Friday, 28 March 2014

"The Future Holds Nothing For Me!" - What's To Be Done With The Fantastic Four? (Part 4 of 4)

In which the blogger concludes TooBusyThinking's four-part look at the Fantastic Four, the previous posts of which can be found here, here, and here;

From 1965's Fantastic Four Annual #3, by Kirby, Lee & Colletta, in which a comic that's in part a critique about the family became one that unambiguously celebrated the same.

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An allegedly godly society that's anything but. An inspirationally perfect family that's calamitously conflict-ridden. The more the Fantastic Four attempted to serve the Republic and its sacred ideals, the worse the lives of its members appeared. On the surface, the comic's earliest issues were a celebration of mid-20th American values. Yet the cruelly disproportionate disjunction between the nation's promises and the sparse rewards it shared was obvious and iniquitous. Mentally and physically traumatised by their patriotic sacrifices, the FF couldn't walk the streets of New York without being mocked and insulted. (For every sick boy in hospital delighted to meet Mister Fantastic, there were crowds of grumbling, discontened blowhards threatening to turn on the team.) Because of that, the pages of the Fantastic Four radiated bafflement, anxiety and even - at moments - rage. No matter what the team might attempt, and even achieve, the mythical America of happy-ever-afters was forever beyond their reach.

To a similarly detrimental end, the tortured and exhausting relationships between the four would always sabotage their chances of happiness. No matter how they tried, failure was assured. Even peaceful cohabitation was beyond them. Hell being other people, the Baxter Building functioned as a cruelly cheerless and threatening hideaway, a pressure cooker that was part fortress and part faux-suburban torture chamber.

It was an intoxicatingly unsettling set-up in the early Sixties, and it still could be today, as the gap between the nation's promises and rewards becomes more and more obvious. Sadly, today's FF, with its extremes of wealth and power and status, works far more as a symbol of privilege and entitlement. Now the Richards control their own private school while preparing the coming generation of super-kids. Isolated and insulated in their luxury-lined, weapon-filled citadel, they never need visit the streets and share the herd's experiences. Able to escape to anywhere in the world and beyond, allied to the most influential and powerful groups on Earth, rich beyond measure and adored as celebrities superheroes and philanthropists; what once challenged the status quo now solidly represents it.

From 1962's FF#7, by Kirby, Lee & Ayers
   
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It's worth noting that none of these early Fantastic Four stories featured the team as adventurers and explorers in any traditional sense. The claim that the FF's allure relies upon their charging off into the great unknown is often made, and yet, the evidence of this early and crucial period fails to support it. Though the FF most certainly did travel to the centre of the Earth, to far distant Planet X, and even back into the 18th century, they did so in response to immediately pressing perils. What mattered in those original tales was less the incredible dangers and unfamiliar situations, and more the fact that the Fantastic Four were constantly being forced to defend the Earth against unknown and unforeseeable dangers. Reflecting the paranoia and pessimism of the age, it placed the team as the Earth's last line of defence against a hostile Multiverse. Rather than the planet's foremost trailblazers, they served as a quartet of quarrelling Horatios lined up on a particularly indefensible bridge. Rather than heading off-planet, off-planet terrors were heading Earthwards towards them.

Not until 1963 did we see the FF reaching out to new environments of their own free will, as in the visit to the Blue Area of the Moon in The Red Ghost And His Indescribable Super-Apes. The title's loss of unease and threat had by that time begun to seriously undermine the team's virtues. As the FF's differences became more and more diluted, the initially dark tone of their opening epics was replaced by a comforting optimism. Now outward looking and fundamentally united, the book's cast  would rely almost entirely on Kirby's unparalleled capacity for innovation and wonder for their charm.

And when the comic's co-creator's became estranged, and Kirby's willingness to provide new characters and new situations was exhausted, the Fantastic Four was left with a magnificent past behind them.


From 1962's FF#8, by Kirby, Lee & Ayers.
   
