Paul Ryan/Tom DeFalco Fantastic Four
by Travis Hedge Coke
A Fantastic Four led by the Invisible Woman? A five year run involving the entire Marvel Universe to highlight the FF? The Thing, once again ashamed of his body, fearing he will disgust people, angry and tired? The Human Torch discovers his wife is an alien spy and she is pregnant with a baby that may be his or her ex’s? Mr Fantastic dead?
Tom DeFalco and Paul Ryan’s Fantastic Four run lasted from 1991-96, interrupted only by two issues drawn by Carlos Pacheco. Tom DeFalco was coming in with respected Thor and Amazing Spider-Man runs, Paul Ryan having just done brilliant work on DP7 and Quasar. Post-FF, DeFalco would develop the MC2 line of comics set in a future, where familiar Marvel characters had aged and many of their children were teenaged heroes and villains. Paul Ryan would go on to draw The Phantom for twelve years, including The Death of Diana Palmer Walker. They would re-team for the first of two MC2 miniseries focusing on the Fantastic Four and following directly on their run, thematically and plotwise, with DeFalco writing the second to be drawn by another artist, after Ryan’s death at age sixty-six, in 2016.
Sue Storm blew a hole in a Celestial, the most powerful and mysterious beings in the cosmos!
I don’t want to remind anyone how sexist superhero comics can be, but Sue and Lyja working on computers and using advanced technology, alone, was an uncomfortably big step for for Marvel and for the Fantastic Four title.
The run – produced for all-ages, with assists by colorists, inkers, and letters including Gina Going, Christie Scheele, and Dan Bulanadi – was an imperfect, but exciting jumble. Even today, it reads like a snowball rushing downhill on the world’s biggest, steepest mountain on Mars. Storylines dovetail and collide unexpectedly, and you can almost tell when the creative team simply changed their mind. The Fantastic Four dealt with loss, aging, and physical trauma. The team members met future versions of their children, manufactured and alternate reality versions of themselves, they met evil grandchildren and secret siblings, old loves came out of the woodwork and they were often thrown into the past, the far future, the distant reaches of the universe and beyond.
I loved this run as a kid, and that undoubtedly fuels my love for it now, but I also feel different about it, find new things to love now.
Johnny Still Loves His Ex-Wife
When I read first this run, I was in my early double-digits, and I couldn’t believe Johnny (the Human Torch) Storm could have feelings the woman he married, even after learning she was actually Lyja, an alien spy, the whole time. How could he still be attracted to her? How could his family give her lodging in their home, give her their trust?
As an adult: Ask me how often I talk to my ex, who put some effort into destroying my work and personal life, but since got straight and has attempted to make amends.
Johnny and the FF’s decision paid off for them. My decision has, ultimately, been a good one.
We rationalize a lot, justify quite a bit, but sometimes trust pans out.
In the two MC2 Fantastic Five miniseries, Lyja and Johnny are again and established couple, while the DeFalco/Ryan run on the main title, was an exercise in Lyja letting Johnny go. Both conclusions are understandable, and neither contradicts the other.
Sue Storm Wants to be Sexy
Throughout the early issues of the run, Sue Richards feels unappreciated by her husband, feeling her age, feeling seen as a mother but not a woman.
After the team is confronted by doppelgangers exhibiting their most private fears and self-recrimination, when Sue absorbs hers rather than defeat it, she embraces her need to feel sexy, to enjoy being desired, to be seen as more than just a den mother for a group of emotionally volatile but otherwise adult man.
It was crass. It was easy. I was the 1990s.
Her adoption of a revealing, eroticized costume, which lasts only a few issues before changing to essentially a sleeveless version of the standard worn by the men, was always bad optics. Taken out of context, it seems run-of-the-mill eroticization from the era. Comics readers who have invested in the motherhood, that saintly, virginal motherhood of Susan Richards, the keyhole top alone is with borderline traumatic.
That Sue renders the clothing of everyone at a tenants’ meeting invisible remains less shocking for many people, than Susan Richards’ bare arms and bare thighs.
“We just reminded people that she was a sexy woman,” said Tom DeFalco.
One third into the run, Reed Richards and Doctor Doom seem to die. For all intents and purposes they were dead, the comics creative team having no intention resurrecting them unless explicitly ordered.
Just prior to this run, Len Kaminski wrote an excellent done in one story, in which the Fantastic Four are spirited away in the night by cosmic alien entities, add have their primary characteristics stripped away as part of a test. Without his courage dominating his persona, Ben Grimm exhibits a parental protectiveness. Johnny Storm, deprived of his impetuousness, demonstrates a deep intellectual genius. And, so forth.
Removing Reed as an active participant in the comic, allowed this experiments to play out in real time months and months, for the first time in a long time, a sense of permanence to the wrecking of the elegant molecule what is the family Fantastic Four.
