13: East Of Eden (Part 5, ****), 14: Back In Blue (****), 642: Back in Blue Part 2 (****),
643: Back in Blue Part 3 (****), 644: Back in Blue Part 4 (****),
645: “…The Fantastic Four!”/Rekindled/The Real Real/Trash Man!/Time and Tide (****)
2015 saw the cancellation of the Fantastic Four title. It wasn’t, to a point, the first time that it had happened, as the second volume was originally an attempt to reboot the series before it was decided to reincorporate the group into the main Marvel canon. However, this time there was a sense of finality as there was no title to replace it. While Ben and Johnny were to be moved to other titles – Ben to The Guardians of the Galaxy, then a much hotter title than the FF, ironically due to movie success, and Johnny to an Inhumans reboot – Reed, Sue and the “Future Foundation” would be largely rested.
Even more ominously for the group was the emergence and box office failure of their third released movie. Again made by Fox, this time with an all-new cast and set-up, there are so many rumours and unsubstantiated reports regarding the film that a true picture is, at present, impossible to build. Rumours ranged from director Josh Trank’s behaviour on set, down to unscheduled reshoots, and the entire thing only being made to ensure Fox would keep the rights to the group.
Whatever the real truth behind such reports, bad word of mouth had been generating around the project for over a year before it had even been released, with the initial trailers garnering criticism, as well as several casting and creative decisions. When the film entered cinemas in August 2015, it did so on the back of over sixteen months of bad word-of-mouth. It’s this site’s contention that the film, taken on its own terms, isn’t actually that bad, and a full review can be read under the “Media” section. However, its quality or lack thereof became a moot point as it struggled to a box office of just $168 million worldwide, scarcely more than its production costs, and was critically panned.
Within 24 hours of the film’s American release, the director Josh Trank, took to his Twitter account to tweet: “A year ago I had a fantastic version of this. And it would've received great reviews. You’ll probably never see it. That’s reality though.” The tweet was later deleted from his timeline, though screenshots were taken, a reminder of the immediacy and impact of Twitter since its inception. Although Twitter did exist when Rise of the Silver Surfer was released, it was still in its first year of operation and far from the high profile site it is today, whereby a director panning his own movie upon its release became big news.
The film also arguably impacted upon the comic itself, which had long been rumoured to be folding. The longest-running editor of the title, Tom Breevort (who left after volume four, leaving the fifth volume to the stewardship of Mark Pannicia) posted a reflective statement regarding the matter in July 2014. Answering why there wasn’t as much merchandise relating to The X-Men (a team also licensed to Fox), Breevort responded that: “There are only so many hours in the day, and so many initiatives you can have going at once. So you need to pick and choose where you want to spend your time and your efforts. If you had two things, and on one you earned 100% of the revenues from the efforts that you put into making it, and the other you earned a much smaller percentage for the same amount of time and effort, you’d be more likely to concentrate more heavily on the first, wouldn’t you?”
It was perhaps a telling statement, and one that once more drew attention to both teams being whitewashed from posters and merchandise. Yet while the real reason behind the book’s cancellation may never be disclosed, it can’t be denied that the title wasn’t selling, with even the lure of #645 being the last-ever issue failing to make it break past 40,000 estimated sales.
For 2015 the group returned to their blue uniforms, and the end of their title. The final four issues also rewarded older readers by returning to book back to its original numbering, and featuring a cover story title of “The End Is Fourever”. Yet crucially with any story that spans multiple issues, it has to have a strong ending to justify the wait. Although Robinson’s run reads far better in one sitting, the revelation that the entire downfall of the Fantastic Four was brought about by an old college peer of Reeds who’s had a decades-long infatuation with Sue is somewhat underwhelming. While it’s to be commended that the heart of a continuity-crammed storyline actually features something original, it’s one that stretches credulity further than Reed is stretched on torture devices by the face-changing “Quiet Man”.
Marc Laming does the pencils for the flashback sequences, and although the revelation that Sue was strawberry blonde (thanks to colours by Lovern Kizierski) is more of a dramatic twist than the actual storyline itself, the art on the flashbacks is exceptionally well done. Due to the nature of events – Reed is a captive audience and the villain has been operating in the past since the group’s inception – a lot of the climax does involve expositionary monologues which jar slightly with the format. And while the idea of a villain being involved in the FF’s entire history is a nice way to send off the book before its cancellation, it’s also somewhat disrespectful to the original creators by retrofitting a new character into all of their stories and having him take credit for their existence. Even stranger is that The Quiet Man is written as a businessman manipulating the system through finance, which becomes odd when he claims to have tried to pay off The Psycho Man, a creature who doesn’t even exist in our reality and so to whom American currency would be meaningless.
