It’s ironic because I’ve never been anywhere near the book professionally, except for the long-winded and verbose lead article (yes, even then, all those years ago) that I wrote for the magazine The Fantastic Four Chronicles published by FantaCo Enterprises. (My friend Roger has documented the whole saga of the Albany, NY comic book shop, FantaCo, which was one of the country’s most respected comic stores, on his Blog.) Well, that and my extensive contributions to the sadly defunct FF Plaza Website once owned and operated by my online pal Sean Kleefeld. It was for many years my ambition to write and draw the most conceptually perfect comic book ever created, an ambition that never materialized. (And it’s not because I never asked for a chance to work for the large comic book company to which The Fantastic Four belongs, but this is not a subject I care to broach right now.) Still and all, I do have a certain reputation in fan circles such that I am known as “The Fantastic Four Guy,” or something to that effect. There are fans who know me, who associate me with The FF because as a fan of comics it was always my most important devotion. We all have our devotions; The FF has been one of mine.
A couple of times, that devotion has served me in good stead. What we’re now going to share is some of my favorite stories about the Fantastic Four and me.
You’ll remember that about four years ago there was a Fantastic Four movie. (We touched on its sequel a couple of weeks ago.) You’ll probably also remember that more than ten years before that, there was going to be another, different Fantastic Four movie. Actually, that film was produced, but as any good fan will tell you, it was never released. The original Fantastic Four movie was directed by Roger Corman, the master of B movies. It was made on an excruciatingly low budget (and it shows!) and then shelved, never to be screened at a cinema. This is because the studio that produced it was going to lose its rights to the property, and it was deemed better to rush production on an embarrassing piece of rubbish that no one would ever see (almost, but wait for it) than to have spent all that money and not shot a frame of film.
Now, as soon as the idea of adapting Marvel comic books into motion pictures was put on the table, the first thing that everyone wanted to see, including Marvel itself, was a cinematic Fantastic Four. The FF is, of course, the original Marvel comic book, without which none of the others would have happened. But the technology to do a picture about four characters who all have extreme body-change powers was not really ready for a good many years. (Well, they could have done Sue Storm; I mean, Hollywood has been doing invisibility since Claude Rains and the Invisible Man pictures in the 1930s. But Reed and the Torch and the Thing were another matter.) They had to do the X-Men and Spider-Man and Daredevil and the Hulk before they could get to The FF. Still, the desire to see the super-powered Richards family live on screen persisted. And when that Roger Corman movie was finished, it didn’t matter that it was shelved and vaulted, and it didn’t matter that it was a piece of embarrassing, low-budget rubbish. People wanted to see it anyway.
And on such desires the clandestine enterprise of bootleg movies is built.
Visit any comic book or science fiction convention, and many comic book stores, and you can find all kinds of things that Hollywood didn’t want you to see and studios and producers don’t want you to have. But that doesn’t matter; people will still make copies of them, and they’ll happily sell them to you--usually. There was one remarkable exception, and it occurred back in the days of VHS tapes (can you believe they’re becoming obsolete now?) when I decided that no matter how bad it was, I just had to see that Roger Corman Fantastic Four picture. And I knew where I could conveniently lay my hands on a copy. They had it at one of the comic book shops in town, just a few blocks from where I live. (Sadly, this and almost all of our other comic shops in Albany are gone, casualties of the industry and collector excesses of the 1990s. Only Earthworld, which I’ve used since 1983, remains.) One fine spring day, I decided I was going to go over to the store, whose name I’ll withhold, and get it. I called ahead first to make sure I could get a copy when I got there.
I’ll also withhold the name of the gentlemen I spoke to, one of the proprietors of the store. I’ll call him Pete. Anyway, I got Pete on the phone and told him what I was looking for. Pete disavowed any knowledge of the item in question. “Bootleg video of the Fantastic Four movie? I don’t know what you mean.” Bootleg movies are contraband, after all. After a bit of further dancing around the subject, it occurred to me to mention who I am. “This is Joe Fludd.” And guess what: Pete’s reply was something to the effect of, “Oh yeah, we have that.”
You see what happened there? Old Pete wasn’t about to trust just anyone with the knowledge that he was selling bootleg FF videos. It took me establishing that I wasn’t just anyone to get him to come across. That is what a reputation in the fan community will get you!
