“Now his wars on God begin;
At stroke of midnight God shall win.”
– Yeats, The Four Ages of Man.
“Have them fight God.”
– Lee to Kirby, apocryphal.
I’m reading every Fantastic Four comic and posting four thoughts about each.
Like many of you who’ll be reading this, and any of you who didn’t blink at that last sentence, I’ve a tendency to form abnormally strong attachments to the media in which I invest. Sometimes that’s worked out well for me, sometimes it’s worked out less so. You know how it goes.
Over the last few years I’ve noticed many of those attachments breaking. The UK version of Big Brother filled my heart and mind for fourteen summers and then it didn’t. Doctor Who was the central mythology of my life for over thirty years and then it wasn’t. There exists no critical/medical consensus on whether Big Brother and Doctor Who went a bit rubbish or whether this might have had something to do with me trying depression on for size, but that doesn’t matter too much. What matters is that they were gone.
They were gone and, surprisingly, that was fine. These weren’t bitter, acrimonious break-ups like we all had with Pretty Little Liars. They were just gone. Doctor Who and Big Brother UK, these unmanageably massive and unfathomably strange texts that had occupied so much of my thought and my time for so long had just packed up and left in the night. I felt a bit melancholy about losing them but supposed I had no real regrets. I didn’t feel that I’d wasted thirty-one years on Doctor Who or fourteen years on BBUK. As I say, it wasn’t like with Pretty Little Liars.
But, as I stared out of the window listening to ‘Days’ by the Kinks and watching Doctor Who and Big Brother UK load their luggage into a taxi, I realised that perhaps I did have a regret. Perhaps it would have been nice if, instead of them just leaving, we could have talked things out properly first. Wound things up nicely. Worked out what we meant to each other. Consciously uncoupled.
So here I am now in the same situation with superheroes. Again, there’s no acrimony here. I didn’t wake up one morning and think, “Wait a minute! These are all fundamentally authoritarian power fantasies and any attempt to use them in progressive narratives will always be either disingenuous or naïve! Fiddlesticks!” No, no. None of that. Superheroes mean all sorts of different things and will continue to do so. I’m just done following the ongoing narratives and metanarrative of the superfolk as go about their cultural business. But this isn’t going to go like how it did with Doctor Who and BBUK. Superheroes and me are going to do this properly. We’re sitting down and having the talk.
That conversation is taking the form of the project presented to you here; Have Them Fight God. In which I’m reading every Fantastic Four comic and posting four thoughts about each.
Why the Fantastic Four? There are a couple of reasons. One of which is that, when I first started reading superhero comics with Secret Wars then the FF felt to me like the heart of the story and, when I stopped reading superhero comics thirty years later with Secret Wars then they were indisputably the heart. They’ve not always been the centre of my attention or my enthusiasm as I’ve gone along, sometimes they have but not always, but if the story of my investment in superheroes can be mapped onto any set of characters then it’s them. It’s only through these plucky Imaginauts that I’ve got any chance of understanding the journey I’ve been on, of getting the number of the genre that just hit me. The other reason is that there are too many Superman comics.
I’m worried that I haven’t made this sound much fun! Break-up metaphors! Depression mentions! You must think you’re in for a right load of gloomy old grumbles. Don’t worry. It won’t be that at all. It’ll be a hoot! This project might not be explanatory (I’m writing from a position of inquiry rather than expertise) and it won’t always be celebratory, but it will be relentlessly exploratory. Exploration’s fun, isn’t it? To anticipate and misquote a phrase that will become important as we go along; It’s a human adventure.
Best get on with it then. Every Fantastic Four comic. Four thoughts on each.
Today that means…
MARVEL SUPER HERO ISLAND ADVENTURES #1
…from April 1999, a comic which encourages visitors to Universal’s Islands of Adventure theme park to lend a helping hand in bringing about the utter destruction of the Fantastic Four.
Written by Michael Stewart. Inked by Richard Case. Coloured by Paul Mounts. We’ll get to the penciller in a minute.
