They were the first family of comics. Their battles against some of the most diabolical and frightening villains in comics history are legendary. They have faced Dr. Doom and Galactus, partnered with The Silver Surfer and Namor, all while remaining a tight knit, if at times dysfunctional group of heroes. Considered one of the favorites of their creator, Stan Lee, as well as legions of comic book fans, their place among the greatest of superhumans has never been questioned. So, why then, have the Fantastic Four virtually disappeared? The answer actually has nothing to do with some nefarious plot but instead with the business of superheroes…but before we begin to unravel this mystery, let’s be good little geeks and explore the origin story.
The Fantastic Four, comprised of Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic), Sue Storm (Invisible Woman), Johnny Storm (Human Torch ) and Ben Grimm (Thing) was created by none other than Marvel Comics icons, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Following their debut in 1961, they became one of the most popular franchises in the Marvel lineup as well as in comics as a whole. The idea of a team of heroes comprised of family members (and one very grumpy, very massive friend) was a novel concept at the time and sales for the team’s book reflected how well received they were. An animated series followed in 1967 which ran until 1970 and in 1975 the Fantastic Four even helped revive the old medium of the Superhero Radio Serial with a weekly (albeit short lived show that featured a young Bill Murray as the voice of the Human Torch). Although a Fantastic Four film had been made in 1994 and never released, fans got their first cinematic fix in 2005 with the release of The Fantastic Four in theaters, which was followed by a sequel in 2007. Both films, though highly anticipated, received mixed reviews from critics and fans. Thereafter, in 2009, comic book writer, Johnathan Hickman took the helm for the Fantastic Four title at Marvel and was widely credited with bringing the comic into the modern age. Despite the ups and downs experienced by Marvel and its financial woes, all appeared to be going well for the comic and its future did not seem in jeopardy. Then, in 2014, without warning, Marvel abruptly canceled the Fantastic Four comic, citing poor sales for the title. To say this was unanticipated would be an understatement. While sales certainly hadn’t been stellar, they weren’t worthy of full blown cancellation. For purposes of at least temporary closure, fans were presented with a story line wherein The Storm-Richards family left our dimension to bounce around the multiverse. Since that time, despite a recent story line where Thing is working with S.H.I.E.L.D. and Torch is flying solo after a stint with The Inhumans, the team itself has not been reassembled. (link)
Could poor sales really have been at the heart of the disappearance of such a beloved group of heroes? Sure, cancellations happen all the time in comics. Titles don’t always perform as well as expected and are often scaled back, or temporarily dropped but rarely do iconic heroes disappear for very long stretches, even if their solo books are canceled. In this case, Marvel certainly had the option of integrating the Fantastic Four into other books or even have them make a cameo from time to time as a unit, even if publishing a solo Fantastic Four book didn’t make financial sense. But to break up the band for going on 3 years (which is an eternity in a world where characters DIE and are back from the dead in 6-8 months) gives reason to believe that there is more to the story.
That story may have its origins in Marvel’s period of financial turmoil in the 90’s when it sold off the film rights to characters including as Spider Man, the X-Men, Daredevil and the Fantastic Four to various movie studios. However, following its phoenix-like resurgence in 2008 with Iron Man and the launch of the highly successful Marvel Cinematic Universe, there has been a consistent effort by Marvel to reclaim its properties. It has had some success in partnering with Sony to recapture Spider Man which resulted in the critical darling, Spider Man: Homecoming released this summer. Fox Studios though, has been unwilling to play ball. In 2015, it released an updated cinematic version of The Fantastic Four which was soundly thrashed by critics and reviled by moviegoers. Even in the face of such disaster, Marvel was still unable to sway 20th Century Fox to reconsider its hard line position. What followed were rumors that Marvel had taken the ax to the Fantastic Four not due to sales, but to instead, exact its revenge against Fox. The rumor mill is nothing new in the comics industry, and often times can be rather outlandish. Therefore the notion that Marvel would kill one of its most iconic comics simply to diminish interest in the cinematic property held by a rival studio seemed unthinkable. That is until the rumor was confirmed. (link)
Enter, Johnathan Hickmann, who, because of his connection to the title, spoke out last month when asked to confirm if the stories of Marvel’s planned sabotage were true.
“I think it’s pretty common knowledge at this point that that Marvel isn’t publishing Fantastic Four because of their disagreement with Fox. While it bums me out, I completely understand because, well, it isn’t like they’re not acting out of cause. Fox needs to do a better job there.”
Yet, although Hickmann seemed to understand Marvel’s tactics from a business standpoint, he was unable to endorse them from a creative one.
“That kind of thinking runs contrary to everything I believe in as a professional storyteller. It comes from a place of manipulation where an attempt is made to make the reader desire something through denial. It’s hacky. It’s suboptimal. It’s the central tenet of all shitty dating advice. If you want someone to care about a book, write a story they care about.”
So, is this the end? Has the Marvel/Fox rivalry effectively left The Fantastic Four on the shelf forever? Well, anyone who knows anything about comics knows that “forever” is an alien concept. Without a doubt, we will see some version of the The Fantastic Four whether it be in the form of another ill fated movie produced by Fox or at the very least a temporary rejoining of the team in a comic story line. Even now, Thing, Torch and Mr. Fantastic have shown up in various Marvel titles, just not working together. It can only be a matter of time before public demand for Fantastic Four causes the stubborn studios to cease butting heads and hopefully follow the blueprint that helped save Spider Man from the junk heap.
Failure to do so would be an incredibly sad ending to a legacy whose very roots are embedded in the history of comics itself. For two studios so willing to bring out the long knives when it comes to this particular property, it seems oddly ironic that neither can grasp the very foundation of the Fantastic Four itself; teamwork.