Why America needs the Fantastic Four now more than ever

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Feb 16, 2017

America needs the Fantastic Four.

America needs a lot of things, of course. Healthcare, more attention to veterans, free ice cream, better infrastructure, ninjas ... you know, the big stuff.

This is not a website dedicated to government policy, though, and I've been asked to refrain from yelling at you like I'm your activist cousin on Facebook. Also, and this could really be a problem for me eventually ... I don't actually know any ninjas.

I do know a good deal about the Fantastic Four, though, and while you may not realize it right now, trust me: We need them back.

The last issue of the Fantastic Four comic book series was published in the spring of 2015. I don't know the corporate reasons why they were benched, if there is one, and I don't really care. The in-story reason for their absence comes at the end of Secret Wars, when the Richards family sets off to rebuild the mutiverse with an absolutely beautiful sendoff. Yes, while The Thing and The Human Torch are off having adventures of their own, Mister Fantastic, The Invisible Woman and their two children are literally rebuilding existence itself.

As goosebump-inducing as that is, though, we need Marvel's First Family back, in the Baxter Building and in the pages of The World's Greatest Comic Magazine. Why? Well, because we're a nation that values iconography, Marvel Comics is a place full of icons, and with Captain America presently in the clutches of Hydra, I think the Fantastic Four is just the symbol we need for this particular point in history. We need heroes, both real and fictional, and in the fictional realm, no heroes mean more to me right now than Reed, Sue, Johnny and Ben.

For one thing, they're really fun to read about, and that's a good thing when you're trying to find some kind of meaningful entertainment in a scary world. No one wants a powerful fictional symbol that's also an interminable slog to red through. Fantastic Four is a book where a conversation over dinner can be just as exciting, hilarious and engaging as adventures in a parallel dimension because the formula for perfect interplay is built right into the characters. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby nailed that part almost from the word go. A conversation between Reed and Ben never sounds the same as a conversation between Reed and Johnny or Sue and Ben -- or at least it shouldn't. The team is small enough that each personality gets plenty of time to shine, and when that happens the team has a personality of its own that works even through temporary roster changes. In the hands of the right writer -- and Fantastic Four's had some of the best -- that's dynamite every time.

Lots of superhero combinations have good chemistry, though. What they often don't have that the Fantastic Four does is some actual chemistry. Fantastic Four is a superhero book in that it's the story of super-powered people who frequently save the Earth. That's fun, but I can get that in dozens of other places, so it's not really what I come to this book for. Most of the time, the book is the story of a group of scientific explorers -- Imaginauts, as many writers have called them -- who encounter various problems and then work to solve them. Sometimes that problem is a gigantic cosmic being that eats planets, but the principle remains.

In their origin story, Reed is determined to steal a rocket and launch it without clearance, Ben is determined to be his pilot, and Sue and Johnny are determined to not miss out on the experience. That set the tone, and in many ways still defines the sort of mission statement of the group. Reed Richards and company are not here to beat the bad guys. They're here to discover and to help, and while sometimes "helping" does mean "The Thing punches something until it stops moving," the point still stands. They're not soldiers or assassins or guardians. They're Imaginauts, guided by the powerful scientific mind of Reed Richards.

For Reed, the universe is a place of order, a collection of systems that all follow certain rules; therefore when something doesn't follow said rules, he must study it. He doesn't usually approach these problems with fear or anger. He doesn't shrink back from something new and different. He leans into the anomaly, eager to find knowledge there. Therefore, when this team fights Galactus or Dr. Doom or The Wizard, the goal is not to win. The goal is to understand, and that's an important part of the whole scientific mission at the heart of the team.

Reed's boundless intellect might not always make him right -- as any reader of Illuminati comics knows -- but this is a guy who frequently battles an arch-nemesis who will literally make a bargain with demons if it means winning, who believes that the world would be a much better place if everyone would just relent and give him absolute power (sound like anyone we know?). Victor Von Doom would nuke a preschool if he thought it would give him an edge over Reed, and yet Reed is usually much more interested in stopping him than beating him ... and in understanding him above all. That's the curiosity and compassion of a scientist paying off, and I love remembering that. Also, not for nothing, but in a world where, unbelievably, we're still arguing about the existence of climate change, we should revere the Big Brains of comics.

The Four are also rooted in a sense of family in ways that no other Marvel comic is. Once, during the "Solve Everything" story arc, Reed was offered the chance to fix everything in the multiverse, to embark on the greatest scientific endeavor of his life ... and he turned it down because he could not give up his family. Another time, faced with the prospect of Doom forever tormenting his children, he distanced himself from his family and tried to trap himself and Doom in a pocket dimension forever because he saw no other way to keep everyone safe. For all his boundless scientific prowess, Reed understands that he's nothing without the love of his wife, his brother-in-law, his best friend and his children, and this roots almost everything the team does in a sense of love.

