First Family: A Life With the Fantastic Four by Justin Partridge

First Family

A Life With the Fantastic Four

“Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.” -Bertram Russell

“It’s okay to be afraid. It’s okay to fail. But to say that you aren’t even willing to try. That’s unacceptable, Reed.” -Nathaniel Richards

It is 1997. I am 9 years old. My parents are in the early days of a very ugly divorce and we’ve (meaning my mother and I) moved from the home I had known into a shit-box lake cabin next to a dirty body of water. One that served as the party capital of the “town” just under 10 miles away; my now soul source of civilization. It contains one rinky-dink video store, an Allsups, and a grocery store that would occasionally have issues of Pro Wrestling Illustrated and multi-packs of superhero comics. It will be found wanting until I move away, my bitter and standoffish father having gained custody of me, in my early teens. 

We now live there with my Mother’s Mother and her boyfriend, owner of the lake house and quite successful dumpster diver. To mark the occasion, or maybe to try and endear himself to me, he presents me with two binders full of comics. They contain a ton of stuff and I still have a lot of these issues to this day. Multiple covers of the Jim Lee and Chris Claremont 90s X-Men reboot. A 100-Page DC Annual featuring a Shadow/Batman team-up. Motormouth & Killpower. Force Works #1. A few issues of Marvel, the faux “fashion magazine” Marvel used to publish (including one naming Charles Xavier the “Man of the Year”. Yikers, right?).

But best of all, it contained Fantastic Four #282. “Inwards to Infinity”, a semi-Secret Wars II tie in. With this WONDEROUS cover.

The FF was a BIG deal to me as a kid. I just thought they were cool. I couldn’t articulate why, really, because I was a literal child but they were always a big, big deal for me. Like, so big of a deal I once pestered my apparently on-the-rocks parents so much over a night about a Reed Richards action figure I had seen at a nearby United that my dad took me up there, moments before it closed, just to buy it so I would shut the fuck up about it. I had never seen Fantastic Four toys before. I didn’t even know they EXISTED outside of the reruns of the Fox Kids cartoon (which I was also obsessed with). I needed it. I took it everywhere until Reed’s arms fell off from the larger sculpt of the body. My brattiness aside, this issue was a BIG deal for me. Though I had seen the cartoons and coveted more FF toys, I hadn’t really read any of the comics. 

And holy. Shit. What an issue. Written by John Byrne (which, eh, I know), drawn by Jerry Ordway, colored by the criminally underrated Glynis Oliver, and lettered by John Workman, whom I would come to also love on Hellblazer, John Constantine and Peter David’s (also, I know, yuck) The Incredible Hulk, Fantastic Four #282 knocked my flat on my ASS, providing me a welcome escape and catharsis through my new, highly volatile emotional state and surroundings.

First off, I had no idea Reed Richards and Sue Storm had a KID! Here I was greeted with a tyke, not really much younger than I was at the time, facing down the cosmically crazy world and life of the Fantastic Four. The Larger Marvel Universe even! And he was a Richards, an impossible child for an impossible couple. The script also suggested that the BAXTER BUILDING HAD BEEN DESTROYED?! It COULDN’T BE! I was losing my goddamn mind. How could the Fantastic Four, the banner heroes (in my eyes) of the Marvel Universe, defeater of countless villains, both universal and terrestrial, be dealing with something I WAS dealing with?! It was unheard of.

I was also given another introduction in this issue. To that of the Power Pack. Independent, powerful children with dope ass costumes and seemingly limitless power. They called to Franklin from across  worlds, saying that only he could come back to them. They couldn’t come to him. This was powerfully poetic to me, even at a time where my contact with Poetry started and ended with Shel Silverstein’s sidewalk. It told me that even though things were bleak and you didn’t have your mom and dad and that your home was destroyed (metaphorically for me, obviously), that you could still make a friend. Even in a strange place. 

Also SHE-HULK was there?! Believe me when I tell y’all, I was going Ber-serk.

But then it got all too real for me and for the First Family. Dr. Sue Storm-Richards had recently been psychically assaulted by the Pyscho-Man and Hate-Monger, used as a puppet in their nefarious team-up to sow hatred and fear. A fact thankfully recounted in the many Editor’s Notes scattered throughout the issue. And she didn’t want just a neat resolution or apologies. She wanted vengeance. I knew the feeling well. 

As it had just days before pooled inside me, watching my biological parents brawl in a dingy motel room while I screamed through tears on the bed mere feet away. Things had escalated to a fever pitch at that point. The explosion on the end of a long lit fuse. And I couldn’t stop it. It mixed up a concoction of sadness and anger in my chest that I had to deal with for many years beyond. And Susan Storm knew exactly what it tasted like too. It was a revelation to me.

