There is, almost as a rule, just so, so much happening in a Fantastic Four book at any given time. Since the book’s inception, it feels as if Fantastic Four writers delight in seeding stories early that won’t pay off until much, much later, and by the time they do there’s already a vegetable garden worth of further seeds spread. For a book about futurism and wild science looking for expansion, it’s a fitting long game.
With Reckoning War hitting shelves as we speak, Dan Slott’s eighteen-year-old seeds are starting to be harvested, but Eternal Flame deals with a different crop of seeds altogether. Throughout his (now three year long) run, Slott has been playing with and expanding the long-established motif of family at the center of the Fantastic Four. The series has always played with the idea of a found/built family, but Slott begins to look at the extensions of those families through marriage and parenthood.
Three separate marriages have been established, one healthy and caring, one that never comes to pass, and one going badly: during a rather eventful trip to space, Johnny found himself bound to Kaila in a soulmate-bonding ritual of an alien culture (complete with rings in the form of armbands). Being forever Johnny Storm, he of course doesn’t quite accept or handle the gravity of the relationship and, in the last volume of the book, he cheated on Kaila. As a result, Doom overcharged his powers to the point of endangering everyone around him.
In Eternal Flame, not only is Johnny suffering the power-based consequences of his infidelity, but he faces the dissolution of his space marriage when Kaila spurns him to return to her homeworld.
More pressing in this volume, however, are Slott’s concerns about childhood autonomy and parental lineage. While the Richards children have been developing into more independent characters, Ben and Alicia have adopted two intergalactic war refugees who continue to struggle to fit in with Earth’s concept of childhood. At the center of Eternal Flame, though, is Bently-23, a Wizard clone who finds himself at the center of a heated custody battle between adoptive guardian Dragon Man and the Wizard, and who feels like he should be in control of his own future.
Through a collection of touching court depositions, the book gives us earnest insight into what good parenting might look like, straight from the lips of (fictional) babes. It’s a resonant moment, one that reminds the reader that both parenthood and childhood are multifaceted, treacherous, and beautiful.
The concerns are weighty and open-minded to what a family truly is, not only in the Marvel Universe (where clones and aliens constitute extra concerns) but in our own, as well. And this, truly, is the vital thing Dan Slott has been capturing. While it might sometimes get overshadowed by the incredibly cosmic, the sensationalistic, or by boob windows, the Fantastic Four are Marvel’s First Family. Slott continues to deepen that concept, providing loving insight, intimate moments, and pressing concerns while never upsetting the balance of adventures in space and time.
Tacked onto the end of the volume, not exactly tying into the Slott’s familial concerns so much as tying into a delightful Halloween issue earlier on, are the distressing and incredible Grimm Noir and Road Trip, one-shots that truly deserve a home on your bookshelf.
The first, by Gerry Duggan and Ron Garney, deals with Ben Grimm facing down night-terrors via the neglected baddie D’Spayre, and it offers a brief insight into Ben’s emotional growth. The latter, by Christopher Cantwell and Filipe Andrade, is the oddest, brightest, most delightful body horror nightmare you’ll likely experience, filled with moments of gross, full-body collapse. It’s…well, fantastic.
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