Monday, January 2, 2017

FANTASTIC FOUR BY JOHN BYRNE - AFTERWORD

As I noted when I began this project just about a year ago, John Byrne's FANTASTIC FOUR run never really clicked with me as a reader. True, I missed it the first time around and read it years after the fact in reprint format, but I did the same thing with Frank Miller's DAREDEVIL and Walter Simonson's THOR, among others, and I found those runs lived completely up to their considerable hype.

Byrne's FF, meanwhile, didn't floor me. I recall thinking at the time that it wasn't bad; just not as great as I had long been led to believe. I think, at least partly, this was due to the fact that I found myself comparing it with what I consider to be the gold standard Byrne run, his time on X-MEN with co-plotter Chris Claremont. This time around, I tried not to hold the FANTASTIC FOUR issues up against the X-MEN ones, but I must say that even with that in mind, I felt much the same way as before. I think the truth is that, no matter who's churning out their adventures, the FF just don't grab me (much).


"Second only to Kirby and Lee" is praise you often see thrown Byrne's way, but I have no way to know if that statement is true, having never read that revered original run either. I've just never been a big FF fan. I like them fine as occasional guest-stars in other characters' titles, but their adventures on their own, on the rare occasions I've checked them out, have never really floated my boat regardless of who wrote and drew them. I like a lot of John Byrne's output, but perhaps expecting him to make me love a group to which I'm inherently indifferent is unfair.

That said, I understand what the FF are about, and if I try to look back objectively, I think Byrne did some pretty good work, especially in the early issues. While his "TWILIGHT ZONE" and "STAR TREK" approaches of the FF discovering bizarre phenomena and exploring new civilizations didn't often appeal to me personally, I do believe this is the sort of stuff the Fantastic Four should be doing, and the first half of Byrne's run, roughly up through the "Negative Zone" saga which ended in the neighborhood of issue 260, suited the characters and their premise perfectly even if it wasn't always material I enjoyed reading.

Strangely, there seems to be a divide in how Byrne handled the FF over the years, and it can almost be drawn precisely between the pre- and post-She-Hulk periods. Up to the point the group returned from SECRET WARS, there was mostly -- as noted -- a very exploratory vibe to the series. Afterward, the book seemed to transition into more straightforward superhero adventure stuff. The thing is, while that sort of story is more what I look for in a Marvel comic, many (but not all; there are some exceptions) of Byrne's post-She-Hulk adventures feel a little pedestrian or "by the numbers". I have to admit that as I approached the end of the run, I often found it a chore simply to pick up the Omnibus and keep reading. I would go days or even a couple weeks without touching the thing simply because I was trying to put it off.


Then there were the sub-plots -- or lack thereof. I've said before that good, engrossing soap opera-style sub-plots can often win me over in spite of an otherwise lackluster story or run. Early on, Byrne's sub-plots were what kept me going through issues I was otherwise unimpressed with -- though it occurs to me in retrospect that they were practically all centered on the Human Torch, such as the secret and transformation of Frankie Raye or the love triangle with Julie and Sharon (a promising story which Byrne inexplicably and abruptly dropped in favor of the ill-conceived pairing of Johnny with Alicia). Yes, there was the stuff about Franklin's mutant power or the Thing's insecurity, but those weren't so much sub-plots as character arcs.

Further, by the time we reached the post-She-Hulk era, sub-plots, at least in the traditional soap opera sense, had nearly vanished entirely as everyone settled down happily with their significant others and there was little or no interpersonal conflict among the team or between the team and their friends. About the biggest sub-plot in this second chunk of the run was the "Richardses move to Connecticut" storyline which ran way too long and then abruptly ended. For me, this lack of meaty soap opera stuff is a bit of a black mark against the run.


At this point it occurs to me that Doctor Doom was pretty much the saving grace of Byrne's tenure for me. The series in his hands was never better than when Doom showed up. From Liddleville to "This Land is Mine!" to Tyros to Kristoff, practically every Doom story was a winner and, often, as I found myself slogging through a rough patch, I would count the number of issues left until the next Doom appearance, knowing the Latverian monarch would once more bring out the best in Byrne and, at least temporarily, reinvigorate my interest in the title.

So what have I learned from revisiting Byrne's FANTASTIC FOUR? Well, after reading the full run twice in the past decade or so, I can safely confirm that it really just isn't for me. Aside from some standout issues here and there, I find it a bit of a slog to get through. I know it's considered one of the premiere Marvel runs of the eighties -- or even of any era -- but I just can't get into it. There's plenty of other Byrne I like and still more I want to check out, but, other than cracking open my Omnibuses to look at the pretty pictures or check in with one of the sparse really good issues here and there, it seems unlikely I'll ever re-read the Byrne run again in its entirety.

