As comic publications go, few are as hotly contested as Fantastic Four in recent months. While much of the distress stems from perceived managerial edicts, writer James Robinson’s ongoing narrative certainly does not aid in smoothing anything over. Since taking the reins about a year ago, Robinson’s “break ‘em down to build ‘em back up again” approach to the Richards Family is met with consistent acclaim but his overall effort proves too little, too late.
Most significant in the newest installment is the numbering reversion to original triple-digit standings, bucking Marvel’s recent trend of short-term “seasonal” groupings. As much as this is a celebratory occasion for longtime readers, it is also ominously underscored by the cover-topping banner proclaiming “The End is Fourever”. Denoted as the first of a four-part countdown to the final issue, it’s a bit confusing when the actual interior title is “Back in Blue, Part 2”. In this, it is shameful that the once-proud cornerstone of the “House of Ideas” is now a dwelling in need of no small amount of order in its final days. Furthering this point, once the story begins, it becomes abundantly clear that this is not the clean jump-on advertised on the tin.
For all the classic realigning proffered, this episode comports itself largely as business as usual. Any lapsed fan just tuning in now will undoubtedly be a tad lost and overwhelmed by Robinson’s chronicling. Granted, it’s not as highly nuanced as Jonathan Hickman’s labyrinthine epic but things are far from cut and dry. Adding to the muddling is the continued prominent placement of Robinson’s other monthly super-team, the equally chopping block-condemned All-New Invaders. Sure, it’s a bit of an old-school slam dunk having the Golden Age android Human Torch feature so heavily as a placeholder for depowered Johnny Storm but the resultant cross-branding is far from smooth. It would be one thing if there was some direct interconnectivity between the two titles but Robinson just clutters the Baxter Building grounds with toys he refuses to put back in the box. Along those same lines, he perpetuates the rote usage of the Future Foundation kids, rehashing obvious character beats. We all know by now that Bentley-23 is going to turn on his genetic progenitor, The Wizard, at the last minute and save his friends. Every time. Come on.
After such a clunky start to the swan song tale, the issue actually ends on a refreshingly unexpected note. The guest star train looks set to roll straight on into the next issue but with a bold new curve. For a title that almost always leans into some manner of retro slant, this is welcome. What’s familiarly comforting, though, is the presence of frequent creative talent Karl Kesel. Notable as both writer and inker with several stints on the franchise in these respective capacities, Kesel’s participation is the current crop’s closest nostalgic element. His thick finishing touches are the real prize to the visuals. Veteran penciler Leonard Kirk turns in work that is surprisingly less-defined than his benchmark offerings (a la Agents of Atlas or Captain Britain and MI-13) but Kesel turns this to an advantage, melding the art into a working tribute to one of the title’s late greats, Mike Wieringo, coincidentally one of Kesel’s former collaborators. All of this being said, perhaps a more fitting title for this send-off arc would be “Old, New, Borrowed and Blue” because, as we all know, the end is never quite that final.
So, one or two parts down (depending on who’s counting), three issues remain and Marvel’s first family is out of circulation as a monthly. Given the press release Marvel gave just this Tuesday, this has probably been percolating for a while. This arc is deliberate but given James Robinson’s acumen, this issue woefully underperfoms. However, there’ still time enough to finish strong.