The Fantastic Four will be returning to Marvel Comics in less than one month in a new series to be written by Dan Slott and drawn by Sara Pichelli. It is an all-star lineup for one of the greatest superhero comics ever, in what appears to be a back to basics approach. The new series will feature the original members of the Fantastic Four: Mr. Fantastic, The Invisible Woman, The Thing, and The Human Torch. However, it’s unclear who their core supporting cast will be and what villains they might encounter early in the new run. That doesn’t mean there have not been clues though, and some of those clues are pointing at the little known robot who goes by the name H.E.R.B.I.E.
Marvel Comics released a “True Believers” edition this week spotlighting H.E.R.B.I.E.’s very first appearance in the comics series; making him part of a line usually published to draw attention to movies, events, and returning characters. He also recently appeared in the Marvel Two-In-One series that is serving as prologue to the new volume of Fantastic Four. While he may not be a full member of the team as he was in the past, fans shouldn’t be surprised to see him appear in Fantastic Four #1. That leaves one very important question for many new readers though: Who exactly is H.E.R.B.I.E.?
H.E.R.B.I.E. was first created for an animated adaptation of Fantastic Four in 1978. Since the rights to the Human Torch had been optioned for a film adaptation, the publisher was required to create a new fourth character to round out the team. Stan Lee came up with the idea for a robot sidekick and initially requested that artist Dave Cockrum design the character. However, Cockrum disliked the idea so much that he declined. This resulted in Lee asking his former collaborator Jack Kirby, recently returned to Marvel after a stint at DC Comics, to design H.E.R.B.I.E. instead. Kirby and Lee had co-created Fantastic Four and much of the Marvel universe together, and this new character marked one of their final collaborations. In Kirby's earliest design sketches the robot was actually named "Z-Z-1-2-3," before the more human sounding title "H.E.R.B.I.E." was applied later.
Kirby and Lee’s final co-created member of the Fantastic Four only appeared on NBC’s animated show for a total of 13 episodes before it was cancelled. That wasn’t to be the end of H.E.R.B.I.E. though. He was subsequently brought into the comics by writer Marv Wolfman and artist John Byrne in Fantastic Four #209, initially to match the series with the television show and then to please new fans after its cancellation.
H.E.R.B.I.E. was initially constructed by Mister Fantastic and his alien ally Master Xar in order to aid in their search for Galactus. Unlike past encounters, the Fantastic Four were seeking Galactus for aid in the face of a powerful new villain who went by the title of the Sphinx. There was a mysterious third contributor to H.E.R.B.I.E.’s creation, Master Xar’s nemesis and prior villain to Blade, Doctor Sun. Doctor Sun managed to upload his own consciousness into H.E.R.B.I.E. and used him to manipulate a variety of events.
Under Doctor Sun’s manipulation, the robot was used to assassinate an alien pirate and release the villain Blastaar. None of the team suspected the adorable robot could be behind these sabotage efforts though. After early attempts to kill the Fantastic Four failed, Doctor Sun confronted the team in his new robot body and even managed to temporarily incapacitate all of them long enough to transfer his mind to the computers of the Baxter Building. Freed from the control of Doctor Sun, H.E.R.B.I.E. heroically sacrificed himself to destroy both the villain and the computer system he occupied.
Following the cancellation of The Fantastic Four animated series, there wasn’t much need for H.E.R.B.I.E. to be returned to the ongoing series. The little robot had managed to find a spot in the hearts of both creators and fans during his initial appearances, however, and would continue to be returned in various forms in the years ahead. The original H.E.R.B.I.E., a robot with weapons systems powerful enough to take on the entire Fantastic Four, has never been resurrected though.
H.E.R.B.I.E.’s first appearance after his death was as a new robot designed to keep an eye on Franklin Richards, the son of Reed and Sue Richards who was developing immense and unpredictable powers. It was in this form that he took on the role of a babysitter and sidekick, a more fun version of his prior self. Multiple forms of the robot have been known to look after both Franklin and his sister Valeria, along with other young members of the Future Foundation. While they are generally ineffective in stopping the kids from escaping, they are consistently helpful around the Baxter Building.
These new versions of H.E.R.B.I.E. have had multiple encounters with classic Fantastic Four villains as well. When the Fantastic Four were stranded in time, they took to dressing themselves as Doom and demanding more respect, while remaining otherwise peaceful. More recently in Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, it was revealed that H.E.R.B.I.E. still can sense Galactus after the planet-devouring villain arrives. It’s possible that either of these connections could play into his future appearances in Fantastic Four.
While H.E.R.B.I.E. has never been the most prominent member of the Fantastic Four, he has garnered a consistent following that has made him a consistent cameo figure in other adaptations and stories. In comics he has appeared in a number of alternate universes. In the humor series Franklin Richards: Son of a Genius, he is the caretaker and voice of wisdom for Franklin’s mischief, resulting in a Calvin and Hobbes-like dynamic. He appeared in Marvel Adventures Power Pack, another all-ages comic, as an adult figure to watch out for the kids while the actual adults were away. There are also versions of H.E.R.B.I.E. in the Ultimate universe, the Marvel zombies stories, and alternate universe Deadpool stories, none of which are quite as kind to the little robot.
The 1978 animated adaptation of The Fantastic Four wasn’t H.E.R.B.I.E.’s last appearance outside of comics either. He has shown up on a variety of television programs, including The Super Hero Squad Show and Ultimate Spider-Man recently. He was also seen as a deactivated robot in the background of the 2005 Fantastic Four movie. His appearances have even extended to video games like LEGO Marvel Super Heroes. While H.E.R.B.I.E. has never been a leading figure in the Fantastic Four comics, it’s apparent that he will never be gone for too long, and will likely be making yet another return this fall.