Ever since it became apparent that the Fox-Disney deal was actually, really going to go through and that we might get an actual MCU version of the Fantastic Four, I’ve been excited, anxious, and trepidatious. The Fantastic Four are one of my absolute favorite comic book characters and I’ve been thinking about why I love them so much lately.
The thing that popped into my head yesterday was that “The Fantastic Four are the American-version of Doctor Who.” I know that may not make much sense, considering that the FF pre-date Doctor Who by two years, but let me explain: both the FF and Doctor Who were created in the ‘60s for children, but they quickly turned into stories about the triumph of science and optimism over cynicism and hate. Neither the FF nor the Doctor were soldiers — the FF have eschewed the title of “superheroes” over the years, instead choosing to be explorers and imaginauts, while the Doctor isn’t someone who kills, but someone who tries to fix things. They each have an underlying base of hope and optimism, even in the face of unbeatable odds. Even in the face of, well, iron-clad dictators.
And, just like Doctor Who, the Fantastic Four have had their ups and downs. Currently, Dan Slott is scheduled to revive the Fantastic Four for Marvel’s “Fresh Start.” I look forward to it, but I also remember the many versions of the FF that have come before — from Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s quirky original FF, where Lee and Kirby clearly decided that they had enough of superheroes and instead wanted to write about family (but also, that family has superpowers and fights giant monsters and space aliens, so, okay, they didn’t abandon the concept of superheroes entirely) to Jonathan Hickman’s FF, a single long-form story about the price of fatherhood and sacrifice and being a family, even if that family loses a piece of itself. The Fantastic Four wasn’t just a science fiction adventure — it was about building a foundation for the future.
My absolute favorite FF run, however, was written by Mark Waid and illustrated by the late Mike Wieringo. The first issue of their run, issue #60 of the FF’s third volume, came out in 2002. This was the era of “widescreen comics.” The Authority had gotten insanely popular and Marvel had recently hired the team that had made The Authority (Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch) to come over and make The Ultimates. In fact, the first issue of The Ultimates sold over 160,000 copies — while Fantastic Four was only selling in the 50,000s range. So, clearly, something had to be done with the FF, right?
Well, when Waid and Wieringo took over, they didn’t turn it into a “widescreen” comic. No, they returned the comic to way it had been before: a comic not about superheroes, but about family, about a family of explorers and astronauts, a family who annoy each other as much as they love each other. Their first issue was intended to reignite interest in the book, so it was marketed as costing only nine cents. (So yes, technically it won the month by selling a whopping 752,000 copies — but, again each copy was only nine cents. Meanwhile, The Ultimates was still selling over 100,000 at full price.)
The issue, titled “Inside Out,” refuted the fact that the FF needed to be like other, widescreen comics. The story, narrated by a marketing executive hired by a firm the FF employ for marketing purposes, is basically a week in the life of the Fantastic Four, everything from routine maintenance on the Baxter Building to trips to the Negative Zone. It’s only at the end that we see what our advertising executive has learned...and why exactly Reed Richards has an advertising firm on payroll. I still consider these four pages to be some of the best writing on the FF ever:
Waid and Wieringo’s run wouldn’t be without it’s issues — in the middle of their run, Waid and Wieringo were fired from the book for not changing the entire concept of the book itself:
In confirming his firing, Waid told Newsarama, “I wish I’d had a longer run, and I’ll admit I was surprised at being so abruptly fired. A few weeks ago, Bill [Jemas] phoned and tried to convince me to jettison our high-adventure approach and everything else we’ve been doing in favor of making the FF a wacky suburban dramedy where Reed’s a nutty professor who creates amazing but impractical inventions, Sue’s the office-temp breadwinner, the cranky neighbor is their new ‘arch-enemy,’ etc.”
Fans, of course, were so outraged by this that they demanded it be reversed — and a few months later, it was. (There was speculation that the book Bill Jemas wanted Waid to do was instead transformed into Marvel Knights: 4, but then again, that book also had a family-of-adventurers theme, too and was pretty damn awesome.)
Not everyone has gotten the FF right. Often, the FF has an old-school type of feel to it, like the characters emerged directly from the ‘60s — from Benjamin Grimm’s grumbly talk of Yancy Street to Johnny Storm’s interest in fixing hotrods, even to the fact that Sue is often placed firmly as the “mother” of the team (even if she is the most powerful of them). These can all be seen as “lame” — but they can also be seen as reminders that these characters are all human and have their flaws and foibles, even as they explore the outer reaches of the Microverse.
Which brings me back to the Fantastic Four as the American-version of Doctor Who. The finale of Doctor Who series 10 was probably the bleakest episode there has been in a long, long time, with the Doctor’s companion Bill Potts transformed into a Cyberman. At the end of the episode, however, Bill doesn’t die — instead, she lives on as something new. Per showrunner Steven Moffat:
“I don’t think Doctor Who is that kind of show. Doctor Who is a big-hearted, optimistic show that believes in kindness and love and that wisdom will triumph in the end. I don’t believe it’s the kind of show that says there are bitter, twisted, nasty endings because it’s not. It’s not gritty; it’s aspirational. It says, ‘It can work. And wisdom and kindness will triumph. And love will always come through in the end.’ I think there aren’t enough people or enough shows saying that and I’m damned if Doctor Who is going to join in with the general chorus of despair. So, she doesn’t die. She nearly dies. She nearly dies and she becomes something else.”
And that, too, is something it has in common with the Fantastic Four. During Waid and Wieringo’s run, Ben Grimm ends up dying a tragic death. But Reed Richards doesn’t accept that — he can’t accept that. So he builds a device that will take them into Heaven itself to retrieve Ben and the FF end up meeting God (in the form of Jack Kirby) and Ben is resurrected. Because the Fantastic Four is about the triumph of hope and science and optimism.
And that’s why I love the Fantastic Four.