So here we are again. Nobody burned the nerd farm down after last week’s excursion into fan fiction (in fact, I appreciate the kindness a few of you showed it). So we’re back for Round Two. But if you were fortunate enough to have missed that first part, you can go here to read it now.
The gist of it, though, is that a discussion I ran across of Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four movie got me thinking rather vigorously about what I would do if given the task of rebooting the Fantastic Four. Fourteen pages of notes later, I realized that was an awful lot of creative masturbation, so I decided to share my thoughts here. Last time, I laid down the groundwork, delving into my thoughts on the philosophy and tone the book should have, as well as outlining a few changes I’d make to bring the story into the 21st Century.
But now it’s time to get down to details. I had planned on covering both plot and character here, but then I realized that would make far too long a column. So instead, we’re just going to do character profiles, and — assuming there’s still interest — cover the plots in a third (and final, I promise) installment.
My notes are a bit more raw here than in last week’s installment. While I polished them a bit, the prose tends to be a bit more utilitarian (meaning sometimes I’m speaking in phrases rather than complete sentences). That being the case, it’s also a bit more… straightforward? …than last week’s more conceptual stuff. Which is to say, it’s got fewer jokes. Hope it’s still entertaining reading. Anyway. Here we go…
First up, we have a look at what I consider to be the Fantastic Four’s primary cast: our four heroes…
…Dr. Doom, and Namor. If those last two seem like odd additions, you should go back and re-read the first couple of years of Fantastic Four sometime. Doom and the Submariner were popping up every two or three issues back then, with Namor’s story arc over that time feeling especially like part of the ongoing saga. I see no reason not to maintain that tradition for him, and to give Doom a similar arc. And in modern comics storytelling terms, that means making them part of the continuing cast, rather than recurring villains who keep popping up with new threats.
I think that might especially help Doom, who’s become seriously diluted over time because he’s been defeated so damn many times. If he’s a constant background threat, never winning utterly, but also never being thoroughly trounced, he’s more effective in the long term. John Byrne did something similar with Lex Luthor in his 1986 Superman reboot. So if it helps wrap your mind around the idea, try thinking of it in the soap opera terms that inspired Byrne in the first place: nobody remembers the good guys on Dallas, but everybody remembers JR Ewing.
There’s also a shorter section at the end discussing a handful of important supporting characters. They don’t get as much space for obvious reasons, but I had some ideas, so I jotted them down.
Anyway. The profiles follow a simple format: a list of personality traits followed by some personal history leading up to their appearance in the story. With the FF themselves, that history tells the team’s origin story in pieces (a fractured narrative effect worth emulating in-story). You’ll also notice that all the profiles (except, significantly, Namor’s) follow one of my core FF rules: everybody knows Reed. Speaking of whom…
REED RICHARDS, aka MISTER FANTASTIC
Prone to arrogance.
Needs “regular people” to keep him grounded.
Surrounds himself with friends and trusted confidants, sometimes to accusations of nepotism.
Reed’s parents (Nathaniel and Evelyn Richards) were sort of pulp heroes, adventurers and explorers. Reed grew up at their side, trotting around the globe, his life a maelstrom of adventure. This left him poorly-socialized, but simultaneously worldly and brave. Educated as a child by his parents. Both disappeared (and were presumed dead) on an expedition investigating a “warm spot” in the Arctic.
At age 25, left with no family and a small personal fortune, Reed decided to pursue formal education. Seeking the sort of friendships he’d never had the chance to cultivate when he was younger, he stayed in the dorms. There, he roomed with football star Ben Grimm, and the two became lifelong friends. In spite of Ben’s constant attempts to socialize Reed, he achieved his Bachelors and Masters degrees in about three years. Studied at the Doctoral level under Dr. Frank Storm. Practically a member of the Storm family at this time, Reed found himself attracted to young journalism student Susan Storm, but said nothing due to their age difference (about ten years).
Also friendly rivals with fellow student Victor Von Doom at this time. Reed saw Doom’s arrogance, but was fascinated by his brilliance. He saw flaws in Doom’s work, and warned him about them, but Doom blew him off. Deciding to let him fail, Reed stayed silent until he learned that Doom was going ahead with practical tests. Warned Dr. Storm too late about the dangers of Doom’s work, leading to disaster. Reed blamed himself for the consequences (more on all this later).
