What I'd Do With 'Fantastic Four'

When I pared back on comics almost a year ago, one of the titles I reluctantly dropped was Fantastic Four. The reluctance, though, was that of a collector who'd bought every issue for more than 40 years. The reader in me was more than a little relieved. Fantastic Four had become more of a burden than a joy, a title that kept sinking lower and lower in my to-read pile every month. Fantastic Four, the title that taught me how to read, had become a bore.

But although I don't read the title, it's impossible to miss the news stories and house ads touting Jonathan Hickman's "3" storyline, which promises to end one of the member's careers "forever." (I'm not trying to be snarky with the scare quotes. But who really believes anything in comics is forever? Geez, even Bucky came back from the dead!)

And my second reaction to that was to think Hickman, in an attempt to shake up the title or boost sales or put his mark on it, was going in the absolute opposite direction I want. I don't think he should be decreasing the First Famly. I think he should be expanding it.

I must digress here with my first reaction, which was "Ho-hum. Been there, done that, have all the back issues." From what I read online, I'm guessing the member who's leaving/dying is going to be Sue, who has left at least twice before for pregnancy, and a third extended time when she and Reed were having marital troubles. (That's off the top of my head. There may have been more leaves of absence or What Ifs I'm not remembering off-hand.) So her going away is not exactly ground-breaking (especially if she dies, because death is meaningless in comics, and she's "died" a couple of times before, most recently her time-traveling older self not so long ago, so we've already explored that particular piece of emotional real estate, and quite recently.) Meanwhile, if it's any of the other members, that's been done to death as well. Richards has been "dead" or missing for long periods of time at least twice, Ben has quit numerous times and even taken a leave of absence (on Battleworld) for several years, and Johnny used to quit every other issue in the early days (when Marvel thought he was going to be the break-out star). So not only is this story not intrinsically interesting to me, it's also practically a cliche, no matter how it's executed. So, Hickman, whose work I quite enjoy on Secret Warriors and elsewhere, already has two strikes on him for "3," as far as I'm concerned.

Getting back to the point at hand, a few days ago when I read some blurb or news item about "3," I practically bolted upright in my chair. It made me realize what would bring me back to the title. No, not reducing the family by one -- but by expanding it. In a rush, I realized one element of the Lee-Kirby days that has been notably absent for decades: the growth of the Richards' extended family.

Many people, including myself, have written extensively about the great concepts launched in the first 100 issues of Fantastic Four, and for many readers and critics, that's enough to explain the title's Silver Age success and subsequent fame. And maybe so. But concomitant with those big concepts were entire groups or families that became associated with the Fantastic Four -- friends, allies, lovers, hangers-on. For example:

* When the FF met the Inhumans, the Royal Family became an integral part of the Richards extended family, seen consulting on numerous occasions, or jumping in to help out (like in Fantastic Four Annual #5). One became Johnny's long-term girlfriend (Crystal), and two became fill-ins on the team (Crystal, Medusa). Lockjaw popped in and out like an unemployed cousin.

* When the FF met the Black Panther, he didn't disappear after Fantastic Four #53 -- he, too, became a familiar presence on a visi-screen for consults, a source of technology, a guest at parties. Wakanda was mentioned quite a bit, and if the FF weren't actually seen visiting the African nation on vacation (I don't recall seeing it), it was certainly not hard to imagine.

* When Johnny roomed with Wyatt Wingfoot, they became friends in a leisurely way, and eventually Wyatt became a sort-of fifth member for a while. His tribe became a springboard for stories as well. It wasn't forced, it wasn't necessary, it wasn't a familiar superhero trope ... it just sort of happened. Like life. And in the same way he faded in, Wyatt faded out. Just like -- oh, I dunno, an old college roommate.

* After the Galactus trilogy, just about the only place you'd see the Silver Surfer (outside his brief, 18-issue title), was Fantastic Four. Eventually, he even dated Alicia.

* The family proper increased with Franklin in the late '60s, and it made history. Also, it launched a lot of stories, as the FF grappled with their responsibility as parents -- substitute members were required, nannies were hired, suburban houses bought, and so forth. Heck, Franklin's birth was the crux of Fantastic Four Annual #6. This was fun, and gave the series a sense of moving forward, of verisimilitude.