Sue is a rare superheroine who deals with life as a mother on a daily basis, and while the wrong writer could use that to bog down her character in sexist tropes, instead it usually strengthens her. She's the most powerful member of the Four, both in terms of her superhuman abilities and her personal strength, and the Baxter Building would come tumbling down without her. Johnny's eternal comic book schtick is that he's always learning the hard lessons of maturity, but his devotion to levity buoys the book in its heaviest moments, and when he has to get serious he's capable of jaw-dropping selflessness.

Then there's Ben, my single favorite Marvel Comics character ever. Ben is the best example of Fantastic Four's sense of family as story pillar, because he's technically not part of the family, but it's also impossible to imagine him not being there. Ben carries with him a tremendous amount of anger over what happened to him, and it would be very easy to imagine another character in his situation abandoning his friends and going into self-imposed exile a la Bruce Banner. Ben, through all his anger and insecurity, maintains his sense of humor and his endless capacity for love, so much so that the rest of the family couldn't get rid of him even if they wanted to.

The desire for understanding and the sense of love fostered by the family also means Ben isn't the only one welcomed into the fold. Over the years, the Baxter Building has become a haven for many, including the children of the Future Foundation. Fed up with scientists who he deemed regressive, with their plans to limit the human population and their disdain for things like manned spaceflight, Reed decided to make an investment in the future of science, and so he created a place for bright young minds to gather, learn and build. The Future Foundation is a place where big ideas begin to grow, but it's also a place for love and understanding, where any child -- be they American, Wakandan or Moloid -- is welcome and cared for. Sometimes, under the right circumstances, even Doctor Doom is welcomed in. It's an example worth following.

We've talked about fun and science adventures and family, and now we come to the fourth and final reason we need the Fantastic Four: Tomorrow.

In Fantastic Four #610, power-mad supervillain The Wizard shrieks at Reed: "This is a world where progress means going backwards." That line made me stop reading and sit bolt upright, because it reminded me of a word we seem to hear a lot these days: "Again." You may have noticed it on a particular line of bright red baseball caps, but its use in the context I'm talking about isn't limited to that crowd. We talk about being safe and rich and healthy and, yes, great again in this tone that does not suggest aspiration but yearning for some mythic, regressive time that never was. We talk about again like it's a mystical realm where we didn't have problems instead of solving those problems or perhaps even considering that some of those big scary unknown things aren't really problems at all. We say "again" like this is a world where progress really does mean going backwards.

The Fantastic Four live in a world where the dominant aspirational word is Tomorrow, not because we can't do great things today, but because tomorrow is the place we should always be working to get to. The Fantastic Four live out stories where tomorrow is exciting and impenetrable and perhaps even frightening but still always some place we should want to go. In the pages of their comic, "again" means giving in to fear and complacency and doubt, and yes even intolerance. "Tomorrow" means acknowledging that there is uncertainty in the world and danger and tremendous doubt ... and then turning the page anyway.

We need more Tomorrow and less Again, and so we need the Fantastic Four back to help show us the way. This is not a cry for blind, reckless optimism. We do not live in a simple world, nor do we live in a world where we can hop a gravity lift to our personal satellite or drive our flying car to Wakanda for the weekend. We face tremendous challenges the likes of which even Reed Richards might not be able to wrap his head around, but as I said before, we are a nation of symbols, and so I am asking for the return of one of comics' greatest symbols: A giant 4 written in fire across the sky.

And yes, I know it's just a big dumb comic book about a stretchy man and his orange rock friend, but it's also a symbol of tomorrow being worth it. There's stuff in there that'll change your life, and I've got proof.

A few months ago, my central nervous system just up and decided that my hands and feet weren't going to work right anymore. I had to re-learn to walk. I went from being a guitarist who typed 90 words a minute to a guy who couldn't tie his shoes. I required 24-hour care, and though I was told I would recover, I had trouble believing it. Then, on a whim, I picked a point in the Fantastic Four chronology and I started reading.

I found my tomorrow. I found it in my family, in my friends, and in the Fantastic Four. I can walk now, and I've got Reed, Sue, Johnny and the Ever-Lovin' Blue-Eyed Thing to thank for it.

No, it's not as simple as sitting down and reading a comic book, but the right comic book could certainly help. America needs a lot of things, and one of the things we need is all the help we can get. The Fantastic Four won't save us, but Tomorrow will, and if they can't take us there, they sure as hell can at least give us a little symbolic push.

Now, because I don't know if I have the words to bring this thing home, I leave you in the capable hands of Jonathan Hickman and Fantastic Four #604:

"They watched until the second sun flickered out ... the light extinguished. The sign of the abandoned. The left behind ... And the lost.

"But it also meant a second chance ... It signaled a new day -- a future ... regained.

"For if we live, there is hope. And if we hope, then there is tomorrow. And if tomorrow ...

"Then ... Forever."

(Special Thanks to fellow Syfy Wire Imaginauts Matthew Funk, Trent Moore and Jeff Spry for their invaluable research insights.)