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Lee and Kirby’s America appeared a frightened and often heartless land. Its people were mostly gullible, aggressive, self-satisfied, fearful, cruel and faithless. But the Fantastic Four themselves were anything but enlightened and loving exceptions to the rule. Though clearly marked out on the page as heroes, their behaviour as individuals was often irrational, hurtful and destructive. Where other congregations of superheroes had at worst disagreed in a friendly and respectful manner over tactics, the FF were constantly upsetting each other over all manner of things. That in itself was both shocking and thrilling, and yet the most brilliant aspect of it was that the team's arguments could seem petty, brutal and malicious. The flight into space and the formation of the Fantastic Four had undoubtedly exacerbated their problems. But their pre-existing foibles were in themselves substantial and profound. Even if they'd been liberated from one another's company and landed in the middle of paradise, it's doubtful that they could ever have been happy. Behaving calmly and rationally was only occcasionally the order of the day, and even healthy and necessary debate might collapse into table-smashing and acrimony.

This was the third of the types of conflict that Lee and Kirby put to such good use. And the team's individual flaws did more than melodramatically drive the book's soap opera sub-plots. It was also one more intimation that the expectations of the period ran contrary to the realities of human nature. Rather than a comforting shelter from a hostile world, the FF's isolated, pressure-cooked lives in their simulacrum of a nuclear family actually intensified their suffering. Whatever their problems were, behaving as other expected didn't seem to be helping. And so, Sue Storm's extreme reluctance to express her emotions, desires and doubts left her isolated, torn and miserable. Forever striving to be the team's peace-maker, she was - with no little irony - the most likely to betray its most fundamental relationships. Had the Human Torch not revealed her attraction to Namor, it's hard to imagine her ever doing so. Driven, it seems, by a ferocious belief in the myths of the family, she ploughed on and on while secretly longing for a life far different. Reticence, fear, desire and obligation had made a hypocrite of her.

From 1962's FF#4, by Kirby, Lee & Brodsky
  
It was a profoundly damaging degree of repression and frustration, and it constantly threatened to undermine the FF as both a fighting team and a household. Whenever disorder threatened, Sue Storm would attempt to defuse it through a loving comment or a tender gesture. The result was a fascinatingly focused and loyal character who nevertheless seemed to feel obliged to betray herself. Today’s version of the Invisible Woman may be an admirably well-adjusted character, but she’s far less interesting than she originally was. Caught between duty and desire, the Invisible Girl was a compelling fusion of heroic strengths and silently ruinous weakness. Feminism's second wave would have had a great deal to say to her about personal freedom and patriarchal constraints, but as yet, the message hadn't reached her.

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The changing ways in which the Thing has been represented is something that's been discussed on this blog before. (Most relevantly, here.) By the same token, this series of posts has already touched upon the factors which originally helped to make Ben Grimm such an extraordinary character; his rage, his despair, his craving for Sue Storm, his conflicted relationship with Reed Richards, and so on. Though no-one worth the time would suggest that his original qualities need to be precisely reestablished, today's typical portrayal of Ben Grimm as a cuddly, beloved uncle offers little to compel the reader. He too surely requires some serious remodelling.

From 1962's FF#5, by Kirby, Lee & Sinnott

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Forever longing for the untrammelled authority of the unchallengable patriarch, Reed Richards was both frustrated and infuriated by the team's ceaseless infighting. As unable to talk matters through as Sue Storm, he lacked her capacity to engage with others in an everyday sense. A strangely compelling and yet somewhat pathetic representation of traditional masculinity, Richards struggled to accept that dissatisfaction and conflict is the inevitable and irresolvable consequence of shared lives. It was a fascinating portrait of a reserved, unaffectionate man who was driven both by guilt and a longing for absolute freedom. If only the others would really listen to him, if only they'd do what he wanted when he wasn't around to police their behaviour, if only they'd behave without his prompting. In Richards' expectations, women maintained the hour-to-hour order, while children knew their place and quietly kept to it. Accordingly, Richards tended only to express warmth when his partners had sacrificed themselves in the service of one of his schemes. That at least appears to have been a social arrangement that meant sense to him, and he was always quick to show concern for his wounded comrades. By contrast, managing his relationships in the day-to-day world was something he struggled to attend to. If Sue Storm longed for the freedom to explore her own wants and desires, then Richards wished for a world in which human relations were tightly and predictably constrained. Where she wanted the space to feel, he was anxious not to.

