Monday, September 6, 2021

The Past Gives Way To The Future


Among the number of other surprises present in the 1998 Fantastic Four Annual, writer Karl Kesel broached a subject which Marvel had always taken care to skirt by in charting the adventures of its many heroes over the decades:  the fact that nearly forty years had passed since the launch of Fantastic Four #1, even as the FF as well as the company's other mortal characters have remained in fighting shape and have persevered through the decades with nary a wrinkle or gray hair present, regardless of prior stories which have rooted them in the past. And as the FF title neared the close of the 20th century, the annual's opening fold-out sported a bio which primed the team to keep themselves viable for the 21st.

Marvel would later apply such revisions across the board for those characters who required a more generic origin that severed them from past events in real life. But as far as a more direct approach in an actual story, the '98 annual appears to fire an opening salvo on the subject where Kesel takes an almost tongue-in-cheek, all-in-good-fun approach toward distancing the FF from their 1960s beginnings while conforming to Marvel's dictum going forward.

Regardless of this cover's dramatic captions, it's fair to tell you that this story does not, in even the slightest, involve the Thing fighting against his three partners, alone or otherwise. He is, however, reckoning with a time, and a place, not his own--a situation which, fortunately, makes allowances for

First, how does Ben get to... well, wherever and whenever this story takes place? The circumstances involve nothing more complicated than a late-night snack, dark hallways in the FF's Hudson River Pier Four HQ, and an experimental device (involving "particle power-transference," if you must know) which is apparently easy to stumble upon.

With the Torch pulling his usual highjinks on the Thing, Ben's confusion and concerns about what's going on as far as the differences in time of day and locale are allayed for the moment--that is, until Johnny returns the two of them to Four Freedoms Plaza, and he sees the rest of the FF, or, rather, another Fantastic Four that he is no longer part of:

- an older Johnny Storm, married to...
- Crystal, Johnny's wife, and their two teenage children: Luna (who goes by "Spike" and whose power mimics her Aunt Medusa) and...
- Spike's brother, Ray Storm, made of living energy
- Franklin Richards (aka Zero Man), his power held in check by a headband made of Vibranium, and married to Princess Zawadi of Wakanda, the two of them expecting a child

All of whom Ben meets following a transmitted message from Mars, where Sue and Reed, like Johnny and Franklin, have inexplicably aged.

(Three guesses as to what cinematic character is the grandfather of our "Mr. Jones" here. A nice touch by Kesel.)

Since there are no hostilities here or apparent deception at work, Ben has the luxury of mulling over all of this information in stride (and confusion), while the others continue to regard him as their older friend recently returned from Arizona. (After all, with his rocky skin, how are they to know otherwise?) But it's only when Franklin joins him in the kitchen and accommodates Ben's need for his favorite "snack" (providing excellent symmetry with this story's beginning) that Ben is made to realize just how much time has passed for this Fantastic Four.

Slowly, Ben begins to come to grips with the differences between his reality and the one he's found himself in--which is also turning into quite the excursion for ourselves, since this Ben is of course our Ben. Or so we've thought all this time. It's possible this story's overtones are beginning to take an uncomfortable direction for the reader, as well--even for those who remain convinced that "thing"s will snap back to normal when the final page is turned.

But as Ben muses about prior events, points in FF history set in fictional stone which longtime Fantastic Four readers are well familiar with, it's apparent that he still considers this an odd situation to be worked through while having no real impact on the life he's led in his own reality--something that will be put into perspective during a night of poker with old friends, a thinning group of players for whom the passing of the years is not so pronounced.

A nice duck on Kesel's part, to explain away Peter Parker's continued viability into the 2000s with throwaway sentences that punt to the reader to fill in the gaps: "He is eternally young! He disappeared one night..." As for Jarvis, whom I'm guessing was in his forties when he began working for the Avengers, that would put him at around 80, which certainly adds new meaning to "longevity" in terms of a high-risk occupation like butlering for a super-team. Regardless, throughout this annual, Kesel shows a remarkable grasp of all characters present, and the Thing in particular, while Canadian artist Stuart Immonen (whom some of you may remember from the Fear Itself series) turns in solid work here and, like Kesel, takes to the Thing quite well.

