Tough for anything in the remainder of the year here at Stevereads not to feel anti-climactic after that epic throat-clearing Year End round-up, but I’ve been reminded that we still have plenty of things to cover before 2011 comes to an end in just one week – and I agree!

Like comics, for instance. 2011 was a particularly morbid year in four-color superhero comics. Not only did Marvel Comics kill off both Johnny Storm, the Human Torch of the Fantastic Four, but they also killed off their standard-bearer for superhero death, Bucky, who was speared through the heart at the climax of the company’s “Fear Itself” mini-series. And not to be outdone, DC Comics effectively killed off every single one of their characters and then instantly resurrected them, only in warped, Lazarus Pit-style. So for every Batman or Green Lantern we have who’s largely the same, we have a Wonder Woman who’s just another Zeus-bastard and a Superman who’s an emotionless cipher. RIP the previous versions, all of them.

Both these gambits can of course yield interesting stuff and even some good moments. In the latest re-jiggered issue of “The Justice League,” for instance, we get some energetically drawn panels showcasing DC’s apparent commitment to move Aquaman back into the major leagues and keep him there. In the hands of writer Geoff Johns and artist Jim Lee, the character is scrubbed of post-modern gimmicks – no scraggly beard, no hook for a hand, no water-element powers; instead, he’s the version most readers’ parents will remember from Superfriends – gold chain-mail shirt, green fins, tough as a submarine, able to summon sea-creatures to do his bidding. It’s refreshing, even if it’s so far the only refreshing thing about this re-animated “Justice League.” This particular issue, for instance, is a complete mess from start to finish – the writing, the characterization, the choreography, the pacing, the internal consistency … all of it stinks. But at least it gives Aquaman the introduction to the League that he’s always deserved. I naturally wish it were the real League and not this collection of clueless a-holes sniping at each other like bargain-cart Marvel heroes, but I’ll take what I can get.

A matter of much greater success is Marvel’s long-awaited and totally unsurprising decision to bring back the Human Torch. As I mentioned months ago when the whole storyline first happened, no comics reader anywhere in the world believed the Torch was permanently out of the picture, but the plot device, however transparently manipulative, at least allowed some talented writers (most certainly including the writer of “The Fantastic Four,” Jonathan Hickman) to explore how such a death might effect the rest of the Marvel Universe. In the case of the FF, some of those explorations were quite touching, leading to some very nice issues and one very nice cover. In a time-table that seems a bit rushed even in this more cynical comics-reading era, Marvel has decided to bring the Torch back to life now, less than a year after killing him. As some readers may remember, he was lost in the alternate universe Negative Zone fighting hordes of aliens. In recent issues of “The Fantastic Four,” we the readers learned that he hadn’t died at all but had been surgically altered by those savage aliens. Meanwhile, in the magazine proper, Earth was being attacked by a hostile alien fleet and Ben Grimm, the ever-lovin’ blue-eyed Thing, is fighting a losing battle against three enormous killer Sentry robots.

This look bleak for our heroes, when suddenly Johnny Storm re-emerges from the Negative Zone. And for the first time since his apparent death, the burning ‘4’ signal blazes across the sky of Manhattan. Scattered across the battlefield below, his teammates see it and immediately know what it means – and in one of those great sequences for which Hickman seems to have a knack, the sight of that signal breathes new life into the defeated Thing, whose robot assailants quickly sense it, saying they need to “report amended temporal schedule” for his destruction. “Is that some kinda robot way of askin’ what time it is?” Ben Grimm asks, in a classic FF set-up. “Well … let me help you out with that”:

But as great as the moment is for an unabashed Fantastic Four fan such as myself, it isn’t the equal of one quick frame that comes right before it, which ranks as one of my long-lost Great Moments in Comics. The Thing, down and pretty much out at the hands of his attackers, looks up and sees that burning ‘4’ in the sky and instantly knows what it signifies, and his reaction goes into the Fantastic Four ‘best of’ books:

Marvel also hit one out of the park this last week when it comes to covers. The one Javier Rodriguez did for the latest issue of “Daredevil” not only beats that earlier, sad FF cover mentioned above but is certainly the best cover of any super-hero comics this year, a wonderful grace-note on which to end our year’s discussion of comics:

  • http://Google Richard

    Loved your review of the Fantastic Four issue 601. One of the best FF’s in a long time. Loved the scene of been seeing the flaming ff signal in the sky, and what He then did to those Kree Sentry Robot. Wow! That was the Thing I used to love and Know. Knocking the crap out of the bad guys. Also agree with the fabulous DareDevil Cover. That is one of the best comics being produced these days. Again, really enjoyed reading your comments on these great comics. Rick.

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