It then doubled down on it, but in a completely different way. Tracking the Psycho-Man’s energy signature to the Microverse (another concept BRAND fucking new to me as I hadn’t discovered Ant-Man yet really), the She-Hulk powered Fantastic Four (Fantastic Five?) headed into the Microverse. Thus showing me stuff I had never, EVER seen before in a comic. A living abstract cubist painting, one sweetened by the population of the Greatest Superheroes. I was in heaven. Something seemed out there for me again, even in the ashes of the fresh divide and move. 

Connection. Contact with other children maybe, who knew what I was going through as Alex Power had with Franklin. Maybe even a sweet color-coordinated jumpsuit out of the deal. Suddenly, things didn’t look so dark to me. A few more issues from this run awaited me in the trash binders. Including one where Susan threw off her former moniker of Invisible Girl and became the Invisible Woman I would come to worship over my adolescence. I devoured them all, resolved now to collect any and all issues that I could of this incredible comic. The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine.

It Is 2005. I am 16 years old. I am about to go on my first real “big kid” date. Sans chaperone. My father and step-mother are dubious about the notion but I am elated. Not only would I get to sit by a girl for two hours in the dark, but I was going to see my favorite superheroes grace the screen. 

That’s right, I took my first date to go see the Tim Story Fantastic Four movie. Her teacher mother (a middle school English or maybe Math teacher that I didn’t have) dropped us off in front of the Mall that housed the town’s then only movie theatre. I buy the tickets with my own money, earned as a sacker at the local market which is a job I have had for a bit now, the summer job extending into the school year to keep me in dvds, comics, and Modest Mouse cds.

We both eat too much candy and drink an obscene amount of soda, giggling with each other in a half-empty movie theatre. The movie is Just Okay, which is fine for me. It’s still the Fantastic Four and I got to share that with someone. I had notes, obviously, but she seemed to have fun and that’s what was important to me. I eagerly await news of a sequel while I try to track down issues of Fantastic Four: The End at my shitty local comic shops.

It Is 2011. I sit in that same shitty mall, on break from an even shittier job at a nearby coffee shop filled with lunatics that just happens to have a bookshop attached to it. A bookshop, mind you, that my manager won’t let me anywhere fucking near becuase I can’t sign people up for a stupid fucking membership card and I won’t stop recommending Camus to people.

As I fork horrible lo mein into my face I read FF #1 by Jonathan Hickman, Paul Mounts, and Steve Epting, an issue I have harangued the caustically toxic shop owner I am almost finished frequenting to get for me. I had heard a few months before that a guy named Jonathan Hickman was going to kill one of the Fantastic Four. Speculation abounded on who it was and what it would mean for the title. I had been largely out of monthly comics before then, but thanks to  chance encounters with Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca’s Invincible Iron Man, Casanova (now reprinted and recolored through Icon), and Grant Morrison’s Final Crisis, I was way the fuck back in, in a big way. Going as far as to open my first pull list at what I’ve been told is the “cool” comic shop in my town.

I caught up as best I could before FF, the horrid little hole in the wall shop I was sinking money into only had various back issues of Hickman’s early issues and “Three” (as it was too busy calling me f*ggot for reading Saga and ordering the most Crossed variants in the state, as if that was a badge of honor and not the horrific red flag I now know it to be). But I made goddamn sure I was going to get FF. And yet again another BELTER of an introductory issue.

It opens with what I now know is the trademark Hickman Move. A portentous block of text at the start of a comic inset into a clean graph like page. I had, again, never seen anything like it. The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine had delivered me something else I had never seen in a comic before. 

“The Human Torch has Died. The Fantastic Four is No More. Welcome to Tomorrow. Welcome to the Future Foundation”.

Still to this DAY i get goosebumps thinking about this opening. And the issue proceeding it absolutely delivers. It’s a rollicking, slam-bang Fantastic Four story…without…actually being a Fantastic Four story. Spider-Man slots effortlessly into the core cast and is instantly thrown into the action as A.I.M. stages a high-tech jailbreak of The Wizard, bombastically laid out by Steve Epting and Paul Mounts (another highly underrated colorist, in my humble opinion).

But more than that it’s profoundly sad, occasionally funny (“I, uh, thought there would be a door.”), and armed with an absolute BANGER of a final page just daring you to come back for more. I was absolutely obsessed with the opener. I pined and theorized on the internet. I pestered my shop owner for more Hickman books, leading me to The Red Wing, SHIELD, and later The Manhattan Projects, which graced us with the wonderful panel of J. Robert Oppenheimer mowing down the living dead with a particle beam machine weapon while I think FDR screams “BLOW ‘EM ALL TO HELL, OPPENHEIMER!”. Comics are Wonderful.

