I’ve been slowly re-reading (and in some cases, reading for the first time) the first 100 issues of the original Fantastic Four. The two over-sized hardcover omnibus volumes are (at the risk of punning) fantastic, especially because they include the letters pages for every issue. It is endlessly fascinating to read the stories in which so much of the Marvel Universe as we know it today came to exist (Dr. Doom, Skrulls, the return of Namor, the Watcher, the Blue Area of the Moon, the Inhumans, Galactus, Black Panther, and so on and so on) and to read not only readers’ reactions to those stories, characters, and development, but how much the tone for the Marvel Universe was set by Stan Lee’s curation of those letters and his editorializing responses to them. Meanwhile, Kirby was gorgeously rendering his genius in ways that made the strange new take on superheroes so appealing that he and Stan were inundated with those letters to begin with.
I know I’ve mentioned it several times in posts of the last year, but Ramzi Fawaz’s amazing book The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics has two very strong chapters on those early Fantastic Four stories, and re-reading them and the letters he uses to stage the reader debate regarding the “question of political imagination and the capacity for superhero comics to figure the world in terms not limited by Cold War rhetoric” (109), my long-time appreciation of this classic run has been deepened.
Fawaz’s cosmopolitan perspective might be hard to see if we were looking for a linear and gradual progression from the anti-communist jingoistic Cold War anxieties present in that first issue of Fantastic Four and that occasionally returns to motivate some of those early stories (like issue #14’s first appearance of Red Ghost and his Super-Apes), but such a “cosmopolitics” (to use his term) luxates, as would any set of complex ideas of negotiated cultural conjunctions. In other words, Fantastic Four is best read in such a way that highlights when assumed conceptions of identity and social bonds bend, shift, grate, or even break. In this example of early 1960s Marvel Comics, we have a shared serialized universe open to the influence of opinionated readers that range from simplistic antagonism towards Communism to a more generous attitude of reconciliation, as the world it makes comes into being one story at a time. The queer possibilities (and here I am using “queer” to mean nonnormative in the way Fawaz does, “to describe those behaviors that mark the failure to conform to the proper performance of gender and sexuality” (67)) of early Fantastic Four emerge organically in fits and starts, with awkward retreats and daring leaps, pleasurable subtexts that reward engaged reading, but that also bubble to the surface as to not really be subtext at all. As I read, I frequently wonder at the implicit intimacy of Mr. Fantastic’s supple body tightly wrapped around the Thing’s rocky and ambiguously butch frame straining against his limits. The wonder of Fawaz’s reading is that he takes what on the surface might appear to be one of the squarest and most conservative of Marvel’s comics and reveals its ability to stand as a critique of “the relationship between sexual and gender identity and cold war politics” in such a way to counter the “powerful political framing of the heterosexual nuclear family as a bulwark against communism” and imagine “a new kind of citizen capable of engaging cosmopolitan political projects without an attachment to narratives of heterosexual normalization and bodily regimentation” (67-8). In other words, Fawaz explores, expands, and contextualizes ideas I only start to suggest in my 2013 post “Fantastic: From the First, No Family is ‘Traditional’,” and why, despite long ago losing its creative potential as the Marvel Universe became circumscribed into its cyclical illusion of change, the Fantastic Four remains the most important Marvel book they ever put out bar none. Sure, there were times when other books took up the flag in ways that challenged and reshaped Marvel’s relation to “the world outside [our] window” (Claremont’s X-Men comes to mind), but nothing beats the FF as a powerful vision of a future in our midst.
But Marvel doesn’t publish the Fantastic Four anymore. It hasn’t since April of 2015.
Marvel’s first family and first success seems irrelevant to the current incarnation of the Marvel Universe, as its members are scattered into other groups or written out of the universe entirely.
After ending with issue #645, Fantastic Four did not return for a new volume following the latest iteration of Marvel’s Secret Wars, when other perennial titles like Amazing Spider-Man, Avengers and Uncanny X-Men did. Instead, Ben Grimm joined up with the Guardians of the Galaxy, and Johnny Storm found a new home with the Inhumans. Meanwhile, Reed and Sue Richards took their two children, Franklin and Valeria, on a mission to go chart new universes created in the wake of the defeat of a godlike Dr. Doom and the dissolution of Battleworld after the Secret War. If this stuff sounds hard to follow, don’t worry about it, the details are unimportant. All that matters is that in a 50-year tradition of linked multi-directional serials dedicated to balancing the illusion of change with the unstoppable accretion of new stories for characters that age at inconsistent and even non-linear rates, it was decided that there was no room for the Fantastic Four.