By the start of 2009, Marvel Entertainment would be the world’s fourth largest licensor. For that very reason, it would end 2009 having been bought by the world’s first largest licensor. The real world monetary value of all the characters discussed in this project eventually comes to derive not from companies producing fictions about those characters but on companies selling licenses to other companies, granting them the right to make shoes, duvet covers, milkshakes and tins of spaghetti shapes. For some time Disney have made more money from selling licenses than they have from making films. That’s their model, and those are the sums that caused them to decide Marvel was worth $4 billion.
Ten years earlier, when this comic came out, Marvel was not worth $4bn. But it was two years out of bankruptcy, it was under in the control of Ike Perlmutter, and it already had Avi Arad pushing for the strategies that would one day bait the mouse.
So this little book, a tie-in to the deal that let Universal have a Marvel Island at their newly-opened ‘Islands of Adventure’ theme park, is a valuable artifact. Marvel’s final destiny was as a licensing company. This lets us have a look at what sort of brand they thought they were selling at the start of the process which took them there.
The most self-evident thing, when you first pick up the comic, is that this is a heritage brand. Over in publishing the Quesada/Jemas project to modernize the line has just begun. Kevin Smith’s Daredevil and Paul Jenkins’ Inhumans are under way. You wouldn’t know. That’s not yet anywhere to be seen on the face that Marvel is showing to the world outside the direct market. In 1999 the Quesada/Jemas Project is still an experiment rather than a direction. The Marvel Brand that has been sold to Universal is one that purports to be exciting because it is nostalgic.
Its cover assures us that the three exclusive stories within are “all told in the Mighty Marvel Manner.” What an amazing bit of copy. What a decision. What’ll speak to theme park goers in 1999? I know! One of Stan’s old cornball phrases! Imagine if “Told in the Mighty Marvel Manner!” had been the tagline for the 2008 Iron Man film.
Actually, yes, imagine just that. Because that highlights perfectly the difference between the brand that Marvel sells now and the brand it was selling in 1999. Modern Marvel films assert that they’re worthy of your time because of a present and immediate relevance to our contemporary world.
Whenever tendrils of that strategy reach Alan Moore’s cave they drive him to such fury that he emerges to complain about our cultural fixation on characters from the sixties. In every interview he makes that point, and every time the comics-reading audience responds with something along the lines of, “Yeah, but mate – aren’t your comics all about characters from Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos and Enid Blyton’s Noddy Mythos?”
The comics-reading audience is missing what Moore finds so provocative. It’s the way our culture processes these sixties’ characters; a way that actively discourages us from thinking about the fact that they’re sixties characters. The modern Marvel brand does not invite us to retain a consciousness of these ideas being old ideas. It invites us to treat them as the Now and to thrill to them accordingly.
Now, I’m not saying that Alan Moore would have a grumble-free day out at Universal’s Islands of Adventure. I’m just saying that what’s happening in this comic is at an opposite extreme to one of his frequent complaints. Here we’re being invited to value this stuff precisely because it is the past. Because it’s part of American heritage and part of childhood.
The comic opens with an intro from Stan Lee. He uses the phrases ‘true believers’ and ‘rollicking readers’ and signs off with ‘Excelsior!’, all of which are exactly what’s wanted from him.
He also misleadingly implies that he’s had some editorial involvement in this comic. A lot of things change. A lot of things don’t.
There are three stories in this comic. One starring Doctor Doom, one starring Spider-Man, and one starring the Hulk. If we’re looking for answers to the question, “What do licensees want from the Fantastic Four?” then we’ve got a pretty big clue right there.
“What do licensees want from the Fantastic Four?”
That broadly seems to be the case today. Conversations about how Marvel no longer hold the film rights to the Fantastic Four turn very quickly into lists of other properties first introduced in FF comics that are therefore denied them. The great annoyance for a lot of people is not that Marvel’s First Family have no place in the most successful version of the Marvel Universe, but that the Fantastic Four can’t be asset stripped.
