Return of Fantastic Four is big news, "Fresh Start" not so much

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Marvel Comics has announced the return of Fantastic Four in August, a title that has not been published since 2015. 

Andrew A. Smith

Tribune Content Agency

April 5, 2018 -- The big news this week from the world of comics is the imminent return of the Fantastic Four. Less so is the Marvel Comics publishing initiative of which it is part.

The triumphant homecoming of the FF truly is important. More than any other character or concept, the FF is the beating heart of the Marvel Universe. Sure, Spider-Man is more popular and the Avengers are big time at the movies. But Marvel Comics – and all the innovations it brought to the superhero genre – all started with the Fantastic Four in 1961.

Marvel had existed before that, of course, using other names. It was Timely Comics in the ‘40s, and known as Atlas in the ‘50s. A number of familiar characters got their starts in those earlier iterations, notably Captain America (1941) and the Sub-Mariner (1939).

But, while those characters interacted a bit (as did early versions of DC Comics heroes), the “shared universe” concept wasn’t truly born until the 1960s. As soon as the FF got some company – Ant-Man, Hulk, Spider-Man, Sub-Mariner and Thor in 1962; Avengers, Dr. Strange, Iron Man, The Wasp and X-Men in 1963; Captain America and Daredevil in 1964 – all those characters started bumping into each other.

Not only that, none of the encounters were one-offs, quickly forgotten after the adventure, like at DC Comics. After the Avengers and the FF met each other, they became colleagues, with Tony Stark and Reed Richards sharing the odd conversation as the occasion demanded. While they weren’t all friends – Spider-Man and Wasp couldn’t stand each other, for example – they interacted frequently as people in the same field often do.

It helped that most of them lived in the same city – and in another comic-book innovation, it was a real one. While Batman prowled Gotham City and Superman defended Metropolis, “Fantastic Four” – and most of the rest of the burgeoning Marvel line – was set in a very real New York City. That began with the FF in the Baxter Building in midtown Manhattan, joined soon by Don “Thor” Blake’s medical practice, Tony Stark’s penthouse (although his factory was on Long Island), Avengers Mansion and others. Peter Parker lived in Queens, but worked at the Daily Bugle in Manhattan. The X-Men weren’t far away, in upstate Westchester County.

And let’s not forget the main innovation of the Fantastic Four: real personalities. While DC’s Justice League in the 1960s was filled with interchangeable square-jawed heroes, the FF was a squabbling family with very distinct characterizations. Richards was intellectual and aloof, Sue Storm nurturing and maternal, Johnny Storm an immature hothead and Ben Grimm a gruff, brooding time bomb, apt to go off on a rampage at any time. These personalities were not only deftly etched, they often rubbed each other the wrong way.

This “real people with real problems” idea extended throughout the Marvel line, eventually infecting DC’s heroes and all subsequent superhero creations. For an idea how well this plays out, you need look no further than your local movie theater.

Nor were these personalities static. Marvel characters grew and changed, like normal folks. Reed and Sue got married, and eventually had two children. Ben’s big heart made itself known, and his catchphrase “the idol o’ millions” became far less ironic. Johnny … well, OK, some things never change.

And the supporting cast in Fantastic Four kept growing and changing, too. The title introduced A-list characters like Black Panther, the Inhumans, Silver Surfer and The Watcher; the team made first contact with most important Marvel Universe bad guys, including Dr. Doom, the Skrulls, the Kree and Galactus. Most major themes and characters in the 1960s launched in the pages of Fantastic Four, and most lines in the Marvel Universe pointed back to the Baxter Building.

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Avengers #1, coming in May, features a team consisting of Black Panther, Captain America, Captain Marvel, Dr. Strange, Ghost Rider, Iron Man, She-Hulk and Thor. 

Eventually, though, the FF’s star began to fade. Amazing Spider-Man became Marvel’s best-selling title in the late ‘60s, both Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had left the title by 1970, then the X-Men became the publisher’s superstars for a decade or two. In 2015, Marvel canceled Fantastic Four outright.

Not for the usual reason, though – Fantastic Four wasn’t setting sales charts on fire, but it was doing well enough. Rumor sites like ran speculative stories about Marvel Entertainment CEO Ike Perlmutter not wanting to give free publicity to characters whose movie rights were owned by Twentieth Century Fox, a rival to Marvel Films.

