Three years ago, the adventures of the Fantastic Four came to an end as we knew it. Of the four members of the team, two were lost and presumed dead. The group — called Marvel’s First Family for their inciting role in the formation of the Marvel Universe in and out of comics — was fractured. To make matters even worse, their ongoing title was cancelled, ending a continuous run that had stretched for 55 years.
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four were the superheroes that kicked off the Marvel superhero universe — not Iron Man, the Avengers or Captain America. But in 2015, their comic wasn’t the solid bet that it once was, and in an era of superhero blockbusters, their latest movie reboot had just tanked hard. The Four had also developed a new enemy: Marvel Entertainment’s own CEO.
But this week marks an era of rebirth for the Fantastic Four, with a new series from writer Dan Slott — fresh off his historic ten-year run on Spider-Man — and artist Sara Pichelli — co-creator of Miles Morales/Spider-Man. The First Family of Marvel Comics is coming home.
Breaking Up The Band
The last time the Fantastic Four were united was in Jonathan Hickman and Esad Ribic’s epic 2015 crossover event Secret Wars. Without getting too complicated, as the multiverse and all its parallel Earths was dying, the Fantastic Four’s greatest enemy, Doctor Doom, acquired godlike powers and used them to stitch specific regions and domains of the dead worlds into one surviving planet called Battleworld. There was a domain based on the alternate timeline of the X-Men’s infamous 1995 crossover, Age of Apocalypse; a domain where everyone was zombies like in those other miniseries; a domain where the Civil War between Captain America and Iron Man never ended ... you get the idea.
Doom’s reality changes meant that, mostly, nobody remembered their lives before Battleworld — but some heroes and villains did. Including, of course, Doom’s number one nemesis, Reed Richards; Mister Fantastic, the leader of the Fantastic Four. Secret Wars came down to a final clash between Mister Fantastic and Doctor Doom, in which the villain at long last admitted that Reed was the better man, which, for reasons, transferred Doom’s godlike power to Reed. Reed used that power to set the Marvel Universe back to how it should be, with a few key editorial changes here and there (such as the incorporation of some popular characters from alternate universes, like Miles Morales and Old Man Logan, into the main Marvel Universe).
You might have seen the main Marvel Universe of the comics referred to as “Earth-616,” but in Reed’s new multiverse, it was now the Prime Earth: There were no others. In order to set things right, Reed took it upon himself to rebuild the old multiverse, and he brought his wife Susan Storm, the Invisible Woman; their superpowered children, Franklin and Valeria; and the students of the Future Foundation, a school-meets-think-tank of the smartest kids in the Marvel Universe, along for the adventure. Outside of a cameo appearance by Franklin and Valeria at the end of the Marvel Legacy one-shot, we haven’t seen or heard from Reed, Sue or any of the kids until now.
When Reed put the world back to normal, few people remembered the events of Battleworld. The Richards were presumed dead by their friends and family, including the two “surviving” members of the Fantastic Four, Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, and Ben Grimm, the Thing. Without the Fantastic Four to ground them, they each went their own way. The Four’s Manhattan headquarters, the iconic Baxter Building, was taken over by Peter Parker’s Parker Industries, after Peter promised to look after it in the team’s absence. The Thing fulfilled his lifelong dream of being a space pilot and explorer by joining the Guardians of the Galaxy, while Johnny Storm moved to the Inhuman city of New Attilan and began a relationship with Queen Medusa (She and king Black Bolt were split up at the time).
But the biggest change to the Fantastic Four’s “family” was in Victor Von Doom, who emerged from Battleworld with his famously scarred face completely healed and a new perspective on life and how he should live it. Admitting that Reed Richards was the better man seemed to have allowed Doom to let go of a giant weight, and he set about trying to reform himself with Tony Stark’s help. The armored Avenger wasn’t too happy with Doom’s constant intrusions into his life, but nevertheless, when Tony slipped into a coma following the events of 2016’s Civil War II crossover, Doom took it upon himself to carry on the legacy of Iron Man. He donned his own flying suit of armor and started rounding up his own former allies, colleagues and compatriots in the Marvel Universe’s underworld.
Most recently, Ben Grimm has been trying to give Johnny something to do to take his mind off their missing family, and the pair have been adventuring across the multiverse. Around the same time, a bunch of Marvel’s supervillains finally ganged up on Victor Von Doom to put an end to his war on criminals. His face was once again disfigured in the confrontation and the reformed villain retreated to his homeland of Latveria to consider his next move.
Four On The Floor
While it was officially denied by Marvel editors and executives, it’s been a fairly open secret that the Fantastic Four’s disappearance was a top down order from Isaac Perlmutter, the CEO of Marvel Entertainment. Perlmutter is a reclusive billionaire surrounded by a lot of stories that sound like they’re straight out of a Marvel Comic. We don’t have time to get into all of it, but he’s famously private, is currently engaged in a lawsuit over stolen genetic samples and is reportedly part of a three-man cabal illicitly controlling the Veterans’ Affairs office under President Donald J. Trump. Supposedly, Perlmutter wasn’t happy that by producing comics and merchandise for the Fantastic Four and the X-Men — two properties Marvel Entertainment didn’t have the film and television rights to — Marvel was essentially providing free advertising for a competitor.
