Wednesday, 3 February 2010

A to Z: F is for Fantastic Four/Iron Man: Big In Japan!

I-- I'm back to doing something that people actually appreciate, despite my rambling, impenetrable prose? Not just that, but A to Z is resuming for letters F to J? I can almost hear the sound of progression around here!

If there's any two things that go without saying in comics it is that comics are written and drawn, and rarely by invincible super-computers. In fact most of the time human beings handle these chores. One could almost say... That I'm losing my point here. I suppose what I'm trying to say is that people do comics. Some people that do comics are flippin' SUPER-PEOPLE that lovingly caress my eyes like they're two incredibly valuable yet fragile jewels made out of gunk. Two of these super-people are Zeb Wells and Seth Fisher.

Left to Right: Zeb Wells, Seth Fisher

Zeb Wells is a writing monster, capable of creating things that are fairly standard concepts elevated to the most enthralling levels. Think Mark Millar without the fame, occasional bad material, delayed works, crippling disease or crazily basic ideas no-one else has thought of. No, wait, that sounds negative. The basic truth here is that Zeb Wells is capable of making anything exciting that he writes. From Battlin' Jack Murdock, to Amazing Spider-Man, or even all the way to his brilliant ongoing run on New Mutants, Zeb has never managed to be anything other than the best I could hope for and is up there with my favourite comic book writers of all time. If you haven't read a Zeb Wells title then the book I'm about to tell you about is the place to start. Oh yeah and he's a writer for Robot Chicken or something, but I'm not writing a cyborg poultry journal now, am I?

Seth Fisher is a much more depressing shining star of comicdom, for he was taken long before his time. Dead at 33 after a fall from a seventh story roof, Seth provided art for some of the most enticing and insane-looking comics I've ever read, like the surreal Green Lantern: Willworld, or the peculiarly charming Batman: Snow. His work is unlike anything that comes out from any penciller that currently graces the big three, going for peculiar shapes and constructs alongside swirling creations and off-kilter monsters. This comic I'm about to get to is no exception, being the best of his work that I've seen and something that you have to read at least once in your life.

But then it'd probably help to actually talk about the comic and not just the behemoths who created it. The comic (as you can tell from the title) is Fantastic Four/Iron Man: Big In Japan, and it is AWESOME.

Note to Comics companies: Wraparound covers are ALWAYS worth doing!

FF/IM: BIJ is as straightforward an idea as you'd imagine, with Iron Man and the Fantastic Four being in Japan against giant monsters and stuff. Whilst that may not sound like an epoch-making fantasy romp, the devil is in the details.... And the execution... And the characterisation... And everything else. It has a sense of scale unlike anything in comics today, humour that's purely insane (issue 2 has a three page moment that's so funny I had to stop reading for a while the first time through) and some truly captivating plot developments, largely relating to the monsters' behaviour and Mole Man's typical minions the Moloids. In fact that latter plot point is the most development that those little nigh-on blind guys have gotten in their long and fruitless history.

If you didn't even crack a smile at this bit there's seriously something wrong with you.

The overall plot summary (yes, I AM having trouble getting some flow going here, aren't I?) is that the Fantastic Four are invited over to Japan to open a museum of monsters and such, years after monster attacks finally ceased in Japan and during a tour of the museum's facilities Tony Stark appears, interested in a merger. Then of course the requisite insanity breaks loose and the monsters go on the rampage. Whilst everyone else is trying to contain the monstrous threat, Reed manages to get his hands on some monster vocal chords from a mummified corpse and communicates with one of the creature using his expanded lung capacity. Which is exactly as insane as you'd imagine.

"Hey Stretcho, look at me! I'm an ever-loving blue-eyed ribbon cutting Thing!"

The creature in question responds, telling Reed of the history of earth's monsters, the effect of the age of marvels on their kind and of a threat that has led to all of these monstrosities being scared to death and rampaging throughout Japan. With that in mind the Fantastic Four, Iron Man (in requisite ski gear ON HIS ARMOUR) and the museum curator (who of course has the natural ability to be as shifty and insane as a flapjack on a buttered piece of bacon-flavoured cake... which is quite shifty and insane) head off to the north pole to find and deal with this looming threat. A threat that turns out to be a massively huge virus-like monster who look unlike ANYTHING I've ever seen, with multiple faces, innards like a crazed maze and fingers larger than entire clusters of skyscrapers. Oh and it tears through the universe and almost obliterates the fourth wall. Oh yeah, the magical words: the fourth wall.

"Hey, Ben! Keep covering my eye-holes and I'll drop your craggy hide in the ocean!"
"Shut up, Shell-head an' fly faster or blah blah blah Aunt Petunia blah!"

The monster isn't the only example of this delightful storytelling device. The layouts play a part in making you remember this is a comic book, with directions and quirky little bits to throw you into it all. Not just that but before the big yellow monstrosity is summoned the crew encounter some two-dimensional entities where you can only see them one way, and see their speech bubbles the other. They make references to 'the next page' and stuff like that, and rather than it seeming like pathetic Deadpool style insanity, it's an intense moment that builds up how awe-inspiring the moments to come are. it's 4th-wall breaking genius on par with Animal Man and Ambush Bug, in that it actually feels like it belongs within the confines of the pages. There's even a moment where Thing freaks out because his arm is ripped off by a break in the page, only to be confused in the next panel as he appears completely fine, away from the tear in their 'universe' that had appeared. It boggles the mind as to how Seth and Zeb pulled off stuff like that without it seeming cheap.