Removing Reed was also a way to clear a lot of accumulate ugly in terms of Reed’s tendency’s to dismiss his wife, to isolate himself and his emotions, and to low key condescend to his family and teammates.
Have Cake/Eat Cake
Superheroes wearing jackets with big in the early 1990s. So Reed wears a vest, often, and Johnny gets a jacket that enhances his powers, but he hates it.
Big guns were the rage, so Ben has a huge gun Betty makes fun of, and is, in-story, only there to draw attention.
Jackets are still popular, so Johnny wears another jacket, instead, a lot. Oooh! Flight jackets!
If Sue Richards’ new look is a personal statement, why do all the other super-women (except Sharon Ventura) also wear small revealing swimsuits? Are bare limbs and keyhole tops also Lyja and Huntara’s personal statements?
DeFalco and Ryan kill Reed Richards and Doctor Doom. And, they bring them back.
The FF sit in their penthouse apartments complaining the X-Men are more popular than them, while in-story, the X-Men are systemically persecuted and often hunted by bigots and giant robots built by bigots.
The run tried to have every early 90s hot thing, every classic FF character and moment revisited, while breaking in new toys and riding a nostalgia vibe.
Written for Kids
For the first time in Franklin Richards history, talks like a human being. Is contractions and mispronunciations are reasonable, age appropriate, it’s not hokey, stock phrasing Crimson 30 year old Vaudeville actor pretending to be five years old in 1914.
Franklin can say, “Miss Harkness.” He can say, “Uncle.”
As fans, we sometimes try to make the Jack Kirby/Stan Lee Fantastic Four a comic for adults. Adults were more than welcome, but it was a comic that never disinvited children or teenagers. John Byrne’s much loved run in the 1980s disgusted me as a kid, and turns me off as an adult, but it was also aimed more at adults, while Walt Simonson’s run, and the DeFalco/Ryan run, aimed at a much broader reading range.
Even a subject as adult as prison rape is handled with an emphasis on bullying and betrayal, in neither an over nor clumsily homophobic fashion, both of which would have been de rigeuer in Code-approved superhero comics at the time, and I do mean de rigeuer.
In the trophy room of Devos the Devastator, an alien who hunts down dangerous species, the human head he has mounted is both an indictment and horror, and so low key and bloodless that it would not be out of place in an episode of Rocko’s Modern Life or Sponge Bob.
Aiming the comic at children, or at least making the book available for children, matures Franklin in ways more “mature” runs failed to. It also facilitates a briskness to plot and pace without interfering with more adult themes or concerns. I could appreciate Sue’s worries about aging or not being attractive without having to understand the complexities of adult sexual identity at eleven. With Byrne’s, 80s’ children would have been expected to understand an adult man’s grudge against Ms or preferencing “woman” for adult women, over “girl.”
So Many Guest Stars
Ryan/DeFalco Fantastic Four had a lot of cameos and guesting characters, those related to crossovers, some popular and probably to raise the book’s profile.
But, they used those appearances almost universal great effect. Who, but Speedball, could bring some novelty to a Hulk/Thing fight, by encouraging them ready to hash things out over table hockey? (This is also the first run that it would have ever had the Invisible Woman and the Hulk his ass, but none of the New Warriors needed to help with that.) Spider-Man comes in two or three times to help Johnny through hardships or offer sympathy as his best non-family friend.
Starblast, an FF-centering crossover, is one of my favorite superhero events, and Atlantis Rising, borne out of unanticipated circumstances, is an incredible lot of fun, even at its most awkwardly orchestrated. Neither crossover, nor the earlier Infinity Wars require you to buy or read the non-FF issues. Things are summed up or the Fantastic Four comics present their own satisfying arc and story.
This run re-centered the Marvel Universe back around the Fantastic Four. It also centered the FF in their own comic.
Reusing Walt Simonson’s New Fantastic Four, a satirical gambit about crass commercial plays, in a storyline about fads and unnecessary bling, and using them to promote the then-new comic, Secret Defenders. Greatly expanding the character and life of the Ant-Man now most known to moviegoers. Using guesting Avengers and Thor villains to keep surprises fresh.
Wolverine appears a handful of times, and Wolverine was everywhere for years, but his appearances have lasting consequences and redefined Ben Grimm’s dynamic in Fantastic Four for almost the entire run. The first time Wolverine appears, he horribly scars Ben, losing his temper during a fight and cutting open his face before it received a serious beating at other hands. Wolverine had more consequence in Fantastic Four than he did in any x-book except his own during those same years.
One of the amazing things about Paul Ryan’s work, is that you can visually understand everything in every page within seconds. Characters are immediately, household items and cosmic contraptions identifiable, locations, everything is clear and precise and get subtly nuanced.
