KC COLUMN: Final Four

Fantastic Four 587

Fantastic Four 587

by KC Carlson

Following up on Roger’s column yesterday, about the impending death of one of the main characters of the Fantastic Four (so go read that first, if you haven’t already), I thought I’d throw out a few additional thoughts on the topic, as well as my guess for who’s going away.

I find it amusing that this situation only became a hot topic once the news broke nationally in the mainstream media. Which leads me to conclude that most of the people who are complaining the loudest are people who aren’t reading the book.

Which is why all this is happening in the first place. Let me explain.

A Brief History of the FF

Fantastic Four #100. Art by Jack Kirby

Fantastic Four #100. Art by Jack Kirby

Once upon a time, Fantastic Four was Marvel’s flagship book. Speaking colloquially, it was the first “Marvel” comic book, it is the lynchpin and foundation of the entire Marvel Universe, and it was the birthplace of more longtime Marvel characters and concepts than any other Marvel comic (although in the modern era of comics, it could be argued that Uncanny X-Men has superseded it). Most of Marvel’s top talent has passed through Fantastic Four’s pages, starting with the now-legendary 102-issue run by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, who set the bar so high, it’s been near-impossible to top it — much less even match it.

For its first couple of decades, it was considered one of Marvel’s top books — and one that only the most talented of creators ever got to work on. For a long time, most creators aspired to one day get the call to work on the title and characters. And it was among Marvel’s best-sellers. The premise has always been unique among comic book super-teams because it’s not a collection of best-selling characters coming together — that’s what Stan Lee was told to do in creating it, copy the competition’s newest success, DC’s Justice League of America. Thank goodness that Stan and Jack had better ideas — the Fantastic Four has always been a story about Family. The FF has always been Marvel’s First Family.

Fantastic Four #509. Art by Wieringo & Kesel.

Fantastic Four #509. Art by Wieringo & Kesel.

But over the last couple of decades, the ongoing saga of the FF hasn’t always been so rosy. Sure, there have been several memorable runs — the John Byrne and Waid/Wieringo eras come immediately to mind — but overall, the series has had its ups and downs. Either top creators came close but didn’t quite capture the magic of the FF, or not-quite-ready artists or writers were not compatible with the series at all.

It’s been a long time since the FF has topped the sales charts. According to The Comics Chronicles website (www.comichron.com), for about the last year or so, Fantastic Four has ranked in the mid-30s of overall titles, with healthy — but not fantastic — sales around 40,000 or fewer copies per issue. Most mainstream and long-running Marvel titles, including Thor and Hulk, sell better than FF does.

Fantastic Four #570, Hickman's first issue. Cover by Alan Davis

Fantastic Four #570, Hickman's first issue. Cover by Alan Davis

About a year ago, new-ish writer Jonathan Hickman took over the title. And some fans — especially the ones who primarily enjoy comics for the writing — began to quietly take notice. Among other things, Hickman moved the family aspect of the book back up front, with emphasis on the kids Franklin and Valeria (including a major revelation about one of them). He also set out to rediscover exactly who Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic) really was — after a long period of inconsistent and contradictory characterizations of the hero/father. As well, Hickman won points with longtime fans for producing lettercolumns in the books — notably moderated by Franklin and Val.

The book caught a stroke of luck recently when artist Steve Epting came aboard, bringing a much-needed sense of power and scope to the images without losing the emotional aspects of the series’ graphic storytelling.

To those of us who were reading it, it was obvious that the book (and its creators) were quietly gearing up for something really big. It was a shame that FF seemed to be lost among all the undead power wielders, vampires, sadists, killers, and dead cat swingers that were otherwise grabbing all the attention elsewhere. Something had to be done. And sadly, these days, if you want to attract attention in this current angsty, overridden, (and overwritten!) era of comics, you have to kill one of your lead characters.

Is it a stunt? To quote Roger, “Well, duh!”

