FF by Jonathan Hickman, Vol. 1, Marvel Comics.
By Sam Hurwitt
Marvel’s venerable Fantastic Four series halted with issue #588, to be replaced with a new series, FF, which now stands for Future Foundation rather than Fantastic Four. The new series started anew with issue #1 but continued the story from Fantastic Four. Confusingly enough, after 12 issues of FF, Fantastic Four would resume with issue #600, as if the intervening issues of FF had continued its run unbroken, but FF also would continue as a separate series, focusing more on the children.
The Future Foundation is still the name of Mr. Fantastic’s school and think tank for gifted children, but now the erstwhile Fantastic Four has taken on that name for its superhero team as well, insofar as it continues at all. (Most of the surviving team members seem to be taking some time to themselves.) “The Future Foundation is about changing the world, Peter,” the Invisible Woman tells Spider-Man. “Forever.” What makes the uncertainty about whether the Fantastic Four even still exists as a team per se particularly vexing is that Spidey comes aboard to take up the dead member’s slot on the team.
I don’t know why I’m pussyfooting around saying who the dead person is, since it’s probably obvious from, say, looking at the cover, but there’s always someone howling about spoilers, so I’ll try to keep up the charade at least for the duration of this article.
Now, I’m of several minds about Spider-Man joining the FF. Mind one: He doesn’t really add much to the team in terms of his power set, and there are plenty of heroes out there whose powers might have been more appropriate substitutes to approximate the fallen comrade. (Either one of Spider-Man’s “Amazing Friends” from the old cartoon series, for instance.) It’s not like temporarily replacing the Thing with another super-strong hero like She-Hulk or Luke Cage, which seemed much more natural. And although Peter Parker’s a smart guy, any skills he has that might be useful to the brain trust of the Future Foundation appear to be complete surprises to the people who welcomed him aboard. He’s there for three reasons, essentially: One, his personality fills a needed wise-cracking role on the team. Two, the slot was essentially willed to him by the dead teammate. And three, Spider-Man is hugely popular, so the Marvel editors have decided that he has to be on every team now.
That last reason really chafes my web-shooters, which brings me to mind two: Having Spider-Man be a member of the Avengers and the FF at the same time is ridiculous. In fact, I’d say having him on either one of those teams for anything but a short period of time is absurd. Pete’s got a lot on his plate all the time without having to run off into outer space with one team or another. He could hardly keep up with a day job even when the only other demand on his time was his own solo crimefighting. Plus, it really bothers me that Marvel editorial felt the need to have the devil wipe Peter Parker’s marriage to Mary Jane Watson out of history forever because of some back-to-basics fundamentalist belief that he should be the guy who never gets the girl, and yet completely ignore the much more fundamental part of his character that he’s forever a loner, superheroing-wise. Sure, he’s a friendly guy used to team up with a different person every month in Marvel Team-Up, but he could never keep it together long enough to serve on a team. That’s been a running theme for him for more than 40 years—he may occasionally try to join a team like the FF or the Avengers, but circumstances always make them reject him, much as they may like the guy. Now, though, Marvel believes that the Avengers has to have all of the company’s most popular characters, whether or not it makes any sense to have them be Avengers, so now they’ve got to carry Spidey and Wolverine with them wherever they go.
But here’s mind three: It really is true that Spider-Man has always been close to the Fantastic Four, as wildly different as their lives and the kinds of adventures they go on are. Sure, Spidey fights costumed bank robbers and assassins while the FF defend the universe against cosmic-level threats, but the first thing Spider-Man did in The Amazing Spider-Man #1 way back in 1963 was try to join the Fantastic Four. In fact, the first super-powered person he ever fought wasn’t a villain at all, but the Thing, who didn’t take kindly to the wall-crawler breaking into the Baxter Building. No wonder Spidey developed such a bad reputation! And one could argue that he’d even been a member of the FF before, because he was part of that ridiculous extreme 1990 fill-in team with the Hulk, Ghost Rider and Wolverine that had to have been meant as a joke. There are plenty of other people that Hickman could have chosen as replacements that might have made more sense in terms of the team’s history, but the Spider-Man connection, like most of the ones that Hickman weaves through this ongoing arc, goes back to the very earliest days.
Now Spider-Man finally gets to join the FF just in time to find out that the Fantastic Four doesn’t even exist anymore. In honor of the deceased, the group has decided to retire the team name and the uniforms, as an odd and counterintuitive way of honoring the dead teammate’s prerecorded posthumous message, which says, “you can’t stop doing what we’ve been doing. You have to push harder than ever.” Now they’re called the Future Foundation, just like Reed’s school for genius children, and everyone wears white jumpsuits with hexagon logos on them. The fact that the new uniforms are very, very reminiscent of the costume worn by the evil Nathaniel Richards who was killing off all the other Nathaniels at the end of book three is particularly disturbing.
Nathaniel, by the way, is also living with the family now, having shown up at the end of the last issue of Fantastic Four, whatever kept him lost in time now settled down enough for him to stick around for a while.
