Late to the Party: Walt Simonson’s Fantastic Four

Welcome to a Late to the Party examining a living-legend writer/artist’s short run on one of the standard-bearers of superhero comics: Walt Simonson’s Fantastic Four. And despite the pedigree, it’s a run that’s often overlooked but those who know it, say they’re among the best issues in the series’ history. Could this be true? I like Simonson and I like the FF, so I decided to read them and find out. What I found was exciting, surprising, inventive and touching.

How’d We Get Here?

(This is just some historical context, abbreviated and to the best of my understanding, if you aren’t interested, you can just skip past to the next section for the good stuff…)

Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the Fantastic Four in 1961 and worked together (with varying work shares) for the title’s first 102 issues plus some Specials and Annuals. (See Team Zizzou’s write-up of the first 30 issues in an earlier Late to the Party.) The book is about Reed Richards, Mr. Fantastic; Sue Richards (nee Storm), the Invisible Woman (nee Girl); Johnny Storm, The Human Torch; and Ben Grimm, The Thing. After being gifted/cursed with their powers by a scientific experiment gone wrong, the four stay together as superheroes who also push the boundaries and understanding of their universe.

After Kirby left, Stan continued the book with Johns Romita & Buscema on art chores but eventually Stan handed his baby over to the rest of the Marvel Bullpen. In the next hundred issues, many people came and went; there were longer runs by writers Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway and artists Buscema, Rich Buckler, George Perez. Artist/writer Keith Pollard and writers Marv Wolfman and Doug Moench were responsible for issues in the early 200s. Then came John Byrne, who first penciled for Wolfman before taking complete control of the book for a long run as writer/artist. Writer Steve Englehart took over with issue #304 and decided to shake things up by having Reed and Sue retire to the suburbs. He came into conflict with his editors who forced him to bring Reed and Sue back in #326 and undo many of his other changes. Englehart was so unhappy that his last three issues were written under a pseudonym. His replacement would be Walter Simonson.

After creating his own independent comic “Star Slammers” in college, Walt Simonson started working at DC Comics in 1973 at DC and at Marvel in 1977. He is most remembered for his run writing/drawing Thor from 1983 to 1987. During this time, he also drew his wife Louise “Weezie” Simonson’s (nee Jones) X-Factor from 1986 to 1989. Walt started writing the Avengers in 1988 with #291. One plot Simonson originated involved Kang and Nebula. And another broke up the team only to reform it with the then-suburban retirees Reed and Sue Richards. But then his editors told him the Richards were returning to Fantastic Four and that his plans must be redone. Less than a year after starting the Avengers, Simonson left the book with #300 and took a break from on-going Marvel work. But he returned by the end of 1989, to write and mostly draw the Fantastic Four for two years.

I never read any of these issues until now. As a kid, I started reading the FF during the Tom DeFalco/Paul Ryan era that immediately followed Simonson. In recent years, I’ve heard of Simonson’s run’s reputation as an overlooked gem and vowed to read them some day. As luck would have it, I found the whole run for cheap in the back-issue bins, snatched them up and finally read them.

The Book

Walt Simonson wrote Fantastic Four issues 333-341, 343-350 and 352-354 published between 1989-1991. He also penciled and inked most of the issues himself but worked with a team of collaborators to get the books out. Ralph Macchio edited each issue. 

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This is the FF as explorers, as problem solvers, as people who never get up and will always find a way out of a bad situation whether it’s being set adrift at sea or all reality collapsing. The Fantastic Four have a broad mandate that allows the title to go anywhere and do anything. Together the characters are among the smartest, most daring and always willing to jump into a challenge or a mystery. Simonson takes full advantage of this in a series of short adventures each with a looming doom to outrace. They’re full of big action and careful character considerations and it seems like Simonson is doing the comic the way he wants to.

His run starts with three issues of the Acts of Vengeance crossover where the FF easily dispatch a parade of D-list villains while debating a superhero registration act. Then he resumes the Kang/Nebula story from his Avengers run and throws in a few other intergalactic threats. A detour into an alternate reality features a giant, cyborg Stalin. Then they must survive dinosaurs, a Simonson-favorite. The run ends with a great two-part Doctor Doom story that is classic FF material and then some characters introduced in his Thor run.

The story that received the most outside attention comes in the middle of his run when our heroes are temporarily replaced by the New Fantastic Four composed of four of Marvel’s then highest-selling characters: Spider-Man, Wolverine, (grey) Hulk and Ghost Rider (II) plus cameos from The Punisher. It’s a cheap, commercial ploy and completely unashamed. But it’s still an FF story that puts the new and old teams in between the Mole Man and his monsters and the Skrulls, which happen to be the antagonists of Fantastic Fours #1-2, respectively. You can’t get more foundational than that.

But more than the stories themselves, I get the sense that Simonson is enjoying himself because of how he’s telling these stories. His art style has always been consistent and distinct: clean, strong lines that work well with the broad swatches of bold color. But his composition, page layouts and pacing are where the real magic is. There’s a multi-page sequence where the FF are racing to escape the pull of a blackhole; as all seems lost, the panels get darker until there is a page of all black panels with word bubbles but you turn the page and they burst free in full-page explosion of color. 