Sue, Johnny, Reed and Ben are not, in the licensing game, particularly important parts of the Fantastic Four package. We’ve seen the extremes of this over the last couple of years in behaviour from both Fox and Perlmutter. Fox have been perfectly happy to devalue the Fantastic Four as a brand precisely because they’ve no sincere interest in exploiting that brand; just in retaining a cluster of IP that Marvel wants. While Perlmutter’s been happy to stop licensing Fantastic Four merchandise altogether as a move in that game.
Sue, Johnny, Reed and Ben are in this comic though. Doom is what’s wanted, as branding for a ride called ‘Doctor Doom’s Fear Fall’, but the FF are present as motivation for him to have built such an attraction.
What does Doom want? To utterly destroy the Fantastic Four.
How will Doom get it? By building a theme park ride.
We’ll see plenty of stories from Doom’s perspective as Have Them Fight God trundles along, but what does it mean for this particular one to be a Doctor Doom story that features the Fantastic Four?
Not terribly much, to be honest. Because the figure the story’s really structured around is YOU. It’s an eight page build to the reveal of where you, the reader, fit into the story and what your role in events is to be.
We open with a page of Doom addressing some random civilians who he’s holding captive in order to harvest their fear and turn it into lasers or something. “Together,” he tells them, “we shall teach the Fantastic Four that they have nothing to fear but… Fear Itself!”
Then we get a couple of pages of a standard superhero punch-up, which Doom loses due to the apparently unforeseen circumstance of Johnny being able to shoot fire. Don’t worry, though. It was just a remotely controlled robot.
The real Doom is “elsewhere” (Universal Islands of Adventure) working on another machine to harvest the fear of pitiful fools. We end with the reveal that you, the reader, are fungible with a group from within this comic. You too can live the experience of playing a part in a story that’s certifiably told in the Mighty Marvel manner. You can step inside these very pages! You can enter this narrative directly! Not as a superhero or supervillain though, but never mind. For the price of a ticket to Universal Islands of Adventure YOU TOO can be a pitiful fool and assist in the final destruction of the Fantastic Four.
Hey…I tell you who drew this though. Only Mike Werringo! Only the sole definitive Fantastic Four artist of the Twenty-First Century! Why’s this issue not included in the Big Omnibus of his run, then? Probably because there’s no such Omnibus, now I think about it. That’s weird too.
It’d be cool if this was the first time he drew them, wouldn’t it? That’d be a fun take for me to go with, wouldn’t it? This century’s definitive vision of the Fantastic Four starts here in Marvel Super Hero Island Adventures! But, nah. Werringo had already drawn an issue of Heroes Reborn. Fucking Heroes Reborn.
Werringo hasn’t devised those character models for the FF yet though. He’s almost there with Ben. This Werringo agrees with his future self on the matter of Ben’s shoulders; that they should ideally be one big continuous curve and that the rest of his physiology should fit in with that. Other than that though, they all look a bit generic.
Visuals aside, it’s interesting to look at what constitutes a ‘generic’ Fantastic Four in 1999. What’s the default form in which they’re seen to exist when abstracted from continuity?
In terms of characterisation then it’s all what you might expect. Reed’s the one who apprehends the situation and gives the orders (”Let’s move, people!”). Sue’s doing feats of endurance and moments of innovation. She and Reed do little coupley affirmations in the middle of combat. Ben does the punching and the catchphrase. Johnny gets so incensed by the idea of torture that he attempts murder.
Wait. What was that last one again? That’s not generic.
The page in question is just trying to do two things; characterise Johnny as impassioned and get us to the reveal that we’ve been dealing with a Doombot. But how it plays out is like this –
- Johnny makes a status move, castigating Doom for the banality of the weapons he’s deploying against them. “Come on, Doom. A fancy ray gun and purple dumbots – is that the best you can do? This is the Big Leagues, Buddy!” This is a great bit of trolling, as any version of Doom is going to be pissed off by the idea that the accursed Richards family occupy a station to which he is required to step up to.
