Wade-ing Through The Fantastic Four

Welcome to What Th--? #65. First order of business: As of this column I’ll be going to a bi-weekly schedule instead of the weekly one. I’m sure folk like Mark Evanier, Peter David and others who have done columns every week without fail for a decade or more will think I’m wimping out, but, so be it. As I had mentioned previously, I’m working on a novel and unlike some others, my ability to write lots of prose at once extends only so far. I hope that by changing my schedule I’ll be able to continue this. And now, this week’s column:

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When Alan Moore took over Swamp Thing, he chucked out what had come before and essentially brought in a whole new approach and concept. He elected to take a character and start all over again. When Frank Miller took over Daredevil, he decided to ignore mentioning DD continuity that didn’t fit his new vision and used only the parts of Daredevil’s history he wanted without actually contradicting any of the past stories. It was a very tricky approach and he made Daredevil interesting for the first time ever. These days, when new writers take over series, they either - A: ignore everything that has gone before and start all over, or B: completely immerse themselves, and replicate the stories they loved as a kid. One version creates a brand-new character that may be worse, or better, depending, than the original, while the other is happy to bring back everything from the past yet again. To me, neither approach is good. Up until now I’ve believed in Frank’s view. When I started the New Teen Titans I remembered everything that had been done in the previous Titans incarnations, but I deliberately chose not to use 90% of it. I didn’t eliminate the past, or contradict it, I just assumed it was someplace back there but I didn’t talk about it unless it was needed. I was more interested in doing my thing than in repeating what I read as a kid. It seemed to have worked.

Mark Waid has done something very similar, yet very different with Fantastic Four.

Now, before I get into Mark, a disclaimer: I hereby admit that I only very rarely buy Marvel Comics. There are several reasons why, but suffice it to say I do see them at the comic shop, and I read through some of them there – “Hey, kid, put that down, you think this is a libary or something?” So I do see the Marvels and think that current Ed-in-Chief Joe Quesada has done a remarkable job turning the company around from the dismal days of the 1990s.

That said, I occasionally have lunch with Mark Waid, Geoff Johns, Mark Evanier, Len Wein and Wendy Pini at LA’s Magic Castle. We get together and discuss comics and other such stuff. At one of lunches Mark gave me a copy of his latest FF. I read it and liked it, but that didn’t change my views about buying Marvel comics.

The above not withstanding, I decided to buy the two Fantastic Four Collections that I found at my nearly local comic shop. Because of the current brouhaha over Mark’s firing and later rehiring, I thought it would be a good way to see what the fuss was all about, and collected in this fashion with a strong cover, it was a better and more permanent edition than the individual comics would be. Also, I could read the story at once. For someone with a declining memory, collected editions are a much better way of actually keeping track of the story. They’re like, oh my God, a completely novel.

I had enjoyed Mark’s work before. Especially his Captain America work. His stories was fun and well written and reverent to the stuff he grew up with but not anal retentive the way other writers sometimes are. I thought his original series work was all interesting, but I felt his heart was in doing his versions of the stuff he read as a kid.

But none of Mark’s previous work prepared me for the FF.

Another digression. Whenever I teach writing, and I’ve used this term in the past in some of my What Th--? articles, I talk about what I call internal series versus external series. As examples I use Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four. An internal series focuses on the characters more than the stories. For the most part, you follow Spider-Man for the soap opera parts of Peter Parker’s life than for the action stories. You are drawn to what’s happening to Peter and company more than for who Spidey is fighting. And if the character stuff is strong, then you will forgive a weak plot this month.

An external series is not as much about the characters as the plot. For the most part, the FF fits that niche. Yes, the group is interesting, especially The Thing, but 99% of the time you don’t buy the FF to see what Reed is doing or what horrible thing is happening to Johnny. You buy it, or bought it, for the incredible stories and even more incredible new ideas. The FF was the first comic I had ever seen that kept hitting us with one new concept after another. This month Sub-Mariner. Next Dr. Doom. Then the first super-villain team up. Then Galactus and the Surfer and the Inhumans and the Black Panther, and so on and so on. Although Subby and Doom came in early, issues 4&5 respectively, if memory serves, the book hits its stride about issue 20 and didn’t stop until after issue 75 or so.

The central fifty issues of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s FF was so mind-bogglingly original and fresh that it is impossible to describe it to anyone who wasn’t there. You’ve all read the grandchildren of what Stan and Jack did so often that when you go back now to read those early stories you can only see them as somewhat crude, often over-written, and with plots that have been done a million times. Except that they hadn’t been done a million times then. They were brand new! Original! First time ever! Those fifty issues were, simply put, the best super-hero comics ever done and nobody, let me repeat that, nobody, has done it better.

Don’t get me wrong. Writing has improved. Plotting is more subtle. Dialogue is more realistic. Characterization is often surprisingly real. And much of the art today is brilliant. But this is, generally, all the result of superior craft, not inspiration. Nobody has, month in and month out, surprised us with a seemingly endless cornucopia of ideas like none we’d seen before. Stan and Jack paved the way for what everyone who works in the super-hero field is still doing today.

But, after ten years, even Jack and Stan’s work got tired, but hey – it took ten years and they were both doing many other comics each month. Jack was drawing something like 4-5 books a month. Let me repeat: FOUR TO FIVE BOOKS A MONTH! Most artists today can’t do one book a month. Jack was also co-plotting the books and sometimes doing covers and layouts for other comics. Stan was writing 8-10 comics a month. At my very best and fastest I tried to do 6 comics a month and failed. I had to go down to five and actually did my best work at between 3 and 4.

