My Misspent Youth — Fantastic Four by Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

Mark Waid claims he didn’t particularly want to write Fantastic Four. Despite being one of the comic book scribes most immersed in the long, tangled history of the both of the major publishers of superheroes, Waid evidently had no real affection for Marvel’s first family, the quarter of cosmically irradiated do-gooders who started it all. He relented to the assignment because he was exciting to work with artist Mike Wieringo, who prized the gig above all others. As Waid reacquainted himself with the stars of the world’s greatest comic magazine, he found himself more and more enamored with the group. By the time Waid and Wieringo were finished with their run on the title, they put themselves in the conversation for the finest creative team to preside over Fantastic Four, Non–Lee and Kirby Division.

In 2002, when the first Waid and Wieringo issue hit stands (with an irresistibly enticing price of nine cents), the Fantastic Four had been through a long fallow stretch. Being real, Fantastic Four struggled through multiple misbegotten periods during its history, and the trends of the nineteen-nineties, all grimacing antiheroes and guns the size of tubas, were especially ill-suited to the characters. As a writer, Waid was thankfully disinclined towards that sort of garish nonsense, which made him easier to find his way to what makes the Fantastic Four work best: starting with them as a story of family, sometimes comic and sometimes dramatic, and going from there.

Waid then took those dynamics and applied his love of the colorful lore of the Marvel Universe, which the Fantastic Four had in abundance. In only his second issue, he turns to the Yancy Street Gang, the largely unseen pack of street hooligans from Benjamin J. Grimm’s home neighborhood who repeatedly pranked the big galoot, better know as the ever-lovin’ blue-eyed Thing. In a truly inspired twist, Waid revealed all those exploding stogies and mocking messages to be the disguised handiwork of Ben’s joyfully nettlesome teammate, Johnny Storm, a.k.a the high-flying Human Torch.

This is a Waid specialty. By definition, making Johnny the thorn in the Thing’s rocky hide is a retcon, but it’s one that’s not meant to be head-spinning in its switcheroo of previous understanding. There’s no careless discarded of the past to simply shock. It’s utterly logical, thoroughly consistent with the established norms of the characters, and clearly charmed by the history it tinkers with. Especially at that time, most erasures of the past to make way for trickster replacements had a tinge of cynicism to them. Like everything else in this run of Fantastic Four, the choice is instead so winningly pure of heart.

Then there’s the art. As noted, Fantastic Four was a dream gig for Wieringo. Often, Waid skillfully bends the story to further suit his collaborator, taking advantage of the wildly imaginative wonderment that was built into the series from the first time Jack Kirby sharpened his pencil to put it to work on these towering titans. Over and over, the script practically demands dazzlement, and Wieringo unfailing delivers. What he draws is vibrant in every particular, calling out for admiring study of his bright, bold renderings of a world that thrives on unchecked possibility.

Another pitfall Waid and Wieringo avoid is a headlong dash to the most familiar villains in the Fantastic Four’s formidable rogues gallery. Any comic book crafter who wants to tell a Fantastic Four story also wants to tell a Doctor Doom story, and this writer-artist duo would certainly get to theirs. They don’t rush it, though, preferring to find different angles and new challenges for the heroes, such as an amorphous being composed of mysterious animated data who’s dubbed Modulus. By switching away from the expected, Waid and Wieringo make it all the easier to depict the ingenuity of the Fantastic Four, which in turn invites the reader to appreciate anew just how perfectly realize they are as comic book creations.

The Waid and Wieringo Fantastic Four issues are exceptional precisely because there’s no sign that they were striving for a seminal run on a venerable title. Judging by what’s on the page, shattering earths was not part of the agenda. They just wanted to make fun comics books, presumably carrying forward the thrill they once felt as younger readers rifling through mighty Marvel issues that overflowed with freewheeling ideas. If I’m right and that was the goal, I will testify with grateful certitude that they achieved it.

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

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