I’m reading every Fantastic Four comic and posting four thoughts about each.
Or at least, I should be, but here on Graphic Policy an unfortunate counting error has caused the project to start with Tom DeFalco’s Fantastic Five miniseries from 1999. I feel such a silly goose. Too late to go back and fix it now, I suppose. The only way out is through.
That series was part of the ‘MC2‘, an alternate universe set sixteen years into Marvel’s future, and so before we can even get to it, we’re looking at every prior appearance of the Fantastic Five in that universe. Thus far we’ve considered What If? #105, Spider-Girl #3 and A-Next #5.
J2: The Son of the Original Juggernaut #6
…from March 1999. Another comic in which the FF only appear on a screen in the background for one panel. It’s all important context, though. A new Age of Heroes has dawned and, in this issue, it finds its first critic.
Franklin Richards, a mutant, is the most popular boy in the world. He’s the non-threatening heartthrob of a generation. Usually at Marvel there’s an interesting tension to that sort of thing.
Avengers #400, to pick one of a million examples, has a crowd wild with enthusiasm for the World’s Mightiest Heroes. They’re cheering and chanting about the virtues of the Avengers, and two particular virtues they’ve identified are that they’re not like those creepy mutant teams and that “they’re our kinda people.”
The Scarlet Witch, both a mutant and an Avenger, begins to express discomfort with receiving praise on those terms. The Vision shushes her. “It hardly matters, Wanda” he says, and helpfully goes on to explain that humanity comes from the soul. “We’re all one race; The human race” is a typically Avengersy stance.
That the crowds cheer for superheroes but persecute mutants is something that a lot of readers find awkward about the Marvel Universe, but it seems to me to be one of the very few things about “the mutant metaphor” that totally works as a metaphor. This is a thing that happens. Our culture habitually selects a few individuals from any group we’re oppressing, raises them to celebrity status, and declares them to be National Treasures. The process offers us the emotional reward of not feeling like we’re oppressing the group (because, look… we love that National Treasure) while also bolstering the logic by which we oppress the group (we love that National Treasure because they are exceptional). It’s an old and sneaky trick, and some people get very cross when the likes of Beyonce stop listening to the likes of the Vision and find ways to disrupt it.
Franklin Richards doesn’t have to bother though. In the MC2 universe that he has inherited then the persecution of the fictional minority to which he belongs seems to have stopped. We know this came about through the “efforts and sacrifices” of the X-Men but we’re otherwise light on details. Regardless, halfway through the MC2’s first year as an imprint then this universe has been established as one where all that nasty business has been sorted out.
That might change. This book’s contemporary, Mutant X, presented a different alternate universe where anti-mutant prejudice was over, only to eventually realise that it didn’t know how to tell mutant stories without it. Mutant X swiftly retconned itself to say that, in fact, anti-mutant prejudice was rife, and that our protagonist just hadn’t noticed it because he was busy. The MC2 might end up doing the same somewhere along the line. I don’t know. I just know that if it does, it won’t be as believable as with Mutant X because the MC2’s protagonist isn’t Alex Summers.
Until that day comes, Jubilee’s X-People seem to be keeping themselves busy by fighting crime. We know from dialogue in J2 #4 that the X-People are not continuous with the X-Men. They are not what the X-Men have evolved into. The X-Men have not re-branded. The X-Men have disbanded. And then Jubilee has formed the X-People. To what ends, exactly, is unclear. We know from J2 #2 that they’re responsible for foiling the get-rich-quick schemes of Enthralla, the Niece of the Original Mastermind, and in this issue they’re listed as part of a category of reactive crimefighters. Based on everything we’ve seen, they have no distinctive mission beyond ‘superhero.’
If there’s no distinct role in the MC2 universe for the X-Men, can there be one for a Magneto figure? Magneta, All-New Mistress of Magnetism, certainly hopes so. Otherwise she’s kind of redundant. She really doesn’t want that. Magneta’s the antagonist on this issue and has “dreams of power and glory” that are dependant on her being the Magneto of her generation.
J2, the Son of the Original Juggernaut, questions her on this. He’s fairly unconvinced that his generation needs a Magneto and the strength of his feelings tells us a lot about how the last generation’s Magneto has been remembered.
