Like all of us, every now and then I’m completely wrong about something. And it’s even better when the thing you’re wrong about impresses the hell out of you.
I hadn’t been reading FANTASTIC FOUR a couple years back when Jonathan Hickman was writing it. Not out of any specific disdain or dislike of Hickman’s work or anything; it just wasn’t on my radar. So when the news broke about the Human Torch being killed off, I didn’t think too much of it — I just kind of shrugged it off as “business as usual” for comics and went about my business.
But then when the news broke about the new series that would be replacing it, FF, with the new uniforms and Spider-Man replacing the Torch on the team, my interest was piqued, especially after seeing this image, which just looked like a lot of fun, and not at all how I expected them to follow up the loss of Johnny Storm.
So I picked up the entire 5-part story leading up to the Torch’s demise, and the follow-up final issue that reveals the emotional aftermath of Johnny’s loss, and I’ve gotta tell you, these are some very good comics by Hickman and artists Steve Epting, Nick Dragotta and Mark Brooks.
Hickman very carefully sets the stage for his big finale, slowly and casually depriving Johnny of his teammates so as that he’ll be forced to make his last stand alone. A bit of background for those not up to speed on the FF these days: Reed and Sue have two kids, Franklin and Valeria, with Val taking after her father and being a super-genius. Also in residence in the Baxter Building are even more super-genius kids, who work with Reed as his think tank, called the Future Foundation. When the Future Foundation kids invent a cure for the Thing that will allow him to be human again for a week, once a year, he immediately downs it and becomes Ben Grimm again, with Johnny taking him out on the town to live it up.
Meanwhile, Sue is called away to Atlantis to mediate a war between Atlantean tribes (with Namor making eyes at her as always), while Reed is pulled off-world by Galactus and the Silver Surfer to answer some questions of his own. Which leaves just Johnny and a now-human Ben Grimm to protect the kids and the entire planet when the Baxter Building is attacked by Annihilus’ hordes, trying to access Reed’s portal to the Negative Zone to allow Annihilus and his armies to march through and invade Earth.
Johnny, Ben and the kids manage to fend off the initial invasion force, but due to circumstances beyond their control, someone will have to close the portal from other side, a sacrifice Ben is prepared to make. But Johnny has other ideas.
The final scenes here are really powerful, of Ben and Johnny’s goodbyes, and Ben’s watching helplessly as his friend is overwhelmed, with his powers as the Thing returning now that he no longer needs them.
Hickman handles the dialogue here perfectly, and the art by Epting in the final shot is just heartwrenching,
As good as the five-part story itself is (running from issue #583 through #587), the epilogue, “Month of Mourning” in issue #588, is even better. A nearly silent issue, save for an equally good backup story, “Month of Mourning” takes us through the 30 days following Johnny’s death, and shows his teammates coming to grips with the loss in ways both characteristic and surprising. The story opens with the Avengers arriving too late to help, and their shame when they realize it:
We see a furious Reed retrieving the most dangerous weapon in the universe (which no one even knew he still possessed), and confronting the being responsible…
…and Annihilus’ chilling response:
We see little Valeria changing the agenda for her super-genius classmates:
We see Ben Grimm taking his frustrations out the only way he knows how, against the only person who can take it:
And in the backup story, we see Spider-Man checking in on his friend’s nephew, little Franklin, who’s going through a process Spidey knows all too well:
It’s easy to write off high-profile comic-book deaths as just a cheap sales stunt; that’s what I did. But there are also times like this, when publishers have to do something big and dramatic to get people’s attention to an underappreciated book, which is exactly what’s happened here. Don’t take my word for it; pick up the Jonathan Hickman FANTASTIC FOUR and FF run in trade paperback; you’ll be glad you did.