Mathematically proved existence of Negative Zone in his doctoral dissertation. Has spent intervening years in seclusion, studying the Zone. Manned mission inside the Zone is the culmination of his career to date. Terrible with money and many other practical matters, Reed has squandered his fortune. Half-funded Zone mission himself, but also beholden to investors. Delays make partners nervous enough that some threaten to back out. Reed rushes launch without proper shielding, leaving the team vulnerable to WEIRD ENERGIES. Ben warns against it, but Reed assures everyone that the mission will be safe. Ben agrees to pilot the Breach Craft despite his reservations, and Reed once again finds himself to blame for the consequences.
After the Breach Incident, Reed can stretch and contort his body into any shape he desires. With practice, he learns to open (and close) new neural pathways as needed. His genius increases exponentially because of this, and he quickly masters multiple disciplines, able to become an expert on anything in just a few days. Still bad with money, and anything else he doesn’t really care about.
Has no interest in taking a “super hero” name, or in giving the team one. But in a whimsical moment, he named his R&D firm Fantasticorp. So the advertising firm Johnny and Sue hire in the second story arc comes up with the “Fantastic Four” name, and dubs Reed “Mister Fantastic.” Much to his chagrin. Jokes will, of course, follow.
Character Arc: Reed has to overcome his own arrogance, something that’s not easy considering how good he really is at everything he does. Paradoxically, he also has to overcome self-doubt when it comes to his relationship with Sue. She has more than one rival suitor, and Reed can’t get it through his head that she might prefer him to all the others.
Visually, the definitive Reed to me is John Byrne’s slender, fortyish Reed. Kirby drew him thin, too, in the early days, and that captures his character better for me than the later “husky” version. I’m also a big fan of giving the FF costumes wrinkles, like real clothes. And the big collars, too.
SUSAN STORM, aka THE INVISIBLE WOMAN
The glue that holds the team together.
Puts others before herself, sometimes to her detriment.
Treasures duty above all.
Studied journalism in college, dreaming of a writing career. Met Reed around this time, and noticed his attraction to her. Didn’t think of him that way because she prefers mature men, and Reed was still a protege.
Sue’s father was killed in the incident at Doom’s lab (again, more on that later). Reed blamed himself and became distant, disappearing entirely after graduation. Left alone to care for Johnny, Sue took a job at a small local paper and put her dreams on hold. Hadn’t seen Reed in close to a decade when he showed up at her door, begging forgiveness. She gave it, and he recruited her for the Zone mission. He’d followed her career from afar, it seemed, and admired her writing for its clarity and poetry. Sue readily agreed to go, hoping for the kind of glory and adventure she’d always secretly craved.
Had a fling with Ben during training. Reed saw it happening, but remained silent. Broke things off with Ben due to his mood swings and violent temper. (Too much like her father?)
Ben nearly vetoes the Breach mission due to concerns over proper shielding, and Sue reacts badly. Seeing a chance at a better life slipping away, she indulges in one selfish action: she shuns Ben entirely, hoping to guilt-trip him into reconsidering.
It works, and Sue never forgives herself.
After the Breach Incident, Sue is initially left invisible, and unable to change back. This draws her back to Ben, who’s wrestling with his own physical deformity. But Sue gains control of her ability quickly, driving a wedge between them.
Inadvertently gives herself the “Invisible Woman” name, using it as the title for her account of her experiences as an observer on the Breach mission.
Discovers her force field abilities later, initially out of an urge to protect. (Scene: Sue, kneeling in front of a fallen Reed/Ben/Johnny as some crushing force bears down on them. She bows her head, bracing for impact… But it’s stopped, seemingly by nothing, crashing flat against the edge of the force field she’s just generated without even realizing it.) As her confidence grows, so does her power, until she becomes the team’s most formidable member.
Character Arc: Sue is a woman of subtle power, but she tends to define herself through others. This is, in part, what makes her such a remarkable writer. But she has to learn to define herself as herself, and as she does, her power levels increase apace.
Visually, I think there’s a ton of cool stuff you could do with Sue’s powers. But considering how long it took me to find a decent picture of her for this post, I’m not sure anyone’s ever tapped into that potential. Time to fix that.
BEN GRIMM, aka THE THING
Pretends not to be.
