COMICS – THE WORLD IN INK: JONATHAN HICKMAN’S EPIC 3+ YEAR “FANTASTIC FOUR” SAGA

With the announcement of a newly rebooted film adaptation of Fantastic Four comes debates as to the merits of such an undertaking. Personally, I see neither the point, nor the merits. Not only were the two 2005-2007 live action features fairly enjoyable and serviceably/competently made popcorn entertainment – we have already gotten the best incarnation/interpretation of that saga in the medium best suited to tell it: a 3+ year comic run written by Jonathan Hickman. Beyond being one of, if not the outright best vision of the Fantastic Four, it’s one of the greatest stories conceived, and one that could only have been done in the medium of comics.

The Fantastic Four: Marvel's "First Family"
The Fantastic Four: Marvel’s “First Family”

Hickman’s Fantastic Four begins with a prologue/backdoor-pilot under Marvel’s “Dark Reign” event, sneaking in a quick multiverse hopping quest to follow-up previous writer, Mark Millar’s back-to-basics story. As enjoyable and polished as Millar’s big-blockbuster styled approach was (which managed to all of the core emotional beats associated with the property), it was also very indicative as to what previous creators have been doing wrong with the characters before and ever since fan-favorite and critical darling Mark Waid’s story came to an end. The Fantastic Four was a FAMILY. They were a family and the explorers of the unknown in the Marvel U, yet that somehow wasn’t how they were defined for some time. In fact, for the most part, the Fantastic Four was a sometimes dysfunctional family-esque superteam/unit that simply had outlandish adventures, rather than a family unit that resembled something like a functional family. So Hickman built a bridge in his prologue/miniseries. The most notable thing that Hickman would do in his tenure on the book, that made his story so powerful, is he put the family first before everything else. While the adventures were a big part of the mythos and his saga, it is clear that in Hickman’s eyes, they weren’t just a team going on missions — they were a family ACTING as a team.

Reed's Promise
The Richard’s Family Promise

Through “The Bridge” prologue and the “Solve Everything” first act, Hickman focused on the much vilified Reed Richards/Mr. Fantastic and reaffirming and strengthening his love and devotion to his family. Those first acts not only serve to re-establish Reed, the husband/father and family patriarch, as a virtuous hero; it also served to elevate the importance of the rest of the family not only to Reed but to the saga itself. The family members each have a large role to play in this story, not only as a part of a family but as well-rounded individuals themselves – all hinted at in the first acts. This is shown in a powerful scene where Reed, when faced with the possibility of “solving everything” (a longtime dream of Reed, ever the futurist) at the cost of his family: he chooses his family. That moment is sort of a mission statement for the saga moving forward.  The beginning chapters are bookended by subtle and touching moments between Reed and the love of his life, Sue/Invisible Woman. Much has been said about the relationship between the two, which under some writers can veer not only into dysfunction but also be portrayed as downright abusive. It is telling however that the most cohesively and quality-written/critically acclaimed incarnations (Lee/Kirby, Waid, McDuffie, Millar, Hickman etc) of their story are unashamed portrayals of a relationship that is healthy and positive. It’s clear that despite somewhat acknowledging some of the baggage these two carry, Hickman absolutely loves Reed and Sue together. Hickman chose to portray the two as a proper, mature grown-up couple who work through problems, talk about things (with a lived-in rapport) and come to compromises instead of the thematically cheap relationship melodrama. And there is a healthy dose of romance, tender touchy-feely moments and displays of affection spread throughout to keep even the hardest of hearts fluttering. It is refreshing to see a comic portray a stable, loving, and healthy marriage – especially in a superhero comic where romance or “shipping” is usually done to stir up “shocking” drama and readership. Sue is written in the mold of the wife/mother, the matriarch and maternal role, but it never once diminishes her strength, independence, resolve, and determination for herself and the family. Like Reed she has layers; Hickman focuses on her extraordinary compassion for others and like Reed’s super-intelligence, that trait is both used as a boon and strength. Reed’s intellect takes the family to bold new places but it is Sue’s almost boundless compassionate nature that keeps the love alive in the family. Reed may be the “head” of the family but Sue is the “heart,” and the two need their union to be stronger than ever before if they are to not only hold their family together, but face the trials to come.