The X-Men are too popular to disappear completely, but the Fantastic Four as a concept vanished from Marvel both in and out of the comics. X-Men and Fantastic Four characters disappeared from licensing; if you look at Marvel video game sequels like Lego Marvel Super-Heroes 2 or Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite, you’ll notice that unlike their predecessors, they’ve been stripped of characters from these two franchises, while franchises that are less central to Marvel continuity but that Marvel does own the cinematic rights to, such as the Guardians of the Galaxy and the Inhumans, were brought to the fore. Bleeding Cool even tracked down a memo issued to artists who work on licensed sketch cards of Marvel characters, stating “all Marvel characters related to Fantastic Four are now off limits and will be immediately rejected by Marvel.”
Marvel may once again acquire the film rights to the Fantastic Four and the X-Men with Disney’s controversial purchase of 21st Century Fox. (Though, to be clear, that purchase won’t be finalized until next year, and the Fantastic Four’s return to comics has been in the works for some time already.) Previous iterations of the Fantastic Four on the silver screen have been lacklustre at best — although this writer will go to bat for the 2015 Fantastic Four movie — and some fans and critics have written the team off as being unable to anchor a decent cinematic offering. While some fans are rightfully concerned about Disney’s acquisition of 21st Century Fox giving them control over 40% of the total box office of all Hollywood films, other fans are excited about the potential that lies in the Fantastic Four and the X-Men being welcomed into the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The return of the Fantastic Four to Marvel Comics is something fans have been clamoring for since the team first vanished from them, as their presence in the Marvel Universe is about more than just four superheroes. Without the Fantastic Four, there wouldn’t be a Marvel Universe — and there certainly wouldn’t be a Marvel Cinematic Universe. Apocryphally, the Fantastic Four were created after Stan Lee heard how well the new series Justice League of America was doing for Marvel’s competitor, DC Comics. The story goes that he was close to giving up comics all together, but his wife Joan convinced him to give it one final shot and write the kind of superhero story he wanted to see. In doing so, The Fantastic Four #1 kicked off the Marvel Age of Comics.
Jack Kirby’s contributions to the Fantastic Four can’t be understated either; his unique and unmistakable style not only set the tone for the team, but for the entire Marvel Universe. But The Fantastic Four as a series was a testament to the creativity and collaboration between Lee and Kirby, who partnered for 102 issues of pure, undiluted imagination. Within the pages of their Fantastic Four, Lee and Kirby introduced Black Panther, the Inhumans, Galactus, the Silver Surfer, Doctor Doom, the Skrulls, the Kree and so many other once-in-a-lifetime creations. The Fantastic Four are finally back where they belong, with a creative team that has the potential to remind the world why they are Marvel’s first family.
After everything the Fantastic Four have been through over the last three years, they’re finally back in their own title … kind of. This week’s Fantastic Four #1 does feature Reed, Sue, Johnny and Ben, but there’s no reunion to be had in this debut issue of Slott and Pichelli’s run. Instead Fantastic Four #1 focuses on how the team’s absence has affected the people it left behind, and not just Ben and Johnny, but all of Manhattan. It’s nice to see that the people of the Marvel Universe have missed the Fantastic Four as much as we have, and their excitement at the team’s potential return is infectious.
The Marvel Universe was born when Johnny Storm discovered Namor, the Sub-Mariner, living as a homeless man in Fantastic Four #4, providing a link from Marvel Comics of the post-war present to the Marvel Comics of the WWII-era past. A simple connection establishing that two unrelated superheroes existed in the same universe laid the groundwork for a shared setting that would grow and blossom for decades, with new creators adding their mark and twisting its direction in line with their own vision. That’s something that this Fantastic Four #1 does well; it’s a tribute to the the past that looks forward to the future, with cameo appearances from the likes of Luke Cage, Medusa and She-Hulk, all former members of the Fantastic Four themselves.
Unfortunately, Fantastic Four #1 just doesn’t have the moment a lot people will have likely picked it up for, and for that reason it’s likely to be somewhat divisive. If you’ve ever wondered why comics sometimes start with a #0 rather than a #1, this first issue of Slott and Pichelli’s Fantastic Four would have been an excellent zero issue. It catches readers up on a Marvel Universe without the team, it shows us what’s become of Ben and Johnny and ends with a tease towards the future. But it isn’t wholly satisfying as a first issue.
It’s a great starter, but it’s not the main course we’ve paid for. That’s something Slott and company are somewhat aware of, with a final back-up page featuring the Impossible Man complaining about the lack of a return, but a lampshaded flaw is still a flaw. I’m glad to have the Fantastic Four back, but I’d like them to be actually back by now. It’s been too long.