[6 February 2003]
“And there ain’t no nothing we can’t love each other through . . . What would we do baby, without us? Sha la la la . . .”
Mindy Sterling and Dennis Tufano, Without Us
Many of us who grew up during the 1980s instantly remember those lyrics as part of the opening theme to the classic sitcom Family Ties. For years, the Keatons were the TV family, second only to the Cosbys in popularity. The show’s generation gap comedy and prototypical “Very Special Episodes” set the standard for how TV families act and interact. But just imagine . . . what if they were superheroes?
What if Steven and Elyse Keaton could burst into flames, and become the flaming liberals that their son Alex accused them of being? And what if Alex could stretch his body the way his heroes Nixon and Reagan stretched the truth? What if Mallory was not only dumb as a rock, but an actual living stone creature? And who knows what Jennifer’s powers might be.
Perhaps it was just such a fantasy that drove Mark Waid to take over the reigns of “Marvel’s First Family”, The Fantastic Four, with a specially priced $0.09 issue #60 (billed as the “World’s Cheapest Comic Magazine” in a riff off of creator Stan Lee’s original slogan as the “World’s Greatest Comic Magazine”). In their 40 year life, originally created at the urging of publisher Martin Goodman so he could have a team book to compete with DC’s Justice League of America, this quartet has been a lot of things: adventurers, explorers, world-saving heroes. But first and foremost, they are that special super-team that no villain can ever hope to defeat; they are a family.
Waid bravely goes against the trend of the last few years to write comics featuring “widescreen” action. He ditches the over-the-top violence and destruction that have become so popular as of late, and he says as much in a funny little bit of meta-narrative in his first issue. While the outlandish villains, the out-of-this-world science, and the clobberin’ remain, at its core this is a book about how four people can live, and love, and interact as a family, with all the pains and joys that brings.
Assisted by the simple, yet evocative cartoon-ish style of artists Mark Wieringo and Karl Kesel, Waid sets the stage for his characters in issues 60-61, jettisoning years of clunky continuity and reintroducing the four heroes to readers. The first major storyline, “Sentient”, which runs through issues 62-64, features much of the classic characterization and far-out science fiction that longtime fans have loved. The Four battle a living mathematical expression from an alternate dimension, bent on destroying anything that gets in the way of its reunion with its creator, Reed Richards. Through teamwork and Reed’s massive intellect, the group manages to defeat their foe, not much of a surprise, I know. But the best scenes in the book are the small moments between characters. Sue and Ben go to see a movie and crack jokes at the trailers. Johnny plays another prank on Ben, and learns how much they have hurt, despite his rocky (pun intended) exterior. Reed, the brilliant scientist, attempts to learn to play Magic: The Gathering from his son Franklin.
Waid’s accomplished something quite rare in any artistic medium, let alone comic books. He’s created a truly “All Ages” book. Most books, comics, or movies that claim to appeal to “All Ages” really don’t do so. They may be too simple for most adults, or contain too many cleverly hidden jokes that go right over the heads of younger readers. But The Fantastic Four has something for just about every reader. The art is simple, colorful, and has a certain quirkiness to it that younger readers will love. The science fiction is imaginative and fun, without being too complicated. There’s plenty of action, but little violence, so those without a taste for the more graphic books on the market will be pleased. And the well-developed, heartfelt notions of family ties will appeal to all adults, parents especially.
But in spite of all the positives that this book has, there is one possible negative that might be looming off in the distance. Now that he’s created such a fun, friendly, and family-oriented book, will Mark Waid ever be able to really change the status quo? One of the most disappointing things for many longtime comics readers is the way that some books never change; despite any and all claims of shocking revelations and events that will forever alter the hero’s life, the next writer will just ignore past events and go in whatever direction they choose. Has Waid written himself into a corner where he can’t risk such events, for fear of alienating parents and kids who expect a certain product? He’s claimed that big changes are coming up with the return of Dr. Doom, so we’ll just have to wait and see. I, for one, will be sure to tune in every month. Sit, Ubu, Sit. Good dog.