So I was reading, a few weeks ago, about the most recent Fantastic Four movie. You know, the Josh Trank one that everybody hated so much. Now, I haven’t seen that movie. But this piece I was reading about the production, Trank’s original intentions for it, and how it got turned into the film that was actually released, was fascinating. I’d link out to it, but it was one of those things you read in passing, and now I can’t seem to find it again. But the details ultimately aren’t that important, anyway. I mean, I was intrigued that Trank wanted to explore the idea of the Fantastic Four as body horror (an interesting take that’s actually pretty true to the series’ earliest issues). But mostly, I was taken with the discussion of Trank’s thought process as he went about figuring out how to reboot the FF for a modern audience. That got me thinking about what I would do, given the task of rebooting my favorite super-team from scratch.
So I made a few notes. It was fun. But the idea wouldn’t quite leave my head. In my spare time over the following weeks, I made more notes. An idea here, an idea there. A feverish three-hour brainstorming session that fleshed out my larger themes into a long-term plan for a relaunched funnybook series. Next thing I knew, I had 14 typed, single-spaced pages of this stuff, complete with character profiles and plot outlines for maybe a couple of years’ worth of storylines. And I’d barely gotten past the original series’ first six issues.
I think it’s safe to say that I was feeling inspired. But even still, that’s an awful lot of time to spend on what amounts to creative masturbation. I mean, the chances of me ever actually getting to relaunch the Fantastic Four from scratch, Ultimate Universe style, are essentially zero. But since I’ve got all this stuff written… And since my Thanksgiving vacation has put me impossibly behind in getting a normal column done this week… I figure I might as well share it in the forum I’ve made for myself to write about funnybooks. Not that I want to turn the nerd farm into a fan fiction outlet. But just this once… What the hell, right?
Now, please keep in mind that what follows isn’t especially well-structured. I’ve just polished my notes up, to ensure that they make sense to someone who doesn’t actually live inside my head. This is just the groundwork part of it, too. The base concepts the book would be built on. Character and plot will have to wait. So here we go: my take on the World’s Greatest Comic Magazine.
PART ONE: THE RULES
First things first: There are a few rules we need to lay down before we can get into the nitty gritty. Absolute truths about the Fantastic Four that inform everything else. The biggest of these being…
RULE 1: The Fantastic Four ARE NOT Super Heroes.
At least, not in the traditional sense. They don’t monitor, patrol, or fight crime. They were not formed to save the world. If they run across a threat to the world/city/society, they will of course fight it. But they don’t seek those threats out, and in fact find them a distraction from their true purpose. Which brings us to…
RULE 2: The Fantastic Four ARE Scientific Explorers.
Our Heroes don’t set out to fight bad guys, but they do set out to invent new stuff and explore interesting places.
The best FF stories are about BIG ideas and a sense of discovery. Most of the time, stories should introduce a new invention/experiment/exotic person/place to explore, develop a mystery about the nature of it, and climax with a big reveal about the most recent awesome thing. Awe and wonder should always be the order of the day.
RULE 3: Family.
Much is made of the FF family dynamic, and that is key to what makes them tick. Not much more needs to be said there, except that I’d like to expand on the web of relationships within that family, so that everyone has a meaningful relationship with everyone else. Then you can extend that family to friends, lovers, and etc. And the first character I’d like to add to that extended family is Dr. Doom. But I’ll cover that in the character profiles, if we get to them.
RULE 4: Actions Have Consequences.
This is a key lesson of the FF’s origin story. Reed takes the rocket up without proper shielding, and his best friend gets turned into a monster. Apply that lesson down the line, and all sorts of story possibilities open up. If they discover Attilan, for instance, would Reed try to convince the Inhumans to join the UN? And would he volunteer to mentor their chosen ambassador while they acclimate to human society? Or, faced with a character like the Puppet Master (father of his best friend’s girlfriend), would Reed attempt to rehabilitate him, and find a way to turn his mind control techniques to the greater good? Now, this is a lot of focus on Reed, I realize. But that’s because of…
RULE 5: It’s All About Reed.
