Saturday, August 01, 2015

Essays on Comics Characters: The Fantastic Four!

kirbyffI must have been first introduced to the Fantastic Four through the Hanna-Barbera animated version that aired on ABC in the late 1960s, and through that to the comic books. It's funny, but when I think about it, I'd imagine that at least in the early 1970s, most of my FF reading would've been in the pages of Marvel's Greatest Comics, as opposed to the FF's own book. Of course, the great thing about MGC was that it featured reprints of the classic Lee/Kirby FF tales (although often edited down for space constraints), so I got exposed to the good stuff quickly!

I did pay at least some peripheral attention to the FF's own title, although I don't recall buying many issues of it at the time... I think most of my reading of their book had to have been copies of the neighbor's oldest son's books, where I learned that Crystal ended up marrying Quicksilver instead of the Human Torch (that wench! I didn't realize that MGC was reprints at first, so I thought Johnny and Crystal still had a thing for each other). I'd known of Quicksilver through reading Marvel Triple Action's Avengers reprints, naturally.

As I started reading about the history of comics, there weren't too many mentions of the FF, as most of them tended to focus on the Golden Age, although there were some mentions here and there (most notably pointing out the similarities between the FF members and some GA characters, i.e. Mr. Fantastic = Plastic Man, The Invisible Girl = Invisible Scarlet O'Neill, The Human Torch = The Human Torch). Since I'd been reading about the original Torch, when the FF got their temporary new costumes (well, the Torch did... Medusa was taking Sue's place at the time, so her standard Inhumans outfit was changed to the FF blue and black with logo design), and the Torch's costume was changed to red and yellow, I recognized where it came from.

But I digress.

By the late 1970s, I'd become plenty familiar with the FF, between reading MGC and the FF's own book, as well as my earlier exposure to the FF cartoon (which, while it had poor animation, did at least adapt stories from the comics for the most part). When MGC was cancelled, I was in the middle of one of my brief non-comics buying periods... which wouldn't last long (they usually didn't... these days, I'm in a non-new-comics-buying period, which has lasted several years).

I think I really dug into the FF when John Byrne came along as penciler and writer of the book. By this time, I was older, naturally, and could appreciate the nuances in the stories he was telling (my younger self enjoyed the cosmic aspects of the Lee/Kirby stuff, but didn't really "get" most of the characterization stuff). The book felt "right" to me, and I enjoyed the hell out of it.

Like all good things, though, it didn't last forever... it lasted a good long time, though! Byrne wrote some really great stories, and then the book kind of backslid a bit. I kept buying it out of habit more than anything else, and while there was the occasional glimmer here and there, it wasn't my FF any more.

Then came Walt Simonson, whose work on Thor I also had enjoyed the hell out of, and the book got great again. But then he left it, too! There were a few good teams that came and went, but nothing that lasted very long.

So, there you have it... the three greatest runs in the FF... #1 - Lee/Kirby, #2 - Byrne, and #3 - Simonson.

What made these runs great? Was it the epic storytelling? Introduction of new concepts? Great art?

Well, it was all that, of course... plus one thing that seems to be missing in a lot of current comics: Characterization. A lot of current comics writers seem to feel that characterization means showing the dark side of a character, and that's about the extent of it. I'm probably oversimplifying this, but there it is. I don't like reading comics about characters I don't like, no matter what they're doing. And I like it when I like the FF.

Let's look at each of the members, how they have been presented and how I see them.

2192946-misterfantasticaReed Richards/Mr. Fantastic: The brains of the group, and acknowledged leader. Of the FF members, he's the one I tend to most identify with, because like me, sometimes he gets so distracted by the big picture that he misses what's in front of him.

Reed is probably the smartest man on Earth in the Marvel Universe. I'd imagine even Reed realizes just how much smarter he is than anyone else is. Oh, there are people who are close to his intelligence (Dr. Doom, Tony Stark, Bruce Banner), but truth be told, they are way behind him. Doom probably comes closest, but the way he uses his intelligence doesn't exploit it as far as he could. Reed invents stuff all the time... sometimes it's because he needs a particular gadget that doesn't exist, sometimes he just gets an idea in his head and needs to make it happen. There are probably times he invents something without realizing on a conscious level he's inventing it! Technology speaks to him, and he speaks back to it, probably on a better level than Reed typically interacts with people. This tends to make people feel like he's a bit distant as well as above them, and puts a barrier between him and the average person. Reed is unaware of this -- at least consciously -- and will talk to anyone as if they're on equal terms with him (we've seen this in the past, such as Reed's interactions with the writers of the FF comic within the comics). Also unconsciously, he avoids using too much tech speak when talking to the average person (this rule of Reed's doesn't apply with his fellow FF'ers, probably because of his familiarity with them).

