2011 is the 50th Anniversary of (what was once called) “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine!” and the pop-culture colossus of Marvel Comics that arose from it. Remember, the basis for everything Marvel is not Spider-Man or The X-Men; it is The Fantastic Four. Not that you would know it from the way people constantly treat the FF as an afterthought in the mighty pageant of Marvel heroes, or as if it’s just another comic book, but it’s true. To “celebrate” this half-century milestone, Marvel has opted to kill off one member of its founding quartet, end the Fantastic Four comic book as we know it (such as it’s been lately), and, come the spring, start a new comic book that is mysteriously being called only FF. If you were to ask me what this new “FF” stands for, I’d be inclined to tell you it stands for “Fake and Foul,” but let’s not get rancorous right now.
My basic reaction to all of this is pretty much a groan and a rolling of the eyes. This is hardly the first “end of the Fantastic Four;” it’s only the latest and most radical such occurrence in a long history of them. I’ve basically given up on what has historically been my favorite comic book. I haven’t bought it since the early part of 2009 and I have resigned myself to the possibility of never buying it again. You see, this is almost all that anyone who works for Marvel really can find to do with the company’s first and best creation. There is within Marvel Comics a great eagerness and enthusiasm for doing anything and everything with the Fantastic Four except maintain it in its pure and classic form and keep the stories in it fresh and new. There is a profound and inexorable compulsion to mess with it: kill (and later resurrect) someone, break up (and later reunite) the team, redesign the characters and make over the entire visual identity of the book, reinvent and “reimagine” them, “bring it into the 21st Century”--anything but actually give us the classic Fantastic Four! Everything but let it be what it is and keep the stories and ideas surrounding the characters fresh. I have no doubt that as soon as someone at Marvel decides people aren’t paying enough attention to whatever they’re about to do to the FF--or whatever it is about to become--this month, they will make a mighty noise and fanfare about trotting out some other permutation that will resemble the pure stuff, but still not be the thing whose 50th anniversary we’re now “celebrating.” To which I say a resounding “Ho-hum.”
So, in a special polybagged issue at the end of this month, a member of Marvel’s First and Finest is going to meet his end. Again. This all reminds me of DC’s much-ballyhooed “Death of Superman,” an event also released in a polybagged issue that even included a black armband with a Superman symbol as a commemorative. (And yes, I wore mine; that was actually kind of cool.) I’m sure the polybag is meant to prevent people just flipping through the issue to see which character’s life is being sacrificed; Marvel wants to make you buy it to see who “buys it”. Frankly, I’ve been hip to their greedy and exploitative tactics for some time now (like releasing the same issue with multiple covers by different artists and trying to induce you to buy multiple copies, the chiselers) and it’s not going to work on me. I’ll save my money and find out who “dies” when I find out, thank you very much. It all points up the fact that the content (for want of a better word) of comic books is increasingly driven by marketing before storytelling, like the tail wagging the dog. Or, in Fantastic Four terms, like the tail wagging Lockjaw.
As this “momentous” event lies only a couple of weeks before us, I’m reminded of the last time one of the Fantastic Four died. This was about story, not marketing, and it went on for just a few issues. I think about this because it’s a very ironic case of a story that I should have loathed and detested down to the bottom of my heart, which is actually one of my very favorite FF stories of recent memory. My friends, I give you writer Mark Waid, artist Mike Wieringo (sadly deceased), and the soul-snapping saga of...”Hereafter.”
The adventure of “Hereafter” is the end of a story arc that took the Fantastic Four to some places that are very much out of their element, which is probably why Mark Waid went there; he was trying to do exactly what ought to be done with The FF--keep stories fresh and new without feeling compelled to mess with everything. He was almost the last person who really “got” the FF. Of his immediate successors, J. Michael Straczynski didn’t really have a chance to do justice to his ideas because his work was pre-empted by the damn Civil War; and Dwayne McDuffie was there for just a few issues. We’ll probably never see work like Waid’s with this book again. Personally, I don’t think the supernatural is really a comfortable “fit” in the science-fiction-oriented world of the Richards family, in spite of their once having a witch as Franklin’s governess. This story in particular dealt with everything that I find irrational, superstitious, primitive, backward, and detrimental to the intellectual well-being of the world. And yet...it is a work of pure genius and an example of The Fantastic Four at its very best. There can be no greater irony than how much I love “Hereafter.”
