Jonathan Hickman has just finished a great run on ‘The Fantastic Four’ and I thought it appropriate to look back at how the comic first began. It was the first official title of the Marvel Universe and forms the backbone of the fictional world.
The concepts and ideas that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby produced continue to define what we understand of Earth 616. It is a testament to these creators that the Fantastic Four continue to be such strong characters.
The Fantastic Four are interesting to study since they’ve changed so much over the years while keeping their core concept intact. The brilliance and flexibility of Mr Fantastic, the brutish but good natured Thing, the fiery hot headed Human Torch and the heart of the group, Invisible Girl.
I think the key to their longevity is that they are engaging characters, so much so that their powers are almost secondary. They are a family and it is easier to think of them as Reed, Sue, Johnny and Ben than their codenames.
Like a family they’ve grown over the years including actual family members, such as Franklin and Valerie, and other super heroes, such as She Hulk and Spiderman. Such growth has always felt natural without overshadowing the original members.
With the entire teams data files available in the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying book they are the perfect team for a group to play. Each character is distinct in power set and the role that they play.
To understand them better let us examine how they were introduced to the world.
The issue begins with Reed Richards, hidden in shadow for the moment, firing a flare into the sky to summon the rest of the Fantastic Four. The flare proudly produces the teams name on the page, the captions making it clear these three words are literally being seen by the citizens on the street.
I prefer the simplicity of the classic ‘4’ flare but this does help support the idea that Reed Richards was trying to make the group famous and popular to avoid them being treated as freaks for what he had done to them. The flare is designed to get the teams name out, maybe to avoid the press giving them a name when they do make their first public appearance.
We normally associate Marvel characters as being all based in New York, including the Fantastic Four. After all in Spider-Man’s first issue he pays a visit to the Fantastic Fours headquarters which is clearly in New York.
It is therefore a surprise to read that the flare appears over Central City. Since the other members of team witness the flare we can assume they all live in this fictional city. The Marvel database indicates it is located in California, near the rocket base that the team launched their fateful mission.
Events set in this time period may also wish to base it in Central City. The circumstances regarding the Fantastic Four’s departure may also be worth exploring. Was it by choice or were they forced to leave?
IT IS TIME FOR THE WORLD TO MEET … THE INVISIBLE GIRL
We first meet Sue Storm having tea with a society friend. Upon seeing the flare Sue realises she must keep her vow and turns invisible. This is the first time she will adopt the identity of The Invisible Girl and she seems surprised by her own abilities.
I do find it amusing that in her hurry to meet up with the others she knocks over several people yelling at them that she is in a rush. Could it be that she doesn’t realise that she has turned invisible and is frustrated that people won’t get out of her way?
This would explain why when she subsequently uses a taxi, the driver luckily deciding to cruise around in the direction she is going, she spends several minutes berating the cabbie for not taking the money she is levitating in front of him.
Both Watcher and player can introduce humour to a scene featuring an inexperienced Invisible Girl by having her powers activate without warning. She could cause confusion and fear just by speaking to people or moving objects while invisible.
It has long been a part of Fantastic Four lore that Reed created costumes made of unstable molecules so that their clothes would turn invisible when Sue used her powers and didn’t burn when Johnny turned his flame on.
Here Sue’s clothes turn invisible so they must either be a prototype of the unstable molecule costumes or Sue was already adept at extending her invisibility field to whatever she was wearing.
We can also speculate about what became of Sue’s easily startled friend, who wonders where Sue could have gone while her back was turned in a room with a wide open door.
Were they close? How did she react when she saw Sue was a member of the Fantastic Four? Maybe she tried to reconnect in order to get close hoping her powers or fame would rub off. Maybe they were good friends but their different lifestyles created a rift. Maybe she still tells the story of how she once knew the famous Sue Richards.
I LIVE IN A WORLD TOO SMALL FOR ME!
The Thing’s introduction could be something straight out of the monster stories from ‘Amazing Fantasy.’ Within minutes of discarding his hat and overcoat disguise he is fired upon by police officers, ripped a manhole cover out of the ground to escape into the sewers before bursting out of the road and smashing a car.
All the while Ben talks like a super villain, berating others and calling them cowards. He does nothing to persuade them he isn’t a rampaging monster or Martian. It is a far cry from the more loveable version of the character but we must remember he is still extremely bitter about the transformation which has only recently occurred.
If the other members of the Fantastic Four had died in the rocket crash then it is unlikely Ben would have been able to move past this stage in his life. This short sequence illustrates what daily life would have been like for him, unwittingly destroying structures that weren’t designed for his powerful frame and being attacked just for his appearance.
This sequence also shows how quick the police were to use weapons. Minutes after the Thing’s rampage a heavily armed riot squad arrive. They are clearly unnerved by the reports of monsters walking the street.
Games set in the early days of the Marvel Universe should reflect the fact that the wonder of superheroes hadn’t yet become common place. Heroes could find themselves hunted and feared just because they have powers beyond those of mortal men.
I TRIED NOT TO BURN THEIR PLANES, BUT THEY CAME TOO CLOSE!!
The theme of persecution continues with the introduction of Johnny Storm, the Human Torch. No sooner has he launched himself into air like a flaming comet, melting the car he was working on in the process, the mayor orders the National Guard to shoot him down in their jet fighters.