“Why pattern yourself after one of the greatest super-villains of all time?” asks the kid dressed as the supervillain who, in 1991, destroyed the World Trade Centre and stood cackling delightedly amidst the carnage. Magneta makes a half-hearted effort at suggesting he might be coming from a somewhat compromised position, but the scene bustles us along past it. The weight of the story is behind the guy dressed as the Juggernaut being the voice of reason when he tells off the woman dressed as Magneto for taking on the identity of “as mass murderer.” Public acceptance of mutants clearly hasn’t come with any reevaluation of Magneto’s radicalism. If anything, this suggests that whoever wrote the history books hardened the line. In J2’s world, Magneto is remembered simply as a monster.
Magneta thinks differently. Her stance is that he was “a victim of poor press management.” She might be onto something there. The one time we’ve seen Magneto make use of a PR specialist, in Kieron Gillen’s Uncanny X-Men run, then she turned out to be Mister Sinister in disguise. That’s not ideal. So far, the facts bear Magneta out.
“Many of his ideas and ideals are quite admirable when stripped of his usual arrogant rhetoric” she goes on to say. Again, uncontroversial. Jay and Miles Xplain the X-Men sell a very amusing t-shirt to that effect. But then she runs into trouble.
Magneta is arguing for herself as a new Magneto and has identified that Magneto’s ideas have something to offer. Okay, but what do they have to offer in a world where mutants aren’t being oppressed? Depending on how much you want to engage with, and how you want to parse, the mutant metaphor then that’s a question that’s certainly eminently answerable in its terms. But that’s not where Magneta goes with it.
Up on a screen she displays pictures of all the MC2 heroes we have met so far. They all make the same mistake, she tells us. And that mistake is that “they always allow the criminal to make the first move, and only respond after some outrage has been committed. Her plan is to form “a super-team of like-minded individuals — a Brotherhood of Proactive Heroes — who will strike at anyone we regard as a threat!”
This is both remarkable and unremarkable. Contrasting the traditional values of superheroes with the values of the more gung ho types that crashed through your walls in the early nineties Image boom was, by Nineteen Ninety-Nine, a conversation that was well under way, and Nineteen Ninety-Six’s Kingdom Come had already established that alternate futures like the MC2 were the ideal place to stage it. This conversation was under way, but it was far from over; a couple of months before this comic was published then Stormwatch had been destroyed by Aliens, and a couple of months after this comic was published they would return as the Authority. More than one nearby universe would get precisely the Brotherhood of Proactive Heroes that Magneta called for.
The remarkable bit is the idea that this might be Magneto’s legacy. Something that is nothing to do with identity or resistance but just tips on how to catch criminals. That the notions of his that have value are those that are applicable to the business of being a costumed crimefighter. Both the person arguing for and the person arguing against Magneto have no concept of there being any political context for his actions. It’s strikingly absent from either of their considerations.
The world in which Franklin has entered adulthood is one where being a mutant has been depoliticised, and already we can see how that’s distorted its cultural memory.
Magneta has a context in which she sees herself. She is, she announces, “the most powerful of the new generation of heroes!” The MC2 characters are developing a sense of themselves as a group. They know that something’s changed. They know that their synchronous emergence is a thing.
She defines that group by displaying them all on her wall o’ monitors.
There they all are. The Avengers. The X-People. The Fantastic Five. Darkdevil. Whatever the Doctor Strange analogue was called. Spider-Girl. And seeing them all there together like that really brings home what DeFalco’s done, the extent to which this new generation is a recapitulation of the Silver Age. Seeing them all assembled together for the first time truly explicates what the MC2 is. It can sneak past you when you’re just seeing successive introductions of new versions of old concepts, but when you put them together like that then the big picture is clear.
The MC2 is a new start for the Marvel universe because it’s a re-enactment of the start of the Marvel universe. It’s not just a new generation. It’s specifically a new Sixties.
Last week we talked about exactly this happening in 1602. How, in Gaiman’s story then the introduction of Captain America to Ye Olden Days caused Ye Olden Days to contort themselves into the shape of Marvel’s Silver Age. To extrude analogues of its characters.
Since this is a Fantastic Four project then we might be a little grumpy at the notion of Captain America being the trigger for a Silver Age, but I’m afraid that’s what it says. I checked.