fantastic_four_birthday_gift_by_patrickthornton-d39t6la

With Reed and Sue’s status in the saga established, and the familial theme put in place, the next few chapters are about rounding out the main cast and their roles. Ben Grimm/The Thing is the “rock” of the family. While Reed and Sue keep everyone together, Grimm keeps them grounded, his everyman wisdom provides the family with the emotional support they need and somewhat of an outside perspective. Johnny Storm/Human Torch has always been the younger brother to everyone in the family, with Reed and Sue sometimes acting as his surrogate parents on occasion. Ever since the birth of their children however, Johnny has come to fit the mold of the goofball uncle. In Hickman’s hands, Johnny comes to grow in terms of maturity as he begins to embrace his familial responsibilities which are all paralleled by his journey as a superhero. Johnny and Ben’s kinship is also every bit as important to this saga as Reed and Sue’s romance. Beyond the core four, Hickman is the first writer to successfully integrate Sue and Reed’s children, Franklin and Valeria Richards, into key roles in the story. Franklin, the older of the two, finds himself living in the shadow of his younger sister’s academic and intellectual achievements. However, the more his parents reach out to him, the more Franklin discovers that he too has a special destiny. Valeria may have inherited her father’s vast intellect at a mere 3-years old but she lacks wisdom and understanding of responsibility leading her to become quite the precocious troublemaker – putting her at odds with her parents and setting her on a path of rebellion normally reserved for teens. Franklin’s and Valeria’s coming of age echoes Hickman’s primary theme of the importance of family. The individual characters and arcs come together in a sci-fi superhero opus that shifts scales from the Richard’s family’s backyard to the farthest reaches of space and time and reality – all with the heartwarming tale of their closely bonded family at its heart. And Hickman understands when you’re doing a story book about a family, there is no such thing as a “minor member.”

Franklin and Valeria

In an era where creators struggle to add grit, depth, layers, pathos and complex psycho-drama into superhero mythology (which was once an all-ages cornerstone) it was absolutely refreshing for a story with characters and relationships free of any sort of unhealthy dysfunction. Hickman proves that characters and relationships never have to veer into dense, dark and overtly complex melodrama to remain nuanced, thoughtful, compelling, interesting, and above all: engaging. What matters is not how damaged or how many issues there are between characters per se, the importance is that every character feel fully realized and formed, with relationships that ring lived-in and true. Putting on a large-scale saga that put family back into the franchise wasn’t Hickman only big contribution. Hickman also played with the ongoing/single-issue/chapter structure of mainstream superhero comics. For the most part, your average superhero comic and even creator-owned comic is told in an arc to arc format. This means that stories are given more room to breathe but are never really complete until all the chapters are released or collected together, essentially issues show a fraction and incomplete portion of a story. This arc structure and “written for the trade” format is simple, effective and it is generally what comic fans expect. However Hickman does not fully subscribe to that style. There are arcs in his saga but, almost every issue/chapter was essentially a single story that could be picked up and read on its own just as much as it could be read as a sequential follow-up. This is somewhat extrapolated by the rotating teams assigned to the artwork in the book. Some chapters are given wholly distinct art styles to better emphasize the specificity of the individual story being told. The majority of the run was handled by Dan Eaglesham and later Steve Epting, both of whom combine modern cinematic “widescreen” flair with traditional Jack Kirby – inspired comic design sensibilities. The artwork is very modern and polished but pays direct homage to the style and original designs from past incarnations, playing with tone and atmosphere.

 020

It cannot be exaggerated how well this series plays with scale and how cohesively every plot thread, character arc and every moment in the saga come together to form a perfect whole. No stone in the saga is left unturned by the end. Our titular family deals with intergalactic civil war, undersea politics, paradoxes in time/space, solving global issues and more. Every plot thread and arc serves not only as an opportunity to show off our heroes in the expected adventures, but also serve as metaphors for the very relatable experiences families face. For instance, Franklin’s awakening as an “Omega-Level” mutant and Valeria’s “smarty-pants” behavior are clear stand-ins for families with “special needs” children and dealing with kids who seem to be growing too fast. That is the kind of storytelling at work here. Even notable Fantastic Four nemesis and super-villain Doctor Doom is given an arc here where he is portrayed less of an outright villain but more or less a metaphor for an estranged family member on a journey of understanding and redemption. Hickman also manages to weave in a “death/return in the family” plotline which never comes off as a gimmick as the story takes this into a less expected direction.

