Friday, November 28, 2014

I Reads You Review: FANTASTIC FOUR #262


COLORS: Glynis Wein
LETTERS: Jim Novak
32pp, Color, .60¢ U.S., .75¢ CAN, .25p UK (January 1984)

Rated “T+”

The Trial of Reed Richards”

A high-ranking Marvel Comics person once said that most comic books published before 1992 were bad, although Marvel is thriving largely due to pre-1992 publications and creations. I know for a fact that one comic book series that was no-ways-bad was Marvel Comics' Fantastic Four comic book series with John Byrne as both writer and artist. After Byrne left the series in 1986, the Fantastic Four (sometimes referred to as “FF”) was never the same. There have only been a few brief runs since then in which the series has approached the quality of Byrne's work on this seminal Stan Lee-Jack Kirby creation.

For some reason, I recently remembered something called “Assistant Editors' Month.” Marvel Comics Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter and Marvel's primary editorial staff had taken a month-long trip in the late summer of 1983, supposedly. This meant that the assistant editors were the acting-editors of Marvel's regular titles for at least one month. The result of this was that Marvel's superhero titles with the publication date of January 1984 would drift from the status quo, at least, a little bit. [I think the Avengers met David Letterman in their title.]

Because I have many issues of Byrne's run on Fantastic Four, I also happen to have the Assistant Editors Month issue, Fantastic Four #262. The conceit of that issue is that Marvel Comics exists in the same universe as the Fantastic Four. John Byrne, as current writer-artist of the Fantastic Four, often uses the adventures of the real Fantastic Four as the basis for his Fantastic Four comics.

As Fantastic Four #262 (“The Trial of Reed Richards”) begins, Byrne is having a telephone conversation with Michael Higgins, the assistant editor of the Fantastic Four comic book and the person currently in charge of getting the book finished while the regular editor is away. Higgins is pressing Byrne to deliver some pages, but Byrne is pressed against a deadline because he cannot get in contact with the Fantastic Four.

Lucky him, The Watcher appears and takes Byrne far into the cosmos. The Watcher says that Byrne, as the “chronicler” of the Fantastic Four's adventures, must bear witness to the trial of Reed Richards. Why is Reed, a.k.a. Mr. Fantastic, on trial? He saved the life of the planet-devouring Galactus, and now, victims of Galactus – old, new, and ancient want to punish the man who kept Galactus living.

I had not read “The Trial of Reed Richards” in ages. I first heard of it from comic book fans who swore to me that it was a classic. It may be, but taken as part of the entirety of Byrne's run on the series, it is one good comic book among many.

Byrne has previously stated that some comic book writers, artists, editor, and publishers “don't get it,” meaning that they do not understand what made certain classic comic book creations work – what made them “classic.” In the case of the Fantastic Four, not only in the comic books, but also in the movies and in television appearances, the writers, artists, and creative types don't get it.

Many people focus in on the Fantastic Four as a team that is also a family, and Stan Lee has bolstered that every time he talks about creating the FF. They're right; the team is a family. Whatever pulpy roots and TV family examples inspired him, Lee did create a familiarity amongst the lead characters that was, at that time, new to comic books.

However, comic books are a graphics-based and visual storytelling medium, and in the hands of and by the pencil of Jack Kirby, Fantastic Four had a second distinctive and crucial feature or trait. This comic book was grand and big in its scope. The monsters were not just big like those that appeared in Marvel/Timely's monster comics; there was also something bigger behind FF's monsters and creatures. It might be tragedy, or a warning, or even a message. When the Mole Man appeared in Fantastic Four #1, he was not just a monster wrangler or boss of monsters; he was a leader and a protector. His mission wasn't mere destruction of the human world, but the grand notions of the survival and the prosperity of the creatures that lived below the human world.

Byrne's trial of Reed Richards isn't just a trippy trip through the cosmos. It is a simple story about existence, reality, and the natural order, but it was a story spun on a grand, cosmic scale. Like Lee and Kirby's Fantastic Four, Byrne's is not hard science fiction, but it embraces the sense of wonder about the great big unknown beyond the planet, beyond the stars, and beyond myriad dimensions.

Supposedly, sales of the Fantastic Four comic book has been floundering for years, and the series is reportedly headed for cancellation. Whatever the politics behind that cancellation, the Fantastic Four has been a shadow of its former glory for decades, for the most part. No one has done the Fantastic Four like Byrne did it since he did it. I am glad I thought of reading Fantastic Four #262 because it was part of the “Assistant Editors' Month” gimmick. Thank goodness for back issues, trades paperbacks, and Artist Editions that we can still read the new classic that was John Byrne's Fantastic Four, after the original classic FF of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.


Reviewed by Leroy Douresseaux

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