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Mark Waid’s Run on the Fantastic Four – Vol. 1-3 (Hardcover) (Review/Retrospective)

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Fantastic Four, I’m taking a look at some of the stories featuring the characters over the past half-century.

The Fantastic Four helped launch Marvel to publishing greatness over the 100+ issues drafted by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, but they’ve seldom occupied a prominent place in their publishing line-up since that dramatic introduction. Sure, the title earned a place as one of the three Ultimate on-going titles (at least before Ultimatum) and sure, there were occasionally hugely successful and iconic runs like that of John Byrne, but these were the exception rather than the rule. The title never really reached a stage like the X-Men, Spider-Man or even Avengers books (in modern Marvel), where they were clearly the title to watch. While I’m not entirely convinced he succeeded, Mark Waid is consciously trying to find a definitive approach to the title. And I respect that.

The adoring public…

In fairness, Mark Waid’s run on the title is aware of the difficulties that the Fantastic Four face as a franchise. One of those great runs published at Marvel in the early part of the last decade, while Grant Morrison was writing New X-Men, Brian Bendis was on Daredevil, Peter Milligan was on X-Force and Marvel was just getting ready to realign the Avengers franchise, Waid didn’t necessarily want to tear down what came before – he just wanted to acknowledge that the title was at a very volatile point in its history.

It wasn’t under threat of cancellation, or anything so dramatic. Instead, the threat was one of ennui. The argument has been made (without offense to the countless writers on the title since) that very little has changed with the Fantastic Four since that original run by Lee and Kirby. Included in the hardcover collection is a sample from Waid’s “Fantastic Four Manifesto”:

There have been many, many great FF stories written in the last thirty years – many of them probably better than anything I’ll ever write – but taken as a body of work, this series is and always has been INSANELY reverent to 1967. And because of this, because so many well-intentioned writers have invested so much energy in recreating and preserving “The Way It Was”, Fantastic Four the comic is just tired. Worn out and endlessly repetitive – and, sadly, obviously so.

Being honest, I think he has a fair point.

Prepare to meet your Doom!

By the way, it’s interesting to note how many comic book series at Marvel during this period began with a revolutionary manifesto, determined to radically overhaul what came before. Morrison’s New X-Men collections come with his own “manifesto” included. I wonder if every major relaunch features a document that must be phrased in such radical language, or if this was a sign of the times – Marvel moving into a new millennium and genuinely willing to take risks with their properties. It’s the kind of thing I really wish we saw a bit more often.

Anyway, Waid opens his comic with the Fantastic Four in a bit of a crisis of relevance. “Their licensing revenue is down twenty-two percent from last year,” we’re informed, as if Waid is making his pitch for his overhaul inside the very comic, directed at the audience. “Wizard hasn’t hot-picked their comic for months.” Even Reed, one of the smartest men on the planet, realises that the group need to be updated and to stay with the times, lest they be relegated to pop culture nostalgia. “People like us who don’t periodically reinvent ourselves are too quickly forgotten,” he reminds his family.

Packs a punch…

In fact, it’s interesting how completely Waid restructures the group, and places them outside their comfort zone. The excellent Colin Smith wrote a rather wonderful article on how Marvel Comics superheroes have gone from anti-establishment figures to being the establishment, but I think the Fantastic Four have always been establishment heroes. They occupy a skyscraper in central New York and run their own gift shop (“wish the Avengers had a gift shop,” one kid mutters… and I wouldn’t be surprised if they currently do).

So, while Marvel was busily working to integrate various superheroes into the framework of the Marvel Universe – with Tony Stark building an Avengers skyscraper in the middle of Manhattan (first announced in New Avengers) and mutant culture becoming popular (in New X-Men and X-Force) – Waid tries to dismantle the Fantastic Four, so that we may get an idea of how they work. The group’s international antics in Authoritative Action, for example, serves to make them social pariahs. In sharp contrast to the love and respect that they generally receive from the public, Waid has the group treated as freaks, and has them bumped way down the list of superheroes the Mayor of New York wants on board to combat the latest massive threat.

