A cocky guy made of rock, someone who can stretch and flatten their body, and a hotheaded dude go fight superheroes. Now, if anyone thinks that’s three-fourths of the Fantastic Four, well, it kind of is, and the hero that flattens and stretches is a woman, so John Byrne might just have combined two characters for his not-Fantastic Four title Trio. Also, the hotheaded guy doesn’t burst into flames, he just forms T-1000 blades with his hands to slice things up. Still, at every page turn, I kept expecting the guy made of rock (who is called both “Rock” and “Three”) to yell “It’s clobberin’ time!” or the other guy (“Scissors” or “Two”) to yell “Blade on!”, both of which would’ve fit right in with this comic.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not blasting Byrne for doing a Faux-tastic Four Minus One or anything like that. Creators should be free to come up with their own parodies, pastiches, and other twists on existing material. Steve Gerber did it with his Destroyer Duck series as a way to satirize his situation with Marvel over Howard the Duck, and just about every indie cape comic has its own version of Spider-Man, Batman, and other archetypal characters. So, I don’t have any problem with that. What I do have a problem with is Byrne sure made a boring comic. Characters who can be summed up as off-brand getting into a pointless fight, one of them might be dying from injuries in the fight (Oh the suspense!), and something about sea monsters. Nobody here has any sort of personality, and Byrne doesn’t seem to be saying anything about the genre or its conceits. His Not-Thing looks vaguely, kinda-sorta black when he turns to human form, though the way the family is depicted maybe he’s mixed-race, but none of that matters because Byrne’s too busy spinning his wheels with…well, nothing. It’s a comic. It’s got superheroes. There are fights. The first five pages alone are the most tedious exercise in storytelling you could ever imagine: everything from Rock’s freefall entrance on the first page to him punching out a robot in the two page spread happens as if these were plot beats that were made on a conveyor belt, machine-processing that is incapable of understanding pacing and structure. Sure, Byrne tilts the panels or includes big, explosive sound effects like “BKOOM” (what explosion sounds like that?), but if it were noise, it would be static. There’s none of the emotion or detail from his earlier work, and certainly nothing that can compete with the likes of Fiona Staples or James Stokoe. Is this honestly the guy who co-created The Dark Phoenix Saga?
About the only time this generic comic takes on any sort of idea is on page sixteen where a reporter lectures another reporter for referring to Rock as “Rocky” or “Rockster,” mirroring Byrne’s irritation at superhero nicknames, but that’s far from enough to carry a comic. Byrne is known, even more than for his rebooting of Superman in the Man of Steel mini-series or his work with Chris Claremont on Uncanny X-Men, as being an opinionated curmudgeon, and yet, making what is clearly supposed to be “his” vision of a straight superhero team comic, the most he can muster about the state of the genre is that nicknames are bad? Then again, considering Paper, the Mr. Fantastic/Invisible Woman analog, is put into some sort of coma after a building collapses–despite her powers being more useful for surviving that situation than Scissors’, and he doesn’t even sport a scratch–I have to say he’s in no position to comment on the worst tendencies of the industry, its fans, and the genre itself, namely casual sexism and over-reverence to fictional entities of male power.
Since Byrne isn’t doing any sort of commentary on the genre or making any statement of social relevancy (like with Super Corporate Heroes), and as a throwback it lacks the charm of titles like Paul Chadwick’s The World Below (which didn’t have superheroes, but emulated the pulp-fantasy genre that was a core influence to Fantastic Four) or the Jenkins/Buckingham run of Peter Parker: Spider-Man, I wonder if Byrne approached this idea as anything other than a cynical cash grab? The only visually interesting part of the comic is the cover, depicting the Trio bursting through the pages and showing parts of the first page behind it, and even that’s a well-worn trope.
If all John Byrne has to offer to the comics world is more of the same and no personal touch, I have to ask why does he bother?