Rethinking the Unthinkable
“Unthinkable” is an arc that divides Fantastic Four fans.
This story was the heart of Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo’s otherwise beloved FF run of the early 00s, published in 2003’s Fantastic Four #67 – 500 (Original numbering was restored after #70 – the story wasn’t *that* long). The pair had been building up to it for a while – it was first hinted at in the second issue of their run, and its effects would spill out into almost every arc they would write thereafter. At its core, this unusually dark story for Marvel’s First Family sees them attacked once again by their arch-nemesis, Doctor Doom, this time wielding the power of sorcery instead of his usual science. Full of eery green energy, demonic pacts, and even an Exorcist reference, it’s a great FF story for the Halloween season. Contrary to its detractors, I will also argue that it’s a great FF story full stop for three big reasons – the art, the depiction of its antagonist, and the heart of which it never loses sight.
That first hints of Unthinkable, back in Fantastic Four (Vol 3) #61, immediately showcase one of the defining controversies of the story. While home in the Baxter Bulding, Reed Richards hears a cry of distress from his children’s nursery. Terrified, he rushes in – to find blood gushing down the walls, and eyes glaring back from every surface. His son Franklin is screaming, and Reed races to his infant daughter Val and picks her up only to see – well… before we get to that, it’s important to provide a little context. I’m not sure any comics fan would dispute that the late, great Mike Wieringo was a stellar artist, an all-time great, with an absolute gift for capturing action and expressions. But his art was also, undeniably, comic book art at its most cartoonish, with lots of big eyes, cutesy faces, and round shapes. Your response to what happens next is absolutely dependent on how you take the meeting between that distinctive style and the actual content being depicted. Because what happens when Reed picks Valeria up is, well, this:
This image has haunted me since the very first time I saw it, because what the hell, man? Wieringo’s art conveys as always an innocence, an essential, undeniable cuteness – which seems utterly at odds with the hellish visage of an infant with soulless voids for eyes and spiders crawling over her lifeless face. I mean that’s messed up! (Although not unique for Waid, who has always had an underrated eye for creepiness- remember Wicker Sue Dibny from 52? I bet you wish you didn’t.) I know from experience that a lot of people hate that disjunction. It’s not that they don’t love Wieringo’s art, both in general, and in this run. It’s that they think it was totally wrong for this particular horror-tinged story – it’s too pure, too innocent, it undermines the scare factor. I couldn’t possibly disagree more. For me, that disjuncture is the very point – the contrast between the horror of the subject matter and the innocence of the art is a thousand times creepier than the darker pencils of another artist might have been. It underlines the scare factor. It tells us something is very wrong here.
This is just a prelude – a tease of what is to come in Unthinkable itself, but it introduces us to some of what makes or breaks the main event. It’s a fusion of the light fun and boundless, optimistic sense of adventure that accompanies all the best Fantastic Four stories with the grotesquery of a horror movie. How you react to this cartoonishly stylized image of a baby transformed into a hellish apparition for a panel will probably set the pace for your feelings on the same smooth and light style being used to depict, say, a person having the skin stripped from their body, a weapon made of snakes, eyes, entrails, and human fingers – or the giant, ghostly green image of an adorable baby face appearing in a pentagram surrounded by candles.
Your mileage may vary of course, but the sheer incongruity between art and subject feels like a master stroke to me. It’s uncomfortable, it’s jarring, it’s just plain wrong.
In other words, it’s exactly how I want to feel when reading a horror story, and I can’t get enough of it.
If art is one source of controversy around Unthinkable, then the largest is surely its depiction of the greatest villain in Marvel Comics, Doctor Doom. I have to claim a vested interest here; Doom is one of my favorite comic characters of all time. I love everything about him; I love his classic Kirby design, I love his ranting monologues combining two dimensions and the third person, I love his monomaniacal obsession with Reed Richards, I love his pet tiger and shark helicopter from the Silver Age – well…. Hmm…. No, you know what, yes, I do love even them. I suspect Mark Waid loves them all too, and he definitely seems to have a fun time writing the character.