He genuinely loves Susan, even if he doesn't always show it in ways the average person gets. He also loves his children (I'm assuming his daughter Valeria is still in continuity, but who can say these days?), and Ben and Johnny are like brothers to him. Ben in particular probably was the first person who really "got" Reed, back in their college days, and that was important to Reed.

I think one of the reasons Reed gets so passionate about his science -- even moreso since the creation of the FF and his marriage to Sue -- is that he views everything he does as trying to make the world a better, safer place for his family. Even his ventures into studying the Negative Zone are, in Reed's mind, a way to know more about everything. Sadly, sometimes Reed's scientific curiosity gets in the way of his better judgement, and while he researches things that he believes will be of benefit, he manages to set loose a menace (such as Blaster or Annihilus), although he puts things right once he's aware of it.

stimulator1I think that's one of the driving factors of Reed's personality... the need to make things right. His greatest failure for many years was not being able to cure Ben Grimm of being the Thing (it was a brilliant idea that Ben himself was responsible for all the past failures, and that once he came to terms with it, gained the ability to change back and forth from human to Thing at will). I'm sure he also feels personal responsibility, shame and regret over the loss of his and Sue's second child (as depicted in Byrne's run). When Reed sees a problem, he needs to fix it.

The problem with this is, not all problems have a technological fix... so while he does truly love Sue, there are times he doesn't realize that there is a problem with their relationship until Sue herself points it out to Reed (admittedly, I think Sue is aware of Reed's need to fix things or otherwise make them better, and lets him get away with being distracted away from her and the children as long as he does).

I don't think Reed has an ego issue, however. I don't believe he believes himself that he's the only one who can fix a problem, and nobody else can... it's just that he's come to rely on himself to do what needs to be done, and it's more of a habit than an ego problem. Reed would never be caught telling anyone that he could cure Bruce Banner of being the Hulk permanently if Bruce had only come to him in the first place... or that he could've fixed any of a number of other problems that other heroes of the Marvel Universe have had. Certainly, if he focused on them, he could probably fix them, but that's not where his focus has been.

352-1This is the problem I've had with the whole "Illuminati" thing that was introduced a number of years ago. That whole thing smacks of having a major ego, something I don't see Reed having. He doesn't think of himself as superior to the rest of humanity, despite his actual superiority.

As noted above, Ben and Johnny are like brothers to Reed... although Johnny most often is the annoying youngest brother who seems to always get in trouble and never has to deal with the consequences. After Sue, Ben is the most important relationship in Reed's life, and I think that has more to do with Ben than with Reed.

The two of them first met back in college. As has been retold a few times, Reed was originally roomed with Victor Von Doom, but that didn't last long (a few seconds, perhaps, before Doom announced he would not share a room with anyone). Ben showed up immediately and offered himself up as a roommate, and a friendship was born.

The two of them were complete opposites -- the scientific big brain and the all-American football player -- but one could argue that it was this complete difference between them that was the basis for their friendship. Ben could get Reed to loosen up and have some fun (or at least, what normal people considered to be fun -- Reed's enjoyment of the sciences never struck me as "fun" for him, as he didn't usually smile during any of this work), while Reed could help Ben focus more on his studies. It was an unlikely friendship, but one that stood the test of time.

Reed met Sue when he was 19, and she was 13 (at least, according to some stories -- this would've been after his time at State University with Ben, and even as big a brain as Reed was, would he have finished his degree at SU that quickly?), and she fell in love with him right away. Now, that age difference of six years doesn't feel right to me... I figured Reed was at least ten years older than Sue (yes, he was prematurely grey at the temples, but he'd always been presented as being older, and a six year difference isn't really that much... my wife is nine years younger than I am). Whatever the age difference was, Reed was embarrassed by Sue's affection towards him, although by the time Sue had grown up, he started seeing her differently. They met again as adults when Reed had moved to Central City, where the four got together as a group for the first time.

Reed, being of a more scientific bent, and despite Ben's help loosening him up, still couldn't manage to let Sue know how he felt, although I'd imagine he tried in many ways that most people wouldn't consider "normal." They ended up starting some sort of relationship, perhaps Sue ended up being an assistant of sorts to Reed as he was developing his spaceship engine. Whatever happened, the two were in love when we first met them in Fantastic Four #1, although it may not have been obvious to the casual reader, other than Sue's insistence on going along on the test flight.

jack-kirby-fantastic-four-48Ben Grimm/The Thing: Simultaneously the most tragic as well as the most comic member of the group. For a long time after being transformed, Ben focused on his being a "monster" as a result of the cosmic ray exposure, and was definitely bitter. He figured he'd never be able to fit in with the rest of human society, and it's possible that, had the FF not been formed to use their powers for good, Ben could've ended up being a major villain! It was Reed taking the initiative to form a team and focus Ben's energies elsewhere that saved him.

