Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic-book issue of significance. This week, it’s FF #12. Written by Lee Allred (Solo) and drawn by Michael Allred (X-Statix, Madman), this issue brings two brothers (and a sister-in-law) together to continue the wildly fun adventures of Marvel’s most unconventional family.
After relaunching companion titles Fantastic Four and FF for Marvel Now!, writer Matt Fraction announced last month that he would be leaving both books because the time commitment for his new Inhuman series proved to be greater than anticipated. (It probably doesn’t help that he’s also working on two new creator-owned series for Image, Sex Criminals and Ody-C.) Working from Fraction’s plot outlines, new writers would handle the scripts, with Fantastic Four veteran Karl Kesel returning to that title to continue Fraction’s enjoyable but standard story. FF is a far more distinctive and stylish book, so Marvel and Fraction went with an unconventional replacement: Lee Allred, brother of the book’s artist Michael Allred.
A sci-fi prose writer with minimal experience in comic books (he’s written short stories for his brother to draw in Solo and Madman Atomic Comics), Lee brings a point of view to FF that is more akin to newspaper comic strips than ongoing superhero serials, and it’s a great fit for a title that plays with the conventions of the genre. Most of FF #12 is composed of humorous scenes that unfold over the course of one or two pages, from a villainous conversation shared over a bowl of Doop cereal to a boxing match between two female faculty members, delivering self-contained gags that are ideal for the limited attention spans of young readers. It’s important for an all-ages title to be accessible, and while there’s a sprawling story being built in this book, the comic-strip influence means newcomers don’t need to read the first 10 chapters to enjoy the gags in this issue.
Fraction’s issues of FF paid tribute to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s initial Fantastic Four run by including homages to past issues, and the reverence expands in #12 to include all of superhero comics plus shojo anime as the kids try to break new student Adolf Impossible out of his neon-green shell. Last issue’s introduction of the Impossible Man’s son was a touching story about caring for a child with developmental challenges, but he’s having trouble fitting into the established dynamic within the Baxter Building. The kids tease Adolf for not enjoying the games and activities they regularly engage in, and ultimately it’s comic books and anime that get Adolf to open up and start interacting with his classmates.
While reading an old issue of Fantastic Four starring his father, Adolf makes the argument that his dad isn’t a villain, forcing the other kids to chime in with a discussion of the connection between colors and moral affiliation in superhero costume design. In a gorgeous splash page where Michael Allred draws the heavy hitters of Marvel’s heroes and villains, the Moloids and Artie detail how superheroes are affiliated with primary colors while villains dress in secondary colors. This lesson in superhero color theory is the kind of page I would have gone crazy for as a kid, throwing a bunch of random characters in one place because it’s a really cool visual even though it has minimal importance to the story.
Adolf throws a temper tantrum in response, transforming into a rhino and chasing the other kids until he comes across fellow new kid Luna watching some shojo superhero anime by herself. He’s immediately attracted to the sparkles, frills, and big eyes on the television, and removing himself from a group gives Adolf the confidence to start an interpersonal relationship for the first time. The sequence ends with Adolf asking his viewing partner if she wants to be friends, and the similarly soft-spoken Luna responds by simply grabbing his hand. It’s an adorable moment showing two children finding a way to express their emotions through a mutual interest, and like the previous splash, it also gives Michael the opportunity to draw a lot of fun superhero cameos.
While his script showcases sharp comic timing, Lee’s dialogue can get overly melodramatic during the more serious sequences, hitting certain themes with a sledgehammer when subtlety would be more effective. Scott’s feelings of guilt over his daughter’s death and uncertainty regarding his role as protector and teacher for the FF were addressed by Fraction, but it was primarily through a recurring haunting image of a barren tree. The tree is still around in #12, but Lee Allred is a bit more blunt, beginning the issue with a dream sequence where Scott witnesses the destruction of an ant-farm planet populated by humanoid insects in white Future Foundation uniforms.
