So when you think “the best” in comic book narrative storytelling, you probably think of Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns or Civil War, depending on your mileage, but I doubt many of you think of Daydreamers by JM DeMatteis… although maybe you should, because this simple three-issue mini-series spinning off from Generation X: After Onslaught is probably one of the best examples of simple, nuanced sequential storytelling out there.
I’ve been kind of dreading reading this on my trek through X-Men, especially since Operation Zero Tolerance is right around the corner, which is when I started collecting X-Men so it holds a special nostalgic place for me. It’s also weird to call this an X-Men comic: it isn’t. if anything, this is a Fantastic Four comic. Sure it spins out of these characters meeting in the pages of Generation X, but from a narrative standpoint, this miniseries has nothing to do with the ongoing strife between mutants and humans or persecution or anything like that. What it has everything to do with is the effects of the death of Reed and Sue Richards on their young son, Franklin.
So major spoilers here, starting right off the bat. Although really, the comic slaps you in the face with a giant spoiler in its very title: Daydreamers. It is revealed in the climax of the third issue that the majority of this series is an elaborate fantasy constructed by Franklin Richards.
That might seem like a huge cop-out, but it honestly isn’t, mostly because of the way it’s setup and handled. Franklin’s powers to warp reality and his status as possibly the most powerful mutant on the planet has long been a part of Marvel Comics lore. The fact that he’s a child and can, at times, unintentionally or unconsciously affect his surroundings has also been dealt with before. These rules are already on the table, so its not like Daydreamers is using them as a “get out of jail free card.” Those clues were there from the lore of the characters, and it’s more a reflection of good storytelling that I didn’t pick up on them right away.
There’s also the inclusion of Howard the Duck that adds to that suspension of disbelief. Howard has always been a character that gets himself into weird and surreal situations, and he is very much the audience stand-in protagonist of this story, the everyman (er… everyDUCK) through which we see everything. As such, knowing what we know of him and his adventures, we are far more accepting of the surreal takes on fairy tales and established Marvel Canon than we would be if any other character was dropped into this setting.
A lot of people complain about this portrayal of Howard, but I think it is some of the best non-Gerber material involving the character, and even outshines some of Gerber’s weaker outings. There’s something about pairing Howard’s jaded nature with the innocence of characters like Artie, Leech, Man-Thing, and Franklin that just works: his begrudging heroism turning him into an unwilling (but effective and caring) father-figure by the story’s end. Howard gets the first and last words of this series, and through it it is clear that he’s gone through a progressive arc from where he started, becoming a caretaker of sorts for these lost souls.
The plot of the series revolves around Franklin, while the story revolves around Howard (even teasing a final return to Duckworld at one point). Splitting the plot and narrative between the two characters is a genius, masterful stroke by DeMatteis because it prevents either character from overwhelming the story and becoming too much of a “Mary Sue.”
Okay, the plot we keep talking about. It’s very simple (deceptively so in fact). The Daydreamers (for lack of any real team name) are flung from dimension to dimension as they are chased by a villainous shadow with red eyes, the lone sailor on a giant ship reminiscent of the ships that took Greek heroes to Hell. The realities traversed are a hodge-podge of children’s literature like The Wizard of Oz and Dr. Suess, but populated with versions of Marvel Comics characters, such as the Scarlet Witch filling in for the Wicked Witch, a million tiny Things standing in for munchkins, etc. We are flung from reality to reality so quickly that we never stop to think about the internal logic of this.
Part of this is because too many “bad” comics don’t have an internal logic for actions like these: they’re just filling space. DeMatteis uses that to trick us: our brains accept that this is “just the way it is” because comics have taught us to suspend our disbelief, whereas normally we would be asking ourselves why it is this way… and once you do ask, it becomes apparent and you wonder how you didn’t figure it out sooner. This was also the case during The Phalanx Covenant, when Storm’s dialog sounded corny and I thought it was just bad dialog, when in fact it was great dialog that illustrated that Storm was not who she thought she was. It takes a truly great writer to effectively use the guise of being a bad writer to their advantage.
Just as we the reader start to get hints of what is going on, so is the audience-avatar Howard, at which point we are whisked to Duckworld. As soon as that happens Howard is immediately distracted by being on his home planet for the first time since his origin, and so are we the reader… as an old-school Howard fan, i found myself searching every panel for clues and hints and winks, which included several tongue-in-cheek references to the Howard the Duck movie by George Lucas that made me literally laugh out loud… so much so that I didn’t notice that both Howard, and I the reader, have been distracted. And then a rare thing happened: Howard realized it first. Howard, the fictional character, reminded the other characters (and me, the reader) that we had been on the cusp of realizing something.
Because this isn’t DuckWorld, we were not in Oz… and the shadow creature following us is not a villain. All this time, all these things have been childhood stories and adventures created by Franklin Richard’s grief over the loss of his parents and his reality-warping powers. He’s hiding from his grief… grief which has taken the form of the scary shadow creature which has been chasing them.
Because grief is scary. Loss is scary. And nothing must be scarier for a young child than the loss of his parents. When the shadow creature eventually catches Franklin, there is not big comic-book fight or brawl. They tearfully embrace and Franklin accepts his grief so that he can deal with it and finally start to move past it.
I’ll admit that this comic did something few ever have: I teared up. When they hug, Howard is about to make another typical tension-breaking sardonic remark… when he sees Franklin crying and is left speechless by the naked grief, and embraces Franklin himself, his gritty exterior shed in the presence of a child who needs him.
All this would be amazing enough, but the plot of Franklin’s grief warping reality will play big into the ongoing Heroes Reborn story going on at the time, so it even sets the stage (intentionally or not) for that.
This is an amazing miniseries, easily one of my favorites of all time. It is smart, witty, funny, heartfelt, and emotional. I would recommend it for any parent wanting to read something to their children to introduce them to Marvel Comics, or anyone who wants to give a young person something that will help them deal with a loss.