Fantastic Four #14
At some point I’m going to have to get back to the Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institute. I’ve been meaning to make a pilgrimage there for a visit to the refurbished Starship Enterprise. The actual, no-kidding-around Enterprise that was used on the 1960s Star Trek TV series. If I were to visit Air and Space in the Marvel Universe right now, not only would I get to see the Enterprise, I would also be able to see the spaceship whose aborted flight resulted in the creation of the greatest heroes and adventurers of all time. Fantastic Four #14 opens at that museum, with the Richards family cutting the ribbon for the opening of the Smithsonian’s newest exhibit: the Marvel-1, the spaceship that Reed Richards, Susan Storm, Johnny Storm, and Ben Grimm took for an unauthorized flight into the cosmic rays that gave The Fantastic Four their powers!
The Richards Rocket Group spaceship, according to this story, was called the Marvel-1, an entirely fitting name for it. (When Roy Thomas retold the origin of The FF in Fantastic Four #126, he had it called “the Pocket Rocket,” a name that I never cared for.) At the ribbon cutting and dedication ceremony for the Marvel-1 exhibit, we learn something new about that fateful flight that crashed outside of Ithaca, NY. There were two astronauts—a Colonel Duchman and a Captain Sanders—who were originally scheduled to go up with Reed and Ben, who were bumped from their places by Johnny and Sue. When Duchman and Sanders show up for the dedication and thank the Storm siblings for bumping them, they mention how grateful they are that neither of them faced the prospect of being changed into “a creature like The Thing,” which gets The Torch so angry that his eyes actually start blazing at them. Fortunately Sue is able to hustle her brother out of there before he burns down the Smithsonian, but make a mental bookmark of this scene.
When The FF get home, we find Reed can’t get to sleep. The whole thing of donating the Marvel-1 to the Smithsonian has got Reed thinking—and when the leader of The Fantastic Four starts thinking, those thought inevitably lead to a project and that project inevitably becomes an adventure. Sue, waking up to find Reed working on his plans for what The FF will do next, calls the expression on his restless face his “best look.” Of course his “best look” would be even better if he’d lose that damn beard, an endeavor for which I would gladly lend him my own razor if I could. But meanwhile, Reed isn’t the only one who can’t get to sleep.
Johnny is so restless, he can’t even stay in bed. He has to go out for a late-night flight, during which he enters a flashback to those days when Reed was first planning the maiden voyage of the Marvel-1 and the proving of its experimental star drive. He had picked out a binary star system to visit—44 light years away. I repeat—44 light years away. Dig the number. And here’s where it gets interesting. The fate of the mission turned on 16-year-old Johnny telling Reed he wanted to go, and insisting he could successfully pass the training to qualify—and Sue goading Ben into allowing Johnny to take the training by asking if “the big bad astronauts” were afraid of her little brother showing them up!
Remember this too: It’s the prodding and goading of Sue that gets Johnny the chance to train for the mission, just as it is later Sue’s insinuation of “cowardice” on Ben’s part that makes him ignore his better judgement about the ship’s shielding and the cosmic rays of the Van Allen Belt. We’re seeing a pattern with Sue and Ben here, a pattern that now includes Johnny—a detail of the pre-origin of The FF to which we have never been privy until now.
To Ben’s amazement, Johnny excels at every part of the mission training and quickly becomes qualified as the backup pilot of the Marvel-1. Johnny explains this by telling Ben that he has felt “a pull, like something waiting for me out there, up in the stars. I have to go.” And here’s another thing we never knew about Johnny Storm. There is a side to the youngest member of our Fantastic Four that is more profound than we ever realized. Very intriguing…
Before you know it, Johnny and Reed are working long hours together around the clock in a sealed-off and spatially expanded part of Reed’s lab and workshop that shifts some of the positions of the walls at 4 Yancy Street and actually makes Alicia stumble against a wall that isn’t where it was supposed to be. Mr. Fantastic and The Human Torch soon unveil their completed project: the Marvel-2, a rebuilt and updated version of the original Richards spaceship, with which Reed intends to embark on the journey that was interrupted the last time by the cosmic rays and the super-powers that they caused in the four space travelers! This time, he actually means to get where he originally meant to go! Except…Ben isn’t hearing it at first. After what happens last time, the many-splendored Thing refuses to have anything to do with Reed’s cockamamie idea again!
What turns Ben around? When Reed, Sue, and Johnny are ready to take off, Ben finds them in the cockpit of the Marvel-1 with…a HERBIE! Ben, who first refused to be a part of the mission, now refuses to let them go with one of Reed’s fershlugginer robots in his place—just as Alicia expected, and she has packed coffee and sandwiches for them as Ben suits up for takeoff. The HERBIE was bogus and what were supposedly its seat and controls have really been specially designed for the use of The Thing. And so, the neighbors are startled to watch the Marvel-2 taking off from 4 Yancy Street on the flight that the Richards Rocket Group would have taken all those years ago if fate hadn’t taken a hand and created The Fantastic Four! To be continued…
This, of course, is not the first time a Marvel story has dealt with the critical decisions that resulted in the birth of The Fantastic Four. One of the very best issues of What If? was What If? #36 by John Byrne, in which Reed reconsiders the shielding on the Marvel-1 and heeds Ben’s warning about the cosmic rays. He reinforces the shields and the ship takes off without Sue and Johnny, and completes its mission to another star system. The result of that is the Richards Rocket Group opening a new era of space exploration for mankind, and Reed and Ben, with Sue and Johnny, becoming a renowned group of explorer heroes without super-powers. Together the four of them embark on a life of—pardon the expression—“challenging the unknown.”