I don' t know if I'm adequately expressing this concept, which is essentially an emotional one for me, below the threshold of awareness. When I read Fantastic Four, they felt like my own family -- because, just like my family, it wasn't just those guys on the page I was reading about, there was an entire support network behind them. Maybe I didn't see the Inhumans every issue, but my like my siblings in real life, I knew they were there if I needed them. Maybe Reed didn't hang with the Panther in every story, but like my own friends, I knew he was just a phone call away, ready and willing. The Richards family wasn't just the immediate members -- it was all their friends and associates, an extended family reaching from Africa to the Great Refuge to the Moon (hey, Uatu!). The Fantastic Four weren't just four people in matching blue uniforms, they were a huge series of linked concepts -- huge, colorful concepts -- all of which were there in spirit every issue, and there in person more often than not. And those concepts came with warm, emotional feelings, just like a real family.

Also, if I wanted to know what was going on with the Inhumans, the Panther, Wingfoot's tribe, etc., I would only find out by reading Fantastic Four. I had the feeling their lives were proceeding apace behind the scenes, and if anything really big happened, it would burst into the Baxter Building and draw the FF (and the reader) into the story, and we'd all know what was going on with them. Reading Fantastic Four was akin to checking your (fictional) friends' status on Facebook.

By contrast, post-Lee/Kirby efforts to extend the family seemed to miss the core concept and fell flat with me. When Luke Cage was (briefly) added as a member, it felt "wrong." Unlike the Inhumans, Black Panther, etc., Cage had his own milieu, his own supporting cast, his own title. He wasn't going to have a romance or change costumes or lose his powers in Fantastic Four -- if any of that happened, it would happen in Luke Cage, Hero for Hire. And he wasn't going to be showing up at cookouts or hanging with Johnny. You wouldn't open an issue and see him on the couch watching TV with Ben in the background or on the floor playing with Franklin. In his spare time, he was going to be in Times Square, with his own set of friends. Unlike the other concepts, Cage wasn't introduced in Fantastic Four, and therefore wasn't dependent on it -- he had his own story going on somewhere else. His addition wasn't a natural consequence of story and character; he was shoe-horned into the book as an obvious editorial fiat. As a reader, I knew that intellectually and felt it emotionally. And I didn't like it.

The same with She-Hulk in later issues. John Byrne said at the time and many times since that he added She-Hulk because he liked to draw her. Which is exactly why he shouldn't have done it. Like Cage, She-Hulk had no prior connection to the FF, a supporting cast (and for a while, title) of her own to deal with, and, ultimately, wasn't an addition to the FF family. She was an acquaintance -- essentially an employee. She had to leave the way she came in, unchanged. When Crystal joined the FF, it felt organic. When She-Hulk joined ... it felt like the artist wanted to draw her.

Ditto with Scott "Ant-Man" Lang. It was fashionable at the time to talk about Reed's real super-power being his intelligence, like that was a revelation of some kind. So when Reed was "killed" -- another story that could have been titled "3" -- it must have seemed logical to get a character whose intelligence was more important than his nominal super-power. Enter Ant-Man, whose powers were so irrelevant that it took enormous (and obvious) effort by the writer to make him useful in combat. And, like the others, he felt forced, had no chemistry with the team, and didn't, at any level, "join the family." (Heck, Lang's daughter calls Ant-Man/Wasp "Uncle Hank" -- when, had it been handled right, she would be calling Mr. Fantastic "Uncle Reed" and attached to Fantastic Four, not Avengers.)

I could go on in this vein, but I hope I've made my point. What would make FF more interesting to me would be to make it more like it was when it interested me. That is to say, I want these "imaginauts" to go back out there and meet alien cultures, families and teams, and add them to their extended family, so that henceforth they could appear any time, adding to the excitement and anything-can-happen anticipation. And when said groups became part of the extended family, the Richards (and the readers) should have warm, fuzzy, familial-type thoughts about them, so when they reappeared, it would be both welcome and organic.

