FF Celebration – The many faces of geek-nation’s surrogate family

FF Celebration – The many faces of geek-nation’s surrogate family

Surely my all-time favorite Fantastic Four moment is in the 1966 Annual #4, when Reed is reminiscing to Ben about glimpsing the original, android Human Torch during World War II, and remarks, “He was amazing! There seemed to be nothing he couldn’t do with that flaming body of his! But, there were rumors that he wasn’t really… human!” To which Ben replies, “Nowadays, who is??

It’s a throwaway line with deep implications – referring superficially to the bizarre transformation the team has undergone after exposure to cosmic radiation, but speaking to their significance as a symbolic modern family. The extreme states of being and tenuous attachments of the FF were a monumental mirror-image of the dysfunctions finally emerging into open discussion in the counterculture era; the FF not only struck a chord by embodying the basic unit of human connection but by reflecting the strains built into that relationship in a fantasy forum where it was safe to discuss and an imaginary model where it can work out peacefully.
The Fantastic Four inhabited a hyper-reality that projected the average family into an uncertain future – and projected the misfit clans and makeshift “families” of fanboys and correspondence communities as the future’s average. The FF exist not to “fight evil” but to confront the unknown – they are seekers after ideas, and are a powerful and enduring idea of the contemporary human bond.
For a while that idea existed more in the free space of conjecture than established practice – the mainline Fantastic Four book languished for decades either stuck in a loop of concepts left behind by founding creators Stan Lee & Jack Kirby and their immediate heirs Roy Thomas & John Buscema, or tampering with the formula to such an extent that it lost shape or purpose.

All fans and would-be analysts will disagree as to when the forward momentum resumed, though for me it was when the classic flavor yet inventive immediacy of the book was restored by Dwayne McDuffie & Paul Pelletier in 2007. This was a caretaker-year meant to clear the field for the megastar team of Mark Millar & Bryan Hitch, and it became clear in due course that the cinematic verisimilitude of Millar & Hitch was the first major rethinking of the concept since Lee & Kirby themselves, with McDuffie & Pelletier’s humanistic, adventurous timespace-opera being a kind of “Whatever Happened to the World’s Greatest Comics Magazine?” summation that embodied and epitomized the essence of what the book first set out to be.

Since Millar & Hitch left, the unclaimed frontiers and classic potential have proceeded with Jonathan Hickman’s pioneering re-imagining of the franchise, which even exceeded the storyline’s conceivable configuration by exponentially evolving it to the more open-ended “Future Foundation” not a (post-)nuclear family but a professional society committed to convening the world’s peoples (and other sentient beings) to avert its self-induced extinction.

But before the evolution was taken back in-house, the momentum of the Fantastic Four was reserved for lateral “universes” in which the mainstream serial could remain unmoved but the experiment underlying it could continue to progress.

As exploratory as these side-series can be, they do speak to what endures about the FF precept (all the more, perhaps, because it withstands the divergences from the main narrative’s standard formula). Grant Morrison’s 1234 (2001-02), an eerie miniseries that was the sunny concept’s debut in the “darker” Marvel Knights imprint, took the resilience of the FF as its very subject, in a literally psychological thriller in which their nemesis Doctor Doom uses the mental plane to dismantle the FF’s reality in an attempt to undo their triumphs and assume ascendancy in their rivalry to remake the world. With clammy, shadowy art by the macabre master Jae Lee, the series investigated the essence of each character under the most disorienting circumstances – including one of the first best stories establishing any actual personality for the often-recessive Sue Storm, confiding in Alicia Masters and positing that her distant husband Reed is on the genius-autism spectrum – adding shadings to the characters as we know them and insights that made them seem more familiar to us than ever.

