It was announced yesterday that, almost three years after cancellation, Fantastic Four would be relaunched at Marvel Comics. Taking the reins of the series will be writer Dan Slott and artist Sara Pichelli. Both have a long track record within the Marvel universe, with Slott ending a long run on Amazing Spider-Man and Pichelli wrapping a similarly long stint with its companion titles focused on Miles Morales. The announcement of this new creative pairing is exciting for more than the long-awaited return of the Four or the talented creators attached. This team also marks the very first time in the history of Fantastic Four that a woman has occupied the role of writer or artist for a run on the series.
That's a particularly notable landmark when you consider the place Fantastic Four holds within Marvel Comics, both as a story and part of the publisher's history. It was Fantastic Four #1 that launched the Marvel universe as we know it today. That first issue and the subsequent, legendary run by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee established a lot about Marvel Comics. It introduced flawed heroes, added strong science fiction and fantasy elements to the superhero genre, and altered the conception of a superhero team with familial dynamics. The comic itself was also the flagship title at the publisher for a very long time. It was billed as the "World's Greatest Comics Magazine", and that was arguably true for stretches of its more than 600 issues in print.
There was something missing from this illustrious history though. In spite of the prominent position of Sue Storm as the heart of the quartet, women were often left off the banner altogether.
Like any blanket statement, there are exceptions. In the case of Fantastic Four, the exceptions are exceptional. In the history of the core series, only one issue has been drawn by a woman. That issue was Fantastic Four #133, drawn by Ramona Fradon. The story itself doesn't stand out from similar fare of the time; it focuses on a brawl between The Thing and Thundra in Times Square. Fradon's addition to the notable list of Fantastic Four artists through the decades is far more remarkable.
Fradon began her career as a superhero artist in 1950 and was one of the first women to hold that role. She continued to draw comics for more than 60 years, with her last work being the 2012 graphic novel The Dinosaur Who Got Tired of Being Extinct. In that time she helped to create a wide array of characters. She co-created Metamorpho along with most of his supporting cast in The Brave and The Bold #57. She also worked on Aquaman for an extended period, creating characters like Tempest and Dolphin. The Wonder Twins (and Gleek!) are also Fradon contributions to the superhero genre. She is undoubtedly one of the most underappreciated artists from her era, contributing a more open and expressive style to the genre. Fradon was recognized by her peers, though, when she was inducted into the Will Eisner Hall of Fame in 2006.
The longest-lasting contributions from women to the Fantastic Four came in the form of coloring. Glynis Oliver, one of the most notable Silver Age Marvel colorists, worked on a total of 88 issues of Fantastic Four. Her run on the series is only topped by that of Kirby, Lee, and a handful of others. Many others, including Gina Going-Raney (21 issues), Christie Scheele (12 issues), and Janice Scheele (9 issues), have all colored the adventures of the FF over the years. Much like the women themselves, their role as colorist has only become appropriately appreciated in recent years as the industry focuses more on artist accreditation. They are two long overdue trends.
Fantastic Four has been a centerpiece of superhero comics since its inception, which is why the current relaunch makes for a hopeful bellwether for change. The series has been as much about artists as writers from its very start. When fans discuss their favorite runs on the series, artists like Jack Kirby, Walter Simonson, John Bryne, and Mike Wieringo are every bit as likely to be mentioned as any individual writers. That is why the announcement of Sara Pichelli as the ongoing artist of Fantastic Four is particularly exciting. She is not only breaking down a door into a key Marvel Comics series, but one that has promoted the contributions of artists from its very start.
Pichelli became a comics star collaborating with writer Brian Michael Bendis on the stories of Miles Morales in Ultimate Spider-Man and Spider-Man. Her lush pages are driven by character personalities and open designs. Italian influences are clear in work that values the human form and is generous with expressions and reactions. Pichelli's work is always easy to distinguish in a lineup of modern artists, earning her many critical nods, including the 2011 Eagle Award for Newcomer Artist. On Fantastic Four, there are no prior artists that she can be accurately compared to, already promising a run that will stand out. There's no artist at Marvel Comics more deserving of this role; fans and critics, alike, ought to be excited to see what she will deliver.
While Pichelli's placement on Fantastic Four is a step in the right direction, one deserving celebration, it's not a stopping point. The observation that Pichelli is the first woman to draw a run of Fantastic Four and that the new Fantastic Four #1 will only be the second issue in the series drawn by a woman points to an enduring bias. If Pichelli is kicking down the door on this title, there still must be time and opportunity for more women to walk into the room. The value of being first cannot be undermined, but Pichelli must not be the last.
There are still more barriers to be broken as well. No woman has ever written Fantastic Four and it's not clear that publishers of superhero comics have promoted enough women into this role across the industry. Men still dominate the majority of jobs in both art and writing, making it clear that this achievement is just one step forward. There are some incredibly talented women writing for Marvel Comics today, including G. Willow Wilson, Rainbow Rowell, and Jody Houser. That list must be viewed as a good starting point.
Fantastic Four has always represented exploration and growth, both in its own stories and for superhero comics in general. It was the title that defined storytelling at Marvel Comics and helped establish many great artists and creators in the world of comics. The series is finally reflecting the more equitable atmosphere of the medium in 2018 with Pichelli on this flagship title. After it returns the series would be well served by continuing to reflect the changing atmosphere in comics with improved representation not only amongst its characters, but its creators as well. That is the best possible way Fantastic Four can retain its title as the World's Greatest Comics Magazine.