The Fantastic Four Have Disappeared… Or Have They?

Brian M. Puaca writes for Bleeding Cool:

The Marvel Age began with the publication of the Fantastic Four #1 in 1961. Before the appearance of the Fan Four, Marvel — or Atlas, or Timely, or whatever Martin Goodman was calling his company that year — was publishing a number of unremarkable fantasy, suspense, and adventure comic books. The Fantastic Four played a key role in "kick-starting the Marvel Universe." Indeed, it "put Stan Lee and Jack Kirby on the map." The self-described "World's Greatest Comic Magazine" (by issue 4, anyhow) marked the arrival of a new generation of "three-dimensional characters" with whom readers could identify. At least, this is the story according to the description of the premiere issue on the Marvel Unlimited website.

fantastic_four_1_coverAs fundamental as the Fantastic Four are, then, to the emergence of the Marvel Universe, it stands to reason that they would feature prominently in the company's publications, promotional material, licensed products, and commemorations. After all, the Fan Four saw Lee and Kirby collaborate on more than one hundred issues of some of the most exciting stories ever published in the Marvel Universe. In these issues, they created a remarkable cast of supporting characters, including the Silver Surfer, Galactus, Black Panther, and Inhumans. In the decades that followed, many of Marvel's most talented creators worked on the title. Luminaries from John Romita and John Byrne to recent stars Jonathan Hickman and Matt Fraction have all contributed to the on-going exploits of Marvel's first family. And the book had run for more than 640 issues before ending in April.

So the Marvel website should feature the Fan Four prominently, right? Heck, even the Marvel Unlimited folks recognize the importance of the title. Go ahead and hop over to Marvel's site. See the Fan Four there front and center welcoming fans? No? But there are the Avengers. And Daredevil. And…Carnage? Really? Well, I am sure if we check out what cool items are available as gifts for that Human Torch fan in your family, we'll find a bunch of neat things. Let's click on "Shop" and "Characters." Hmmm…Black Widow? Guardians of the Galaxy? No Fantastic Four. How about a shirt? There are 68 of them in the adult section, so surely…Nope. Not a one. Not one Fan Four shirt. Not even a Marvel shirt where the Fan Four appear. But there are two nice Ghost Rider shirts for women that you'll want to consider. Nothing in toys. And the only item in Home Decor is a Mac Book sleeve that includes the Thing. I'll take it! Wait. The link is dead. And there's a powerful metaphor.

FF_MacBookProCoverAs one might have already surmised, Marvel finds itself in a rather unusual and awkward predicament in regard to its storied history. The Fantastic Four have disappeared from virtually everything Marvel does outside of publishing actual comic books (and even that now seems to be on hold). There's nothing on the website. There are no licensed products to speak of. This, of course, could all just be a coincidence. Perhaps the marketing people want to draw attention to what is hot right now. It's a possibility, however unlikely. But it is the efforts to remove the Fan Four from public view that belies this generous interpretation. Marvel has recently engaged in a concerted campaign to revise its history in a way to support its current and future film and television projects. The company, owned by Disney (which has always had a tenuous grip on history), is attempting to erase characters from our collective memory. This works well with the majority of Americans, since devoted comic book readers and fans comprise only a small portion of the general public. It is much more difficult, however, for Marvel to speak to committed readers of its publications in the same way. Here, it seems they want to have their cake and eat it, too. After all, how can the Fantastic Four, the team and title that started it all, simply be forgotten?

FF_marvel_75th_magazine_coverMarvel's decision to essentially erase the Fan Four stems directly from the fact that Marvel no longer controls the film rights to the franchise. Struggling to stay afloat during the comic bust of the mid-1990s, the company sold them (and the rights to the X-Men) in an effort to avoid bankruptcy. As a result, the Fantastic Four films do not reside inside what has become the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), which includes the Avengers, Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America films, and will soon expand to include Ant-Man, Doctor Strange, the Black Panther, and Inhumans in the years ahead. As a result, Marvel has sought to promote these characters, and it has also made a point of not promoting the characters appearing in the films of studio rival 20th Century Fox. (That rival, by the way, happens to have a new Fan Four movie coming out in August, but naturally, there's no mention of it anywhere on Marvel's site.)

This concerted effort to deemphasize the Fantastic Four (and to a lesser extent, the X-Men) has been ongoing now for more than a year. It is one that can be seen in a number of examples and points toward a coordinated effort to manipulate historical memory of the Marvel Universe. An early example comes from Marvel's 75th anniversary magazine, published as a free promotional giveaway in September 2014. The company sought to commemorate its long history dating from the appearance of Marvel Comics #1 in 1939. The cover of the standard version of the magazine prominently featured Marvel's greatest heroes, such as Spider-Man, Iron Man, Hulk, and Captain America. It also includes Black Bolt, Iron Fist, Nova, and Ant-Man. No Fan Four. No X-Men. (While limited Alex Ross variant covers dedicated to the Fantastic Four and X-Men were also released, they have been rather hard to come by. My friendly neighborhood comic shop didn't have any available last fall.) On a publication celebrating the history of Marvel Comics, it is hard to imagine that this is an accident.