Also living with the FF is Doctor Doom, because there’s nobody you want under your roof more than your worst enemy. In fact, Doom’s there because Sue and Reed’s youngest child, the supergenius Valeria, made a deal with him. Doom has recently suffered brain damage and is less than his usual evil-genius self, so she’d promised to help restore him to full capacity if he’ll help her plot to defeat her father. More on that later, obviously. What’s more, Reed and the gang have to help her make their most dreaded foe as formidable as he used to be. Valeria, by the way, has always had close ties to Doom, who’s basically her godfather; he helped assist her birth and got to name her after his long-lost love in return.
The most hilarious thing here, which isn’t commented on at all and doesn’t seem intended to be funny, is that as soon as Doctor Doom starts hanging around with the FF, he switches to an all-white version of his outfit to match their uniforms. It’s ridiculously out of character, unless he’s doing it as an unusually subtle way of taunting them. My best guess is it’s just a lingering effect of his brain damage.
Anyway, after Victor’s brain is all sorted out, the FF send out engraved invitations to every mad scientist they know inviting them to a symposium on “how to finally defeat Reed Richards.” The High Evolutionary’s kind of an odd man out here, but most of the scientists are old foes from the FF’s early days: the Mad Thinker, the Wingless Wizard, even the 9th century alchemist Diablo, whom I’ve always found hilariously ill-suited to be a formidable enemy for the super-science team. There are also a few scientists from Advanced Idea Mechanics who seem to be there just as part of the Wizard’s retinue, and seem amusingly uncomfortable and out of their depth. Those silly beekeeper uniforms of theirs don’t exactly help. Oh, and the Watcher shows up to audit the course, which is always a good sign.
Let me take a moment here to say that Steve Epting’s art throughout this volume is terrific. His faces are great and filed with character, and his art has a wonderful balance of dynamism and realism that works beautifully with the tone of the stories and lends them a sense of grandeur.
I’m not fond of how Hickman has suddenly turned the Wizard into a religious fanatic; it seems pretty random and not really based in anything we know about the character. He may as well have been drawn out of a hat for whatever Hickman is building toward with this sudden insanity. At least I hope there’s a point to it coming along soon, because for now it’s just annoying.
The Wizard’s child clone Bentley who’s been taken in by the FF, on the other hand, is delightful, savoring all things evil and mad scientisty while still being a pretty nice kid who plays well with others. Obviously there’s some kind of reckoning coming between the two Bentleys, and my money’s on the kid.
I particularly adore the way Hickman writes the Mad Thinker as a guy who’s always overthinking things, second-guessing and third-guessing every move he makes until he’s practically paralyzed with the possibilities.
Anyway, the Reed Richards Valeria wants to defeat is of course not her own dad but some of the council of Reeds from parallel dimensions, whom she met on her little field trip through daddy’s multiverse-hopping machine and accidentally took home with her. Accustomed to shaping their own universes any way they want, whatever Machiavellian machinations they’re up to in the FF’s own universe can’t possibly be good, especially because we know they’ve long since given up any family connections that might ground them.
While Reed has his hands full with his brain trust of mad scientists, the other FF members want no part of it, which may be just as well because they have their own things going on. The Thing has taken up sulking full-time, because he blames himself for his friend’s death, although if I’m not mistaken Ben is also a member of the Avengers in other books around this time. Multitasking! Sue is now the regent of Old Atlantis, which is to say the ancient undersea races that have resurfaced after millennia in the darkest waters. Like most monarchs in the Marvel Universe such as the Black Panther or her aquatic colleague the Sub-Mariner, ruling her new people doesn’t seem to take up much of her time, and she spends much more time in the Baxter Building with her family than she does with the fish folks.
Spider-Man doesn’t have all that much to do so far, aside from contributing the occasional unexpected insight and keeping people grounded with the occasional sardonic comment. Still, he gets some adorable character moments playing off the members of the FF and giving them an outsider’s perspective. What it means to have Spider-Man hanging out with the FF is explored much more (and more adorably) in Dan Slott and Fred Van Lente’s stories in The Amazing Spider-Man, collected in the trade paperback The Fantastic Spider-Man. More lighthearted and self-contained than the long megatale that Hickman’s telling in FF, these Spidey stories show him giddy at the kind of super-science adventures that the Fantastic Four has on a regular basis, traveling to the microverse and the distant future, fighting extradimensional dragons and zombie pirates. None of it has much to do with the events in FF and certainly isn’t required reading to understand any of it, but it makes a delightful companion piece. There’s other stuff in that collection, too—an amusing two-part team-up with Avengers Academy written by Christos Gage, a couple of decent Spidey short stories and a forgettable team-up with Ghost Rider—but that stuff is pretty far off-topic.
As I’ve mentioned before, FF vol. 1 is the collection that made me finally feel like everything Hickman built in his first four volumes of Fantastic Four is finally coming together. Suddenly the alternate Reeds, time-traveling Nathanial, the Mole Man and his Moloids, the Wizard and his child clone, Annihilus and the Negative Zone, the Old Atlanteans, the Inhumans, Doctor Doom and the other evil geniuses, Spider-Man, the Richards children and all those kids the Fantastic Four has been taking in are all finally converging into one epic adventure, and it’s awesome. Most of it would mean nothing to you if you hadn’t been following recent events in Fantastic Four, but for the reader who’s been patiently reading through all the recent world-building and scene-setting, it feels like the beginning of a tremendous payoff.
Will it, indeed, pay off? Check back next Friday when we head back to the future (or the Future Foundation, anyway) for FF volume 2!