Good God!

Waid also dismantles the group (before Avengers Dissassembled made that popular), having Reed drive the family apart, and creating rather large divides between the members. At one point, the Thing is gone and Johnny has left the group, while Reed is still suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.The clear idea seems to be to give the audience a feel for how the group works, and why they work together so well.

It’s fascinating that Waid devotes so much time in the saga to the powers of the Fantastic Four. Characters are constantly de-powered and repowered and powers are swapped. At one point, Sue and Johnny switch powers for an arc. At another, the group is completely de-powered. Reed’s elasticity isn’t able to repair the scars that Doom inflicts upon it. Indeed, we spend a significant portion of the first issue being informed that – despite how cool their powers might seem – the “gifts” that the characters have might not be gifts at all. They’re scary and freaky and abnormal – for example, we’re told that Reed stretching sounds like “that noise made when you drag your hand over a balloon.”

Four of a kind…

Indeed, one of the smartest things that Waid does occurs early on, as Reed explains to his daughter Valeria why the Fantastic Four are seen as iconic heroes, rather than a bunch of deformed freaks – the rather fascinating dichotomy that always existed between the X-Men and the Fantastic Four, and one I’ve always wondered about. Why are those who gain powers naturally hated and feared more than those who earn them through freakish accidents? The answer, Waid suggests, is because the X-Men don’t have Reed Richards running their marketing. Talking to his young daughter, Reed explains that he created the brand of the Fantastic Four, as “he knew that would keep people from fearing them.”

There’s a remarkable volume of character work here, fulfilling Waid’s promise to “make it about people, not about costumes.” Indeed, Marv Wolfman observed of the run:

Mark went back to the inspiration of how we remember those early FF stories and re-created that without ever doing what had been done before. Also, he did it without immediately bringing back some old villain. More importantly, he has gone further than anyone, Stan included, to make us care about the core FF characters as well as the stories they’re in. For the first time, perhaps ever, I have a clue to who the characters are.

However, as strong as his character work is, I think it only really worked because Waid returned to the spirit of that initial run, rather than its ideas or its format. Sure, Doctor Doom and Galactus appear here (and, in the most disappointing story, the Frightful Four), but Waid takes the character pretty far outside their comfort zones.

Take it as Reed…

In short, rather than having the Fantastic Four return to the Negative Zone or retread old plots or engage in the same sort of knock-down brawls they’ve been doing for years, Waid actually makes them explorers again. The thing about exploring is that it’s not safe, it involves doing something new, and taking risks. If the Fantastic operate only within the lines drawn by their creators, I’m not sure that they can really be called “explorers.”

However, Waid doesn’t focus on sending them to alternate dimensions. He doesn’t have them time-travel. Instead, he places them outside their comfort zones. Reed Richards, man of science, gets tied up in political affairs and spirituality in the issues collected here. Doom isn’t the mad scientist that the group have faced (and vanquished) time and time again, he’s now a magician and a sorcerer.

It’s not all Doom and gloom…

Reed gets a lot of flack, and has made a lot of mistakes (in fact, it was his mistake which gave the Four their powers), but Waid acknowledges the power of the character – his integrity and the appeal of his scientific approach. When Galactus becomes human, he is not convinced to spare Earth by appeals to cultural values or the beauty of life or any existential nonsense, it’s Reed’s scientific arguments about the potential of mankind that sway him. Similarly, it’s Reed’s rational philosophy – rather than the emotion appeals of his colleagues – which gets the group admitted to Heaven. It’s a nice, well-rounded approach to the character, one which acknowledges his difficulty with expressing emotion (but not with feeling it), while conceding the approach has other merits.

