Fantastic Four at 55: Andrew Leyland/The Fantasticast Interview

Cover-dated November 1961, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s The Fantastic Four hit newsstands 55 years ago and the world of comic book superheroes was changed forever. Prior to its release and subsequent success, Stan Lee had grown increasingly frustrated with the comic book medium and the recently dubbed “Marvel Comics” was limping along creatively.

With Fantastic Four’s almost immediate embrace by an expanding readership, Lee’s enthusiasm for comics was reignited and Marvel was transformed from floundering publisher to power-packed purveyor of some of the most exciting and energetic comic book masterpieces to ever grace a spinner-rack. For his part, Kirby would make the comic medium sing in ways that had never even been dreamt of before.

Today, we see a landscape where no comic currently being published bears the title Fantastic Four, two of the team’s members (Reed “Mister Fantastic” Richards and Susan “Invisible Woman” Richards) are entirely absent from the Marvel Universe, Johnny “The Human Torch” Storm is palling around with the Inhumans, and Ben Grimm is about to be shuffled off the Guardians of the Galaxy.

It seems it’s up to the “Keepers of the Faith” outside of Marvel to celebrate this milestone. As such, this month of November will see a number of fans, professionals, and commentators reflect on Marvel’s First Family.

So join us, O Frantic One, as we speak to…

Podcaster Andrew Leyland of the Fantastic Four podcast The Fantasticast. This weekly look at EVERY appearance by the FF recently celebrated its 200th episode and is still going strong. Each episode reviews at least one comic book issue featuring the FF team or one of its members and provides historical context for what was going on in the real world when the issue was published as well as the wider Marvel Universe. Filled with insight and humor, The Fantasticast is a pleasure to listen to. The show is recorded with co-host Stephen Lacey, and is based in the UK with Leyland living in the north of England and Lacey in the south.

Mr. Leyland’s podcasting isn’t limited to the FF though. He also records Amazing Spider-Man Classics (ASMC), which takes a similar look at Marvel’s resident wall-crawler. He also records another comic-focused show Hey Kids, Comics! with his son Micheal. The father/son team pick issues, story arcs, creators, or characters from any time period or publisher to discuss and dissect. Andrew Leyland’s solo podcast is entitled Palace of Glittering Delights and looks at basically whatever the host is interested in talking about at that moment. Finally, he also records Listen to the Prophets – A Deep Space Nine Podcast with co-hosts Paul Spataro and Bill Robinson.

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(Photo: Fantasticast)

Mr. Leyland, together with Steve Lacey, you have produced a podcast entitled The Fantasticast which has so far chronicled 14 years of the Fantastic Four, their main series, spin-offs, crossovers, guest appearances, and cameos. As an “index show,” you’ve started with The Fantastic Four issue one and been moving month by month through the history of Marvel. After reviewing 160 issues of Fantastic Four and innumerable other comics featuring FF characters, what has been your single biggest takeaway about the series and team regarding their place in the Marvel Universe and the hearts of fans?

The Fantastic Four started it all. I have always preferred them to The X-Men and The Avengers and it’s the Marvel Comic that should be at the forefront of innovation and storytelling. Throughout its history it’s the series that lead the way for how Marvel characters are portrayed. My biggest takeaway is really an obvious one – without the FF, you don’t have comics as we know them.

This November is the 55th Anniversary of the Fantastic Four’s first appearance by cover date. This is also the first fairly notable anniversary we’ve seen where they aren’t being featured in a Marvel Comic in any way, shape, or form. What reflections does that inspire in you?

It makes me think that Marvel are too slavish to the movies now and aren’t acknowledging their history because of some petty feud with Fox. The FF, Spider-Man and The Hulk are the cornerstones of the Marvel Universe and yet one is unrecognizable, one is not being published and one has just been killed by Bendis! Of the three, the FF are the easiest to resurrect simply because they are the ones that have been messed with the least.

Would you say that creating The Fantasticast has taken on any kind of new significance for you since Fantastic Four was cancelled?

It would be nice to feel that we are keeping the FF Torch burning (Ha!) but for me the show is just a fun way to look at a property I think is the cornerstone of the Marvel Universe. It’s more a feeling that Marvel is squandering one of their best and most recognizable properties rather than anything else.

Based on the evidence of 200-plus episodes of The Fantasticast, it would seem that as much as you do love and enjoy the FF you are primarily a Spider-Man fan. How would you characterize the difference in appeal between the Fantastic Four and Spidey?

The Fantastic Four are a family who bicker and argue but still love each other. They are not a super hero team comic in the traditional sense, more celebrities who strive to live a normal life – or as normal as that life can be for an orange rock monster, a shape-shifting super-brain and a man who combusts in public! Peter Parker is a kid who had adulthood thrust upon him but is primarily a loner. If Spider-Man is a coming of age soap opera that mixes crime noir with super heroics then the Fantastic Four is big science fiction ideas grounded by recognizable characters.

In terms of story, the FF is really limitless whereas Spider-Man is very definitely more grounded. Both strips service different needs, I think. They both work at their best when the “normal” lives of the characters is as normal as the writer can make it, bearing in mind that Peter’s “normal” is very different to the FF’s!

Spider-Man, at least in the early days was “The Hero Who Could Be You!” which is very much part of the appeal of the first 100 or so issues whereas I think the FF’s appeal comes from the family aspect and the feeling of belonging and being accepted for who you are. It was also “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine” and that came from the sheer balls-out craziness of the stories.

