Briefs & Boxers! 09/01/10

o “Unforgiving Fathers”

Where to take the Fantastic Four, now?

In his “Emanata” column at Techland, Douglas Wolk looks at the promotional efforts for an upcoming Marvel story by Jonathan Hickman, singling out Fantastic Four as a series that particularly finds itself in the shadow of its creators:

“As Lee and Kirby established the FF, their premises are inflexible: they’re a family. They’re explorers. They have adventures together. […] If you stick to those axioms, you’re not just making a Fantastic Four story, you’re making one in the Lee/Kirby tradition […]. If you ignore any of those axioms, then it’s not really the Fantastic Four any more, and the question becomes how, and how quickly, it’s going to get back to being the ‘real’ Fantastic Four.”

Now, there’s Doctor Strange, granted, who has never quite transcended those early Lee/Ditko stories in style or subject matter in a sustained way, and certainly not for lack of trying. And, as much as I want to agree with Wolk on Captain America (Bucky rawks), I don’t expect that Brubaker will have altered, or expanded upon, the Simon/Kirby/Lee roots of the concept in any significant fashion when he’s done, any more than Steve Englehart or Mark Gruenwald did—and lord, they tried.

But, other than that, when it comes to Marvel’s big franchises, it’s hard to argue the point.

The Lee/Ditko issues may still be Spider-Man’s most “defining” run, but the goal posts of the character’s world have moved in significant and lasting ways since: when John Romita replaced Ditko; when Gerry Conway and Gil Kane killed Gwen Stacy; when Harry Osborn became the Goblin; when Peter went to college; when the clones and alien costumes and marriages became a fixture. And, more importantly, it’s been proven over the last 10 years that the basic ingredients of the Spider-Man mythos that Lee and Ditko invented and put in place can be easily modified and translated for modern audiences. Some of the most popular comics creators of their times have tried to do this with the Fantastic Four and failed: Jim Lee, Brian Michael Bendis, Mark Millar, Warren Ellis.

Or the Hulk. If there’s been any “definitive” version of the Hulk, Herb Trimpe probably has dibs for putting a face on the one that most people would most immediately recognize. Then again, the live-action and animated TV shows of the 1970s and 1980s probably did more to cement the idea of “the Hulk’” in people’s minds than anything from a comic. (Yes, Peter David had a long, well-remembered run. But it’s long and well-remembered because David kept coming up with smart ways to deviate from the “Hulk Smash!” formula, then return to it; none of his deviations replaced that formula. The David run may be a satisfying stretch of periodical fiction, but it did little to redefine the Hulk.)

In Thor’s case, as Wolk says, Walter Simonson’s rediscovery of the character through the lens of the Norse myths that had always nominally informed it managed to leave an impression that’s up there with the melodramatic Lee/Kirby stuff from the 1960s. Something similar happened with Iron Man, who keeps snapping back to David Michelinie and Bob Layton’s struggling alcoholic as much as the Stan Lee/Don Heck version. The Avengers, as a formula, didn’t really crystallize into something that people keep coming back to until the end of the Roy Thomas run. The X-Men and Daredevil didn’t come into their own until the late 1970s and early 1980s, even, when Wein, Cockrum, Claremont, Byrne, Miller and Janson reshaped them into something that stuck, that finally resonated with the audience.

And DC’s big guns, compared to their Marvel cousins, are conceptual Frankensteins, made up and defined by patches collected over decades from dozens of different interpretations, rather than one or two particularly dominant ones. If it feels like there’s a new Superman origin with all-new, all-different sensibilities and emphasis every two years, then that’s because there is. The DC characters—Superman and Batman, certainly, but also Wonder Woman, the Flash and Green Lantern and a lot of the less major ones—are not so much solid institutions as tugs-of-war given conceptual form, composit constructs whose aspects are constantly at odds with each other and vying for dominance.

But with the Fantastic Four, literally everything that ever “stuck” comes from Lee and Kirby. John Byrne and Mark Waid’s runs are long and fondly remembered, but, as Wolk points out, they moved well within the established boundaries. There’s nothing in them that Lee and Kirby didn’t do first, in some way. In the 2000s, Grant Morrison and Joe Casey (and James Sturm, but I’m not brave enough to let him out of the parentheses)—neither of them known for creative modesty—all had their go at the Fantastic Four, but their efforts were marginal, uncharacteristically reverential oddities.

So, is it even possible to revamp and re-interpret the Fantastic Four and keep them relevant in the way it’s happened to Spider-Man, the X-Men or Daredevil? Or is it a concept that’s outlived itself and is best left in the 1960s?