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Another issue, the team tries to hide themselves from time-traveling enemies by disguising themselves through the Marvel Universe’s established multiversal rules wherein the potential outcomes of every action will branch into new realities. So the center of the page is frenetic action with fractured panels replicating it in other directions/realities.

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My favorite gimmick is #352. For most of the book, Reed and Doom chase each other through time while Ben Grimm fights his way through Dr. Doom’s castle to reunite with his companions. This results in Ben’s story taking up three-quarters of each page and Reed and Doom take up the remaining quarter. In the last panel of Ben’s section is a small text box displaying the current time as though you’re reading it in real time. While throughout Reed and Doom’s section, are small bursts designating the time they’re heading to. The result is that you read Ben’s story and then go back to Reed’s and see how it corresponds. It’s like a predetermined Choose Your Own Adventure story. It’s a remarkable gimmick that required a great deal of effort from Simonson to pull off. You don’t come up with that unless you really want to draw it.

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The Cast

Our Four and their extended families are recognizable and competent and support one another in the best aspects of the family they’re described as. If you’re a fan of any character in particular, you can be assured they’re treated respectfully and in-character.

Reed and Sue Richards are the cool and level headed ones who care about one another deeply. There is an unstated understanding and trust between them. It’s nice to see. We don’t spend much time with their son Franklin as he doesn’t go on any adventures with his family. In fact, Franklin spends most of his time hanging out with the Powers family though I’m not sure if this corresponds to any particular, concurrent issues of Power Pack (written by Louise Simonson). He’s not missed but not forgotten.

Johnny and Alicia Storm are interesting here in part because it’s almost impossible to read this without knowing that a retcon shortly after this run reveals that Alicia is being impersonated by Lyja the Skrull. The Johnny and Alicia marriage just feels wrong and, based on these comics, I think Simonson agrees. Early on, Johnny is hypnotized/seduced by Nebula which shakes his confidence in his commitment to Alicia and he thinks about it often. (It’s funny that, as of this writing, Nebula has appeared in more theatrically released movies than Johnny Storm.) While in an alternate dimension, the team temporarily take the place of that universe’s team and that Alicia is glad to be reunited with Ben which weirds out everyone. A married Johnny and Alicia just isn’t natural. Other than this, Johnny is recognizably himself but more mature. 

Ironically, there’s a bit here where a Skrull tries to manipulate Reed and, even though they both know she’s not his wife, she maintains Sue’s shape. There’s a lot of intentional and retroactive shape-shifting sexual manipulation going on in these books. 

But when you want to talk about shape-shifting, you have to go to the couple who are the real heart of this run: Ben Grimm and Sharon Ventura. At the start of these issues, Ben is fully human and occasionally wears a robotic Thing suit. Sharon Ventura is his girlfriend from his solo title who gained superpowers as Ms. Marvel and was then cosmically irradiated into a Thing herself. (Simonson has a character make a joke about the coincidence.) As Ms. Marvel/She-Thing, Sharon is the fifth member of the team (though none of the characters care about being “Four”).

While Sharon could not have a better partner by her side who understands her situation, she is understandably upset with her rocky form. But there’s more to it than that. While traveling through time, the group is temporarily depowered and Sharon reverts to her human form: a statuesque beauty but she doesn’t feel comfortable in that body.

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Sharon’s story of her incompatibility with her bodies is a driving force in the back half of these comics. Her desperation leads to some dangerous situations and tragic consequences. I don’t know the intentions or intended symbolism of Englehart (who scripted Sharon’s transformation) or Simonson (who inherited it) but reading this in 2020, I couldn’t help but see Sharon as someone struggling with both body image and, perhaps, gender identity. Prior to this run, I’d only read a handful of other comics with Sharon but she was a revelation here and the character I was most emotionally invested in. I don’t believe much has been done with her since these books but I think she’s got tremendous untapped potential.

My Final Thoughts

These comics are made primarily by a writer/artist taking full advantage of a title with the built-in freedom to go anywhere and do anything. Even if you don’t want to study his pacing and format experimentations, Walt Simonson and his collaborators produced a series of rollicking adventures with heart and throughlines to connect it all. These are rock solid comics that deliver. Check them out.

The entire run discussed here (and some other concurrent issues) was reprinted twice. Most recently in the Fantastic Four Epic Collection volumes 20 “Into the Timestream” and 21 “The New Fantastic Four.” Or the earlier (and cheaper) editions known as Fantastic Four Visionaries: Walter Simonson, volumes 1-3. And the original issues can still be found for fairly cheap as most people don’t recognize the gold they’re sitting on. It worked for me, it could work for you too!

Other People’s Thoughts

If you want to read some other people talk about this run, Michel Fiffe (creator of Copra) wrote about it the art in 2018 which then inspired Mark Peters to interview Simonson.

To close, here’s Walt Simonson himself in a 2000 promotional interview for his Orion series at DC which was, like the Fantastic Four, a character and world created by Jack Kirby:

But comics is a team sport played over time where the teams change and the times change. I have some stuff in mind for ORION that isn’t to be found anywhere in Jack’s Fourth World work. I have some new characters I plan to introduce, some new situations I plan to develop. All of it will be as ‘true’ to the spirit of Jack’s work as I can manage. But in the end, what I owe my readers is the best work Walter Simonson is capable of, not warmed over Jack Kirby hash BY Walter Simonson. 

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