Spider-Man is never accepted whereas The Thing, despite how he looks, is recognised as a hero which is two very different philosophies. I never liked team books as a kid but the FF didn’t feel like a team book to me, rather an extension of this Marvel idea that people, even super powered people have flaws, problems and foibles. Ultimately, the FF gives me my science fiction fix and Spider-Man gives me my crime drama fix, both genres I’m a big fan of.

As a big fan of the artwork of Steve Ditko, what FF issue or story do you think could best have been improved by swapping Ditko for the artist who actually provided the pencils and/or inks? Don’t feel you have to limit yourself to material you’ve already covered.

Honestly, I don’t think Ditko would have suited the FF at all. The only story I can really think of that DITKO would have crushed is probably “This Man, This Monster,” especially the splash page. Ditko worked well over Kirby in the Red Ghost issue but Ditko and Kirby had different strengths. Ditko used shadows and shading a lot – he favoured Ridley Scott style moodiness over Kubrick gloss and I do think that’s the main difference; Ditko is Blade Runner, Kirby is 2001.

Who is your favorite Fantastic Four-related character? This doesn’t necessarily have to be a member of the core team; it could be a supporting character or even a villain.

Namor. I love Namor’s arrogance and swagger. He’s a swine but he has the strength and stature to back up his arrogance. He’s like Liam Gallagher, if Liam Gallagher ruled an underwater city. He has that same rock star confidence, that same belief in his own abilities. I can totally buy that women fall for him because he exudes power and charisma but he’s also capable of tenderness. He’s really not a man you want to annoy though being more than willing to carry out on his threats.

If The Fantasticast was to end tomorrow, what sort of a podcast would be your first choice to start up in its place, either independently or with Stephen?

I’m already doing it, joining Jon Wilson and Michael Bailey for Amazing Spider-Man Classics. I’m not interested in doing another index show like this one. I much prefer being able to talk about whatever I want like I do on my other shows Palace of Glittering Delights and Hey Kids, Comics!

What would you say makes for a more enjoyable episode of The Fantasticast, a remarkably good comic book or a remarkably horrible one?

There’s a balance to be drawn. I don’t want this to be a bash fest. Let’s be honest, there’s a LOT of stupid in these comics and if we wanted, Steve and I could really turn up the snark and take the piss but I love comics as a medium and super heroes as a genre so I’m not really inclined to do that. I like to think people like us gushing about an issue just as much as they like hearing us tear an issue apart. I do concede that a horrible comic can make for a better discussion but even when an issue is utter shite, we manage to find some good in there, even if it’s only complementing the colouring!

It’s often said that the Fantastic Four when they debuted were revolutionary in the comics world, that they were different than anything on the stands. Generally, it’s specifically cited that they were dramatically different from DC’s output at the time. With the FF, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby are generally credited with beginning the elevation of the medium and introducing more complex characters/stories. Do you think this is their most important legacy? Do you think it’s entirely deserved?

The FF was VERY different from what was being published at the time and the domino effect changed American comics forever. That reputation is totally deserved. Without the FF, we don’t have Spider-Man, another character than forever altered comics, we don’t have the X-Men, nor do we have “relevance,” or continued stories and shared universes to the extent that we do. We also don’t have a slavish devotion to continuity but that’s a different conversation! Lee’s legacy is assured from other properties, not just the FF and people like to downplay his involvement in everything, not just the FF but I think he’s a very important figure in comics.

Kirby’s legacy is easier to define as he is sadly no longer with us. For all the characters he created and worked on, I don’t think any of them have the longevity and appeal of the FF. The Hulk is different every issue in the early days betraying a lack of thought about that concept and what to do with it. Even with Kirby’s other big strips like The Avengers and X-Men, none of them have the grandeur and epic scope of the FF and neither have the same output. Even his opus New Gods, doesn’t have the appeal of the FF. But isn’t just the FF – it’s everything else. It’s Namor and The Inhumans and Galactus and The Negative Zone and The Frightful Four and the Silver Surfer and various images and splash pages. And the ideas! Simply magnificent, over the top, crazy idea, leap off the page in the Fantastic Four. Even with all of Kirby’s other stunning achievements; the Fantastic Four is a high bar.

Looking ahead, what would be your greatest hope for the FF property in the future?

I would hope somebody at Marvel know what they have and would consider re-launching the book with a capable creative team and give them a few years to settle. Why Karl Kesel and Tom Grummet have never been handed the keys to the FF and told to run with it baffles me. Granted, neither are big name talents and that’s ultimately what it will take to make the FF a success in the current market place. I honestly think that at Marvel only a Bendis written FF would be a success and I don’t really want a Bendis written FF as I don’t think that’s were his strengths as a writer lie. The Ultimate Fantastic Four failed as the writers decided to make the core characters pretty unrecognizable.

The FF are deceptively simple to get right: Reed is a two fisted genius in the Indiana Jones mold, constantly curious, always learning but not afraid to roll up his sleeves and punch somebody should the need arise. Ben is a hotshot fighter pilot with a heart of gold who suffered the greatest due to the cosmic rays and is therefore a very tragic figure. He’s a matinee idol trapped in a monster’s form. Johnny is the cocky jock teenager who probably reminds Ben of himself which is why they rub each other the wrong way. But they love each other like brothers. Sue is the glue that holds the team together. She’s Reed’s Wife, Johnny’s sister and Ben’s best friend as well as being a competent scientist in her own right and the head of FF Inc. She’s arguably the most powerful member of the team yet its most caring. Together they explore both inner and outer space, striving to push the boundaries of humanity’s knowledge whilst still arguing over whose turn it is to cook dinner. How is that not a winner?