And they ought to show up for Thanksgiving. Seriously, that would be a cool scene.

Now, not everyone may agree with this essay. I understand that. This is just what *I* would do with the book, what *I* want to see, and others may have a different perspective or attachment.

But I think Fantastic Four is unique, and want to see more of what makes it unique. It's not exactly a superhero book, but more of a My Greatest Adventure about exploration. It's also a book about family, which stands out in adventure fiction, where the lead character is almost invariably an orphaned, unmarried loner. So, in my humble opinion, Fantastic Four is unique in two ways from the many superhero books around it -- family and exploration -- and I think it ought to make the most of what makes it different.

Views: 178

Comment by Don Collett on November 7, 2010 at 12:45pm
I've enjoyed most of the Hickman run so far, but when I read about "3", I thought "Not again..." I've also noticed that the current run has been centered on the FF with very little of the old extended family showing up. The Future Foundation (the school for geniuses Reed has established) might fit your criteria. With the exception of Alex Power from Power Pack, none have appeared in their own series, and AFAIK, have only shown up in Fantastic Four. It's not much, but it's something.
Comment by Randy Jackson on November 7, 2010 at 1:31pm
Well, Artie and Leech of course were (over)exposed in X-Factor once upon a time, but I'm not really minding seeing them again. And if Power Pack have to be aged in the Marvel Universe, I don't mind Alex Power hanging out either.

But yeah, I'm neither interested in nor believing the idea that one of the core members will leave "forever". It's become a standard Marvel gimmick over the last few years, as it seems that's the only way Marvel thinks they can sell comics anymore.
Comment by Cavaliere (moderator emeritus) on November 7, 2010 at 6:03pm
I hope you all read the recent Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four limited series by Christos Gage. It was very much about the Fantastic Four as a family unit and had lots of super fun super hero action.

I, also, am skipping "3." Like Cap already said, we've been there and done that. The consequences will only be until a different writer comes on board and says, "Uh, no. Back to normal." If it were by a writer I really love then I might give it a chance but in this case I just can't bring myself to care.
Comment by Philip Portelli on November 7, 2010 at 6:39pm
The only bigger cliche would be for the FF to break up.
Comment by George on November 7, 2010 at 8:26pm
Someone once wrote that the FF's adventures should be set in the 1960s, because that's the era in which the team works best, the time when it was most relevant. After recently rereading the entire Lee-Kirby run, I'm inclined to agree.

Good to see you writing long-form pieces. More essays, please!
Comment by George on November 8, 2010 at 1:09am
Narration from Ang Lee's movie "The Ice Storm" (1997), spoken by Tobey Maguire:

"In issue 141 of the Fantastic Four, published in November, 1973, Reed Richards had to use his anti-matter weapon on his own son, who Annihilus has turn into a human atom bomb. It was a typical predicament for the Fantastic Four, because they weren't like other superheroes. They were more like a family. And the more power they had, the more harm they could do to each other without even knowing it.

"That was the meaning of the Fantastic Four: that a family is like your own personal anti-matter. Your family is the void you emerge from, and the place you return to when you die. And that's the paradox - the closer you're drawn back in, the deeper into the void you go."
Comment by Luke Blanchard on November 8, 2010 at 3:25am
I suppose readers can cool on long-running features because
-many readers have already seen what the title “normally” has to offer; and have seen the title do the obvious stuff before
-they sometimes go through tepid or poor periods, and these turn readers off them
-the possibility that lasting change comes to seem impossible, since many changes that do occur, including additions to the cast, prove ephemeral (not that I always like change; see next point)
-ill-advised, alienating changes also cause readers to loose interest
-characterisation can become less sharp, due to not all writers having an equal handle on the characters, and their having passed through so many hands
-the creators’ sense of what might be done with the feature can be restricted by its past
-the tendency of creators to revisit a feature’s classic villains and other elements can militate against freshness
-readers can develop a sense that they don’t need to know what’s going on in the feature (e.g. because it never affects other features)

One thing creators can do to get fans excited about a feature again is explore possibilities arising from its characters and storylines that previous creators haven’t exploited. For example, Wolfman and Perez’s New Teen Titans had more intense action than the feature had seen before, and picked up on and took further its depiction of the lives of young adults. From what I understand, one of the things Geoff Johns has done on the GL books is take the possibility of violent action involving the corps further than has been done before.
Comment by Figserello on November 8, 2010 at 4:55am
From what I understand, one of the things Geoff Johns has done on the GL books is take the possibility of violent action involving the corps further than has been done before.

