The Fantastic Four stand as Marvel’s first family. A band of brilliant misfits whose cosmic adventures changed them in ways they never expected. And ever since their creation by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1961, the FF have stood as the encapsulation of what makes Marvel Comics special. At once both heroically aspirational and relatably flawed. A found family of sharply characterized individuals who grow together through incredible adventures that test their bonds and values.
Over the decades, the FF have had their core as a family of explorers reinterpreted by astounding creative teams that each uniquely emphasize different central tenets of the team. And in 2002, writer Mark Waid took over the lives of Reed Richards, Susan Richards, Johnny Storm, and Ben Grimm with a run that would last a total of 36 issues through 2005, largely brought to life by the late Mike Wieringo, creating a modern classic Fantastic Four run.
Over the course of Waid and Wieringo’s run, the Fantastic Four would encounter new challenges, the return of a villain hellbent on destruction, unimaginable loss, the chance at redemption, and ideas that test the bonds of reality. But for all its grand exploration and strange new worlds, this is the story of a family that breaks apart, reforms, and finds the strength to move forward together. This is the story of Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo’s Fantastic Four.
Prior to Waid and Wieringo taking over, the FF had been in a multi-year time of flux, never quite finding their footing or enjoying the type of success of decades past. Post-Heroes Reborn from 1997 onward (don’t even get me started), the Four had continually shifted creative teams, with Scott Lobdell, Chris Claremont, Carlos Pacheco, Karl Kessel, and several fill-in teams taking control over the course of 60 issues. Not exactly the place you want your comic to be in to build any sort of devoted readership.
So, having been recently placed in charge as editor on the book, Tom Brevoort looked for a strong voice that could bring the FF back to popularity.
“With a certain segment, there was a sense that FF had become passe,” said Brevoort. “It was the ‘old’ book; while it had historical significance, it wasn’t the fresh, young thing. But Fantastic Four was always my book, the characters I cared about and liked the most. So I wanted to scrub it up, to make it fresh and work again in a primal way for the audience of that period. So that was my goal in reaching out to this team.”
In Brevoort’s eyes, it needed to be Mark Waid, who had made a name for himself with work at both DC and Marvel and who had recently left both for Crossgen, and Mike Wieringo, most well known for his distinct, more cartoonish approach on both Flash and Superman during the 90s. To make a big splash and help readers reinvest in the new direction of the FF, the team’s first issue, #60, was sold for nine cents in August 2002 and features the very meta framing device of an advertising team trying to repackage the Fantastic Four to a Marvel Universe that had grown tired of them.
The issue works as a way to reintroduce the FF to new or lapsed readers while also softly resetting the team for a new era. Reed, Sue, their children Franklin and Valeria, Johnny, and Ben are all here and fairly close to the status quo most people would be familiar with, but they seem fresher and younger. Obviously, Wieringo’s art helps with this. These aren’t old timers stuck in the 60s but modern explorers and scientists ready to find the limits of today’s world. In Waid’s eyes, who as a writer has a knack for bringing character’s back to their origins while still feeling more modern, the FF were “Imaginauts” first, not superheroes. Wieringo’s art leans into cartoonish figure work – with thicker lines inked by Karl Kessel (who also served as a lifelong FF fan story consultant). Wieringo used an exaggerated illustration of action and a bent toward comedy, but his characters are full of life and incredibly emotive, with every panel absolutely bursting with life. While it may be natural to think of his art as being best suited for a light hearted story, and he’s extremely talented at comedy throughout this series, it’s also great for the series’ darkest moments. Wieringo creates characters that you quickly care about and it makes the danger all the more terrifying.
While there’s not a strict narrative throughline to Waid’s long-term story, it has a larger cohesive idea to it all – the struggle of a family that experiences a terrible tragedy and how they break apart and reform in the aftermath. While some of the FF’s craziest challenges come at the end of the run, the biggest and most horrific challenge happens within the first dozen issues in the form of the “Unthinkable” arc.
Here, Doctor Doom returns to destroy the team, but instead of technological attacks or full-scale warfare, Doom embraces the dark magical side only briefly seen in stories like “Triumph and Torment.” And to longtime fans of Doom, who often walks the line between villainy and nobility depending on the writer, “Unthinkable” is hotly debated, as this is a truly evil Doom, sacrificing the life of the only woman he ever loved to build armor from her flesh and harnessing the powers of hell to torture the FF. For a run that’s often defined by its brightness and humor, “Unthinkable” is truly dark.
