Four For Four Outside of Fantastic Four
Travis Hedge Coke
There’s a new Fantastic Four movie out and maybe it sucks and maybe it doesn’t, but it is different, right? Unlike the last two movies, this movie features four associated Americans stuck with superhuman maladies after a scientific accident, and they channel those maladies into world-saving power sets, and fight a guy with a metal face calling himself Doctor Doom and this time one of them is black and the whole thing might be less deliberately camp.
But, don’t fear, because this is not the first time the FF have been changed or presented in a different way than the standard! (Seriously, I can tell some of you were fearing. It’s okeh, just stop now.) Not all Fantastic Four stories have to be the same, and in terms of comics, not all FF has to come in the monthly Fantastic Four comic.
These may require some searching, but you’ll thank yourself after you read them. The movie may suck, it may not, but these comics won’t.
I covered Guy Davis’ and James Sturm’s Unstable Molecules in greater detail earlier this year, but in short: it’s genius and you should read it. The ostensibly true story of the people the Fantastic Four were based on and the men and women who made the comics about them, it uses this to explore the transitional period between the iconic Fifties and Sixties, social gender, class, and age politics, and to break your heart by emphasizing that while life may feel untenable, its situations last as long as they last, that life does not end until it’s over.
Every time Reed Richards looks at the unstable molecules he is studying, he sees behavior he does not expect consequences he cannot foresee. Each time I read Unstable Molecules, I understand something different and intense. Sometimes it’s about the military-industrial complex, sometimes it’s a domestic melodrama featuring the bored and agitated. It is always exceptional, always beautiful, and entirely rewarding. Feels like treading new and mutable ground every time.
Marvel Fanfare was an ace anthology comic that usually ran two stories per issue, and featured, over the course of its existence, five Fantastic Four stories (and a few others which featured FF members). I’m only going to talk about four of those stories, because I only really enjoy four of them, but the undiscussed fifth is by a well-respected artist/writer so some of you may want to seek it out despite it not appealing to me.
In MF #2, we have “Annihilation” by Roger McKenzie and Trevor Von Eeden. Focusing on a day Reed Richards forgot his anniversary and tried, pathetically, to make up for it, allows McKenzie and Von Eden to emphasize that Reed is almost built of his history of screw ups and unintentional callousness. Reed is constantly trying to make amends and consistently adding new guilts, new screw ups, new errors for which he’ll need to make amends. But, maybe he can also beat up a bad alien horror once in awhile, too?
“Synchronicity”, from MF #37, is another Reed-focused comic. Norm Breyfogle shows more daring than most lauded FF artists, in these few pages, as Reed attempts to use short-term time travel to avoid annoying his wife with his usual lateness. Breyfogle and writer, Mark Borax use this frame to explore the relationship between Reed and his teammates, as well as interplay between the other members and then-member She-Hulk’s boyfriend and the Human Torch’s old college roommate, Wyatt Wingfoot.
“Inside Job” (MF #46) is, for me, evidence that Mike W. Barr should have been pressed for a long run on the Fantastic Four even if his ultimate answer was still, “No.” With Louis Williams (penciler) and Glynis Oliver (colorist), Barr orchestrates a smart interlocking-pieces build up in his deceptively simple tale of the Mad Thinker coming to the FF’s home and asking for help.
In the same issue (#46), Danny Fingeroth and later Archie New Look and Zorro artist Tod Smith look at “The Day After” the events that turned the FF into something more than human, specifically through the eyes and rocky orange mitts of the Thing. Ben yells! Ben sulks! Ben gets in a fight with his girlfriend! Ben makes things harder on himself even though being a bulky, discolored, super strong monster should be hard to top.
When the new movie hit and early reviews called it pessimistic, referred to characters are self-loathing or suffering, when it was criticized for being about bad decisions and trauma that grows into fight-the-monster heroism, this is the comic I thought of.
A Marvel Knights release from when that really meant something, a deliberately provocative Grant Morrison, on fire Jae Lee, and the divine Jose Villarrubia put together an amazing and gorgeous comic that reads as mournful, hilarious, cruel, engaging, intellectual, passionate, frustrated or unrestrained as you want it to be when you read it. It’s not a mass of contradictions, because contradictions imply that one side is incompatible or less true, but in order to make a fine, strong engine out of the Fantastic Four’s core dynamics, the comic embraces the push and pull of seemingly contradictory states.
Rather than look the other way, or pretend as adults that we don’t see that the Thing fell in love with a blind woman who is identical to the woman he can’t have because she married his best friend, or that her brother later married that woman who looks exactly like his sister and used to date his best frenemy… this comic just embraces it head on. Ostensibly the comic revolves around the four classic elements and a fifth special one, but even there, it’s coded beyond the typical “Thing is made of rock, so he’s Earth and Johnny’s on fire, so fire” to embrace both those surface elements and their interfamilial dynamics, personal psychology, their relationships to their popular villains, treating every character, every aspect as metaphor, symbolism, psychology, poetry.
It’s a brash and studied comic. The familiar release from the ennui and anger that early FF comics, especially, had in spades is the fight scene, and 1234 denies the team and the reader this deliverance. Every moment of grief, awkwardness, deformity or anxiety that should be disintegrated in a punch-up that lets us forget pain and stress is instead extended, interleaved with more anxiety, more stress until it feels inescapable, the way spiraling down into a blackhole would seem increasingly inescapable. But energy and information escape blackholes at the last moment, every day.
Marvel Mangaverse was an odd mashup of Marvel and manga tropes, that remixed the dynamics of several popular characters and superhero “families.” I enjoy most of it, and even the comics that didn’t excite me have some entertainment value. That said, the opening arc of the Marvel Mangaverse title, itself, was a Fantastic Four and Captain Marvel story that really does fire on all cylinders from start to finish.
Ben Dunn, with colors by Guru eFX, commits to a funny, flashy, cosmic adventure. Ben Grimm as a plucky kid, the Human Torch as an aggressive young woman, these are good changes, but the magic, too, is in how much Dunn is willing to blow up. When Fox did the FF sequel with Galactus a few years ago, they made Galactus a cloud of dust. When Kirby and Lee introduced him, Galactus was a ten story man with bare legs and his initial on his belt. Since Galactus is a giant planet-eating monstrosity, Dunn introduces Galactus as an open eye the size of the entire sky with the next-issue tagline of “HUMAN AND INHUMAN” below this dehumanizing, intense presentation.
In the second issue, Galactus is revealed fully, but it’s that first glimpse that supports the whole thing. This is big. Big in the way Fantastic Four should be, not just with big villains or big fights, but a giant universe.
The Fantastic Four isn’t just about crazy cosmic hijinks or warm family moments. It shouldn’t all be trauma and personal anxieties. Superhero costumes and slugfests with the Incredible Hulk. The real frisson, the best crackle of the FF, for me, is that worried, nervous, passionate people populate this massive, colorful multiverse of worlds. By shifting around the ages and genders of the Four and adding a parallel story of a recently-superhuman child and his parents with their secrets at the edge of the potential end of the Earth, Dunn highlights how the comic, how the team is an engine of anxieties and aggressions, a tool for exploration and world-saving as much as the exploration and heroing are tools to sooth the anxieties.