FF_Secret_Wars8Deciding to exclude the Fan Four from publications is one strategy, but actually deleting them from where they have already appeared is quite another. Recently, Marvel has licensed new Secret Wars shirts for sale but, it seems, has refused to allow certain characters to be included. Yes, the Fantastic Four and X-Men characters that appeared on the covers of the Secret Wars comics used on these shirts were removed. And not just removed, but in many cases they were replaced with other characters that Marvel hoped to promote. Remember the important role Daredevil played on Battleworld thirty years ago? Me neither. But there he is on a revamped cover of Secret Wars 1 labeled "Marvel Super Heroes" (in the same color, font, and style as the original logo). And another shirt actually just deletes Reed Richards, the Human Torch, and the Thing from the cover of issue 8. It's a good thing that Sue Richards is already invisible, since that saves them from having to erase another character.

The list actually goes on and on, although it seems that there is already enough evidence to suggest an intentional strategy of removing these characters from the public eye. New Marvel sketch cards have been released without any members of the Fantastic Four or their supporting characters (such as Dr. Doom, the Silver Surfer). Recently, cartoonist Mike Mitchell revealed that he was forced to pull works that display the characters from a public exhibition. And did I already mention that the "World's Greatest Comic Magazine" had been canceled as of issue 645?

FF_Omnibus 3And yet…the Fantastic Four haven't totally disappeared. One just has to know where to look for them. And the only people that are likely to find them are the serious collectors and fans who seek them out. While it sounds strange, Marvel is still willing to sell the Fan Four to those who will pay for them. The calculation here must be that limiting the visibility of these characters to die-hard fans will: a) not serve as a way of promoting Fox's film; and b) continue to generate significant profits for the company. So, just where does one have to look to find them?

The first place to look, as already mentioned, is Marvel Unlimited. Most of the Fantastic Four issues Marvel has published over the past fifty-plus years are there to be read and enjoyed. This includes all of the Lee and Kirby issues and almost every one of the first 300 issues. A second place to look would be in new hardcover and trade offerings from Marvel. Fans of Marvel's hardcovers were excited to see the release of Fantastic Four Omnibus 3 in late April, which included thirty of the later issues of the Lee/Kirby years. With a $99.99 price tag, it is unlikely that casual readers would pick this up (or even find it on the shelves of their local bookstore). So, too, has Marvel continued to publish its Marvel Masterworks line of Fantastic Four books (with the newest edition released in June retailing for $75.00) and even reprinted the first volume (containing issues 1-10) earlier this year. Finally, Marvel has published four Epic paperback collections (usually with $34.99 cover prices) since the start of 2014. These books usually contain about 15-20 issues and, again, appeal to the most committed fans.

And so what's the likely impact of this dual strategy for Marvel? Will it in fact succeed in not promoting the Fantastic Four film and eventual DVD release? Probably, but there's no way to really know. Would someone who saw the Marvel 75th anniversary cover last year and noticed the Thing been more likely to go see the movie? It's unlikely. And would someone who purchased the Secret Wars shirt and caught a glimpse of the Human Torch been clued into the film's August release? Doubtful. This concerted effort to deemphasize and then erase the Fan Four from the public consciousness seems to be rather sad and petty. At the end of the day, one could argue that this strategy was enacted more out of spiteful reasons than financial ones.

And will the strategy disillusion the hardcore fans who, Marvel hopes, will subscribe to Marvel Unlimited and purchase the high price hardcovers and trades? This question is a bit trickier. Maybe not. But the more publicity these actions receive, the more likely that committed fans will become frustrated. Marvel has tried to avoid discussing these moves and, when pushed, offered defensive and evasive answers. Would devoted fans of the Fantastic Four become so upset by these decisions that they choose not to purchase the expensive products Marvel continues to produce? It's unlikely, but possible. Many Marvel fans can't buy a shirt, a statue, or a poster of their favorite characters. Fan Four toys for their kids or accessories for their office are out of the question. This likely irks many of those who love the characters. And one has to wonder if the trade-off is worth it. Wouldn't the spending of committed fans — and even the general public — on merchandise that included the Fantastic Four off-set any possible unintended promotional value Marvel's products might provide to the film (a figure that would be impossible to quantify anyhow)? The answer is likely yes. Thus, not only is there ill will generated by this decision, there are lost profits. And rare is the example where a company chooses to earn less money than it otherwise might. Even Reed Richards would have a hard time figuring that one out.

Brian M. Puaca is an associate professor of history at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia, where he teaches a course on the history of comic books and American society. He can be reached at bpuaca@cnu.edu.

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About Hannah Means Shannon

Editor-in-Chief at Bleeding Cool. Independent comics scholar and former English Professor. Writing books on magic in the works of Alan Moore and the early works of Neil Gaiman.
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