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Motherhood, fidelity, and the Invisible Woman

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Jul 26, 2018

The Fantastic Four will reboot in August after a surprisingly long break, and fans are wondering how the new series is going to stack up. They have a long and storied history as the first Marvel superteam of the Silver Age, and with that incredible legacy come high expectations. It's been a difficult line for creators to walk for the last many several years, attempting to revitalize the series while keeping it true to its roots.

The so-called first family of Marvel, the Fantastic Four subverted expectations of what family meant during '50s- and '60s-era America, but one of the most glaring failures for many readers has been the characterization of Sue Storm. Early issues of Fantastic Four are classics written by Stan Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby, introducing ideas and concepts that comic book readers and film fans alike still see today. But, for many, those early issues can be very difficult to read, as the sexism thrown at Sue Storm from her own boyfriend Reed, her younger brother Johnny, and her only friend Ben Grimm can feel like it's more trouble to sit through than the stories are really worth.

Still, Sue is an undeniably fascinating character, and she represents what many women go through every day in this world. Perhaps what becomes the most offensive is that her story is seldom if ever told by women, rather by men who seem often inclined to view her as a lesser being. However, over the years, not only did Sue go through a name change, finally angry at being referred to as “Invisible Girl” well into her adulthood, but she's also stood up to Reed and even defeated important male villains like Doctor Doom and Namor using her cunning and diplomacy in ways that her teammates could never hope to. People are drawn to Sue because, despite how badly written she has been at times, she represents a woman standing strong against the oppressive politics that undermine her within her own home.

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Sue and Johnny Storm share a background, but Sue's side of the story is particularly traumatic. Their father Franklin failed to save his wife from dying after a car accident, and his resulting self-loathing led to him becoming an alcoholic and gambler before he ultimately wound up in prison for a crime he didn't commit. As the older sibling, Sue was expected to look after her brother and help raise him, which placed her in the mother role when she was still just a child herself. While her father's grief was understandable, Sue had to come to grips very early in life with a world where his angst and her brother's need for attention and supervision was more important than anything that she herself wanted.

When she was only 17, Sue met Reed Richards and pursued him, often working as his assistant and even begging to be brought along on the space mission that led to them all being irradiated and gifted with their strange, unique abilities. Her early years on the team were rough, with a major part of Fantastic Four #11 addressing Susan's feelings of uselessness. Letters columns of the time were often filled with fans calling for the removal of Sue from the team, and, in a moment of meta, Lee and Kirby confronted the issue as a story plot point. The male characters assure Sue that she's not inadequate, but they really slide around on that point themselves, and typically treat her as a lesser being, constantly in need of saving.

In the early Fantastic Four, Sue put in a subservient position not only to Reed but also to her younger brother Johnny. It may not make sense for Sue to have ended up with Reed, but it did make sense that she sought out motherhood. Sue is a woman that had never been given a peer. The men in her life are often presented to her as children in need of care, without the full emotional capacities of adults. Crystal and Alicia Masters, although friendly, can't begin to understand Sue's life at the Baxter Building. Even much later, when She-Hulk joins the team, her sexiness and abrasiveness is presented as a threat. Sue is a character desperately in need of friends, but the closest she really gets to a peer is perhaps the Inhumans' Medusa, who is likewise given an impossible role to fill as wife of a man who isn't emotionally present and mother of a very powerful child. The men that pursue Sue do so in response to Reed more than a genuine attraction to her — with the possible exception of Namor the Sub-Mariner, who can't understand her but is attracted to her mystery nonetheless. The tragedy of Sue Storm is that she will likely live out her entire existence as a character without ever having a true friend and peer that could relate to her. In many ways, her desire to be a good mother in part reflects a desire to give her children the love and affection that she herself might never receive.

