The Fantastic Four's enduring legacy: Homages, tributes, and knockoffs

A few weeks back, Marvel Legacy #1 was published (with a whopping $6 price tag, I might add) which is supposed to kick off a new era, I guess. From what I’ve seen of the comic they’re hinting at, some big stuff is coming down the pike, but I don’t have high hopes; after Civil War II and Secret Empire, to say I’m skeptical is understating things. However, I will say that there are some revelations that do give me hope. The first is that Wolverine is back.

Not Old Man Logan, and not cosplaying Laura Kinney Wolverine. It’s the Real Deal.

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The second is that they teased the return of Marvel’s First Family, the Fantastic Four.

For those of you who haven’t been reading Marvel for a while (and really, who can blame you?), Reed and Susan Richards and their kids, Valeria and Franklin (who I think is permanently stuck at age ten, much the same way Johnny Storm is stuck in an endless loop of emotional adolescence, maturity, character growth, and regression) have been traveling the multiverse since the end of the latest Secret Wars, while the Thing and Human Torch have been supporting characters in other titles. Why the duo couldn’t have gone along, I have no idea; maybe they elected to stay behind or something. If somebody knows, feel free to share.

So I admit that while I haven’t bought Marvel in months, the knowledge that the Fantastic Four will be returning did spark a measure of excitement in me. I’ve always had a soft spot for the team, going back to the John Byrne era (while I respect Lee and Kirby to death, Byrne’s run for me is the definitive one, both in terms of storytelling and art), and I might—just might, mind you—be tempted to pick up the series when it comes out. You see, when it comes to superhero teams, each one should, in my mind, have its own unique flavor. With the Avengers, it’s pretty much straightforward super-heroics, which if you aren’t careful can get a little stale. And with the X-Men, there should be adventures with a dose of social commentary. But the Fantastic Four? They’re kind of like the Doctor Who of Marvel Comics: they have over the top adventures to other worlds and realities, and face off against Marvel’s most diverse and interesting cast of villains.

Why isn’t there a current Fantastic Four title? Popular rumor is Disney is doing it out of spite because 20th Century Fox won’t give up the movie rights to the franchise, and the suits at Disney feel a Fantastic Four comic is just free advertising for a competitor. Still, Marvel without the Fantastic Four just feels… off. It’s like biting into a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup and finding out there’s no peanut butter, or sucking on a Jolly Rancher only to find out it’s sugar-free. The Fantastic Four is one of those comics that’s left its unmistakable mark on the comics industry (and to a lesser extent, on other media) and I think maybe readers are seriously missing it, or at least have a hankering for something like it. I think comics fans didn’t really appreciate the Fantastic Four until they were gone and replaced with craptacular comics like Captain Marvel, America, and Occupy Avengers. Maybe it took a sojourn in the wilderness for Marvel fans to finally realize the treasure they had lost. So I thought it might be fun to take a look at several of the properties that were influenced or inspired by Marvel’s First Family over the years, to illustrate the impact the Fantastic Four has had on entertainment history.

The Frightful Four

Back in the day, Marvel writers took a lazy approach when they created super-villain teams; they basically just made an evil version of the superhero team they were going to fight. There was the X-Men’s Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, the Avengers’ Masters of Evil (which consisted pretty much of whatever super-villain really, really hated whoever was on the Avengers roster at the time), and then there was the Frightful Four.

Headed up by the Wizard, which is an odd name for a guy so well-versed in science (unless he’s being all ironic), the Frightful Four consisted of him and three idiots he would talk into doing his bidding. I don’t think there was ever a time they posed a real threat to Reed and Company; they pretty much just acted as placeholders between Doctor Doom trying to kill and/or humiliate Reed, Namor trying to seduce Sue, or Galactus visiting and trying to eat the Earth. The Frightful Four were to the Fantastic Four what the Shocker was to Spider Man.

Hah! Suck it, Scorpion, I made it to the big screen before you!

The U-Foes

What would happen if the Incredible Hulk fought the Fantastic Four? First appearing in Incredible Hulk #254 back in 1980, artist Sal Buscema and writer Bill Mantlo (with an assist from editors Al Milgrom and Jim Shooter, who come to think of it make quite a fantastic four in their own right) asked this very question. The answer was the U-Foes, four people who go on a space flight to get super powers the same way the Fantastic Four did.

You know, you’d think this would happen more often in comics.

The result was a team consisting of Vector, Vapor, X-Ray, and Ironclad, names far to cool for the jobbers they ultimately became. Over the years, both as a team and as backup for other villains, they pretty much get their asses handed to them on a regular basis.

