Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Jason Powell on Fantastic Four versus the X-Men

[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Claremont's X-Men. For more in this series see the labels on the bottom or the toolbar on the right.]

At this point in X-Men chronology, Claremont was indulging his penchant for open-ending storytelling in the Uncanny X-Men series to such an extent that, although still capable of pulling off some extraordinary narrative tricks in the mainstream serial narrative, his most coherent X-Men tales – just in terms of possessing a definite beginning, middle and end – would turn up in spin-off material like this.

Albeit the premise is built on a series of credulity-straining coincidences, “Fantastic Four vs. the X-Men” – the final issue of which was published in February of 1987 – is Chris Claremont’s single most heartwarming X-Men story.
To speak first to the coincidences: Readers are asked to accept, first of all, that the X-Men would seek out Reed Richards’ help in curing Shadowcat’s degenerative condition (from the wounds sustained during the Morlock massacre) at the exact same time that Dr. Doom has decided to spy on the X-Men for reasons of his own. Furthermore, that this all would occur at the same time that a psychological trap laid for the Fantastic Four by Doom years earlier happens to be accidentally sprung by Reed’s wife. Almost perversely testing readers’ suspension of disbelief, Claremont also peppers in minor coincidences – i.e., that Magneto would confront the Thing and She-Hulk mere seconds after they happen to get into an argument over whether or not Magnus has truly reformed. As plot mechanics go, this miniseries is built on a structure as insubstantial as Shadowcat herself.

Yet the story works in spite of all that, because intellectual logic is swept aside, at every turn, by the extraordinary force of the story’s emotional momentum. Claremont is relentlessly sentimental here, from beginning to end. He’s teamed with penciller Jon Bogdanove, who “draws the best hugs in the [comics] biz,” as editor Ann Nocenti puts it in her introduction to the trade paperback. Not one to put a talent like that to waste, Claremont loads this story with embraces – between mother and son, husband and wife, lovers, friends, kids, adults ... “FF vs. X-Men” may contain more hugs per page than any other superhero comic ever published.

At the core of the story is the emotional connection that emerges between Franklin Richards – the son of Sue and Reed – and Kitty Pryde in the third and fourth chapters. Redeeming Claremont’s awkward attempts at writing a child in the Wolverine/Katie Power team-up of Uncanny #205, Claremont’s Franklin (illustrated by Bogdanove and inker Terry Austin) is off-the-charts cute ... an adorably wide-eyed avatar of pure goodness, who – in his naively brilliant child-savant manner – saves the day several times over the course of the storyline. To summarize some of the dramatic beats of this mini would be to make them sound absurd – Franklin preventing Kitty from committing suicide, Franklin convincing Dr. Doom to swallow his pride, Franklin reprimanding the feuding FF and X-Men – yet Claremont and Bogdanove force the reader to fall in love with the little guy, and it all makes perfect sense. I defy anyone (who doesn’t thrive on misanthropy) not to grin at the image – Issue 4, Page 23, panel 2 -- of Franklin, mounted atop an airborne Lockheed, his hands on his hips, scolding the Fantastic Four and the X-Men for fighting instead of working together to save Kitty. (“You grown-ups are all a bunch of stupid babies!”)

Although the mainstream Uncanny series continued to grow darker and darker over the course of the late 1980s, “Fantastic Four vs. the X-Men” stands as a towering example of Claremont’s undiminished ability to write with astounding optimism when the occasion called for it. The depth of feeling plumbed by the author in this little piece of four-color fiction is testament not only to his talent, but also his fearlessness in making transparent his own sense of sentimentality and hopefulness. “Love is all you need” may be a naive philosophy, but reading a comic like this, one actually believes – even if only for a few fleeting seconds – that it might actually be true. For that alone, this miniseries is a phenomenal accomplishment. Speaking personally, I’m moved to tears every single time I read it.