Indeed, the essence of the characters can often be mirrored in the structure of the best variations on their saga’s theme. The adaptability of the FF in the metamorphosis of their bodies and the investigative nature of their lifestyle was infused in the fresh and neoclassic-flavored Fantastic Five offshoot series by writer Tom DeFalco (1999 and 2007), which ventured the cast and settings into entirely unfamiliar territory while remaining unceasingly upbeat. That optimistic flavor tapped the Kennedy-era texture of the original FF, while committing to the unusual, with a future version of the team consisting of leader Johnny Storm, his Skrull wife Lyja (!), a grownup Franklin, a still-living but cyborg-reconstructed Ben Grimm, and a mobile robotic unit said to contain Reed Richard’s brain (actually, a kind of multiversal avatar for Reed as, undisclosed to the public, he resides in the Negative Zone trying to restore a comatose Sue who was rendered unconscious in an attempt to psychokinetically mend a rip in the partition between that dread dimension and ours – and the form that Reed’s avatar takes was radical in a farcical way to contrast this drama, in that it was a then-rare resurrection of the hated “H.E.R.B.I.E.” design from the late-1970s TV cartoon, though that theme has been mischievously worked into many sidebar and official interpretations of the FF since). If the original FF was about the family unit F5 was about the generational fabric, with several ages of the series’ cast enlarging its tapestry just like the web of new worlds and ideas they were created to encounter.

The view of the FF (or its remnants) was as gloomy in Alex Ross, Jim Krueger and John Paul Leon’s Earth X (1999) as it is optimistic in Fantastic Five; here, Johnny is long dead (as we have lately seen in “our” Marvel world), and Sue has followed him (but not before killing Johnny’s killer, Doctor Doom), with Reed ominously lurking through Doom’s old castle in his former opposite’s robes while trying to deal with a worldwide mutation plague. It was in this series that we first saw the “brain-stretching” trope soon after used by Morrison in 1234 to effect an abrupt intelligence-upgrade that helps Reed solve a problem, and in the solitude of Reed’s meditation we see some basic insights into his motivation and worldview: “We make sad and bitter love and glorious war – it is our weakness,” he tells Uatu at one point, also concluding, when it’s revealed that our aggressiveness as a species – and a latent super-mutation – stem from our function as sentient antibodies to protect an invasive alien gestating in our planet’s core, “There’s something wrong with us, Uatu – I just never expected to find out what it was.” Reed has long tried to protect, and if possible perfect the human race; he is steadily re-humanized himself when he is able to bring Sue back through magical means and the biological building-block of his own sacrificed arm, in one of the most creepy, hallucinatory and beautiful sequences ever seen in American comics.

The family is sacrifice, but binds you stronger in loss and rediscovery. However, some rifts are fundamentally irreparable from the start, and in James Sturm’s brilliant Unstable Molecules mini (2003), the hope and glamour of the FF’s space-age origin gave way to the cold-war conformity that just preceded it in real American life. This drabness was evoked with paradoxical vision by the anti-spectacular art of Guy Davis, in a melancholy slice-of-life drama about the purported historical figures on whom the Fantastic Four were based. The comic owed more to contemporaneous dramatists like William Inge than to Stan Lee, and read more like a Dan Clowes depression-play than a shiny alternate-reality adventure – with devastating effect, illustrating the inner substance of a fragmenting circle of family and friends left behind by fantasy. At the opposite end of that harsh but illuminated reality (whose principals we never see put on uniforms or gain special powers) was the lush sci-fi neighborhood soap-opera – what’s a family nucleus without a social context? – of Steve Englehart’s & Mike McKone’s sleek costumed drama Big Town (2000), a miniseries apparently made much more mini that Englehart expected, but still dazzling in its view of a high-tech utopia that Reed and Tony Stark succeed in bringing about, and the troubling faultlines that shoot through it all the same.

Encyclopedic readers may notice my omission of the high-profile, adjectivally unwieldy “Ultimate Fantastic Four“ (2004-09). I would have loved to see the original version of this incarnation, quickly wiped from canon as first seen in Brian Bendis” Ultimate Marvel Team-Up comic in 2001, be developed ” an absurdist interpretation, drawn by indie prankster Jim Mahfood, of a superpowered sitcom family in permanent group therapy and pulpy-sci-fi panic-mode. For the “Ultimate” team’s own continuing title, this cast was editorially mutated into a band of literal whiz-kids in a think-tank serving as a school for brilliant teens and young adults (a re-envisioning of the Baxter Building which, it must be observed, heavily presaged the “Future Foundation” concept of Hickman’s current run). The youth of the protagonists and the presence of many of their parents and pending in-laws as background characters skewed the dynamic inherent in the series and all its versions to that point; there was a commotion of cast-members but the 90210-ish structure lent it no dramatic shape ““ Marvel’s then-Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada praised the insight of the book’s creators (interestingly, Bendis himself and future FF savior Millar) in elaborating on the essence of the book, “family,” but Ultimate FF was really only about relatives ““ families can be biological or by-choice or adoptive and have a single daddy or two mommies, but all of them have elder figures and junior figures, as a mere default of social ordering; Ultimate FF was like a Home Alone with no Joe Pesci and four McCauley Culkins.