While the FF is very much an ensemble piece, the central figure around whom the ensemble orbits is Reed Richards. He leads the team, provides the impetus and inspiration for all their various adventures, and is the common link for all the relationships that grow out of the team’s existence. It’s also in Reed that the book finds its most compelling theme: all the different ways genius can go wrong. We see this primarily in the various twisted mirror image villains they face (the Wizard, the Mad Thinker, Doom), all of whom are sort of “There but for the grace of God” versions of Reed himself. But we also see it in one of Reed’s major scientific obsessions: the Negative Zone. Speaking of which…
The Zone is satisfying to me thematically as the ultimate black mirror for Reed’s inner struggle. It’s a place of entropy and decay, where reason has given way to nihilism. There’s a massive black hole at its center, slowly drawing everything in, endless nothing inexorably winning the battle against infinity (if I can limber up the cosmic prose muscles a bit). Reed’s obsession with this place should be front and center from the get-go. It mirrors the void within him, a void he normally fills with friends and family. That’s what holds him together, what distracts him from the abyss he spends so much time staring into. The Negative Zone is that abyss staring back.
All that said, I’m not a fan of the “Evil Reed” stuff.
But they’ve been tossing around the idea that genius = evil an awful lot in 21st Century Marvel comics, turning their geniuses and mentors into assholes and villains. Sometimes it gets to the point that the whole universe feels kid of anti-intellectual. That’s the exact opposite of what the Fantastic Four’s supposed to be about. This is a book that should always celebrate genius. Which brings us to…
PART TWO: TONE
Getting the tone right is a huge part of making the Fantastic Four work. It’s not a book like Batman, where you can fall back on gothic cool even if your ideas are a little weak. No, with the FF, you’ve got to get it just right. You’ve got to nail the personalities while not letting them settle into stereotypes. You’ve got to speak to the family dynamic without letting it get cute. And if your ideas ARE weak, you’re doomed from the get-go. Because this is a book that lives and dies by ideas, by big weird new things for the team to discover and punch. If you can’t deliver on that, you’re not someone who needs to be writing the Fantastic Four.
There is the problem of modernizing that kind of approach, of course, but I think there are examples to follow on that front. The way Brandon Graham handles the strange and uncanny in his work on Prophet, for instance, lends an air of weird mystery to concepts that could play as run-of-the-mill funnybook sci-fi. While I might not make things quite as… sexual… as Graham sometimes does, his approach to making the prosaic seem mythic is very much the sort of thing I’m thinking about for a modern updating of FF. I mean, he made me excited to see Badrock, for god’s sake…
…so I’d like to steal a little of that thunder, no matter how unlikely a source he seems to be.
An even more unlikely inspiration for me is Venture Brothers. While that show is often about undermining awe and wonder with humiliating reality (something I definitely don’t want to do here), they still do a nice job of presenting cool concepts while keeping them grounded in recognizable motivations, and that’s a good lesson to take away. You can have all the high-falutin’ ideas you want, but if you don’t connect with the audience on a human level, high-falutin’ ideas do you no good. So tone down the comedy, and Venture Brothers offers an engaging way of presenting a pulp hero universe. It may also be the best game in town when it comes to dealing with a messed up family dynamic that is, in spite of everything, based in love and friendship. Again, tone down the comedy. And the cynicism. And don’t make Reed Richards as big a douchebag as Rusty Venture (or, for that matter, Professor Impossible).
But the most unlikely inspiration… much as it pains me to say it… might very well be Josh Trank.
I know, I know! Just… Just hear me out.
Specifically, I’m increasingly fascinated by that whole “body horror” idea he was shooting for. As I said earlier, I’ve been looking really closely at the first six issues of Fantastic Four, and in that part of the run, let me tell you…
…Fantastic Four was all about some horror tropes. The Thing is a leathery orange lump. There are monsters and freaks and creepy alien shape-shifters everywhere. In the third issue, they fight an evil stage magician! Hell, even Dr. Doom is introduced as some kind of atomic-age alchemist. I mean, the first time we see him, he’s got a freaking VULTURE in his lab!