At the climax of Fantastic Four #508, Dr. Doom has possessed the body of the Thing and grabbed the Human Torch. To save Johnny having his neck snapped, Reed makes the ultimate sacrifice and blasts the Thing with a super-weapon, forcing Doom back to his own body (which goes literally to Hell, and that’s another story) and slaying Reed’s best friend. Mr. Fantastic cannot accept the death of Ben Grimm, and directly in the next issue he sets about trying to bring the Thing back--but how? The answer comes to him while he’s sleeping in his lab; in a dream, he has a vision of Dr. Doom and realizes what he must do. This is the first thing I love, touching on the very real fact that the sleeping mind processes information differently than the waking mind, and sometimes just going to bed or even taking a nap can render the solution to a confounding problem. I’ve experienced this myself in working out problems in storytelling; sometimes it pays off just to sleep on it.
Anyway, Reed’s solution to bringing back the Thing is to rebuild the very instrument that caused the years of strife between him and his college classmate, Victor Von Doom. Dr. Doom hates Reed because Reed pointed out a miscalculation in Victor’s plan to contact his mother’s spirit on the Other Side, and the device actually blew up in Victor’s face, scarring him. Unable to admit his own fallibility, Victor has always accused Reed of envying Victor’s genius (pot to kettle: “thou art black”) and sabotaging his work. So, to save the Thing, Mr. Fantastic reconstructs the Von Doom Afterlife Probe and plans to use it to travel to the Other Side and rescue gentle Ben! Sue doesn’t like the idea very much--”It’s not ‘the Afterverse,’ it’s a domain of spiritual faith,” argues the Invisible Woman--but she and Johnny go with Reed anyway.
For brevity’s sake I’ll cut to the end of our tale. Our heroes, at the end of an emotionally and physically harrowing journey across the realm of the Afterlife, find Ben’s spirit with that of his late brother at the entrance to the chambers of the Creator of the universe. The Fantastic Four, the world’s greatest explorer/adventurers, are thus granted an audience with the Creator-being himself, who turns out to be...well, to put it simply...this nice man:
You see, it just so happens that Fantastic Four #511 fell exactly ten years to the month after the death of the actual creator of that universe. So, the entity sitting puffing on a cigar while drawing comic book pages in a sunlit studio, waiting to entertain his most wondrous children, was in fact...the Creator! After expounding a bit on the wonders of his universe, the Creator-being picked up a pencil and erased the scar-tissue handprint that the vindictive Doom had magically burned into Reed’s face ten issues prior, re-drew the Thing’s integument on Ben’s body, and sent the Fantastic Four home to a happy ending.
And in spite of the whole thing being about archaic, pre-rational, anti-intellectual superstitions about supernatural creators of the universe and a life after death that is a quasi-physical place, which relentlessly persist in their tenacious, toxic hold on people’s minds...I absolutely loved it. “Hereafter” was the most brilliant and inspired use of the shared history of the Fantastic Four and Dr. Doom since Stan and Jack crafted the original stories. Paying tribute to the King of Comics by acknowledging his place as the “Creator” on the decade anniversary of his death, and having him be the one to end one of the most traumatic periods of the FF’s lives, was sheer genius. And the whole bit about him actually erasing--with a pencil, no less!--the disfigurement of Doom’s revenge against Reed...well, I practically grin and giggle every time I think about it. Mark Waid gets a permanent standing ovation for making me love something that I should have loathed. I count “Hereafter” among my favorite stories in comics.
I think the supernatural can be a lot of fun to think about. I’ve always loved the old classic horror movies, which had supernatural themes and were actually about monsters, not psychos and slashers. I’m a big fan of the TV series Supernatural, not just because it stars the inhumanly sexy Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles, but because it’s a great, imaginative, and compelling story, told with great skill. What I don’t think about the supernatural is that it is a genuine basis for any understanding of life, the world, or the natural, physical universe in which we live. Contrary to what a given TV personality (to use the term loosely) would lately have us believe, it is gravity and the rotation of the Earth that causes tides, not an old bearded, robed white man sitting on a throne in the clouds saying, “Up, tides; down, tides,” and making it happen by magic. And yet this “personality” and many other non-thinking people like him want you to believe there is exactly such an old man who magically whistled up a fully formed universe and a fully formed Earth, teeming with fully evolved life, in six days’ time, and all the stuff and nonsense of magical thinking that goes with it. And these are the people, who hold human intellect and reason themselves in utter contempt, who think that they are the right and proper leaders of the greatest nation on Earth. Alas that such as they cannot be written out of our lives with the same alacrity as a given comic book company is doing away with its original and greatest creation at its five-decade anniversary. In response to this “Party” and its noxious brew of “Tea,” I offer the following bon mots from the good, thinking people of The Godless Liberal Society and the Freedom from Religion Foundation. I’ve quickly grown to love these folks.
Until next time, friends, if you are the praying kind, please, just as a matter of principle, think good thoughts for my friends, the Fantastic Four.