Doesn’t trust easily.
Has a burned-in fatalism born of a carefully-concealed low self-opinion.
Grew up poor in a rough neighborhood in New York. (Yancy Street?) Developed a nasty temper, and spent much of his childhood fighting. Escaped poverty with a college football scholarship. Became Reed’s best friend when they were undergraduate roommates. He helped Reed navigate social interactions. Reed helped him navigate the classroom. Went into the Air Force after college. Entered astronaut training at NASA, piloting several space shuttle missions.
Left NASA to join Reed’s Negative Zone crew, piloting the Breach Craft. Befriended young Johnny Storm during training, and the two became drinking buddies. Also dated Sue briefly during this time, unaware of Reed’s lingering attraction to her. She broke things off due to Ben’s temper, and he’s still not over her when the mission begins.
Ben warns Reed about the Breach Craft’s lack of shielding. Reed, desperate and over-confident, assures him it will be okay. Johnny smirks at Ben’s reluctance, calling him a pussy. He thinks it’s all fun between friends, but Ben reacts violently. (This moment will define their relationship for years to come.) In the end, it’s Sue that makes him decide to go. Her disappointment in him is obvious; she won’t even look him in the eye. She just wants it so much that Ben thinks it might give him a chance to get her back. So he gives in… to his eternal regret.
After the Breach Incident, Ben becomes bitter and angry, feeling betrayed by his teammates. Initially becomes closer to Sue, which soothes him for a time. But she starts spending more time with Reed to gain control of her powers. Ben’s jealousy drives a wedge between them, and he winds up feeling more alone than ever. There is genuine danger to Ben, a sense that he could become the monster he’s so often believed to be. (Played right, the Thingbeard Incident could be a source of real pathos.) One thing keeps him in line: he still doesn’t want to disappoint Sue. But as she and Reed grow closer, that might fade away.
Johnny gives Ben the “Thing” moniker. Ben’s not real happy with it at first, but when the publicists suggest that it might not go over well with the masses, he embraces it with dark humor. Ever the contrarian.
Character Arc: Ben has to get a grip on himself. He’ll always be a bit manic-depressive and prone to self-pity, but eventually he’ll either level out or self-destruct.
Visually, I very much want to start with Kirby’s original leathery orange lump, and progress over time to the classic “peak Kirby” look…
…as Ben pulls himself together.
JOHNNY STORM, aka THE HUMAN TORCH
A Talented Natural Mechanic.
Doesn’t recognize his own potential.
Grew up in the shadow of a brilliant father with a hidden dark side. Dr. Storm loved his children, and did his best to raise them after their mother died. He instilled a strong sense of right and wrong in both.
But he had shortcomings: a violent temper, made worse by incipient alcoholism. Though he was never physically abusive, Sue and Johnny grew up just slightly afraid of him. He often made Johnny, slightly ADD and a poor student, feel inadequate. Things improved when Reed was around. Dr. Storm stopped drinking, and was kinder. Then he died, and the already-rebellious Johnny had a hard time adjusting. Hung out with a rough crowd in his teen years, much to Sue’s worry and dismay.
Introduced to car culture by ne’er-do-well friends, and discovered a talent for mechanics. Started at Community College to study Auto Mechanics. His talent swiftly got him recommended to more advanced studies at university. Johnny’s gift lies not in design but in repair, and in tweaking and improving existing systems. He really only feels at peace when he’s working on an engine.
On a semester break when Sue accepted Reed’s invitation, he tagged along for the kicks. Got bored one day and started tinkering with the Breach Craft’s engines. Reed discovered that he’d improved their performance and offered him a job as Zone Team mechanic. Went out for drinks with Ben and his sister, and hit it off with Ben immediately.
That changes when Ben raises objections to the timing of the Breach mission. Not really understanding the stakes, Johnny takes the lack of shields on the Breach Craft too lightly. Makes a piss-taking taunt at Ben, and is shocked when the older man nearly attacks him for it. Tension simmers between the two of them from that point on.
Post-Breach, Johnny adjusts to the celebrity spotlight far more quickly than his teammates. (Story Idea: Johnny invites a reality TV crew along on an FF adventure.) Johnny is the first to take a super hero name. Comes up with “The Human Torch” off the cuff in a TV interview.