At any rate, for good or ill, that's a wrap on my John Byrne FANTASTIC FOUR retrospective. In just two days, this Wednesday, I'll announce the next issue-by-issue project, which will commence one week from today. See you then!

23 comments:

  1. In fairness a lot of the sub-plot thing was probably Shooter. If behind the scenes accounts are to be believed Shooter went a little crazy after Secret Wars. Apparently he had a lot of "out there" ideas on how stories should be written that he wanted to implement but couldn't. He used those ideas when writing Secret Wars and the success it had emboldened him to force everyone else to follow them as well.

    Once such rule was "every issue is someone's first". In itself this isn't that crazy but his version included the caveat "so you can't put anything in an issue that would be confusing to someone who had never read a previous issue."

    That makes on-going subplots pretty hard to do. If true it also explains a lot of the clunky exposition you found in the post-She Hulk issues

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    1. Good point about Shooter's influence. Byrne has said that, as his run went along, Shooter became more and more of a micromanager. And I've noticed that, as great as the first half or so of Shooter's tenure at Marvel is, the second half is not so great. You're probably right that the success of SECRET WARS emboldened him to push his "house style" onto the line. With very few exceptions, such as Chris Claremont's X-MEN and Walt Simonson's THOR, the final few years of Shooter's time at Marvel are filled with really boring artwork and pedestrian stories.

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  2. Why is Dracula on that banner? The FF never encountered Dracula. Unusual.

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    1. Huh, I never noticed Dracula there. That is odd -- especially from a continuity nut like Byrne.

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    2. You bastards. Had me looking up that the original Dracula villain Doctor Sun had been part of FF storylines just before Byrne's time and everything, and only then I go look at the pic. It's not Dracula, it's Miracle Man.

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    3. And of course I didn't read Anonymous' post right under. :) Miracle Man featured and met his demise by the Scourge of the Underworld in THING #24, right after the Thing had left the FF, so he's there on the edges of the Byrne run.

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    4. But-- but he's colored exactly like Gene Colan's Dracula! You can see how that could be confusing.

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    5. The goatee was the instant - excuse me - dead giveaway to me. Count Dracula would never! Then again I have been lately waddling through TOMB OF DRACULA, own the THING issue in question and, unless I confuse the Miracle Man to the Ringleader, he featured in the MARVEL SAGA too so he's always been right there in my very spotty personal understanding of the FF.

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    6. Well it's not quite the same goatee, but I give you Bill Sienkiewicz, courtesy of our mutual acquaintance, Teebore: UNCANNY X-MEN 159

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    7. That's no Dracula, that's Alexander Ovechkin of Washington Capitals.

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    8. I had to Google Alexander Ovechkin, but now I'm laughing after checking out a few pics.

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  3. It's not Dracula, is Miracle Man from FF 3

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  4. Matt I want to thank you for covering these. About two years ago I read from Byrne's run of Fantastic Four all the way through around 2009. Not loving the run makes sense but when you compare it to the rest of the FF, it's great. I mean seriously, I didn't like Byrne's run either until I started reading later stories and seeing how terrible the FF are. I just don't care for the characters or the setup. Maybe it's too New York, I was an only child and can't relate the family aspect, the husband that neglects his wife constantly, the mom that eventually tries to sex things up with her costume out of nowhere (90's version, the worst), characters that never feel like they actually grow, change, get better, etc. If you read a run of 20 years of the book, Johnny is still the hothead that does stupid stuff and Thing still is like Eeyore and Reed still doesn't realize he has to have a balance in his life. It never changes in 20 years of reading it. It's stale.

    The only run besides this one that is semi enjoyable is Simonsons run in the mid 300's. Otherwise, I can't stand the FF. I even read Jim Lee's version and then the reboot and then Claremont's version of the FF is terrible, overly wordy, random time traveling characters, just bad.

    I just don't care for the characters so it makes FF hard to stomach but at least you can enjoy the art by Byrne.

    The FF as a concept just isn't a great book that I can see lasting for 50+ years like it has, it never got my money as a teen or as an adult. I only picked up the series through collections I bought and not necessarily on purpose.

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    1. Thanks, Scott -- glad you enjoyed the posts. Obviously I can only speak for my own tastes, but for whatever reason the Fantastic Four don't resonate much with me. I think part of it, as I alluded to a couple times over the past year, is that they feel like they should be a period piece. I can't explain why, but something about the characters and concepts just feels so grounded in the sixties. In fact, when the FF are inevitably rebooted yet again on the big screen, I'd love to see them done as a period piece.