I suspect that some of Ben's comic aspects fall into one of two areas: One of them is his letting himself be himself. As presented in his earlier college days, Ben was outgoing with a good sense of humor. His references to his Aunt Petunia, and his development of his battle cry, "It's clobberin' time!" I see as Ben being Ben. Other aspects of his humor I think fall into the category of, "I'm laughing so I don't cry," and is a coping mechanism for his condition (the same goes when he is able to cut loose with his full strength... it may appear he's reveling in his power, but it's more of stress relief, as he'd rather give up his strength to be normal... or so he'd said).

Alicia Masters, disguised as Sue when she first meets Ben
Of the other two males on the team, it's Ben who first meets someone and has a relationship, with the blind sculptress Alicia Masters, as you are probably aware. Alicia is a figure of tragedy herself, being the step-daughter of the villainous Puppet Master, and being forced to do his will in her first appearance. Alicia's presence in Ben's life helps humanize him greatly after his transformation, no doubt, although it also gave Ben the excuse to grumble about how he couldn't marry her and have a normal life because of being the Thing (while simultaneously thinking that Alicia loves the Thing, not Ben, which caused him to resist the cures Reed provided in the past).

Ben is one of the strongest beings on Marvel Earth. We know the Hulk is stronger (heck, Hulk is strongest of all, right?), and there are others who are possibly stronger (Colossus and Sasquatch come to mind), but the fact remains that Ben is so strong and powerful that in the beginning, he really doesn't know his own strength. He's got to be aware that Reed had specially reinforced structures and furniture provided in the Baxter Building to accommodate this, but he still manages to cause a fair amount of collateral damage, especially when he and Johnny Storm are having one of their innumerable fights.

To the casual observer of these fights, it would seem like Ben and Johnny hate each other, but nothing could be farther from the truth: They are the best of friends. Johnny is Ben's second closest friend (Reed being closest), although Ben and Johnny do more things together due to Reed's focus on science and technology. Ben looks at Johnny as a younger brother in a lot of ways (letting Ben take the older brother role his late brother Daniel had), so tends to be protective of him, although not always in ways Johnny appreciates.

So Ben has several roles in the FF: He's there to try to keep Reed focused on what's right in front of them, instead of being amazed at the scientific wonder of it all; he's Johnny's older brother, trying to keep him out of trouble; and he's also the team's cheerleader of sorts, rallying them as needed.

But what's his relationship with Sue? We can tell from the first issue that he at least acted as a rival to Reed for Sue's affections, and certainly he had strong feelings for Sue (remember, too, that in Alicia's first appearance, the use of a simple wig and FF uniform had Reed and Ben fooled into thinking Alicia was Sue, so they do look alike other than hair color). However, even before meeting Alicia, Ben backed off. Perhaps it was after the events of the first several issues (especially after Sub-Mariner's memory was restored by Johnny, and Namor subsequently met Sue and became a new rival of Reed's), but whatever the situation was, Ben started looking at Sue more as a sister, and possibly also as a mother figure (the role Sue mostly takes within the group). Ben is closer to Sue in age than Reed is, but she's still younger than him, and of the team, Sue is the one who can most easily get Ben to back off. Even Alicia couldn't get away with handing Ben a broom and dustpan to clean up the mess from the last fracas between Ben and Johnny!

Despite Ben's gruff exterior, he's the member of the team who's made the most friends in the superhero community. Perhaps this is due to his being the only member who's a native New Yorker, so he fits in better... or perhaps it's just Ben's outgoing nature. I suspect that pretty much anyone who spends much time with Ben would start to forget that he looks like a monster, and focus on the man.

ff002_3Sue Richards/Invisible Woman: I think that for many writers, Sue is the hardest of the FF to write. She can come off as being just the "mom" of the group, helping to keep Ben and Johnny in line, or always complaining about Reed's spending too much time in the lab. At the worst, she's either the damsel in distress or acts shrewish and self-centered!

