
His pictures have power and grandeur, from the epic battles all the way down to
the expressions on their faces. Pacheco has many of the cinematic strengths of
Hitch, though his art has a slightly more simplified sensibility that fits these tales
Fletcher Arrowsmith seeks to join the Aerial Corps, a group of magical volunteers
from the "United States of Columbia" who fight above the trenches of the Western
Front. Although one might expect them to ride dragons a la Temeraire, they
actually fly by the power of tiny little magic dragons and boots made from the shed
skins of the dragonets' mothers, so that they appear to be standing on air as they
swordfight with the enemy Prussians.
Fletcher's life goes from an idealistic round of training and writing letters to harsh
combat above the trenches, realizing slowly that the sorcerers on his side may be as
ruthless as the Prussians in their determination to wipe out the enemy. As he
watches his friends die in combat, his hope is kept alive by his relationship with a
beautiful ambulance driver.
In the end, Fletcher's own despair and disillusionment must be put aside for his
own duty to the men and women (and trolls) under his command.
Arrowsmith is written by Kurt Busiek. Busiek is renowned at Marvel and DC for
his encyclopedic knowledge of superhero comic history. Here, he shows that he
knows his World War I history as well as he knows those made-up histories, and
he also shows that he is still able to balance idealism and disillusionment in his
characters as well as he did in his runs on JLA and Avengers -- still my favorite
incarnation of the Avengers, by the way, and well worth picking up in the "Earth's
Mightiest Heroes" trade.
Comics should be fun, and Arrowsmith, World's Greatest and Master of Doom are
not deep and complex and interesting, but they are first of all fun. The best comics,
from Maus to American Born Chinese, always add just a hint of whimsy to the
P.S. If anyone close to Ms. Novik is listening, she ought to grab a piece of
Pacheco, once he and Millar are down with their current incarnation of the
Next issue: Jeff Smith goes R-rated in RASL. (Jeff Smith? The Bone guy?) Yep,
Read more by Spencer Ellsworth