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
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.