Heroes Reborn Pt 4: Fantastic Four
by Travis Hedge Coke
In 1996, Jim Lee and Brandon Choi relaunched Fantastic Four, starting their story over, doing both a greatest hits retelling and spinning their own take on these four superheroes, this family of adventurers, explorers.
Morrie Kuramoto had worked paste up and other jobs at Marvel since before there was a “Marvel Universe,” and it is likely that the combination of separately drawn elements into the iconic first cover of Fantastic Four in 1961 was his work. Kuramoto, as his name implies, was Asian American. As part of the uncredited production staff, though, none of us knew about him in the mid-1990s, in association with FF, in association with pretty much anything.
George Pérez had drawn the original Fantastic Four title with intermittent breaks between 1975 and 1980, teaming with a variety of (white) writers. Pérez would, of course, go on to make a bigger name for himself elsewhere, with two landmark Avengers runs, The New Teen Titans, and Crisis on Infinite Earths; about eight thousand other things I should list but we don’t have time.
While largely unacknowledged in 1995-1997, by any press I saw then, or have seen since, the Heroes Reborn Fantastic Four is the first ongoing run by a writing and pencils team who were not white or white-read. We’re not ever going to see an all-Native or even Native-predominant art and writing team of Fantastic Four or probably any title of its stature at Marvel Comics. Seeing this run, seeing the spiritual flagship of the Marvel Universe, the title that concretized the Marvel Universe, written and drawn by Asian Americans was something that would have seemed incredibly unlikely even a year before HR was announced.
The Heroes Reborn runs, along with the entire production venture, are often maligned by “fans” of the properties in general. The animosity comes from many directions, many motivations, some less reasonable than others. It is important that, in the miasma of that hate and distaste, we do not lose how important this run was, historically, and in terms of rereadability and later influence, how strong and worthwhile these comics are.
Two Image founders (Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld), along with handpicked teams of artists, writers, production staff, would take over not only the writing, drawing, coloring of four big name Marvel comics, but the production costs, the advertising, the entire slog from concept to sales. Jim Lee would choose, for one of his, Fantastic Four, as the bedrock, the spiritual centerpiece of the Marvel Universe, and hew very closely to the original Jack Kirby/Stan Lee run.
Choi and Lee have an amazing knack for making you feel any given character is astonishingly cool. Jim Lee’s fashion magazine aesthetic and Choi’s concentration of awesome into tight showy bursts mean that even in the first issue, everyone gets a big moment, from the four who will become soon, the title Fantastic Four, to the baddies and maybe-baddies, like Dr Doom and the man called Agent Wingfoot.
This run is hampered, almost immediately, from some counter-message hyper-sexualization of women, but so does its direct inspiration, the Kirby/Lee run of thirty years earlier, and the run that immediately preceded this one, by Paul Ryan and Tom DeFalco. All three are personal favorites of mine, but Stan Lee hampered women with dialogue that depowered their achievements and Jack Kirby liked to draw a sexy shot once in awhile just because. DeFalco and Ryan infamously introduced the skimpiest costume that the Invisible Woman, one of the Fantastic Four, has ever worn, and a modified, “in mourning,” version that fully covered her breasts, with in-story psychological and out-of-story satirical (and cynical) reasons. Jim Lee and Brandon Choi came onto the title with a history of hyper-sexualized comics and the Invisible Woman’s butt does feature prominently in some panels, while some dialogue, intended to be superheroic or empowering, comes off more than a bit condescending.
Choi’s talent for cool, superheroic dialogue was focused on short-term wow factor and not always great when it came to the longer-term consequences of what is said or how it is said. Rarely a problem reading an issue a month or even all of this series at a quick pace, if given a dedicated close reading, it gets a little choppy.
“My version,” Lee to Tom DeFalco, “allows you to have Doom in the origin and sets up the Silver Surfer and Galactus.”
For all the comic is a retelling, the telling is extraordinarily considered. Marvel had just tried to re-introduce the Fantastic Four to new, younger audiences two years earlier, with Marvel Action Hour Featuring the Fantastic Four, based on the cartoon series. Within that series’ first issue, a superhero is grumbling about women being present in life, calling them, “Dames.” In 1994. Drawn lovingly but as an homage to 1950s horror comics from another publisher.
The opening pages of the Lee/Choi HR Fantastic Four, a premonitory dream of Ben Grimm’s, the man who we know will become the Thing, is told stacked strips mimicking the wide screen of a movie theater without aping it, broken by white space and black bars that add no story information, only atmosphere. And, what atmosphere!
The same characters that only two years prior were being reintroduced with slang that was forty years out of date and arguments that teenage boys should be treated at least as equal to adult women are presented in the Lee/Choi FF as believable, contemporary human beings.
Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, is characterized by his own actions, but so much more by his deference to his elder sister, his competitiveness in vehicles and women with Ben Grimm, even with guest-appearing Tony “Iron Man” Stark showing him up while Johnny tries to pick up on a woman at a party.
The visuals are arresting for their modernity even now, but on the heels of thirty years of directly referencing the design aesthetics of 60s Jack Kirby to a slavish degree, the awkwardly preserved hairstyles, catchphrases, too often dress style and interpersonal dynamics of a 1960s comic written and drawn for a 1960s audience (and tempered, always, for children, even if aiming higher), seeing Ben Grimm and Sue “soon to be the Invisible Woman” Storm in actually-contemporary clothes, Ben with a 90s, not a 60s haircut, Sue with a real world job and flourishing outside-being-the-mom life… Ben’s favorite turns of phrase are still present, but delivered as things someone might say, not as catchphrases for an audience. Sue is still very much the Susan Storm/Richards we may or may not have been reading since 1961, but she is not performing a rote role for us, but a woman with a birth, a history, a life.
Wyatt Wingfoot is introduced almost immediately, a character who appeared midway through the Kirby/Lee run of the 60s, then only made spot appearances in Fantastic Four or, occasionally, She-Hulk stories. He was a Johnny Storm’s college roommate in the 1960s, here he is redone as a SHIELD agent, and in the opening arc, the bad guy. Wingfoot was, in the 1960s, probably the most non-offensive Native American in comic books. Sure, he was comfortably lazy, a professional mattress tester, but this was tempered by his speed, capability, heroism and good nature in all other respects and when needed. When the Fantastic Four first encountered the Black Panther, Panther mopped the floor with them, but was stopped by Wingfoot, who also brokered peace between factions that were not really ever enemies.
To make Wingfoot, in this, a villain, should have hurt me, or scared me. But, show me the Native character in a comic dressed as slick and as expensive as Wingfoot in those scenes from Fantastic Four #1. Show me an NDN character with a great haircut, rocking a clean turtle neck and a pocket square from prior to 1996, or even one who just looked as professional.
And, on the very next page, as a transition, we have reporter Colleen Chang, for American Tabloid. American Tabloid was a then-recently released novel by James Ellroy, in our world, about the connections between the FBI, organized crime, and public politics, which gives some flavor to the scenes here, as well as being a fairly innocuous mid-evening tabloid news show, but Chang, not to hammer too hard on this nail, is not white. It is important that recurring characters not all be white, but to have ethnically diverse background characters without stereotypical tells or ham-fisted narrative reasons for their ethnicity is something that made Gene Colan’s Daredevil, for instance, and early 1980s Frank Miller shine, but largely faded back away from superhero comics by the time this issue was released.
Still within issue one, the rocket that will take them to their super powers not even launched, this volume of Fantastic Four already felt like retelling, tribute, and something not beholden to the easiest-to-copy, weakest elements to copy of the original Kirby/Lee Fantastic Four.
Lee’s artwork does use Kirby as a base for designs, but interpolates through years of John Byrne (who also had a much-loved run on Fantastic Four), Dave Cockrum (especially when it comes to technology and spacecraft), Frank Miller (the chiaroscuro and illuminated effects), George Pérez, Mike Mignola. His way to delineate an energy signature is a transfiguration of John Byrne’s transfiguration of Jack Kirby’s kirby dots. His bodies are, especially here, very Pérez in that they are articulated shapes. Bodies as adventures in contour.
Choi and Lee brought back a sense of disgustingness with super powers that owns the original first year of Fantastic Four, the squirm factor of stretched, slowly-understood flesh like sheets or worms, the nervous danger of a mobile man on fire. They kicked back up the sex appeal of all four main characters, the gravitas of Dr Doom, shared between this title and Iron Man, where Doom was the Mandarin in secret, Doom, over the whole of Heroes Reborn, the premier villain of the world (as I’ve said elsewhere, apt for a pocket world created by the son of the man Doom hates (and lusts for) and attacks the most). The Fantastic Four, in this run, have great hair, slick looks, they have charm and energy and big big hearts. People respond to their heart, their drive, and their fame as it climbs, with commentary about their sex lives, curiosity about their social lives, and anxiety over their social influence.
Alicia Masters, sculptor, often presented in terms of her father or who she is with romantically, in this run premieres rescuing the Thing and having turned her studio into a temporary shelter, a field hospital for the injured in an attack by Atlanteans and their monsters.
“I always loved the Super-Skrull,” Lee told DeFalco, of his inclusion in the book from the beginning. “Everyone has to love some character that nobody else likes. It gives you something to champion. I made a conscious decision to do all the characters that I loved from Fantastic Four. I went back and read my old comics.”
I had to say it, but even the Thing being this huge giant is sexier and a slicker, media-sexy visual than a short guy with stony dinosaur scales in a trench coat and big hat pulled brim-down.