But the body horror. I’ve gone on at length about this aspect of the book before, and I think it’s something worth exploring. All of Our Heroes have freaky, dangerous, or psychologically-fascinating powers that alter their bodies in ways that say strange things about them. I’ll go into that a bit more below, but just in terms of tone, I’d like to present the changes they go through in as weird and upsetting a manner as possible (for a super hero comic). The first story arc could deal an awful lot with the team’s powers, how they work, and the psychological effects. Why does Sue Storm want to disappear? Does Johnny have to overcome panic attacks the first few times he flames on? Does Reed get all into contorting himself in horrifying ways, just for the novelty of it? And Ben. Oh, dear god, Ben. Even just figuring out his physiology (ala Paul Chadwich’s Concrete) is fodder for some great weirdness, and that’s leaving out the horror of suddenly finding yourself transformed into a lumpy orange monster.
While I don’t want to literally turn the FF into a horror comic, I do think a certain David Lynch air in regard to the team’s strange transformations could go a long way toward getting the audience’s mind right for all the weird grandeur to follow. I mean, if you’re used to looking at something as basic as the heroes’ powers as wonders (or violations) of nature, it’ll be that much easier to maintain the mood when you get to the stuff that’s genuinely mind-blowing.
I dunno. I guess I just want to give the book back its sense of danger and mystery, that feeling that what you’re seeing is strange and unique and very much worth getting excited about. That sense of the uncanny is ultimately what attracts me to Jack Kirby’s work, and it’s something the Fantastic Four comic should always strive for.
PART THREE: ORIGINS AND POWERS
I don’t want to go into the nuts and bolts of the origin story here; I tell that story piecemeal in the character profiles, which I may get to later. But there are larger concerns to consider. One thing that seems obvious to me, for instance, is that the origin does need some updating. The original space shot just isn’t science-with-a-capital-SCIENCE enough for the modern era. We’ve been to outer space in reality, after all, and while the International Space Station is hardly mundane, it’s also not in the future any longer. I toyed with the idea of a deep space mission, but that complicates the team’s return to Earth. So I’m going with mankind’s first excursion into another dimension: the Negative Zone.
And I wouldn’t trigger their powers with Cosmic Rays (which we already kind of know don’t turn you into a lumpy orange monster), but with THE POWER COSMIC. Which, yes, brings Galactus into the origin, too. But Galactus is not something you just spring on the audience right at the outset (sorry, Mr. Trank). He’s something you build to, a simmering mystery for the team to solve over time. So they get exposed to the Power Cosmic upon breaching the dimensional barrier, come back transformed, and slowly learn the exact nature of what’s happened over time. They also learn more about the Zone, finding out what it is and why it exists. And then, in the course of all those discoveries, they finally hear the name “Galactus.”
(Yes, I know Galactus isn’t traditionally associated with the Negative Zone. But I have some ideas for the slow burn of the Galactus reveal that tie them together. I haven’t written those ideas down yet, mind you. So they’ll have to wait.)
Another thing I’d like to change about the origin is the role Johnny and Sue play in the rocket flight. Because, well… It doesn’t make a damn bit of sense for Reed to take along his girlfriend and her kid brother (can you say, “Reckless Endangerment”?).
Most modern takes on the FF fix this problem by making Sue and/or Johnny scientists. But that makes the cast too similar for my taste. It also leaves you with this dynamic where they’re all scientific geniuses, but Reed is just better at it than everybody else. So I’d rather retain some of the “ragtag crew” aspect of the original, but draw on the characters’ history to find roles for everyone that allow them to be geniuses in their own right. I go into this in more detail in the character profiles, but briefly…
Reed’s the mastermind behind the whole thing.
Ben (as in the original) serves as pilot.
Johnny (based on his on-again off-again love of hot rodding) is the mechanic.
And Sue… is problematic. Looking back over the history of the FF, Sue has never been given any real interests or skills outside of being the Invisible Woman. She’s a wife and mother, she often serves as the team’s voice of reason, and she dabbled once or twice in fashion modeling. But otherwise… There’s just not much there. So what do you do with her? If you make her a scientist who can match wits with Reed, you’re horning in on the only thing that makes Reed useful and unique. And if you make her a scientist, but not as good a scientist as Reed, then you’ve made Sue second-rate.