When an adult Franklin Richards is brought from a future to replace his child-self, Ryan’s oversized armor encases him in a way that makes him look small again, easing the reader into this new matured version with his baby face and outsized prosthesis.
When we are in Reed Richards’ lab, it is not a stock weird science laboratory, but idiosyncratically, and unquestionably, a weird science laboratory.
Benjamin J Grimm opens the refrigerator to fix a sandwich, the shelf he eyeballs is carefully stocked with reasonable, non-generic refrigerator items.
Unfortunately, for some readers, confirm any people who only saw a page or a panel in isolation from a story, this made the artwork looks simple, unexciting, or basic.
Particularly being sandwiched between runs by Walt Simonson and Jim Lee, both amazing, but I would say louder visual artists, I believe Ryan is too often judged against what he could be, rather than for what he was trying to do.
Regarding his visualization of the main cast, Paul Ryan said, “What really stayed in my mind was how the core characters had been envisioned by Jack in his first two years on the book,” which I think speaks to the mix of energy and anxiety in Ryan’s Johnny Storm, his ever-changing Ben Grimm, the idealized prettiness and constant physical heroism of Susan Richards, and pipe in mouth, slightly disconnected Reed.
Some things are oversimplified in the artwork, and on at least one occasion Ryan indulges in borderline racist caricature, but the deliberate purification in his communicative artwork aids in a subtle, multilevel visual characterization the many showier pencilers do not achieve.
This is the run which reaffirmed the Thing, Ben Grimm, as the vulnerable tough guy, through simple visual cues like his arm in a cast the dramatic facial injuries which encouraged him to wear a mask designed in one of the earliest Fantastic Four issues not deployed again for decades.
I like Dreadface more than (similar, preceding alien black oil slick that covers people and is evil) Venom. DeFalco/Ryan used several pre-established characters, but they also kept introducing new people, new supervillains, neighbors and acquaintances for the Fantastic Four, even a team of elite Inhuman commandos who felt so classic, I believed for years they had already been introduced before their appearances in this run.
Reinventing the Yancy Street Gang as a Kirby-style kid gang, featuring Little Larry Lee, Dictionary Dawson, Rhythm Ruiz, and two-fisted Tommie Boyd, did not spend them off into their own series, or even further Fantastic Four appearances, but they were great for an issue and still charming for fans.
Occulus and Wild Blood came in like lambs… and left like lambs. But, Hyperstorm is one of my top five FF villains. Bridget O’Neil was fantastically rounded. I am a Lyja superfan. And I really wish Marvel would do more with Reed’s sister Huntara.
A sucker for cheesy puns, I choose to believe Paibok, the name of an alien super soldier with the powers of the X-Men, is pronounced, “Payback.” Lyja, the alien spy, I have often given a soft Spanish j, because.
Strange Days is a fantastic arc, bringing Reed Richards and Doctor Doom back into play, alive and unwell. Following the welcome, No One Gets Out Alive, wherein we were presented with several wrong, alternate reality Reed Richards, Doom and Reed return as great men, irreparably, sincerely damaged.
The remaining few issues of the Tom DeFalco and Paul Ryan run are centered on psychological damage, emotional trauma, and family love. Parents are outed as abusers. Orphan kings flee in fear. Reed finally gets passionate about his wife.
The real beauty of Reed, and of Doom, being dead, is that even dead, they cast intense shadows. The other Fantastic Four are forever tied up, bound and supported, pulled down, out, and up by Reed Richards and Victor Von Doom. With their deaths, readers and the characters can understand that this does not restrain them, does not define them.
Resurrecting Doom and Reed need not force the other three to their previous routines or positions. Everything can and should grow, mature, and change. They can grow and change into something more themselves.
The characters this run introduced make appearances there and here, with Lyja popping up a few times including recently, and the Agatha Harkness subplot becoming retroactively more labyrinthine with revelations from Avengers: Disassembled and House of M. To my knowledge, nothing more has been done with Reed’s Latverian half-brother in terms of their familial bond, with Huntara, Occulus, and the Dark Raider having no play at all.
Parts of the run are collected and available in many formats. Some are digital only unless you grab the old original issues.
Master villain and grandson of Sue and Reed, Hyperstorm, combining the FF and X-Men dynasties, the potency of cosmic radiation, human mutation, and the Phoenix Force, was handled marvelously in the MC2 followups, but in normal continuity, nothing.
Yet, it remains readable, and rereadable. An exciting, tonally consistent and lengthy run that never lets up its energy or its deft touch. The characters feel real. The rooms and landscapes feel real. Two of every three sentences ends in an exclamation mark. And, every reveal leads to a new mystery and another adventure.
Paul Ryan/Tom DeFalco Fantastic Four
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