Before Jonathan Hickman started his 3 year run on the Fantastic Four, he was tasked with writing a miniseries tying in the FF with Marvel’s Dark Reign event. At the time, the ongoing Fantastic Four series was still being handle by Mark Millar and, since it’s not really part of the Avengers or X-Men stables, the Fantastic Four’s adventures tend to happen closer to the edge of the Marvel Universe’s continuity. Hence the need for a miniseries to tie in to Dark Reign, an over-arching storyline that was about the changes happening in a post Secret Invasion, Norman Osborne ruled world. Other than a one-shot by Brian Michael Bendis, Dark Reign didn’t even have a core book or miniseries. Even though it’s not part of the main Fantastic Four title, this Dark Reign mini is important because Hickman uses it to set up quite a few plot points that will carry through his run on the main series.
Dark Reign: Fantastic Four begins with Reed Richards, assisted by some H.E.R.B.I.E. robots, building a trans-dimensional bridge. It’s a week after the end of the Secret Invasion, and three days after Norman Osborne has been sanctioned by the government to run S.H.E.I.L.D. (which he renames H.A.M.M.E.R.) and oversee superhuman affairs
While Reed is working on The Bridge, his children, Franklin and Valeria, are headed back home to the Baxter Building. Franklin’s dressed as a cowboy and both are drawn by Sean Chen to look a little older than their age (their ages have bounced around over the years but I think in Hickman’s world they’re about 6 and 4 respectively). When we get back to the Baxter Building we see Johnny Storm and Ben Grimm appearing to argue, only to realize that Johnny’s introspection is all about losing his phone and it’s contact list full of eligible women, while Ben is helping move in by sitting on the couch, having a drink, and yelling at some robots, only to be put in his place by Sue Richards. Very quickly we’ve established most of the players – Reed is an introspective scientist with the weight of the world on his shoulders, Franklin’s a goofy kid, Val is direct and serious, Johnny’s a bro with no sense of priorities Ben is regular mensch, and Sue is, unfortunately, not much more that a shouty mom.
Below are the first three close-ups of Sue. She’s mad, she’s a mom, and she’s tired of her husband’s (and every one else’s) crap. She needs a glass of wine and a secret smoke in the laundry room right now! Hopefully Sue will get some character moments later in the run, but for now she’s stuck where she has been since the early 60’s. No one knows how to write her as anything other that a mother. What are her interests? Ben likes beer and football. Johnny likes fast cars and faster women. Reed likes doing science stuff. Sue likes telling people to shape up. Her other hobbies involve once again proving herself to those around her and getting bent out of shape when her kids are threatened.
Of course, Reed responds to being shouted at by his wife with walls of text. Because he’s Reed. Giant word balloons that don’t actually go anywhere because he easily sums up his project with, “It’s actually an observation device to see how problems like ours were solved on other Earths.” The only way he could be more concise was to call it a “What If… Machine” while winking at the reader. And then the foreshadowing that gets the ball rolling – The Bridge has its own power supply, but its protective field runs off the building’s power, and as we’re about to find out, super genius inventor Reed Richards still has the Baxter Building plugged in to Con Ed. Reed is convinced that every problem has a solution, and if he can’t come up with one, he’ll just have to cheat and step into his What If… Machine.
While this is going on in Reed’s lab, Norman Osborne and a platoon of H.A.M.M.E.R. goons (dressed remarkably like space marines from either Halo or Aliens) drive their ACPs up to the front door and raid the building. Osborne’s goons cut the power supply just as Reed steps through the portal, the rest of the Fantastic Four step into an elevator, and the kids get home. Trapped in the elevator, Sue snaps from concerned for Reed mode to boss mode and orders Ben to tear open the elevator door, only to see that they’re no longer in the Baxter Building. Instead their elevator is sitting in a prehistoric jungle, looking a bit like a TARDIS, surrounded by dinosaurs, a naked flying man, a giant jungle woman, some dudes with animal heads who look like He-Man villains, and some Celestials in the background. It’s Adventure Time! Reed, oblivious to all of this, gets ready to solve everything.
Ben and Johnny hanging out while simultaneous ignoring and talking over one another. Franklin deciding to dress like a cowboy because cowboys are cool. Everyone being cool with Reed using an army of doombots and H.E.R.B.I.E.s to do delicate scientific work, but Ben’s not allowed to use them to move boxes because that would be lazy.
Sue’s (lack of) characterization. And the fact that this issue is all set-up. Plot-wise, only the last half of the book matters. The (non-Sue) character work is good, but it doesn’t really go anywhere yet.
Reed plays with his What If… Machine. Sue, Johnny and Ben travel through time and space in a Quantum Leap sort of way. And Franklin and Val are left to protect their home.