Times are tough for Marvel’s first family, the stars of the self-proclaimed “world’s greatest comic magazine.” Their Ultimate Universe title was an early casualty of the line’s continual revamps, emerging details of their forthcoming movie are filling fans with trepidation and, perhaps most significantly, their comic is being cancelled in March 2015 after more than 50 years of near continuous publication. This could, of course, be another of the cynical marketing techniques for which Marvel is infamous; the last few years have been littered with cancelled titles that were resurrected the very next month. But the above events do highlight a problematic question for the Fantastic Four – namely, when did readers stop caring about them?
Rewind to the 1960s and we can see a title that was genuinely revolutionary in the way that it featured super heroics and played with conventions of the genre. So many things that we now take for granted, not only about Marvel comics but about superhero comics in general, can be traced to this run. These include the idea of relatable heroes dealing with real life problems, the lack of secret identities, continued multi-part stories, use of continuity and character growth. The 102 issue run by Stan and Jack is rightfully acclaimed as one of the all-time great comic runs, but what is striking is the extent in which the title saw the genesis of so many characters and concepts that became mainstays of the Marvel Universe in their own right. The Negative zone, the Skrulls, Doctor Doom, the Black Panther, the Inhumans, the Silver Surfer, Galactus, Wullie Lumpkin. The level of frenzied creativity in this run is staggering.
The success of the characters wasn’t solely confined to their parent title. The Human Torch headlined Strange Tales, predating Spider-Man as the first Marvel teenager to have his own regular strip in the 1960s. Similarly, the Thing was in many ways Marvel’s breakout character in the 1960s and early 1970s, his rocky visage regularly featuring in internal marketing and on external merchandise. Aunt Petunia’s favourite nephew also headlined his own series for more than a decade in the 1970s and 1980s, the 100 issue run of Marvel team-up seguing into his own solo title. So with that in mind, what has gone wrong? In a market that can support countless Avengers or X-Men titles, why do the Fantastic Four struggle to support even a single title?
I find this question all the more interesting because while some franchises struggle to evidence why their books are different in tone and content (step forward multiple X-Men and Avengers books), the Fantastic Four offer possibilities that are limited only by a writer’s imagination. While some franchises seem shoehorned into certain directions (for me, I have never quite felt comfortable with the X-Men’s adventures in space), I think there’s no limit to the type of stories that can be told with the Fantastic Four. Space exploration, Indiana Jones esque derring-do, street level issues, family drama – whether they are defined as explorers or imaginauts, I genuinely think that the makeup of the team and their relationship lends itself to a huge variety of stories.
Nevertheless it is clear that in many ways the title has been a victim of its own success. Due to the scope and quality of Stan and Jack’s tenure every subsequent run has found it difficult to find its own identity, with even some of Marvel’s most well-known writers finding it hard to stamp their own identity on the series. For every run by Mark Waid and John Byrne that have expertly paid homage to the past while forging ahead with new stories, we have creative misfires by writers such as Mark Millar and J Michael Straczynski. This is further complicated by the fact that it’s easy for writers to fall back on depicting the Fantastic Four by their generic character traits – e.g. Reed is the brainy one, Sue is the maternal one, Johnny is the impetuous one and Ben is the strong one. Of course that’s true to an extent, but who among us are defined solely by one aspect of our personality? Too often, writers have opted for these broad interpretations, leading to travesties such as Reed’s portrayal in Civil War.
Despite this, I’d still argue that the very fact that the members of the Fantastic Four can be described in such broad terms is a positive thing, pointing to a solid base from which to build upon. Compare this to some modern characters, where a degree in comic studies is needed just to understand their origin (Seriously, try explaining Cable’s origin to someone and see if you can get more than halfway through without feeling the urge to apologise or justify your love of comics). More of a problem, I feel, is the family aspect of the Fantastic Four, at the same the title’s greatest asset and largest problem.
The Marvel Universe has long abandoned the pretence of meaningful progression for its characters, after the breakneck change of early 1960s Marvel was tempered by a realisation that the popularity of these characters meant they had to be kept as accessible as possible. (I’ve previously discussed the contentious topic of whether superheroes should age, here) For some characters the ‘illusion of change’ is not particularly noticeable, but once characters experience a major milestone in their life it’s natural for readers to expect to see the next step on their life journey. Once Peter Parker married Mary Jane, for example, the expectation was that the natural progression would see the arrival of a bouncing Spider baby. However, with very few exceptions the realities of publishing mean that such events will never be taken to their natural conclusion, lest the general public end up reading about a 56 year old man who fights crime in between complaining about tuition fees and wondering where he put his glasses.
The Fantastic Four suffer more than most from this dictate, with their family dynamic heightening expectations that their title can show the changes so missed from many other titles. The title has on occasion come close, with the wedding of Reed and Sue followed by the birth of Franklin and, years later, Val. Yet the requirement to conform to the sliding timescale of the Marvel Universe (with 12 years currently deemed to have passed since the FF first went into space) means that any change shown is ultimately illusory.
A common fan complaint about the title is that many plot lines are recycled, including threats to the children, marital difficulties for Reed and Sue and the prospect of a cure for Ben Grimm’s condition. This is a fair point and is a problem that’s increased by the characters being stuck in a holding pattern. One of the joys of family life is the changes and experience amassed on the journey, from the first blossoming of love to the development of children from complete dependence to independent individuals with their own hopes and dreams. While the Fantastic Four are marketed as Marvel’s ‘first family’, the very nature of the publisher’s comic line means that their portrayal of family life is hopelessly limited. The family structure shouldn’t be a hindrance, with The Incredibles (aka. The best Fantastic Four movie never made) being a superb example of some of the possibilities that arise from exploring the family dynamic.
My – admittedly unlikely – solution is this: let the Fantastic Four title go its own way. Unshackle the title and characters from the illusion of change and allow them to grow and change as a family. The title was once synonymous with exploration and change, and what greater mystery exists than the challenges of days yet to come? Allow them to face the new obstacles the years bring and allow them to age and fully develop over time. It’ll never happen, of course; the shared universe/sliding timescale is too closely threaded through all Marvel’s characters. Still, if anyone is capable of making the leap then it is Marvel’s premier explorers.