Each week, Big Issues focuses on newly released comic book issues of significance. This week, they are Captain America #19, FF #23, and Journey Into Mystery #645, written by Ed Brubaker, Jonathan Hickman, and Kieron Gillen with art by Steve Epting, Nick Dragotta, and Stephanie Hans, respectively. Each writer’s final issue takes an introspective turn to reveal something new about the characters and explore the vast possibilities of comic-book storytelling.
As Marvel Now! prepares to kick into overdrive in November, a number of memorable runs are coming to an end to make way for new creative teams. Final issues of Captain America, FF, and Journey Into Mystery hit stands this week, with each writer ending his run with stories that pay tribute to the legacy of their characters while also looking at the nature of superhero comics. These three titles have shown the incredible opportunities that comic-book storytelling provides, and these bittersweet conclusions continue that tradition as the writers create their own distinctive farewells.
Of the three writers, Ed Brubaker has been writing his book the longest, turning out over 100 issues of Captain America since taking over in 2004. Captain America is also the oldest of the three titles, and this issue pays tribute to the character’s rich history and the changes he’s gone through as his country transformed. Captain America #19 is mostly a monologue delivered by Steve Rogers when he visits the hospital room of William Burnside—Captain America during the ’50s—who is recovering from being hit by a truck. Steve recounts his childhood fears and how they drove him to enlist in the military before the U.S. was even at war, and then he pulls out a copy of Captain America Comics #1 that he found in Burnside’s basement, the famous issue with Cap punching Hitler in the jaw on the cover. Steve tells Burnside about how Bucky and he weren’t the biggest fans of the comics at first, especially Bucky, who wasn’t happy to see himself portrayed as a grinning kid sidekick. It gets really meta when Steve starts talking about the controversy that original comic caused, telling Burnside about the death threats creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby received from American Nazis who weren’t happy to see their leader punched out on the cover of a comic book. Then Pearl Harbor happened, and Steve realized that the comics and the posters and the newsreels were more than propaganda; they were creating a symbol of hope and strength that would last longer than the man inside the costume.
The burden of carrying the Captain America identity is a fitting metaphor for the pressures of taking on a long-running superhero character, as an incoming writer hopes to stay true to the legacy of a character while taking the book in a new direction. Over the course of his run, Brubaker has drawn inspiration from every era of Captain America comics, and his final story takes a look at Cap’s history to say goodbye. Brubaker’s original Captain America artist, Steve Epting, joins him for his finale, and there couldn’t be a better artist to illustrate the reverent, retrospective script. In a great visual touch, an early splash page is an homage to a similar image in their very first issue, with Captain America leaping into action against a quartet of criminals on a train. Epting was an essential part of this book’s early success, and his realistic pencils made him the perfect fit for Brubaker’s gritty but cinematic superhero story. In this final issue, Epting’s talent for adding weight to classic images is on display as Steve recounts the history of the Captain America name, showing images from classic Cap stories rendered through Epting’s smooth, detailed linework.
Steve says the hardest thing about being Captain America is understanding that the mission is too big and will never end, but it has for William. Rogers may as well be talking to Brubaker, who, like William, has served his time and done his best; now it’s time to let incoming writer Rick Remender share the burden with Steve. Unlike Journey Into Mystery and FF, Captain America’s conclusion has an extra sense of finality to it, which likely stems from Brubaker’s forthcoming departure from superhero comics once his Winter Soldier run concludes with #14. Every superhero comic comes with its own baggage, but as editors at DC and Marvel take more control over the stories, there’s even more pressure added to writing a franchise title. There will always be writers willing to take on the mission of creating stories for these characters, but for now, Brubaker won’t be one of them.
Journey Into Mystery #645 is another finale that looks at the legacy of its main character, as Kid Loki confronts his older self and is faced with an impossible choice: sacrifice himself or allow Mephisto to take Satan’s throne and bring hell to everything. Kieron Gillen’s run on this title has redefined its lead character, transforming Loki from a treacherous villain to a fan-favorite hero who saves the world through mischief, but there’s always been this lurking fear that eventually Kid Loki would have to return to his old evil self. This issue begins with Loki reading The Siege Of Asgard as he did back in Gillen’s first issue of the series, diving into the question mark at the end of “Why did Loki do it?” to talk to his older self. That Loki’s hiding place from Thor exists literally within a story has been a nice touch since the start, and when Kid Loki turned his past self into a magpie that he could dialogue with, Old Loki became a “parasitic little story.” But this issue reveals that he wasn’t so little after all, because that parasite has been controlling events from the very beginning.
