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Sunday, May 3, 2015

Farewell to the Fantastic Four

Goodbye to Marvel’s First Family
[Source: Paste Magazine] This week’s Fantastic Four #645—written by James Robinson and illustrated by Leonard Kirk—is a monumental issue. It’s not only the highest number any Marvel comic has reached, but this comic book has also been informally acknowledged as the final chapter of the Fantastic Four—and when we say final, we don’t just mean “for now,” which would apply to most series conclusions; it appears that Marvel has no plans for any Fantastic Four comics in the near future. And while members of the Fantastic Four—or at least iterations of Reed Richards and Doctor Doom—will appear in the epic parallel universe crossover Secret Wars this summer, it seems that Mr. Fantastic, Invisible Woman, The Thing and Human Torch are otherwise missing from foreseeable schedules.
Fantastic Four #645 by James Robinson and Leonard Kirk
As such, this release is a sad occasion for many Fantastic Four fans. In our modern economy, a comic book series ceasing publication is a standard expectation. Sometimes publishers cancel titles due to low sales, and sometimes we don’t see or hear from our favorite characters for years—and when we do see them again, they’re sometimes unrecognizable, especially with the relaunches, reboots and re-whatevers. (Remember how Daredevil went from brooding, self-destructive ninja to happy-go-lucky swashbuckler between Andy Diggle and Mark Waid’s respective tenures?) 

But while comic fans tend to be flippant toward the idea of books ending, the void in Marvel’s Fantastic Four schedule should cause concern for franchise fans. The publisher’s current silence on Fantastic Four’s future likely stems from reported disputes between Marvel and 20th Century Fox, which legally licensed the film rights to the FF. Marvel isn’t likely to throw resources behind books that support or help publicize film projects under other studios. With Fox releasing a new Fantastic Four film in late July, this cancellation’s timing plays well into this theory, as do statements by Senior Vice President of Publishing Tom Brevoort regarding this general scenario, which also effects the X-Men family.

A Marvel Universe without Fantastic Four is a strange thing to see. One could even argue that without Fantastic Four, there would be no Marvel Comics. After all, it was released in 1961 as “the World’s Greatest Comic Magazine!”, and The Fantastic Four #1 was the first book to debut from the newly renamed Marvel Comics (formerly Atlas Comics) aside from a few leftover strays like Journey into Mystery
Fantastic Four #1 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
The Fantastic Four (shortened to Fantastic Four later) united modern comic legends Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and with their creation, the pair developed the building blocks that would become the Marvel Universe. The comic charted a family that ventured into space only to endure “cosmic rays” that imbued each member with special powers. The quartet would go on to explore the odds and ends of the Marvel Universe, serving as the world’s pulpy science champions, as opposed to the more standard brawling superhero. 

Lee and Kirby also collaborated on one of the longest creative runs of Marvel history, producing 102 issues together. Fantastic Four was also a playground for outlandish sci-fi ideas and characters, like Ronan the Accuser, an extraterrestrial fundamentalist with his giant hammer and rigid alien doctrine, or the Inhumans, a branch of enhanced beings with an extensive history ruled under a monarchy. (Both properties have since been introduced into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, via Guardians of the Galaxy, Agents of SHIELD and the upcoming Inhumans film for 2019.) And after introducing many other characters that would go on to become Marvel mainstays (Black Panther, Galactus and Silver Surfer to name a few), the book evolved into a central cornerstone of the Marvel Universe, often introducing its most eccentric, cosmic delights.

But there’s another reason altogether to take the current Fantastic Four situation into special consideration. When we look at the Fantastic Four as a group in contrast with some of Marvel’s other enduring franchises, one of the primary reasons the property has persisted is because its characters embody a unique ideal. Other big franchises like the Avengers or X-Men exist in constant flux; introducing new members, withstanding various fall-outs and internal schisms, and generally remaining consistent only in their inconsistencies, with the only constant being change. Yet, the Fantastic Four remain a core unit, a no-pun-intended nuclear family that—nine times out of 10—solve their problems by figuring out the ways their various talents and personalities compliment one another. The Fantastic Four is not just a group of people who want to save the world or do the right thing with their magnificent abilities: it’s about people who love one another.