Something really cool happens in the opening scenes of this story when Ben hits the button on the “Black Box” of the Marvel-1 and plays back the recording of our heroes being bombarded with the cosmic rays. Inserted into this scene are redrawn panels from Fantastic Four #1, showing the rays first penetrating and affecting them—a truly “Marvelous” idea, pardon the expression, that perfectly sets the stage for everything that follows.
This whole idea of Reed wanting a second chance at the space mission that went so completely awry and turned his crew from the would-be first humans to set foot on another planet to the beginning of a wave of legendary heroes is one of the coolest Fantastic Four ideas that’s yet been done. It’s something so obvious that it’s a wonder no one ever thought of it before, and the best story premise since the issues of Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo. It really gets to the heart of what The Fantastic Four is all about. These characters are not mere crime fighters and they’re something even more than super-heroes. They represent the mythic tradition of the heroes who go out into the unknown (we’re again tempted to thing of them “challenging” it) and face its undiscovered, awesome, frightening things, and return with the power and knowledge to grant boons to the rest of mankind. The first time Reed tried this, he and his crew came back with the power to defend Earth from the greatest dangers, which made them the greatest of heroes—but that wasn’t the intent of the mission. This time Reed means to go at accomplishing what he originally set out to do.
The theme of this story is one of the most basic human questions and one of the most profound human yearnings: If I had it to do all over again, how different would it be? The theme of the all-new Fantastic Four adventure that starts in this issue is Reed “doing it over,” and there could not be a better idea for the re-started Fantastic Four series itself. What will come of Reed’s second chance? What will The FF discover in the world to which they’re going? How will it affect their lives, their future, and the future of the Marvel Universe? Are we about to see a time of creative expansion reminiscent of those amazing issues when Lee and Kirby populated The FF’s world with new ideas and new characters to take our heroes—and us along with them—to new places? The creative opportunities of this story may pay off handsomely, if Dan Slott plays his cards right.
Of particular note in this issue is the role of Sue and Johnny. Look at what happens here with Sue; there’s a recurring pattern of her being the character who touches off fateful decisions. Last year in FF #5, Sue contemplated that moment in the original FF #1 when she said to Ben, “I never thought you would be a coward,” and Ben’s impulsive decision when she said it, and everything that has meant to Ben’s life since then, for which she feels a measure of personal responsibility. In this issue we learn that it was Sue’s goading of Ben that got Johnny trained as a space pilot. The implication is that Susan Storm Richards, in her own way, is as responsible for the creation of The Fantastic Four as Reed is. This pattern repeats yet again at the reveal of the Marvel-2, when Sue tells Ben that “no one will think the less of” him for not wanting to go on this mission, which has the same effect on Ben as before; it just takes longer this time. Sue’s ability to affect the decisions of other characters is an interesting twist of characterization, and it’s interesting to consider what else Sue might be capable of making other people around her do.
As for Johnny, perhaps the most interesting part of this yarn concerns him. Previous writers working with our Human Torch have indulged in the idea of Johnny being a kind of arrested adolescent with no clear focus for his life except being a part of The FF. Keeping Johnny perpetually as an overgrown kid has been a disservice to the character, who has after all been married (though it turned out to be a bogus sham marriage to a Skrull spy), thought he was going to be a father (I don’t want to get into that one), and divorced. The way some people have written Johnny, it’s as if none of that ever had any effect on him. Johnny has never been allowed to grow up and stay grown up. But what Dan Slott has found here is a way to grow the character in a way we’ve never seen him grow before, as someone who’s lived with an unexpressed calling, not only to great adventure, but to some great and yet-to-be-revealed destiny. Johnny feeling space “pulling” at him and calling to him is something new. The issues ahead of us beg the question of what it is that he’ll find once he’s “out there” this time—and what he’ll discover about himself. Again, if Slott plays his cards right, Johnny Storm, The Human Torch may just become a character to watch the way he originally was under Stan and Jack. This may be Johnny’s second “coming of age.”
In art notes, there’s the art of Paco Medina, whose rendering of The Thing leaves something to be desired; he comes out looking rather cartoonish in some scenes and panels of this issue. But Medina’s version of The Torch is a standout this time. Part of Johnny’s maturation as a character should be a physical maturing, a growing up into a sexy, romantic young heartthrob. Johnny should rightly be as sexy on paper as Chris Evans was in the Fantastic Four movies. Jack Kirby from the mid-60s onward, and George Perez, were both able to endow our Torch with something approaching that kind of quality. Medina’s art in this issue suggests it. In addition to an artist who can draw The Thing correctly and will get the damn beard off Reed, we also need someone who can draw a sexy young-adult Torch consistently. The art for this issue otherwise earns high marks.
There was a time when The Fantastic Four was a book of universe-expanding and universe-shaping discoveries, which introduced new characters and new ideas that made the Marvel Universe a richer and more wonder-filled place. Of course, that was with Jack Kirby at the helm, and no one expects current storytellers to operate on Kirby’s level. But this book should always have that kind of ambition, and with the new voyage of discovery on which The FF are embarking, we at least see a hint of that kind of spirit coming back. May this be as awesome a time as The Fantastic Four deserves.
Fantastic Four #14: The Richards Rocket Group Redux
- Writing - 9.5/109.5/10
- Storyline - 9.5/109.5/10
- Art - 9/109/10
- Color - 9/109/10
- Cover Art - 8/108/10
User Review( votes)