Celebrating the Fantastic Four

By | Monday, March 28, 2022 3 comments
For reasons I'll get to shortly, today I'm kicking off Fantastic Four Week here at Kleefeld on Comics. Each day this week, I'll post something new and clever and insightful about Marvel's first family. If you know me, you're either thinking, "Oh, good! Sean's really knowledgable about the FF! I wonder what new stuff he's got to say" or "Oh, crap! Sean's spent literally decades writing about the FF! What else could he possibly have to say?" If you don't know me, I'll start with a short recap.

I got a copy of FF #254 for my 11th birthday. I'd been reading comics for years, but was starting to think what I was reading was getting a little boring, repetive, and silly but this issue was wildly different than anything I'd read before. (Keep in mind, I only had the experience of an 11-year-old.) I got to the end of the issue and had to find out what happened next. So I got the next issue. And the next. And the next. I quickly became a fan and began seeking out every FF story I could get my hands on. That continued for years and I amassed not only a decent collection of FF comics and toys and such, but also just a wealth of knowledge about the characters, the creators, and everything. So that when I learned in 1995 that my ISP offered customers free web hosting for something like 5Mb, I taught myself HTML to make my own website, what would later become FFPlaza.com. I launched the site in 1996 and started putting everything I knew about the FF online. It soon became the largest FF site of any sort out there by a wide margin. I ran that until 2008 and my expertise got me credited in a variety of books, even ones published by Marvel itself. I even had Mark what-does-he-not-know-about-comics Waid asking me questions about FF history while he was working on the title!

My point here is that, yes, I've got a long and deep history with the FF.

But until this past weekend, I hadn't actually read any FF stories for about a year. I was still getting the comic and some of the related titles, but I hadn't actually been reading them. Nothing against the creators or the stories, but it was just kind of a pandemic-induced comics lethargy. Aside from a small handful of webcomics (like, four) I haven't actually been reading much of anything at all. I tried peridocially, but had to put whatever book it was down after just a few pages because I was just too drained. Maybe it's from a bit of decent weather we've had here recently or something else entirely, but I did find myself energized and motivated enough to get caught up. So here I am, celebrating the Fantastic Four's 60th anniversary... the better part of a year after the fact.

I'd like to highlight the anniversary issue in particular because it does a couple things from a storytelling perspective that I haven't seen in many years. (At least from Marvel or DC.) The first, and most obvious, is a deep respect and appreciation for continuity. The story relies heavily on referencing the Fantastic Four's past and, while the story could have been written with some broad nods to "sometime when they had these uniforms" and left it at that, each segment is very definitively placed chronologically to the point where I can pinpoint the specific issues they're referencing. That first segment with the FF fighting Rama-Tut? It could easily have been any time after first encountering him but before Jack Kirby left the book. That's nearly a ten year span, but instead it's clearly placed right after FF #26. There's no question when that takes place. There's a few other bits in other issues that point to specific times/events in the FF's history. I haven't seen that level of respect for continuity for about twenty years now when Marvel published the likes of Fantastic Four: World's Greatest Comics Magazine, Marvel: The Lost Generation, and Avengers Forever. Obviously, with my long history of the FF, I appreciate that they're not just ignoring pretty much everything any more.

The other thing I'd like to call attention to is the style of storytelling. The climax of the issue (which I'm going to spoil a bit, but the story is six months old now, so you're probably safe) has Mr. Fantastic getting a (apparently) posthumous message from his father with an explicit message of a task Reed is supposed to take up. This has since been referenced and touched on in a subsequent issues, but it has yet to become a focal point for the book. This is also something I haven't seen from Marvel or DC at all in twenty years, and not regularly for thirty. The idea of dropping story seeds months and months in advance and letting them slowly build in the background while whatever the primary story is plays out. This was something creators used to do all the time on books in the '70s and '80s when they were writing exclusively with a monthly format in mind. As the collection market grew, however, stories shifted to more self-contained blocks of four, five, or six issues. Any plot points introduced in any given issue would be wrapped up by the end of that sequence so it could stand cohesively on its own in a single trade paperback. But this story introduced in the anniversary issue has already passed that six-issue point with only enough passing mentions to let regular readers know they haven't forgotten about it. Whenever they get to finishing this story, a collected edition would almost need to have this out-of-sequence issue included in it as well, and I half-wonder if the pages that reference the story in other issues will be dropped entirely for their respective collections. Since I am reading these stories in their monthly format, this style of storytelling works better for me and feels more natural than the isolated six-issue blocks we've been getting for years now.