While Marvel hasn’t ever confirmed that story, even some creators thought it was true.

”I think it’s pretty common knowledge at this point that Marvel isn’t publishing Fantastic Four because of their disagreement with Fox,” one-time FF writer Jonathan Hickman told in 2017. “While it bums me out, I completely understand because, well, it isn’t like they’re not acting out of cause. Fox needs to do a better job there.”

So it may just be coincidence that Fantastic Four is returning to print just as Disney is in the process of acquiring the FF film rights from Fox. Or not.

At any rate, the First Family of Marvel will return from where they were left at the end of the mega-event “Secret Wars” in 2015. At that time, the Marvel Universe had launched anew from the wreckage of the multiverse, which had collapsed. (Long story.) At the heart of that relaunch was – appropriately – Reed and Sue Richards and their two children. And that’s where they have been ever since, believed dead in the reconstituted Marvel Earth, even by their teammates, the Thing and the Human Torch.

That will change in August, when for reasons not yet known, the team will re-form and Fantastic Four will reboot with a new #1. It will be written by Dan Slott, a fan favorite coming off a long, successful run on Amazing Spider-Man, and Sara Pichelli, an Italian artist known for Runaways and Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man.

But Fantastic Four isn’t the only Marvel title getting a relaunch. In a publishing initiative known as “Fresh Start,” most Marvel titles will hit the restart button, beginning in May.

Which would be a lot more interesting if Marvel hadn’t done the exact thing four other times in the last six years. The publisher pitched “Marvel NOW!” in 2012, “All-New, All-Different Marvel” in 2015, “Marvel NOW! 2.0” in 2016, and “Marvel Legacy” in 2017. The changes introduced in these schemes weren’t usually very important or long-lasting, with Legacy in particular little more than a label on a nice trade dress.

Another complaint about “Fresh Start” is that it will have the effect of returning a lot of characters to their original conception – meaning a lot white guys displacing women and people of color. For example, the female Thor recently died, and the Odinson will return in Thor #1 in June. Steve Rogers is once again Captain America, as of his “Legacy” reboot last January, with fill-in Sam Wilson, an African-American, trading the shield for his Falcon uniform. After being thought dead and replaced by black teen wunderkind Riri Williams, Tony Stark will reclaim the armor in June. Bruce Banner returned as the Hulk in a recent Avengers, a name used for the last few years by his cousin Jessica Walters and Asian teen Amadeus Cho.

All of these characters remain in the Marvel Universe, and their stories aren’t over. But “Fresh Start” will dramatically reduce the number of titles headlined by women and/or people of color. Given the success of Black Panther on screen – and the ethnic diversity of 21st century America – that seems remarkably tone-deaf and backward-looking.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates will continue his acclaimed run when Black Panther relaunches in May. 

Not all of it is bad news, though. The new Avengers lineup looks interesting, with the Big Three (Thor, Iron Man and Captain America) joined by Black Panther, Captain Marvel, Dr. Strange, Ghost Rider and She-Hulk, all written by fan-favorite Jason Aaron. Acclaimed writer Ta-Nehisi Coates will not only continue on the relaunched Black Panther, but will bring his unique talent to Captain America in what will surely be a future classic. And as you’d expect, soon-to-be movie star Captain Marvel will receive a new title (and possibly a new origin), while Ant-Man and Wasp will star in a miniseries timed to their upcoming film.

And there’s more to come – while 17 first issues have been announced for May and June, late summer should bring more. For example, the X-Men titles are relatively untouched by “Fresh Start” so far, which will surely change.

But most fans will probably forgive Marvel if many of those relaunches don’t live up to the hype. Bringing Fantastic Four home is good news enough.

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Dan Slott's run may bring me back from my Marvel-less year plus hiatus. I know he's been writing Spider-Man for awhile, but I used to really enjoy his writing (in fact, I was a very vocal fan of his Spider-Man work for most of it). I think Fantastic Four should be really great when written by him. The book should be about family and science, and those are things that Slott does well.

Slott's run on Silver Surfer was great. I'm really looking forward to his Fantastic Four. (Although... I probably won't buy it, but just wait for Marvel Unlimited to pick it up. I really think Marvel is shooting itself in the foot with that program, as much as I enjoy it.)

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