Eventually, Reed and Sue are married, and she gives birth to her son, Franklin, who turns out to have powers to rival a god. Reed consistently attempts to dampen and control Franklin's powers, supposedly to allow his son to live “a normal life.” When you see that phrase pop up in comics, it's almost always an excuse for abusive behavior. If one genuinely wished for their child to live normally, it is unlikely one would expose oneself to cosmic radiation and become a superhero. A boy born into such a life, with such a terrifying power set, could not even in a billion years even hope to live “a normal life,” and, in trying to force him into one by denying reality, Reed becomes very nearly monstrous. Many queer readers and many disabled readers will likely sympathize with Franklin, as threats of employing torturous methods “to help us be normal” are never too far removed from the table. Despite all that, Franklin grows into a relatively well-meaning, well-adjusted kid.

In Fantastic Four #276-278, Sue seemingly had a miscarriage. Her unnamed child appeared to die while many heroes and villains alike stood by, completely powerless to help her. However, in a later retcon, we discover that her omnipotent son Franklin appears to have saved his sister, transporting her to another reality in which Sue and Doom were married. The couple raises Valeria as their own, despite her somewhat dubious origins. Regardless, Valeria is smart and cynical in ways that her brother Franklin can barely begin to conceive, and the two of them have an interesting dynamic. They are also co-conspirators, coming up with plans to thwart and dodge their parents, who border on the negligent by leaving their children on earth constantly while they go off to battle aliens or map the Negative Zone.

In her depression over her miscarriage, Sue was mentally controlled by Psycho-Man, whose power is to influence the weak-willed and apparently make them dress sexier and say mean stuff to their friends. The way this is resolved is by Reed physically abusing and berating Sue, which makes her break down and causes her to regain control. This occurs with very little comment to the effect that this is essentially just a slightly more extreme version of the verbal abuse Reed has expected Sue to suffer from him for years, but it does end with her finally losing the name “Invisible Girl” and becoming the Invisible Woman. The previous excuse for her not having done so was the name was “too unwieldy.”

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In Civil War, while the Fantastic Four initially stood united with Tony Stark, a Reed-created clone of Thor murdered scientist Bill Foster and caused Sue to leave with Johnny. For one of the first times, she left her children in Reed's care, writing a note urging him to fix the problems he'd caused. While they did reunite later, this era was interesting because we saw Sue willing to completely ditch Reed when she felt he was acting amorally. This hasn't been especially consistent with her character, as she is often instead used as a blindly loyal bargaining chip for villains of Reed in times of crisis. Sue being willing to stand her ground and leave her husband was a major sign of character growth, although in the crossovers not long after she was back to her long-suffering role as Reed's apologist wife. Depending on what is needed for the story, writers take her in either direction, but Sue's character has become stronger in the last several years than it was before.

While Sue herself is easily the most powerful member of the Fantastic Four and rates among the most powerful Marvel characters overall, her two children very nearly rate as gods. Valeria shows up out of nowhere and basically demands to be parented, a responsibility that falls, again, primarily on Sue. Franklin is completely beyond control and Sue relies upon her son's inner decency to convince him to follow the rules, which doesn't always work. Having two children advance beyond you before they're out of kindergarten is another way in which Sue is hopelessly isolated. Yet even if she's the one doing most of the emotional work in the Fantastic Four, she finds the sense of family that she searched for her whole life.

In the end, the things that are emphasized in Sue's character by writers is her stunning levels of patience, her ability to nurture, her bravery, her loyalty, and her beauty. Parts of her character that are less emphasized but more interesting include her deep, almost impossible loneliness, her incredible power, and her ability to submerge her own self-interest under layers of compassion. For Sue, there is no question she could be successful no matter where she goes or what she does. She could be Queen of Atlantis, a scientist in her own right, or even a supervillain, and likely succeed where men like Doom have often failed. It's no surprise that in alternate realities, she and Doom are often paired, as they do have quite a bit in common. What remains the most intriguing element of her personality is that she is the member of the team that prioritizes and almost single-handedly creates the sense of family that they all so desperately need. In the end, despite all the trials of her existence with the Fantastic Four, Sue Storm sticks with the team because she chooses to.

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