Friday, May 13, 2005

Mr. Fantastic, Machiavellian Superhero

Reviewing Fantastic Four: Authoritative Action by Mark Waid & Howard Porter (Collecting Fantastic Four #503-508)

First I’ll admit my biases:

1. I have been a fan of Fantastic Four comic since the late 70s. I loved to read those “World’s Greatest Comics” reprints of the Lee/Kirby days on FF. I loved what John Byrne did with the series in the 80s. Sure, there have been hundreds of truly awful FF comics. But for the most part, I am predisposed to enjoy their tales.

2. Mark Waid made a great positive impression on me when I encountered him in the flesh at the Baltimore Comic Con 2004. He struck me as personable, funny, intelligent, thoughtful, and extremely knowledgeable about superhero trivia and lore. Having experienced his personality, I was strongly curious about his writing and expected something great.

Having said that I will tell you that Authoritative Action is a marvelous Fantastic Four story! It begins after the defeat of Dr. Doom. The FF are attempting to hold together peace and order in Latveria, the country Doom ruled as a malevolent dictator. Rapidly one realizes that a parallel is being drawn to the U.S. effort to keep the peace in Iraq after toppling Saddam.

Reed Richards, Mr. Fantastic, is not his usual self. One side of his face has been horribly disfigured during the battle with Doom. The interior wounds are even worse.

Ben (Thing) : I think this Doom thing really messed ya up, Reed. I don’t mean th’ scar.

Reed is shown to be filled with fear and rage, mostly directed at the late Dr. Doom. His inner turmoil drives him to take control of the situation with Machiavellian means.

Reed (Mr. Fantastic) : We keep accomplishing half the job. We beat Victor, but we don’t clean up after him. And only we can. Not the U.N. inspectors. Not some Latverian burgomeister in stockings and a tweed hat. This room’s defenses would have cut them in half.

Reed declares himself the new leader of Latveria, claiming this is a temporary measure to hold things together and to prevent any other countries from scooping up Doom’s inventions and armaments. However, he resorts to manipulation and dishonestly toward the team as a shortcut to reaching his goals.

For example, at one point, Reed conceals from the team that he has taken control of the Doombots. When Johnny and Ben uncover a resistance group that is forming to oppose the Fantastic Four, Reed sends the Doombots to attack the clandestine group. Johnny and Ben rise to the defense of the rebel Latverians, doing their best to hold back the Doombots. Later they come to find out Reed sent the attack fully expecting his partners to fight it back. As a result, Reed hoped the people who come to see the FF as the heroes, and not the adversaries Doom made them out to be. In effect, Reed was manipulating the situation in order to generate dramatic propaganda.

Reed: Once word spreads that you saved them from the last of Victor’s rampaging enforcers, that should cement our popularity. Well done. That was the final asset left to be stripped from Doom: his subjects’ allegiance.

Ben: So we wuz part of a show? A set-up?

Johnny (Human Torch) : You’re out of control! Where to you get off playing us? Answer me!

Meanwhile, the governments of the world put pressure on the United States to remove the FF from power, arguing that it appears the FF are U.S. agents taking power unrightfully. Particularly the Hungarian government claims that Latveria belongs under their control, since Doom forcibly annexed it from them years ago. Even though Nick Fury attempts to stick up for what Reed and the others are trying to do, military force is sent to remove the FF from power. Fury attempts convince Reed to walk away before the battle begins, but Reed will not bend. He has a farther reaching plan that he’s concealed from everyone.

The resolution of the plot was a shocker to me. By the end, the FF incur severe causalities, not at the hands of the military, but in battle against Dr. Doom. Yes, that’s right: Doom resurfaces and does some horrific damage. And Reed’s manipulation and secrecy unintentionally has everything to do with Doom’s opportunity to attack. The ending is brutal and tragic. There is a extreme bit of “Gift of the Magi” O’Henry twist. Reed’s sacrifice for his family and their willingness to risk for him ends up in high sacrifice all around. I found myself shaking my head in surprise and horror.

The story is not entirely dark. Waid has a wonderful sense of the banter between the team members. Comic relief is offered in regular doses.

Johnny: Aren’t Doombots normally a little more formidable than this?

Ben: “This one’s too tough! This one’s not tough enough!” Ain’t you ever happy? Check it out, Goldilocks--this one’s just right!

It’s also nice to see that the last page ends with an absurd announcement from Reed. Waid demonstrates his mastery of tone and pace. I closed the book with anticipation of the next collection.

By the way, the art work of Howard Porter and Norm Rapmund is quite nice too. The Thing’s facial expressions are highly emotive, perhaps the best they’ve been drawn. Not once did I find the art lacking in detail or storytelling ability. ‘Nuff said! Check it out!

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