I've never seen a good argument made for why Johns GL comics have to be so ridiculously violent until I read this. There is sense in it, especially given how writer's have a huge task these days doing things that weren't done before.

Effectively, the problems are that the stories etc are cyclical, any changes brought in won't 'count' and Marvel has to preserve the characters 'as they are' for marketing reasons.

There's a great argument on a site called 'Enter the Story' that Marvel Time effectively began to stop in 1968 just after Franklin Richards was born and has been kept from growing and evolving much since that time by the same cosmically-powered, reality-shaping Franklin Richards.

It suggests a great in-story reason why the characters haven't grown much older, and why everything happens in cycles. It's entertaining, well-reasoned and passionate. Summarising it can't really do it justice, but it involves a lot of subconscious Freudian struggling on Franklin's part to deal with the horrors of growing up and leaving childhood behind. (That great quote from the Ice Storm is very pertinent to it, too.)

In some ways it's the endpoint of the argument the writer builds up in his other articles on Marvel: that they are hurting themselves by refusing to bring real change and growth to the line, which made the first few years of Marvel comics such fun.

Here is the Franklin Richards article, but all of his articles on Marvel Comics are worth a look. I personally love this kind of longform, in-depth, example-laden style of discussing comics, that take what happens on the page on its own merits.
Comment by Eric L. Sofer on November 8, 2010 at 7:30am

Cap, those are some really good points. I'll address what you said by commenting that I think that the FF should still be "human" - their interests and activities were so very obviously human instead of cosmic. Sue Richards had hair appointments and bought clothes... she wasn't a super genius ambassador to four previously unknown (and currently uninteresting) races (the "other" Atlantis? Really?) Even as a super genius, Reed worked on how to make humanity safer with his gizmos and gadgets, and how to protect against Galactus' return, against an invasion from the Negative Zone, about freeing the Inhumans or curing Ben Grimm or improving their powers and abilities. Now he's teaching a class of super intelligent kids, of his own ilk... wow , that's got to be fascinating reading. Or he's meeting with alternate reality versions of himself (all of whom seemed smarter and with cooler powers than he has.) Or meeting an alternate version of his father,who is fighting another alternate version of his father. A supporting character in his own book, yawn.

But I'll tell you what I think would be a really good idea for the Fantastic Four, although it's pretty radical. I think they should make them super HEROES. No, really, I think the comic book ought to be about just the main four characters, and they should fight crime - maybe super villains. I think their powers are interesting enough, and the interpersonal relationships could be fascinating during battles. I mean, Reed is smart enough that he could even probably coordinate how they could battle villains.

But there are some really interesting villains out there - Klaw, the Sandman, Electro, Dr. Doom, and many others - whom I think could be interesting if they were to fight the Fantastic Four.

I realize that that would deviate wildly from the current plan of the book.... well, I think I realize it, because I have NO GODDAMNED IDEA what FF is about these days... oh, no, wait, I do, They're building up for the NEXT BIG MARVEL EVENT (tm) - a member of the Fantastic Four is gone forever (for a few months). Yeah, right, and when he comes back (I personally think it's going to be Johnny), he'll have Junior Juniper and Uncle Ben with him. And maybe Bucky, Elektra, and Phoenix too - what? They're not dead any more?

Wow. That's a case for the Fantastic Four.

Comment by Lumbering Jack (M'odd-R8-Tr) on November 8, 2010 at 9:34am
Assuming they do lose a member for a while and assuming they bring in a replacement, what characters would you like to see as fill-ins for each of the members?
Mr. Fantastic --
Invisible Woman --
Human Torch --
The Thing --


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