[24 July 2013]
“Self-Evident Truths!,” the tenth issue of Fantastic Four brushes up against the uniquely American promise of Walt Whitman, as well the suicidally egocentric brio of Harry Houdini, even if it does so in the most elaborate way. It’s not simply the case that uniquely American values are tapped by the Fantastic Four traveling back in time to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Rather, it is the hopefulness and the resilient optimism that the Signing represents that writer Matt Fraction taps into.
Fraction has been writing Fantastic Four since the series’ soft-reboot with Marvel NOW! late last year. The book has presented him with a very different kind of conceptual challenge to his previous mainstream superhero book, Invincible Iron Man. While Tony Stark’s Iron Man has always been dependably predictable in his transgressive nature (dependably vice-ridden, dependably driven, dependably genius), Reed Richards’ Mr. Fantastic has always suffered under a philosophical problem ushered in by the Silver Age—can anyone be a superhero?
In the pre-atomic culture of the Golden Age, when comicbooks as much told the story of burgeoning urbanization as of superheroes, the heroes’ alter egos were themselves spectacular. Batman wasn’t only Batman, he was a millionaire playboy. As a newspaperman, Superman’s Clark Kent was on the cutting edge of current affairs. Wonder Woman wasn’t only an Amazon princess, but an intelligence analyst for the Department of Defense. But a philosophical problem that the superhero genre wrestled with after the War, and one that lingered right to the birth of the Silver Age in the 60s, was whether or not alter ego could be an actual “secret” identity. Spider-Man was nothing more than a kid with special powers. What’s worse, his heroic deeds were the target of a smear-campaign by the city’s number one daily newspaper. Thor, the physically imposing Viking god of Thunder was a physically challenged physician “in real life.” And Mr. Fantastic was a father.
It was a calculated risk that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby took in scripting Mr. Fantastic particularly in the role of fatherhood. Golden Age comicbooks seemed to rely on boyhood power fantasies—Superman, Batman, represented what all of us might yet become. But who would want to imagine themselves already married to girl of their dreams, and mentoring two “foster-children” in the persons of their best friend from college and their brother-in-law?
While erstwhile Fantastic Four scribe Jonathan Hickman focused on the grand-scale space opera that seems to be the unique legacy of Jack Kirby, current writer Fraction has taken a different path altogether. What Fraction offers is an ongoing and engaging drama about a family, while not facing imminent meltdown, that is however forced into a more traditional structure than any one member, including Mr. Fantastic, may be comfortable with.
The basic premise that Fraction ushered in all the way back in the first issue of this Marvel NOW! phase of the Four, was the notion that the “unstable molecules” that gave the Fantastic Four their powers was now entering into a state of molecular decay. This wouldn’t signal the end of the Four as superheroes, but the end of the Four themselves. As a consequence, Reed Richards packs up the original Fantastic Four and his children Franklin and Valeria, and undertakes a cosmic roadtrip through all spacetime to search for a cure.
But since leaving Earth, the adventures through spacetime seemed random, even arbitrary. We’ve seen the Four travel to a world that behaves like a carnivore, to the assassination of Julius Caesar, to the rebirth of Viktor von Doom as the supervillain Dr. Doom. It is only in this issue, an issue that comes some nine months on, that Fraction writes out his great reveal—cluing us in to what Mr. Fantastic’s reason for visiting each of these different cosmic locales was.
And it is in this issue that Fraction’s vision of Marvel’s First Family is made abundantly clear. Fraction’s project for the Fantastic Four scans as a success, not merely from this one issue, but from the accumulation of narrative and theme that was evidenced over the past 10 months. Fraction’s treatment of the Fantastic Four, in contradistinction to Hickman’s which focused on a Kirby-esque ascension of the (super-)human into the cosmos that is already an ecosystem rife with post-terrestrial life, is a focus on the family. In this regard, Fraction offers a seductively incisive take on the nature of family drama. We’ve seen families that work as convivial units, we’ve seen the Huxtables. We’ve also seen families in breakdown, we’ve seen the Simpsons and the Osbournes. But what we haven’t yet seen is a family forced into a more traditional family structure, without the family unit itself in crisis. And it’s this take on the Fantastic Four that has allowed Fraction to produce a sublime vision of Mr. Fantastic himself, one that is fraught with almost the same power and risk of the original Lee-Kirby vision.
Because of the risk faced by the Four, because it’s a risk that Mr. Fantastic has himself refused to share with his family, he’s trapped himself in a sterner, more authoritarian kind of fatherhood. This is the “let-things-spiral-as-they-may-I’ll-survive-or-bounce-back-or-evolve” roll of the dice kind of attitude that Iron Man’s Tony Stark usually leaves himself open to. With this problem, the stakes are too high for the entire Fantastic Four, perhaps even for Franklin and Valeria. This is a measured, slow-to-react Mr. Fantastic, who has shouldered far too much responsibility and is now just a few short steps ahead of a critical implosion.
What Fraction has offered us is a vision of Mr. Fantastic at the strange crossway between Walt Whitman’s optimism, and an unapologetic belief in established identity being the equal of whatever challenges might come, and the suicidal brio of Harry Houdini who invited his loved ones to watch him perform escapes during which he could easily have died. It’s the idea that Fraction offers identity as a kind of through-narrative, and as a meta-theme for the Fantastic Four that makes Fraction’s vision of the characters so alluring. Added to that, a postmodern nod with which Fraction refuses to employ the idea of through-narrative in transmedia terms, or in co-promotional terms (as described in Morgan Spurlock’s beautiful Pom Wonderful Presents: the Greatest Movie Ever Sold), and instead insists on focusing on the comicbook and the family itself.
For these reasons Fantastic Four #10 comes with substantial praise.