More than that, it seemed to energize me. Rouse me out of my twenty-something apathy to take control of my life, and to start writing seriously; by welcoming tomorrow I could start the process of Solving Everything in my own mind and soul. Building something more out of the loss that was what I had (which I hated) into what I could be. The Fantastic Four had evolved. Why couldn’t I?

It is 2012. I am a full time writer, starting to turn weekly features while seeking column work. I am in a stable and for once, loving relationship. And I am about to become a father. The Fantastic Four have been with me the entire way and will see me through the next years with my wife and son as we work to build a life together.

It is profoundly uncool to say that you love the Fantastic Four, but I truly love the Fantastic Four. For me, they are as alchemetical as “A Dying Planet. Last Hope. Kindly Couple”. The dynamic of the aloof, slightly callous science guy with the hyper capable (and far out of his league) counterpart, coupled with the consistently charming and endearing double-act that is Ben Grimm and Johnny Storm (and his boyfriend Peter Parker) just…speak to me and I feel that they always have. More than that, they have provided me a sort of emotional media cornerstone for a large portion of my life. More so even than some of my other favorite Marvel characters like Spidey or the X-Men (though I genuinely think of Peter as an FF character rather than a solo character, do NOT @ me).

When Dave asked me to contribute to this F4 Week I was ecstatic because not only would I get to reread a lot of comics that mean a great deal to me, thus delivering on a piece we have long since been tinkering with for a while, but I would get a chance to articulate just how and why these characters work beyond the surface level understanding (and slightly misguided hate) Comics Twitter have assigned to the FF based on their appearance in events and crossovers.

With that goal in mind, I now present to you, A Life with The Fantastic Four.

Welcome to Tomorrow.

It started, like most things do, with Jonathan Hickman. 

As I said before, the whole hook of FF just fucking GOT me. And I have since read the whole of Hickman’s era of F4/FF. A few times now actually. 

A lot of things work about it, sure. The rich characterizations for the family and their foes. The puzzle box like construction of the whole run (the fabled “FF Board” that Hickman used to pitch the mammoth run adorned many a laptop background as I came up). The straight up HUGE and pretty freaking silly ideas that he threads through each arc. Ideas like Reed’s “Think Tank”, just a hermetically sealed lab space only he can access while he “solves everything”. Or even the Council of Reeds, a multiversal cabal of Reeds from around the cosmos where they build and tinker and interfere with the power of their assembled Infinity Gauntlets (at the cost of their humanity, souls, and beloved families).

But I feel like more than why it works, it hit me because I had never had my “own” F4 run until then. As I went back on Hickman’s stuff, I finally read all the John Byrne stuff. The Mark Waid stuff. Hell, I even choked down Mark Millar’s run! But none of them ever connected with me as well as the Hickman issues did. The Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa Marvel Knights run got CLOSE, but not nearly as near to my heart as the FF did.

More than that, I finally had a run that I could point to to say, “THIS is it, y’all! THIS is why they work! THIS is why they are cool!” It still usually fell on deaf ears, but it was nice knowing that I had an objectively good answer for the question of what F4 book people needed to read. It might have been a touch clinical and devolves into very much “wrapping up loose threads” mode by the end of it, but I felt like I finally had MY Fantastic Four run.

That was…until Matt Fraction came along.

Don’t Choke on Any Waffles.

As Jonathan Hickman traded the Baxter Building for Stark Tower, Matt Fraction took up the mantle of both titles. One, a sort of Doctor Who-esque family outing in space with Mark Bagley and the other an oddball send-up of superhero comics with the Allreds. Fraction, then and now a fave, talked a lot in the press about how he wanted to make a book for his kids and harken back to a more broader, slightly ginchy era of Fantastic Four.

I followed his workblog for the title religiously and lapped up every bit of coverage that was given. I was highly excited for the book, not only because I loved the team and the creatives involved, but I also had my OWN fledgling family to support at that point. And while the main title is kind of forgettable and admittedly a bit lackluster in terms of narrative heft, both of them have this strong central conceit of family, both found and blood related.

In Fantastic Four, Reed is struck with the knowledge that the unstable molecules that make up his body are failing, breaking him down at the DNA level and matasicizing, unable to regenerate. Bearing the weight of his discovery (and the looming knowledge that it might start to spread to his family next), he strikes out with his family to try and find a cure. Unfortunately, he doesn’t tell his family (or his wife specifically) which, of course, is just So Totally Reed and instead frames it all as a sort of “road trip in space”. 

