The Fantastic Four at 55: Talking With Artist Jon Morris

Cover-dated November 1961, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s The Fantastic Four hit newsstands 55 years ago and comic book superheroes were changed forever.

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 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 fans, professionals, and commentators reflect on Marvel’s First Family.

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

"Calamity" Jon Morris is the author of The League of Regrettable Superheroes and its sequel The Legion of Regrettable Supervillains, both from Quirk Publications in Philadelphia.

He has also maintained in some fashion or another, since around 1999, the long-running blog Gone&Forgotten, which focuses on the weirdest, wildest and most uncelebrated moments in comics history. He is also a cartoonist and the creator of the Ignatz-nominated webcomic Jeremy: Just Turned Nine. You can find his website at CalamityJonSave.Us and his casual omnipresence on pretty much every social network site ever under the handle "Calamity Jon."

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Mr. Morris, you are an insightful and entertaining cartoonist, writer, and aficionado of popular culture. As an obvious connoisseur of and authority on comics, superheroes, and pop culture, where does the Fantastic Four fit in your personal development as a creative professional, fan, and commentator?

The FF is typically one of my two go-to’s when describing superhero comics which foundationally work. (My other is Metamorpho, for precisely the same reasons…)

The thing about the FF which makes them so well-rounded and immersive an experience is that the characters have unique and distinct relationships between one another. In a lot of comics, you might have one person who is the Team Leader, and everyone looks up to them and respects them equally. Then you have the Team Wisecracker, and everyone tolerates them in equal measure. And you have the Team Brain and the Team Strong Guy, and so on, with everyone reacting to each character with the same responses.

The Fantastic Four doesn’t behave like that – Reed might be the team leader, but he’s an often infuriating but very protective husband and father of Sue’s children. He’s an object of respect and resentment to Ben Grimm, and he’s a difficult example to live up to for Johnny Storm. Meanwhile, Reed treats Johnny like a teacher treats a student who has a lot of potential but little focus, Sue treats him protectively, Ben treats him like a pest whom he loves dearly, and so on. Everyone has a unique and distinct relationship to one another, which is the makings of a well-rounded and enthralling character drama.

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Based on your creative output in the form of your various blogs, art work, and general online discussion, you seem to have an affection for comic book superheroes from across all companies and time periods. In fact, your book The League of Regrettable Superheroes contained more information about characters from niche or long-defunct comic book companies than I had otherwise gleaned from my own comic reading career up to that point. What about the Fantastic Four stands out in your estimation from the broader superhero successes and failures?

The Fantastic Four manages to fit a few roles which other comic characters and – more specifically – teams don’t tend to embrace. There’s the relationship and the family aspect, and the much-loved exploration angle, and the consistent ability of the group to move from the relatively small drama of child’s nightmares or a sibling’s hurt feelings to a battle with a space god intent on destroying the world. To my mind, the pace of the book from a long view is a credit to its longevity – the FF seem able to play out a tableau on a different timetable from most other superhero teams. There’s a lot of action in any given issue, but when you look at a run of ten or twelve issues at a time, even with all the space hopping and fighting, it’s got an almost-laconic lope which is genuinely different from almost anything else on the racks, historically speaking.

As an artist whose work can often be very distinctive owing to a developed personal style, do you tend to find yourself drawn to arcs of the Fantastic Four which feature more distinctive artists like Jack Kirby or Walt Simonson, or does this not tend to play into your enjoyment of a story?

When I was reading FF as a kid, it was a George Perez/John Buscema era. And while I adore both of those artists, they were both working very much in a house style at the time – and it didn’t matter, as long as there were weird aliens and plenty of Ben Grimm.

Going back and reading the issues which came out before and after the spate of FF I’d read as a kid, the more distinctive artists stick out in my memory even if I don’t necessarily find the stories to be better than the 1970s FF tales. John Byrne’s Fantastic Four is an interesting run and it looks great, but probably about half of it doesn’t hold up to re-reads. Likewise, there are a half dozen other artists whose work looked terrific and yet the stories didn’t really pan out – I hate to name names, since so many of those writers are still working and, in fact, are pretty beloved, but I’d say that a unique stylist – say, a Mike Weiringo – could work wonders with an otherwise mediocre story.

