As anybody who knows me knows, my favorite Marvel comic book is FANTASTIC FOUR. It was my entranceway into the Marvel Universe in the first place, and it and its characters remained close to my heart. Once I became a full-fledged editor, I made it very clear to people that the next time there was a shuffling of titles and FANTASTIC FOUR was in the mix, if it didn’t come to me, I was going to start doing bodily harm to people. And eventually, it did. Which gave me the challenge of putting together a version of the series that was up to my own standards for it, and to shake it out of the doldrums that the title had been in for most of the 1990s. Through no fault of its own, FANTASTIC FOUR had shifted away from being the centerpiece of the Marvel Universe. Like Superman over at DC, it was seen many fans as a holdover from a different era, a bit of a fossil. The book needed a makeover to contemporize it, but one that would do so without throwing out the essential elements that made it what it was.
I got lucky a few times over, and wound up with a run that I’ve pointed to ever since as my favorite series of comics that I’ve ever worked on. (In recent years, its been equalled by the Dan Slott/Mike Allred SILVER SURFER series, though not surpassed by it.) My first bit of good luck came when word reached me that Mike Wieringo was looking for opportunities. He was then working on ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, but he was apparently not pleased with the editorial direction the series was going in. So I called him right up and spoke to him about taking on FANTASTIC FOUR. At first, he didn’t want to do it–he didn’t think that he could draw in the expected Jack Kirby style that the Fantastic Four almost demand. But what got him on board was me telling him that, when he took over THE FLASH, he didn’t attempt to draw it like Greg LaRocque who came before him. Instead, he innovated his own approach to the character and his world. His Flash was blockier, more solid, and he invented the dancing lightning trail in the Scarlet Speedster’s wake when he ran, a visual element that has been a part of the character ever since. I told Mike that, after his time on FLASH, everybody tried to draw it the way that he had. Do that here. Invent your own look and iconography for the Fantastic Four, and make everybody else that comes after you do it your way. I had Mike warm up on the characters by doing the covers to FANTASTIC FOUR #51 to 54 beforehand, which were designed to connect as a single vertical image. I believe it was also made into a poster later on.
Over on the writing side, I also got a break. Mark Waid had been working for the past few years at CrossGen in Florida, and he was somebody with whom I had always wanted to do an extended run. We’d worked together here and there on one-off stories, and seemed sympatico, but never got a chance to dig in on an extended run. Like Mike, Mark too was unhappy about his current circumstances, and when his CrossGen contract was close to running out, he let people know that he didn’t intend to renew it. I didn’t waste a minute in getting Mark on the phone once I became aware of that. But FANTASTIC FOUR turned out to be a tougher sell to him than I had thought it might. While it was a series that he’d read and was familiar with, he had never been a strong fan of it. In part this was because the first issue of FANTASTIC FOUR that Mark had read was #141, in which Reed has to turn his son Franklin into a vegetable and Sue decides to divorce him–right at the point when his own parents were going through a heated divorce. But I had Mike Wieringo on the hook, and working with Mike was always of interest to Marvel ever since that FLASH run I mentioned earlier. Also, I knew what Mark’s likes and dislikes were, and so we started talking about the characters a little bit. Inspired in part by a sequence that Carlos Pacheco had done at around that time that case Reed in a sort of Doc Savage role, I pitched Mark on making him the central character of the book, the one at the center of things around whom everybody else revolves. This seems like an obvious idea today, since pretty much every creative team that has come since has done much the same thing, but it wasn’t such an immediate lay-up in 2001. In those days, the Thing tended to be central, and Reed and Sue in particular often fell into very basic “adult” roles. I remember also speaking to Mark about making Reed and Sue a couple who genuinely liked one another and who spent time with one another. Mark went away and thought about all of this, then returned a day or so later to let me know that he was sold and was on board.
To round out the team, I brought in Karl Kesel to ink Ringo’s pencils, and Paul Mounts to color the finished pages. I knew that Karl was a longtime FANTASTIC FOUR fan and that he was also a very compatible inker for Wieringo while also being a strong artist and writer all on his own. I expected that we’d make some use of those talents along the way, and we did. Karl operated in a greater capacity than as a simple inker, he was an integral member of the creative team, another person whom Waid could bounce ideas off of that would add his own thoughts into the mix. Karl also wound up writing a pair of issues before the run began, needed in order to buy Waid enough time for his CrossGen contract to run out. They were only intended to be enjoyable fill-in stories, but one of them got worldwide attention when it made it canonical that Ben Grimm was Jewish. (Karl and I didn’t think the story was going to be all that noteworthy–show what we knew.) Paul Mounts I had worked with going back to my earliest days in Bob Budiansky’s Special Projects department, where he colored all of the early Marvel Universe Trading Card sets for us and worked on posters and licensing material as well as lending a hand on the initial DEATHLOK high-end limited series. The covers, however, were colored (really painted) by Richard Isanove. This was a suggestion of Editor in Chief Joe Quesada’s, and it definitely served to give those covers a strong look while still maintaining Mike’s individual style–it was a good match. I recall that Joe also urged us to rethink the depiction of the Human Torch given the advances in coloring and printing technology. The classic version where he was just a figure covered in black striated lines was all right for the era, but what could a man ablaze look like in the 21st Century? Alex Ross had given everybody some inspiration on this subject in MARVELS, and so we picked up that same gauntlet and attempted to find new methods of showcasing Johnny’s power. I also decided that, in order to mark this as a moment of change, the book’s logo needed to be reinvented as well. I really loved the new logo that Bullpenner Adam Cichowski came up with, but it proved to be a bitch to make readable from a distance. I had thought the red letters would contrast enough against the background, but it really did it. This logo split fan opinions, and it took a while for me to figure out how to deploy it to best effect. But it definitely did its job of signaling that this was a new FANTASTIC FOUR.
