Yes, we're all excited to see what Jonathan Hickman does with the Avengers once the Marvel NOW train kicks into full gear, but that doesn't mean we're not sad to see him leave Fantastic Four and FF, the books he's been revitalizing with tender loving care for the past three years. With FF #23, Hickman bids his last farewell, and he does so in a way that gets you right in your soulmeat.
The Fantastic Four has always been about family – a functional, loving family of explorers first, superheroes second. That tends to make it hard to find the standard dramatic hooks that much of the genre is built on – the evil brother, revenge, young loners on a crusade to champion the cause of the powerless in a world of criminals who operate above the law, all of that. Some people take a look at these kinds of bright, forthright characters and just give up – much like Geoff Johns seems to have done with Billy Batson by making him into a generic butthole teenager instead of finding a way to utilize what made him so unique – his irrepressibly good heart.
But being functional and loving doesn't negate the fact that these people are fantastic, in the original, spellbinding sense of the word rather than the way it's diminished these days by being a brand name for spray-cleaners or describing ten-cent discounts at Wal-Mart. These people truck in the weirdness of imagination, so why not explore that to its fullest? And why not make it fun?
Many science fiction stand-bys tend to focus on the disastrous dangers of the concept du jour – i.e. invoke time travel, and you get the mafia sending you to hitmen in the past, or killer robots from the future coming to murder innocent ladies, etc. But while Hickman's run with the Fantastic FF did not shy away from such dangers – Galactus vs. a trio of Mad Celestials makes for some pretty immense stakes – it also focused on why these concepts capture our imagination and seem like cool things to do in the first place, like warning your past self of mistakes you'll make before you make them.
FF #23 uses that very well, as the adult version of Franklin Richards from the future has come back in time not only to save the world (or rather, his father and the world) from all that mess, but also to help guide his younger self through difficult times – namely, the development and management of his unlimited reality-manipulation abilities, which is one other amazing thing that Hickman found ways to explore with fun and adventure, all on display in this final issue. Both Franklins have an amazing time together with unfettered dreamtime made real in the young'un's magical mystery pocket universe.
Adult Franklin is saying his good-byes to everybody, as it's time to leave his own past and head out on his way, lest the universe starts to freak out about the temporal oddness surrounding him. So he bids his adult sister Valeria a touching adieu as she goes off to rescue Dr. Doom from self-damnation (as we saw in HIckman's final issue of Fantastic Four), and that alone is refreshing. Valeria is a super-genius three-year-old in the present day, and normally, super-genius kids turn evil in this medium, but Valeria does not, even though she has a weird, special bond with her father's greatest rival – her Uncle Doom – not to mention a crush on a boy clone of the Wingless Wizard. We know Val will have some growing pains – the adult Val has warned her parents of that repeatedly – but she remains a loving, functional daughter and sister who respects the hell out of her brother even though she's leaps and bounds ahead of him in intelligence.
Therein lies a great lesson that the adult Franklin teaches to boy Franklin when he expresses intimidation about how smart his sister is. "Intelligence without imagination is pretty much useless. Creating is harder than knowing." While we tend to think of Franklin's powerset as being that dangerous reality-shaping threat, Hickman has taken the time to actually develop it, and show us that it's really just absolutely unfettered creativity. Every story about Franklin Richards doesn't have to ignore his power, nor does it have to be about the threat of an impetuous boy in possession of such power, and by showing us that, Hickman has done what many creators believed wasn't hardly possible.
It's perhaps no coincidence that artist Nick Dragotta renders Big Franklin as a wise, bearded man. He may as well be a stand-in for HIckman himself, giving ideas for the future to future writers who take over for him, and expressing his own feelings toward the books he's been writing for so long at the very end, when Franklin reassures his parents that they're doing a perfect job raising him and walks off into the time stream with a simple farewell. "I love you guys."
We love these guys, too, Mr. Hickman, and we tend to forget that in the greater hype that surrounds the movie stars and event books, but we have to thank you for reminding us why these people are Marvel's First Family, and why this can be considered the World's Greatest Comic Magazine. Or at least one of them. The beauty of this FF #23 reminds us that, in this post-modern age of bitter cynicism and detached irony, the happy ending is now a daring choice – and one that's more than welcome.