[I want to make a personal note about this issue though it is not strictly relevant to Jason's post. My first comic book ever was Uncanny 301. When I began talking about these "X-Men" at school one of my friends brought me two graphic novels from his brother's collection -- Wolverine v Hulk (their first meeting) and X-Men v Fantastic Four. These were the first collections I had ever read -- I did not know there was such a thing as a comic book collection. The only memory I really have of this issue is the ghostly Kitty: but what I remember is that somewhere in this series is an image of Kitty's face that I looked at again and again in what could have been the start of some kind of life-altering Joss Whedon style crush on the character. If only I had thought to invent Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a result.]


ba said...

Excellent, excellent mini-series (possibly the best mini marvel did in the 80s? it very well could be).

The series does delve into some rather serious psychological issues for a super-hero comic, and does them better than even most "serious indie" comics. The self-doubt Reed is confronted with, the competition which stymies productivity, and, of course, the suicide attempt, which was pulled off nicely.

Let's also not forget Storm's burn, and Johnny Storm's (Storm burns Storm?) guilt over it.

Weirdly, though, whenever I think of this comic, I think of Doom talking about Latveria's caviar ("some of the finest in the world!"), and the goofy face he's drawn with as he eats it.

Jason said...

Ba -- YES! What is it about that final scene? The line that always gets me comes a little later, as Doom has offered the caviar to Sue multiple times and she just keeps berating him. And he says, "You're denying yourself a rare treat ..." I can just hear that line being spoken aloud ...

Heh. Great little denouement to a great comic.

I agree with you on the other stuff too. Appropriate that this is right above Geoff's review of Star Trek that talks about how the film really hangs on character, and the pseudo-science is not important. Much of the same sentiment works toward X-Men vs. Fantastic Four. Besides being one of the 1980s' best miniseries, it is also perhaps the most inappropriately named. It sounds so much like a caption that should be followed by "Because YOU demanded it!" and it does indeed contain two great fight scenes between the two titular teams ...

But really it's about character. All those wonderful emotional arcs (and actually the FF get a better share of them than the X-Men do). Nocenti even mentions in the TPB intro that there were debates between her (as editor) and Claremont over how "real" the science should get. In the end, I think this mini finds the same perfect balance that Star Trek had. Some good comic-booky techno-babble to establish that Reed and Doom are indeed a couple of super-geniuses, and then it becomes all about emotion and relationships.

And fine caviar.

ba said...

Also, I have a tendency whenever I eat a lot of food to think to myself "ah, it's ok, I'll just juggle a few Buicks later."

Gary said...

This mini is full of great moments, a lot of which came from the artist - when did Bogdanove lose his ability and start generating the work he did for Superman? I am particularly fond of Ben's "Crowbar Buddy", and the way he points at it, showing Sue "looky what I did."

Having become a father since I read this mini the first time, I have found that the Franklin scenes hit a lot harder now. I'm misting up right now just thinking about when he crawls in Reed's lap after a nightmare, curling up with a tiny "I love you, Pa."

Coincidences - Dr. Doom's projectorbot states that he was looking in on the X-Men to investigate their state after their encounter with the Marauders. That change in status quo - losing 3 LONG time members and exchanging them for 3 others certainly merits investigation on Doom's part.

The building collapsing is a bit trickier. It's deliberately left as a huge question mark in the story - did Magneto collapse the building to set up a meeting with the Fantastic Four? Would he? Sure, he's supposed to be playing by Charles' rules, but it's an unfinished building he can stop from collapsing at any time versus Shadowcat's life. When Ben puts forth the option "He probably blew this place up to begin with," that path of questioning is never satisfactorily answered.

These books are fantastic.

Anonymous said...

I love how "invincible super-badass" Wolverine is knocked out cold by the Thing. Ah, the days when Wolverine could be laid out. Never would happen now.

Speaking of badass, how about Sue Storm's warning to Dr. Doom at the end of the story? "The lioness is most dangerous defending mate, cub, and den." Awesome.

Jason said...

Gary, it is still a rather large coincidence that Doom's "Journal" trap (explicitly said to have been laid years earlier with no precise plan for when it would eventually spring) comes out at exactly the same time that the X-Men seek out Reed's help.

Good point about Magneto and the building ... I guess my faith in Magneto at this point kept me from ever suspecting that he actually would blow up the building ... but now, thinking about it -- yeah! Seems utterly possible.

