[9 July 2014]
This special Fantastic Four anniversary issue is a gimmick issue, a pretend look at what the Fantastic Four might look like in the year 2061. It is meant to generate attention and sales and to entertain readers in a way that only comicbooks can, with a fanciful, breezy story built around familiar characters set in exotic locations and bizarre situations. I can’t speak to how commercially successful the book is, but as summer entertainment, it does what it needs to do.
As I understand the premise, the book is meant to commemorate, not the 100th anniversary of the Fantastic Four, the superhero group that is also a family, but the 100th anniversary of the Fantastic Four comicbook. The setting is not one hundred years after Reed, Sue, Ben and Johnny were first exposed to cosmic rays but rather one hundred years after Jack and Stan kicked off the Marvel revolution with the introduction of “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine.” The characters are older than they appear in today’s Marvel Universe, but not 47 years older; they have aged according to Marvel time, not real time.
This premise makes the reading experience a bit of a meta-experience; and it means that the creative team had their work cut out for them. It would be one thing to imagine what the Fantastic Four would look like in the future, quite another the Fantastic Four. Writer Jan Van Meter and artist Joanna Estep have obviously done their work. The reader is quickly made aware that a lot of history, comicbook history, has unfolded in the intervening years. The changes in characters are pronounced, but layered in a way that can makes sense given what we know about the development of these characters over the last fifty years and what we know about way comicbooks themselves evolve and change over time. The art and character designs are familiar, yet different, futuristic and old-fashioned in a way that suggests a blending of styles, just the sort of thing the future will surely hold.
The stars of the Fantastic Four comicbook of the future are new characters: Trin Richards-Banner is Fantasm, Kirby Richards-Banner is Slip, Victoria Harkness is Enchantress, and Lee Minh Cam is the Human Torch. The nod to Stan and Jack is one of those meta-elements that successfully take the reader out of the story and allow it to be appreciated as a comicbook of the future. The Richards/Banner grandchildren have the other effect; they open the imagination to speculate on what has happened to these characters, and other Marvel characters, in the intervening years. (Don’t even get me started on the implications for Enchantress, who appears to be the descendant of Doctor Doom and Agatha Harkness!) This is all so well done that there is plenty here for fans to speculate about, plenty here that might just shape the future of these characters in the hands of other storytellers.
The stars of this issue, however, are Valeria, daughter of Reed and Sue, now all grown-up and leading the team, and the Invisible Woman herself, older but also stronger and more self-assured. When the new team is in jeopardy, Valeria and her mother reunite the original team (and Doom!) to help save them. The depiction of Sue is particularly refreshing. She has clearly come a long way in a hundred years.
There is no hint here of the Invisible Girl that Lee and Kirby first created, whose invisibility seemed to be a reflection of her wilting and shy personality. This is not the Sue who disappeared when nervous, not the Sue who was dizzily in love with both Reed and Prince Namor, not the Sue who felt that Reed was spending too much time at work and not enough time taking her to fancy restaurants, not the Sue who would rather shop for clothes than battle the Mole Man. This Sue is fiery and strong, in charge from moment one, an Invisible Woman who is front and center, clearly visible whenever she is on the page. I can only hope that this is the way female heroes are presented in the future. It is encouraging to see it done today, but a shame that it remains so rare that it must be remarked upon.
This pretend 100th Anniversary issue of the Fantastic Four is a good read. It is thoroughly steeped in what has gone before in a way that makes its predictions for the strange and fantastic future of these characters seem familiar and true. Whoever is charged with creating the real 100th Anniversary issue will be challenged to top it.
Did I also mention that this is the first issue of Fantastic Four created by women? I hope this isn’t a gimmick. I hope this is the future.