A good way to ease yourself into this portion of the Fantastic Four saga would be to accept the following: It’s going to get even weirder real quick, so best prepare yourself for the wackiest and strap in tight.
In a total departure from last week’s entry, we begin with Johnny Storm and Ben Grimm going on vacation to the bizarre Marvel fixture, “Nu-World,” built as a backup Earth by the mad genius Ted Castle. Though it originally appeared during the preceding Fantastic Four run by Mark Millar, writer Jonathan Hickman will go on to use the planet to great effect in this story and future ones.
The situation is as follows: Due to time dilation, eight years have passed on Nu-World while only a few weeks have passed on Earth, Nu-World’s sun has degraded into a black hole and has been set upon by the warring factions of Lightwave (the former herald of Galactus, the world eater) and Ultron, the semi-omniscient robotic threat. Also, there’s an omnipotent psychic named Natalie X, who unites the inhabitants through a psychic link and there’s an alt-universe version of the Hulk named Banner Jr. My editors are currently regretting allowing me to write this column, but the contracts have been signed and I have no intention of ending this madness now.
The plot otherwise is disappointingly straightforward. There’s an unmistakable feeling that Hickman would much rather write about Nu-World than the visiting members of the Fantastic Four (including the Richards children, Franklin and Valeria, who stowed away on the Fantasticar). The plot boils down to a need to fix a portal to the Baxter building to escape the coming apocalypse. This issue exposes a larger problem with Hickman’s work: He has focused so much on world building that his characters end up explaining more than conversing. Admittedly, this isn’t an issue for me, as I quite enjoy hard sci-fi in my superhero comics. It does baffle me, however, that Marvel continues to employ Hickman on high-action franchises, like “Avengers” and “X-Men,” as a monthly writer when his strengths would better fit in self-contained graphic novels. In these, he would be able to express his ideas without a monthly page count holding him back.
Be that as it may, the visuals by Neil Edwards on pencils, Andrew Currie on inks and Paul Mounts on colors bring a dark psychedelic aesthetic to Nu-World. The dark shadows and heavy shading give the world an appropriate sense of coming darkness that feels right at home on a planet that teeters on the edge of total annihilation. One visual that sticks in my mind is the moment when Ted Castle converts Nu-World into a giant spacefaring vessel and attempts to pilot it away from the black hole as various ships flee in fear.
While not the most exciting event, “Fantastic Four” #573 is a brilliant piece of world building that shows exactly how much character Hickman can inject into a setting in just a single issue. It speaks to Hickman’s skills as a writer, taking enormous concepts and boiling them down so that anyone out of the loop can, at a bare minimum, follow the plot month-to-month.