Fantastic Four (Vol. 3) #67, labelled the prologue to Unthinkable but an absolutely essential part of the whole, sets the tone for Waid’s Doom. He is sneering, arrogant, and cultured. He has an air of utter menace even as he wanders through a small town in America wearing a business suit and a smooth silver mask – what passes for casual fare in the Von Doom book. In another nice horror touch, a blind child cries in his presence – in another book it might be too much, but it works here because it fits the story’s self-consciously exaggerated aesthetic. Throughout the issue, Doom recounts his past to the reader, especially his long-established teenage romance with his Latverian love, Valeria, for whom he now hunts in a mood of apparent nostalgia and remorse. He finds her at last, and implores her to join him, saying he has realized that he chose wrong when he left so long ago, and wants to choose again. He extends a hand.
It is here that we see another trait of Waid’s Doom, one which breaks with many a depiction, most strikingly that of John Byrne in his seminal 80s FF run. Waid’s Doctor Doom is a liar and a murderer. Valeria takes Doom’s hand, and is immediately surrounded by a green light. As Doom looks on impassively, his face shrouded in shadow, his former love is consumed by flame and her very skin torn off and grafted onto his body, to form a new and horrific set of armor. He explains that he does indeed want to start again, but it is by choosing the magic of his witch mother’s family over the science that has dominated his villain career to date. It is a grotesque scene of betrayal and murder, made all the more unsettling once again by Wieringo’s cartoonish art.
We see here a fundamental split on the character. For Byrne, and for many others who have written the character, Victor Von Doom is ultimately honorable. Yes, he does evil things, and his motivations are largely selfish, but he nonetheless considers himself bound by an almost noble code, a sense of noblesse oblige as befits a European aristocrat. Waid’s Doom has that too – but it’s a shell, a thin farce. He sticks to the letter of his word to Valeria, yes – but while planning to murder her for his own gain. Later in the story, he will promise to release Reed and Sue’s child if they surrender, strongly implied to be their son Franklin, imprisoned in Hell. When they give in, he sets their infant daughter on the ground momentarily and claims to have upheld the bargain, before banishing Franklin back to his tormentors.
This characterization of Doom as fundamentally dishonest and dishonorable comes to a head at the climax of the story, when the Fantastic Four trick Doom into betraying the demons with whom he has made a pact, causing them to drag him into Hell. As he is pulled through the flaming portal, Doom reaches out to his old nemesis with a startling admission; he begs for Reed’s help, even saying he is sorry for all he has done. Reed responds with scorn, arguing that he knows Doom well enough to know that he’s lying. The hero is correct; a furious Doom uses the last of his power to disfigure his enemy’s face before being pulled to Hell forever. (Well, for about two and a half years, but that’s not bad as comics go).
For many Doom fans, all of this is a step too far. The Doom they love would consider it deeply dishonorable to betray the spirit of his word as he repeatedly does in Unthinkable. He would certainly never stoop to begging the hated Richards for anything. That’s an entirely valid view, and in keeping with many takes on the character, as noted above. But I will also argue strongly in favor of Waid’s take, which I think can be summed up in the idea that Victor Von Doom is ultimately, to use a critic’s technical term, full of crap. Everything this guy does is a performance. He feigns nobility and claims his word is his bond, but does whatever it takes and then justifies it afterwards. He is not driven by honor but by spite, dressed up and made presentable to the world.
Not only do I think this is a good take on Doom, but I would argue that it is very much the original good take on Doom. Everything about Waid’s depiction of the character is there already in the Silver Age, on full display in perhaps the greatest Doom story of all time, Fantastic Four Volume 1 #57-60. In this story, Doom lures the Silver Surfer to his castle under false pretenses in order to ambush him and steal his powers. As the Surfer says: “Your voice mouths soothing words of peace and righteousness – and yet every fibre of my being recoils at the lust for power which pervades the very atmosphere about you!” Moments later, when a servant bumps into him, Doom rounds on him in spitting fury, only to consciously control himself to maintain the lie of his noble beneficence for his guest. For all his fine words and noble airs, this Doom is a petty, vindictive man consumed by his self-righteousness and willing to break his word at a moment’s notice, just as he does in Unthinkable. He may pretend otherwise, even to himself, but that’s who he is.
