Saturday, August 18, 2012

Graphic Vibrance

"All of us so beautiful," says Reed Richards, leader of the Fantastic Four, "like a perfect emotional molecule turning in mathematical space." He speaks to his nemesis, Victor Von Doom, as they play a four-dimensional chess game that (naturally) threatens to destroy New York City. "I don't need my robot's eyes to crush you!" replies Doom, speaking indeed through the collapsed face of his gigantic mechanical doppelganger.

Now, if this had come from lesser imaginations than those of writer Grant Morrison and artist Jae Lee, the absurdity might validate comics' juvenile reputation. But Fantastic Four: 1234 is a series from 2001, published by Marvel under their Knights imprint, which specialized in mature, exotic takes on familiar characters. Morrison, with a fearlessly creative streak unrivaled in modern comic book writing, has built his career by successfully floating dense, bizarre concepts. Before going further, however, let me say that:

Reed is the brilliant Mr. Fantastic, who's also a human rubber band. His soulful wife, Susan, is the Invisible Woman. Johnny, her man-boy brother, is the Human Torch. Their best pal Ben Grimm is the rocky Thing (and my avatar). As Marvel's first family, they're the Fantastic Four. Writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby launched their magazine in 1961 to answer DC's Justice League of America.

1234 explores the FF's essential cores, as they deal with friends (blind sculptress, Alicia Masters), foes (the egomaniacal Mole Man), and those who's loyalty comes and goes with the tides (Namor, the Sub-Mariner). That Doctor Doom will try to toy with their reality is a given; that Morrison will toy with his readers, and have Reed discover that Doom escaped into reality from his own dark psyche, is joyfully unexpected.

Settle down- that conceit only lasts a page. It's one of several crisp, poetic exchanges between the icons that give Lee room to not only strut, but cartwheel (and don't confuse him with famed X-Men artist Jim Lee, or he'll twist your pretty little head off). Most of his art from the early 2000s is texturally craggy, with statuesque figures seemingly adrift in melancholia. He's well matched by the always operatic Morrison.

Few writers, in fact, trust their creative partners to carry so many double-page spreads. Here, with one of the industry's finest pens at his command, Morrison's writing feels radically ethereal. When lesser scribes try to match the loftiness of Lee's art by doubling their word count, it gets ugly. Morrison never does. "Love is the name we use to pretty a savage genetic imperative," says Namor to Susan, with whom he's been obsessed for years. "Only you can calm the storm in my thoughts."

The speckled coloring of Jose Villarrubia is miraculous to behold. His hues run between rusty and aquatic, and bring warmth to Lee's stony surfaces, vast skies, and misty night encounters. My only minor quibble regards the printing of certain comic magazine pages, which appear blurry. This may not be the case in a 1234 trade collection, which is easily found in both hard and softcover editions.

Drawn with startling beauty, written with straightforward gusto by a man who sometimes stretches icons too far, Fantastic Four: 1234 has stuck to the wall, when so much from the House of Ideas doesn't. It's a reason I love comics.

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