Writer: Matt Fraction (Issues 1-11), Lee Allred (Issues 12-16)
Art: Michael Allred
There’s simply no way that FF should be as good as it is. Written by Matt Fraction to run alongside his take on the main Fantastic Four title, it’s a 16-issue storyline that constantly looks back to the past and is crammed with continuity. Featuring a temporary FF team (who are holding fort while the real FF are exploring space) the new FF are made up of three ex-replacement members (Medusa, She-Hulk and Ant-Man) and Johnny’s girlfriend, who wears the old Thing exo-skeleton from the 70s. There’s even a bit of the traditional darkness of modern titles, as Ant-Man is compelled to track down Doctor Doom after he murdered his daughter.
And yet… it’s all so good. A lot of it is down to the art by Michael Allred, which captures the real joie de vivre of yesteryear, proving that comics can be fun without having to be goofy or silly. Credit must also be given to his wife, Laura Allred, working on the colours, which are vibrant, and suit the deliberately light retro vibe. (For completeness’ sake, then Joe Quinones was the artist for Issues #6 and #9, and does a decent enough job of aping Allred’s general style so as not to make it too jarring).
One of the biggest moments of the comic – certainly the most notable – is Marvel presenting its first transgender character. DC had beaten them to it by a couple of weeks, having Batgirl’s best friend Alysia come out as trans, but generally transgender characters had been left to indie and underground comics, not the mainstream superhero fare. In Issue #6 Tong – one of the four young Moloids the FF has adopted for their Future Foundation – declares to the rest of the Moloids that she identifies as female, and is accepted with love. Although it’s not quite the same as a human character making the same declaration (I’m not sure anyone actually gave the gender of the Moloids a second thought before the issue came out) it’s a nice touch.
It’s a sad indictment of the core title that FF was able to comment more on society, from the need for PR down to phone hacking and the moral right of trying to overthrow dictators in foreign lands. Fraction’s run on the main comic was readable if unremarkable, making it doubly extraordinary that the sister title is so outstanding.
Another way in which the book shouldn’t work, but does, is the amount of post-modern dialogue. Normally a ubiquitous bane of modern comics, having Marvel representatives meet the group to discuss them making a comic book about them, or references to the old Thing cartoon (See the “Media” section, “Fred and Barney Meet The Thing” for further details) would be too smug in a lesser comic, and sink it. Here it regularly sparkles and adds an extra layer to events.
Although the title generally brings back an “all ages” mindset to comics – often mistaken these days for “aimed at children”, which illustrates how far removed the form is from its origins – it is frequently sexualised. Darla spends most of Issue #3 attempting to keep her mobile chest covered by a towel, while #14 has the three female members of the group taking a topless hot pool dip together.
Yet for all its well-meaning and positive approaches to modern life, there are times when it falls down. Twice the term "special needs" is used, as well as Ben calling the She-Hulk a "pansy", and, unfortunately, the notion of cloning Dragon Man being like slavery is a connection that the one black character happens to make. But, away from such troubling own goals, it's a story that succeeds because of the natural tensions between the regulars. This isn't a group that tell the kids they love them, they're uneasy around them, and Ant-Man isn't sure of anyone. Darla Deering, the real hit of the book, is full of insecurities, and She-Hulk and Medusa even come to blows. In a way, it's an easier story for Matt Fraction to tell, as the original FF have been through so much together that any adventure/conflict can only feel stale and contrived by default. But new characters coming together and not getting along is a fresh new tale that will, unfortunately, naturally seem more vibrant than the dynamics of a group that have been together for over 50 years.
After the first 11 issues Matt Fraction left both the FF and the core Fantastic Four title, having too much of a workload elsewhere, including a new Inhumans title. The remaining issues by Michael Allred's brother Lee are fine, and manage to carry over most of the momentum of the title, working from a co-plotted story by Lee Allred and Fraction. (And, for Issue #12 only, Michael Allred also had a co-plot credit). Perhaps the only serious criticism of FF is that its plotlines run parallel to that of The Fantastic Four, and give no explanation of certain events, such as the nature of the future/alternate Johnny Storm. As a result, it can't entirely be enjoyed as a comic book in its own right, but this is a small distraction, and doesn't detract at all if you've also read the main Fantastic Four title.
In terms of trivia, then the subject of Franklin’s age again gets complicated when it’s explicitly stated by Alex Power that he’s now 19 (and Darla thinks he’s 18). A 1985 issue of Power Pack stated that he was 12, meaning he’s aged 6-7 years in the interim… a lot more than Franklin.
The title was not, sadly, a commercial success. Although estimated sales figures show that over 80,000 copies were shipped out for the first issue (ranking the 14th best-selling comic of the month), the figures and sales rank plummeted hugely, with an average sales position of 77 and less than 33,200 copies per month. By the time the book closed, it had dropped below 22,000 in sales and no longer troubled the top 100.