Maybe I'm not recalling correctly, but I don't know that I've seen either of these elements on display in any Marvel book in recent memory. Granted, I'm not reading nearly as wide a swath of Marvel books as I used to, but this has felt like a more welcoming and inviting title compared to anything I've seen from Marvel in decades, even in the first couple years that Slott was on the FF.

That's not to say I still don't have my criticisms. I think angsty, teen Franklin was a bland idea from jump; putting him in therapy puts a slightly better spin on it, but he's mostly just been annoying. I'm not overly keen on super-genius child Val either. I think there's an interesting idea there, giving Reed a child that he can connect with in a way that he can't with Franklin, but that mostly services Franklin's and Reed's characterizations, not Val's. As a character of her own, she's largely redundant for storytelling purposes -- there's nothing she can do that Reed couldn't already. She's more of a storytelling device to change the family dynamic, and doesn't come across much as her own character. Honestly, which isn't far removed from Franklin's purpose originally.

Beyond the anniversary issue itself, I've liked the stories as a whole. Although the current "Reckoning War" just leaves me with, "Damn, another stupid multi-title universe-shattering event story!?" These just feel like interruptions to the actual stories; everything else that was building just gets put on hold. The last one of these I liked at all was Infinity War back in 1992, and that was mostly because of the impressively tight editing across all the impacted titles... something that was NOT replicated with Infinity Gauntlet or Infinity Crusade, much less any crossover since.

In the decades since I read that story when I was 11, every member of that team has since "died" and come back at least twice. There have been over a dozen heroes who became members at one point or another. They've all had their powers turned off and on multiple times. I couldn't begin to count the number of costume changes, much less the string of creators that have worked on the book. They're had stories that focus on their powers, their relationships, their celebrity, their explorations, their survival... They've changed to reflect the times their stories are being created in. Some for good, some for ill. And in all that time, the core thematic elements of "found family" and "curiosity and exploration" keep coming back to the fore.

Maybe that's why I really haven't been able to read the comic much during the pandemic. Staying at home in isolation, I haven't seen much of anyone, much less my friends and family. Staying at home in isolation, it's been much harder to go out and explore and try new things. Going out to experience the world, to draw in new ideas and inspirations with my people... that's been largely absent from my life for two years now. So perhaps reading Fantastic Four served as an ongoing reminder of what I'm not able to do right now. And maybe my being able to get back to reading comes from a spark of curiosity that I was able to fan within the walls of my home over the past few months. But more on that towards the end of the week!

What I got out of Fantastic Four when I was eleven isn't what I get out of it today. The stories have changed, as have I. But the foundations of both remain, and I think that's why I'm able to still enjoy reading about the FF all these decades later. And that's why this is Fantastic Four Week here!
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Billy Hogan said...

My first issue of FF was either issue 38 or 39, which had Daredevil on the cover as he led the FF, with a giant Dr. Doom looming behind a tenement building in the background. They have been my favorite Marvel heroes ever since, with Spider-Man a close second. I look forward to your FF series this week.

Matt K said...

Okay on the cover, that title design looks a lot like a highly polished-up version of the Marvel Action Hour FF from around 30 years ago.

@Billy Hogan -- Thanks! I hope I'm able to deliver something interesting! :)

@Matt K -- Good eye! Yeah, it's the same font. The leading's been tightened up, and they put the whole thing in perspective and added the "4" at the end, but that's certainly where it came from. I believe they've been using this logo since 2018.