The answers to Kid Loki’s questions lie back in Gillen’s first issue and the journey of the seventh magpie that made a few extra stops before leading Kid Loki to his destiny. That issue mentioned that those stops would eventually be revealed, and here Gillen delivers on that promise. The magpie went to the Teller who “crouches above the story” and asked him a favor in exchange for the greatest tale Loki has ever wrought: Journey Into Mystery—A Comedy In Thirty Parts (Or A Tragedy In Thirty-One). The Teller is an unflattering representation of the author, turning Gillen into an active player in Loki’s plot. Once Kid Loki prevents the destruction of the nine realms (as seen in the incredible “Everything Burns” crossover), the Teller is to give Mephisto the location of the Crown of Fear with a note signed from Loki. Because the crown is made of Kid Loki’s thoughts and dreams, he can sacrifice himself by letting Old Loki override his mind, destroying the crown in the process. Faced with his imminent demise, Kid Loki says he played the game for as long as he could, but his old self reminds him that “the house always wins.” At this point in the story, this seems to be Gillen’s way of commenting on the inevitability of these characters returning to their classic forms, with Marvel being the “House of Ideas” that ultimately has final say on what directions their properties will go.
Loki has his heartfelt goodbyes with Leah and Thor, the two relationships that helped humanize Gillen’s version of the god of mischief, but when Loki comes face to face with his end, he flips the script. Old Loki’s entire plot has been an effort to change the way the public sees him, piggybacking on the good deeds of his new innocent self so that people would finally trust him. That’s not the same as actually changing, and Kid Loki realizes that if he dies, eventually all the good he brought the Loki name will be destroyed, too. Old Loki feeds him an idealistic lie about the future, but Kid Loki won’t swallow it. He takes a bite out of the magpie, killing his former self as he dooms the world to Mephisto’s wrath. “Damn me,” he says as he clutches his signature horned crown, then looks out to the reader to deliver the final line: “Damn you all.” It’s an operatic finale, especially with Stephanie Hans’ lush visuals. Providing coves, Hans is the only artist who has been with Gillen through his entire run on this title, and her gorgeous painted artwork elevates Gillen’s script, creating a rich fantasy environment without missing any of the emotional beats of Gillen’s script.
What sets Journey Into Mystery apart from Captain America and FF is that Gillen will still be writing the adventures of Kid Loki in Young Avengers, so he’s really ending a chapter rather than an entire story. While Brubaker is preparing to leave the Marvel universe for the foreseeable future, Jonathan Hickman is departing Fantastic Four and FF to move on to even higher-profile superhero books with two new Avengers series. FF #23 is as much a conclusion to Hickman’s run as it is a mission statement for superhero comic books in general, telling a story about the importance of imagination, fun, and, above all else, love. Simply titled “Run,” this quiet, heartwarming epilogue follows the future Franklin Richards as he says his goodbyes before going back to his proper time period. It begins with the image of a pigeon, the next panel zooming out to show Franklin with his arm extended through a glass window, the pigeon resting on his finger. That glass is the barrier between the reader and the action on the page, and Franklin is breaking through to take the reader on one last fantastic voyage.
“Here’s the thing about adventure. It’s really all there is,” future Franklin narrates as he takes his younger self and Leech into the pocket dimension where kid Franklin is allowed to use his reality-altering powers to their full extent. Whenever Franklin and Leech have an idea for an adventure, they draw it and put it in a hat, and when they go through the door to the other universe, they pick which adventures they want to have brought to life. On his last day, future Franklin gets to pick, and he picks everything. When creating, there are no rules, except maybe “try not to cuss” (which may be a winking nod to when Hickman got flak for Valeria calling Franklin a “retard”). Vegetarian werewolves, vampire school teachers, dinosaurs, Jell-O knights—anything is possible with a little imagination, and when adult Franklin says “intelligence without imagination is pretty much useless,” it’s easy to see why Hickman’s run has been so successful. That mentality seems to be the driving force of all of Hickman’s work. He’s remarkably talented at integrating bold new ideas within pre-existing narratives—whether it’s the superhero continuity of Fantastic Four or the historical facts of The Manhattan Projects—showing a perfect balance of intellect and imagination.
Out of all the artists Hickman has worked with on his run, Nick Dragotta is the one who best matches the author’s voice, with a heavy Kirby influence but also an attention to detail that recalls artists like Geof Darrow. It’s classic without feeling dated, largely because Dragotta knows how to combine spectacle with emotion. Joy is radiating off the page during Franklin and Leech’s adventure time, switching to somber sadness when adult Franklin says goodbye to his younger self and sister. In the issue’s most touching scene, Reed and Sue bid their son farewell, but not before they ask him if they did a good job as parents. “A perfect one,” Franklin says. “I love you guys.” That love is what really defines a classic Fantastic Four run, and Hickman highlighted the affection between this makeshift family as the Fantastic Four became the Future Foundation and dramatically expanded its lineup.
In his letter at the end of the issue, Hickman writes about why he thinks his run was so successful, discussing how the permanence of family is dying in modern times and that the Fantastic Four are in direct opposition to this. They are a family forever united because they’re fictional, but Hickman tapped into the quality that would keep them together permanently in the real world: “It was Love. Boundless, unconditional, to the end of time and back, lift you up from itself, LOVE. And what’s not fantastic about that?” The love between family members is what made readers connect with the characters, but Hickman’s love of superhero comics and his belief in what they can achieve is what made this book such a success. That door in Franklin’s room separates who he is from who he can be, and he doesn’t have to walk through it; he can run. The door has roughly the same dimensions as a blank comic book page, and in all three of these landmark runs, the writers didn’t walk through that door; they ran.