What about in the MC2 though? The fiction’s pretend material history offers no explanations within its bounds for why the Silver Age is repeating itself, so we can only assume that a process similar to 1602’s narrative causality is at work. One retro-snowball has caused this retro avalanche, but which?
Looking at the sequence of these characters emergences sends us cascading backwards. In Spider-Girl’s first story we learn that her superheroic debut is pre-existed by the X-People, the Fantastic Five and the new Avengers. Later events will make it clear that Darkdevil was also on the scene before her. A-Next establishes that the X-People beat the new Avengers to formation, and that that Doctor Strange analogue has been around for a while too.
The Fantastic Five are not a viable trigger for the start of this new Age, since they never went away, but perhaps whatever mysterious catastrophe they have undergone is. Something as yet undiscussed has happened to the team to put Sue out of the picture, put Reed in a cute little robot body, and put metal bits on Ben. Perhaps that mysterious disaster constituted the end of the age they began and prompted the commencement of this one.
Failing that, then the internal chronology seems to leave the Doctor Strange analogue as the first of the new heroes. That might be interesting, given the antagonistic relationship A-Next has shown him to have with his predecessor. The actual Doctor Strange got fired from the Sorcerer Supreme gig! I sort of love that. If we had more to go on, it would be a lot of fun to consider the two magicians as representatives of two different magical epochs and to account for the two Silver Ages in terms of what they represent. We might keep an eye on that.
Based on what we have got now though, I think our best bet is to take another close look at What If? #105. No active superheroes are mentioned, shown, or otherwise evidenced anywhere in the comic until May learns of her legacy. As soon as she has…SUPERHEROES EVERYWHERE! It seems most likely that the MC2’s reality has warped around Spider-Girl in the same way 1602’s warped around Rogers.
Or it could just be dynasty.
Magneta has got Magneto’s powers, costume, and hair but no apparent personal connection to the chap himself. She’s the new Magneto because she’s mysteriously acquired sufficiently attributes of Magneto-ness and adopted ‘Magneta’ as what she calls her “nom de costume.” Magneta is unusual. Most of the MC2’s analogues have some personal connection to their predecessor.
The Fantastic Four is a family saga, but rarely a dynastic one.
Certainly there have been attempts to interest us in other generations. Sometimes ancestors, sometimes descendants, sometimes ancestors who have time-travelled to the future and sometimes descendants who have time-travelled to the past. It doesn’t matter so long as they’re all called ‘Nathaniel.’ But for all that, the focus is always on Reed and Sue’s generation.
The utterly wonderful Fantastic Four 100th Anniversary Special illustrates the point well. Purporting to be an artefact from forty-seven years ahead of its publication, its recap page gets up up to speed with who the FF will be by then…
Fantasic Four: 100th Anniversary Special #1
We don’t get to spend much time with these kids. We get a fabulous story about Sue and Valeria that I wouldn’t trade for anything, but… damn, I kind of want to know if Vicky and Kirby are gonna kiss again.
But Fantastic Four will never be about Vicky and Kirby. It’s only towards the very end of Fantastic Four, in the Millar and Hickman runs, that Franklin and Valeria finally became viable protagonists.
Here and now, in the MC2, the Fantastic Five stand as part of this “New Generation of Heroes.” Four out of the five of them are from the previous generation.
Elsewhere, there has been a succession and it has mostly been a dynastic one. The new team of Avengers consists of Thunderstrike’s son as Thunderstike, Scott Lang’s daughter as a bug-themed hero, the Juggernaut’s son as J2, and a robot that Tony Stark built (I don’t know if robots that Tony builds count as his children, but I bet that’s explored somewhere). The Spider-Girl comic’s tagline is “the daughter of the true Spider-Man!” which even sounds like a genealogical claim being asserted to oust some pretender from the throne.
A-Next’s ‘Kooky Quartet’ characters inherit their roles by more circuitous routes. The American Dream is the niece of Sharon Carter, who is the niece of Peggy Carter. Association with the person of Captain America is obviously passed along the line of nieces. The Crimson Curse, the Scarlet Witch figure, isn’t the daughter of the Scarlet Witch, but is the daughter of Agatha Harkness, her mentor. Even where the relationship between these characters and their predecessors isn’t quite one of linear descent, it’s still all in the family.