Whatever you might think of Victor’s characterization, “Unthinkable” is designed to break the Four, with Sue, Johnny, and Ben tortured, Valeria used by Doom, Franklin trapped in hell, and Reed tormented by his own weakness. The Four beat Doom in the end and banish him to hell, but are mentally, spiritually, emotionally, and physically scarred by the confrontation. In the aftermath, every family member works to recover from the experience, but it’s Reed who is most shattered, leading to “Authoritative Action” as the FF invade Latveria to tear down the stronghold created by Victor.
This is the darkest hour for Waid and Wieringo’s Fantastic Four, as Reed pushes the family to cross lines, leading to the tragic death of The Thing. Now, more broken apart than ever, only a trip to heaven can restore both Ben and the FF. With the Four literally going from the depths of hell to the heights of heaven, we see a family emotionally stretched as far as possible, but what does this mean for each member?
The Fantastic Four can often be defined by their encounters with larger than life concepts and the call to push into the unknown in the name of scientific exploration. But the other vital aspect of Marvel’s First Family is that they are a family, and the changes in their relationships to one another provide the human aspect that grounds the outlandish encounters. This may be a “team book” but it’s not your typical version like The Avengers or Justice League where solo characters come together. Every FF book is defined by the family dynamic. How these characters care for or hurt one another is the most important part. And it’s this that Waid and Weirengo chose to focus on.
Sure, there are massive experiments and beings that challenge the FF’s perception of the world, but these are used to highlight the humanity of each member. And to do so, Waid creates a good natured and hopeful approach to the Four, which he then quickly counters in “Unthinkable.” As Doctor Doom crosses the line to destroy the Fantastic Four, the ripple effects cause the FF to spiral and hit even lower points in their lives.
But Waid’s FF isn’t an indictment of Reed Richards and his family, it’s a challenge to see what a family’s love for one another can truly overcome.
Each arc here shifts its focus to a different member of the Four as the central character. Together, they challenge the family’s unity but consistently affirm their love for one another. Because above all, this is the story of a family enduring some of their most personally challenging moments and coming through stronger as a family.
In each of these characters, we see a father, a mother, a brother, and an uncle striving to be better for the sake of the people they love.
Reed Richards: Mr Fantastic
Reed is a challenging character for a common reader to relate to. A genius that can often seem detached from humanity or even bad at being a husband or father. Regarding his major inspiration at the start of the run, Waid said, “What I focused on was that everybody loves Sue, everybody loves Johnny, everybody loves Ben – nobody loves Reed. Reed is nobody’s favorite character. So my question was, ‘could I make Reed your favorite character?’ Could I drill down on that. My inspiration was Buckaroo Banzai, but a little older and more seasoned.”
That focus is evident right from the start, with Waid letting Reed take down his guard in a rare moment of admission to the infant Val.
Through so many challenges, losses, and moments of personal conviction, Reed truly grows.
Sue Storm: The Invisible Woman
Sue Storm has always been the strongest member of the FF, not just in the power that she has, but in the deep emotional and mental strength she has when compared to the aloof Reed, the immature Johnny, and the tormented Ben. Over the course of these issues, Sue undergoes constant physical changes but remains as a constantly powerful woman. And while Waid gives Sue great characterization, she gets the short end of the stick here compared to the other members of the four.
Sure, Sue saves the day at several critical moments and her role here is a far cry from the early days of Stan and Jack, where Reed would tell her to stay out of the way so the boys could take charge, but it’s not exactly like The Invisible Woman has many shining moments here. Sue is the bedrock of the Four, but at times that can feel like a woman being the solid homebase for the adventures of other men. There are better runs for Sue and god knows there are a lot worse, but Waid’s Invisible Woman is a strong character without a truly great story.
Johnny Storm: The Human Torch
Johnny has always been the immature but fun youngest member of the 4, but at times it can feel like he’s stuck in permanent adolescence. I guess that’s what happens when 60 years of comics add up to no more than 10 in comic book time. And here, Waid sets Johnny on a path of unavoidable maturity.
First, it’s Sue forcing him into becoming the FF’s CFO in a sink or swim role that ends in near disaster. Later, it’s Johnny forced to deal with the idea of being less popular than Spider-Man because of the FF’s Latverian invasion. A brief romance turned tragic brings Johnny low and, in his biggest challenge, he’s forced to grapple with the biggest display of responsibility as Galactus’ new herald – holding life and death in his hands and finding a solution to a seemingly impossible situation.
Johnny may shift forward and backward in maturity depending on the writer, but Waid’s run is a firm progression in The Human Torch stepping into a new era.
Ben Grimm: The Thing
Ben Grimm is one of the greatest comic book characters ever created. An incredible mix of humor, pathos, and brawn who is the true beating heart of the FF. Of course, The Thing’s long struggle is acceptance of his appearance and the fact he will never truly find a way back to the life he once had.