In this scene we see the power and inexperience of Johnny. He is able to weave out of the way of the planes but they come too close, causing them to melt. Luckily the pilots are able to parachute to safety but this could have been much worse.
Johnny has a further close call when a Hunter missile locks on to his heat signature. The missile has a nuclear warhead, which seems a little extreme, and only Mr Fantastic’s catching ability prevent the Human Torch from being killed.
All of this shows that if the Fantastic Four hadn’t been as powerful, skilled or lucky as they were they would have been killed in their first appearance. Could other such super heroes have been killed the first time they ventured into the public eye? Were these incidents covered up?
Was any action taken against the mayor of Central City after it was revealed he ordered the attack on a teenage boy who hadn’t carried out any hostile actions? After all the order did cost the National Guard several expensive jets and who knows how much damage would have been done if a nuclear warhead had hit the city below?
An Event could be built around these fear filled early days, when superheroes showing their face could result in a military attack. The Event could trace how these attitudes changed, possibly due to the actions of the PCs.
GET THE SHIP! I’LL FLY HER NO MATTER WHAT HAPPENS!
Now the group has assembled the story takes time to show us their origins. This story structure can be used during a game, allowing an action scene to begin the story before running a transition scene that explains how everything came to be.
The rocket sequence is extremely dramatic and effective. The would-be astronauts being bombarded with cosmic rays with the shade of red indicating danger and panic. There is a real sense of horror as Johnny’s body begins to burn and Ben is pinned to the floor as his body becomes too heavy.
This origin would be revisited and expanded upon many times in the following years and here it can seem all too brief. All we know here is that Reed spent years building a rocket and that they had to launch that night to beat the Commies and be the first in space.
There is little preparation as Reed has the group sneak past armed guards, as the conditions are right that night. This is an extremely hazardous action as Ben points out that haven’t done enough research on the cosmic rays and it could have killed them them.
It is no wonder that the motivations of the Fantastic Four have been re-examined as the idea that they just want to go into space ahead of the Russians doesn’t fit what we learn of their characters later and would become very out dated once the Cold War ended.
An Event could revisit this origin, exploring what was happening. Why was it so important that they go that night? Why did they sneak on to the rocket? Had Reed been thrown of the project and if so by whom and why?
Reed Richard’s has often been portrayed as feeling guilt about what happened to Ben but this scene shows that it is Sue that compels him to sign on as the pilot, when she calls him a coward.
A player portraying Invisible Girl may choose to play up her manipulative side shown here. This would be very appropriate if she could use some ones distinctions against them. It does show the origins of her Psych Master specialty.
Similarly someone playing Ben Grimm may want to change one of the Thing’s distinctions to ‘Nobody Calls Me a Coward!’, to represent the importance of bravery and his anger at having his own questioned.
Upon crashing landing in their rocket the astronauts undergo their transformations. Their skill with their new powers are innate. Sue becomes invisible and makes herself reappear while claiming that it happened by itself while Ben doesn’t notice he has become a lumpy rock monster and casually picks up a tree to use as a club. Even Reed instinctively dodges with a newly rubbery body and wraps Ben up in his stretchy arms.
Throughout this sequence we have constant reminders of the horror of the situation. When Sue vanishes her brother worries that she might never become visible again and upon seeing the fight between Ben and Reed Johnny becomes hysterical, calling them monsters and bursting into flames.
Another surprising character moment is how violent Ben is. Having survived the crash he decides he has had enough of Reed and is going to ‘paste’ him in his ‘smug face’. He also seems to have unrequited love for Sue, determined to prove she loves the wrong man.
Was this typical behaviour for Ben or did the transformation unleash something? This could be akin to the Hulk, where the monster can say what the man could not. If this was typical behaviour then there are likely to be many violent incidents in his past, that he might currently be ashamed of.
It has been suggested that each of the groups transformations were shaped by their inner selves. Reed was always trying to expand his horizons and so became stretchy, Sue felt over looked and so became invisible, Johnny was hot headed and so turned to flame. If this theory is correct then Ben may have caused his own hideous transformation due to his monstrous behaviour.
Their decision to become the Fantastic Four comes very quickly. Reed only has to point out that they have more power than anyone has possessed before for Ben to agree that they have to use it to help mankind.
This is key to understanding the group and what sets them apart from other superheroes. They didn’t decide to protect mankind, or avenge it or bring it justice. They are there to help.
This explains why they don’t fight crime or patrol the city. They spend their time exploring, coming up with inventions and using their powers to improve the lives of others.
This can be important for players portraying the Fantastic Four. Knowing that this motivates the group can suggest what actions the group will take in any given situation. It isn’t enough to stop a rampaging monster, they must also rebuild the villages it destroys. Making a new discovery isn’t exciting because of how it will benefit the characters but how it could be used to make other peoples lives better.
It is easy to create a ‘What If’ scenario where the group might choose other motivations, including world conquest. An Event could also treat this as an abridged version of what occurred, giving the group more time to become accustomed to their gifts and deciding what to do with them before coming to the conclusion to help others.
In this issue it is the disappearance of Atomic power plants that make Reed decide to summon the group together for the first time. What if he hadn’t heard of the attacks? What else might have motivated him to activate the Fantastic Four?
What if he didn’t and the group forgot about their vows? With more heroes making themselves known would they decide that the world was better off without them? An Event could be formed around this idea, exploring what would happen to each member of the group and if there is a key event that would triggered the much delayed appearance of the Fantastic Four.