In the never-ending (and never worthwhile) DC vs. Marvel debates, one point that always comes up among the more intellectually-minded participants is that, whereas DC has relaunched it’s continuity to hell and back every few years in order to gain new readers, Marvel has always tried to maintain the same continuity they’ve always had, give or take a few retcons. And yet, while it’s true that Marvel does always end up going back to square one eventually, they’ve actually had just as many of their own attempts at continuity reboots or ‘alternate universe” lines designed to update characters/gain new readers as DC. The main difference is that most of these attempts were ignored (Byrne’s ridiculously unnecessary Spider-Man: Chapter One) or were intended to be supplementary lines that didn’t affect the main continuity (Ultimate Marvel, 2099) or had no connection to their mainstream comics (the short-lived “New Universe” line in the 80’s).
Although the Ultimate imprint has been the most commercially successful (Though if you want my opinion, 2099 was the most artistically successful.), the most controversial of all these reboots, without a doubt, was the “Heroes Reborn” event of 1996. It was responsible for some of the first great flame wars amongst comics fans online. It was one of Wizard’s biggest running jokes, even being mentioned in the first Twisted Toyfare strip. Fandom was by no means engaging in hyperbole when they used Liefeld’s infamous Captain America drawing to sum the whole enterprise up; it was a bloated, poorly-drawn, roided-up distortion of beloved characters that was both cringe-worthy and hilarious to behold. Marvel trying to be Image.
However, there was one standout title amongst all of the pouches, overuse of hatching, man-tits and gritted teeth that otherwise made up Heroes Reborn. While it certainly isn’t on anyone’s favorites list, and you just have to laugh at Jim Lee’s introduction where he calls it a “Legendary run”, Heroes Reborn: Fantastic Four did something right that all the other titles did wrong. It wasn’t a case of Marvel trying to be Image, it was just Marvel trying to be… Marvel.
In Jim Lee’s introduction he describes the creative process behind the series:
“But from the start, the mission was clear: Update the premise but don’t mess with what ain’t broke. And honestly, between you and me, nothing was broke.- - - In the end, the less that was changed about the core original concept, the more compelling the premise became. Luckily for me, it was all there already: it just needed a little buffing. True, we made changes, but 99.9% of those changes were cosmetic in nature, new costumes, new scientific mumbo jumbo, new technological gizmos. In the end, it was the same Reed, Sue, Johnny and Ben who made the FF truly the world’s greatest comic. ”
Those are certainly all honorable intentions.
But did they succeed?
For the most part, yes. The characters are updated in intelligent ways that make sense or at least fix aspects of the original stories that haven’t aged well. Ben Grimm in the original story comes off as an angry, easily-manipulated, none too intelligent blowhard who no sane person would trust to either pilot a rocket or spend any amount of time around his fiancée (besides, the idea that Ben and Sue were once an item barely came up at all later on). Here, Ben is shown to be a brilliant engineer in his own right instead of just a pilot, he and Sue and are still good friends and definitely feel like ex-lovers, but at the same time his friendship with Reed is believable while still maintaining an aura of bitterness.
Reed is neither the obnoxious know-it-all or semi-mad scientist of the earliest stories. He really feels like a “science rebel” with radical ideas that get him into trouble, both with the law and his teammates. However, his intelligence is never de-emphasized in order to make him seem hip; in fact, there are times where he’s so verbose he almost reads like a parody of the Silver Age Reed.
Sue may have been progressive for 1961, but her early appearances are mocked a lot today by female readers. Even those who don’t mind her characterization in the original stories still often ask why she was even on the flight. Here, Sue isn’t shy and demure and obviously just around to provide a token female character, she’s the team leader. Sue is reinvented as an ambitious corporate magnate (The Storms are rich in this version) who is actually the one funding Reed’s experiments (which is the reason she comes along, not only has she invested millions, but she’s the one who has access to the backup rocket, which can only be activated by her fingerprints), and she loses none of her zeal after gaining super powers. Yes, she needs to be rescued now and then, but that is believable considering that she has the least formidable powers of the group and most of her experience fighting is in the verbal sense. If Reed is the team’s brains, Sue is the team’s drive. Reed is a dreamer; Sue is a do-er. I think that makes for a better dynamic than other versions which try and make her just as brilliant a scientist as Reed.