Anyway, FF is an external comic. When the plots were new and fresh we loved the title. As they became repetitious we started to lose interest. Unlike Spidey, we weren’t all that interested in Reed or Sue or Johnny or sometimes even Ben. They kept doing the same thing over and over again and all the constant innovation of the past was, sadly, history.

Though writers, myself included, tried to keep shaking things up, and all of us tried to do our best, none of us were creating brand new concepts the way Stan and Jack did. We did some good work, but we didn’t do the thing that the FF needed: We weren’t creating new mythologies. Think about it. Where Spidey’s private life was usually kept interesting, which drew us back to him month after month, the FF really didn’t have a private life to explore. The FF relied on stories and innovation, and though sometimes it was very well done but too often not so well done, the FF, after awhile, became just another book.

Throughout the 90s better stuff was being done on creator-owned projects, and who can blame the talent? If a toy is made of your character, you get the money. If a movie or TV show or even a toy is made out of one of the characters you created that is published by Marvel, who knows if you’ll see a penny for your thoughts. I know, ahem, a number of folk who’ve never seen a dime, despite having several hit movies based on their creations. So why create? At DC, you do get percentages, so there has always been a reason to come up with new characters.

Throughout the 90s is was evident that nobody was creating anything for the FF. Every other month it was Dr. Doom or Galactus or the return of some other already created character. But the problem was, nobody was doing anything original with those characters when they did show up. The FF became the dictionary definition of ennui.

Oh, there’d be blips on the radar. Walt Simonson would come in and do a really good series of FF stories, but then he’d go away. Here and there someone would do something special for a month or three, but, in general, it as still the same-o, same-o. Writers in the 90s were badly replicating stories from the 60s and 70s. The FF became a tenth generation Xerox.

And then came Wade. Now, to date, Mark has only done a handful of issues, but he’s done something remarkable with them. Unlike Alan Moore, Mark didn’t throw out everything that came before him. Unlike Frank Miller, he didn’t choose to ignore certain continuity in order to tell his story, and unlike most of the other folk, he didn’t come onto the book in order to do the stories he read when he was 13 years old. Mark has done something that was a blend of all three but something brand new at the same time.

Mark went back to the inspiration of how we remember those early FF stories and re-created that without ever doing what had been done before. Also, he did it without immediately bringing back some old villain. More importantly, he has gone further than anyone, Stan included, to make us care about the core FF characters as well as the stories they’re in. For the first time, perhaps ever, I have a clue to who the characters are.

I read the FF and, in the 70s, wrote it for awhile, and back then could recite chapter and verse on every FF story there was, but with few exceptions I still didn’t know exactly who Reed Richards is. Sure, I knew what he could do. But I didn’t know who he was. A talkative scientist, yes. But who was Reed? With Mark’s FF I’m beginning to understand him. And Johnny, too, and Sue, and, of course, Ben. And Mark did this without changing anything that had gone before. It’s like he saw what was there that everyone else missed and did it and it was so obvious the rest of us should be hitting our heads against the wall in shame for missing it.

The other thing about Mark’s story is the first half dozen issues, they’re done without villains. Oh, there’s some kind of interdimensional bugthing or whatever, but come on. The stories Mark wrote are not about the fights, they’re about the redefinition of who our heroes are. Fact is, the first batch of stories don’t have exceedingly strong plots or even an original premise; I think everyone one of us has had something invade the Baxter Building at least more than once, but because of what he did with the characters, Mark did it in a way that is new. That Mark obviously and deliberately did a long storyline without an old villain really made him, and, more importantly, the readers, center on the FF characters. And yet the story still worked.

I can go on. Mark’s approach with Dr. Doom is nothing short of brilliant. When I did an FF novel many, many years ago, I did dabble with Doom’s mystic abilities, but not this way. Mark’s first Doom story was incredible and the quality didn’t fall down with the subsequent stories.

Now, I know Mark has only done a handful or two of stories to date, and maybe it’s foolish to gush about a re-inventing this early, but that’s okay. And, assuming he’s not fired again, he’ll hopefully stay on the book awhile longer. At some point, sooner or later, he’ll probably run out of ideas. We all do. Hell, I did a good ten years of Titans stories. Of course, they were spread out over a sixteen year run, but who’s counting. Even Stan and Jack eventually ran out of the really good ideas.

But that’s okay. Mark’s already left something more important than whatever number of good stories he may or may not come up with. Mark has provided a template to show future writers how to re-invent long running series. In short, don’t go back and mine the same stories you read as a kid. Don’t replicate your past. Instead, remember the feelings you got when you first read something special and, always remembering today is not yesterday, present it for your modern audience. But present it with new ideas. New approaches. New innovations. Go the extra mile and really think through why something worked and rather than either duplicate it or ignore it, use it in a way that makes total sense yet has not been done before.

George Perez and I tried to do that with our version of the Titans and Mark is doing it with the FF, a much harder task I might add since Mark didn’t create his book as we did ours. He has to take a full team that has existed for 40 years and mine new ideas. And, somehow, he has.

All it took was thought, time and talent. And if the industry really wants to revive itself, it could do a lot worse than to apply the lessons shown here to every comic.

Wouldn’t that be fun?

Before I go, I want to remind everyone to visit my website at www.marvwolfman.com.

See you in fourteen,

Marv


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