Monday, October 15, 2007

John Byrne Says Things Aren't What They Seem: Fantastic Four Visionaries Volume Two

I picked up a stack of John Byrne FF comics in trade paperback form. Byrne's work from this era is pretty fascinating. I started looking at the books on Thursday and I continue below:

In Fantastic Four #241-250, John Byrne begins to move away from the Lee/Kirby pastiche of his first half-dozen FF stories as his own ideology presents itself more strongly. The shift is not sudden, or overwhelming, but with the second Visionaries volume, Byrne's own attutudes about art, narrative, and society emerge more tangibly within the stories. He maintains the Silver Age-style trappings of pseudo-science, imaginative plots, and swift pacing, but beneath that (quite entertaining) surface, Byrne turns conventions on their heads and lets the readers know that EVERYTHING THEY KNOW IS WRONG, sort of.

Throughout the ten stories in this volume, Byrne returns again and again to the motif of illusion. Appearances are not only deceiving, but they are often artificially (or supernaturally) generated--sensory-defying holograms, or dreamscapes, or shape-shifted aliens. The sequence of illusions would presumably teach the Fantastic Four, and the reader, not to trust appearances, although the stories would lack conflict if the FF didn't fall for such optical deceptions, at least at first.

Another emergent pattern is Byrne's emphasis on the Fantastic Four as problem solvers rather than fighters. The denoument of each story often arrives not because of physical force but in spite of it. The FF don't use their powers to overwhelm opponents and beat their enemies into submission, but rather use their powers to escape and contain danger until they can find a way to defeat the villain intellectually.

In issue #241, as the male FF members are turned into virtual gladiators for the pleasure of alien/Roman Gaius Tiberius, Sue Storm saves them all by deducing that Tiberius's powers derive from his golden helmet--and by removing his helmet, he will become powerless against the team. The removal of the helm has unexpected circumstances, as she finds that the armor itself has sustained the consciousness of the being, and with its integrity destroyed, the illusory nature of the entire city falls apart. The story balances the Silver Age elements (alien Romans, gladiatorial battles, woman-in-distress) along with the illusion and problem-solving motifs and Byrne's attempt at showing progressive gender roles as the "woman-in-distress" herself, Sue Storm, saves the day with her intellect.

The potential danger of emphasizing the reasoning and problem-solving of the FF instead of the team's powers is that the comic could seem "boring" to some readers if such a pattern were to continue. Byrne, one of the best superhero artists who has ever put pencil to paper, is especially talented at showing the four-color glory of superhero slugfests, and yet he writes this series at times as if he'd rather draw guys in costume standing around discussing philosophical issues. But within each story, he's careful to include plenty of action to make sure that readers know that they are, in fact, reading an American comic book story. The action may not always come where readers have been conditioned to expect; tradition, until the recent trend of decompression, led to stories paced in this way: anticipation-action-pursuit-climactic action-resolution, but Byrne paces his stories like this: anticipation-action-problem solving-resolution. Yet Byrne's narrative model allows him not only to explore the illusory nature of reality (as character uncover the truth or get to the bottom of the deception), but also allows him to deal with the consequences of heroic action, a concern best shown in Fantastic Four #244.

In issue #244, Reed and company save the life of Galactus (after defeating him the issue before). The issue is almost entirely conversation, and although the characters may pose dramatically in the MIGHTY MARVEL STYLE (emphasis mine), the story is about compassion (for Galactus) and loss (of Frankie Ray, Johnny's love who becomes the herald called Nova). There's no slugfests in sight, and the act of saving Galactus have long-term consequences for the FF and the galaxy.

In many ways, Byrne's Fantastic Four seems to fulfill the promise of early Marvel. The combination of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby emphasized both character and action (in theory), but Lee's attempt at character was more akin to caricature, and Kirby's sense of character (as seen in unadulterated form in his 1970s work) was based more on archetypes than individuals. What Byrne does, at least in the stories reprinted in these first two Visionaries volumes, is juggle large-scale plots--Galactus coming to Earth, Dr. Doom's attempt to reclaim his kingdom--with character moments that actually work. Byrne's Johnny Storm struggles with the loss of Frankie Ray, Byrne's Susan Storm finds contentment in her role within the family but slowly develops a more forceful presence on the team, Byrne's Ben Grimm subconsciously fears turning human but loathes being the Thing, and Byrne's Reed Richards is confident but his confidence borders on hubris. Byrne's FF is not a dysfunctional family--it's a functional family struggling with overwhelming odds from within and without. Surrounded by things which are not always what they seem.

As a final note, I'd just like to point out that, as if to contradict any assumptions I've made about Byrne's direction with the series, this volume ends with a two-issue story which is almost 40 pages of one, long fight scene, as the Shi'ar Guardsman known as Gladiator comes to Earth in pursuit of some Skrulls and ends up facing the FF, Avengers, and anybody else Byrne felt like drawing that month. Gladiator, of course, is one of the Marvel analogues of DC's Superman. And in this two-part story, Byrne establishes some of the pseudo-scientific reasoning he'll end up using when he takes over the Superman title years later. He establishes that Gladiator's powers must be telekinetic in nature, since there's no way he can pick up a building by its corner and not have it fall apart under its own weight. Such an approach shows that perhaps Byrne sees himself as an intellectual problem-solver, making sense out of the illusions of the world which would seem to ask us to believe, honestly believe, that a man could pick up a building by a corner!

Luckily, Byrne and the FF are around to dismiss such illogical deceptions. It's all an illusion, or telekinesis.

I mean, how else can you possibly explain something so silly? Geez.

Mental powers. That makes sense.

I'll continue looking at John Byrne FF trade paperbacks every Monday until they run out (Byrne FF trades, not Mondays). On Thursday, I want to talk about NEW COMICS.


Ultimate Matt said...

Hi there;

I just posted a plea for assistance at my blog; I'm running a club at my school and have no clue what to do with it. I wrote all the details there, but it seems likwe the kind of thing you might have some ideas for. So, one comic book loving education professional to another, any ideas?

Ultimate Matt said...

Thanks for taking a lookat my site - I'm going to check out making comics and see if I can come up with anything. I think I'll divide them up by interest (manga, superheoes, etc) and see what I can work from there. Thanks again, dude.