That narrative feat is no small task. We all have families, we all know the struggles that go into working together and getting along. It’s hardly ever a perfect gathering—and we don’t even battle subterranean mole creatures. How can a socially-disconnected genius (Mr. Fantastic), an insecure brawler who never stops yearning for his former humanity (The Thing), an over-exhausted den mother (The Invisible Woman) and a selfish playboy (The Human Torch) hope to collaborate without falling to pieces? And saving the world becomes all the more complicated when you consider that the married patron and matron, Reed and Sue, have children frequently included in their exploits; daughter (Valeria) is almost smarter than her father and considers his worst enemy (Fantastic Four archenemy Dr. Doom) her uncle, and son (Franklin) can literally dream realities into existence (as seen in Heroes Reborn). When you look at the Fantastic Four from a distance, there are seemingly more forces pushing them apart than keeping them together.
Fantastic Four #49 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Yet… that’s family, isn’t it? Families are defined not by what makes their members the same, but rather what makes each individual unique, and how the different parts form an extraordinary whole. The Fantastic Four come together to empower one another—an uncomplimentary team that somehow perfectly compliments each other. Together they can outsmart Galactus, stopping a purple-clad humanoid alien from “eating” the world, and defeat interdimensional mechanical bug beings like Annihilus, preventing infections from transdimensional critters. That’s why the members of the Fantastic Four are exceptional: they may not be the world’s mightiest heroes, and they’re certainly not the strangest superheroes of all. But they are the world’s greatest.


All of this brings us to the latest Fantastic Four run, written by James Robinson and primarily illustrated by Leonard Kirk. These creators had their work cut out for them. Not only did their book segue the disparity of voices between former series writers Jonathan Hickman and Matt Fraction into something more cohesive, but it also had to revitalize the franchise from sagging sales. While it’s debatable that the latter was accomplished, the former was done with great aplomb, and together the Robinson/Kirk duo created something truly worthy of the Fantastic Four legacy: a book built on the foundations of imagination, legacy and family.


These three elements defined the core of what Robinson and Kirk accomplished. Creative teams that steward Fantastic Four tend to return to elements pulled from Kirby and Lee’s classic run; an appearance by cosmic beings like Galactus or Annihilus here, old rivalries with hot-headed maritime king Namor flaring up there, with Dr. Doom always turning out to be the Big Bad by the end. Yet, not only did half of the aforementioned characters remain in the toy box, but Robinson and Kirk introduced a new villain to rival that of Dr. Doom with the Quiet Man, a shapeshifter who hid in the background of the series until the last few issues. When Dr. Doom finally emerged, he did so as a hero, as Valeria Richards taught him how to be “good.” And while Robinson and Kirk did use classic Fantastic Four tropes like the Frightful Four (an assembly of villains acting in direct opposite to the titular heroes), they subverted the tropes, in this instance by making the Frightful Four benevolent.
Fantastic Four #1 by James Robinson and Leonard Kirk
And at the center of it, Robinson and Kirk created the same magic that’s been at the center of every great Fantastic Four run: they accentuated the team as a family unit. Their run accomplished this in a slightly unconventional way, breaking the team apart and forcing the characters to spar with one another: Johnny Storm lost his powers, The Thing was convicted of murder, Sue and Reed lost custody of their children and the Fantastic Four was forcibly removed from their home, the Baxter Building. The creators took a huge risk isolating characters that historically work better together than apart, and these characters were left to fend for themselves, slowly realizing that they could not do alone what they did so well together.

Distance makes the heart grow fonder, as they say, and when the team reunited and bygones became bygones in the second-to-last arc, it was an earned emotional moment. Rather than force-feed familial cliches into the series, Robinson and Kirk found a new way to bring the characters together as a family—a move that ultimately crafted a more powerful Fantastic Four story.

As the final pages of Fantastic Four #645 arrived and the Quiet Man stood defeated, the Fantastic Four gathered together over a destroyed city. Yet while moments like this can sometimes play as remorseful over fallen friends or apathetic towards the future to come, Fantastic Four #645 ended with a family, hugging one another, smiling and cheering as they celebrate a new tomorrow. 

It ended with the Fantastic Four being just that: fantastic. And while Robinson and Kirk’s run does pay wonderful tribute to Marvel’s First Family, I can only hope that the Fantastic Four soon returns to the forefront of Marvel’s publishing line. It’s just not quite the same without them.

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