Death Sells: A Time-Honored Tradition

By announcing in advance that someone is going to die, the story has been turned into a guessing game — another “stunt” to get people talking and thinking (and hopefully worrying) about all of the character’s fates. Hickman has been dropping all manner of “clues” — both subtle and ham-fisted — throughout his run, and of late, he has managed to put all of the characters into potentially dire circumstances. Which is the definition of good superheroic writing. If you can’t make your readers care about your characters, then you’re wasting everybody’s time (and money).

Such a situation also inspires a lot of discussion (hopefully all good-natured) about just who will be the one to die. (Which in real-life terms is incredibly morbid, but hey, in superhero comics, it’s become a time-honored trope.) Roger and I have been back-and-forth on the topic all week, which admittedly has been a lot of fun, throwing out our choices and then coming up with the “evidence” to back up our claims. What’s most fun about these kinds of discussions is that both of us can look at the the very same comics and reasonably similar reading experiences, and yet come up with different conclusions. As you read yesterday, Roger believes that Ben Grimm — The Thing — is the character in the spotlight, and he has laid out several good reasons for picking this outcome. While Roger brings up a number of good points — not the least of which is Ben’s current level of vulnerability (a recent Hickman invention) — I respectfully disagree with his findings and believe that another FF member will soon be the one to fall.

Fantastic Four #353. Art by Walter Simonson

Fantastic Four #353. Art by Walter Simonson

My pick is Johnny Storm, the Human Torch. Unlike Roger, who is largely basing his conclusion on current story points, I am using a completely different methodology, considering both the long history of the team and the time-honored elimination of other “suspects”, leaving Johnny the last one standing in the spotlight. First, the history…

Throughout the long life of the FF, all of the characters have either “died” or disappeared from the series for a long period of time — except one, the Human Torch. Sure, he’s dropped out for an issue or two here and there, or he has occasionally been thought “dead” after being blasted by a villain or otherwise injured (as in Civil War), but he’s always popped up a few pages or issues later, ready to roll. He’s never been gone from the book for long, in contrast to all the other FF characters.

Further, the character of Johnny has been locked into place for a very long time, and he’s shown very little growth. His usual role in the current stories is to play childish practical jokes on Ben, or to be a doting uncle for Franklin and Valeria. He’s had the most unlucky romantic life of any Marvel character — most of his long-term girlfriends have ended up dead, forgotten, in the arms of another, or not who they appeared to be. He’s been trapped in this clichéd “arrested adolescent” characterization — seemingly drifting, with an endless array of professions (and girlfriends), and an uncertain future — for way too long now.

And he’s kinda spoiled, living in the umbrella of the FF where many of his basic needs are automatically taken care of for him. One gets the impression that the only thing he’s good at is being the Human Torch. Even his longtime rival/friend Peter Parker — another classic Marvel “loser” character — has evolved more than he has. Johnny Storm is a character screaming to be “off-camera” for a while, to be tinkered with, retooled, and given an ultimate purpose. (We all know that death in the Marvel universe isn’t permanent, but it does make for a good excuse for jump-starting character development.) It also makes him a good thematic character to die — perhaps finding his ultimate purpose in sacrificing himself to save the universe — or something more important — his family.

Eliminating the Other Suspects

As far as the other characters: Reed has been dead before (a lot!), and most recently dead (although revived and apparently now evil) over in the Ultimate Universe. So, can’t go that route here, nor would any sort of death to him be a shock, story-wise. He does seem to be Hickman’s current favorite, and good writers should “kill their darlings”. But, no, I think Reed’s safe. Besides, he’s just getting interesting.

Fantastic Four #245. Art by John Byrne

Fantastic Four #245. Art by John Byrne

Sue shouldn’t die, simply because she’s a woman, and it sure would be nice for a comic to not kill the female character for a change. (See Woman in Refrigerators.) As well, a huge amount of writerly work has been invested in making Sue a fully-fleshed-out — and extremely interesting — character in her own right, over the years. Today, she’s one of the very few multidimensional female characters in comics — as well as being one of the most intelligently-powered (thank you, John Byrne) and kick-ass women in comics (because that’s important to a lot of fanboys). She plays really well with other female characters, too, in a variety of guest shots, because she can be the Mom (voice of reason) but a hip Mom, still sharing cocktails and secrets.

