Understanding FANTASTIC FOUR's Legacy & Possible Future

Fantastic Four #600
Credit: Joe Quesada (Marvel Comics)
Credit: Marvel Comics

With "Marvel Legacy" under two months away and neither hide nor hair of the Richards family cropping up, it is starting to seem as though the one returning title fans most expected as part of the (un)relaunch may not happen after all.

Yes, there is a small Fantastic Four presence in the "Legacy" solicitations – Marvel Two-In-One brings back Ben Grimm’s 70s team-up title in a big way. But the family dynamic the team once occupied has largely been co-opted by the new Defenders, which features Marvel’s new premiere married couple, Luke Cage and Jessica Jones.

But the somewhat surprising lack of Fantastic Four – Marvel’s literal first superhero family - in a movement designed to capitalize on Marvel’s roots and its decades long history led us to consider what it would take to bring the FF back in a meaningful way, as a continuing presence in the Marvel Universe – and the reasons why they left in the first place.

The perception of the “why” of the Richards family’s absence certainly seems to be that the Fantastic Four no longer connected with audiences - according to Marvel.

Fantastic Four is a title and a concept that has a lot of built in historical importance in the Marvel Universe, but to the readership of today, it doesn’t resonate the same way that X-Men, or Avengers, or even Guardians of the Galaxy does right now,” Marvel Executive Editor Tom Brevoort told Newsarama in January 2016 after the conclusion of Secret Wars, the crossover that took the Richardses – and by proxy the FF – off the board. “It’s sort of taken for granted. It’s sort of seen as a holdover from another era. Which isn’t to say that the characters aren’t great, or the concepts aren’t important, or that it isn’t a lynchpin of the Marvel Universe, but it’s just the facts of the world, and the zeitgeist of today. Fantastic Four hasn’t been at the forefront.”

Credit: Dale Eaglesham (Marvel Comics)

However, Jonathan Hickman, who wrote Fantastic Four and the companion FF series, as well as Secret Wars, takes a slightly different position.

“Of course not,” Hickman told Newsarama when asked if he agreed there was a disconnect between audiences and the Fantastic Four. “Not only because my personal experience is that it's not true, but the idea behind that conceit is that the core concept is somehow broken. Which is nonsense.”

"‘Family,’ ‘Future,’ and ‘Exploration,’ are timeless, universal concepts. Sure, they can be nostalgic, but they don't have to be. That's really the brilliance of a lot of the early Marvel characters, they were created by guys wrapping both arms around timeless themes,” Hickman continued. “There are some exceptions to this, of course, but for the most part almost everything Marvel owns is highly malleable and easily exploitable. I'd argue execution is the mission critical element necessary for a Marvel book to succeed. Fantastic Four is no different.”

”It’s funny - just a few years ago there were two ongoing Fantastic Four comics,” said one-time Marvel and IDW editor, now writer John Barber, echoing Hickman’s sentiment. “So I think it can connect with the audience - you just need the right story, and the right hook to draw people in to find out it’s the right story.”

Kwanza Osajyefo, former DC Comics editor and current Director of Creative Strategy for PR firm Weber Shandwick (as well as writer of Black), pointed to other Marvel properties once perceived as far-fetched, saying ”Don’t tell me a talking tree and anthropomorphic raccoon can sell but the Fantastic Four can’t.”

The concrete “whys” of the Richards family’s absence have been a matter of speculation since they left the Marvel Universe in Secret Wars, but as it turns out, the actual reason for their disappearance from Marvel's publishing line may be exactly what some conspiracy minded fans have said all along - 20th Century Fox's ownership of the franchise's film rights - but maybe not for the reasons they may expect.

”I think it’s pretty common knowledge at this point that Marvel isn’t publishing Fantastic Four because of their disagreement with Fox,” Hickman explained. “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.”