.... I don't have a joke here. I wish I did but I don't. I guess when it comes down to it my jokes fall down FLAT anyway, so why bo-.... OH! I see what I did there!.... *sigh*

Anyway, as the giant (a word that doesn't do this monster justice) yellow all--destroying goofy-looking behemoth begins its doom-laced walk, Sue Richards and Iron Man head inside its body (Sue using a genius move that I'll poke at in a bit). As they ascend to the brain to try and deal with it who else but the master of monsters MOLE MAN appears, looking weirdly slim and riding a flying monster doodad. He tells the rest of the team to join him in heading to Monster Island to aid him and they comply, leading to another shift in the story that is truly awe-inspiring (am I running out of complimentary words?): the Moloids have stopped obeying Mole Man and are preparing themselves with some sort of weird machine for an unknown purpose. One Moloid still stands by Mole Man, which is saddening in that Mole Man doesn't even consider it a person, or even worthy of a name. After showing Reed and co. around the island a shocking discovery is made. One that I'll actually just straight-up SHOW you:

A GIANT SYRINGE! Also this is an example of how great the cutaway art is in the book, showcasing the innards of whatever it's cutting into.

Convenient, isn't it? Turns out the needle will inject the Moloids into the big yellow guy and turn him inside out, something they do very efficiently with the aid of the Human Torch's amazing ability to... Boil water. This defeats the monster who bounds off into space never to be seen again... At least never to be seen again the right way round. All this plus the moment where the last of the moloids are being shot up into the monster, including the one remaining loyal one, leading to Mole Man breaking down in sheer misery, calling out that he had a name for the loyal Moloid: Noah. Weirdly touching in that weirdest of ways. Then blah blah blah awesome ending, everyone is fine that matters and the creative team appear to declare it the end of the series.

There's a ton more little things that I could point out or tell you about the series to assure you of its impeccable quality, but that would ruin far too much of the book for you and remove the joy in finding every little thing about it that makes it worth tracking down. But hopefully from what I've told you about it you'll be able to swallow my statement that THIS is one of the few creative teams that put the Fantastic Four at their finest (and a fun Iron Man too), presenting the sort of epic and quirky story that you'd expect from a series that had such moments as Dr. Doom trying to steal Blackbeard's treasure, The Impossible Man's first appearance and a multiverse of Reed's trying to solve EVERYTHING. I mean there are three writers I equate with excellent Fantastic Four stories at the moment, and they are Stan Lee, Jonathan Hickman and Zeb Wells. And the art is so different in this story and, dare I say it, unique that it fully lives up to what Jack Kirby believed the Kirby Tradition was (to create something different, in case you were wondering).

Not just that, but the attention to little details that make the book more complete help rocket this to the pinnacle of Fantastic Four books, from Iron Man in a wooly hat and goggles to Thing doing a beat'em-up style 99 hit combo on a monster, to a scale image of the big yellow monster's finger, all the way to Sue Richards compressing air into one of the best makeshift costumes possible (and indeed one that allows her to breathe inside the big yellow monster). It's all pitch-perfect use of the format and I can say that all of it was a pleasure to read. It's an incredibly hard miniseries to top and I look forward to anything that betters it in the future.

But listen to me ramble, I'm sure you'd rather I just shut up so you can read something more worthwhile (like the actual TPB), so I'll start wrapping up. The trade itself has a wealth of additional material that I'm not picturing, such as a ton of notes from Seth about changes and details, granting insight into the creative process, and examples of some of Zeb's layouts and how they were transformed into the pages of the actual comic. It's all amazing stuff and a reminder of how much work goes into a comic book. And once you make it all the way to the back you get the best bonus of them all: the Seth-drawn story from Spider-Man Unlimited that apes Jackass, with a bunch of thrill-seeking idiots attempting to imitate heroes in hilarious and immature styles to entertain us all to hilarious effect (it's really worth mentioning the final page of the story that is the funniest way any trade has EVER ended for me, and how it involves silver paint, a parachute and a surfboard).

So I leave you to mull over what I've said on this gem, the best series I've mentioned so far on A to Z, and implore you to track it down and feast on the gooey goodness within. I got it for £9.00 new, so I can only assume that through the power of the internet you can beat that and more. And remember, always follow your Moloid exercise routine!

Work those scrawny limbs you devilish underground thingymadoodles, you!

[Get the trade HERE and check out an interesting little interview Newsarama did with Zeb and Seth HERE]

and that's F. What could G be? G...enerally quite uninteresting?.... Yes.


  1. This is a pretty damn well written review, nice work. I had never heard of this work before, even though I appreciate both creators immensely. This is something I will actually track down and buy, especially as the trade has notes and another short. Tell me, is the short the one written by Joe Hill that Seth Fisher illustrated? If it is I am completely sold as I've been looking for that for ages.

    You've sold me, and you provided links, aren't you a good little'un?

  2. Glad to hear that this article lived up to its purpose! and yeah it's the Joe Hill story. I really need to check out what else that guy's done

  3. Joe Hill just happens to be the writer of Locke and Key, from IDW. The dude has two books out, one anthology one novel, and another novel just hitting press now.

    He's also horror royalty due to his lineage, which I won't spoil, you can check out for yourself.