Power Pack

Alex, Julie, Jack, and Katie Power are just normal kids whose Dad creates a new clean energy source… that could potentially wipe out the planet. But hey, all power sources have a drawback, right? An alien named Aelfyre Whitemane (and if that sounds like a My Little Pony name, I should add that Aelfyre comes from a race that looks like horses, so it kinda fits) comes to Earth to stop Power Dad from booting up his device, but the villainous alien Snarks are on hand to get the device and use it as a doomsday weapon. The Power Kids find the dying Aelfyre and he passes along his special abilities to the four kids, creating an instant super team.

Power Pack borrows a lot of beats from the Fantastic Four, with the shared origin, the family dynamic, and with their own Skrull-like alien baddies. Franklin Richards was even a member of the team at one point, when he was written to be about young Katie’s age. Power Pack was a more kid-friendly version of the Fantastic Four, published during a simpler, less grim, less politicized time.

The Inferior 5

Marvel writers weren’t the only ones inspired by the Fantastic Four. Decades ago there was a pretty heated rivalry going on between DC and Marvel that at times could get a little, well, malicious. If you haven’t already read it, I suggest you check out Henrik Magnusson’s article where he touched on it.

Looking back at it, I can see how a little healthy competition can go a long way, with DC being forced to step up its game to compete with Marvel, and the likes of Denny O’Neil stepping up to give characters like Batman a much needed makeover. And there was what I feel was a growing respect that formed between the two companies. Years later, you saw them collaborate on team-ups between Superman and Spider-Man, the X-Men and Teen Titans, and still later the JLA and the Avengers. But we also saw homages going on in the regular comics, such as the Avengers squaring off against the Squadrons Supreme and Sinister.

…which yeah, were pretty much Justice League knockoffs, but over time grew into something much more interesting.

And then there was the X-Men’s Imperial Guard…

…which were for all intents stand-ins for DC Comics’ Legion of Super-Heroes, which wasn’t surprising, since art demi-god Dave Cockrum worked on both that DC title and the X-Men.

The Cyborg Superman

But the love cuts both ways. When you hear the name “Hank Henshaw”, you might think of two things:

Henshaw is the Cyborg Superman, but before that, he was a one-off character in an Adventures of Superman story. There, Henshaw and his three fellow astronauts went up in a space shuttle (does anybody remember when we used to have space shuttles? Anybody?) and were exposed to radiation during a trip in space while they used Lex Luthor’s experimental equipment. Of course, anything Lex touches turns evil, and so the group were turned into Fantastic Four clones.

The story was short and sweet and very tragic, and it was obvious Dan Jurgens wrote it to pay tribute to the Fantastic Four. While this could have been a largely forgettable story, it was nice how Henshaw would return to become one of Superman’s and the Green Lantern Corps’ most implacable (and let’s face it, gruesome) foes.

The Terrific Trio

While I was initially skeptical when I first heard of its production, Batman Beyond quickly became one my favorite shows. I thought the art was stellar, the writing top-notch, and I especially loved the new Batman design, which was obviously inspired in part by Spider-Man, what with all his dramatic posing as he clung tenaciously to building walls. In an early episode the new Batman, Terry McGinnis, faced off against the Terrific Trio, three scientists who were exposed to radiation and given incredible powers, and who started off as heroes but go insane and have to be put down.

Magma blasting 2-D Man in the face was epically funny; I’m amazed friendly fire incidents like this don’t happen more frequently in comics. In the end, Terry schools the trio, and while people might think the Fantastic Four aren’t given a whole lot of respect here, I do love the pathos in the story. The Terrific Trio aren’t jokes, but rather tragic victims.

The Terrifics

Nature abhors a vacuum, or so Spock told me in Star Trek VI. Based on that fact, it explains why DC Comics is soon coming out with a new comic, The Terrifics.

Coming out of the aftermath of the DC event series Metal, the Terrifics consists of Mister Terrific (a version of which is seen on the CW series Arrow), Phantom Girl (presumably the Legion of Super-Heroes version, trapped in our present, and her past), Plastic Man, and Metamorpho. The series will be written by Jeff Lemire, who has a pretty impressive resume, having consistently written for both DC and Marvel, and with a collection of independent projects under his belt. Say, you don’t think Marvel’s decision to bring back the Fantastic Four has anything to do with DC throwing shade on them with this new series, do you? Naaah.

Noble Causes

We know that DC and its parent company Time Warner have shown the Fantastic Four some love in the past, so how about comics published by other companies? In a past video, I touched on one of those comics, Noble Causes.

