The Other Fantastic Fours

There may be arguments over who exactly created the Fantastic Four, and even why they were created, but when Jack Kirby and Stan Lee created Marvel Comic’s “First Family” there was little doubt as to their goals- Lee concluded that, “For just this once, I would do the type of story I myself would enjoy reading…. And the characters would be the kind of characters I could personally relate to: they’d be flesh and blood, they’d have their faults and foibles, they’d be fallible and feisty, and — most important of all — inside their colorful, costumed booties they’d still have feet of clay.” (citation)

Many refer to the Fantastic Four as superheroes, but depending on your definition of Superhero that may not be accurate- I’ve always seen superheroes as costumed vigilantes who seek to bring justice to the world, a definition which doesn’t quite fit the Fantastic Four. Yes, they have costumes, and of course abilities “far beyond the mortal man”, but are they really seekers of justice? I would argue that they are not –they are seekers of truth- and therein lies the rub in calling them “superheroes”. Really, they’re no more superheroes than a police officer or soldier, both groups of people who put on a uniform in their duties.

The Fantastic Four are a group of superhuman explorers and adventurers, who while they do often fight “bad guys” in the name of preserving peace, don’t actively seek out and try to defeat said bad guys for the sake of justice or revenge. This is what makes them different from most “superheroes”, and combined with their lack of secret identities, and nature as an actual family instead of a metaphorical one, it makes them a hard group to pin down for many. For some people this is part of their appeal, since they offered an oasis of almost intellectualism in a sea of smash-em-up superhero comic books of the second half of the twentieth century, for others it made them easier to relate to (and form emotional bonds with) than characters like Iron Man or Captain America.

But, whatever the reason, the simple truth is that the Fantastic Four has been running nearly nonstop since the 1960’s, and has consistently been one of Marvel’s mainstays in their publishing history. It has produced movies, animated TV series, radioplays, daily comic strips and video games, to say nothing of legions of loyal fans who have thrilled and wondered at the various incarnations of the characters over the years. However, is it possible for something to become a cultural icon without producing “children” that follow in its footsteps?

Of course, the answer is no. There have been a number of media that have intentionally or unintentionally followed in the footsteps of the FF, and I thought I’d talk a bit about the ones I’ve noticed.

The Incredibles

 

Brad Bird, the creator of the Incredibles, has stated clearly that he wasn’t trying to copy the Fantastic Four in Pixar’s animated superhero film about a superpowered family. He said he came up with the idea of a family of superheroes first, and then they were slowly given powers and the end result just happened to end up like the FF. I think he’s probably telling the truth (and not just trying to stave off a lawsuit from Marvel), but subconsciously he must have had the Fantastic Four in the back of his head when he wrote his first drafts in 1993. Of the three members of the Incredibles three share the same powers as members of the Fantastic Four (Superstrength/Toughness, Elastic Powers and Force-Field powers) and by the end of the movie they introduce the baby’s powers -Fire powers- to complete the set. Apparently Brad Bird also has the superpower to stretch credibility!

In fact, I would argue that The Incredibles is perhaps one of the best versions of the Fantastic Four ever put to film, and really captures some of the comic’s best elements. It’s a great film, and it’s 60’s aesthetic really meshes well with the whole idea of superheroes, since that is the era to which they are most attached.

Tell me if this sounds familiar- a family of four who get superpowers through an accident and then must live with their new abilities and figure out how to use them to help people. Of course, being of a limited budget it’s more of a drama with what I refer to as “TV superpowers” (ie cheap ones to do on film, like superstrength, superspeed, super-intelligence, shapeshifting and telepathy), and they lack the more epic adventures of the Fantastic Four. In fact, I’d say this series wasn’t so much trying to “borrow” from the Fantastic Four as it was from “The Incredibles”, although they did keep the intellectual element by having not one, but two supersmart characters. (None of the Incredibles seem all that smart, actually…)

In the end, the show didn’t last more than a season for whatever reasons, but I do consider it a great example that perhaps one of the best mediums for the FF is actually live-action television. Something that the next TV show more than proves as well.

 

Stargate SG-1

This addition may surprise a lot of people, but if you think about it SG-1 may in fact be the best adaptions of the Fantastic Four ever done. I have no doubts it was by accident, but there are too many elements they have in common to ignore. The four members of SG-1 have no superpowers (with the exception of Teal’c, who is an alien) but they do share the personalities of the FF in a mixed up way (Jack is an older Johnny Storm, Carter is a more focussed Sue, Daniel is much like a young Reed, and Teal’c and The Thing are both “the big guy” archetype), and function much like the dysfunctional family of the FF as well.

Also, the thrust of the show is adventure and exploring new worlds while battling various galactic threats and supervillians they keep coming across. Each episode they must figure out how to deal with a new threat, and in the process make new allies and gain knowledge about the universe in which they live. The early seasons are especially about exploration and figuring out puzzles and difficult situations, the bread and butter of many FF stories.

This similarity wasn’t lost on SG-1 creators, and the lead Jack O’neil actually used the alias Reed Richards at least once while dealing with aliens.

Gold Digger is the story of the Archaeologist/Superscientist  Gina Diggers and her sister the Were-Cheetah Brittany as they explore lost civilizations, ancient mysteries, other dimensions and occasionally other worlds in search of knowledge and adventure. Running monthly for the last 20 years, the series started as a pseudo-manga adventure comic book by the artist Fred Perry who seems to have intended it to be an action-comedy story heavily laced with pop culture in-jokes. That hasn’t really changed, but as the story evolved and Perry’s skill as a writer increased the book took almost a parallel course to the Fantastic Four in many ways. More and more, the book became about Gina and Brittany’s extended family of misfits and adventurers, and while the cast has continued to grow almost exponentially it’s also kept anchored by the main pair.

In a lot of ways, I consider Gold Digger to be a superior evolution of the basic ideas of the Fantastic Four, as Perry is willing to try new things and have storylines literally run for years. This has allowed the characters to grow and change, and let the story develop organically based on what the characters learn as they go. Nothing just goes away in Gold Digger, and the reset button isn’t needed or welcome, unlike the FF.

In fact, recent events in the FF (the death of the Torch, the creation of the Future Foundation organization) are starting to make the current FF more of a mirror of Gold Digger than the other way around!