 Johnny's Hero Moment

In the Marvel Universe, the Fantastic Four are supposedly the most forward-thinking group.  However even with changing writers, directions and on the heels of several big Marvel crossovers, the family had reached the kind of stagnancy associated with superhero franchises. The family still lived in the Baxter Building, quarreled with Doctor Doom, Franklin and Val were still just children and so on. Hickman took his contract as an opportunity to climb out of that. With a planned ending in mind, Hickman tells a fully-formed and complete story where characters and relationships would grow, develop and change dramatically and permanently (at least until the next creator takes over to reset things).

 587

The saga briefly re-launched under the banner “FF: Future Foundation.” Under that title, the Richards family was pushed into directions never seen before, beginning with opening their ranks to new members such as Spider-Man and Reed’s reality and time-traveling father, and establishing their group as an educational institution and futurist think-tank. Better yet was the fact that even when the saga came to a close, none of these developments were undone. To better accommodate Hickman’s ambitions, the saga was spread across two books: “Fantastic Four” and “Future Foundation” but it was really ever only one complete story. The two-book structure also mirrored some of the strain and separations that were beginning to apply to the Richards family in the story. Instead of using this as an excuse to finally fracture the Fantastic Four in a meaningful way, Hickman takes this opportunity to convey a fable on how the strong, loving bonds of family keeps people strong – and how they are stronger together. There is brilliance in the way the final chapters draw from earlier moments to bring every thread full circle – and the family literally comes face-to-face with their future. The road from Point A to Point B and so on is so clearly defined. Hickman makes intuitive use of bookends that brings back key moments in the beginning of this yarn, and paints them in new lights. The final acts come in the form of an extended epilogue, all to tie off or re-emphasize a lot of the ideas, concepts and plot threads left over. The epilogue also serves to serve as a bridge-like foundation for whatever creator following Hickman to start from. One thing is clear from Hickman’s run however: Fantastic Four has changed.

Valeria and Franklin Richards, from children to adults
Valeria and Franklin Richards, from children to adults

At the end of the day, Hickman’s 3+ year saga had given us a new Fantastic Four. Beyond new characters and costumes, there is a new mantra complete with a newfound sense of optimism sorely missing from most mainstream superhero comics. This saga did not just redefine the Fantastic Four franchise; it set a new standard for superhero mythology and comic storytelling. There is a unique mix of organic development and planned storytelling that many other creators would do well to emulate. Maybe down the line, the Fantastic Four will once again become a run-of-the mill “Super-Team” book (like Avengers, Justice League, or even the “UltimateFantastic Four) but the existence of this particular saga and perspective/ideology is now forever etched into the collective comic mythology. And Hickman did all of this by recognizing and singularly defining what makes this particular Marvel-owned property wholly unique: Family. The saga is an all-ages appropriate affair that emphasizes the broadly moral position of the importance of love, respect, and above all: family. In a modern comic’s landscape where stories are getting increasingly cynical, the lines between heroes and villains are etched in levels of bloodshed and relationships are played for drama and shock instead of providing insightful nuance – it is not only refreshing, but daring and important that Hickman’s Fantastic Four set out to go about things the way that it did.

 589

If you even have a mild or passing interest in comics, let alone superhero mythology, Jonathan Hickman’s Fantastic Four is essential reading.

Jonathan Hickman’s Fantastic Four saga:

Dark Reign – Fantastic Four (“The Bridge”) issues 1-5

Fantastic Four issues 570-588

FF: Future Foundation issues 1-11

Fantastic Four issues 600-611

FF: Future Foundation issues 12-23

They are also available in hardcover and paperback collected editions in the intended reading order.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s