Magic and religion move Reed outside his comfort zone. The Thing rightly mocks Reed for his insistence magic doesn’t exist, suggesting he dislikes it “’cause when people throw it around, it’s th’ only time you aint’t the smartest guy in the room.” Indeed, Sue is very clear to define the religious elements of the series as something which can’t be rationalised away with science. “It’s not the ‘afterverse’,” she tells Reed. “It’s a domain of spiritual faith.” The core of Reed’s emotional journey here is one of character growth and development. Indeed, by the end of the run, Reed has come to terms with the fact that “there are higher forces that bind us.” And Waid is sharp enough that Reed’s newfound faith doesn’t disturb or distort his scientific curiosity – the two can exist in tandem (especially in the Marvel Universe).

Having a blast…

Indeed, each of the characters gets a great deal of development under Waid. Ben Grimm comes to term with his powers, as unpleasant as they might be. Sue Storm comes to respect and appreciate just how much restraint her brother must have in order to control his flame throwing powers. Even Johnny grows up, just a little bit, as he’s granted “cosmic sight” and entire civilisations hinge on his decisions.

However, the most controversial characterisation of Waid’s run seems to be that of Victor Von Doom. Waid mercilessly deconstructs the myth that Doom is a man of honor. “By the way,” Waid tells us in his manifesto, “the truism that Victor Von Doom is, despite his villainy, a noble man in absolute crap.” Indeed, Waid shows a Doom who would gladly feed the love of his life to a horde of hungry demons if it gave him a slightly better shot at taking down Reed Richards.

Johnny was getting quite good at burning Ben…

In this run, Waid gives a chance to see Victor take off the gloves, and come at Reed with more power and intensity than ever before. Waid himself acknowledges that it would be stupid to think of it as an “ultimate” confrontation (as Doom is back by the end of the next arc), but he still has a thing or two to say. Waid’s Reed is smart enough to realise that saving Doom from Hell would be a stupid decision, but also that “this pointless game” between the two will never really end. The best Reed can do is accept a “stalemate”, which is something Doom is not smart enough to embrace.

Still, there’s a sense of genuine consequence to the actions that we witness. Waid explores, for example, what happens to Latvaria after the fall of Doom, and has Reed embrace his own responsibility for the sovereign nation, staging a unilateral foreign intervention. It’s actually a really brave move for a superhero comic, turning the Fantastic Four into dictators over a small country, trying to facilitate a move towards democracy – it’s never too dark or edgy, but it’s well-thought out and a fascinating look at the politics of power (even if that power isn’t democratic). Asked to justify himself, Reed suggests, “We’re in charge because we’re responsible.” It’s interesting to see what happens when you follow that fundamental idea to its logical extreme.

Thing about town…

Truth be told, the run isn’t all gold. In particular, the Frightful Four arc feels like the generic “Fantastic Four fight old adversaries” story that Waid was trying so desperately to avoid retelling. And, while I appreciate the attempt to tie Galactus’s origin thematically to that of the Fantastic Four (“that’s our origin,” Johnny remarks, “but it’s also yours…”), I’m not convinced that it was for the best. It seems a little simplistic.

Also, Waid does occasionally veer a little too close to soap opera, with Johnny being set up to fail by two corrupt underlings being a prime example. Still, this is the exception rather than the rule, and I do like the fact that Waid explicitly put aside two issues to explore the aftermath of Unthinkable, which it’s easy to imagine another writer might simply have brushed over, or dealt with quietly in the background. It’s clear that actions have reactions and consequences, and that’s a great part of Waid’s run.

Spider-Man swings by…

Towards the end of the run, Waid cultivates the sense that this is a time of upheaval at Marvel. Things are brewing and changing. The Avengers have disappeared, superheroes are not trusted unquestioningly. It’s a wonderful time, and one might suggest that Waid is trying to suggest his run was a prelude to all the difficulties that would come, with stories like Authoritative Action serving as a thematic lead-in to Civil War. It’s a nice touch, but it just makes it sadder that Waid’s run was cut short by controversy.