One notable element of the run is that Spider-Man is heavily featured alongside the FF, and has far more rapport and chemistry with the group than he did when he actually became a member under Hickman’s run. Perhaps crucially, it’s because the person he bounces off the most is Johnny, and his initial reason for joining the team in 2011 was due to Johnny's death. Perhaps the most amusing element of the final year is that Sue, on a mission to rescue Reed, still has time to cut her hair first, giving herself a new bob hairdo before prioritising the saving of her husband’s life. Although Leonard Kirk did a fine job wtih the art, he did, with her new haircut, make Sue look like Ellen DeGeneres on occasion. (Not a knock on Ellen, incidentally... but she doesn't strike me as the "Sue Storm" type).
One detraction is the overuse of the idea of the Fantastic Four being “family”, a term that has been excessively repeated both in the title and in creator interviews ever since Mark Waid took over the title. With the Wizard having a change of heart over his clone-son Bentley, the concept of “family” gets pushed fully into “tell not show”, and leans too heavily towards the book’s more mawkish, overtly sentimental tendencies. It seems that the Wizard has forgotten the events of 2012, when all Bentley literally wanted to do was give him a kick in the man grapes.
The final issue concludes with 25 creators picking their favourite covers, and bonus solo stories for the group: Johnny's story by Karl Kesel, Sue and Franklin by Louise Simonson, Ben by Tom DeFalco (!) and Reed and Val by Jeff Parker. It's a nice send-off to an issue that can't be anything but bittersweet.
Marvel announced an eight-issue mini-series entitled “Secret Wars”, which, while not a retread or sequel to the original 80s comic, did feature some of the same plot elements. Tentatively scheduled for a five month publish schedule, with the first two issues coming out in May 2015, it featured the end of both the original Marvel universe, and alternate realities, including the “Ultimate” universe.
Ultimately the series was extended to nine issues and took nine months to be published, with delays between some issues and the final instalment not being released until January 2016. This impacted Marvel greatly, as all of their titles featured their heroes in patchwork parts of the Battleworld, unable to continue their post-Secret Wars lives until the final issue was released. Ultimately some releases went ahead as planned, with Doctor Doom – who saved the universe and ended the series without scars – turning up in an Iron Man story post-Secret Wars before Issue #9 came out.
Exact issue sales are almost impossible to come by, and all the talk of “sales” on this site refer to estimated orders from direct sales retailers. All of the issues broke the top four and had order sales averaging over 230,000, but the initial order of over half a million copies for issue #1 proved over optimistic.
Often messy, the end of the entire Marvel universe only to be reborn with Franklin’s help corrodes any existing link to reality that the company’s titles once had. Now events don’t take place in our world, but in a recreated universe that’s not our own. They don't features heroes who could be us, but men who have the knowledge to save the whole of existence and have three-year-old children who are verbose geniuses. Not only that, but all the many Fantastic Four titles which had events taking place in the future are now, seemingly, overwritten and contradicted.
Despite nice art by Esad Ribic, the mini-series is convoluted and lacks real dramatic impact. Although clearly better written than the original Secret Wars, it lacks the "dumb readability" that the 1984 title possessed, and a clear focus. It's also a comic so far removed from its family friendly source that we get the three-year-old Valeria Richards saying "crap" or being sexualised on a cover, while Issue #7 features Baron Sinister kicking a woman in the head.
Most disturbing of all is that Doom has effectively wiped the memory of Reed's wife and children, causing them to believe that Victor is their father/husband. Reed saves Doom at the end, seemingly unconcerned that the entire story has cast Doom as a rapist. Though as Reed had already acted as his defence counsel in 2009 when Doom had murdered future Sue, then such bizarre characterisation is not without precedent. This is now a family who are fine - to a point - with Doom babysitting their toddler daughter, when in 2003 he attempted to burn their son in Hell. Reader indentification with the four main characters is now, at this stage in the series, almost impossible.
While ostensibly a “crossover” special like the original Secret Wars, writer Jonathan Hickman placed Reed and Doom centrepoint, and Tom Breevort told Newsarama.com that “It had a lot of other characters in it because this was a big story, but this was really a Fantastic Four story.” In fact, the title is so FF-orientated that a decision had to be made whether or not to include the issues in the bulk of this article. While it was ultimately decided not to, given that this isn’t the Fantastic Four comic, the ratings for the “FF in all but name” title were as follows:
1: The End Times (**), 2: Doom Messiah (**), 3: The Eye Of Doom (***),
4: All The Angels Sing, All The Devils Dance (***), 5: Owen Reece Died For Our Sins (***),
6: We Raise Them Up... Just So We Can Pull Them Down. (***), 7: King Of The Dead (***), 8: Under Siege (***)