Fantastic Four Means Family
by Travis Hedge Coke
A common explanation of what sets Fantastic Four apart from other superhero teams, superhero comics, is that it is about family. They are a family.
What is weird is how many people, from diehard fans to fair weather readers, want that family to be a Leave It to Beaver strait-laced nuclear family.
Fantastic Four should be like a 50s sitcom.
No, it shouldn’t.
Fantastic Four should be like The Incredibles.
No. It shouldn’t.
The Fantastic Four are a family. Of the original team, two are legal siblings (Susan and Johnny), two are romantically connected (Sue and Reed), another (Ben) is best friends with one and was romantically interested in another and the nominal and adoptive brother of the third. All but one are orphans, and his parents were distant as hell.
Since 1961, the Fantastic Four has not given a damn about your strait-laced nuclear family unit.
The Fantastic Four has always been about found family and expanded family. Reed Richards has never been Ward Cleaver. Reed is not going to yell at Johnny because Johnny wore one of his shirts, demanding he take it off, press it, and return it to the drawer. And, whatever the Beaver Boys and Eddie Haskell got into, it is less than half a year into serialization before Johnny Storm, resident teenager, ran away from home to crash in a flophouse, which though temporary, is in no way treated as unusual or beyond the pale.
Reed and Sue, romantically paired, cohabitate in 1961 in the home shared with Sue’s younger brother Johnny and Reed’s best friend ( who formerly held a torch for Sue), Ben Grimm.
This may seem innocuous now, as they were not shown sharing a bed, but in 1961, American family-friendly entertainment, unmarried couples did not share a kitchen and sleep under the same roof.
The Fantastic Four are not a nuclear or conjugal family unit, nor do they prize one.
When people comment on new Fantastic Four stories, adaptations such as feature films, and versions with new casts, be they set in the far future or alternate realities, this reduction to a faux nostalgia, is as insipid as it is toxic.
2015’s Fantastic Four (dir. Josh Trank) was criticized even before release for changing the ethnicity of Johnny Storm, and for repositioning his sister, Sue, as an adopted sister, as if the Fantastic Four did not from its beginning involve adopted siblings.
Ben Grimm is not the blood or legal uncle of Sue and Reed’s children. Johnny and Ben are not legally, or by blood, brothers.
A year ago, Karla Pacheco and Steven Cummings’ Fantastic Four 2099 was also criticized for not being enough about family, despite the comic hinging on the importance and nature of family, including a passage that should have definitively erased this suppositional criticism:
“There is the family you make… And the family you’re born to. Sometimes you try to leave your family behind… Sometimes your family is hard to find.”
There are grumbles whenever a friend is brought into the fold as a team member or team-adjacent. When the Fantastic Four are the original four plus one, or in instances such as when Johnny invited Darla Deering, to be a member in his stead, as part of a new Future Foundation.
Family is not a matter of genetics or legality, but a complex formed by social anticipation and idiosyncratic will. Your brother need not recognize you as a sibling. Your cousin may be closer to you than your birth mother. You may be the mother or the cousin or the sister to someone with whom you share no genetic or legal familial bonds.
The Fantastic Four are not a family because they represent a passe anti-communist mom pop two and a half kids schema. They are not family because of genetic inheritance.
The Fantastic Four choose to be family. They choose each other as their family.
To reshape or to gild that with other agendas, is to devalue what found family is and how progressive, heartfelt, and useful the dynamics are that are anchor and foundry for the Fantastic Four.
Fantastic Four Means Family
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