Never returns to finish his degree, judging correctly that he’s got more to learn from Reed. Develops a reputation as a ladies’ man and a heartbreaker. Becomes the object of Ben’s scorn, a “handsome creep” who’s got everything Ben can’t have. The accusation stings (because it’s partially true), and their squabbles slowly escalate. Eventually, they have a total knock-down drag-out fight, and wind up bonding over beers afterward.
Character Arc: Johnny is a very elemental sort of person, to the point that he’s actually quite shallow. I don’t see that changing much. But if he can learn to embrace his mechanical potential, he could become something better.
Visually, for better or worse, I’ve always liked the Alex Ross “Man on Fire” look for Johnny. It’s not as easy to convey in pencil and ink, but I think it gets across the freakiness of the character really well. Because, yes, this is A MAN ON FIRE! And that should freak people out just a little.
VICTOR VON DOOM, aka DOCTOR DOOM
Born a poor gypsy lad under a brutal communist regime in Latveria. Taught rudimentary magic by his mother. Parents were political dissidents, killed for daring to speak out against the government. Young Victor escaped to the West, orphaned but becoming a talented miniature con man. Worked his way through schools all over Europe and Britain. (Speaks most European languages as a result of these years.) Eventually won merit scholarships to an American university. Secretly supported himself with magical grifts developed off the base his mother gave him. Used the money to create the fiction of an aristocratic background once he was here.
Met Reed when both were doing Doctoral work in Physics. The two shared a lab, and swiftly became friendly rivals (Frenemies?). Reed admired Doom’s genius in spite of his arrogance. Doom recognized the same in Reed, but found his desire for normalcy ridiculous. Mathematically proved time travel possible in these years. Moved too quickly to make it a reality, lacking a strong enough power source for the time machine. Reed recognized the basic flaw in Doom’s design, and the two had a falling-out. Learning that Doom was going ahead with a test run, Reed informed Dr. Storm and rushed to stop it. They arrived just as the time portal was opening but, lacking power, it immediately collapsed. Dr. Storm was killed trying to push Doom off the platform, his body torn apart by the collapse. Doom survived, but was heavily scarred, especially his ruined face. (Kirby imagined it as just a small scar, an idea that’s grown on me over time. But I have vague ideas about some kind of horrid Lovecraftian time-ravaged visage. So, hurm…)
Note: Doom never finished his degree. So his identity as a “Doctor” is, technically, a sham.
Dropped off the grid after the accident, traveling to study in secret with mystics around the globe. Developed his own unique discipline combining science and sorcery. Used these techniques to gather a personal fortune, and to build his armor and weapons. (Is Doom a secret investor in Reed’s Negative Zone project?) Eventually found a magical means of powering the time machine where science failed. Not trusting anyone to send him off into time and bring him back, he contacts Reed for the first test.
The “Doctor Doom” name arises in the tabloid press, after Johnny says it in an interview. Doom despises the name, and harbors special ill will toward Johnny for it afterward.
Character Arc: Though sinister, and just as grandiose as we’ve become accustomed to, Doom is not necessarily a villain when we first meet him. He goes down that path over time, first becoming an unscrupulous rival to Reed, then gathering money and power to use in his eventual overthrow of the Latverian dictatorship that killed his parents, and finally beginning his own reign as Latverian despot.
Visually, it’s hard to beat the classic Doom look. But, at least early on, he doesn’t always wear the full armor in public. He should always wear the mask, of course. But for business meetings and such, he might pair it with some kind of acceptably eccentric old-fashioned suit, perhaps with a large, flowing coat to replace the cape. And gloves. Always gloves, ostensibly to cover his scarred hands but really with various gadgets hidden inside (fingerprint scanner, electric shock, etc).
PRINCE NAMOR, the SUBMARINER of ATLANTIS
An Anti-Hero of the First Order.
Born at the dawn of the 20th Century, Namor is the mixed-race prince of Atlantis. His mother was Fen, Princess of Atlantis, his father the human sea captain Leonard McKenzie. The two planned to marry, but Fen’s father had McKenzie executed before Namor’s birth. Thinking McKenzie had abandoned her, Fen raised Namor to hate surface dwellers. Though he was raised in the royal family, the Atlanteans still ostracized Namor for his heritage. Angry and outcast, he left Atlantis as a teenager and declared himself the city’s secret protector. Living as a hermit in open water, Namor killed any humans who got too close to his people. Became a legend among early submarine crews, a mysterious monster known as “The Submariner.” (See: Milligan & Ribic’s “Submariner: The Depths.”)