That he was not to be trusted with unrestrained authority was shown in his repeatedly calamitous attempts to solve complex problems with impulsive and sweeping gestures. So desperate is he to maintain the status quo without resorting to everyday interactions that he takes to absurdly ill-thought strategies. In the first of these – which we’ve discussed before – he ignores Grimm’s well-informed counsel and orders the four of them into space and a storm of cosmic rays. Later, he gambles every cent of the team’s finances on the stock market and lands them all in penury. The consequences of this reprehensible impetuousness would extend far beyond the welfare of his suddenly impoverished team-members. Lined up in the FF’s headquarters, a long line of desperate creditors, from landlords to independent businessmen, would appear, all of whom had been seriously hurt by Richards’ irresponsibility. Though chance, and the efforts of Sue Storm, ensure that the team eventually escape bankruptcy, Richards' compulsion to solve rather than manage problems would remain. Even where his obsession with reversing the Thing's mutation was concerned, he seemed to prefer secret experiments in his lab to the challenges of being a constant and supportive friend. It's hard not to suspect that a friend's shoulder to cry on would have the best available option, and yet, we never see the two once-best friends solely in each other's company. As always, Richards fails to grasp that feelings can't be resolved as equations can. Only on the battlefield were his dramatic, improvised gambits likely to succeed, where the most immediately pressing of disasters appeared to inspire his best.

From 1962's FF#6, by Kirby, Lee & Ayers
 
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Though Richards' failings as a social animal are at times touching, he'd undoubtedly be an intensely frustrating individual to live with. But then, all of the Fantastic Four would be. At times a sympathetic and understandably alienated teenager, Johnny Storm was also capable of unrestrained spitefulness. When a distraught and furious Thing declares that he longs to be normal for a moment, and to have Sue Storm look at him as she does at Reed, the Torch responds savagely;

"Don't kid yourself, Thing. She wouldn't go for you if you looked like Rock Hudson".

Kirby’s art makes no effort to mask Johnny Storm's cruelty, showing as it does an eminently loathable brat. Yet at other moments, the Human Torch was capable of tenderly empathising with the Thing. It might be that Storm was a capricious and repeatedly unpleasant lad, and yet, another interpretation suggests itself. Though he frequently enjoyed insulting the Thing, there's a distinctly savage edge to his response as quoted above. Perhaps it was Grimm's declaration of desire for the teenager's older sister that triggered the teenager's response. There's certainly a suggestion that the Torch was excessively protective of not just his sister, but of her relationship with Reed Richards too. It's something that might be expected of an insecure and immature orphan, although Johnny Storm later takes matters to a disturbing extreme in Captives Of The Deadly Duo. There, he's depicted searching through his sister's private quarters and coming across a carefully hidden photo of the Sub-Mariner. Quite what the Human Torch believes he's doing as he scours his sister's rooms is never explained. But the impression given is of a deeply troubled and demanding young man. Digging out Namor's portrait, he brushes away his sisters's pleas to have her property return, before announcing her heretically torn loyalties to Richards and Grimm. It's a scene that's impossible to put a positive spin on. Is the orphaned Torch anxious about the threat to his sister's relationship with Richards, or is there simply something broken or even malevolent inside him? (Is he so intimidated by the Sub-Mariner that he can't cope with anything but hatred for Atlantis' King?) Grant Morrison once argued that the Torch held a Freudian attraction to his sister, but it seems an unlikely prospect. Not only is Freudianism an entirely discredited pseudo-science, but there's no sign of the Torch objecting to Richards' relationship with Sue. It seems far more credible to believe that Storm is anxious to ensure that the closest thing he's ever known to a stable home continues.

But matched to that is the paradox of Johnny Storm's resentment of Richards' authority. We've mentioned it before and won't dwell on it here beyond saying that it creates another in this series of fascinating paradoxes. Anxious to keep his newfound family together and yet desperate for his freedom, the first version of Johnny Storm was the character's most compelling incarnation. As a none-too-bright and somewhat egotistical lead, he's consistently failed to capture the public's imagination. Even within the pages of the Fantastic Four itself, he has often seemed a visually interesting and yet somewhat underwhelming character. That may have something to do with the fact that he's often lacked an obvious reason to stay with the team. Where the others were caught between cooperation and withdrawal, the Human Torch was able to simply walk away. Whether to college, work or some less orthodox destination, Johnny Storm was free to leave. To keep him in place for the sake of the property has resulted in him seeming to lack purpose and confidence. There is, after all, something suspiciously idle and askew about a young man with the world at his feet who chooses to stay living safely at home. But a Johnny Storm who appears carefree and even feckless, and yet bears a dysfunctional sense of responsibility towards looking after Sue and Reed, would be a far more compelling prospect.

