November 03, 2004

Randy Jackson, Subwayland; Fantastic Four Visionaries: John Byrne

Randy Jackson, Subwayland: Just in time for the MTA's centennial, we get this collection of Jackson's Times columns on the subway beat. These short observational pieces are wryly appealing, radiating that dogged affection for and patient endurance of the city's oddnesses that characterizes the most committed New Yorkers. Although you can't expect a great deal of depth from columns that run, at most, four pages, Jackson's light touch with trivia and interviews with various notables--official and not--of the subway will let you close the book with the sense that you've gotten to know your neighbors just a little bit better. And, given the length of the individual pieces, this is great bathroom reading.

Fantastic Four Visionaries: John Byrne. This volume collects the well-known 80s Byrne run on Fantastic Four. Reading it is a trip back in time in more ways than one. It lets you return to the days of compressed storytelling, thought balloons, and entire major subplots resolved in a single panel of narration. It took me approximately five times longer to read this than it did for me to read the entire Ultimate Fantastic Four run to date. Fortunately, given lively plots that range from the cosmic to the microscopic in scale, it was rarely a slog; these comics do give narrative value for money. It's far too satisfying now to see a plot moving deliberately ahead and knowing that it will be wrapped up before the end of the issue--these days, you're lucky if one wraps up before the writer leaves the title.

Where the title is less satisfying, of course, is in characterization. Despite the occasional grace note, Reed Richards really is as arrogant, smug, and self-absorbed a figure as I remembered him to be. Johnny and Ben are one-note (and unbelievably immature), and Sue's sweet acquiescence in her husband's dismissive, disrespectful treatment of her is hardly to be believed. To some degree, I believe Byrne is deliberately setting up Reed and Victor von Doom (here, a relatively complex and intriguing foe) as two sides of the same coin, separated more by Reed's sense of ethics than by any difference in social skills, capacity for teamwork, or humility...but you can only take that reading so far. The characters aren't actually unbearable, but you can't escape the awareness that they are being written not to challenge the social sophistication of fourteen-year-old boys.

Of course, the values of American society have changed since the days of Kirby; we put a lot less blind faith in noble men pursuing abstract truth beyond the ken of us lesser mortals, but these comics are still only about twenty years old, and Byrne simply wasn't keeping up. Looking at this volume, you certainly are reminded why Chris Claremont's X-Men seemed like a shining triumph for feminism. It's no wonder Ultimate FF had to de-age Reed, and match him with a far more skilled and self-confident Sue, to sell him at all in the 21st century.

The art in this volume enjoys the advantages and disadvantages of compressed storytelling. Most page layouts are simple grids, heavily cluttered with narratorial boxes, thought balloons, and speech bubbles. In contrast to a modern comic employing the style of endless splash pages and negotiation with the limits of the grids, FF's art, then, has to be restrained and economical. Within those constraints, it's competent, and the occasional splash page can be quite striking (see, for example, the reveal of Ego, the Living Planet). And, of course, one is spared the T&A that is a perpetual thumb in the eye of any adult reader of today's comics.

Ultimately, Fantastic Four Visionaries is an interesting read, but a frustrating one. Despite everything, it makes you glad to be living through the newest stage of comic book evolution.

Posted by Sarah T. at 06:03 AM | Comments (0)