Angered by Nazi attacks on Atlantean cities, he conducted a one-man war on the entire surface world. Became the lover of a surface woman, New York police officer Betty Dean. She taught him surface politics, and Namor joined the Allied powers against the Nazis. His actions in Atlantis’ defense won his people’s love, and they joined the war in its closing days. Namor took the throne when Fen (now Queen) died in a Nazi attack.
Thought to have lost his life trying to save an Atlantean city from a nuclear test after the war. Survived, addled and without memory, washing ashore somewhere in Hawaii. Rescued and patched up at a local hospital, but wandered off in a haze before being identified. Wandered the Earth for decades, sometimes a hermit, sometimes a hobo, sometimes a migrant worker. Never stayed in one place very long, his memory always fading and his actions becoming erratic. In his more lucid periods, he went by the one name he could remember: that of his long-dead father. (Lots of opportunity for adventures in this period. “Hobo Namor” might be one hell of a strip.) Awakened from this life by Johnny and Reed, and returns to public notice as a heroic menace.
Character Arc: Namor’s primary concern is finding Atlantis, wherever it’s moved. That’s an on-going subplot that will eventually lead to the discovery that Attuma and his barbarian hordes have taken over. Otherwise, though… Namor doesn’t really change much. He’s a heroic prick, and that’s all he needs to be.
He does have a thematic role to play as well, however: he’s the one character Reed doesn’t impress. He also functions as an early spoiler in the Reed / Sue / Ben triangle. Sue’s attraction to him is almost entirely lust. But lust is a powerful thing, and it may lead her to play dangerous games. Namor does not respond well to being toyed with, something that will undoubtedly spark more conflict.
Visually, I really prefer Namor’s 70s black plunging neckline ensemble.
The original green trunks are cool, too, though. So I’m torn. Maybe the trunks are his action gear, while the funky wetsuit is some kind of Atlantean formal wear he rescues from one of the ruins he explores?
I want to establish our six leads before introducing any more characters. But the FF does have a rich history of friends, lovers, and auxiliary members, and I can’t help but give them some thought.
The blind sculptress who eventually becomes the Thing’s girlfriend. Daughter of the Puppet Master. Traditionally sheltered and preternaturally innocent, but we’ve got enough shrinking violets around with Sue. So I’d like to make her more bohemian, maybe even a bit messed up. Maybe her relationship with her father is more sour than in the original, so part of what she recognizes in Ben is a kindred damaged soul. Maybe play a bit to the old “she’s blind, so Ben’s appearance doesn’t immediately repulse her,” but also indicate, once she’s able to lay hands on him and get a better feel for his appearance, that she’s into it (so maybe “bohemian” should read “freaky”).
Playing into the early subtext that Alicia might be just slightly psychic, I’d like to make her something of an empath, perhaps due to her exposure to her father’s experimental clay. Her statuary is abstract, capturing her subjects’ souls (her sculptures of Ben, for instance, are bold, even heroic, but also assymetrical and sad).
No plans to introduce Alicia until we’ve at least got the Namor story finished. That gives Ben time to have his heroic moment with Giganto and the bomb, and start his march away from the monster.
Johnny Storm’s on-again, off-again girlfriend. Statuesque redhead. Championship racing car driver. Based somewhat on Lori Williams as Billie in Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
Which… Holy crap, if you’ve never seen Faster, Pussycat… Take 83 minutes outta your life sometime and check it out. It’s trashy, violent, mean-spirited fun, and one of the most quotable flicks ever made.
Heh. That’s probably not a combo you see very often: Russ Meyer and Jack Kirby. Anyway…
Frankie’s a fast-living good-time girl who’s “in it for the kicks.” Better driver than Johnny. A bit amoral. The only woman who can break Johnny’s heart. Might be fun to do some Speed Racer inspired stuff with Frankie & Johnny somewhere down the line, with dangerous unsanctioned road rallies against despicable foes. Maybe even work in some spy stuff. Frankie can be introduced early on as a background figure, and become more important when it comes time to open up the cast.