From 1962's FF#5, by Kirby, Lee & Sinnott

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If the Fantastic Four is ever to be vital again in terms of its character dynamics, it needs to recapture the challenging contradictions of its opening year. In particular, it ought to reflect a great deal more of the age's hypocrisies and fears, aspirations and cruelties. It certainly needs to stop so regularly appearing to represent a privileged and affluent elite. Hope needs to be mixed with dread, ideals with reality, frustration with satisfaction, and so on.  Obviously, the political situation of the early 60s is hardly that of today, and the relationship between the age and the members of the Fantastic Four would need to be radically reworked. But the principles which underpinned the storytelling of those first Kirby and Lee tales are still potentially relevant today.

To mess with the long-established relationships between the members of the team would be, of course, a difficult and inevitably chancy business. But the Fantastic Four became a success because its creators were willing to take unprecedentedly ambitious chances, and it seems a shame that the title's become so conservative by comparison. Playing safe has certainly failed to reinvigorate the property. When Marvel launched the Ultimate Universe's take on the title, Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Millar chose to devolve the four into twenty-somethings. Beyond the mild frisson of the new that this produced, the same problems remained. The characters still lacked the appeal to drive the comic's success, while the de-aging process merely accentuated the new take's inability to reflect the dilemmas of the age. Stripping away the possibilities offered by a cross-generational cast left Ultimate FF feeling obvious, constricted and insular. Though certain stories - such as Millar's super-zombie romp - were undeniably appealing, it was once again because of spectacle and novelty rather than character. What didn't tend to drive the comic's stories forward was the Fantastic Four themselves.

But there's no reason why the property can't be made relevant to our own often bleak and challenging age. It would mean abandoning the comfortably entitled incarnations of the FF that have developed over the decades, but then, they've hardly proved to be guarantors of commercial or critical success. Without a rebirth of its original qualities, the title's prospects will continue to rely upon the availability of remarkable creators and genre-pushing set-pieces. But another Kirby is highly unlikely to appear, and his capacity to invent a novel range of spectacular and innovative scenarios has never been equaled. Put simply, just about everything has been attempted to bring the Fantastic Four back to life except for the substance of the approach that made the team so important in the first place. That being so, why not look back to the startling and innovative stories of the comic's opening year for inspiration instead?

From 1962's FF#6, by Kirby, Lee & Ayers
  

8 comments:

  1. Great stuff, Colin. There is a lot to think about here and I am looking forward to going back to part one and reading this all the way through again. I am particularly interested in thinking through your response to the frequent assertion that the FF should be explorers, because it is one that I have often made. I am not sure if those early issues have sole claim to FF authenticity due to their earliness, so not sure if pointing back to those issues to refute the "adventurers hypothesis" works for me - but then again, I do think that the Baxter Building and NYC as a touchstone is important to make that exploration theme cohere - they can't be out in the Negative Zone all the time.

    To what degree do you think that formal changes in how these comics are paced and story arcs broken up across multiple issues might effect this? In other words, is it easier to think of the FF as explorers while maintaining their connection to the mundane world when they are only in Wakanda for an issue or two, as opposed to a six-issue arc?

    As for Reed and his intelligence and social acumen (or lack thereof), I touched upon that in my post "Four-Color Color-Blindness: Black Iron Man," which has Richards reacting (or not) to James Rhodes in the Iron Man armor.

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    1. Hello Mr O:- Please be assured that I've no concern at all about authenticity. I'm not suggesting that there's a canon; indeed, some of the earliest FF stories are absolute stinkers. Rather, what fascinates me about these first FF tales is nothing more or less than the fact that the characters work so well. By the same token, I'm convinced that the book's problems have long stemmed from the loss of the qualities that existed at the comic's beginning. This latticework constructed - through chance and design - of 3 particular types of conflict left the book feeling vibrant and relevant. Even more, it inadvertently left the comic feeling as if it had a particularly unsettling resonance. In that, what counts - in this particular example of playing devil's advocate - isn't authenticity, or even the superior qualities of a particular run of stories. There are FAR better told tales to be found throughout the FF's careers. But there aren't more compelling tales, or characters, and that's what counts. Any type of storytelling might theoretically be informed with the conflicts I've mentioned. As such, I'm sure the 'FF as explorers/adventurers" convention could be made to work. It's not that the FF is incompatible with such stories. But it is that such stories aren't part of an irreducible minimum of essential FF tropes. The FF don't need to be played as adventurers and explorers, even though that's become more and more a taken-for-granted truth. (I first recall it becomes regarded as more gospel than opinion when Chris Claremont briefly took the book over.)