Now there are a lot of possible reasons why this is the case. The most popular theory is that the Fantastic Four was cancelled out of pure spite—that Marvel bigwigs were bitter about their failed attempts to renegotiate/regain the film rights to the FF from Fox (as they succeeded in doing with Sony regarding re-booting Spider-Man movies, yet again). While Marvel can’t afford to cancel its various X-books (though some fans are convinced that Marvel is purposefully sabotaging them as well), Fantastic Four was far from the bestseller it once was (certainly not as popular as it was in the 1960s, or even during John Byrne’s lauded run of the 1980s), and thus failing to publish it is a “fuck you” to Fox—a refusal to give them even the infinitesimal promotion that a Fantastic Four title represents.
Marvel editor Tom Brevoort, on the other hand, claims that Fantastic Four’s cancellation is temporary, not all that different from when Thor disappeared for a couple of years and that “[FF has] been considered stodgy, or old school, or some people see it as a thing that’s there and people are comfortable because it’s there, but they’re not particularly passionate about it.” I guess he is talking about both creators (considering it stodgy) and fans (seeing it as a title that will just always be around whether they buy it or not), but for a man, who presumably works with words for a living, he is not very good with them. My guess is that his point is that after a reasonable absence, there will be enough interest in a re-launch to boost sales above previous levels. As far as I know, Fantastic Four’s low sales were not so catastrophically low when compared to other books Marvel retained the film rights for, so I doubt his reasoning. Then again, I can’t expect someone even as woefully bad at public relations as Tom Brevoort to admit that the Marvel honchos are so petty.
And heck, it is not as if I was buying the latest incarnation of the Fantastic Four when it ended. I didn’t even bother to get the final issue. I tried Matt Fraction’s 2013 run, but dropped it after four issues because it did nothing to excite me. I did love Matt Fraction and Mike Allred’s FF series with replacement members running the Future Foundation—a school of special kids. But an actual Fantastic Four book with the four original members? Not since the Byrne-penned days have I stuck with the title. In addition, I must admit that my warm feelings about Reed Richards as a character were eroded by his hyper-rational villainous turn in the original Civil War, leading to his direct responsibility for the death of Black Goliath. In other words, I am totally willing to accept that the Fantastic Four has not been a very good book for at least 30 years, and thus I am one of those fans that Brevoort mentioned, taking for granted that it’d always be around, with only a vague hope that it might experience some kind of renaissance making it worthy of adding to my pull-list. So, whoever’s fault the cancellation might be doesn’t really matter to me as much as what that absence means.
In my post from earlier this year, “Batman v. Superman: Whatever Happened to Growing Up?”, I wrote about how the imagined end of DC Comics iconic first superhero character Superman manifests in domesticity. The playful absurdity of Julius Schwartz era Superman can’t survive the complexities of adulthood and its traditional relationships as husband and father—as a regular guy. For DC’s most popular character, Batman, Neil Gaiman imagines an eternal transformation in place of a real ending, a pseudo-literary hero of a thousand faces ur-text of eternal return that values repetition and variation. But for Marvel the end of their foundational title, The Fantastic Four, represents a total erasure of the possibilities Fawad discusses in his book (and that I summarized above) through the destruction of its utopian view of kinship bonds based on difference, not homogeneity.
There is a notable absence of the figure of the family in contemporary Marvel comics. I feel like some conservative pundit for even considering this devaluing, but not because I think the FF represents a traditional family, but rather because as a comic it repeatedly demonstrates the elasticity and instability of family bonds, while re-inscribing their importance in providing a framework of ethical and empathic relations among people that are arbitrarily gathered by circumstances given retroactive value. In other words, an anti-essentialist approach to understanding adopted kinship bonds reinforces how those bonds become strategically essential in imagining belonging without insisting that it must necessarily identify who or what does not belong. The range of characters who’ve been part of their family over the decades—Medusa and Wyatt Wingfoot and Alicia Masters and Spider-Man and She-Hulk and Storm and Black Panther and many more—reinforce that.
Yes, there are depictions of other families in Marvel titles, but most of them are tied by traditional heteronormative bonds, like that of Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan or Spider-Man, Miles Morales. Ant-Man is a single dad, so that’s something, but so many characters are orphans. Even the X-Men, who once represented the possibilities of kinship networks across difference, have become too expansive and fragmentary to be called a family anymore. Plus, the X-line’s obsession with extinction has diluted any sense of a better world through their bond. Their ideological motivations in terms of the catch-all identity politics of the mutant metaphor overwrite their personal connections. The Fantastic Four, however, are foremost a family, and by culling Johnny Storm and Ben Grimm from that family to join other teams, while Reed, Sue, Franklin and Valeria remain a traditional nuclear family removed from the spotlight, suggests the latter represent a more “real” family unit defined by biological kinship (though Valeria’s confused origins may throw a wrench into that, all retcons have made sure to make her the biological daughter of Reed and Sue) rather than utopian chosen kinship that subverts normative bonds, especially in light of their non-normative post-human bodies.
