Will the REAL Doctor Richards Stand Up?

By | Monday, May 06, 2024 Leave a Comment
It was just about exactly one year ago in which I reviewed Ryan North's first year of Fantastic Four stories and I said I was underwhelmed and called the issues "adequate but ultimately forgettable filler." I came back recently to read the year of stories since then, and found much the same. The stories are, for the most part, fine but little more. They continue to feel like fill-in issues because there are no consequences for anything. Even the over-arching story of Mr. Fantastic zapping away a good chunk of Manhattan -- including the residents -- for over a year yielded nothing of consequence. The team is supposedly hated by the public now and they supposedly have most of their assets frozen, but readers only know that because we're told that; there's no real indication that of that from a story perspective. We don't see anyone breaking down and crying in front of Reed because their spouse is gone; we don't see any parents upset that their children have disappeared; we don't see anyone suddenly homeless because their apartment and all their stuff is gone... And while the team moved to a farm while their Baxter Building home is gone, they still seem to have immediate and universal access to whatever technology they need without even so much as a hand-waving "I borrowed this from Tony Stark" bit of explantory dialogue. The only reasons these stories couldn't be dropped virtually anywhere in the Fantasic Four's history are the visuals: the specific design of their costumes, the farmhouse background aesethetic, and Johnny's mustache. Give the exact same script to another artist and they could meld seamlessly into Jack Kirby's run, or John Buscema's, or John Byrne's, or Walt Simonson's, or Paul Ryan's...


Except we do have two instances of North adding something. Two years in, and he's added something that is consequential. But one of them is wrong.

The first thing we have is in Fantastic Four #12, in which the Invisible Woman notes that she has a doctorate in archeology. This is later then actually used as a story point in #17. The second thing is in #18, in which we learn Fanklin Richards still has his god-like powers, but he's keeping them supressed except for one night a year after which he blocks it from even his own memory for the next twelve months. This was hinted at in earlier issues, but has been outright dismissed by Franklin's parents. And while I disagree with the characterization on that last point, it's actually the archeology thing that is flatly wrong.

I get the idea. In the '60s, Susan's role was basically just "the girlfriend" (and later "the wife") and she spent literally decades without much characterization beyond that. It took decades before creators even started putting her powers to any sort of creative use, much less giving her justification for being on the team aside from her having powers. Johnny at least had some mechanical know-how from the start with his love of cars, and Ben's skill as a test pilot presumes some level of technical aptitude as well, but Susan was exclusively and only there as an emotional anchor for the team. Creatively, she was used very much as an also-ran. So I get why, starting with Ultimate Fantastic Four, there have been attempts to update her backstory to give her a more academic foundation.

Most of the attempts thus far seemed tacked on, though. That Ultimate version -- as well as the non-comics media presentments -- have all given her a background extremely similar to Reed's, likely to justify her presence in the origin sequence to begin with. (The original "I'm your fiancée! Where you go, I go!" explanation hasn't aged well.) But at the same time, it makes her largely redundant for the origin and still very much in Reed's shadow. I actually really like the notion of giving her an archeology degree because it does not overlap with Reed's expertise at all, and ties in with the already-established empathetic nature of her character. She's interested in humanity and human nature, and archeology very much ties into that. Psychology and sociology would also work in that respect, but archeology has a more obviously practical application in the exploratory work the FF does.

But here's my problem: she claims to have gotten her doctorate BEFORE the team got their powers. Chronologically, that's not an issue. She could've gotten her doctorate by her mid-20s, which still puts her easily a little more than ten years younger than Reed, and not-quite ten years older than Johnny as has been long established. The problem is that we've got decades of continuity that, while not outright contradicting this idea, work against it.

The issue I have is that we have had PLENTY of instances where someone with a doctorate of archeology would have been immensely useful and would likely have changed the direction of the story. As suggested in North's Fantastic Four #17 itself, literally any story featuring Rama-Tut as a starter. Virtually any time travel story. While the past decade or so has put Sue in more direct liason type role with the Atlanteans, she spent decades of stories having no cultural interest in them whatsoever, acting as potential trophy for Namor. She's never shown any interest in the cultural history in Wakanda any time they've visited either. How about Fantastic Four #239, the famous "Wendy's Friends" story that introduced Aunt Petunia? The story is very explicit with an archeological component, but instead of talking with the brought-in-specifically-for-this-big-deal archeologist Ruth Efford that Reed is excessively impressed with, Sue instead just plays with Wendy completely ignoring their discussion. Fantastic Four #241 -- also a story with a strong archeological bent with Ben mockingly cosplaying as Indiana Jones; Sue acts in much the same role (a glorified trophy) as she did when the team first met Rama-Tut. Both of those last two were John Byrne stories, too, and North has been pretty explicit in repeatedly referencing Byrne's run on the book, even as recently as last month!

Sue was never referred to as a doctor prior to 2013. And that was a throwaway line of dialogue and didn't even mention what she was a doctor of. Again, it was done to given her more 'validity' within the context of her husband and the team in general. I think that makes sense and works well enough for her character. Additionally, making her a doctor of archeology makes sense given her history. Hell, it even justifies -- even more than was necessary -- some of the jealousy she's harbored against Alyssa Moy, who was originally presented to readers as a Lara Croft type character to Reed's Indiana Jones. But setting aside that she was never referred to as a doctor in any capacity for her first half century as a character, she has never acted like she had any expertise in archeology, nor even commented on the topic, even when she was expressly poised to do so.

Again, there's nothing absolutely contradictory here and the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but I think claiming she had her degree before the events of Fantastic Four #1 brings up more questions than it addresses. North could've left it open by not noting when she got her doctorate or, if he wanted to make a thing out of it, have her say that being around Reed so much after they got married encouraged her to return to school. That would still offer loads of time for her to have accomplished that (the characters got married in Fantastic Four Annual #3 circa 1965) and wouldn't have run counter to any existing continuity. It just seems like a completely unnecessary detail that does nothing but make the continuity more complicated.

It wouldn't bug me so much but, as I said towards the top, the vast majority of what North has written for the FF contains no consequences and makes each issue feel like a fill-in. Coupled with his blatant references to prior -- and sometimes obscure -- continuity, it strikes me as egregiously problematic for one of only two instances over the past two years where he tried adding to the body of canon to be wrong in a way that can only have happened by going out of his way to make it wrong. It literally would've taken less effort to make the "doctor of archeology" addition fit into continuity.

Ultimately, it's a minor point and one which has undoubtedly faded as a current point of discussion since it was introduced a year ago. I just keep being reminded of an assignment I worked on in college; I spent much of the term working on it and the professor's comment in our class critique was that I had a million dollar idea but didn't do anything with it. I feel like North's Fantastic Four is the same in that regard -- he does indeed have some good, potentilly even great, ideas in the book but every one of them is handled in a very pedestrian manner. He's invoking continuity when he doesn't need to and ignoring it when he should be leaning on it.

But what do I know? The letters pages I scanned through all had praise for North's take on the book and, more significantly, the title seems to have been floating in the Top 25-30 best selling comics every month based on LCS point-of-sale data. So North is evidently doing something a good number of people like. Speaking as a Fantastic Four fan going back four decades, it's not what I'm looking for in an FF book but it'd be the height of egotism and narcassim to expect Marvel to cater the book specfically to my tastes indefinitely.
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