This article was originally published at The Nerd Cave on May 30, 2014.
Bleeding Cool posted a news story today that Marvel Comics may be putting their Fantastic Four line on hiatus.
My initial reaction was disbelief. Fantastic Four #1 was the comic that started the Marvel universe and the series still proclaims itself to be “The World’s Greatest Comics Magazine” right on its cover. It is not just the cornerstone of Marvel Comic’s superhero properties, but also of comic’s history. However, the decision begins to seem plausible when corporate interests are considered. Disney owns Marvel and cannot legally use the property in film, the most lucrative aspect of the superhero properties. They stand to profit a great deal more by focusing on properties like the Inhumans and Guardians of the Galaxy. And unlike Spider-Man or the X-Men, the Fantastic Four is not integral to Marvel Comic’s current publishing success. Only two monthly comics are directly related to the brand, and neither is printed in a significantly high quantity.
This isn’t a reaction of fear or anger about the scoop though. An anonymous source and circumstantial evidence hardly confirm a news story. However, the possibility of Fantastic Four being removed from comic shelves provides good cause to reflect on why fans are bound to react to this story.
It is not hyperbole to state that without Fantastic Four #1 there would be no Marvel universe. The stories of the comic’s origin and how it saved Marvel vary, but my favorite version came directly from “The King” himself. Kirby and Lee had been collaborating at the Marvel offices for several years creating a variety of comics, mostly of the monster variety. The company was not doing well and one day Lee called Kirby in a panic telling him that the office furniture was being removed and every writer had been laid off. Kirby, who spent most of his life concerned about staying in work and providing for his family, promised to create a story to keep the doors open. He came in a few days later with the pages to Fantastic Four #1. The comic sold out. Kirby, Lee, and others began to replicate its success and created the Marvel universe.
The details of this particular narrative may be debatable, but the truth is that Fantastic Four was a hit from its very first issue and it kept Marvel open long enough to succeed. The most interesting part of its success isn’t necessarily that it saved one of the most well known companies of today, but why it was successful. Kirby and Lee’s Fantastic Four reinvigorated the entire superhero genre, giving it a sense of excitement that has still not abated fifty years later as their creations have become the biggest success stories in Hollywood.
Fantastic Four #1 took the silliness of superpowers and added a sense of pathos. Rather than focusing on the powers given to each character, Kirby and Lee made their characters flawed and relatable. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Benjamin J. Grimm, better known as The Thing. Ben was a top pilot and close friend to Reed Richards who was forever transformed into a monstrous creature. Unlike the transformations of his three friends, his was more curse than blessing. It tormented him throughout all 102 issues and 6 annuals drawn by Kirby. He was ultimately capable of overcoming his own torments to save the day, but Fantastic Four never lost track of the human beneath the rock hide. His angst and fits of rage served only to highlight his loyalty and heroism, making him one of the best known superheroes in the world.
There were eccentric villain, strange landscapes, and stunning machines throughout the run, but the story always centered on the four people that composed the team. Individually, Reed Richards, Sue and Johnny Storm, and Ben Grimm were freaks, but together they were a family. No matter how bad things got, they could rely on one another and were made better through their shared presence. Trips to the Negative Zone, visits from The Watcher and the machinations of Doctor Doom were not the main attraction, but served to heighten the drama of being part of a family. Fantastic Four featured weddings and the birth of children at its most important moments. It was a comic book about people and set a standard for character-focused stories that the superhero genre has strived to match ever since.
The popularity of Fantastic Four has ranged since Kirby and Lee departed from the title. Despite uneven quality at times, there have been worthy successors who turned the series into a critical darling again. In the early 80’s John Byrne wrote and illustrated 61 issues often referred to as the second golden age of the Fantastic Four. Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo created a third age in the early 00’s. In the last five years the series has hosted some of the most acclaimed creators of the modern age including Jonathan Hickman, Steve Epting, Matt Fraction, Mike Allred.
The last two creators on that list assumed the family-focus of the Kirby and Lee run in the second volume of FF. The four central cast members were all different, including the replacement of Mister Fantastic with Ant-Man, and it featured a much larger extended family of children and allies that formed the Future Foundation. Fraction and Allred explored what it meant to be a family in the year 2013, instead of the year 1961. The structure was no longer that of a nuclear family and the problems they faced were very different, but the Future Foundation contained the same heart and soul as the stories written in Fantastic Four more than fifty years ago.
So what does all this have to do with the rumor that Marvel may be ceasing to publish Fantastic Four?
I think it shows how sad that move would be. It wouldn’t be a disaster or an atrocity, but it would be a shame. Fantastic Four is the comic book that made Marvel Comics what it is today. It literally saved the company. Fantastic Four is the comic book that changed superhero comics forever. It shifted the focus from the powers to the people. Fantastic Four is the best-known collaboration of Jack “The King” Kirby and Stan “The Man” Lee two of the greatest creators to ever grace the industry. It is their legacy.
It’s a monument to history and how a small staple bound pamphlet can change the world. It’s a testament to the power of dreams and family. It’s the world’s greatest comic magazine.