Wednesday, February 26, 2014

A New Kind of Family: Fantastic Four Runs/Issues Not Featuring All Four Members of the Fantastic Four

Today (assuming this is Wednesday) marks the start of a new volume of Marvel’s Fantastic Four, featuring James Robinson on writing duties and Leonard Kirk on art. It also marks about a week since the Internet melted down over a skinny guy being cast to play the Thing. Wait, that wasn’t the scuttlebutt, was it? Was it about the guy from That Awkward Moment playing the smartest man in the Marvel Universe? Ah, it’ll come to me.

Fantastic Four is praised regularly for the unique family dynamic of the book – husband and wife Reed and Sue, younger brother Johnny, children Franklin and Valeria, Ben the creepy rock monster uncle – but just like the Justice League, the Avengers or the X-Men, it’s still a team book, with new members rotating in every once in a while to switch up the dynamic and keep things fresh.
So if you think you had problems with Hollywood’s casting of the team, check out these other incarnations of the Four that were, shall we say, differently Fantastic.
Four minus one equals Any Inhumans Lying Around?: Mr. Fantastic, Human Torch, Thing … and Crystal/Medusa (Fantastic Four #81-? and #132-159): The FF were probably the first superhero team to write maternity leave into their health plan. During Sue’s pregnancy and later after Franklin was born, she was replaced on the team by the two most prominent female Inhumans: Crystal, one of Johnny’s many, many, many girlfriends over the years, and Medusa, who, being queen of a race of people and all, you’d think would have more important things to do.
Four minus one equals SWEET CHRISTMAS!: Mr. Fantastic, Invisible Woman, Human Torch and … Luke Cage (Fantastic Four #168-170, 1976): When the Thing reverted to plain old Ben Grimm, Reed replaced him as the team powerhouse with the original Hero for Hire. Makes sense, considering in 1973, Cage famously confronted Dr. Doom regarding services rendered by demanding “Where’s my money, honey?”
Four minus one equals H.E.R.B.I.E.: Mr. Fantastic, Invisible Woman, Thing and ... H.E.R.B.I.E. (Fantastic Four cartoon, 1978): Chalk this one up to rights issues. At the time that NBC wanted an FF cartoon, Universal had optioned a Human Torch project. And because it wasn’t 30+ years later, when NBC and Universal are part of the same company, the cartoon had to go Torchless. Enter H.E.R.B.I.E., a Lee/Kirby creation that was not at all a flaming teenager. H.E.R.B.’s presence spawned the legend that Johnny was pulled from the show because execs thought kids, inspired by the Torch, would try to light themselves on fire. Decades later, H.E.R.B.I.E. would be one of the funnier characters on Marvel’s “Super Hero Squad Show” aimed at younger viewers.

Four minus two equals Date Night!: Human Torch, Thing … Crystal and Ms. Marvel/She-Thing (Starting in Fantastic Four #306, 1987): Every couple hundred issues or so, Reed and Sue leave the team to try to save their marriage. During this phase, they were replaced by Crystal and Sharon Ventura, a professional wrestler who eventually is transformed into a Thinglike creature. You can almost picture Johnny and Ben looking at their respective teammates/dates, looking at each other, and slow-nodding while that song from the end of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off plays.
Four minus four equals New Fantastic Four: Spider-Man, Wolverine, Hulk and Ghost Rider (Fantastic Four #347-349, 1990): Holy hot characters! When the original-recipe FF is kidnapped by a Skrull named De’Lila, a new Four forms to rescue them, made up of what were arguably Marvel’s most popular characters in 1990. (Yes, Virginia, there was a time when Ghost Rider sold comics) Together they took on the Skrulls and the Mole Man, all well-rendered by Art Adams, with story by Walt Simonson.
Four minus two equals the post-Civil War 4: Human Torch, Thing … Storm and Black Panther (Starting in Fantastic Four #543, 2007): The superhero Civil War did a number on Reed and Sue’s marriage (again, something that appears to happen every few years), so they took some time off and replaced themselves with Wakandan royalty. T’Challa, of course, is no slouch in the science department himself, and Storm is … a woman. So see, it all balances out!
Four minus one plus one equals The Future Foundation: Mr. Fantastic, Invisible Woman, Thing and … Spider-Man (Starting in FF#1, 2011): The Human Torch, who was killed-but-not-really in the Negative Zone, willed his spot on the team to Spider-Man, because the two were friends, and also because they’d essentially be replacing a younger, wise-cracking blond man with a younger, wise-cracking brunette. Hey, beats getting replaced by H.E.R.B.I.E.! Eventually, Johnny got better, and he and Peter became roommates for a time, allowing writer Jonathan Hickman a wealth of opportunity for Odd Couple jokes.
Four minus four equals FF: Ant-Man, She-Hulk, Medusa, “Miss Thing” (Starting in FF#1, 2013): While the Richardses went on a time-travel adventure somewhere near the start of the Marvel NOW! era, they appointed an additional four superheroes to mind the store in their place, including a science guy (Scott Lang’s Ant-Man), some muscle (She-Hulk), a mother lion (Medusa; again, don’t you have a race to rule?) and … a pop star who slept with Johnny Storm. This iteration of FF has the dubious distinction of being the book Matt Fraction left in a hurry so he could write Inhumans, but it also has fun art by Mike Allred.
Four minus three equals Ultimate FF: The Invisible Woman … Iron Man, Falcon and Machine Man (Starting in Ultimate FF#1, 2014): This one’s not even on the stands yet, so there’s little to say about it other than writer Josh Fialkov and artist Tom Grummet are using the latest refreshening of the Ultimate Universe to craft a version of the team never seen before. And good on them.

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