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The return of The Fantastic Four

posted by Tim Carmody   Aug 09, 2018

FF1 - Origin.png

All superhero origin stories are preposterous. For that reason, as much as in spite of it, they are repeated again and again, to make them myths, something truer than mere credibility can allow.

The Fantastic Four’s origin story has been repeated more times than maybe any superhero’s but Batman’s. And it remains totally preposterous. The smartest man in the universe takes his best friend, girlfriend, and girlfriend’s teenage brother in a rocket he’s built, but forgot to shield against cosmic rays? And the rays give each of them different kinds of monster powers? It’s beautifully absurd.

But the 1961 Fantastic Four #1 remains one of the most important comics ever, primarily for injecting (get this) realism into superhero comics. Not because the characters looked like real people, but because they acted like real people transformed into monsters might act. They bickered, they got depressed, they ran into money problems; they tried to figure out their place in the world, which increasingly included things more preposterous than them. And that formula — a real family, in a real New York City, peeled open to reveal all the cosmic wonder underneath and just out of reach, changed storytelling forever.

This is all to say, there’s a brand-new Fantastic Four #1. (It’s at least the sixth “number one” issue released under that title.) The FF have been on hiatus in the comics for a few years; I wrote about why in this essay in The Verge from around that time. Now, since Disney/Marvel will soon own the Fantastic Four’s film rights again, we can probably expect yet another reboot in the movies as well. (Maybe even in the teaser after the end of the second half of Infinity War? I’m just spitballing.)

Like a lot of fans, I’m wary but excited. When the FF is really good — the 102-issue long original run by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the early reboot by writer/artist John Byrne, the expansionist canvas of writer Jonathan Hickman — it really is the world’s greatest comic magazine. It makes comics bigger than any movie, big in the way only a two-dimensional artform can be. When the FF is not so good, it feels like all of its nostalgic Cold War-era ideas have passed by their sell date, a shabby stew of worn-out plots and bad guys too hammy for cartoons.

In comics and the movies, it’s all execution-dependent. Still, bringing back the Fantastic Four gives both the Marvel Comics Universe (which, some exceptions aside, has not been at its best for a while) and the Marvel Cinematic Universe (which is rapidly running out of characters and stories to turn to) someplace new to go. It’s just a bit of historical irony that the future turns out to be where it all got started in the first place.