So I’d take her out of the technical side of things altogether. I’d make her a writer, selected for the Negative Zone Breach mission because Reed wants someone along who’s better than him at communication, someone with the clarity, vision, and gift for language to properly explain their work to the world. It’s a support role, admittedly, but “support” is pretty much Sue’s defining characteristic. And though I recognize that some would say it isn’t as important as scientific genius… I think those people are wrong. Sue’s artistic genius is what makes her Reed’s peer, and the contrast between them is what gives their relationship the friction it needs to be a convincing romance. It also makes her our narrator, a role that puts her front and center in every story. At the very least, it’s better than being compared to Abe Lincoln’s mother…
If you’re reading this at all, you undoubtedly already know what the Fantastic Four’s powers are. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing interesting to say about them. I’ve always liked the idea that each of them got powers that reflect their personalities. I’ve also always been fond of the argument that their abilities are a rough reflection of the elements. Put those two things together, and I think you can find some interesting ways to understand their characters, and figure out how they’ll react in a given situation. So here’s a rundown of their abilities, and what I think they say about them as characters.
Reed Richards: Stretchy Smart Guy.
Reed’s fluid intellect is mirrored in his malleable form. Just as his mind is constantly shifting and changing in response to new data, now his body does the same. On our rough elemental scale, that makes Reed water. So he’s quick to adapt and tends to embrace change. Much like water flowing to find a level, he goes wherever his interests take him. Also much like water, he’s hard to stop once he gets going. And if he works on a problem (or person) long enough, he will eventually wear it down.
Johnny Storm: Fire Bro.
Johnny’s volatile emotions are expressed in his flames. He’s quick to anger and to love, and dangerous to cross in either situation. But the hotter he burns, the quicker he burns outs. But he also provides warmth and friendship when he’s not burning out of control. Of course, there’s also the more common meaning of “flamer” to consider. But that might be a bit too on the nose, even for this book. Still… Gay Johnny Storm is something worth considering.
Sue Storm: Invisible Introvert.
Sue is a woman of quiet reserve, an introvert more comfortable communicating through writing than speech. Not many people see her, but through the strength of her words, they know she’s there. She’s also very protective of others, often putting the needs of loved ones before her own. So she gets invisibility and force fields, which on the elemental scale makes her air. She tends to quietly surround the people in her life, sometimes cool and comforting, but also sometimes stifling. She can make her presence known when she wants to, though. And if she really gets angry… you’d best seek shelter.
Ben Grimm: Walking Rock Pile.
What a great, complicated, messed up character. On the one hand, he’s solid, strong, dependable Ben. Earth all the way, super-tough and super-strong. Always there when you need him. Literally the rock of the team. But on the other hand… If his personality has shaped his abilities… Why has he made himself a monster? Certainly, he’s a died-in-the-wool fatalist, convinced that no matter how great something might be, there’s always gotta be a downside. And you could make a pretty good case that he eventually develops into something of a manic-depressive, veering back and forth between being a cheerful curmudgeon and a self-pitying wreck. So maybe he just had the bad luck to get hit with the cosmic rays during a depressive phase. But in the earliest FF stories, Ben’s a dangerous character. He’s angry, bitter, and a little bit crazy. You never know when he might turn on the team.
Or, you know, become Blackbeard.
So maybe there’s something monstrous lurking inside him, too, and that’s just being reflected in his lumpy orange hide.
(An aside: I should note that I consider all that “elemental” talk up there to be subtext. It’s not something you’d ever actually use in-story. Reed’s body is not literally made of water, and Sue’s force fields don’t really work like wind. It’s just a rough approximation to inform character development.)
One other thing about the team’s powers being shaped by their personalities, and vice versa: there’s some precedent for their abilities changing slightly over time. Sue gets her force fields pretty late in the game, for instance, and Ben’s appearance changes gradually over time. It might be fun to play around with all four of them, though, making slight alterations to their powers when they overcome personal problems or discover some new facet to themselves. You wouldn’t want to take it too far, of course, but subtle changes that you might not always even mention… That could be fun.
Alright. That’s it for now. If I still have any readers left at this point, I thank you for your indulgence. And if I don’t get too much hate mail for this first part, I’ll polish up my character and plot notes for next week. Until then… I dunno… go be fantastic or something, I guess…