By Michael W. Harris
In less than a month, a big part of my childhood and teenage years will be returning to comic book shops across the world. After a too long, three year hiatus, the Fantastic Four will be back and with it a big part of my love of my first and abiding hobby.
The adventures of Reed, Sue, Johnny, Ben, and the other extended members of the First Family (both blood related and not), were not the first comic book I ever read, but it was the one that captured my attention and imagination. The reasons for this are numerous: the crazy sci-fi adventures across time and space that were quite different from the standard supervillain of the month punch-ups that I had read before, the more relatable problems of a family of adventurers and the group dynamics that came with it, and a cast of characters that felt both relatable and real (well, as real as unstable molecules clad superheroes can be).
It is established canon that each of the FF’s individual powers is somehow reflective of their personalities: a woman who feels invisible in a patriarchal society (though who also turns out to be the most powerful of them all…a wonderful twist added by writers in the 1980s), a flame powered hot-headed youth, a rock-solid friend who would stop a bus for you, and the greatest mind on the planet who is constantly reaching and stretching his imagination to ever greater heights. But deeper than that, I also saw something of myself and my life in each of the member of the Fantastic Four, both aspirational and how I felt about and viewed myself.
Let me explain.
* * *
I was (am) a bit of a nerd. Big Surprise, I know. So the sci-fi adventures of a superhero family led by the biggest nerd of them all, Reed Richards, was inherently appealing to me. Reed was the person I imagined myself becoming someday. Hopefully. Using his intellect to solve the biggest problems. Taking himself and his family on adventures across space, time, and the multiverse. I wanted to do that to. And the fact that his mind was his biggest asset instead of a hindrance was amazing. Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s being a nerd had yet to become cool, and I had not learned to love who I was/am. But there was Reed Richards, a man tremendously respect by his peers and loved by his family.
To top it off, Reed was married to Susan Storm Richards, my original fictional character crush (sorry Princess Leia, the Invisible Woman had you beat). Sue was shown in the comics to be that most unreal of combinations: smart, powerful, loyal, independent, loving, fierce, and incredibly sexy. Over the course of the series, she had gone from being the damsel in distress in the book’s earliest stories to being the team leader in many instances, especially when Reed was lost in some experiment…or when he was believed to be dead (oh, the ‘90s, when they decided to kill characters left and right in a bid to boost sales).
And Johnny, Sue’s younger brother, was the cool, confident, popular guy I wished I could be. Truly, Chris Evans’ pre-Captain American turn as the Human Torch in the early 2000s films was among their few highlights. Johnny wasn’t the smartest guy, but he was cool, good with cars, athletic, confident and assured with women, and had some great abs to boot (or maybe that was just Chris Evans). The Human Torch was everything I was not and secretly wished I could be, despite the obvious tradeoffs. He was also every bully I ever had, and the fact that he was not only led by the nerd, but also his older sister, was also satisfying in a “deserved comeuppance” kind of way. Still, on some level I wished I could be a little less like Reed and a little more like Johnny.
Then there was Ben Grimm. The Thing. The Golem-like rock monster who was constantly reminding the world of his existence by his sheer, hulking presence. It should come as no surprise if you’ve read my weight loss post that if Reed is what I aspired to be, and Sue is who I wanted to fall for, and Johnny was who I secretly wished I could be more like, then Ben is who I felt like on a daily basis.
But Ben is more than a one-note monster like character. He is a complex creation whose psychological profile was the source of many of the FF’s best stories: his rough and tumble upbringing on Yancy Street, his Jewish heritage, his friendship with Reed (Ben was a jock, Reed the nerd…yet they were great friends), his unrequited love for Sue and the fact that Reed was his closest friend. And the Reed/Ben dynamic, how Ben was the only member whose appearance was transformed by the accident that gave them their powers and Reed’s quest to “cure” Ben has been fodder for some amazing storytelling.
I felt more and more like the scarred and morose Benjamin Jacob Grimm the older I got.