We faced a couple of challenges right off the bat. The first one delayed our launch by three months, necessitating Adam Warren and Keron Grant to step in and work up a three-issue story to buy us time: while Mark was finished with his CrossGen commitment, his contract contained a three-month non-compete clause which prevented Mark from doing any comic book work for three months following his exit from the company. Crossgen refused to waive it, so we wound up having to sit the time out. The second challenge revolved around our launch issue. In those early days of the Joe Quesada and Bill Jemas regime at Marvel, showmanship was the watchword of the day. Bill in particular enjoyed stirring people within the industry up and getting them buzzing about what Marvel was doing–he courted controversy like nobody before or since. At that time, DC announced that as the lead-in to its next massive BATMAN storyline, it was going to put out the first chapter at the price of 10 cents–the original price of DETECTIVE COMICS #27 or BATMAN #1. Not to be outdone, Bill decided that the first issue of the new FANTASTIC FOUR launch would be priced at the even lower cover price of only 9 cents–the cheapest any non-giveaway Marvel comic had ever retailed for. This meant that our first issue was going to have a massive circulation (Indeed, Marc Nathan, the founder of the Baltimore Comic Convention, bought somewhere in the neighborhood of 200,000 copies of his own promotional cover for the issue and had it distributed as a newspaper insert throughout the Baltimore area–an even that got me to attend the lovely Baltimore show for the first time.) and we felt like it was going to need to be as new reader friendly as possible, while also containing everything that a reader might need to know about the Fantastic Four and their world. We quickly decided that, rather than ending on an artificial cliffhanger to try to draw audiences into our next release, we’d instead attempt to craft a perfect done-in-one story that would be such a satisfying read to people that they would come back to see what was next of their own accord.
Mark and I must have broken down the idea for this first story half a dozen times before we wound up with something that we thought worked. (And, indeed, at least one of those unused story ideas was developed later on by Dwayne McDuffie for a FANTASTIC FOUR SPECIAL. Never throw anything away.) We chose to bring in an outsider point of view character in the person of Public Relations man Shertzer in order to ask the same questions about the series that we were asking and to provide the opportunity for a unique viewpoint. He also allowed Mark to build a number of comedy bits into the issue, a hallmark of Waid’s writing. To be honest, I had thought that Shertzer was going to become a regular part of the supporting cast, a sort of Everett K. Ross for the series, but it never happened and he didn’t appear again. There was also a momentary bit of chaos when Bill Jemas decided that he didn’t like the look of the bug-creature who stows away on the FF’s craft in the opening part of this issue, which was the set-up for a future story. Bill was hoping to replace it with something cute and marketable–and while we weren’t quite ever able to get there to everybody’s satisfaction, I can understand what was driving him. This issue of FANTASTIC FOUR had one of the greatest circulations in the title’s history, but every copy sold was a loss leader–the more we printed, the more of a deficit we were under. Bill was likely hoping to recoup some of those losses with a marketing deal. The upper-lower case lettering was also a Bill mandate from this time, the entire Marvel line had switched over to it. I also seem to recall that, of all people, Karl Kesel helped out Waid by writing much of the Thing Rap on these pages. (I also love the manner in which Wieringo details the Thing’s wrists, sort of like the joints of a Rhinoceros.)
ADDITION: Mark Waid corrects me in that it was Devin Grayson who helped with the lyrics to the Thing Rap, rather than Karl.
But the real sucker punch of this issue was reserved for the final three pages. After an entire issue of wacky hijinks and lighthearted and imaginative adventures, we lower the boom with this powerful emotional revelation concerning what drives Reed Richards. It’s a sequence that both creators sell extremely well–though I still do look at the panel on Page 19 where Reed make his face inflate like a balloon while speaking to Valeria and wonder if that was perhaps an ill-timed idea given the substance of what he was talking about. In the end, I chose to leave it as is. That said, I did ask Ringo to take another pass at Reed’s face and head in the final panel, as his first version (reproduced in pencil above) I thought was a bit too lantern-jawed and goofy for the closing moment. Unable due to legal restrictions to credit Stan Lee and Jack Kirby as the creators of the Fantastic Four, we instead inaugurated a work-around that we kept going for years, until that restriction was lifted: giving the pair an honorary credit in each issue that reflected that month’s story. In this one, it was Imaginauts, our self-coined term for what the Fantastic Four were (since they aren’t really super heroes at all.) We also worked in a reproduction of the first FANTASTIC FOUR cover on the first page, because I am a fanboy goon and I wanted to represent it here.
The Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo run on FANTASTIC FOUR was both a critical and a commercial success–though not enough of a commercial success to warrant the expense of this first 9 cent issue, which caused some problems in the months ahead. But putting that aside, the team helmed a three year run that is still remembered and spoken about highly, which is very gratifying. And as I said at the top, out of pretty much everything that I’ve worked on over the course of more than three decades, this run is my personal favorite