Fifty plus years ago, Benjamin Grimm piloted Reed Richards’ prototype spacecraft on what turned out to be a disastrous and miraculous flight. The covert mission itself was a stunning failure but the resulting collateral damage was the birth of The Marvel Universe. Triumph after triumph seemed to follow in those heady days so it’s no wonder that everyone wants to take the glory for being the genius who thunk it all up. Was it Stan Lee? Was it King Jack Kirby? They both took the credit but I think it’s safe to say that they were equal partners in that glorious mash up. If I had my way, there would be a separate Mount Rushmore with the heads of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and yes, Gardner Fox. (Fuck Bob Kane, Bill Finger did all the heavy lifting.)
For years, everything that Marvel did was inspired by or connected to the Fantastic Four. Even today, there are still trace levels of FF DNA in practically every comic title out there regardless of who the publisher is. The Fantastic Four‘s influence is both undeniable and inescapable. It was the title that introduced human foibles into mainstream comic books along with the all important theme of family. Family was always the core of the FF and that’s what made it special. Not the cosmic rays or the Negative Zone.
How did four New Yorkers who crashed a (sort of stolen) rocket become the heart of the Marvel Universe? Because, back in 1961, they stood in for us. They were all relatively normal people who just happened to experience something extraordinary. They didn’t have secret identities. In the beginning they didn’t even have costumes. Everyone knew who they were and where to find them. They didn’t live in Gotham or Metropolis, they lived New York…a real city like real people. They had bills. They paid rent. They had landlord troubles. They even had a mailman. Every member of the team was a character that at least some people could identify with.
Reed was a nerdy nebbish almost entirely lacking in social graces. He was always the smartest guy in the room but had no idea how to talk to girls. Yet, he loved the prettiest, smartest girl around. How many teen boys could identify with that, back in the day? Ben was an everyman who made it through college by the sweat of his brow. Quick tempered and rough around the edges yet still with a lovable side. After he became The Thing he turned into the poster boy for body issues and alienation. Again, what teen boy couldn’t identify?
Sue was always a special case and always easy to root for. Intelligent and compassionate but a consummate worrywart, Susan Storm hungered for stability and love. There were plenty of readers out there who longed for the same. And then there was her kid brother Johnny. He was the team screw up. A walking volcano of impulse control issues there was no wrong decision he couldn’t make…no wrong turn he wouldn’t take. He was like a spirit animal for hormonal misfits everywhere. An instant idol.
They struck a chord with us. We followed their relationships as closely as their battles with Doctor Doom and Galactus. We fretted over their break ups and their spats. Celebrated their milestones. Watched them raise their children. Watched them mourn. They were family. For decades.
Over those decades, the book has had its ups and downs. At one time it was the centerpiece of the Marvel Universe, providing many of the greatest villains, races and story arcs that formed the Marvel cosmology. Admittedly, its star has faded. No book stays on top forever. Fashions and tastes change. One day it’s mutants. Then it’s murderers. Then it’s murder mutants. But through it all, everyone in the Marvel Universe kept Reed Richards’ number on their speed dialer. You never know when the multi-verse is going to collapse or Galactus is going to try to eat Newark.
After the recent events of the Secret Wars coupled with the disastrous release of 20th Century Fox’s Fantastic Four motion picture, Marvel has decided to mothball the FF. For how long, they haven’t said. Reed and Sue Richards are off with the kids trying to be a family. Johnny Storm and Ben Grimm are on Earth doing their thing solo which, for Ben means hitting things and being sensitive and for Johnny means banging married women. But the team is defunct. No more First Family of Comics. The Flaming 4 is no longer to be seen in the skies above Manhattan.
I think it’s a mistake. Screw the sales, Marvel needs the Fantastic Four. The FF is and always has been the soul of the Marvel Universe. Not the millions of mopey mutants or the dozen odd Spider-Men, Spider-Gwens, Spider-Monkeys and Spider-Plants. Marvel needs its First Family. Not a dysfunctional family; they always have The X-Men for that. They need, the readers need, the Richards extended family unit.
So, what is the real barrier? Sales. Always sales. Why doesn’t the title sell? Because it’s so damn hard to write. It’s hard enough to churn out one compelling comic every month, let alone craft a tale that meets the rather stringent list of requirements necessary to qualify as a Fantastic Four story. First off, you have to keep Reed and Susan’s marriage interesting. And by interesting, I mean interesting to the average reader who doesn’t buy comics looking for stories about mom and dad and the kids. Most readers are looking to escape that sort of thing. Obviously, it takes a gifted and committed writer to keep that material compelling to the comic enthusiast.
Additionally, you need storylines that contain threats big enough to challenge the team and threaten the family (or its cohesion) while containing the four necessary elements that every Fantastic Four story requires: Namely, there has to be something for Ben to hit, there has to be something for Reed to brain, there has to be something for Susan to fret over and there has to be something for Johnny to stick his dick in. It’s a tall order, I admit. I admit, also, that it has always been my secret desire to write for the title. I know, however, that if they gave it to me I would collapse into a gibbering gibbon within days.
As it stands, I’m just a voice in the wilderness, howling for the return of the First Family. I think Marvel needs that bit of heart. I think it matters. It matters to me, anyway. But who wants to shoulder the responsibility of writing it? For years it’s been a thankless task. No one has really raved about the title since John Byrne left it. And that’s a Looooong time ago.
I guess really, I’m just showing my age. Nostalgia is an affliction of the old. A sign that times have passed us by. Trends have moved on and I have failed to move with them. I miss Reed’s gray sideburns. I miss Susan going primeval on anyone who threatens her family. I miss the Fantastic Four. I miss the Baxter Building. And I miss Coca-Cola in little green bottles.
Here’s hoping that when Reed and Susan finally make it back to the Marvel Universe they find themselves in talented hands. It should be quite the family reunion.
He also sings for the Supra-70s band, RIFLE.