Does it devalue the character then, to make Doom into a liar, into – to use a word liberally utilized by the monarch himself in the story – a charlatan? Didn’t his sense of honor set him apart from other, more run of the mill crooks? I would argue not. If anything, it makes him a more tragic figure, doomed, if you will, to live out a hollow farce of nobility which he knows deep down that he does not and cannot possess. Nor does it truly undermine his famously gargantuan ego to admit to fault, even to his most hated foe. The best takes on Doom, like that of Jonathan Hickman at the climax of 2015’s Secret Wars, have always recognized that the reason Doom could never normally admit to Reed’s superiority is not because he believes it to be false but because he knows it to be true. It’s the same reason why, at the peak of his success in Unthinkable, he delivers an instantly iconic rant to his nemesis in which he accuses him of ‘unquenchable vanity’ and wearing a mask which hides his insecurities. Whatever the truth of the charges he levels against Reed – and he is not altogether unjustified – it is hard to escape the conclusion that he is also very much describing himself.
Doom’s arrogance is not, and has never been, that of a man who believes he is the best at everything, but the man who fears he is second best. As is often the case, it’s Ben Grimm who puts it best:
Both the art of Unthinkable and its depiction of Doom have been sources of criticism from many fans which I have argued are unfounded. In this brief final section though, I want to stress another element of the story which I believe makes it great entirely independent of controversy or criticism. Unthinkable has strong elements of horror, and an awful lot of Doctor Doom. But at its core, it is like all the best Fantastic Four stories – a story about family.
It’s easy to lose sight of this – after all, the story undeniably foregrounds Reed, and he is the character who experiences real growth during the arc as he struggles to accept that faith and belief can matter as much as scientific certainty. Other parts of the Waid/Wieringo run spotlight the rest of the family to fuller effect; Sue in the later ‘Authoritative Action’, Ben when his family retrieve him from Heaven, Johnny when he becomes the Herald of Galactus. Even Franklin gets more of a look-in in the immediate follow-up to Unthinkable.
But for all that Reed is at the center of this story, it is not just a Mister Fantastic story. Unthinkable also features Johnny Storm leaping straight into a portal to Hell, no questions asked, when his nephew’s life and very soul are threatened. It depicts Ben Grimm having literal chunks beaten from his body by Mindless Ones, refusing to surrender until his best friend asks him to. It shows Sue Richards unleashing her powers on the man who abducted her children, driving force-field tentacles into his eyes with a rare fury. And while Reed gets the greatest chance to shine when he discovers the secret of a magical device which allows him to will his thoughts into action, his first thought is not to use it to destroy his foe but to bring back his loved ones to stand with him in a classic splash page that makes the subtext explicit.
If I had to pick a single image to sum up why Unthinkable works so well, it would be this simple splash. There are lots of obvious reasons – the terrific depiction of the family battered but unbroken, Reed Richards’ ramrod back standing tall against his foe, the positive fury sparkling in Ben’s eyes, the determination in Susan’s stance and Johnny’s fist. But also one other touch, so small that you don’t even notice it at first, the one that makes the scene and the story work. I started this discussion by talking about the possession of Valeria Richards. In the course of this story, we learn that she has a special bond with Doom, her godfather; she acts as his familiar, channels his energies, serves as the listener to his ramblings, and is carried by him as he tears her family apart. It may be under the influence of magic, but Valeria is nonetheless one more thing that Doom has taken from his despised enemies. But now, at the clutch moment, when the final showdown looms, Wieringo draws her with hand outstretched plaintively towards her parents, and away from the monster holding her. Doom has already lost, and he doesn’t even know it, because all his sorceries and demonic pacts can’t overcome the bond that unites a family. Fantastic.
Unthinkable is not the best Fantastic Four story of the 21st Century. It is not even the best Fantastic Four story of the Waid & Ringo run. The end is weaker than the start, and the plot resolution a bit of a deux ex machina. But it is a very good story, and an arc worthy of the title’s five hundredth issue. After a promising start, here we see the pair firmly lay down their marker. Everything finally comes together, from the downright creepy art to the depiction of Doom to the central theme of family. If you haven’t read it, you should, and judge for yourself. And if you’re one of the story’s many detractors, give it another whirl. Who knows, perhaps now you’ll find the idea of enjoying it just a little bit more thinkable.