Vera Maven versus the Fantastic Four

Meet Vera MavenIn which Vera Maven tries to find something new to say about a comic 50 years old.

Vera! So nice to see you again!

Likewise, Darling. Like and wise.

Two words for you: Fantastic Four.

Ooh! Three more for you: Fan. TAS. Tic!

I hear you can critique this comic book property and have noticed something that *everyone* has failed to see. Does this mean you actually like them?

Well, I like the *idea* of them. What a wonderful property, you know. “In one corner, someone invents a wonderful machine that goes horribly wrong, while in the other corner, two others prank themselves over sandwiches, and in-between the insanity, someone has to keep the peace… BOOM! Instant adventures! Just add exotic lands, miraculous science, strange aliens, et cetera et cetera.

Most people point out how ground-breaking this comic book was– how it has a legacy of literally re-inventing a genre and launching the Marvel comics’ “universe.” But what more can be done with them?

Legacy? I wave that away with my hand. Shoo! Legacies are for aging ball players who can’t let go of that Last Big Game. Why are you defining something in the present by how important it was in the past? If the Foursome REALLY are all about legacy, you might as well put them on the shelf next to the marbles and pogs. Because what you are really saying is that the Fanta-Four have nothing more to add to our conversation anymore! If you don’t have something to say, then really you should stop talking. (Fortunately, this has never been a problem por moi.)

So, then, what DO they say? What is this comic really ABOUT? Isn’t it just about “family” or maybe “exploration?”

Oh, my boy. Sit down, sit down. We’ve all heard ALL the TIME about the Big Themes of Family and Exploration. Very true, but very droll. I mean, those are both so SIMPLE, really. What? Just because these characters ARE, after all and in fact, a family, so the Big Theme must be … family? Mr. Fantastic’s “job” is a scientist/inventor, so the Big Theme must be … exploring science? But then, my dear, by that same token, Batman is a man, so his big theme is … “A Man?”

Actually, that’s kind of interesting. Batman’s quest could be seen as a kind of attempt to search for masculinity, as he acts upon whatever ideas he has of protectorship, mentorship–

Okay, okay. Don’t critique the critique, dear. What I MEAN is, one can’t just point to a wacky invention in a comic panel that turns into a portal for a new world and cry “exploration!” That’s just a plot set-up! Just *doing* exploration isn’t *enough,* in and of itself. In the same way, one can’t yell out “family!” and wave a page of plot around and expect a story to resonate with readers. This label of “family” isn’t a theme so much as it is a topic. So DON’T just have Mr F and the I-Woman kiss and hug to say the comic is all about “Family.” How about instead have plots and characters coming together and falling apart and intertwining with all KINDS of stuff in order to say something LARGER– like “family can be made of different kinds of people” or “family unity helps us overcome our challenges.” It’s a subtle difference, but one necessary to tell a good intellectual property from the bad.

And you are all about subtlety, aren’t you, Vera?

Don’t insinuate, dear boy. It’s unbecoming.

So… what are left with, then? A family who explores things? I thought you said you had something new to offer?

Not new, per se. To my pretty little eye everyone seems to be forgetting one very important detail. Think back. After all, even YOU have noticed the “legacy,” n’êtes-vous pas? What is the one feature of the team’s stories BESIDES family or exploration, something that was part and parcel of the book from the beginning? It seems we have all forgotten one of the Fantastic Four’s key themes is… Celebrity.

Fantastic Four #2 (1962)

Fantastic Four #2 (1962)

Fact: By the second page of the second issue, this is 1962, mind you, the FF are household names that every citizen knows. In “one of America’s most expensive jewelry stores,” Susan Storm is let inside and allowed to sample a “ten million dollars” worth diamond by virtue of her presence alone. So it’s more than just family or exploration that’s on display here– I mean yes there are aliens but the plot set-up depends on the Foursome’s celebrity. Issue Three features Miracle Man (calling our heroes celebrities!), whose whole purpose for turning to villainy is to try to trump the Fantastic Ones (a la the Wizard, in Strange Tales.)

Fantastic Four #3 (1962)

Fantastic Four #3 (1962)

It also features the the first appearance of their very own skyscraper and flying car. By Issue Six, the characters spend a whole page or so to answering fan mail, thereafter a recurring element, and by Issue Seven, they’re even invited to Congressional dinners! And can you guess? Their celebrity status grew and grew. And the characters kind of liked it.

Fantastic Four 24

Fantastic Four #24 (1963)

Yes, the big wedding Annual issue is about family, of course, but it’s just as much about celebrity, as the event becomes a media frenzy that would rival any royal wedding (or reality TV show, for that matter.)

Fantastic Four Annual 3

Fantastic Four Annual #3 (1965)

Perhaps it’s a SUBTLE thing, because it doesn’t drive the plots as much as the family or invention/exploration thingees, but there is a drive or a force of tone because of the celebrity element that’s in the background. These aren’t just the efforts of some work-a-day hero or even a hard-luck hero, whose efforts are noble but ultimately under the radar, but these are top-of-their-game, larger-than-life archetypical heroes with the whole world watching! So then, notice– there are two extremes at work here. One: a familiar family with quibbles and foibles like any family’s. And two: celebrities with fan mail, a lofty skyscraper house, and friends of kings and queens and alien Watchers.

This seems to be an important element to distinguish the Fantastic Four, but where is it lately? I sigh. Sigh! The stories (and they are some GREAT stories of course) take place entirely in the lofty, other-wordly skyscrapery castle for these larger-than-life figures. Contrast this to another famous super hero property all about “family” — The Incredibles. Their setting? The house next door. Where the bubble gum kid is wowed every day by the, well, incredible people around him. Occasionally, we’d see some citizens in New York reacting in a very bubble-gum-kid kind of way in those early FF issues, but I’d have a hard time remembering a similar scene in today’s pages.

You might have better luck with the recent book FF, featured in Fantastic Four: New Departures, New Arrivals and FF: Fantastic Faux (Kindle editions)

FFnewarrivalsFFfantasticfaux

Here, an alternative Fantastic Four take up the roles of our original foursome, and while the emphasis is on the “extended family” of a school of gifted youngsters, there’s a nice undercurrent of public spectacle running throughout.

It’s been a while since we had an Avengers Day parade, even.

Perhaps that’s the thing– the celebrity angle has been co-opted by a certain Iron Man. Certainly his movies have allowed him a degree of celebrity that the Fantastic Four’s cinematic offerings have yet to rival. For that reason Tony Stark is the Marvel Universe’s go-to guy for hi-tech hijinks. He’s the Marvel’s Apple products to Mr. Fantastic’s Sony.

So what’s the final word?

Ah! Claps all around, I say, but only small little golf claps, five in total. As a core concept, the Fantastic Four is a brilliant property ripe for adventures as well as comedy and complex interaction. They are primed for imagination and exploration. But as vibrant as the colors are, the truth is only the same picture is being painted over and over, and a key ingredient of being “celebrity” is too often overlooked, failing to give context to the remaining elements. Until we can get more momentum and change of status quo, and more commentary on the nature of celebrity in a heroic age, I can only give them three out of five flying bathtubs.

That’s still better than one!

And more than I will ever have, I’m afraid.

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