It’s not a perfect run, but it’s a strong one. I especially like Mike Wieringo’s cartoonish pencils, which suit the material perfectly. Perhaps the appeal of the run can be boiled down to a single panel, as Reed and his companions prepare to make a journey to heaven itself. “So what happens?” Johnny asks. “Do we have a two o’clock with God? Do I get fitted for a harp and a halo?” Reed replies, “Your guess is as good as mine.” That’s the wonderful thing about exploration – you never know where it might take you. At its very best, Waid’s Fantastic Four captured that spirit perfectly.

3 Responses

  1. I agree with a lot of what is said in this article about Waid’s run. However, there are a couple of things with which I do not.

    The first is the openeing notion that hte Fanatastic Four “seldom occupied a prominent place in their publishing line-up.” While it is true that., with the advent of the X-Men’s rise in the late 70s, the Fantastic Four has slowly faded in prominence, for the first decade of Marvel’s prominence as a comic publishing company, the Fantastic Four was considered the Flagship of the company, matched only by Spiderman.

    Second, Waid’s take on Von Doom, was, imo, “crap”. It was the notion that Doom had a code of honor at all which moved him from being a one-dimensional, tedious bore. Marvel separated itself from its Distinguished Competition by emphasizing depth of characterization, not only for its heroes, but for its villains as well.

    Reducing Doom to a souless, revenge-at-all-costs killer of Valeria completely spit in the face of the notion that Doom had any depths or motivations outside of making Reed pay for possibly being smarter that he.

    Doom is arguably Marvel’s greatest villain. Reduce him down to a bloodthirsty Reed killer, without any other depths, and yoiu destroy any rational reason for him to appear in any comic outside of the Fantastic Four. Parochializing (like that word? I think I just made it up!) Doom makes the greater marvel Universe that much more poorer.

    Waid made great contributions. I just don’t agree that his mischaracterizing of Von Doom as an homorless, souless beast was one of them.

    • Apologies about the opening line. I meant to include the word “since.” Sorry I cited Kirby and Lee’s Fantastic Four as the defining take on the characters, but forget to clarify that I was only referring to the writers who followed. I’ve added the word back in and updated. Apologies.

      As for Doom, it’s very much a case of different strokes for different folks.

      I can see why some people would think that Waid’s take on Doom “ruins” him as a villain, but personally I have little problem with it. I like the idea that Doom – like Luthor – is the hero of his own story. A benign leader who makes tough calls to protect those who aren’t smart enough to realise how great he is. If sacrifices have to be made, well… that’s unfortunate, but one must never second-guess one’s self.

      Then again, I’m not a huge stickler. I like a whole range of wildly incompatible versions of various characters. I like Mark Millar’s disengaged Reed Richards and John Byrne’s thoughtful patriarch. They might as well be two different characters, but I can appreciate both. I might prefer Byrne’s Richards to that of Millar, or Waid’s Doom to that of Byrne, but it doesn’t mean I have to choose one over the other. I can recognise each take on its own merits.

      (It takes a lot to make me truly and passionately hate a take on a character. Brad Meltzer’s Wonder Woman stands out, and Kevin Smith’s Bruce Wayne. But generally I’m willing to let a writer take me into their vision of a particular character and their world.)

  2. I’ll be honest, despite what Waid said about the character, I don’t think it translated into action– his Doom is pretty consistent with prior takes on the character. Although some of his actions in “Unthinkable” and “Authoritative Action” are quite cruel, Doom is written by Waid as the same multidimensional character he’s always been. When Victor uses Valeria’s skin to create his armor, for example, he feels genuine remorse. “Dear, dear Valeria,” he says, “I will miss you more than any will ever imagine…” Furthermore, in “Authoritative Action,” Waid has the Fantastic Four state that Doom did care for the people for Latveria, as has been established by other writers. It’s just the nature of the relationship that Waid takes certain creative license with, as he has Reed state that Doom basically viewed his Latverian subjects like pets– in other words, he cared for them, but viewed them as lesser than him (I suspect he felt similarly about Valeria). Which is pretty consistent with Doom’s worldview, isn’t it? He thinks he’s better than EVERYBODY!

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