We know she's devoted to Reed and her children -- they come first, specially Franklin and Valeria. It's way too easy to focus on just that aspect of her personality, and forget that (as has been noted more than a few times) that she's probably the most powerful member of the team, due to her force fields. The best writers have found interesting ways for her to use that power, such as forming a force bubble around a foe's head to make them use up the oxygen available quickly and pass out, or John Byrne's innovation of letting her use her force fields like Iceman's slides. Really, with the proper practice, Sue could take out Doctor Doom easily -- all she has to do is probe with her field to find the slightest opening in Doom's armor, force her way through it with the field, and then expand it to cause the armor to break loose (or at the very least, causing Doom some major pain and disrupting systems). For any foe that isn't able to fly, generating small force field "marbles" can cause them to lose their balance and trip.

Even without the force fields, applying her ability to make other people and things invisible can be devastating. Imagine a tactic where Ben picks up something heavy and throws it at a target. In mid-flight, Sue turns the object invisible, perhaps before the target even notices it -- wham! Instant surprise attack. Just turning the surface someone's standing on invisible would be disconcerting at the least, giving her teammates an advantage in combat.

While Ben may be the cheerleader of the team, I think Sue is the heart of it. She looks at the human side of situations and sees things differently than her teammates. While she is not as scientifically bent as Reed is, she is a very intelligent woman, as well as intuitive.

It's important that writers keep all this in mind when writing her.

383d58d5a8b60f7fb4654e5ba60b4c19Johnny Storm/The Human Torch: Johnny is a jerk, self-centered and quick to react without thinking. Oh, he's a good kid for the most part, but he lacks self-control for the most part. Having the power of the Human Torch has caused him to grow up and take some responsibility, but as the youngest member of the team, he still tends to act like a jerk a lot.

But how much of that is the real Johnny, and how much of it is an act? I suspect that Johnny's personality, like a lot of youngest brothers, was developed due to the need to get attention. He needs to be noticed (which he is, being the most flamboyant member of the team, powers-wise). One has to bear in mind that Sue pretty much brought him up after their mother passed away, and so he went from being the youngest to suddenly being the "only child" in the family, getting all the attention... and then the four got together.

Johnny had no part to play in the test flight in the FF's origin. He basically talked his way into being part of the crew. I think this is because of his need for attention, and not wanting to be left out. He found himself suddenly in a new "family" in its nascent stages, with Ben as an older brother who was already famous thanks to his college football days as well as his military pilot career -- that's a lot to compete with! Honestly, I think he wanted to come on the test flight not because Sue was going (as he said), but because Ben was going, and he had to prove he was just as capable as Ben.

Johnny's focus outside of the FF was on cars and girls, which is typical for a boy of his age. Remember, Johnny was probably 16 or 17 when he got his powers. His emotions tend to always run hot (a lot has been said about how the FF's powers are a reflection of their personalities -- Johnny's a hot head, Ben is the "rock" of the group, Reed's mind is as flexible as his body became, Sue tended to remain in the background, invisible). When he falls for a girl, he tends to fall hard. Heck, he fell in love with Crystal when he barely knew her!

Johnny was always about Johnny, and working in a team was hardest for him than the rest of the group. Remember, he was the first one to quit (in FF#4)! He's certainly grown up a lot since then, but even now, when he's presented as being in his early to mid twenties, he's still got some growing up to do. He still likes to show off when he can, especially when using his powers. But there is some restraint now that he didn't have before.

30219_5The Team: While the FF is most often referred to as a superhero team, it's important to remember that they aren't the Avengers or the X-Men. They're more of an adventuring family. The FF's focus is not on fighting crime (although they've done that as needed), they're more about pushing the boundaries and seeing what's out there, as well as protecting humanity from what they find. As a result, the FF has ended up being First Contact with other civilizations more often than not, whether by accident or design (they were the first to encounter the Kree and the Skrulls).  An adventure might start with the discovery of something in Reed's lab instruments, or it might come to them. In a lot of ways, they're similar to Doc Savage and his Amazing Five (there are parallels... Reed is Doc, Ben is Monk, Johnny is Ham to an extent, Sue almost fits into the Pat role), in that they will go anywhere they're needed.

They'll work with other heroes or teams when needed (better now than in the early days, such as when the Hulk came to New York, and the FF and Avengers basically tripped over each other trying to deal with the Hulk in their own ways), but usually operate by themselves. If they do fight crime, it's because the criminals involved are beyond the police's capabilities and are weird enough that it doesn't seem like the Avengers are the team to deal with it.

The FF is probably my favorite comic book team of all time, as you might have guessed from the length of this particular essay. It's sad to me that because of all the issues involving the FF's film rights that Marvel Comics has basically said, "Screw this, we won't publish the book until we get the rights back!" (although I can't see that lasting forever). But in the meantime, thanks to back issues, Essentials and Masterworks, the best of the FF is still out there for me to read and re-read!

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