If I had to pick one creator’s arc which really stood out to me, to be honest, it was the very un-Fantastic Four miniseries Unstable Molecules by James Sturm (whose “The Golem’s Mighty Swing” I honestly believe to be one of those perfect American comics in the black-and-white medium). There’s no sci-fi, no super-powers, just all the human elements and political backdrop of the original FF’s era amplified to fill up the larger-than-life spaces that the genre elements of the regular series would normally have occupied.

Galactus. Do you see him as a boxers or briefs-wearing planet-devouring cosmic entity?

I don’t remember which creator pitched the idea, but I enjoyed the idea that Galactus doesn’t have a form so much as he has an appearance dependent on the cultural expectations of the people viewing him. So, it delights me to imagine that humanity, contemplating their own extinction, decided that an extinguishing god would wear short-shorts and a horned chicken bucket on his head.

As a creative in your own right, who would you say is the most under/misused villain or supporting character from the FF’s history that you would most like to see developed and put to better use, either by yourself or another creator/team?

Most of the weirder FF foes have been given plenty of chances to succeed, which is reassuring when you’re dealing with such delightfully weird (Kirby) creations like Galactus, Annihilus, Impossible Man and so on. I have three personal favorites, however, that have only gotten so many good shots at decent stories.

Probably the first issue of Fantastic Four I ever picked up featured a group of seemingly supernatural villains called Salem’s Seven, who debuted long after the end of the Kirby/Lee years. I honestly can’t remember off the top of my head who created them (Except I believe George Perez was the artist), but they fit into that general Satanic-Panic oeuvre of characters which populated Marvel at the time – bad guys who bore a tinge of infernal powers, even if they looked mostly like any other supervillain. They stuck in my memory, and I don’t recall ever seeing them used to a decent end ever again.

I’m likewise a big fan of Gorr, a giant golden gorilla who fought the FF around the same time. The FF seems like a team which should have a giant gorilla enemy, particularly as they live in one of the most notable skyscrapers in the Marvel Universe.

But my absolute favorite lovable loser in the FF roster is The Red Ghost, a Commie cosmonaut who attempted to both beat Reed Richards to the moon AND duplicate the effects of Cosmic Rays, but who apparently didn’t have any human friends and so loaded his ship with apes and monkeys. WHO BRINGS AN ORANGUTAN INTO SPACE? The Red Ghost does, that’s who!

Sadly, like a lot of absurd and comical super villains, he’s only ever brought back to be an easy punch-out or to be made an ass of, rather than given a good reason to be a part of a story. I like it when these past-their-sell-date supervillains get to be actual players in an interesting story, rather than little more than a sight gag waiting to get punched out.

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Marvel and DC used to have a tradition of occasional crossovers that is seemingly ended for the foreseeable future. To my recollection the FF only got one truly memorable intercompany crossover, that being 1999’s Superman/Fantastic Four. If given the opportunity to cross the FF or one individual member over with another non-Marvel property, what do you think would result in the most exciting and creatively rich pairing?

For years, I have been entertaining the idea of a crossover between The Fantastic Four and the DC/Fawcett Marvel Family – Cap, Mary, Junior, Tawky Tawny and so on. It’s been a frequent go-to topic when I’m doodling, or has been a good way to occupy my mind when I’ve got a bad case of insomnia (or a great way to harass Evan “Doc” Shaner, whom I have been tormenting with details of this crossover for years. I honestly don’t remember why it drives him so nuts, but that doesn’t stop me).

In my perfect vision of the crossover, I definitely have a rotating art crew of Jerry Ordway, Jon Bogdanove, Stephen DeStefano and Bret Blevins. Writer, I dunno, but probably also a rotating crew. It would be a bit of a waste of Grant Morrison, but it’ll also never happen so why not wish for it.