      Your question about formal changes requires concentrated chin-stroking on my part. You'll have to excuse me while I let the process begin. As I believe you know, I try not to pontificate before I'm sure I've something of an answer at hand :)

      Finally, I do indeed recall your piece about Richards and Rhodes. A relevant point well made, good sir.

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  2. Well done, old friend -- a wonderful quartet of posts, full of insights which will have me thinking me for many moons to come. If the blog has to end (at least until the inevitable All-New Colin NOW! relaunch), it ends on a very high note.

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    1. Hello Mark:- Thank you! I thought it only right to end the blog on the kind of rambling, even-I-don't-know-when-it's-going-to-end, TLDR post that I'd so often indulged in. Not that I stinted on the elbow grease, but it would've felt dishonest to go for something concise and pithy. Oddly enough, where I expected very few visitors at all, there was a good house for these FF pieces. That was very much appreciated.

      All-new Colin NOW! Heh :) You're an egg, Mr White, and it's always been a pleasure to swap words with you. My very best to you.

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  3. Colin,

    Reading this series of posts, it reminded me that after Kirby left, there was a return to some of the earlier problems - the Fantastic Four having quarrels with civilians and especially with their landlord. As we know Kirby's influence over the plotting of the series only increased with time, I wonder if those elements diminished because they didn't interest him, but came back because they interested Lee?

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    1. Alexandre Julião4 April 2014 03:22

      Michael, After reading the Essential Fantastic Four colections, I've got the same impression as you.
      It seems to me that over time, Kirby got more interested in the epic and cosmic stuff, while Lee's dialogues focused more on the human side of things.

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  4. Thanks for the final Fantastic Four piece, Colin, food for thought indeed. Wouldn't it be interesting were a future writer for the World's Fibbingest Comics Magazine to be reading your thoughts? Stranger things ...

    It seems apt that your final four think pieces focus on the book that kicked off the modern age of comics. You planned it, didn't you? :)

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  5. I had a similar thought about my favorite fictional character, the Amazing Spider-Man. Those first few Ditko issues are a LOT different from the Romita ones, in its tone, structure, the character of Peter Parker and his supporting cast, etc. So different are these two periods, the Ditko stories and the Romita ones, its easy to have one preference over the other. But if the last 50 years have shown anything, is that the powers that be clearly found the Romita style of Spider-Man stories to be the more commercially viable ones, ones that have been more-or-less copied/imitated/evolved upon and otherwise replicated to various success. Like the much-loved period of FF where they fight Galactus and the Silver Surfer and the Inhumans/BP show up, future creators have honed in on that period as the "real" essence of the character(s), as thus the FF stopped being the most interesting parts of the books so they can battle Dr Doom through time or fight Robo-Stalin in the future(I LOVE Simonson's run, if you couldn't tell).

    Now speaking personally, I feel, for as good as the Ditko era of ASM was, the Romita era isn't just as essential reading, but absolute necessary for the long-term viability of that comic book. Its hard for me to imagine the Ditko Spider-Man sustain a narrative for much longer than after he left. So depressing the tone, so ANGRY the main character, so subtly dark its broader themes it seems to only suggest a self-implosion, death itself being the only inevitable conclusion to this character and its conflicts. For better or worse(I know you prefer the Ditko material, so their might be a correlation with your feelings on the FF), Lee/Romita Sr broaden the story, made everything a bit shinier and prettier, its nihilistic sensibilities replaced with a hopeful romantic atmosphere.

    My question to you, Colin, is that do you think those early Lee/Kirby issues were something that Lee/Kirby(and future creators) could have continued down for as long as the book has gone? Could that kind of dysfunctional family as social commentary been a road for longterm commercial viability?

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