Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Fantastic Four 17-18

[Jason Powell continues his Claremont epilogues. This is a good case for these issues. I want them now.]

Okay, this is kind of a weird one, I’ll admit.

Remember in 1996, when Marvel reunited with all those Image artists, and gave them control of “Heroes Reborn,” a quasi-reboot of their major characters? Liefeld got Captain America, Portacio got Iron Man, and Jim Lee got the Fantastic Four. Then when they collapsed the “Heroes Reborn” idea, they rebooted everything *again.* Scott Lobdell and Alan Davis were given control of the Fantastic Four this time, but after only three or four months, that team was replaced by Chris Claremont and Salavador Larocca.

Apparently the assignment just sort of dropped into Claremont’s lap; this was 1998, when – as I recall -- Claremont was working as an editor for Marvel rather than a freelance writer. He didn’t seem to have any FF ideas, and so for the first few months the title was in danger of becoming Excalibur redux. Perversely, Claremont started using material from the Alan Davis-penned issues of Excalibur, as well as the issues he wrote himself. There was even talk of Kitty Pryde joining the cast. The first full FF arc that Claremont wrote took them to Genosha of all places. It was a mess.

Eventually Claremont started to find his FF voice, and while he never came close to making any kind of masterwork, there were two issues wherein I think he just nailed it.

FF 17-18 seem to have been influenced by The Matrix. That’s assuming the dates work out … I’m not sure if the movie was in theaters yet at this point in 1999, but if not Claremont could easily have been influenced just by teaser information about the film’s premise. It’s possible that Dark City was influencing Claremont here as well.

So the FF end up in a shared virtual reality scenario. As in the Wachowski Bros. film, the populace of this world are actually all unconscious, each one secure inside one individual chamber of a massive hive. They are all plugged into a fake city, playing roles that they do not know are fake.

But here’s the twist: The city in question is basically a virtual Gotham, complete with its own versions of Batman and Robin, called – respectively – Lockdown and Rosetta Stone. (There are shades here as well of the old Bottle City of Kandor stories where Superman used to become a Batman-like figure to protect the Kandorian populace.) When the FF – during one of their characteristic treks across various dimensions – wind up getting plugged into this virtual scenario, the master computer that runs the show does the logical thing: Makes each member of the FF into a new villain for Lockdown’s rogues gallery. And while Sue, Johnny and Ben are brainwashed into playing these new roles, Reed manages to retain his own identity – but he still has to play along in order to figure out a way to escape.

Lockdown, meanwhile, becomes fascinated with Reed, realizing that this is the first “villain” he’s ever faced that qualifies as his intellectual equal. He’s found his perfect arch-enemy basically, and he doesn’t want to let him leave.

So it’s Batman vs. Mr. Fantastic inside The Matrix. That’s the kind of high concept that would have the modern-day comics community going insane if it was being done by, say, Matt Fraction or Jeff Parker [Ed. note: Fair point.]. Claremont, however, just doesn’t inspire that kind of excitement in modern fandom. (And I understand there are reasons for that, I am simply not persuaded by any of them.)
It just ain’t right. This story is kick-ass by any standards. Everyone should go grab these out of their local LCS’s dollar bin. Granted, it is part of a longer arc that features the FF wandering through different worlds, and because of that there are a few subplots that are brought in from earlier installments. And FF #18 kind of ends on a cliffhanger as the FF move on to the next weird world.

It doesn’t matter. These two issues can easily be enjoyed on their own terms, without buying any of the rest of the run. And Salvador Larocca’s art is really fun, too. Go get these comics, guys. They’re a hoot!


Chris said...

Well, to be fair, this story was also done previously in... Fantastic Four! And by Claremont's own arch-nemesis: John Byrne! In FF 232, the FF's minds are placed in miniature Puppet-Master replicants of the real FF, and have been brainwashed to believe that they're living normal lives in the fictional town of Liddleville. Reed is the first to figure out the truth, of course, and has to convince the others. It's all a plot by (who else) Dr Doom, who also places a version of himself in the scenario, to torment Richards by making him live a lame life of boring mediocrity.

It always struck me that "The Matrix" was hailed as mind-blowing and ground-breaking by people who hadn't read much sci-fi and didn't realize that it was one of the oldest sci-fi tropes in the book. (Though nevertheless, it was a very cool telling of it. And that IS worth something.)

I wasn't aware of these Claremont issues and they sound very cool, and like a very different take on the premise. I'll have to look them up! (Jason, you should ask Claremont for commissions or something for all your Claremont-sales work. Or put Amazon links in the blog entries or something...)

Arthur said...

I read Claremont's FF books but remember little about them. I remember it got better as it went along though.

Lockdown and Rosetta Stone showed up in Claremont's Contest of Champions II, which ain't a bad book. (Someone else had recommended it to you earlier.)

I guess it shows you how forgettable CC's FF was that I didn't remember Lockdown and RS's previous appearance in FF.


Teebore said...

Go get these comics, guys. They’re a hoot!

You know, I think I might have them. I have a chunk of Claremont's FF issue that have largely gone unread, and these might be included.

I shall dig them out and have a look, posthaste!

Matt Jacobson said...

I remember actually liking the first few issues of his FF run - they read like he was trying to write Excalibur starring the FF, true, but it built off his old stories enough that I didn't care (it helped that I don't care about the FF, and thus didn't mind the lack of focus). But that Genosha story that you mentioned was a mess; it might be accurate (though charitable) to call it an ambitious failure. Now I want to dig up the issues and see how they read now. I actually recently re-read his 2000 X-run again and it wasn't AS bad as I remember.

Jeff said...

These issues were a lot of fun. I actually thought the storyline with Reed Richards in Doom's armor that came after this was really well done, too. In fact that 5 or 6 parter is probably my favorite story out of his entire run on FF.

Going back to CC's X-Men for just a minute, there's been something that I've been wondering for quite a while that maybe someone here can answer for me: Why the hell was Amanda Sefton's code name Daytripper?

Josh said...

re: Amanda Sefton as Daytripper. She was a stewardess at some point. There you go. I think it was during one of the (numerous) off periods of Excalibur, written by Lobdell, that stuck her with the name. Warren Ellis may have made a joke or two of it, if I'm remembering correctly.

Isaac P. said...

Big Excalibur fan over here. Hearing that CC picks up on some of that stuff in this run makes me intrigued. I'll keep my eyes peeled for these issues.

Matt said...

Glad you mentioned The Matrix. I read these issues as they came out, and I can't remember which order it happened in, but I either read the FF issues then saw The Matrix a month or two later and thought, "hey, this movie is just like those comics", or I saw The Matrix then read the FF issues and thought, "hey, these comics are just like that movie!" Either way, it struck me as very odd coincidence since they came out within only a couple months of one another.

Also, regarding Amanda's codename, I always took "Daytripper" to be a play on "Nightcrawler" since she was his girlfriend. It makes little sense, but that was the best I could come up with.