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Fantastic Four — the great comic book franchise, not the garbage movie — explained

Fantastic Four No. 5.
Fantastic Four No. 5.
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

On the horizon, an unmitigated trash fire burns brightly — it goes by the name Fantastic Four. The movie, which hits theaters Friday, is 100 minutes of listless cinematic salad. I still keep waiting for director Josh Trank to rip off his mask and reveal that this has been a terrifyingly nerdy long con by Ashton Kutcher and friends.

This movie is just the latest footnote in what's been a long and sour 20 years for a team that was once considered Marvel's first family. The Fantastic Four have been in terrible movies, had their comic book adventures canceled, and, perhaps worst of all, been forgotten. But it wasn't always this way.

Without them, Marvel and the heroes we love today would never have existed. The F4's comic book sales singlehandedly saved Marvel from an early death. And they weren't just popular for being popular — their stories, mainly revolving around family, resonated with readers. They also influenced the heroes who came after them. Without the Fantastic Four there would be no Spider-Man to teach us about power and responsibility, no Avengers bickering about what it means to be a hero, and no X-Men to show us what it's like to be outsiders.

But over the past few years, the team has slowly been shelved. They perhaps aren't gritty enough to thrive in the post-9/11 comic book world. Superhero groups they used to overshadow, like the Avengers (yes, more on this in a bit) and the Guardians of the Galaxy, have overtaken them. And in true comic book fashion, the Fantastic Four became a sacrifice that allowed Marvel to survive — at their expense.

The Fantastic Four are both Marvel's greatest creation and its greatest shame.

The Fantastic Four are Marvel's origin story

There used to be a time when people who didn't read comic books distilled the industry into flat child's play and cast off its superheroes as gentle reading for unshorn minds and adult toddlers. But thanks to Marvel's sheer dominance, we're at a point in pop culture when people who don't even read comic books can tell you about Groot or Thanos. Marvel, no doubt, owes a large part of this success to brilliant moviemaking teams, the actors who brought these characters to life as well as the writers, artists, and creators who continue to write new comic book chapters in one of the most enduring and oldest continuous narratives alive today.

But this success, and this comic book golden age, wouldn't even be possible without the Fantastic Four. Without them, you don't have Marvel.

In 1961, when Marvel was on the precipice of failure, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were tasked with creating something that could rival and rip off DC Comics' Justice League, the superhero team that included Superman and Wonder Woman. Sean Howe writes in his book Marvel Comics: The Untold Story:

[Publisher Martin Goodman] marched into the office with a mandate for Lee: steal this idea and create a team of superheroes. But Lee had been through attempted superhero revivals before. He went home to his wife, Joanie, and announced that he was finally going to quit. She talked him out of it. "Just do it the way you want to," she insisted. "Work your ideas into the comic book. What are they going to do, fire you?"

Kirby, the legendary writer-artist, tells it differently:

"Marvel was on its ass, literally, and when I came around, they were practically hauling out the furniture," Kirby said. "They were beginning to move, and Stan Lee was sitting there crying. I told them to hold everything, and I pledged that I would give them the kind of books that would up their sales and keep them in business."

However it really started, Lee and Kirby came up with the Fantastic Four — a team of space adventurers consisting of a brother, a sister, a genius (who would later marry the sister), and a brawler from the wrong side of the tracks — who each obtain different powers after a mysterious voyage. Reed Richards, the genius, gained the ability to stretch his body. Sue Storm gained invisibility and the power to construct force fields. Johnny Storm, Sue's brash, hard-headed brother, turned into the Human Torch. And poor Ben Grimm became the stone powerhouse known as the Thing.

And thousands of Fantastic Four No. 1 issues were sold:


Kirby's art and cover were revolutionary at the time. The cover looks unfinished — the sky isn't colored, and the building just disappears. The Four aren't wearing uniforms or superhero costumes the way Superman or Wonder Woman do. You have that orange Golem in the bottom left corner who doesn't even look human and a hairy fireball scorching through the sky. And that dude in the ropes just looks crazy weird, like something closer to a 7-year-old's doodle.

Kirby's art was a more modern, novel take on the superhero story. There is no handholding, no explanation. The story is just as abrupt. The heroes bicker. They fight. They're jerks to one another:

Fantastic Four No. 1. (Marvel)

This fighting and discord is in the basic fabric of superhero stories you see today. From the Avengers films to Guardians of the Galaxy to the upcoming Batman v Superman, the idea that good guys don't always have the same idea of what's good — and don't always get along — has become integral to team stories. But at the time, Kirby and Lee's Fantastic Four were the team that really embodied this idea.

Is being a superhero a curse?

The initial thrust of the Fantastic Four stories was their reflection of the era's obsession with space. Sue and Johnny Storm, Reed Richards, and Ben Grimm were sold as space adventurers who were altered when something went wrong and they were doused with cosmic rays in the vast beyond. Fantastic Four No. 1 was published in 1961 and went to market in August, four months after the Russians sent the first human into space.

When you talk to comic book writers, artists, and historians, they will say that large political events tend to shape the superhero stories for years to come. The atom bomb gave us more superheroes (see: Captain Atom), which then begat reactions to superheroes like Alan Moore's dark and nihilistic Watchmen. The Cold War brought about a glut of communist Russian characters (mostly villains). And the pain and tragedy of 9/11 still shapes stories today.