So, over to the store I went, and that was when an amazing and rare tableau unfolded, something that I don’t expect will ever happen to me--or, for that matter, to you--again. I was ready to cough up my $16 to buy this FF video. But first, Pete decided he wanted to show me a little bit of it, to let me see what I was getting. That was fair. That was reasonable. But the extraordinary thing was his motive for doing so. Pete wanted me to make sure I wanted to make this purchase. “Do you really want this? Look at this; do you really want it?” And as I watched an excerpt from this unbelievably cheap, badly written picture in which even the costumes looked as if they’d be laughed out of a convention masquerade, I realized that a comic book dealer was trying to talk me out of buying something. And more, it was working!
Pete knew who I was, and I believe he must have known what my relationship with the Fantastic Four was. And he didn’t want to take my money for this movie. He was giving up $16 in profits--because it was me! I thanked him for his consideration, and walked out of his store empty handed. In hindsight, I quickly realized the honor I had just been given, how highly someone had thought of me. If I had been anyone else, I have no doubt old Pete would have bagged my $16 that day. How often does a comic book dealer think enough of anyone to sacrifice profit for him? All these years later, I remember that experience and the very singular compliment that had been given me.
More recently, 20th Century Fox filmed The Fantastic Four with a budget larger than Roger Corman’s by many orders of magnitude. This one actually was released, of course, and was credited with bringing Hollywood out of a box-office slump. Its projected opening weekend was about $30 million and it raked in almost $60 million in its first three days. As that opening weekend approached, The Gazette, the newspaper of Schenectady, our neighboring city, had a reporter who knew The FF doing a feature on it. (By the way, Spider-Man fans take note: According to The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, Dr. Octopus was born in Schenectady.) The reporter wanted to talk to a local Fantastic Four fan to get insights from someone in the know about the characters and their history. He called around looking for a fan to interview. When he called Earthworld, my dealer of many years, JC Glindmyer, evidently told him, “Oh yeah, buddy, I’ve got your Fantastic Four fan right here.” And in short order, JC had set me up to chat with this reporter.
Well, the long and short of that story was that I got myself some ink in the paper, and they even sent a photographer to my house to get some shots of me with some FF memorabilia. The Features section of The Gazette had a great big picture of me posing with my Fantastic Four Mini Statues (which I had acquired by taking great pains to track them down from three different Web stores including Midtown Comics in Manhattan, an effort and expense I would not have gone through for any other characters in comics but the Fantastic Four). I got quotes in the article (as did Kleefeld, whom the reporter also called), and everyone who saw the piece was duly impressed.
Want to hear something really ironic? When I first saw the Fantastic Four, I didn’t even like them! I was first exposed to them through television; they were on Saturday mornings before Spider-Man, and I just didn’t get it. Why did three of them wear the same costume? Why was one of them made of orange bricks? What was with all the gadgets and machinery? What kind of super-heroes were they supposed to be? I didn’t realize at first that a) The Fantastic Four is a comic book about science (in its stylized comic-book way), and was actually the comic book most after my own heart, since being A Scientist was the first thing I ever wanted to do; and b) The Fantastic Four is the model for all other Marvel comic books and the reason why there is a Spider-Man and a Hulk and an Iron Man and so forth. Once I actually sat down and watched it (after all, it was on before Spider-Man and I was up anyway), I at once realized there was nothing cooler around.
Nothing, that is, except for the comic book itself, to which I soon got my first exposure. My first issue was FF #62, “And One Shall Save Him!”--part of the very height of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s collaboration. I’m lately having the great pleasure of reading all of the Lee-Kirby Fantastic Four stories in hardcover from the beginning (thank you, Marvel Masterworks), and just last night I read #62 again. Astrophysics likes to talk about the echoes and afterglow of the Big Bang that still permeate the universe. Every time I look at “And One Shall Save Him!” I relive a part of the near-religious experience that I had when I read the actual Lee-Kirby Fantastic Four for the first time. (In a nutshell, this is the story of Reed Richards being trapped in the Negative Zone; the Torch and his girlfriend Crystal being reunited after months of separation; and Triton, Crystal’s cousin, rescuing Reed, but the two of them being followed back to Earth by the deadly Blastaar, the Living Bomb-Burst. Classic stuff!) It remains a very special book for me.
As I’ve bandied about before, my relationship with the FF, with Marvel, and with comics as a medium has changed today. I can’t even read the book that Marvel is calling The Fantastic Four any more. But I’m loving the trip I’m taking now through the stories I’ve always loved best. To quote an old song, “Ain’t nothing like the real Thing, baby." And Mr. Fantastic, the Invisible Girl/Woman, and the Human Torch, either. Somewhere in my heart, the true Fantastic Four in its best and rightful style will always live.