Well, there is one particular Fantastic Four story that sticks to all the “axioms” Wolk identifies and still takes the concept in a new direction that’s at least as far removed from Lee and Kirby as Simonson’s Thor was. Incidentally, it deals with ideas like relevance, innovation and the caretaking of things we’ve come to love for nostalgic reasons. It’s called Planetary.

Where to take the Fantastic Four, now? I don’t know, but it would seem that there are ways, at least.

o “Comfort Through the Doors”

Out now: Punisher Max: Happy Ending #1, a one-shot special by Irish writer Peter Milligan and Spanish artist Juan Jose Ryp.

Peter Milligan is a bit baffling to me; half the time, his work is brilliant, the other half it’s… less so. I think I’ve read a few bland comics by him, too, but those were X-Men spinoffs that came out in the 1990s, so it’s not surprising. Generally speaking, when he’s good, he’s really good.

And he knows how to do the kind of short story that a Punisher one-shot calls for, as he’s demonstrated with Moon Knight: Silent Knight a couple of years ago. Ryp usually draws gory stuff for Avatar, and as the preview images show, he’s up to the task.

o “Knock It All to Hell”

Out today: Stumptown #4, written by Greg Rucka and drawn by Matthew Southworth. It’s the conclusion to the first arc of the series, titled, “The Case of the Girl Who Took Her Shampoo But Left Her Mini.”

It’s also the conclusion of the series, period, according to Diamond. Which sucks, because it’s the best crime comic I’ve read lately. It stars a down-but-not-out female private investigator named Dex Parios, who combines the familiar toughness and ambiguity of Rucka heroines like Tara Chace and Carrie Stetko with an unhealthy dose of Jim Rockford’s charm and bad luck. Here’s my review of the first issue.

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Marc-Oliver Frisch writes about comics at his weblog and at Comicgate. You can also follow him on Twitter.

Comments

  1. That Diamond link saying “#4 (of 4)” doesn’t mean that STUMPTOWN is kaput, merely that this is the end of the first four-issue arc. Considering how delayed the series has been, waiting until there’s more in the can before doing more is probably a good idea. And indeed, it’s the plan, per Greg Rucka:

    http://www.gregrucka.com/wp/on-the-occasion-of-stumptown-issue-4/

    kdb

  2. Finally, someone talking about comics! That was a terrific analysis of FF. I have to say I agree completely. Well done.

  3. It’s also the conclusion of the series, period, according to Diamond.

    In the future, before writing something like that — which turns out to be inaccurate — please shoot an e-mail to Oni or make a phone call to double-check it.

  4. Charles Knight says:

    “Well, there is one particular Fantastic Four story that sticks to all the “axioms” Wolk identifies and still takes the concept in a new direction that’s at least as far removed from Lee and Kirby as Simonson’s Thor was. Incidentally, it deals with ideas like relevance, innovation and the caretaking of things we’ve come to love for nostalgic reasons. It’s called Planetary.”

    But that’s a finite story with an ending, so I’m not sure how that fits within what you are discussing? Sure you could do a Fantastic Four story where they are all bastards and then die but you would still head straight back to the original model afterwards.

  5. Matthew Southworth says:

    Hi Marc–

    Thanks for the kind words on Stumptown–it makes me feel great to know you’re liking it so much and mourning its conclusion.

    Chin up, cheer up! It’s not over; there’s a lot of confusion about this, but it’s only the end of the first arc, the first “case”–we’re working on the next one right now.

    There will be more in a few months–we’re going to finish the first three issues of the upcoming arc before we solicit so there won’t be any scheduling snafus like the first time around.

    Tell your friends–the reports of our demise have been greatly exaggerated!

    Matt Southworth

    (and I just now saw Kurt Busiek’s reply, too–thanks for taking the time to point that out, Kurt!)

  6. Matthew Southworth says:

    Just wanted to add something, having read Chad’s reply–

    Apparently a lot of people believe this is the end of the series–it has been misunderstood this way several times that I’ve seen.

    No worries here–just please tell everyone you know that likes the series that there’s more to come. Thanks!

  7. Matthew: You keep makin’ ‘em and I’ll keep buyin’ ‘em!

  8. Love Stumptown! Glad to know there’s more on the way.

  9. “But with the Fantastic Four, literally everything that ever “stuck” comes from Lee and Kirby.”

    One exception comes to mind: the Thomas-Buscema Thundra character.

    One can argue that she may have been mishandled or inadequately explored; certainly *I* would. But though introduced as a member of a new Frightful Four she’s quickly divorced from that Lee-Kirby association, and never quite meets the goody-goody fate meted out to Medusa. If only thanks to a strong costume-design she’s a 70s character who proves memorable, and whose various grudge matches with the Thing seem to resonate with fans nearly as much as Thing-Hulk donnybrooks.

