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: 179

Comment by Lumbering Jack (M'odd-R8-Tr) on November 8, 2010 at 10:15am
Me? I like bringing in odd-characters as fill-ins.
Replacing Mr. Fantastic -- Mole Man. He's a petty genius who is often a "shade of gray" rather than a true villain. He could be the team's science guy. And wouldn't he look cute in on of Franklin's pint-sized "4" uniforms?
Replacing Invisible Woman -- I see Invisible Woman as the "stealth agent" of the F.F., so I'd try replacing her with someone of a similar power set. My first thought is Puma, the sometime Spider-Man ally, but I think he might be deemed untrustworthy by Reed. Along the same lines, and eliminated for the same reason, I would nominate Will O'Wisp. Again, I suspect he would be another no-go with Reed. Okay, with those two off my list, I don't know who I'd nominate. .... Maybe an overlooked Inhuman or an Atlantean?
Replacing Human Torch -- Yeah, yeah, you're all gonna roll your eyes because I ALWAYS bring him up, but how about Jack of Hearts. He's a total hothead like Torch, plus he's a match in the firepower. Only problem ... last we know Jack is still dead. I'd love to see a Reed-designed uniform for him.
Replacing The Thing -- Really, the Thing is easiest to replace thanks to an over-abundance of brutes in the Marvel U. I think my first pick would be Hercules. If you're not happy with him, how about Ultragirl, a Kree-born teenager with super-strength and who also wore the Ms. Marvel costume for a while.
Comment by Philip Portelli on November 8, 2010 at 10:51am
The more I think about it, the more I'm leaning that it will be Johnny pushing up the flaming daisies (however briefly). The last attempt to give him a solo book failed. His function in Civil War was to be beaten up by a mob, despite battling Doctor Doom, Blastaar, the Frightful Four, etc. His role in Siege was unimportant and he fought the Skrulls first in the MU and he, and the FF, have no part in the Heroic Age. Plus he never was off the team for any great length of time as opposed to the others.

Also Marvel has both the Original Human Torch and Toro flaming around, making Johnny for the first time in his existence redundant!
Comment by Captain Comics on November 8, 2010 at 12:00pm
I wouldn't mind seeing Johnny go, either, Philip -- I've never been much of a Human Torch fan. In fact, I didn't much like him at all until, ironically, the Fantastic Four movie, where I got a sense of how much fun being a Human Torch could be.

Maybe I'm just looking for reasons to dislike an impetuous, conceited loudmouth, but I've never thought the Torch's powers were very useful in combat. The problem I have is with how lethal it is. Either the villain is flameproof, in which case the Torch is useless, or he's not, in which case it's almost implausible that he would survive a Torch attack.

Of course, it's a very handy power for fighting robots! Unless they're flameproof, which they often are.

What I'd do is have Johnny grow up, get married, provide a couple of cousins for Franklin and Valeria. A more mature Johnny might be more palatable, and I think it obvious that you'd bring in another super-powered teenager for the team proper, to fill Johnny's place in the family and combat dynamics -- and to provide the apparently vital vicarious self-actualization for teenage readers.

And the new character -- one I'd hope has some pre-existing connection to the family -- could actually grow and change, since she or he isn't one of the original four so necessary for marketing.and, like Robins, there could be a series of teenage heroes in training. Alex Power, for example, could rotate through when he hits his late teens and early twenties (if he ever does).

That would be my way of dealing with a character I never much liked AND keeping the title fresh. Not a chance it will ever happen, though!
Comment by Jeff of Earth-J on November 8, 2010 at 2:57pm
Here are the first of the changes I’d make:

Mr. Fantastic: I’d make him mor of the two-fisted fightin’ man he was in the Lee/Kirby days. He was a brilliant scientist, sure, but he was also first and foremost a man of action.

Franklin Richards: I’d let him grow up (to a teenager, at least).

Hum an Torch: I’d develop him into more of a leader; I’d make him more competent and less of a joke. If I had to move him out from under the wing of his more adult teammates, I’d replace him with the original Human Torch.

I’d also like to go on record as saying I thought the She-Hulk made a good addition to the FF. Regardless of why Byrne added her to the team (or why he said he did), I liked the team dynamic during her tenure. Wyatt Wingfoot was brought back and stayed around for a while directly because of her, the Thing was out allowing Johnny Storm to hook up with Alicia, and Reed and Sue bought a house in the suburbs. It was only the illusion of change because all of these developments were later reversed.
Comment by Chris Fluit on November 8, 2010 at 6:25pm
Great article, Cap. Despite your hesitation, I think you did a great job expressing an emotional reaction in a way that others could understand.

Plus, I like your idea. I can see how the extended family feeling could work for the Fantastic Four again.

However, I see a couple of obstacles to your plan. The first is that your idea doesn't really fit the current trade-friendly mentality. The publishers seem to frown on ongoing subplots, sporadic supporting characters and so on. There's a sense that they don't fit into the finite product of a trade paperback. I disagree with that stance, but it's still an obstacle your approach would have to overcome.