In the original, Johnny’s presence on the flight made even less sense than Sue’s and his characterization was all over the place. How could an apparently middle class kid (who we later learned was attending public school) have any reason to come aboard a test flight to space or to keep indulging in all the expensive hobbies we see him doing? Here, he’s the co-owner of Storm industries but allows Sue to handle all the important stuff, partly because he’s too young, partly because he’s neither smart or patient enough and he knows it. His cockiness and love of dangerous stunts is believable in this context. At the same time, while he may not have Sue’s business savvy, he also has just as much cunning. He’s even shown to have a fairly mercenary attitude at times, trying to license the team’s likenesses immediately after they become famous.
Other smart moves beyond characterization include making the team’s conflict with the government (S.H.I.E.L.D. in this case, led by Wyatt Wingfoot[!?!]) over the rocket launch (a highly illegal act that is usually glossed over in retellings) a major part of the story, taking up most of the first issue and giving things the feel of a spy thriller. Rather than just have the team decide to become superheroes and then go off to confront the Mole Man as their first case, Lobdell and Lee instead come up with a much more streamlined reason for encountering the villain; the rocket crashes into Monster Isle, making their first encounter with him the first time they’ve ever had to use their super powers. If I was making an FF movie, that’s how I’d do it. In this version, the group is also forced to take a prototype rocket into space after the real rocket is launched by the baddies, which accounts for the ship not having sufficient protection against cosmic rays. Other cool ideas include building up characters like Doctor Doom, the Silver Surfer and Galactus early on in cameos so that they have even more of a sense of grandeur.
However, for every great leap forward seen here, there are also two steps taken back.
As unlikeable as Ben Grimm seemed in the original, that very quality was what made him stand out. He wasn’t the guy you’d expect to become a hero, and after becoming a hero, well, you had no reason to assume he’d stay that way. Ben was a scary character in the earliest FF issues who betrayed the team more than once, and whose scuffles with Johnny were far from light-hearted comic relief. He was a true ticking time bomb, but could you really blame the poor guy? He may have been a monster, but he was a tragic monster.
Here, Ben’s tragic plight over losing his humanity—is pretty much swept aside. He’s initially shocked at what happens to him, but other than grumbling a few times about how hard it is to look in the mirror, it’s not addressed at all, and mostly played for comic relief when it is. We even see the Thing get hit on by groupies, and after Alicia Master is introduced, it’s emphasized their relationship is special, not because she sees a gentle side to him no one else does, but because Ben could have had any other girl. (And the less said about Alicia’s implicitly lesbian friend who tries to turn her against him, the better).
In the original stories, Ben called himself the “Idol of Millions” as a joke and to make himself feel better about being alienated from all humanity because of his appearance. Here, it’s not a joke; it’s a simple statement of fact. The only time civilians react negatively to his visage is when he makes his first public appearance in issue #3, and even then it’s only because he’s mistaken for one of Namor’s sea monsters.
Then there are the other cool ideas that go to waste. The aforementioned conflict with the government and S.H.I.E.L.D? It ends up being emphasized quickly that the evil members of S.H.I.E.L.D we see aren’t real S.H.I.E.L.D agents, but spies of Doctor Doom’s posing as S.H.I.E.L.D agents (and just wait until you see the revelation involving Wingfoot!). Not only does this ruin the awesome spy thriller feel of the first issue, but shows an unwillingness to do anything really daring and rebellious. Heaven forbid it be implied that there’s corruption in a government organization like S.H.I.E.L.D. Nope, they have to be the good guys and any bad actions are the fault of supervillains posing as them. In fact, it’s S.H.I.E.L.D. that rescues the team from Monster Isle and gives them their first public assignment.
Then there’s Doctor Doom. Oh boy, where do I start? It’s funny how, whenever people discuss the superhero/villain archetypes and how a common trope is that the hero and villain were once friends, Reed Richards and Victor Von Doom always come up as examples even though they were never friends. Nevertheless, the idea has potential, and more than one adaptation has gone in that direction. Here, we are told that Victor was once Reed’s friend, even part of a fraternity that included Tony Stark, Henry Pym and Bruce Banner. This is a great idea…that Lobdell does nothing with except to set up potential rivalries with other heroes. For supposed friends, Victor already seems to hate Reed and everyone there and they clearly hate him just as much and talk as if he’s already a supervillain (In fact, they already talk as if they were all scientists and superheroes instead of university freshmen). So why even say they were friends in the first place? It could be that they were friends at one point but grew apart after seeing how ambitious Victor was, but if that’s the case, we never see it. Even Baron Underbheit and Rusty Venture had a more interesting dynamic than this!