* * *
And then the stories stopped. Most likely the casualty of Marvel’s movie empire and not controlling the film rights, the FF have been absent from my pull list since its cancellation. Sure, Ben and Johnny have been present in other books, but Reed, Sue, and the kids have been off exploring the new Marvel multiverse that Franklin, Reed and Sue’s son, created (too complication to go into here). And in that time my interest in comics has waned. I now will go weeks, months even, without reading what I still pick up weekly, and then I will binge read through the backlog in a matter of hours spread over a few evenings. I enjoy these occasional dips back into that world, but my reading has dwindled to whatever Fantastic Four adjacent books there are (like the revived Marvel 2-in-1, which has clearly been a lead-in to bringing back the FF proper) along with whatever Brian K. Vaughn and Jonathan Hickman are up to at Image Comics. And that has been it. I might also read whatever the latest Marvel Even series is, but those have grown tiring and repetitive. And the constant churn of “status quo” changes that are not all that surprising or even that long lasting are not that interesting to read. See: the recent, and awful, Secret Empire series or the lackluster Civil War II.
Now, though, the Fantastic Four proper are coming back, with a whole host of cover variants, special covers on other books, and god knows what else. And while a big part of me is excited about this turn of events, another part of me wonders if this should be my chance to get out of completely? Leave before the FF are back and, like Michael Corleone, I get pulled back in deeper?
I could finally get out of the hobby, or at the very least do a final culling and scaling back of my pulls. Go once a month to the shop? Or maybe set some sort of cutoff for my collection? I love the stories…but I was finally scaling back my hobbies and collection acquisitions!! But now…especially if the Fantastic Four come into the MCU proper…
More things to mull over as I prepare to uproot my life once again and move (more about that in a future post).
My abiding love of the Cosmic Quartet, for all the reasons listed above and so many more, makes it difficult to step away. And maybe scaling back my reading to just the FF is what I should do…but the collector and completionist in me makes that hard to do. I know this about myself. I will always have that impulse. That drive. That itch to be “complete” or at the very least make a list and work to check things off it. As the song from Oklahoma! goes, “with me, it’s all of nothing.” There isn’t anything in-between.
So what is a boy to do?
* * *
In February of 2017 an article was published on SyFy (ugh) Wire titled “Why America Needs the Fantastic Four Now More Than Ever.” The TL;DR of the story is that in our current social and political climate (which has only grown more fractious and fraught in the 1 ½ years since it was published) is that at this moment in time we need the type of heroism and optimism represented by the Fantastic Four. The sense of awe and wonder of the world around us. A respect for the principles of science and rationality. A deep love of others and diversity, along with a big picture view of “family.” (While the core of the group are three people related by blood or marriage, and an “uncle,” so many more people have been a part of the team and are rightfully considered family, including: Black Panther, Story, She-Hulk, Ant-Man [Scott Lang], Spider-Man, She-Thing, Wyatt Wingfoot…and the list goes on and on…). And it is notable that some of the team’s most powerful and memorable foes (including Dr. Doom, Galactus, Namor, and many others), have also from time to time been allies, showing that maybe, just maybe, we are better working together rather than fighting.
Just as Reed Richards was the scientist I aspired to be as a nerd growing up, the FF modeled so much else of what we aspire to be as a people (or at least what I think we should aspire to be). They modeled so many of the best values of 1960s America that gave birth to the group: wonder and awe, love and acceptance, adventure and exploration as ends unto themselves, not means to other ends.
The piece on SyFy (UGH!) Wire dives into this much more, but the title is not just click bait, it is truth. We need roles models like Reed, Sue, Ben, and Johnny (yes, even him). And while I never had people or characters that I would list when asked in school who I considered my “role models,” but what I realize now is that the FF were some of my biggest role models not called “dad.”
The FF reinforced those values instilled in me by my parents (and Star Trek), and which continue to be guiding stars in my life. Which is why every crappy movie that is made from the property hurts like a thousand little cuts, and their absence from my pull list has been hard from both an emotional and nostalgic level, but also freeing in that I don’t have that same drive to collect.
But now they are set to return and, of course, I will pick the issue up. How can I not? Issue #650 will release around year’s end, and how can I not add that to my collection? It would be a betrayal of my childhood self and the person that the First Family, the Cosmic Quartet, the Fantastic Four…Reed, Sue, Johnny, and Ben…taught me to aspire to be.
A good person, a better person, true to yourself, and loving of those around you. For they are all family.
In the words of Stan Lee: Excelsior.