Hickman’s reasoning seems to imply that Marvel did indeed drop the FF because of the Fox films – not necessarily for financial reasons, but because the most recent reboot was both critically and financially unsuccessful, and failed to reflect well on Marvel's comic books. Marvel still publishes an entire line of X-Men comic books, for example, despite Fox also controlling that franchise's film rights.

Barber spelled it out more directly, saying “Not to be blunt, but three f---ing terrible movies don’t help anything.”

”I think the lack of a current Fantastic Four series owes a lot more to the film situation than to a lack of interest,” he clarified.

Credit: Jack Kirby (Marvel Comics)

But Hickman also says that the Fantastic Four didn’t need to leave the Marvel Universe.

”That kind of thinking runs contrary to everything I believe in as a professional storyteller,” Hickman explained. “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 sh---y dating advice. If you want someone to care about a book, write a story they care about.”

”It’s the publisher’s job to find a creative team with heart for the project and then get it to the right audience,” added Osajyefo. “Guardians of the Galaxy gave Marvel territory in sci-fi, Avengers is superhero drama, but exploratory, family adventure - that’s the Fantastic Four.”

”It’s clear which characters are absent, and that’s a darned shame because I assume both Marvel editorial and fans have love for the Fantastic Four,” he continued. “Maybe that will be rekindled the way it has been with X-Men, but without a ride at Disneyland, their future is dubious.”

When it comes to comic books, however, the Fantastic Four might just be one of the lynchpins to what Stan Lee himself described as "Marvel Legacy"'s intent of "returning to classic characters as they were originally portrayed" after all.

Fantastic Four is the birth of the Marvel Universe,” explained Barber. “It’s the first comic published under the Marvel banner; it really started the set-up of heroes that don’t always see things the same way. When Namor returned in Fantastic Four #4, it established the idea that the Marvel Universe was expansive and persistent - the stories from the 1940s still happened!”

“That was a wild notion. Plus, via the Skrulls and Galactus and Mole Man and Wakanda and the Microverse and Latveria the series created the foundation what the Marvel Universe was like, on Earth, below, and above. And in a literal sense of creating characters - so much came out of those Stan Lee/Jack Kirby issues, from Black Panther to the Kree to Doctor Doom to the Inhumans. It’s an incredible bout of world-building and unfettered imagination.”

But it’s the central tenet of the Fantastic Four, the guiding principle, that made them a hit in the first place that Barber says is the key to making them work in 2017 – and which makes them so essential to the idea of the “classic” Marvel Universe.

”Focus on the family,” Barber said. “I don’t buy ‘family’ being a problem with the Fantastic Four, it’s just a matter of figuring out and understanding what 'family' means to the contemporary world.”

”You’d be hard-pressed to make me believe Marvel can’t light a torch under the Fantastic Four,” quipped Osajyefo.

Art from 'Secret Wars #9'
Art from 'Secret Wars #9'
Credit: Marvel Comics

But there's still the question of when they'll be back - because none of the creators talked to for this article are under the assumption that the Fantastic Four are gone forever.

"We knew a year or so out that the Fantastic Four as a property wasn't going to be published at Marvel past 2015," Hickman explained of their last appearance in Secret Wars. "When this became a foregone conclusion, then Secret Wars moved about six inches to the left to read as 'the last Fantastic Four story.' I mean, it's not, as it'll be back someday, and it's not, as it's only the Doom-Reed axis and not the entire family, but it's the best we could do because of how pregnant we were."
 
Back in 2016, just after the end of Secret Wars, Brevoort took the same position.
 
"Whether it’s tomorrow, or in a year, or in five years, the potential, and indeed the likelihood, is that there will be some new Fantastic Four book again," Brevoort said. "And in the meantime, those characters, for the people that love them, are still in play, and are still a factor in the Marvel Universe. But the omnipresent but overlooked Fantastic Four is not. Hopefully that absence will actually make it more valuable when we announce some Fantastic Four thing at some date in the future."
 
And, according to Hickman, there is one specific thing that could definitely bring the Fantastic Four back.

"Disney probably needs to buy Fox.”

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