Ben Grimm shouldn’t die (ultimately) for one singular reason. He is one of the most purely tragic characters in comics, going all the way back to his origin in FF#1, and Stan and Jack really knew what they were doing when they created him. For my money, he’s the heart and soul of the Marvel Universe. He (like Cap) is the character that the other characters always rally around. Bendis understands this, which is the real reason why he’s on both Avengers teams.

He’s the organizer of the legendary Floating Marvel Poker Game, and he’s everybody’s favorite gruff uncle. Of course, all this makes him a prime candidate for the heartstring-tugging most emotional death ever. But that also robs him of getting his ultimate Happy Ending — one of the few characters at Marvel that actually deserve one.

Ben is not a warrior-type hero in the traditional sense. He’s just a guy doing a job that has to be done, and he’s been given the power and responsibility to do it. At the end of the day, all he wants to do is go home, open up a beer, be with his family and friends, and have the love of a good woman. Just like any good workin’ stiff. He’s a blue collar, good guy, salt-of-the-earth Jack Kirby. So he deserves his happy ending rather than a premature death. Ben’s a guy who should die in bed in his 90s, no longer rocky, and surrounded by all his loved ones. A fitting finale for someone who’s led a really good life. ‘Nuff said.

(Besides, wouldn’t the death of one of his teammates — especially Johnny — make him even more tragic — in a writerly way?  Not that I want to torture the poor guy…)

Other, more prosaic reasons for my choice of Johnny: There’s an upcoming issue of Amazing Spider-Man which shows a distraught Spidey in the aftermath of whatever happens with the FF. Sure, Spidey has been friends with all of them, but his strongest relationship — as both friend and rival, going way back to the beginnings of the Marvel Universe — was with Johnny Storm.  Also, some of the Fear Itself promo images prominently feature The Thing, which could be a dodge, but would seem to eliminate him from consideration, due to future storylines.

And Then He Died… Gotta Go!

So, who’s the Fantastic Four member who’s going to die? I really have no idea. But it’s sure been fun to guess! We’ll all find out in a couple of weeks.

Is it a stunt to raise sales and interest in the series? Well, duh, of course it is. “Stunts” are a necessary evil of the current comic industry, which is overbloated with hype and “made it up out of thin air” stories. It’s an atmosphere where so-called stunts are the only device left to creators to get their good work noticed, if only for a minute or two. The Fantastic Four under Jonathan Hickman and most recently Steve Epting has been a really good thing and not everyone has noticed. So now they will.

Don’t think hype. Think Captain America — another great book that few were paying attention to until the death “stunt” pointed them right at it. (And ironically another book that Steve Epting was involved in.)

Will the death “stick”? Probably not. It’s now part of the fabric of comic books — the whole death and resurrection story. Talk about a classic theme! Even if it’s the intention of the current creative team to keep their character choice dead for a while, you know that somebody else will resurrect that character somewhere down the road anyway. It’s just the way that current comics works, and it’s the perfect basis for another Stunt at that point, as Favorite Character Returns From the Dead.

Also, they’re starting the book over with a new Number One issue. Big deal. It’s another time-honored way to get interest going in a stagnant but worthy title. It’s been done with virtually all long-running titles and characters. It’s even been done with FF a couple of times. You know that when they get to another Anniversary Issue — FF #600 is only about a year away — Marvel will revert back to the original numbering again — just as they always have done! Is it silly and confusing? Probably, but all the comics eventually go in the same box anyway, correct?

Fantastic Four #587. Someone will die. And it’s a great jumping-on point (despite the fact that it’s the next to “last” issue of the series). Such is the nature of the modern comic book. Will the issue suck? Well, yes and no. Yes, because we’re saying goodbye (or at least farewell) to a classic character created 50 years ago. No, because it’s written and drawn by a great creative team, firing on all cylinders, on what may be the story of their careers. Don’t miss it.

KC CARLSON has actually come close to dying a couple of times himself, over the years. “It’s a lot of fun, but I don’t think it’s for everybody,” he says. “Besides, my sales never went up.”

Classic comic covers from the Grand Comics Database.


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