Also, the new Avengers’ reserve member, Coal Tiger, is the son of the Black Panther. We might expect them to act like a royal family, I suppose, since they are one. What’s everyone else’s excuse?
The mainstream Marvel and DC universes have long had to negotiate the fact that they have two broad generations of heroes in their stories, the Golden Age and Silver Age characters. Marvel cheerfully started integrating Nineteen-Forties characters into their universe from Fantastic Four #4 on, while DC have gone back and forth on whether or not their Golden Age and Silver Age characters exist in the same reality or if old people are from another universe. As I write, another swing of that pendulum is scheduled for the end of this month.
On the occasions when the DC universe does house both its ‘forties and ‘sixties casts then there’s a further tension. How is the succession to work? How bound are these roles to the bloodlines of their originators? That’s a massively complex question over there. James Robinson’s Starman gets well over eighty issues worth of drama out of interrogating the intersection of the Knight family and the Starman identity.
Starman #One Million
Sometimes you’re Black Canary because your mother was. Sometimes you’re Wonder Woman because your daughter was. Sometimes you’re Wonder Woman because your daughter was but then you then went back in time to be Wonder Woman before her. The late nineties and early two-thousands were a wild time for this sort of thing at DC. A reader could readily observe the push and pull between people who thought it’d be cool if Hourman was a colony of intelligent machines apprenticed to a New God and people who thought it would be more cool if Hourman was some generic bloke called Rick, because Rick was the son of the true Hourman.
It is a complex question at DC because it is one with huge implications.
Generation One have titles and powers. The two are associated.
Generation Two have titles and powers, again associated.
How that association of powers and titles is transmitted from one to the other is a big deal. Making those associations and managing their transmission is literally how Rome gets a line of Emperors without formally having Emperors. That’s what defines what a Roman Emperor is and this potentially tells us a lot about what a ‘superhero’ is too. It makes a huge difference to what has been created, within the fiction, when one creates a superhero identity if it’s established as the natural norm for you to have just instituted a dynastic inheritance. It colours any response to the question of how superheroes relate to their power if one of the things they’re expected to do with it is pass it on to their kids.
Starman #One Million
This isn’t as inextricable a concern for Marvel as it is for DC. Marvel might tie themselves up in a muddle of retcons as to what exactly the Vision has to do with the Golden Age Human Torch, but it never has to worry about whether or not he’s the son of Marvex the Super-Robot. Whatever relationships may be established between Marvel’s ‘forties and ‘sixties characters, there’s rarely a sense that they share identities to an extant that demands an explanation.
When DC’s ‘forties characters became superheroes, did they found dynasties? Um, it’s complicated. On the days when they exist, then some certainly did.
When Marvel’s ‘forties characters became superheroes, did they found dynasties? No, they categorically did not.
Which makes it interesting when Marvel imagines futures for itself. When it imagines a Generation Three. Because then it has to ask if its ‘sixties characters founded dynasties. If they did what their predecessors did not and made the imperial move when they associated titles with powers.
The MC2’s answer is a definite yes.
They’re not the only ones at it. One of the back-up stories in this issue is an adventure for Wild Thing, the daughter of the original Wolverine.
Here are the credits for this issue –
“This line was always aimed at a mass market beyond the comic book stores,” Tom DeFalco told the comicboards forum in 2004. It was aimed at “the K-Marts and Targets of the world.”
As we saw when we looked at Universal’s Islands of Adventure, this is what Marvel does in the late nineties. When it reaches outside the direct market, it presents itself as a retro brand. A pastiche of how Stan Lee books were presented in the Nineteen Sixties is what theme park visitors and K-Mart shoppers are thought to be looking for. It’s not clear if they’re expected to recognise the specific reference points for these hokey bits of bullpen buffoonery, but they’re expected to recognise this material as ‘old timey.’
Marvel were publishing two alternate futures in Nineteen Ninety-nine. The project aimed at the direct market, Earth X, traded off the solemnity of Alex Ross pseudo-realism. Readers in the loop were to be sold an idea that ‘Marvel Comics’ are something terribly, terribly serious with the authentic air of adulthood that can only come from all the characters looking like random middle-aged blokes. Meanwhile, the product aimed at the people outside the circle sold an idea of ‘Marvel Comics’ as a happy relic of simpler times. Both were extreme strategies.
