What Is The FF?
Ten years ago was a very different time in comics. The shock of The New 52 was just cooling, as comic fandom anxiously anticipated what at first appeared a similar turn of events in Marvel NOW!’s relaunch of the Marvel Universe. One of the more interesting reshuffles was with the Fantastic Four. One of Jonathan Hickman’s major changes to the franchise was giving the team a legacy, students in the Future Foundation (or FF). After Reed Richards observes that the world’s scientists and leaders were inadequate to the changing world, he began gathering children from all walks of life in order to form the FF, a think tank designed to solve problems. They end up becoming important in events like partially curing the Thing’s inability to return to human form, saving the world from other-universal Reeds and the Celestials, and end up becoming a core part of the family.
Matt Fraction’s relaunch of Fantastic Four with Mark Bagley and FF with Mike Allred and Laura Allred left this dynamic largely unchanged. The new premise of the books was the Fantastic Four with their children Franklin and Valeria departing the universe for a road trip that would last only four minutes in real time, though for those four minutes they each pick a member for a temporary Fantastic Four to guard the universe in case things go wrong. This of course being comics, things go wrong. But more importantly, it’s a story about rebuilding when you’ve lost everything and how lasting relationships can be forged even in tragedy.
Previously: Marvel Then, 10 years later!
The Role of Identity and the Family
Before FF even came out, it was set up in Marvel Now Point One which had a lead-in story by the team of Matt Fraction, Mike Allred, and Laura Allred setting up Scott Lang aka Ant-Man’s emotional state, as he was still grieving over his daughter’s death at the hands of Doctor Doom, against whom he desired revenge, while they also gave us a presentation of the pop art aesthetic of the series and its goofier aspects (like Scott’s first act of vengeance against Doom, painting a mustache on his portrait). It ends up being a microcosm of the majority of the series in its exploration as to just how important family is to Scott and his struggle to find a reason to live in a world without his daughter. Which perfectly tees up the ongoing in its quest to do just that.
FF as it is interweaves with the main Fantastic Four series, but for the most part that really doesn’t cause any trouble with following FF. All you need to know is the Fantastic Four departed the universe and their replacements have to pick up the slack. The Fantastic Four’s replacements are all sought after for various reasons: Scott is chosen by Reed because, in his perfectly logical Spock-esque fashion, he wants to give Scott a way to fulfill his emotional needs and heal; Medusa is chosen because Sue trusts her as a fellow mother and queen (Sue was the regent of the Uhari Atlanteans at the time); She-Hulk is chosen because she has been a member of the Fantastic Four before; and new character Darla Deering is chosen because Johnny Storm literally forgot to pick someone ahead of time.
But it’s the easiest job, right? Sit for four minutes and go home saying you were a member of the Fantastic Four. Of course everything goes wrong, the Fantastic Four do not return in four minutes, and everyone gets stuck in a situation they don’t want to be in where they’re the Replacement Fantastic Four, teachers, and parents in equal measure. This gets compounded by the arrival of a much older Johnny Storm who arrives saying that the Fantastic Four were murdered while traveling through space-time. He ends up being a wild card and naysayer of this new iteration of the book. That’s also the idea that drives a good chunk of the series: identities and what is a family?
This takes many turns and forms throughout the story. For Scott the idea of being responsible for children again is unthinkable and actively resists being in charge of children again precisely because of what he’s lost. For Medusa, her heart weighs against her head repeatedly as both a mother but also as a queen when her history with the Wizard (and his overtly creepy mind control, of which she was once a victim) comes to the fore. With Darla Deering it’s about her initial inability to feel like she isn’t a fake as a superhero and having to struggle beneath the shadow of the Thing and his obnoxious fans in the Yancy Street Gang. There’s also an entire arc with the Wizard literalizing this familial theme, pitting his “wholesome” nuclear family (himself, Blastarr, Medusa, and Bentley-23) against the weird found family of the Future Foundation.
Speaking of identities though, the series also had a memorable (and unfortunately rare) coming out scene for a trans Marvel character, the young Moloid Tong revealing to her brothers that she is a girl and not a boy. While it should be stressed the creators involved are all cis-gendered, the subsequent scene is still very hopeful and uplifting, that while not so long ago, was still fairly envelope-pushing by standards that even today Marvel (unfortunately) still holds in terms of resistance to pushing through trans characters.Tong’s family accepts her, and the rest of the FF accept her as well. Which is in a way the major difference between the FF and the Fantastic Four or even Jonathan Hickman’s FF run.
The Fantastic Four are a team of relatives and best friends, while the original FF are more about Reed Richards’ attempt to create a permanent legacy of forward-thinking scientists. This run blends aspects of both but drives hard the message that family is where you find it, and with people who accept you for who you are. That search for permanence and family is something that drives so many of the characters, not just Scott Lang, but coming to that is a journey that’s worth the undertaking.