More inspired by, rather than a note-for-note copy of the Fantastic Four, Noble Causes does share some similarities with the Four, such as the patriarch being a super-genius and the offspring possessing super-powers. If you don’t think Reed and Sue’s kids have powers, I’ll point out that daughter Valeria possesses super-precociousness, and Franklin is essentially immortal, much like that vampire kid from Near Dark.

The Fantastically Horrific Four.

Noble Causes is what the Fantastic Four would be like if they were obsessed with fame and money. To give you an idea what that might be like, think back to the Human Torch’s endorsement costume from Rise of the Silver Surfer.

Noble Causes even has its own H.E.R.B.I.E. (a robot Mister Fantastic created, which appeared in the cartoon series in place of the Human Torch, supposedly because some parent-teacher group was afraid kids would set themselves on fire if they saw him) in the form of a psychotic robot butler who saw himself as patriarch Doc Noble’s true legitimate son. This is similar to how in the Fantastic Four comic, H.E.R.B.I.E. is possessed by a villain and almost kills the group. Damn dirty robots.

Despite many of the characters being self-absorbed ass-hats, Noble Causes has a lot of heart, where even the most jerk-faced character gets their moment to shine. For better or for worse, despite all the bickering, the Nobles were family, and this mirrored what the Fantastic Four comic were all about.

First Family

And then there was Kurt Busiek’s First Family…

…which appeared in the pages of Astro City and asked the question, what if Franklin Richards were allowed to age? Very few comics actually allow the passage of time, and to my memory only Astro City and Erik Larson’s Savage Dragon do this. In the former, we see a family of superheroes whose lineup changes over the decades as their various members grow up and grow old, such as Astra, who we first see as a ten year old, and then get to watch graduate from college.

The Four

By far the darkest take on the Fantastic Four model has to be the one that sprung from the minds of writer Warren Ellis and artist John Cassady. Planetary was one of the finest comics ever written, and a love letter to pop culture. It seems like every issue touches upon something near and dear to my heart, from pulp icons like Doc Savage to Japanese Kaiju monster movies, to John Wu era Hong Kong action cinema. In it, the “archaeologists of the impossible” travel the world to discover the wonderfully strange things hidden within. And it turns out that the main enemies were the Four.

The Four were astronauts who encountered pan-dimensional beings and were given vast powers to aid them in their quest to conquer the Earth, and pave the way for new god-like overlords. The Four’s powers were in some ways different from the Fantastic Four’s and in other ways spot on, to an even more horrific effect.

The series was about two different groups of four people fighting each other, diametrically opposed in philosophy, if not methods (as the series progressed, the main protagonist would become steadily more ruthless). Ultimately, the finale saw the team build a time machine for the express purpose of saving their fourth member, which to my mind was all kinds of awesome:

The A-Team

So we’ve seen how far the Fantastic Four’s reach has been in the comic book industry, and it’s had some measure of success when it comes to animation, but has it gone further? What about other television shows, such as… The A-Team?

Hey, we’ve got the older patriarch, the big strong guy arguing with the immature jerk, and… Yeah, you’re probably not buying it, are you?

No Ordinary Family

But there is one show that did come a lot closer to the mark: No Ordinary Family.

Starring Michael Chiklis (who played the Thing in two Fantastic Four films), No Ordinary Family was a series about a the Powells, who gain super powers when their plane crashes in the Amazon. The series combined super-heroic action with a family dynamic, but it unfortunately didn’t resonate with viewers and only lasted twenty episodes. It aired in 2010-11, and I can’t help but wonder if it had come out just a couple years later and was produced on the CW where a show can survive on lower ratings, that maybe it would have survived.

The Incredibles

So here we come to the end of the list, and to the property that to my mind not only captured the feel of the Fantastic Four perfectly, but was also wildly successful with mainstream audiences: The Incredibles.

This movie is, well, incredible, from the flawless animation to the retro sixties James Bond-ish art design, to the voice acting from Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Samuel L. Jackson, and hey, Michael Giacchino is pretty damn good as well. The movie does a tremendous job humanizing its heroes, making Mr. Incredible a good but flawed man who loses sight of what’s important in life. I also like the addition of Jackson’s Frozone, who plays the role of the Thing, as that put-upon best friend.

The movie is inspired by but not wedded to the Fantastic Four mythos, borrowing from it while also finding its own groove, and director Brad Bird finds that perfect balance between originality and homage. And he wasn’t afraid to let people know that he was well aware of the source material he was using for his inspiration.

With DC’s Terrifics, the return of the Fantastic Four coming soon to Marvel, and The Incredibles 2 coming out next year, it seems that fans of our favorite familial franchise have a lot to look forward to. Were there any homages that I missed? Let me know in the comments section, true believers!