The strategy for how the MC2 books were to be sold was a nifty one. Three titles, A-Next, J2 and Spider-Girl, would run in the direct market for a year. Then, when their time was up, they’d be replaced with three new titles on on the comic shop shelves. The twelve issues of each launch title that existed would then be bagged up and sold in the mainstream outlets in packs of four, six or twelve. The process would then repeat, with the second wave of titles enjoying their one year of life before making their way in turn to k-mart’s bundles.
That’s not how it turned out though. A-Next and J2 made it to their allotted twelve issues according to plan, but Spider-Girl made no sense to cancel. So only two new books were introduced in the second wave, Wild Thing and Fantastic Five, and neither made it past their fifth issue. The K-Mart and Target deals had fallen through, and we were spared the strangeness of a continuation of DeFalco’s Hyperstorm saga being presented as an ideal way in to comics.
I wonder how study those retailer deals were looking when this issue was written, as there’s a paranoid note to many of the frequent metafictional lines of dialogue. “I will be surprised if they survive a full year” says Magneta of the A-Next Avengers, obviously aware that that’s the specific finish line they’re racing to. She’s not sure about the branding either, telling J2 that his battlecry is “a little too Silver Age for today’s audience.”
Gone is the confidence we saw in Spider-Girl that this fictional universe can stand on its own rather than in relation to someone else’s. J2 begins his opening monologue with “In case you’re new to this particular plane of reality…” and so from the moment we begin to engage with this issue’s world, we’re asked to take a step back and remember that it is just one of many. Even to our viewpoint character, his reality is only provisional.
Then a flying car shows up and someone says “we must be living in someone’s future!”
With that, the MC2 characters abandon their claim to their own present. The world in which they live isn’t their now. It’s someone else’s future. It belongs to those someones and they just live in it. The line asserts that this world derives its meaning from its relation to another. Of the five characters who speak in this story, three of them make moves to downplay the extent to which the MC2 universe matters.
While the way in which the dialogue and the branding address the reader is often confused, J2 is a comic very certain as to whose needs its main character is to serve.
DeFalco’s teenagers are all about the nerd/jock binary. Spider-Girl’s social problems arise from her being equally successful in both groups and having to deal with the fallout of constantly crossing the streams. J2 offers the more traditional power fantasy of a nerd who is, secretly, bigger and stronger than all those mean jocks that pick on him. This is complicated by race. As Zane Yama, our hero experiences life as the son of his Asian mother. As J2 he experiences life as the son of his white father. The way this interacts with the standard male empowerment fantasy isn’t something the comic yet seems prepared to talk about out loud.
What it is really hyped to talk about is how J2 feels about large men. The comic appears to offer the consolatory pleasure of letting young men who feel disempowered imagine how cool it would be if you could transform into what it terms a “beef muffin.” Then you’d show them, you’d show them all.
That Charles Atlas Ad
There’s a lot of that about. But what makes J2 interesting is that it runs with the idea that even if you did suddenly change from the kid who gets sand kicked in his face to the hero of the beach, you’d probably retain negative associations with large men.
J2 is a comic about a weedy kid who can transform into a large man, but is really, really unsure how he feels about large men. The primary relationship the book keeps returning to is between J2 and his Flash Thompson figure. His every night is filled with terrifying dreams of his enormous father looming over him in pursuit. One issue of J2 is an expansion of a scene in A-Next that exists so we can watch him bond with the Incredible Hulk. He is terrified of his own naked body.
Panels from J2 #1
To the standard, if racially inflected, power fantasy and been added bucketfuls of paranoia and ambivalent sexual anxiety. If you could turn into a beef muffin, this book tells its hero, I’m afraid that would not resolve all your feelings about beef muffins.
This issue is about J2’s feelings towards women though. “Sure, I know some major lookers.” he complains, “But they usually ignore me — or shove me into the best friend/faithful confidant role. There’s gotta be a girl for me somewhere!”
The character’s friendzone narrative is somewhat challenged by the story, since it turns out that when women do make advances towards him that doesn’t resolve all his feelings about women. But only somewhat. We’re still expected to have some sympathy for his viewpoint by the end. As I say, this comic has a very clear idea of the sort of person it was addressing, even if it was unsure of how to reach them outside of comic shops.