While Waid doesn’t make this the focus of every Thing-centric story, Ben must accept who he is and it’s an encounter with God, here in the form of Jack Kirby (literal creator becoming spiritual creator) that pushes him into acceptance. Because if God can heal Reed’s scars, then his restoration of Ben as The Thing means that, whether he likes it or not, The Thing is made in the image of God. Ben’s long arc from denial to anger to acceptance gives him peace. And it’s The Thing who helps pull Franklin out of his comatose state.
At the very end, after high and lows, death and rebirth, Ben accepts who he truly is when Reed tries to save him from his monstrous appearance by taking on the curse himself. It’s a really beautiful way to cap off this run that has been defined by each member accepting their place in a larger family unit.
Despite the critical success enjoyed by Waid and Wieringo, FF sales were strong but never a major blockbuster at Marvel. Combined with the financial hole created by starting the run off on a 9 cent debut and the creative team ran into several confrontations with then-Marvel President Bill Jemas. Jemas, well known for his controversial editorial micromanagement during his tenure, demanded that Waid reboot the title right after the “Unthinkable,” with the FF fired by the US government, kicked out of the Baxter Building, and becoming working class heroes. When Waid didn’t want to change his just-started run, Jemas fired him and Wieringo quit in solidarity.
“Brevoort and I were just gobsmacked by this. Just speechless,” said Waid. “And there was no arguing with Bill. So we actually took a stab at trying to give Bill what we thought he wanted without destroying the FF. We planned a story arc in which Reed had been forced to brainwash the entire family, including himself, into this basic scenario for reasons I forget. But Bill decreed that it was too little, too late and one Friday, poor Brevoort called me to tell me that I didn’t have to bother with the next script because Bill had already written it himself and had dropped it on his desk. I was fired.”
It seemed as if the run that had revitalized the FF had been cut short after barely getting the chance to breathe. And when the news broke, fans were in such an uproar that Newsarama, who broke the news, crashed from traffic. But, as luck would have it, delays prevented Jemas’ desired story from immediately moving forward and he was soon removed from his role as president. The result was that Jemas’ idea was eventually used for Roberto Aguirre Sacasa’s Marvel Knights 4 book and Waid and Wieringo were quickly rehired to continue their run.
The turnaround was so fast and Waid, with fill-in artist Howard Porter, had already worked so far ahead on the “Authoritative Action” arc, that the result was no disruption to the run despite their impromptu firing.
In the context of all the behind the scenes reshuffling, “Hereafter” feels like the perfect capper to Waid and Wieringo’s time. And it was briefly intended to be the end until Brevoort encouraged the creative team to keep going. As it is, the Four’s trip to heaven stands about two-thirds of the way through the run and feels like its true highpoint, with everything after feeling like a good but unnecessary expansion of their storyline. “Dysfunctional,” which sees the FF fight a new version of the Frightful Four, and “Rising Storm,” where Johnny briefly becomes a herald of Galactus, are good if not great arcs. Still, in the context of the team getting the chance to keep going, they feel like a deserved encore. With characters you love this much and art this great, why not have a little more?
As it stands, issue 524, “Tag,” is Waid and Wieringo’s true sendoff to the 4 in an issue where each member has lost their powers and must chase after the random New Yorker that’s gotten them. It’s a story that lets us see who Reed, Sue, Johnny, and Ben truly are without their powers and, most importantly, how much they’ve grown across the past 35 issues as a family.
Part of being a family is accepting that each member is going to change over time, sometimes for the best and sometimes for the worst, but accepting that and always trying to be better for each other. We all have our rough spots in life. Maybe we won’t get attacked by a hell-empowered bitter rival or temporarily die and be brought back from heaven, but sometimes it’ll feel the same. So when the people we love are going through the worst times in their life, we have to be strong for them and know that when they get better, they’ll have our back, too.
That’s life as a family, testing and stretching our bonds, showing us new ways to love. It may be scary or strange or exhausting, but in the end, it can be fantastic.
In the two decades since Waid and Wieringo’s story, the Four have gone through continued changes, new highs, being at the center of Marvel’s biggest event ever, disappearing from Marvel for years, and eventually returning, but Wieringo would pass away in 2007 at the age of 44 from a heart condition. An immense talent gone too soon and annually remembered through the Mike Wieringo Comic Book Industry Awards.
Fantastic Four would be some of Wieringo’s final work, with his last published comic being the Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four miniseries. Together, they are a testament to his talent and what this special family means to so many.