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  • I never read a lot of Marvel, but what I did read regularly was Power Pack, The New Mutants, and Byrne’s Fantastic Four, so that’s the definitive version of the team in my mind.

  • GreenLuthor

    The Human Torch wasn’t replaced by HERBIE because of fears kids might set themselves on fire, despite that being the rumor for years. The truth is simply that Marvel had already licensed Torch out for a possible production deal that never ended up amounting to anything, so wasn’t available for the cartoon. It wasn’t anything more than that.

    The Frightful Four represents something I always liked about early Marvel, and why I’ve always preferred Marvel to DC. Yeah, Wizard is kinda weaksauce, and Paste Pot Pete/Trapster will probably always be a joke. But it’s the presence of Sandman that I like. Why? Because he was (and remained) a Spider-Man villain. Marvel didn’t have a problem with heroes “borrowing” villains, which made the “shared universe” conceit much stronger. (And, of course, Fantastic Four introduced Marvel’s best villain, Doctor Doom, who can and has been put up against anyone and everyone in the Marvel Universe, while remaining primarily an FF foe.)

    John Byrne, of course, left Fantastic Four (and Marvel) to launch the rebooted Superman at DC. In an early Byrne story, Supes met some members of the Legion of Super-Heroes. Specifically, he met Brainiac 5 (who has super-intelligence), Blok (a big, strong guy made of rock), Sun Boy (who generates heat and light), and Invisible Kid (who turns invisible). Cute.

    But I suppose that’s why FF homages are so easy; they represent common comics archetypes that are easy to duplicate, even in broad terms. Probably made easier when you consider that the FF themselves are fairly analogous to the four classical elements. Johnny is fire (obviously), Ben is earth (also obviously), Reed’s stretching allows him to move like water, and Sue’s invisibility makes her like air. (Not sure if Lee and Kirby did that intentionally, but it’s there, and probably part of why the FF are so appealing to homage.)

    Anyhoo, this has been fairly long (sorry), but there’s one thing that’s basically always been consistent about the Four, and part of why I’d say they’ve been so popular: Over their 50+ years, the Four are Reed, Sue, Ben, and Johnny. Sure, members have been replaced from time to time, but you always know it’s going to go back to those four. The Avengers or the Justice League may have members who show up almost all the time, but, ultimately, you can go years without certain members on the teams. (Heck, by issue 16, the Avengers had NO original members left!) But the Four will always be Reed, Sue, Ben, and Johnny. (Also, they’re Reed, Sue, Ben, and Johnny. Not just Mr. Fantastic, the Invisible Woman, the Thing, and the Human Torch. But Reed, Sue, Ben, and Johnny. The Four are those four PEOPLE, not those four super-heroes.)

    Again, sorry for going on for so long, but there’s a lot to why the FF are a quintessential part of comics, and why Marvel really should bring them back. Comics without the FF just seems… wrong.

  • Kali

    I was going to ask what about DC’s Challengers of the Unknown, but then I realized that the Challengers actually came first. Yeah, they were all men (in the beginning) and had no powers to speak of, but Rocky Davis could have been Ben Grimm in another life….

  • Chefe O’Hara

    Since we’re talking about “Astro City” and “The Incredibles” at the same article, I’d like to talk about something that’s bugging me since a while…

    …Having recently reading for the first time the AC story arc “The Tarnished Angel”, I couldn’t help but notice some quite big similarities between the movie and the comic published five years ago. Let’s see: both feature a former villain/former hero trying to find some meaning in his life and receiving a job offer; a sinister plan on killing superpowered beings; a subplot about a revolted sidekick/wannabe sidekick; and a plan to earn popular acclaim by means of a giant killer robot which backfires horribly.

    It’s like the “Matrix/Invisibles” issue — I don’t know what to think about it. I still like both movies, but for me they have fallen some degrees on the scale of awesomeness. But what I’d like to know is why haven’t anybody noticed (ot at leadt voiced) it before.

    (Sorry for the fighting-against-sleep-written commentzzzzzzz…)

    • Thomas Stockel

      But to be honest Busiek himself borrowed the idea from Roger Stern when during his Avengers run Hank Pym in what is the lowest point of his life constructs a robot made of adamantium that has a single weak spot. He plans to sicc it on the Avengers during his court martial hearing (Long story) if things go south and Janet shoots the weak spot because she knows about it. The night before she tried to talk him out of it and that was when the infamous slap happened that Hank’s been trying to live down for decades.

      So yeah, you want to give anybody props for that plot device, it’s the immortal Roger Stern.