The second is more serious: I don't know that the fans would accept it. There's a certain gentrification among fans that is standing in the way. We've even seen some of it in this thread. There's a rejection of any character that wasn't around when Stan and Jack worked on the title. The new characters would be viewed as interlopers and intruders. They would never be accepted as long-term additions to the cast. I don't know how you overcome that.
Comment by Chris Fluit on November 8, 2010 at 6:29pm
I wouldn't mind seeing Johnny go, either, Philip -- I've never been much of a Human Torch fan. In fact, I didn't much like him at all until, ironically, the Fantastic Four movie, where I got a sense of how much fun being a Human Torch could be.

I agree completely.

If the FF is going to lose a member (even if it's as temporary as everything else in comics), I'd be happy to see Johnny go. For one thing, we've seen credible substitutes for the other three members: Crystal for Sue, She-Hulk for Ben, Ant-Man for Reed. But we've never seen a really good run without Johnny. I'd love to see them explore the team dynamics without the Human Torch. What did Johnny bring to the table? What would they miss? Whether it's the suggested Jack of Hearts, or someone else, I think it could be an interesting story to tell.

Plus, like you, I was never a Torch fan until I saw the first FF movie. Chris Evans showed us how much fun it would be to be a superhero. And I will always thank him for that.
Comment by Randy Jackson on November 8, 2010 at 11:32pm
Over the years, it seems that two of the four have grown--Sue and Ben--and two have either stayed stagnant or regressed--Reed and Johnny. Personally, I'd love to see the two-fisted he-man Reed Richards again, and I'd love to see some sort of character growth with Johnny; Waid started to do something with Johnny, but it seemed as if that was completely forgotten after he left the title.

I certainly am not interested in seeing any of them leave. Actually, it might be cool if each of them formed a team of their own and led them for a while. That could be fun, sort of like when Hawkeye declared himself leader of the Great Lakes Avengers.

Oh, and I gotta admit, both Reed and Johnny had their best moments under Lee and Kirby. Reed going up against Namor for Sue, and Johnny doing whatever it took to be with Crystal, no matter the consequences. That was great writing.
Comment by Luke Blanchard on November 9, 2010 at 5:48am
A character might undergo development in two ways. First, characters have neuroses and faults, so they might develop in the sense of overcoming those neuroses and faults. An immature character might become more mature and so on. Second, characters might be developed in the sense of being filled out and explored. We might learn more about their likes and dislikes, friendships, and histories, and get a fuller picture of their personalities.

Many readers like the fact that over time some characters have overcome or moved past their old neuroses and faults. The Thing is an example: over time, he became better adjusted to being the Thing, and less likely to do something stupid.

Moving characters past their neuroses and faults isn’t all upside, though, as they help make them relatable, and fuel conflict and stories. On the other hand, long-time readers can become irritated by characters who never seem to undergo this kind of development.

Characterisation also shifts over time for other reasons: some creators just have a different take on a character, others change characters to make them more interesting. Sometimes writers revert to an earlier characterisation. I think there is more than one reason a writer might do this. (They might not know the character has changed; they might prefer the older characterisation; they might think the direction taken a mistake; they might think it offers no story possibilities).

On his website, on a page here, Steve Englehart argues that the title had declined before his time on it because of a lack of growth and change and the “hermetically-sealed group of Reed & Sue & Ben & Johnny”. I don’t think the bit about the absence of growth and change stands up when you look at what was going on in the book in the years before he took over: in the latter part of Byrne’s run the Thing was replaced by She-Hulk, Johnny became involved with Alicia, Reed learned his father was still alive and living in a parallel universe, and the Baxter Building was destroyed; in the following issues preceding Englehart’s debut, mostly written by Roger Stern, Ben returned to the team greatly embittered, Johnny married Alicia (in #300), and the Thing realised he still loved Alicia after all (in #304, by Roy Thomas). But more importantly, I don’t believe the presence of the four characters in the book has to make the team “hermetically-sealed”. Firstly, they can have other characters hanging around: as the Captain says, they often have. (When I started reading the title regularly it had just come off a period with Tigra, Thundra and the Impossible Man around. Reed had lost his powers.) Secondly, they don’t have to be portrayed as having no lives, interests or friendships outside the team. (I like to imagine Reed having a regular poker night with a group of fellow super-geniuses.)

I think mediocre writing can make any title appear moribund, and good writing can make most long-running titles creatively vital again. I don’t know that doing something new has to mean making changes, but be that as it may, I think experiences shows readers will accept changes if the material is good.
Comment by Doc Beechler (mod-MD) on November 9, 2010 at 10:07am
You know, when the family met "God", in the person of Jack Kirby, during Mark Waid's run...it seemed like the perfect end for the title for me.
Comment by Luke Blanchard on November 9, 2010 at 11:13am
I don't disagree, Mark. Marvel has declared one of the characters "will have breathed their last", which could be a sneaky way of suggesting the character will die when actually something else will happen. I don't know if other language has been used elsewhere.

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