When it came to the Fantastic Four, people were still unsure what space could bring. It could be a place of wonderment and give these people fantastic (ha) powers. But it could also bring pain, which is how these characters first felt when they found themselves transformed. When they started getting abilities, Johnny Storm called his friends monsters:

Johnny Storm is not happy about these powers. (Fantastic Four No. 1/Marvel)

Kirby and Lee wanted to play with the idea that being a superhero could be a curse or make you a freak — something we didn't see with DC's Justice League. The way these powers would affect these heroes' lives would be fleshed out in later issues (the F4 decide pretty quickly to become heroes), but Kirby and Lee laid the groundwork for a comic book that really did explore the psychological toll of heroism.

The Thing is a story we can empathize with

Toward the end of junior high, when I was teetering on the brink of high school, I found myself working Fantastic Four comic books into my regular diet of several X-Men titles. I liked the X-Men (Storm mostly) because they felt as though they were cutting against the grain of comic books at the time. They felt like a family coping with a world that didn't understand them. And as I look back to the Fantastic Four issues I read, I'm beginning to understand I liked them for the same reason.

What I don't think I grasped at the time was how the Fantastic Four were a canny commentary on celebrity culture. The F4 did not need alter egos or secret identities. They lived their lives publicly as revered heroes. But three of the four (Johnny, Reed, Sue) did not have their looks affected by the accident. Ben Grimm is another story — a painful one.

Grimm's appearance as a monster was a constant source of insecurity for the hero. People treated him differently. And when they weren't scared of him, they pitied him. This came to a boil in Fantastic Four No. 51, titled "This Man … This Monster":

Fantastic Four No. 51. (Marvel)

In that plot, written by Lee and drawn by Kirby, Grimm deals with his physical appearance and the way it's affected his psyche. There's also a stark contrast to Johnny Storm, who is basically Zac Efron reimagined as a superhero:

Fantastic Four No. 51. (Marvel)

In this issue, a villain steals Grimm's powers and appearance, giving him the chance to live a normal life, which he does for a few moments. But his closest friends (Reed Richards and Sue) don't trust Grimm in his human form and only trust the guy that looks like the Thing. This allows the villain to infiltrate the inner sanctum of the F4.

"This Monster…" might not be the most elegant comic ever written, but it's soulful in a way that comics often aren't.

The Thing hits the nerves and conjures up the inevitable anxiety that all teens feel at some point in their lives. But Grimm's story also parallels the frustration of being a minority in America and the uneasiness of wanting to belong. The three other members have the ability to pass as "normal." Grimm doesn't. He's constantly defined by the way he looks and has to learn how to live with it.

It's tragic, it's sad, but it's also one of the most thoughtful and human aspects of the comic.

Marvel sold the rights to the Fantastic Four. That killed them.

The terribleness that is the two Jessica Alba and Chris Evans–led Fantastic Four movies (in 2005 and 2007), and this current monstrosity, has become synonymous with the superhero team. What gets lost is that there was a point that the Fantastic Four comic book was actually more popular than The Avengers. And even when the team's popularity waned, it wasn't too far behind:

In Avengers No. 1, the comic book that brings the Avengers together for the first time, the Fantastic Four have a splendid cameo. A distress call is sent out — the Hulk is on a rampage — and the F4 pick it up, but then are simultaneously shady and too important. They say another, lesser team (AVENGERS, ASSEMBLE!) can fix the problem while they are off saving the world:

Avengers No. 1. (Marvel)

At their height, the F4 were telling scrubs like the Avengers to deal with the trivial stuff. Fast forward 50 years or so, and we're at a point when Marvel announced this April that Fantastic Four's main comic book had been canceled and that the F4 are basically non-factors in the Marvel comic book universe.

To critics and comic fans, the main reason for their disappearance was the team's film rights. Back in 1990s, when the comic book bubble burst, Marvel was flailing — the company filed for bankruptcy in 1996. As comic book movies weren't giant hits back then, Marvel sold its rights to popular characters as a way to make cash it wasn't making off the comic books themselves.

"The company made a series of licensing deals around the time they sought bankruptcy protection in 1996," the Wall Street Journal's Ben Fritz explained. "These deals put Spider-Man in the hands of Sony. The X-Men and Fantastic Four went to Fox. Because the studios were in strong positions, they agreed to share only about 5% of the revenue from each film with Marvel."

Though Marvel hasn't said why the F4 have been diminished, making them big players in the Marvel Universe makes no business sense anymore. Simply put: Investing in properties like the X-Men or Fantastic Four isn't in Marvel's best financial interest. Fox would and could ostensibly make movies out of that great stuff, and then Marvel would only get a tiny cut of the revenue. And though the X-Men were in the same Fox boat as the Fantastic Four, they were the ultimate comic book of the '90s, making it impossible for Marvel to shelve them.

"They're [The Fantastic Four] an easy target in the war between Fox and Marvel," Vulture's Abraham Riesman wrote.

Having terrible Fantastic Four movies doesn't exactly help the cause, either.

The rub is that a lot of things we love about superhero movies and what makes them so great come from the Fantastic Four. While the '60s idea of space travel looks dated, the comic books' main stories about these heroes are still fresh — so fresh that we still see them in stories today. The feelings of family, the questioning of how "good" guys are supposed to act, the idea of a hero being a monster — these are all stories and themes we saw in the first issue of The Fantastic Four in 1961 and are also the same major themes in this summer's Avengers: Age of Ultron movie.

The Fantastic Four's relevance is the saddest thing about them. Seeing something dated and shopworn dissolve into nothing doesn't hurt because some part of you thinks it deserves that. But there's still a lot of life left in the Fantastic Four's bones — so much that even in the face of the unmitigated disaster that is Fox's new movie, I still believe in the Fantastic Four and the possibility of not just another great movie, but another great story. There's a comeback to be written, but I don't know if we'll ever see it.

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