The narrative feint of Reed lying to his family for “the greater good” is not a new one, but I feel this run and Fraction specifically frames the choice in contrast with his love for Sue, which he threads not only through narration but also through allowing WHOLE issues to be dedicated to Reed and Sue’s first meeting (both told through their own perspectives before and after the “reveal”). It’s an unexpected route for the title to take, but an important one that I think people don’t give this run enough credit for. The Sue issues especially harkens back to the truly outstanding Peter and Mary Jane focused Spectacular Spider-Man Annual, proving that Fraction was and still is a more heartfelt writer than I think he is characterized as.

This also stands in stark, but wonderful contrast to the story of FF and it’s leads. Here, Scott Lang is basically put in charge of children who could level New York just with their smarts, standing alongside She-Hulk, Medusa, and new character Darla Deering as the “interim” F4 and heads of the Future Foundation.

Now at first glance, this title just looks like some fun superhero fluff. And to a point, it is! I mean, you don’t have the Allreds drawing up massive splash pages of the Mole Man and shaving cream based hijinks with the Yancy Street Gang (reframed here as “just for lulz” tech savvy goon-lords, which is…just the fucking best) unless you want to have some fun. But as Fraction and the Allreds remind us, both through narration and gut-wrenching flashbacks, Scott is a man still reeling from the loss of his daughter. And now? He’s in charge of CHILDREN?! In his own words, “noooonononononononono.”

And even as the title engages in some wackiness, like the debut of the Impossible Man’s tiny terror of a son or a super-pool party rendered by guest artist Joe Quinoes, the scripts were always, always, always chocked full of incredible character moments or bonding moments between the team and their new stewards. By now you’ve probably even seen the title’s biggest and most heartwarming moment; when the Moloid Tong sheds her masculine identity in front of her brothers and schoolmates, emboldened by the new FF and a talk with Darla Deering to finally become the girl she was born to be. Our Tong. 

Alongside this wonderful genesis was the ongoing thread of Scott Lang, growing from bristling uncomfort with the thought of children to literally standing between them and Doom (like, literally DOCTOR Doom, it rules), happily giving his life just to keep another child from having to lose theirs. It resonated with me, deeply, and still does to this day. For I now KNEW what it was like to feel that exact same way, to give yourself over to something larger than just yourself. To find a family when you least expected it. It was beautiful living that and then going to a comic book store every week to then READ about it, filtered through your favorite comic book characters.

The Death and Underwhelming Return of the Fantastic Four.

But those halcyon days couldn’t last. After a rousing final bow with Jonathan Hickman in his (wildly underrated DO NOT @ ME) Secret Wars reboot, the Fantastic Four were summarily benched for a few years. Speculation abounded (mostly fanned by me and my infernally annoying Twitter presence) as to what this could mean for the F4 in the future. Was it in preparation for their relaunch to coincide with another movie? The rights HAD started to inch back in Marvel Studios’ favor by that point, so it was a possibility. 

I also hoped, in vain it would turn out, that this was a sort of “cooling off” period to get them retooled for a brand new series, maybe after a major return in an incoming event. They were the FANTASTIC FOUR! How could you have a major Marvel output without the Fantastic Four? It was lunacy. Almost as ludicrous as canceling all the X-MEN comics and then REBOOTING THEM with new number ones!

But as you’ll now have guessed, I’m a dumb bitch and now we have Krakoa. And the Dan Slott era of Fantastic Four.

As a fan it is…less than great. Doubly worse that the book is basically stale farts, compounded by Slott’s thuddingly bad characterization for the family and flat, wooden plots. Once again, it’s become pretty uncool to say you are a Fantastic Four fan and every time I try to convince myself to read an issue, I am proven a clown once again as it’s just worse than the last one I read. 

Empyre has given me a BIT of good food in the last few months. Mainly thanks to Al Ewing and some tremendous artwork from Pepe Larraz, but it still proves heavy, baring the standard of the Richards name. I often say that I would rather have them gone again than being in a subpar book, but I’m not really sure I believe that anymore.

The Fantastic Four has always been a part of my life and even when it’s bad, it’s nice to know that it’s still there. That the brilliant scientist, the love of his life, her firey kid brother, and his rough-and-tumble best friend are always there waiting with a new adventure or maybe even one of the older ones that stand the test of time(s). Waiting to usher me into the next phase of existence. 

As Reed once said, “Everything ends. Everything dies.”, but it’s the things before that fixed point in time that make it all worth living. What makes it all…Fantastic. 

Welcome to Tomorrow.

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