- Johnny switches to a position of principle, expressing outrage that Doom is torturing innocent people to power his fancy ray guys and informing him that it’s going to stop. “Right here! Right now!”
- Johnny releases all his power at Doom in a firey inferno that both he and Reed clearly understand will kill him.
Nobody expresses any surprise at Johnny’s actions or castigates him for them. All that’s articulated is shock that this has failed to kill Doom. And all we can conclude is that, in the dark and gritty universe of Universal Islands of Adventure, the Fantastic Four routinely fight to the death.
There’s one more thing that’s worth pointing out about this FF, which is that they explicitly operate out of Four Freedoms Plaza. That’s a peculiar thing for this comic to specify as it’s neither their iconic home (The Baxter Building), their current home (Pier 4), or the building that Universal is hyping (Doctor Doom’s Fear Fall). It’s just the building that they lived in after the end of the Byrne run until the Thunderbolts blew it up. What’s it doing in this comic? I don’t know, but its presence does tell us two things. That Pier 4 was not expected to endure and that the return of the Baxter Building was not seen as inevitable.
Doom’s plan in this story raises many questions. The first is what exactly it’s trying to achieve. There are numerous references to the destruction of the Fantastic Four, so we know that that’s a goal, but at one point he also enthuses about the destruction of all others who resist his will and the commencement of his reign of terror, so I think we have to suppose he’s shooting for that too.
The next question is how these goals are advanced by building a theme park attraction which elevates people to 185 feet before suddenly but safely returning them to ground level in an experience that Rob and Jennifer of Baltimore describe as a “Major rush.”
Rob and Jennifer M. Baltimore ,FL
We know that this process of elevating people to 185 feet before suddenly but safely returning them to ground level allows Doom to harvest their fear and convert it to energy. It still seems quite a jump from there to the destruction of all who oppose your will. At best what Doom has here is a small power station. At worst what he has is a terribly inefficient one, as it’s hard to imagine that elevating people to 185 feet before suddenly but safely returning them to ground level and harvesting their fear isn’t a process that runs at a net energy loss.
There are no clues in the story as to how scaring theme park goers can possibly yield more energy than this method of doing so expends, but I suppose that Marvel mythology holds fear to be an extradimensional force. The Halls of Fear and the Nightmare Realm and so forth are all spaces which exist outside the physical universe. Presumably Doom isn’t drawing energy from his terrified punters, but through them, using their distress to siphon power from these metaphysical spaces.
The problem of what Doom is to do with this energy is solved on the last page with the introduction of the trans-thermal fusion dynamo, which it is to power. We’re given no indication as to what that is, or why Doom couldn’t just plug it in and run it off the mains like a normal person, but I’m sure it’s brilliant.
Actually, no… wait. Trans-thermal…fusion…dynamo… all that phrase can possibly mean is a generator. Doom has built his rubbish power station in order to fuel… a better power station. He’s a right nob sometimes. It’s no wonder that people have been dropping from his towers for seventeen years now and not only has he failed to conquer the world, he’s failed to even conquer the two adjacent Islands of Adventure (‘Toon Lagoon’ and ‘Port of Entry’). Though I like to imagine that he was getting close in 2010, only to be put in check when the Wizarding World of Harry Potter moved in opposite.
Nowadays, of course, it’s another quirky legacy of Marvel’s 90′s deals that Universal theme parks can have Marvel attractions while Disney theme parks, more or less, can not. Commentators on the theme park industry are watching all this very closely. There are eyes on every move Universal and Disney make. So there was a lively flurry of excitement last year when rumors started to circulate of secret construction work in the area behind Doom’s Fear Fall.
It’s both easy and appropriate to be cynical when talking about the business side of all this. But there’s something delightful about reading people speculating in all seriousness about mysterious secret buildings hidden behind Doctor Doom’s lair.