Weekly Recommendation: Fantastic Four by Mark Waid & Mike Wieringo

It is quite saddening to see the Fantastic Four fall so low on the ladder of beloved superheroes in popular culture. The movies have been abysmal, to say the least, leaving few outside of the comic book fanbase to truly know or care about these characters. What truly makes this lack of appreciation so disheartening is that the Fantastic Four are, essentially, what made the Marvel Universe as we know it today. The characterization of four unique personalities began the common trend of Marvel’s well-known focus on character above all else. The dynamic within the cast created a family, with all of the ups and downs that come between members of any family. Giving each member of the Fantastic Four a distinct voice provided plenty of opportunities for fun character moments, as well as a personal attachment to each character and their relationships within the team. Focusing on character is only the starting point for the Fantastic Four, as their adventures are also filled with exploration and discovery. Great Fantastic Four comics involve travel into other dimensions, interactions with alien races, discovery of new scientific concepts, and much more. Combining these key concepts of character and exploration, the Fantastic Four is simply fun. There is humor, action, mind-bending sci-fi, and plenty of heart to go around. In a time where Marvel is known for its wacky ideas and focus on character, the Fantastic Four deserve greater recognition.

A truly fantastic four

For proof of the Fantastic Four’s inherent charm, one must look no further than the short but sweet run by Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo. This run is great as a starting point for how self-contained it is, lasting merely 36 issues, with no crossovers or special annual issues. Very minimal background knowledge is required for this run, making it quite accessible to newer readers. While I personally consider the original run by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby to be a favorite, Waid and Wieringo’s run is the perfect entry point for a more modern audience. While this run does indeed bring the Fantastic Four into the 21st century, it also maintains the spark of the Lee/Kirby days. This is accomplished through an intense focus on the Fantastic Four as a family. The team bickers, they experience hardships and even a few traumatic moments, but they persevere through their love for each other. Waid excels at characterization, providing excellent voices for each member of the team, as well as some heartfelt character moments.

Typical family road trip…

Waid’s knack for characterization shines through in the way he captures the distinct qualities of each member of the FF. Mr. Fantastic, the leader of the group, is at his most likeable here. While Dr. Reed Richards has always been a genius whose ideas and curiosity propel the team’s adventures forward, Waid provides more of a paternal angle to the character. At the end of the day, Reed’s greatest strength isn’t his stretching ability or even his intellect, but it is his family. Reed can make mistakes, often to the detriment of others, but everything he does is to take care of this family which he has built. Oftentimes in this run, Reed must accept his limitations and rely more on his family, embracing them as the force that truly keeps him going.

Father/son bonding

Susan Storm, the Invisible Woman, by contrast, is portrayed in a maternal light. Sue not only looks after her children Franklin and Valeria, but she is also the one who looks after the rest of the team. When Reed is caught up in his own head, Sue calls him out. When Johnny, Sue’s brother, is being irresponsible, Sue reels him in. When The Thing is thinking with his fists instead of his brain, Sue is the voice of reason. All of these examples serve to highlight Sue’s role within this run as the glue that holds the team together.

Protecting her children

Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, is given much depth in this run as well. It would be easy to write off the Torch as the simple shallow party boy, or the immature younger brother to Sue. While Johnny does have many of these moments in the run, often for comedic effect, this is not all the Torch has to offer. Waid provides some surprising moments of responsibility for Johnny, such as being put in charge of the FF’s finances or incidentally becoming a herald of Galactus. In these moments, Johnny is given the opportunity to grow up, similarly to other teenage superheroes such as Spider-Man.

What a hothead

Last, but certainly not least, comes Ben Grimm, the Thing. To be honest, ever since the days of Lee/Kirby, the Thing has been the most consistently well-written character of the four. Ben is the rock (literally) of the group, being there whenever anyone needs him. The Thing never gives up, no matter the odds, he is the everyman who constantly makes sarcastic quips, and can surprisingly be the voice of reason on occasion. Waid brings all of these qualities to the table and more in his run. From giving a rather poignant speech on depression to willingly sacrificing himself for the safety of the FF, Ben is provided his fair share of the spotlight in Waid’s run.