The progress is a little too fast, maybe, but Lee knew they had, most likely, the one year contract to compress everything he wanted to do into twelve or thirteen issues. While the contracts were open to renewal for a second year, which would have included some beauties, like moving Agatha Harkness from Avengers to Fantastic Four for a Salem’s Seven story, more use of She-Hulk, the introduction of Carol Danvers as Ms Marvel, but the loss of Rob Liefeld and the handling of the separation between Heroes Reborn and the main universe Marvel comics made this not worth pursuing.
Entering into the preproduction phase of HR, Liefeld, Lee, and their associates were unaware these comics would take place in an artificial pocket world tied to the main world. They were unaware the characters would not be, for the most part, appearing in both their books and the books produced out of New York. Simultaneously, the New York production house was quietly preparing to let go of the talent working on the same ongoing titles these would replace, often without actually telling them they were going to be, or were fired.
Paul Ryan has been penciling the Fantastic Four title for years, when, as he put it to his collaborator, DeFalco, years after the fact, “I was chatting online with Dan Jurgens one day and he was commiserating, saying, ‘I’m so sorry to hear about your bad news.’” He was never officially fired, never officially quit, and has seen passed away, so those next issues he was fond of saying he was only “really late” with will never come.
With the idea of one year to re-stage it all, Lee ditches the slow transformation of the Thing from man to monster to classic rocky form we know and love. He speeds up the Sue/Reed Richards romance. He never cheats a character of their moments to shine, their gorgeous glory. His Namor, the Submariner, in this run, is some of the prettiest and most powerful Namor has shone anywhere since Bill Everett. And, it is with Namor, in the midst of homaging the framing of actual Kirby panels, that Lee most evokes Everett and Colan, and the liquid smoothness, the salty pressure in Namor than the Jack Kirby 1960s reinvention often traded for impact-powerful and a swole body.
This run respects a 1996 audience’s ability to take in visual information as a more sophisticated rate than a 1960s comic-reading audience. Not that the audience is overall more sophisticated, but they had been trained by more visual stimuli, by the growth of the film and television industries, the increased familiarity with television and with VHS and laserdisc technologies, the growing internet. Every panel is packed with stimuli, details, counteractions and equal opportunity showing off of butts, the great superhero eye pull; Sue’s in issue #1, Johnny Storm’s in issue #2 and #3.
Bret Booth’s pencils, starting halfway through the run, stick to Lee’s template, adding an emphasis on facial expressions and a less dramatic sensibility to panel arrangement, settling us from a shocking, energetic introduction to the world into the more stable, superhero existence of the Fantastic Four. Even as their world grows more comfortable, though the cosmic levels, space, alternate dimensions, alternate histories kick down the doors and leave tracks on their carpet. This is probably the most disconcerting a Fantastic Four run had been in several years, and unsurprisingly the last time last brought Wolverine into the fold, as they do here, for a scene of Reed Richards discovering what he views as an alternative, incorrect past, but we know is the proper Marvel Universe.
In issue #6, Captain America says something about the secrets of the past coming to light, referring to the public’s new awareness that there is an undersea empire, that Atlantis is real, but apropos for a book about explorers, Fantastic Four sheds some of the more supervillain-attack based stories and potboilers of earlier runs, to emphasize discovery, lost worlds, hidden cities, extraterrestrials, ultraterrestrials, the Earth’s secret places and peoples. The Inhumans, for the first time, receive their own written language. While Johnny is buying action figures of him and his family, his sister and her boyfriend are playing with advanced technology like toys, bringing tech of the future closer to the present through constant engagement and trials.
Nothing exemplifies the desire to leave behind style holdovers from decades previous like the Inhumans arriving in the book and Karnak sagging. No matter how big the FF get, the world they live in is always bigger, always growing bigger, revealed as more. Universe-sized superheroes, and they are small in this world.
And, small, their intimate, personal lives matter much more. Johnny’s romance with Crystal, an Inhuman, mirrors their romance from the original comics, but it is given such fresh earnestness in these issues that it lives, delicately, precariously on its own terms.
The year’s worth of issues gives us the Earth. Galactus, a thread throughout every issue, with his strong arm heralds, presented very blatantly as a giant man who is going to eat the energy of the entire Earth. Dr Doom manipulating political and social events while gaming even himself via time travel. The underground worlds of the Mole Man. The powerful nations of Wakanda and Latveria. Namor’s lush and golden Atlantis. The Inhumans’ simple dispassion for most human existence. Fantastic Four could have rolled on for another year with incredible energy, but capped as it is, and the story of Galactus’ arrival and eventual defeat on Earth being spread throughout all four of the HR titles is likely, seen now, to be a strength they could not have known then.
Heroes Reborn Pt 4: Fantastic Four
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