But lest you think that this annual consists of little more than wanderings down memory lane, there's a segment which caps the issue with an all-out attack by the Frightful Four and puts all hands on deck. (And what a group the Wizard has put together this time: Blastaar, Quicksand, and the Hooded Haunt--though you would think the Wizard, who's likely around Reed's age, would have long since removed himself from being on the front lines of battle situations.) When the dust settles, we find everyone sharing the joy of the birth of Franklin's and Zawadi's daughter--and as for Ben's predicament, Kesel and Immonen bring him, and us, back from this jaunt that served to acknowledge the circumstances of this team's beginnings in the '60s while all but suggesting that the team itself is ready to leave such quibbles behind and head into the next century.

Kesel, of course, had no way of knowing the difficult road the Fantastic Four title would face ahead in its struggle for survival.


Big Murr said...

I've never heard or seen this story. Art looks excellent (I had no idea that Immonen was a fellow Canuck!)

My earliest childhood comic-reading memories feature "Alfred's Tales of Batman" featuring Dick Grayson as Batman and a new Robin, both wearing the Roman numeral "II" on their costumes. That example likely contributed much to making me a fan of Time Marching On and Passing the Torch.

For comics to mark the passage of time, and have a new hero take up a mantle or replace an icon, would require the comic company to have a serious "Continuity Chief" position. Regular creative-marketing meetings would have to be held to analyze whether a superhero should be retired, killed, or is there a plausible rejuvenation plot worth pursuing? (They all can't be immortal)

Such a watch on big picture continuity would actually free us from some of the other fanboy obsessions with "small continuity". There would no longer be whining about this being the 273rd battle between Dr. Doom and the F.F., since this is Dr. Doom III and one of the original FF is still in the game.

Interesting mental games!

Comicsfan said...

On the other hand, Murray, it's depressing in a way to think that the ancestors of heroes and villains would still be at each other's throats--do they all want to be like the Zemos? Time shouldn't be the only thing to march on, but also descendants who presumably have or want different lives to lead. :)

Donald G said...

Marvel began severing characters from their historical origins ca. 1980, more than 40 years ago, with the Death of Phoenix, where Jean Grey was given a 1956 birth year on her headstone and the narrative made her 24 years old.

In the early eighties, Marvel instituted the "Seven Years Rule," which held that it had only been seven years since the Fantastic Four went up in the rocket, though John Byrne would put the events of FF#1 and #2 as six years previously in the annual with the mutagenic Skrull cowsmilk and the visit to Reed's family home in Central City during issues published in the Summer of '84.

1985's Marvel Saga put the beginnings of the Marvel Age merely "a handful of years ago" and "less than a decade ago" and, by that time, Iron Man's origin had been moved from definitively Vietnam to an unspecified Southeast Asian conflict.

By Heroes Return in late 1997, the Seven Years Rule had been bumped up to The Ten Years Rule, and by the time I had dropped Marvel in the lead-up to Civil War, that Ten Years had been expanded to twelve.

Marvel has been in the compressed timeline game more than twice as long as they were arguably in the real-time (The FF were formed in 1961, Captain America was defrosted in 1964, Wonder Man was dead for a decade, and the X-Men definitively fought Larry Track's Sentinels in 1969, six years before Project Armageddon in 1975) game, or at least paid lip-service to that conceit.

Anonymous said...

One of my favorite FF and Marvel stories ever. Respectful to the characters, and an intriguing look at what may have happened if characters had continued to age in real time like they did in the original Ditko/Kirby years. The comment that Spider-Man had disappeared after the Green Goblin and Gwen Stacey died almost made me cry since we the readers knew it would have been for heartbreak.