The Last Fantastic Four Story issue 1 (!), “World’s End” by Stan Lee (writer), John Romita Jr (penciller), Scott Hanna (inker), Morry Hollowell (colourist), VC’s Joe Caramanga (letterer) and Tom Brevoort (editor), Marvel Comics, October 2007, 48 pages of strip, US$4.99
There is something distinctly morbid about this comic. It’s not the story, which (SPOILER ALERT!) ends with the Fantastic Four alive and well and flying off into the moonrise. It’s not even the cover, with its funereal black edging and sombre serifed type. It’s the feeling that, taken with the recent Stan Lee Meets … series, we are seeing Lee, at the age of 85, taking his leave of the characters who made his name.
Of course, being an old showman, Lee would probably be as happy to make as many farewell appearances and comebacks as Old Blue Eyes himself. Let’s hope that he gets the chance to do so, because The Last Fantastic Four Story would not be a good note on which to end.
The plot concerns a technologically superior power, the Cosmic Tribunal, who decide, on the basis of faulty intelligence, that the human race is worthless: so they decide to invade and kill us all. This may be a stab at relevance – something Lee used to pride himself on – as the parallel with the US invasion of Iraq is fairly obvious. That may be why Lee refers to the members of the Tribunal as “good guys”; because he sees them as analogous to his own country. But in the context of this story, it makes no sense. Good guys do not commit genocide, let alone unprovoked genocide. Worse, in another stab at relevance, the Tribunal is bringing about mankind’s destruction by accelerating global warming, killing lots of entirely innocent animals in the process.
This is not a good showcase for the Fantastic Four. Ben and Johnny's attempts to fight back are wholly ineffectual, while Sue does, quite simply, absolutely nothing throughout. “Invisible Girl,” indeed.
In an attempt to update his style, Lee has dropped a lot of the polysyllabic bombast. He has also attempted to embrace decompression, by cutting up his captions into smaller blocks, spread across more panels. But this lays bare the lack of sophistication in story and sentiment, and leaves the narrative and dialogue to read like an extended issue of Spidey Super Stories.
In one respect, John Romita Jr was a good choice to provide the art for Lee’s valedictory story. Like some of Lee’s favourite collaborators, his father John Romita Sr and John Buscema, Romita Jr is a consummate craftsman, a solid and accurate draughtsman with the talent and skill of telling stories with crystal clarity. But like theirs, I find his work unengaging: these are the Volkswagens of comic art: well-engineered, reliable, but nothing to get excited about. In a comic which will always stand in the shadow of Jack Kirby, that is a problem.
As the story ends, the Fantastic Four are in unconvincing retirement, and so is Stan Lee. Let us hope that he gets the chance to write The Last Spider-Man Story, and that it provides him with a more fitting swansong.