Created in the 70s by Roy Thomas & George Perez, but became much more important in Byrne’s run, where Frankie got flame powers of her own and eventually became a herald of Galactus under the name Nova. Since I’ll eventually be introducing Nova as a separate character (more on this later), I’d rather keep Frankie Earth-bound, and a recurring love interest / thorn in Johnny’s side. She’s more fun that way.
Frankie Raye’s Crew Chief, and Johnny Storm’s best friend. Just an all-around good egg with a love of adventure and a need for speed. A mechanical engineer by training, Wyatt designs Frankie’s cars from scratch, sometimes with surprising extras (see: Speed Racer idea above). He and Johnny connect as gear heads, though Wyatt’s actually quite a bit smarter than Johnny. Conflicts inevitably arise when Frankie and Johnny are racing against each other, but it’s mostly “friendly rivalry” stuff.
Wyatt’s one of my all-time favorite supporting characters, and I want to use him somethin’ awful. He can have an early introduction alongside Frankie, to take on a bigger role later. Whether we’ll ever get to Wyatt’s high-tech tribe and freaking Tomazooma is a different matter…
The Fantastic Four’s mailman. A background character, at best, but a fun guy to have pop up every so often. Might be fun to do some Eisneresque “normal guy in unusual circumstances” stuff with him.
Sue Storm’s mentor early in her journalism career. Left the paper in disgrace, and was believed to have lost his mind, becoming a conspiracy theory crackpot who can only get work with tabloid rags like the National Register. In reality, he had stumbled onto the Skrull’s covert invasion, and has been investigating that – and other strange phenomena – ever since. A squirrely old bastard with a heart of gold.
Jack McGee is, of course, the reporter who hunted David Banner on the Hulk TV show. My version is more inspired by Carl Kolchak from Nightstalker…
…but the McGee name was too tempting not to use. I mainly include him here because Sue needs some kind of relationships outside the team, and I don’t think she’s ever actually been given any. I’d introduce McGee in the Skrull arc, with the potential to return anytime a horror/conspiracy type story comes up.
Super-Spy! An old friend of Ben Grimm’s from his military days. Fury now heads up a black ops spy organization under UN sanction (the Supreme Headquarters of International Espionage and Logistical Defense, aka SHIELD). SHIELD is in its early days here, operating out of its secret underground HQ in New York (the one beneath the barber shop), with just the core team of Fury, Dum-Dum, Clay Quatermain, and Sharon Carter. The Helicarrier and etc come later. Fury re-establishes contact with Ben as part of the Skrull invasion (the reason SHIELD was formed), and may pop up again from time to time in conjunction to Skrulls, or when Doom’s plots against the Latverian regime become active issues. Also becomes a poker buddy.
The question of white Fury or black Fury inevitably comes up anymore, and I’m fine with black Fury. I do love the character’s classic look, but let’s face it: this is a pretty lily-white cast. As long as he’s got the eye patch and the attitude, getting some color in there can only be a good thing.
DUM DUM DUGGAN
Best friend of Nick Fury, and fellow founding agent of SHIELD. Possessor of a truly prodigious mustache. Another old military buddy of Ben’s who comes into the story because of the Skrulls, but sticks around to invite Ben into his floating poker game.
The FF’s publicist, and co-owner of the Lieberkurtz advertising firm. A fast-talking, glad-handing huckster who sells the FF brand like a champ, but whose ideas often clash with Reed’s sense of propriety. Hired by Johnny and Sue in the second arc. Sets up Reed’s battle of wits with the Miracle Man. May get replaced by a Skrull at some point. The name’s probably a bit on-the-nose, but what the hell, right? Lee and Kirby did write themselves into the strip, after all…
Lieber’s partner, and the creative mastermind behind their firm’s success. A gruff, no-nonsense type who puts up with his partner’s excesses only grudgingly. Eventually joins Ben’s floating poker game.
Aaanndd… That’s all I’ve got on character. Next time (again, if anybody’s still interested), I’ll post the plot outlines I came up with. It’s four story arcs, based on the first six issues of the original FF series, with less detailed ideas for things to follow, leading up to the final reveal of Galactus. Thanks again for indulging me in this, folks. It makes me feel moderately less silly for having spent so much time on this stuff. So we’ll see all of you I haven’t run off with it next week.