|From 1965's Fantastic Four Annual #3, by Kirby, Lee & Colletta, in which a comic that's in part a critique about the family finally became one that unambiguously celebrated the same.|
An allegedly godly society that's anything but. An inspirationally perfect family that's calamitously conflict-ridden. The more the nascent Fantastic Four attempted to serve the Republic and its sacred ideals, the worse the lives of its individual members became. 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 generally 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 the sin of simply being different. (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|
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 in search of the great unknown, off-planet terrors were heading threateningly 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.|
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.
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|
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|
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|
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|