The Art of the FF
It is impossible to talk about FF without discussing the Allreds. You cannot overstate the importance that Michael and Laura Allred hold to the series. While that’s evident in their creative collaborations over decades of working together, it’s an interesting case in FF, which is more of an earnest all-ages comic compared to X-Statix with Peter Milligan, and it in a sense precedes what they would do in Silver Surfer with Dan Slott. While the comic in theory keeps a lot of what Hickman and his collaborators did in the previous version of the series, the comic’s aesthetic shifts hard thanks to the Allreds, who push it towards pop art. While that creates a sense of timelessness in the comic, it also serves to push it toward an overtly all-ages aesthetic that tends to be underrated in comics. Everything about it attempts to bridge a gap between the adults and children in the audience, from the saucier scenes like the Ant-Man with Darla Deering in a towel in tow in a chase scene in an early issue, to the more adorable scenes with the kids. That endearing all-ages sense allowed it to stand apart from the rest of Marvel’s publishing line at the time and even from Fraction’s other Marvel NOW work with David Aja on Hawkeye. It’s not often that a Marvel comic really does have a sense of trying to appeal to children back then. The Allreds have always been a popular team, but watching them flex a different set of muscles compared to the ones we usually see them use (e.g. satire, sci-fi, retro) is nice, and it allows them to express a different set of values that define the comic here.
I would also be remiss not to discuss Joe Quinones. While he drew comparatively few issues, they’re all fantastic. Combined with Laura Allred’s colors, his impact on the series is one that keeps a consistency of tone but also allows his issues to chart their own path stylistically after an artist as iconic as Mike Allred. He also got to draw a beach issue which as we all know are the best kind of comics there are.
Okay But Wait There’s A Different Writer?
Another factor important to discussing this comic is the fact that Matt Fraction left both Fantastic Four and FF about two-thirds of the way through in order to work on the Inhumans relaunch (which is a whole other can of worms in and of itself), but the end result was that both books massively changed with different writers working off of the plots that Fraction left behind. In the case of FF that meant Mike Allred’s brother Lee taking over in the writing of the run. For the most part, the comic stayed the same on the surface. It attempted to bridge the kid-friendly atmosphere with the romance and revenge plots boiling underneath the surface. But it’s kind of like watching a different guy play your favorite song. You notice the little things, whether it’s the dialogue feeling off, the overemphasis on Scott Lang’s revenge plot to the point that he ends up murdering a dude in prison and we’re given a very loving montage of Lang beating Doctor Doom to a pulp, or comparing Doom to Saddam Hussein and other real-world dictators… for some reason.
All of these edgy scenes end up creating a very nasty contrast to the somewhat more subtle attempts to reconcile the more melancholic and childish sides of FF; especially with regard to Lang trying to deal with his daughter’s death. Whether these elements turned out close to what Fraction had in mind is ultimately immaterial since the unique alchemy between Fraction and the Allreds is what made FF work. With that gone, there isn’t much that could be achieved by simply trying to get to the endpoint of the plot Fraction had set up.
What Does It All Mean?
The legacy of FF is a complicated one. While one could argue it’s an iconic run, it suffered gravely from the muddled reception to the dual books, as well as the change in writers. On top of that the book’s ending was ignored by subsequent runs; the FF book was canceled and soon after so was the Fantastic Four for several years due to the events of Secret Wars, as well as the overall decline in emphasis on characters that at the time were licensed out to Fox for movies. The point is that there was never any time to consider what this era was other than “The one that followed Hickman’s”. It didn’t get to develop influence or leave an imprint aside from Darla Deering showing up here and there. Fraction’s influence on this decade of comics is for most people down to Hawkeye (and honestly for good reason), while everyone remembers the Allreds on Silver Surfer.
In the case of the former it’s due to the fact that Hawkeye had a very stable creative team with Fraction staying on the entire way, and even when Aja was taking a break, you had teams like Annie Wu, Steve Lieber, or Francesco Francavilla doing issues that kept the aesthetic Aja created alive, as well as having the benefit of being a singular entity unconnected to other books. FF wasn’t quite able to capture that flair partially because of its identity as a spinoff book beholden to Fantastic Four and because Fraction left midway through, which meant that it no longer could maintain its internal coherence. It’s a shame since honestly beneath the circumstantial problems that it suffered, there’s a lot this comic should have inspired. Both in terms of how to define a revamp after a popular run, as well as trying to market comics to a younger audience.
While there was an attempt to revive the book in the current era of the Fantastic Four with the FF mini by Jeremy Whitley, that one didn’t last long nor even resemble the old book given how much has changed over the years. With any luck there will be a possibility to further revisit the legacy of FF and give it a new chance.