But again ... still complete coincidence that Ben and Jen bump into each other and start arguing about Magneto JUST before he comes to them for help. (That said, I think this latter bit was a last-minute change ... the lettering in that whole Magneto conversation looks decidedly hurried. I'm guessing originally that dialogue was about something else, and then it was decided at a late stage that they needed to set up the FF's distrust of Magneto earlier, and more solidly.)

And y'know, I'm not even a parent (not even close, as of yet) ... but I get misty at the scenes with Franklin and his parents. It is some really emotionally potent stuff. (And I'm glad I'm not the only one who thinks Bogdanove really lost it after this ... That Superman work IS pretty bad, isn't it?)

I also love the montage of Reed and Victor in college. There is no dialogue in it -- just the narration from Ben -- but Bogdanove's visuals express so much. (And I guess I don't know, this may owe a lot to earlier iterations of Doom's origin, by Lee and Kirby ... but I certainly do love this version of the story a lot.)

Sigh. What a great series. (I actually just saw at my LCS today, they have the mini on sale as a set for 10 bucks. I thought about getting it, just to have the original issues -- I only own the TPB at present.)

Anon, yeah, a classic "Claremont woman" moment. I also love her pointing out to Doom that her invisible force-field is a lot more dangerous than it seems, but she holds back out of a sense of honor. "Have you ever considered how much damage I could do to you, if I decided to play by your rules?" Great stuff.

Ba, I love that you have quotes from this comic at the ready. (In which case, you probably could tell I paraphrased that Sue quote above.) I know I have a few Claremontisms in me that come out at odd times ...

ba said...

I admittedly must have read this series about 50 times when I was a teenager.

Jason said...


ba said...

You know you've been reading Claremont too long when:

-You yell "Bozhe Moi!" during sex.
-You get fed up with your boss and yell "Bright Lady!" to the sky.
-You visit New Orleans, and expect everyone to speak with a completely uninterpretable accent.
-Ditto, Mississippi.
-You can't get a job because when asked for your qualifications during the interview, you keep saying "I'm the best there is at what I do..."

Jason said...

At some point I'll have to go through the musical script I'm currently writing and ferret out all the Claremontisms I snuck in, and post them here.

I do have a Scottish girl character who talks just like Rahne Sinclair; that's a big one. And I had a bit at one point where she says, "We -- I -- didn't know!" in direct echo of Banshee when he learns Wolverine's claws come of this hands. (Ended up cutting that line, but the character with the ridiculously spelled-out-phonetically Scottish brogue remains.)

NietzscheIsDead said...

Continuing to reread these reviews, and this time I was struck by the coincidence of Doom's journal trap being sprung just as the Fantastic Four and Doom both interact with the X-Men. Again, having read through zak-site.com/Great-American-Novel/, I can see this mini series more clearly from the FF side and thought I might elaborate.

First, a point of clarification that bothered me about this mini for years: the reason that Reed Richards seems not to remember whether the journal is true or not is because this follows relatively closely on a story in Fantastic Four where Reed loses several of his earliest memories, especially from his early childhood and from the time right before and leading up to the spaceflight. Chris, in true Claremont fashion, took this status quo and did something dark, twisted, and ultimately character-building with it.

But this leads to the discussion of the coincidence. Chris Tolworthy, the man who runs zak-site.com and probably the best living authority on the classic Fantastic Four, puts forth the theory that the journal is true and that Reed actually did manipulate his friends and ruin their lives for the good of the world (it is actually remarkably consistent with his behavior in the very earliest Fantastic Four comics), and that Doom's sense of satisfaction here relates more to him finally realizing that he is in fact morally superior to Reed, as he had always suspected. Note Doom's smile and relaxed manner in the final scene: if he had just been defeated, he would have been quietly fuming at best, and more likely ranting and furious. Also, reread the scene where he sees Reed approaching: while he notes the diary's presence, the scene can be read such that Doom does not actually recognize the diary and is merely pleased to see Reed humiliated and self-doubting because it serves his interests right now without actually knowing what caused it.