"Everything dies." For years, Reed Richards had been saying it. You couldn't pick up a New Avengers (2013-2015) without hearing the most intelligent man on Earth say "everything dies." The New Avengers had some of the smartest, most powerful men on Planet Earth - The Black Panther, Iron Man, Doctor Strange, Black Bolt, Mister Fantastic, Namor, The Beast - and they were faced with an impossible task - universes were colliding, destroying one another, and soon, none would be left. It was grim, it was dark, it was "adult" as only teenagers can imagine it - blood, angst, death and despair.
This storyline (the Incursion storyline, aka "The End," if you're curious) is one of colliding universes destroying one another, and it's an appropriate apocalyptic tool. In our world, where Marvel Comics are written, Universes were colliding. Marvel had spawned so many alternate realities that they had to number them. There were universes where everyone was anthropomorphic, with terrible pun-based names like Peter Porker, Spider Ham, and Steve Mouser, Captain Americat. There were universes where everyone was an ape. Universes were everyone was a zombie. Universes comprised of cancer. I am not making any of this up.
Marvel had almost sixty years of weight on her shoulders, and with the unimaginable successes in the movie theaters, new readers were piling in every day. Comic books, once assumed dead, had assumed a mantle of cultural superiority. Writing with a backstory twisted into fantastic knots by time travel, dead clones, beings of godlike power, rewriting reality, and alternate reality interactions had become a chore. Marvel comics of the 2000-2015 era are pools of black ink and despair. It's weighty stuff, with identity crises, dead girlfriends, questions about mortality and maturity - it's what the fans always said they wanted, what they got in their post-Alan Moore years of Wildstar and McFarlane - grit and guts and Big Stories. Marvel epitomized this with Marvel Ultimate.
The Marvel Ultimate Universe, (Universe #1610), had started in 2000, with Ultimate Spider Man. While Ultimate was ...ultimately... influential over the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Universe #199999, for those playing along at home), many of the comics were precisely of the Old Men Running Out of Ideas variety. In Ultimate, "Adult" grimdark themes ran amuck. Reed Richards was a supervillain, Magneto was causing genocide, Blob ate the Wasp, Captain America was dead, everyone was dying, everyone was compromised.
It's not a milieu for the Fantastic Four. Fifty five years ago, they were the divergence that set Marvel apart from DC for decades, the original down-to-earth but still super heroes, engaged in mind-blowing cosmic weirdness, over-the-top bad guys in capes and castles, superscience, space travel, and snappy dialogue. Marvel Comics began it's new era in 1961 with the launch of Reed Richard's spaceship.
Quick fact: "Raising a family and being a good spouse" is actually an intelligent, mature, "adult" dynamic to write a comic book around. Fantastic Four is a comic that, at it's best, focuses on joy and love, adult themes, in that adults often want to relive the joy of exploration, the joy of discovery, the joy of adventure, or they are living the joy of a loving family and triumphing over ridiculous odds.
The elemental themed quartet and their broad-brush sci-fi Space Opera didn't quite match the millennial caution and dread that filled our culture, that was writ large in the comic book world.
Therefore: The End.
The Old Men had run out of ideas. It was just superheroes punching one another, no matter how dumb the reason was. Civil War. X-Men vs. Avengers. Or over-the-top team-ups: Everyone vs. The Hulk. Everyone vs. Alien Armies. You get the idea.
Yet, Marvel readers were growing up, more twenty-somethings and thirty somethings came in from the thrill of the Avengers and Captain America of the MCU, female readership was climbing - these people did not want more of the same, but more of the same was the corner all the scribes had written themselves into.
It was time for a reboot, so they smashed all the universes together and made them fight. That was literally the storyline to The End/The Incursions. It was kids with action figures, given a budget.
The Fantastic Four were at the core of it, in a way. Their long-time arch-nemesis, Victor Von Doom, used his brilliance and his Time Platform to save the universes from their tired creators - can you feel it getting a bit meta yet?
After murdering the creators of the universes and stealing their power, DOOM became the creator of this universe beyond. Rather than create as a team and make worlds for everyone to enjoy, he did what every internet-hardened wanna-be comic writer does in forums and rants and 53 part YouTube series.
He made everyone fight. He took all the disparate realms of reality and merged them into one world, aptly named Battleworld, and then smashed the action figures together, controlling them all.
Secret World Marvel works were things of creativity run wild. Hulk worlds, fantasy realms, Asgard and Arcadia and New York, an infinite pile of anything that might have grabbed the fancy of a kid with an imagination and a box of toys. It wasn't all stellar, it wasn't all even good, and a lot of it was recycled and boring, but - there was a hint at what was to come, with wild different versions of existing characters, but under it all, notes of dread and doom (and Doom).
The main run of this Universe-Ending event was called Secret Wars.
It got a little... meta. Doctor Doom, despite his existence in a less-popular Marvel book, is a popular, well-regarded supervillain, but this is a fictional world ruled over by the Bad Guy. It's what happened to the comics - the villain victorious, the angry comic book guy let loose as God.