Biological family is overvalued, both in life and in fiction, in ways that undermine equally meaningful (and sometimes more meaningful) bonds that network our social worlds. At its best, the Fantastic Four provides a framework for seeing that in action, and resisting the ways the narrative of family is used to reinforce the naturalized hierarchies of the state. If, as Anne McClintock points out in Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest, family is “both organizing figure for national history and its antithesis” then models for considering the radical power of the latter are a necessary lens for reading depictions of family that challenge the hetero-patriarchal contours of the national narrative. McClintock explains that the ahistorical model used in nationalist parables of family robs the so-called domestic sphere of its influence and power over the nation (357-8). In the figure of the Fantastic Four, who joined up to serve the state in its Cold War aim to beat the Soviets in the space race, we see a band that return from orbit transformed into distinct transitional bodies—bodies in flux—bonding not due to an oversimplified (in the words of Fawaz) “universally shared humanity, but on the mutual experience of difference from it” (72). And, as a result, moving away from family as a metaphor for nation and thus bulwark against outsiders, and towards a power that—to paraphrase the Thing in Fantastic Four #1— benefits all mankind. The Fantastic Four puts its strangely shaped domestic sphere at the center of its explorations, with all the conflict and vulnerability that comes with it. I am not arguing that Mr. Fantastic does not perform the role of the patronizing distant father, that Sue—from her name to her sex appeal to her role as FF den mother—doesn’t sometimes reflect a narrow and contradictory perspective of womanhood, that The Thing’s violent outbursts of challenged masculinity aren’t all-too-familiar, or that the Human Torch’s hot-rod-racing, school girl chasing, teenage antics aren’t a cliché, but that the comic subverts and challenges those expectations time and again, by making manifest the anxieties of nuclear family life that cast the naturalness of those roles into doubt. We often talk about family as if it were some kind of closed system of primary loyalties, but in reality they are porous and fraught.
Families must, by design, open themselves to outsiders, but the white hetero-patriarchy demands a check on that need to shore up its power. The result of the family model that closes its borders and does not bridge difference is incest—a corrupting force that undermines its health (for a great example of this in literary fiction try Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres). Marvel’s eschewing of the Fantastic Four represents a creeping sickness that results from its sliding timeline and aversion to all but the illusion of change, that leads to an accretion of incoherence, and in some cases relationships that evoke the disgust of the incestuous—a failure born of the insistence on continued accrual of capital over actually imagining (and selling) a different world. It is because of contemporary superhero comics reticence to earnestly declare their forward-looking values. To try and sell that world is to directly challenge the industry’s claims about the economic realities it tries to use to hedge its bets when making pledges about how it values diversity, and why expansion and re-imagining of the Marvel Universe as racially diverse and with greater gender parity so continuously contentious.
If family is such a crucial organizing factor of civilization then the representations of families need to be exploded throughout popular culture, and comics, with their low stakes and small dedicated fanbases, are a great target for moving beyond the proscribed limits of what a family looks like. This was true in the 1960s in the million ways the original Fantastic Four challenged everything from the presumptive power of hard masculinity to female social invisibility, but it is just as true in the 21st century where definitions of family may vary, but continue to be too rigid to reflect lived experience or challenge readers to be open to the adventure made possible by accepting the queerness of all human bonds.
All of that aside, maybe the end of Fantastic Four is a good thing. Maybe its originary role in the Marvel Universe makes it immune to the explicit (and positive) changes that have manifested throughout Marvel’s books, like a female Thor, an Afro-Latino Spider-Man, a Chicano Ghost-Rider, a Black Captain America, a gay Ice Man, and a Pakistani Muslim Ms. Marvel. Personally, I’d love a queer Johnny Storm, his many flings serving as compensation for a sensitive and complex pansexuality, his literal flaming standing in for the metaphorical type, but can there be a Black Mr. Fantastic or a Ben Grimm who adopts a sexuality shaped by his non-normative body? Or legacy versions that replace the original characters as they are phased out? So much could be fixed if characters could just be allowed to age!) And even if those changes are possible— and I’d like to think, yes, they are—can there be much for the Fantastic Four to do in a universe so well-mapped and codified—a world, in the words of comics scholar Charles Hatfield, so “overcrowded?” What remains to be explored, except umpteen variations of an always recognizable Marvel Universe in a set-up that has already been done to death in series like Excalibur and Exiles? What realms of imagination remain, and will there ever again be a Kirby-like font of ideas with which to explore them?
Ultimately, that might be the real problem, the Marvel Universe has become too small for the promise of the Fantastic Four, and, in order for it to work, the title can’t be circumscribed by the status quo, but be allowed to explode it in ways we haven’t thought of yet.