Scott wakes up after he hears his daughter’s voice saying he murdered her, and when his teammate Darla Deering comes to his room to comfort him, he says, “Have you ever killed someone, Darla? I have.” The line is supposed to be poignant, but it’s awkward in context. The impetus for the question is understandable, but Darla is a multi-millionaire pop star, why would she have killed anyone? This scene is one of those situations where less is more, and Michael’s evocative art reflects Scott’s emotional turmoil just fine without the added text. Scott and Darla’s later scene is much more successful, putting them on the roof of the Baxter Building for romantic-comedy antics involving some mischievous wind and an unfortunately placed cup of coffee.
The scene with Maximus The Mad and the alien Julius Caesar at the breakfast table shows how Michael Allred brings life to his characters, staging the sequence to highlight Caesar’s frustration that Maximus is more focused on eating his cereal than discussing villainous plots. A small moment like a panel showing Caesar grabbing Maximus’ wrist to stop his incessant scooping adds velocity to the still shots of Maximus eating, which eventually intensify to the point where he has the bowl just under his chin. Maximus gorging on cereal is one of the ways Lee plays with the idea that the villains in this book are overgrown children, and later in the issue, Dr. Doom assaults his servant for not cutting the crust off his sandwich.
It’s very silly, but this is a title where that kind of goofiness has become acceptable. Much of that is due to the art of Michael and his colorist/wife Laura, whose artwork is so dramatically different from the style of contemporary superhero comics that any book the two work on feels like it exists in a world distanced from continuity (see: X-Force/X-Statix). Michael’s designs are incredibly detailed, from the massive Baxter Building playroom to the intricate Kirby-esque machinery of Maximus and John Storm’s time-space machine, and his expressive character work helps create distinct personalities for the book’s huge cast. The body language and facial expressions of the children are considerably more exaggerated than the adults, reflecting how the students are more energetic and less inhibited than their teachers.
Scott and Darla are reluctant to act on their mutual attraction, and that restraint reads in their bodies during their scene on the Baxter Building roof. Despite their mutual fear, the world is literally pushing them together, and when Darla makes brief physical contact, the wind picks up around them and pushes them closer to each other. Michael uses the characters’ hair to show the gusts of wind, drawing attention to their faces and away from the cup of piping hot Doop-brand coffee Darla spills on Scott’s leg just before their lips touch. The burning kills the moment, but it’s a fun punch line for a scene that amps up the flirtation between these two characters.
Despite that whole situation where teen heroes are currently being forced to fight to the death in Avengers Arena, Marvel has been putting a lot of positive spotlight on its young heroes. In addition to teams like the Young Avengers, there are now schools all over the globe training the next generation of superheroes (for a quick breakdown of all of them, check out Infinity: The Hunt), but what sets the Future Foundationapart is that it’s a group primarily made up of children rather than teens or young adults. They’re not quite at the point where romance has entered their lives, and the major conflicts faced by these kids revolve around forming their identities, fitting in with others, and learning to express themselves. These are problems that young readers can relate to, especially when experienced by characters that look and sound like real children.
Books like Young Avengers and Wolverine And The X-Men are aimed at a PG-13 audience, and there’s a more relaxed view to sex and violence in those titles that would not be appropriate for pre-pubescent readers. FF has ventured into some dark places due to the emotionally damaged Scott Lang, but these more mature elements never overpower the bright, cheerful tone. The contrast between the juvenile antics of the Future Foundation students and the complex personal issues plaguing the adult faculty introduces a bittersweetness to the story that is reminiscent of the best Pixar films, providing emotional depth for the adult readers without sacrificing any of the imaginative spectacle that keeps children hooked.
With Medusa taking on a major role in Inhumans and She-Hulk getting her own solo series in February, the future of this title is uncertain, but issues like this one show why a book like FF is invaluable in today’s superhero-comic industry. At a time when publishers are catering almost exclusively to older readers, this comic shows that it’s possible to create a book that truly appeals to all ages, and it continues to be a refreshing read with the addition of Lee Allred to the creative team.