    I’d also say that though Trimpe’s Hulk may be the most memorable visual, Lee and Ditko deserve the most credit for what became the core concept: “the madder Hulk gets the stronger Hulk gets,” which arguably had more influence on the TV series than the Lee-Kirby “werewolf Hulk.”

  10. Clayton says:

    I can’t wait to get this in tpb. Sorry, I was going to pick up the issues, but given what had happed with Q&C, I thought to wait on this. Maybe I’ll jump the issue with the next arc.
    And speaking of Q&C, I’m just dying to get the 3rd novel this Fall.

  11. It’s a great book, Matt — I want lots more!

    Gene — while Thundra’s gone on to a happy life as a C-level character, she’s not really part & parcel of the FF series, just a character who debuted there (and her “Femizon” society debuted earlier, in SAVAGE TALES). She’s sort of irrelevant to the idea of whether someone can ring changes on the core FF concepts (as Miller did to DD, the all-new X-gang did to X-Men and Walt did to Thor) and produce something different but reinvigorated and definitive for a new generation.

    I think it could be done for the FF, but at this point, anyone who had a way to do it would be better served to build their own property out of those new ideas rather than give them away for page rate.

  12. Kurt:

    “That Diamond link saying “#4 (of 4)” doesn’t mean that STUMPTOWN is kaput, merely that this is the end of the first four-issue arc.”

    A listing like that usually does mean it’s the end of a series, though. And what Greg Rucka and Matthew Southworth posted doesn’t necessarily contradict that — nobody seems to be sure yet exactly when and how STUMPTOWN will return.

    I just presumed that if and when the book ever comes back for a second arc, it would be with a new subtitle and #1. And I concede that all of that may sound more skeptical than is warranted, but then, I’m still waiting for QUEEN & COUNTRY Vol. 2 #1, which was initially meant to follow after the first novel, as I recall, and has since been relegated to being a distant possibility.

  13. Charles:

    “Sure you could do a Fantastic Four story where they are all bastards and then die but you would still head straight back to the original model afterwards.”

    Oh, I didn’t mean the bastard part. Yes, there’s the “Four” in PLANETARY, but they’re just foils for the four Planetary members proper.

    I regard the protagonists — Elijah Snow, Jakita Wagner, Ambrose Chase and The Drummer — as the “real” Fantastic Four analogies in the series.

  14. Matthew:

    Thanks for the clarification! I’m looking forward to the second arc, whenever it’s ready.

  15. To quote Mark-Oliver more fully:

    ‘The Lee/Ditko issues may still be Spider-Man’s most “defining” run, but the goal posts of the character’s world have moved in significant and lasting ways since: when John Romita replaced Ditko; when Gerry Conway and Gil Kane killed Gwen Stacy; when Harry Osborn became the Goblin; when Peter went to college; when the clones and alien costumes and marriages became a fixture. And, more importantly, it’s been proven over the last 10 years that the basic ingredients of the Spider-Man mythos that Lee and Ditko invented and put in place can be easily modified and translated for modern audiences. Some of the most popular comics creators of their times have tried to do this with the Fantastic Four and failed: Jim Lee, Brian Michael Bendis, Mark Millar, Warren Ellis.’

    Responding to the Kurt Busiek response:

    Maybe it’s M-O’s use of the word “ingredients” that throws me off, which I think of denoting the incorporation of new characters (Venom) and events (Gwen Stacy’s death) into the mythology. Kurt seems to be talking more about making a change to what might be called the established *idiom* of the FF series, not just additions to the ongoing mythology. It was in the latter spirit I noted that Thundra had become a significant part of the FF’s mythology (even if she’s not seen a whole lot these days), as opposed to most of the frankly unmemorable characters and events that followed Lee and Kirby.

    I might include under “events” the whole “Johnny/Alicia” thing, which, whatever I thought of its execution, did become a pretty long-lasting trope. I assume it’s gone now, but one can say the same of Spider-Man’s marriage.

    Maybe a change in idiom is what Mark-Oliver meant, since that is what we got when Miller did DD and Simonson did THOR. But that’s not quite the same as the ongoing mythology.

  16. On the chance that it’s not clear as to what sense I mean the word “idiom,” I quote Macmillan online:

    “A style of artistic expression characteristic of a particular individual, school, period, or medium”

  17. Gene:

    “Maybe a change in idiom is what Mark-Oliver meant, since that is what we got when Miller did DD and Simonson did THOR. But that’s not quite the same as the ongoing mythology.”