One of these days I should probably write down everything that’s ever come to mind about the idea, maybe even sorting it into story arcs. At this point, you’d need at least a twelve-issue maxiseries to cover everything: Johnny and Ben gaining the Power of Shazam, Galactus attacking the Rock of Eternity, the Monster Society of Doom, Cap and Mary and Junior trapped in the Negative Zone, the Lieutenant Fantastics, the FF being transformed into talking tigers, Sivannihilus, the Marvel Family trading in their togs for trad-blue unstable molecule uniforms, the Ultimate Wozzlewozzler (inside joke), Tawky Tawny on Monster Island, and so on. I don’t see an end to the possibilities…

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?

Well, it’s a shame and it seems to underline a real change in how Marvel does business as it becomes more of a corporate sub-brand rather than the company it was even up through the Nineties. Comics had a tendency to exist only inches away from the fans, communicating through letter columns and participating in these very mild, low-key conventions and such. They didn’t seem quite so isolated as they do now, being a wing of a branch of a department of a corporate brand, and being part of media “experiences” rather than just pumping out material every month. I suppose that’s why we’re devoid a Fantastic Four right now, really … because it doesn’t make any sense for Marvel to publish something it can’t have Disney spin off in some cash-making fashion, even though there is no shortage of fans interested in the material…

Who is your favorite member of the Fantastic Four?

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I think, like a lot of kids who grew up with their heads permanently dunked into a comic book longbox, I formed concrete emotional attachments to two types of characters. There were aspirational characters who, in one way or another, represented something better than myself and which I longed to be, either subconsciously or overtly. These were, say, to pick a top-tier example, Superman, or Captain Marvel, or so on.

Then there were the characters who I felt resonated with a lot of the fear and self-doubt that tend to come along with childhood and adolescence, characters who were – despite their best efforts – not particularly loved, celebrated, championed or admired. There were a few characters along those lines whom I adored, and Ben Grimm was definitely one of them.

Awkward, overly strong, riddled with self-doubt and given to fits of temper, The Thing felt like a four-color mirror to a lot of my own insecurities. But then, again, he also had so much going for him, whether or not he was capable of recognizing it – he had a loving (if frustrating) family, he was pretty enthusiastically “into” some of the most absurd situations into which he found himself thrown, he was usually the fixer for big problems or -- failing that -- held the bad guys at bay long enough for someone else to figure out how to defeat them, and he was a pretty significant “name” in superheroing. The Thing was a character who was well-liked and even well-loved, but couldn’t admit that to himself, and that felt resonant to me. Or hopeful, even.

So the Thing was my pivot and entry point into the FF’s adventures – which was another thing I adored about him. Whenever the FF’s adventures took them to other worlds, or to other dimensions, or other times, the Thing always seemed like the oddest-out member of the troupe. Reed Richards was the scientist, his wife was his partner, and her kid brother could shoot fire from his hands and fly which is, frankly, pretty all-around useful. And then also they brought a cigar-smoking rock monster from Brooklyn. His incongruity is so much a part of his charm, and it wouldn’t really exist if it weren’t for hanging around with the rest of the FF…

If you could give one piece of advice for anyone looking to tackle a new iteration/adaptation of the FF in any medium, what would that be?

I wrote at (possibly unwelcome) length about this elsewhere, but my number one rule about the FF is to remember that they are a family, with all that entails. Families do not always get along, families hold grudges, and satellite family members weave in and out of the sphere of the central members. But families also adapt, and forgive, and build alliances to cover each other’s weaknesses.

With that in mind, too, it’s worth remembering that the FF isn’t a small family – they’ve got the kids of the Future Foundation, a dozen or so replacement members, the extended Inhuman family, the Surfer, the Watcher, weird outliers like Agatha Harkness, and even some of their foes – Doom, the Mole Man, Impossible Man, even Galactus to some degree are members of the FF’s extended family. Writing them as if they’re bound by ties which go beyond the binary battle of good vs evil, I think, is the key to writing a compelling series of stories about these folks …

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?

Absolutely. They introduced a whole new angle to the superhero genre, one which has been aped, unconsciously or otherwise, a few thousand times since.

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

Frankly, I’d just like to see one consistently good and long-running FF series to come out and have a chance to tell its story, without being interrupted by big events or backroom shenanigans…