Sunday, December 30, 2007

My Ten Favorite Comics of 2007: Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four

"Aw, he slapped that thing on Lockjaw the last time Susie went out of town."

I'm so old, I remember when comics like this were the norm at Marvel.

It's a bit depressing to belatedly realize that this book was probably green-lit solely because Spidey and the FF both had big summer movies coming out within a month of each other, but I get over it pretty quickly when I remember what a great comic we got out of it. I mean, the Impossible Man alone makes the book worth the price of admission.

Impy arrives on Earth to warn Spidey (the first person he finds) of an alien race called the H'Mogen. The H'Mogen are coming to Earth not so much to conquer as to symbiotically bond with humanity to broaden their own evolutionary and social horizons. Unfortunately, the several centuries of stagnancy the process produces in their hosts tends to leave them culturally rudderless once the H'Mogen pack up and leave. Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four, left out of the process due to their altered DNA, have to figure out a way to reverse the change before it's too late, which fortunately involves a lot of hitting, explosions, giant bugs, megalomaniacal scientists, and so forth.

The series is a big damn love letter to Stan, Jack and Steve, but that's not what makes it work. What makes it work is the quirky talents of Jeff Parker and the late, great Mike Wieringo. A story about how diversity is ultimately a better thing than uniformity (a point apparently lost on the current brass at Marvel, even as it was being slapped right in their faces by this script) has to stand out from the pack, and this certainly does. 'Ringo's art style was like no one else's, of course, and his familiarity with the characters gave him the creative muscle he needed to stretch them. As for Parker, he manages to be different simply by giving the story emotional variance. At times it's thrilling, tense, absurd, poignant, and thought-provoking (although that thought is often "Bwa-ha-ha-ha!"). These emotions come, as they should, from the characters' reactions to the events around them, which is my awkward way of saying that, instead of shoehorning them into pre-determined story beats like some summer mini-series I could name, Parker fits the story beats around the characters. The FF are the FF, Spidey is Spidey, the FF and Spidey together are the FF and Spidey together (yeah, there's plenty of great Peter/Ben/Johnny banter throughout) and the fun comes from seeing them in a situation unlike any they've faced before, but meeting the challenge without any Internet-cracking "nothing will ever be the same" megadrama. This story doesn't need that to be good; it just needs the heroes to win by being themselves.

And that's what they do, especially Spidey, who gets a great moment at the end, followed by another, quieter one that, given the events of this week, just makes me even more wistful for the time when superhero comics didn't try so hard to impress me. They never had to; they only had to be good. Sometimes, all a story needs to be an event is a giant mutated rhinoceros-wildebeest monster charging an orange rock-man while a nerd in a red-and-blue jumpsuit tries to steer it by shooting webbing onto its horns and shouting bad cowboy clichés. Y'know, the way Marvel comics used to be all the time.