Transplanted playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s tenure on the long-form 4 series for Marvel Knights [2004-06] doesn’t really count, since it was in fact an unremarkable run of stories remaindered from the official Fantastic Four book when fans complained about Aguirre-Sacasa’s supplanting of the popular Mark Waid & Mike Wieringo team; the 12-issue 40th-anniversary tribute series, The World’s Greatest Comics Magazine [2001], was a delightful re-creation of the book’s highpoint by an honor-roll of top-rank creators [culminating in a superior script by Stan Lee himself], but its purpose was to restate the charms and accomplishments of the core classics, not follow their premises into the future. In contrast, writer Fred Van Lente’s issues of the other FF “survey” comic, for the Marvel Adventures line [2007], a parallel canon for the long-running original aimed at new and younger readers, wove fresh and extensive new perspectives on the central series essentials while remaining entirely insulated from its compounding “continuity,” like the kind of FF movies that should have been made. Van Lente also wrote several all-ages Power Pack miniseries [2007 and 2008], in which young Franklin Richards is spotlighted along with the title kid-team, accentuating a charm rare for the superhero idiom and uncommonly accessible through the FF’s familial structure [emulated by the Power Pack series itself], as also demonstrated in the delightful long-running Bill Wattersonesque Franklin Richards: Son of a Genius specials by Chris Eliopoulos and Marc Sumerak [2005″”present], a Harvey Comics-like annex of the superserious source material that few marquee genre properties could sustain. Going even farther beyond comics known universes, the FF mythos got an unsuspected companion volume in novelist Junot Diaz’s Pulitzer-winner The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007), whose timeline of an immigrant family’s trials facing tyranny and crossing worlds was, according to its author, keyed to the dramatis personae of Fantastic Four albeit perceptively drawn not on the series central cast alone but its entire cosmology, with several family members implicitly connected to the First Four and one explicitly compared to The Watcher.

Squarely in the midst of the FF’s current renaissance but definitive of how far the concept can stretch when anchored to its core emphases was Paul Cornell’s True Story mini (2008), in which the essence of the FF as navigators of awareness was embodied in an adventure that finds the fabric of fiction itself under attack and the team needed to enter the stream of fantasy to save the literary landmarks that shape humanity’s collective values and sense of possibility. Converted to pure idea, and malleable in that form, the team in Cornell’s conception was made ready for the era of Hickman, which centers around multiple possible identities in different times and circumstances with a through-line of integrity and thoughtful choice.

It was Hickman’s insight to shift the definition of the series from family as a set cast of characters to family as an institution “signified by the death of Johnny Storm and the persistence of his loved ones, their colleagues and wards as a literal institute” and with the emerging news as of this writing (mid-September 2011) that the franchise will be reconfiguring again as the original Fantastic Four (in time for its 50th anniversary year and chronological 600th issue) and an offshoot FF, perhaps with a prematurely resurrected Johnny, it’s possible that the uncharted frontier traveled by Hickman and his Foundation might turn out to be another promising path set apart from what the publisher declares its central canon. But the FF is a concept whose roots reach through the level surface of commercial formula (their skyscraper headquarters and travels to exotic lands belong much more to the pulp era than superhero commonplace), and whose branches proliferate with endless space at unmatchable pace (synthesizing whole new genres of theoretical action-adventure). In the ferment and firmament of midcentury Marvel’s precedent-breaking outcast meta-heroes, the Fantastic Four will endure. No one every really leaves their family behind.

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