Where to take the Fantastic Four, now?
In his “Emanata” column at Techland, Douglas Wolk looks at the promotional efforts for an upcoming Marvel story by Jonathan Hickman, singling out Fantastic Four as a series that particularly finds itself in the shadow of its creators:
“As Lee and Kirby established the FF, their premises are inflexible: they’re a family. They’re explorers. They have adventures together. […] If you stick to those axioms, you’re not just making a Fantastic Four story, you’re making one in the Lee/Kirby tradition […]. If you ignore any of those axioms, then it’s not really the Fantastic Four any more, and the question becomes how, and how quickly, it’s going to get back to being the ‘real’ Fantastic Four.”
Now, there’s Doctor Strange, granted, who has never quite transcended those early Lee/Ditko stories in style or subject matter in a sustained way, and certainly not for lack of trying. And, as much as I want to agree with Wolk on Captain America (Bucky rawks), I don’t expect that Brubaker will have altered, or expanded upon, the Simon/Kirby/Lee roots of the concept in any significant fashion when he’s done, any more than Steve Englehart or Mark Gruenwald did—and lord, they tried.
But, other than that, when it comes to Marvel’s big franchises, it’s hard to argue the point.
The Lee/Ditko issues may still be Spider-Man’s most “defining” run, but the goal posts of the character’s world have moved in significant and lasting ways since: when John Romita replaced Ditko; when Gerry Conway and Gil Kane killed Gwen Stacy; when Harry Osborn became the Goblin; when Peter went to college; when the clones and alien costumes and marriages became a fixture. And, more importantly, it’s been proven over the last 10 years that the basic ingredients of the Spider-Man mythos that Lee and Ditko invented and put in place can be easily modified and translated for modern audiences. Some of the most popular comics creators of their times have tried to do this with the Fantastic Four and failed: Jim Lee, Brian Michael Bendis, Mark Millar, Warren Ellis.
Or the Hulk. If there’s been any “definitive” version of the Hulk, Herb Trimpe probably has dibs for putting a face on the one that most people would most immediately recognize. Then again, the live-action and animated TV shows of the 1970s and 1980s probably did more to cement the idea of “the Hulk’” in people’s minds than anything from a comic. (Yes, Peter David had a long, well-remembered run. But it’s long and well-remembered because David kept coming up with smart ways to deviate from the “Hulk Smash!” formula, then return to it; none of his deviations replaced that formula. The David run may be a satisfying stretch of periodical fiction, but it did little to redefine the Hulk.)
In Thor’s case, as Wolk says, Walter Simonson’s rediscovery of the character through the lens of the Norse myths that had always nominally informed it managed to leave an impression that’s up there with the melodramatic Lee/Kirby stuff from the 1960s. Something similar happened with Iron Man, who keeps snapping back to David Michelinie and Bob Layton’s struggling alcoholic as much as the Stan Lee/Don Heck version. The Avengers, as a formula, didn’t really crystallize into something that people keep coming back to until the end of the Roy Thomas run. The X-Men and Daredevil didn’t come into their own until the late 1970s and early 1980s, even, when Wein, Cockrum, Claremont, Byrne, Miller and Janson reshaped them into something that stuck, that finally resonated with the audience.
And DC’s big guns, compared to their Marvel cousins, are conceptual Frankensteins, made up and defined by patches collected over decades from dozens of different interpretations, rather than one or two particularly dominant ones. If it feels like there’s a new Superman origin with all-new, all-different sensibilities and emphasis every two years, then that’s because there is. The DC characters—Superman and Batman, certainly, but also Wonder Woman, the Flash and Green Lantern and a lot of the less major ones—are not so much solid institutions as tugs-of-war given conceptual form, composit constructs whose aspects are constantly at odds with each other and vying for dominance.
But with the Fantastic Four, literally everything that ever “stuck” comes from Lee and Kirby. John Byrne and Mark Waid’s runs are long and fondly remembered, but, as Wolk points out, they moved well within the established boundaries. There’s nothing in them that Lee and Kirby didn’t do first, in some way. In the 2000s, Grant Morrison and Joe Casey (and James Sturm, but I’m not brave enough to let him out of the parentheses)—neither of them known for creative modesty—all had their go at the Fantastic Four, but their efforts were marginal, uncharacteristically reverential oddities.
So, is it even possible to revamp and re-interpret the Fantastic Four and keep them relevant in the way it’s happened to Spider-Man, the X-Men or Daredevil? Or is it a concept that’s outlived itself and is best left in the 1960s?
Well, there is one particular Fantastic Four story that sticks to all the “axioms” Wolk identifies and still takes the concept in a new direction that’s at least as far removed from Lee and Kirby as Simonson’s Thor was. Incidentally, it deals with ideas like relevance, innovation and the caretaking of things we’ve come to love for nostalgic reasons. It’s called Planetary.
Where to take the Fantastic Four, now? I don’t know, but it would seem that there are ways, at least.
Out now: Punisher Max: Happy Ending #1, a one-shot special by Irish writer Peter Milligan and Spanish artist Juan Jose Ryp.
Peter Milligan is a bit baffling to me; half the time, his work is brilliant, the other half it’s… less so. I think I’ve read a few bland comics by him, too, but those were X-Men spinoffs that came out in the 1990s, so it’s not surprising. Generally speaking, when he’s good, he’s really good.
And he knows how to do the kind of short story that a Punisher one-shot calls for, as he’s demonstrated with Moon Knight: Silent Knight a couple of years ago. Ryp usually draws gory stuff for Avatar, and as the preview images show, he’s up to the task.
Out today: Stumptown #4, written by Greg Rucka and drawn by Matthew Southworth. It’s the conclusion to the first arc of the series, titled, “The Case of the Girl Who Took Her Shampoo But Left Her Mini.”
It’s also the conclusion of the series, period, according to Diamond. Which sucks, because it’s the best crime comic I’ve read lately. It stars a down-but-not-out female private investigator named Dex Parios, who combines the familiar toughness and ambiguity of Rucka heroines like Tara Chace and Carrie Stetko with an unhealthy dose of Jim Rockford’s charm and bad luck. Here’s my review of the first issue.