    I mean both, pretty much; I don’t really see Thundra as that major an addition.

    And while the Johnny Storm/Alicia Masters relationship may have been a major storyline at the time, its relevance to the Fantastic Four ended the minute it was gone. It didn’t rock any boats in any lasting fashion.

    Spider-Man’s marriage may also be over, but its relevance to the overall mythos is a rather different, more persistent one — if only because it lasted 20 years.

  18. Joel:

    “Peter Milligan is not an ‘Irish writer’, He is English and lives in London:)”

    Is there a reliable source on Milligan’s nationality?

    I’ve been looking him up for years – half the sources that mention one say he’s Irish, the other half say he’s “British.” Wikipedia used to say he was an Irishman, but that’s now been changed to “British,” too.

    So if anyone’s got a trustworthy interview or profile or book jacket that clarify the matter, I’d appreciate it.

  19. Joel:

    “British” and “English” aren’t synonymous, either, as you’re probably aware.

    And I don’t exactly trust Wikipedia, but it’s one of several sources I’ve found that have cited any nationality at all for Milligan that’s more specific than just “British.” I don’t recall ever seeing a source that identifies him as English.

    That said, thanks for your comments — I’ll pay attention and try to find out.

  20. Marc-Oliver:

    Let me try this out on you: Thundra isn’t up there in the “A-class” of the FF myth-characters, like Doc Doom and Galactus, but I see no reason why she wouldn’t be as popular/influential as the “B-class” types who frequently make comebacks more sentimental than substantial– Diablo, Dragon Man, the rest of the Frightful Four.

    I give way to no one in my appreciation of the Lee-Kirby FF, but many characters they created were just basic good concepts but not exceptional.

    I still don’t see why the goalposts are moved when Norman Osborn becomes the Goblin but not when Johnny marries his best friend’s ex-girlfriend. They’re both solid melodramatic changeups, and even if they’re undone or revised later on, the goalposts have still moved in the minds of the readers. Unless you confine yourself to readers who used to be like the mass-audience that used to persue comics for a few years before moving into adolescence– but as far as superheroes are concerned, isn’t that audience composed of Vanishing Americans?

  21. Not to kiss Kurt Busiek’s ass or inflate his ego even more [just kidding], but I thought that the First (Furst) Family was the next logical step in the “family” superhero context.

    Here was a family story that involved ex-wives [Dr. Furst], adopted step-children [Nick and Natalie], a marriage leading to clashes with the in-laws [Madame Majestrix], and a young girl who matures into a young woman [Astra].

    In the Astra 2-part special, the character is shown to have grown into a fully-functional adult, balances leaving the familty and being her own person. Compare this to The Human Torch [Johnny Storm] who still remains somewhat the emotionally-stunted pretty boy as he was first introduced.

    Maybe the reason the Fantastic Four hasn’t evolved beyond a “family” setting is because it is a family setting where everyone has their familiar roles. And like many family reunions, no matter the time has past and people have changed, members are drawn back into their old roles and relationships.

    So until Marvel is willing to allow certain events [marriage, divorce birth, death, etc.] to stay permanent and change the family dynamics, the Fantastic Four will remain in their story rut.

    And while I like the fact that The Thing is in the New Avengers, I liked it better when he was a member of the West Coast Avengers. Though I thought it would have been more interesting if the Human Torch had joined the West Coast Avengers to further purse his acting career.

    If there was ever a character that needed to leave the family nest and grow as an individual, it’s the Human Torch. But it seems he will forever be relegated to a supporting character – a supportive brother, uncle and friend. Ironically, he now almost personifies a new modern age problem where the adult children don’t leave the family nest and live at home through their 20s and 30s until they do get married.

  22. Synsidar says:

    A Fantastic Four roundtable that had several former FF writers commenting on the series did nothing to dispel the conviction that the series is about a superpowered family, and any deviation from that basic concept will eventually be corrected.

    The most limited member of the group, I’d say, is the Thing. There’s his strange appearance, his strength. and nothing else. Changing either of those two aspects changes the character drastically, but those two aspects give him nowhere to go.

    Something FANTASTIC FOUR has been free from — correct me if I’m wrong — is the damaging retcon, particularly the “Everything you know about ____ is wrong” retcon. The pressure to keep the heroes fundamentally the same is too strong. From the creative standpoint, which is worse? A retcon that artificially creates a different version of a character, or stasis that results in stories repeating the same character bits and themes endlessly?

    Any story that violates a character profile to the extent that the profile has to be scrapped and rewritten, not modified or expanded, is, I’d argue, a terrible story practically by definition. Such stories aren’t likely to trouble FF fans.

    SRS

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