"I only knew a young man back in graduate school named Victor Von Doom--and I hated him"
Also, we learn that the reason Doom had the rocket hijacked with his goons posing as S.H.I.E.L.D. agents was so that he could destroy a space anomaly, which turns out to be the Silver Surfer (Yes, in this version, the Surfer is the cause of the cosmic ray storm). This could have been a fascinating new take on Doom and the idea that he considers himself a hero, making it so that he was actually trying to save humanity all this time from Galactus by stopping the Surfer in advance. Nope. Turns out he just wanted to siphon off the Surfer’s powers. Another opportunity at giving the villain depth wasted.
I will say this though: Jim Lee draws an awesome Doctor Doom. I actually prefer his take to Kirby’s in some ways. Even what we see of him beneath the mask, with his eyelids all burned and mutilated, looks cool, although at times it raises the question of just what the hell Doom’s eyelids originally looked like.
Lee also does a pretty cool take on The Super Skrull. Sure he looks more like The Abomination than a skrull, but I liked it.
The biggest problem though, isn’t the characterization or even the changes. It’s that everything is rushed. So rushed that there’s never any real room for things to breathe or grow. We don’t even make it to the tenth issue before the writers decide to do a story where the FF meet their counterparts from the original continuity via dimension hopping (although they don’t interact)!
Oddly enough, this problem could be attributed to two things which are polar opposites: Trying too hard modernize things and trying too hard to stick to the original stories. It’s like the creators wanted everything to have the furious pace of modern comics where every issue is part of an arc, but at the same time, wanted to get the “reimagining” part of this reimagining done with as fast as possible so they could return things to the status quo of the original continuity. It leads to the odd effect of the stories reading like any regular FF comic where the characters have been around for years, except that here everything is supposed to be happening for the first time! At one point, The Thing calls Doom a “tin-plated tyrant” before it is ever established that Doom rules Latveria! In some of the stories that feature original plots and aren’t retellings, you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference between these and any regular 616 issue.
Another big problem is that the rushed pacing keeps these comics from having one of the Lee-Kirby run’s greatest strengths: Being able to form part of an arc while still being an enjoyable stand-alone issue in its own right. Some stories ballyhooed on the cover are finished and thrown away before the issue is even half over!
Even more sadly, in trying to re-introduce characters in this rushed format, Lobdell and Lee seem so determined to hit every beat of a particular character that it basically ruins the character in question. Namor is introduced, like in the original series, attacking the surface world and summoning the whale monster Giganto. But before the story is even half over, Warlord Krang (who the story initially seems to be setting up as genuinely well-intentioned in wanting to go to war against the surface world) turns against Namor and tries to conquer the surface world on his own, leading Namor to help The FF AND The Avengers (in this continuity, the Avengers predate the FF) drive back the Atlantean invasion. This changes Namor from a complex character who lives by his own rules, neither truly good nor evil and equally capable of heroism and mass destruction on his own whims, into a straight up good guy being manipulated by Krang. Gone are the shades of gray and his long, uncomfortable relationship with earth’s heroes; he returns to Atlantis, fully forgiven for causing destruction that the story makes clear killed civilians (There’s no “everyone evacuated in time” hand-waving like in the Silver Age) with the hint that he will be welcomed back as a hero and potential teammate someday. Other characters originally introduced in an antagonistic light, such as The Silver Surfer, Medusa and Black Panther, are also made blatantly, unambiguously heroic from the beginning here.
Still, in spite of all of these problems, Heroes Reborn: Fantastic Four gets so much right that I can’t in good conscience say it’s the best of the Heroes Reborn line only because everything else was crap (Okay, that is part of the reason). There are some genuinely intriguing new ideas in here that I wouldn’t mind seeing revisited again, possibly in a movie (In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if some comics have taken inspiration from this run; Ultimate FF’s portrayal of the Mole Man in particular). I may have ultimately found myself wanting to like this series more than I did, but I also liked it far more than I thought I would. 3/5.