      Of all the other runs you mention, I've read a couple issues of Walt Simonson's as part of "Acts of Vengeance" and I wasn't really blown away. I did read Jim Lee's "Heroes Reborn" stuff, but that was mainly for the artwork. It did, however, keep me around to check out the Scott Lobdell/Alan Davis "Heroes Return" run, and from there I read Claremont/Larocca and Carlos Pacheco (again, mainly for the artwork). I finally dropped FF shortly before Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo came on board when I realized I'd been reading it for like four or five years and I hadn't enjoyed it in any of that time.

      But yes, next to most of those issues I have read, Byrne is certainly superior!

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    2. "Of all the other runs you mention, I've read a couple issues of Walt Simonson's as part of "Acts of Vengeance" and I wasn't really blown away. "

      Ugh...talk about reading the exact wrong issues (though I guess that happens a lot when you read trades based around crossovers given most crossovers in the 90s were forced on the creative teams and so weren't their best work)

      I actually think you'd like Simonson's FF. Because it is the least FF run of FF that I can think of. What happened is Simonson was on the Avengers. He'd inherited a team of Avengers from Roger Stern but his plan was to unveil a new team beginning with issue #300.

      While deciding who to put on that team he realized Reed and Sue Richards were free because the writer of FF was currently using a team that included Thing, She-Thing, Human Torch and Crystal of the Inhumans. So Simonson grabbed them for his Avengers team and made up Avengers stories based around them.

      Almost as soon as Simonson received approval EiC Tom Defalco decided the FF must be Reed, Sue, Thing and Torch. So Simonson was told he could only use Reed and Sue for three issues. Besides that Cap and Thor kept getting pulled from him because they were written by Defalco and his second in command Mark Gruenwald. So they always wanted the status quo in Avengers to reflect their storylines.

      This all left a sour taste in Simoson's mouth so he left the Avengers. At the same time the writer of FF (whose name I won't speak because I really, truly hate him) also quit, being angry that Reed and Sue had been forced on him.

      So Simonson took over FF, had Thor and Iron Man guest star and ran with his Avengers ideas. Hence a very un-FF run of FF.

      (sorry for the tangent but it really is a great run)

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    3. Much as I have some fond memories of Marvel during their tenure, DeFalco and Gruenwald really didn't run things very well from an editorial perspective.

      I know the writer you're talking about -- "John Harkness" -- and I've always found him overrated. His AVENGERS run from the seventies is beloved, but what little of it I've read (mainly the "Celestial Madonna" story arc) left me cold. I don't like his WEST COAST AVENGERS much either. In fact I covered a WCA Annual and an FF Annual from his run when I looked at the "Evolutionary War" in 2015, and I didn't have favorable opinions of either (the SILVER SURFER Annual he did during that event wasn't so bad, though).

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  5. I read all this about five years ago doing a full re-read of FF from Lee/Kirby to the end of their DVD (during the JMS era). Maybe it is just relative to the runs that are next to it, but I do think it's some of the best of the FF. In particular, I like the exploration of the Negative Zone, the miscarriage issue is an all-time classic, and She-Hulk joining the book, and I really enjoyed his take on Doom. Unfortunately after Byrne leaves, the book kind of tailspins, going a long time without a regular writer, and then Steve Englehart doing some of his worst work ever.

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    1. I'm sure Byrne's run must be good in comparison with others. It gets too much praise not to be. Heck, I think Byrne himself has credited some of the "second to Lee & Kirby" hype simply to being better than what came immediately prior to him, rather than because he was really that good. (And I could see that; I believe the run just before Byrne was Doug Moench and Bill Sienkiewicz, who seem to me like an awful match for the Fantastic Four.)

      And I did like some of this stuff in drips and drabs. Just overall, as a whole, it doesn't do much for me. The miscarriage story is definitely good, all the Doom stuff is great, and I love Byrne's She-Hulk even if the series itself feels like it loses something after her arrival.

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    2. Yeah, FF was really bad for a while before and after the Byrne run. It was a breath of fresh air when Byrne took over the book.
      Then, it took forever for the book to ever approach the level of Byrne's run again.

      FF was at its best under Lee and Kirby.
      The Mark Waid run was really fun, and the only other run that really gives Byrne's competition for second place.
      I was a big fan of the Gerry Conway issues from the 1970s.
      As someone else mentioned, the Walt Simonson stuff was enjoyable.

      Those are the only periods of FF where the book is worth reading.

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  6. I think my favorite part of that poster is Puppet Master working a marionette of John Byrne.

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    1. Wow, I've ogled this poster more than a few times, but somehow never noticed that. Funny!

      In recent years, Byrne was commissioned by a fan to do an X-Men and (I think) an Avengers version of this poster. They're pretty cool, though they stick out next to the FF one due to the evolution of his style.

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    2. Not sure I’d ever noticed it before looking through the image this time myself.

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  7. the run is more like marvel team up, a bunch of one offs that callback to the lee run and the moench run

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