I can't work out if it's cunning marketing or stunning mismanagement that the covers to FANTASTIC FOUR #544 and BLACK PANTHER #26 are so similar this week: Both the posed shot of the new Fantastic Four (now with added Black Panther and Storm!) looking tough just before they come to kick your ass. I kind of feel sorry for Storm, because on each cover, she's the one standing in the back of the shot, her arms raised in a "I'm just about to throw a lightning bolt! No, really!" moment while secretly cursing the fact that her latest outfit is yet another flashback to the one she wore back in the '70s, but that doesn't stop me from wondering whether the two covers are meant to look so alike considering the fact that, with this month, Black Panther essentially becomes the second Fantastic Four book (Well, ignoring Marvel Adventures and Ultimate FF, that is). There's already some continuity flubs - both books have different versions of how the Panther and Storm are introduced to the team, for example - but there's something to be said for the move together of the two books; Reginald Hudlin makes the idea work from the Panther's perspective in his book, and then graciously hands off the characters to Dwayne McDuffie in the Fantastic Four book - There's even a caption saying "To see the the new FF's first adventure, see Fantastic Four #544!". Hudlin also manages to get in digs at the new post-Civil War status quo (with appalled media reactions to two members of the anti-registration side replacing Reed Richards, one of the architects of the registration act) and fairly heavy foreshadowing subplots. Surprisingly, considering my past experience of the book, BP #26 is rather Good.
It helps, of course, that Dwayne McDuffie manages to make Fantastic Four so enjoyable again. He manages to capture the right tone for the book - high adventure with tongue-in-cheek - almost straight off, from the title of the story ("From the Ridiculous To The Sublime - But Not Necessarily In That Order," which is a quote from a conversation between the Human Torch and the Thing towards the end of the issue) and through the return of familiar characters acting, unusually for Marvel these days, in familiar ways. There's a welcome return to the feeling of family between the characters, as well, that hasn't been felt since Mark Waid's run, if anything else even stronger here; trust, love and the impossible urge to make jokes about everything, just as in the Lee and Kirby run... The last time that the book felt like this for me was Walt Simonson's short run, fifteen-odd years ago, which pleases me considering that's one of my favorite superhero runs of all time. Less Simonson-esque is Paul Pelletier's art, which is clear enough, rocking his traditional "early Dale Keown" look (large lips for everyone!) but with the energy that Mike McKone's been lacking for the last few months. There're also occasional Kirby touches, whether they be the energy pulses while the Watcher gives everyone a show, or the Thing's flight goggles... Small things that are nonetheless oddly welcome, you know?
It's, maybe fittingly given the book's history, the most optimistic and (less fittingly, given the book's history) also the most old-fashioned thing that Marvel has published in a long time - Maybe not The World's Greatest Comic Magazine anymore, but definitely a good enough start at becoming Marvel's Greatest. Very Good, and who expected that?