Just as there’s an art to weaving a complex hydra of a narrative with as many subplots and side adventures as one can conceivably pack into a comic, there’s also a beauty to the “one-and-done" tradition of comic writing. With the semester winding down and my number of columns growing slim, we’ll be accelerating the pace somewhat and running through a few issues in rapid succession. But first, here is one more single-issue week to transition us into a speed run of the rest of Hickman’s saga.
An odd feature of most comic book characters is that they operate on a concept that some have called a “floating timeline,” wherein there’s an unspoken cap on a character’s age while certain events are simultaneously allowed to update to the modern day. As such, there aren’t many birthdays in comic books where a character’s age is definitively stated, and the birthday of Franklin Richards is no different.
Yes, it’s the Fantastic Four’s first child’s birthday, and it’s a unique chance for Hickman to show his skill by giving a distinctive voice to each of his characters, all while maintaining a deep understanding and respect for them and their established traits. Considering that the issue takes a rare turn away from Reed being the protagonist, we really get a great view of Franklin’s childhood optimism and wide-eyed glee at having Spider-Man (who, in reality, is his parent’s coworker) come to his birthday. Franklin is delightful in the issue, clearly taking after both his parents and bearing a strong resemblance to his uncle Johnny due, in part, to his seeming lack of genius.
The real twist though is that Franklin has another role to play in the issue. After the party is over and the Richards kids are put to bed, they’re visited by a mysterious stranger who teleports into the Baxter Building. He immediately puts up a force field around the children’s rooms, seemingly dispatches Franklin and moves to speak with Valeria.
His carefully worded prophecy begins with the firm pronouncement that “the future must be avoided at all costs” and ends with the chilling utterance, “And all hope lies in Doom,” referring to the Fantastic Four’s greatest enemy. As he turns to leave, though, Valeria knowingly smiles, as she realizes the man is a version of Franklin from the future. Future Franklin disappears, and everything returns to a semblance of normalcy, that is, except for present-day Franklin. As Hickman puts it, “All alone in his room ... A little boy creates a baby universe,” foreshadowing that Franklin’s reality-warping powers have manifested and this event has set in motion the cogs that will lead to that very visit with the future Franklin.
Light yet weighty, there's a balance that Hickman perfectly strikes when he intends to. Additionally, the range he exhibits, between the previous issue of pure sci-fi madness to the comparatively reserved storyline this time around is something to behold. Issue #574 is the sort of setup issue I wish we got more of in comics; so peacefully does it lull you in with fun character work that it makes you forget it’s an advertisement for issues to come.