Just about clobberin time

All of Waid’s detailed characterization serves the greater theme of family. For better or worse, the FF are truly a family in Waid’s run. The team goes through it all, from living equations to a devastating attack by Doctor Doom, and even losing one of their own. Through the use of smaller, character focused stories, however, Waid demonstrates how the bond between the members of the FF pushes them forwards. Waid shows the team recovering from Doctor Doom’s attack, living out regular days in their headquarters, the Baxter Building, and even venturing out into heaven to recover their lost member. In venturing to heaven, the FF essentially journey into the unknown. This journey emphasizes another key theme in Waid’s FF: adventure. Waid presents the FF as explorers first, and superheroes second. The FF’s adventures are seen as ones of discovery, paving the road for a brighter future. Dedication to adventure is combined with a shared family bond to demonstrate the core ideas behind the FF.

Fun family fighting

The villains and challenges within Waid’s run accentuate these ideas. Threats such as living equations, unstable molecules, alien invaders, and giant cockroaches are all a few examples of some of the dangers that come from discovery and science. More importantly, however, these threats are dealt with in a creative, scientific manner. The resolution to these challenges illustrates a focus less on superheroics and more on the FF as adventurous scientists. These challenges are all also portrayed in a fun, light-hearted manner, which shows off Waid’s fun characterization of the FF in the face of discovery. This characterization shines the brightest, however, when the FF are put through the ringer by Doctor Doom. Doom tests the FF in body, mind, and especially spirit. Waid uses Doom to put the FF through a crucible which not only shows the challenges that come with family, but how a family can come together through challenging times. Only through darker times, brought on by someone like Doom, can the light of this family shine through.

Doom and gloom

Perfectly complementing the bright, fun nature of the FF is the art by the late Mike Wieringo. The cartoonish appearances of the characters works well with Waid’s characterization of a wacky, dysfunctional family who just happen to have superpowers. Tonally, the optimistic nature of these stories shows through Wieringo’s pencils, along with a clear nostalgia for Kirby’s original artwork on the title. The sci-fi concepts present throughout FF history are also given a fantastical look as well. Alien beings, different planets, and even other dimensions are given bombastic, exciting looks under Wieringo’s pencil.

Truly fantastic

Overall, Waid & Wieringo do an excellent job covering the FF in their run. There is, however, some room for improvement. The artwork, for example, could have benefited from greater consistency, as Wieringo does not illustrate the entire run. Artists such as Mark Buckingham, Howard Porter, and Paco Medina still do good work filling in for Wieringo. Yet the combination of Waid & Wieringo is where the run truly shines, and anything else does not quite live up to this duo. The supporting cast of the FF could have been included more as well. Characters such as the Silver Surfer, the Black Panther, the Inhumans, and the Sub-Mariner would have been a treat to see during this run. While Spider-Man does have a great two-part team-up with the Human Torch, it would have been nice if this run had included more from the greater Marvel Universe. Furthermore, a longer run in general would have allowed for more appearances from the FF’s extended family. In focusing simply on the main cast of the FF, however, there is much more room for character development in Waid’s run.

Spider-sense tingling…

The Fantastic Four deserve more public recognition. They are considered Marvel’s first family for good reason. Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo show what makes the FF great throughout their run, through brilliant characterization, astonishing visuals, and a fun, optimistic tone. This optimism endures, despite the many challenges thrown towards the FF. Waid writes the FF as a family, whose bond propels them through the ups and downs of their lives. Furthermore, this bond unites the FF in their exciting mission of discovery, venturing into the unknown. Combining distinct characterization with epic sci-fi ideas, the Fantastic Four is a classic Marvel title which paved the way for the current generation of superhero tales. Waid & Wieringo’s run distills the great qualities of this title down to its core, a testament to Lee/Kirby’s fantastic creations.

Moving into the future

Thanks for reading! If you enjoy Waid/Wieringo’s take on the Fantastic Four, here are some other classic FF runs:

  • Fantastic Four by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby
  • Fantastic Four by John Byrne
  • Fantastic Four by Walter Simonson
  • Fantastic Four/FF by Jonathan Hickman
  • FF by Matt Fraction & Mike Allred
  • Marvel Two-In-One by Chip Zdarsky

That’s all for this week! Check back next time for another weekly recommendation, and be sure to follow the blog on Twitter @book_column!

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