Something about any bit of pop culture that's especially important to realize for comic books, is that fans aren't the only people buying the product. In fact, they're the minority. That's why they're fans.
The creators, if they want to have a job, have to do what the people who buy the comics want. They can be as wild and creative, as long as they create something people want.
But - and this is a recurring theme - the fan only buys one issue. The college girl he sends a death threat to because she likes The Invisible Woman, only buys one issue. To the machine, they are the same, but the boy in the basement sends out signals that are really just noise, and the creators of the comics think they're paying attention to the larger world.
These guys don't want the things they hold dear to change, and if you have a black Heimdall or Johnny Storm, or a Lady Thor or a young Loki, they'll hate you and scream and claim you're ruining their childhood, as though you were strapping them to chairs Clockwork Orange style and forcing them to read the comics, electrocuting their testicles directly with each panel, until their brains created a psionic maelstrom of anguished energies that tore through time and space, creating a wormhole, a portal to their childhoods, sending them hurtling through it, to be witnessed by their childhood selves, and upon seeing what gigantic fucking titty babies they would become, their childhoods would be ruined.
When Reed Richards and Doctor Doom battle for godhood at the godhead, the fount of all power (fittingly enough, a minor Marvel character from the 60s) on Battleworld, and consequently, the entire Marvel Multiverse, a fitting exchange takes place:
Nothing can change in that fan-strangled atmosphere. It's time to let some new air in. The creative team at Marvel has recognized it, and this brighter, all-new, all-different Marvel would seem the perfect place for a Fantastic Four, wouldn't it?
Doom created Battleworld by mashing things together. Mr. Fantastic doesn't do it alone, he uses his family, to recreate a multiverse.
If you haven't been reading it (and I can only write this because of the Marvel Unlimited app, which has now caught up to the beginning of the All-New All-Different Era) the new Marvel world seems apt for the Fantastic Four. It's a simpler world, with big things and big themes. There's a lot fewer straight white guys, though, and a lot fewer voices from on high making pronouncements. It's a world that more mirrors the image we have of our own. It's a world that didn't go through the crucible of the Incursions, that didn't have to kill itself to survive.
It seems like the Fantastic Four's world, and that's why they don't fit in it. In this world, so strange and unusual, their cosmic connections and superscience mind-benders don't stand out. The FF weren't the first members of the Marvel original flavor (Earth 616, if you're counting) universe - they served to expand that universe's setting while bringing it back to Earth.
The Universe itself has filled the flavor, and Black Panther is filling in the cosmic policeman spot as head of The Ultimates, a sort of Five-Member Fantastic Four for the future, handling things like Galactus and cosmic conundrums - he's got experience at it, since he's been on the FF before. Side note: Black Panther was sent back to Earth from Battleworld, thanks to the Time Gem - he used the Infinity Gauntlet to challenge God Emperor Doom at the end of Secret Wars, and bring himself back to the moment before the incursions began - and this time, they won't happen again.
So the flavor is there, the role is filled, and there's just no spot for the Fantastic Four right now. It's not a popular book, and rather than strain a few issues out, Marvel's given them some time off. It happens to a lot of comics, and the FF have been a fairly niche book for more than a decade.
And Black Panther's right. The people who read those blood and doom stories now have children. Even they don't want what they used to. Marvel's First Family has blazed a trail - bright colors, interstellar action, spaceships and aliens, and with Marvel NOW we're all along for the ride.
As a culture, we're not in a place where we want to listen rich New York families and old white guys - and that's Reed Richards. Science doesn't have the pull that Tony Stark's technology does. With what we've all found out about ourselves, we're not excited about exploration, discovery, and the unknown - American culture hasn't been for quite some time. But we're rounding that particular corner, I think.
Soon enough, we'll be ready for some bickering brothers, for taking care of the precocious youngsters. We'll see a powerful but neglected wife as a unique character or a callback, not as a cliche seen on every channel. The elemental quartet will be back - evil villain Reed Richards, aka "The Maker" IS causing havoc on Earth, after all - and the FF are still out there, exploring.
I'm not an industry insider. Maybe the absence of a Fantastic Four comic has something to do with the movies. After all, Marvel's gone all in on Deadpool (he's in every book, it's as bad as the 90s) and the Avengers, Spiderman's in umpteen comics and Doctor Strange is doing HIS thing, as is Black Panther, as is (some version of) Captain America. But the X Men and the FF are both on the paper version back burners, it seems. Perhaps some decent screentime could get them out of that curse, or is Marvel just trying to sink that flagship property till Sony hands it over?
I don't know. I don't think that's entirely it. The bad movies certainly haven't helped, but I don't think we're in a world that really needs a Fantastic Four series right now. Maybe if we find a microbe on Mars or a fish on Enceladus, or land a man back on the Moon. Maybe when we're opening our horizons up again, we'll find them out there, waiting. Exploring. That would be Fantastic.
Until then, the world's got Doctor Doom as a good guy, and everything's coming up roses.