The Great American
                Novel Act 1:
                the danger Act 2: rising action Act 3: the ball Act 4: crisis Act 5: triumph the Franklinverse part 2, act 1:
                the new danger
rocket
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The Fantastic Four (1961-89) was The Great American Novel

       How Susan saved her family

It's all about the negative zone

Sue's story, in her own words [2]

Act 1: The Danger
FF 1: beat the Russians!
FF 2 -5: Susan versus Doom

Act 2 : Rising Action

FF6 -24: Reed triumphant
FF25 -43: First defeats.

Act 3: "The Ball"

FF annual3 -FF60: America v. God
FF61 -80: Human or Inhuman?
FF81 -102: Think of the children

Act 4: Crisis

(not as long as it seems: see dates)
breaking up
FF103 -125: Reed v. his family
FF126 -132: the unthinkable
FF133 -149: divorce?
Reed's triumph
FF150 -175: the battle of the sexes
FF176 -200: America's turning point
falling apart
FF201 -218: the IT revolution
FF219 -231: family values?
denial and despair
FF232 -250: back to basics?
FF251 -273: to be or not to be?
FF274 -295: the death of Reed Richards

Act 5: Triumph   

FF296 -303: the turning point
FF304 -321: happily ever after?
FF322-333: the end of the world

The Franklinverse

A different Fantastic Four
FF334-354: the Franklinverse
FF355-569: Valeria Von Doom
FF570-now: The Great Reboot
The future
What's new
 
Quick start
Family portraits
Top 10 fan theories
Quiz

The cast
Sue   (more)
Reed    (more)
Ben   (more)
Johnny
Crystal
Franklin
Doom, Mole Man, Pete
Lockjaw (2)
 
Why care?
About this site
What is the Great American Novel?
Parallels with Shakespeare
Tributes to issue 1

Marvel Comics
What made Marvel great
Marvel and DC sales figures
Marvel in the 1960s: real time
Great art

What went wrong
The Marvel Universe, 1961-1991
1968: when Marvel "sold out"
Value for money
Continuity
The sliding timescale

How to fix it
Real time comics
How to make great comics

Real people
Lee and Kirby: who did what?
Readers' letters: 1-50
51 and on

Other comics
Examples of real time comics
Other comics
and the first comics I ever read:
Badtime Bedtime Books

Superhero science
Cosmic
Science and superheroes
Reed's technology: realistic?

"Lee and Kirby's Fantastic Four run is
the Mount Olympus of comic book storytelling.

Nothing else can touch it in its innovation, sustained excitement,
consequential events, and unprecedented character development."
(Mark Engblom in Comic Coverage: March 21, 2009)

"Stan and Jack's Fantastic Four was, at its peak, almost unarguably
the richest and most imaginative comic in the history of the medium.
"
(Mark Waid's Fantastic Four Manifesto, in "Comics Creators on Fantastic Four" page 202.)

"Those fifty issues [FF25-75] were, simply put,
the best super-hero comics ever done

and nobody, let me repeat that, nobody, has done it better"
Marv Wolfman

"For about twenty Issues, on either side of 50, it was possibly
the best comic book ever done."
Len Wein

"The general wisdom is that the Stan and Jack Fantastic Four is
the greatest run of any comic book, ever."
(Bob Reyer, comics expert on talkingcomicbooks podcast 89)


Important: the writers never intended this
Readers of this site often say "but the writer never intended...." and that is true. This site is about the Fantastic Four as printed, and not what individuals writers planned. Like all epics, the whole is much bigger than its parts, and the stories are a lot deeper than the writers intended.

The plot
(spoilers!)

Susan Storm must save her family: it's a race to close the door to the negative zone, before it kills everybody she loves.

Sue rescues
The Fantastic Four is all about family: Sue's family. It begins when Sue forms the team (by getting Ben to join the space flight) and ends when Reed finally does what Sue has always urged him to do, and puts their child Franklin first. This solves all their problems. The other character arcs are about learning from Sue's example:
  1. Reed has to learn to put his family first,
  2. Ben has to find his identity,
  3. Johnny has to learn romantic maturity
  4. Namor has to learn humility
  5. Doom has to learn to put his people first
  6. and so on.

The boys' story arcs are re-active. In contrast, as the star of the novel, Sue is pro-active:

Sue in the 1970s
Show, don't tell
As with all the greatest novels, the story is "show, don't tell." Very little of the bigger story is stated. For example, we are never explicitly told that Johnny is Sue's son, or that Sue's alliances and her son are far more powerful than anything else that could possibly threaten them. But when we stand back and look at the bigger story it becomes obvious.

Writer Jonathan Letham explains how Sue is as important as all other superheroes combined:

"In Marvel’s greatest comics, Lee and Kirby were full collaborators who, like Lennon and McCartney, really were more than the sum of their parts, and who derived their greatness from the push and pull of incompatible visions. Kirby always wanted to drag the Four into the Negative Zone – deeper into psychedelic science fiction and existential alienation – while Lee resolutely pulled them back into the morass of human lives, hormonal alienation, teenage dating problems, pregnancy, and unfulfilled longings to be human and normal and loved and not to have the Baxter Building repossessed by the City of New York. Kirby threw at the Four an endless series of ponderous fallen gods or whole tribes and races of alienated antiheroes with problems no mortal could credibly contemplate. Lee made certain the Four were always answerable to the female priorities of Sue Storm – the Invisible Girl, Reed Richards’s wife and famously ‘the weakest member of the Fantastic Four’. She wanted a home for their boy Franklin, she wanted Reed to stay out of the Negative Zone, and she was willing to quit the Four and quit the marriage to stand up for what she believed.

[...] If you (I mean, I) accept my premise that the mid-to-late 1960s Fantastic Four were the exemplary specimens, the Revolver and Rubber Soul and White Album of comics, and if you further grant that pulling against the tide of all of Kirby’s inhuman galactacism, that whole army of aliens and gods, was one single character, our squeaky little Sue, then I wonder: Invisible Girl, the most important superhero of the Silver Age of comics?"


Susan's suffering
Sue does all this through intense suffering: childhood shame and loneliness, a dark personal secret, tragic loss (the death of her father, unborn child, and even her husband), emotional and personal violation...
need a hug
..., and literally going to hell and back for her family.
Hell
Sue's story is of ever increasing pain and crisis, all the time ignored and demeaned by her well meaning but emotionally immature husband. But all the time she sees the bigger picture: she has the answers (see below), but the boys cannot see it and instead dig themselves into deeper and deeper holes.
stress

A metaphor for the times
The fact that the central hero is invisible is a reflection of the times. Taking the long historical view, the most important feature of the 1960s-1980s was not the rise of America or technology (though both will echo down the centuries) but the slow recognition that women have been the driving force in evolution, and to a large extent in all history: not by great acts of violence (which tend to be destructive in the long term) but in linking families.

Sue's great power
Sue's great power is not her forcefields, but her ability to create alliances. On at least four different occasions her compassion turned the most powerful advanced races into friends.
alliances
By calling on these races, or the power of her son, all the crises could have been solved. But nobody could see the cosmic significance of what she did, in changing people's hearts.

As for the greatest friend of all, the Watcher, his admiration for the team is probably based on Sue: only she shares his values.

conflict
When the Watcher told Galactus that the humans deserve to be spared due to their courage, who had the most courage?  When the Watcher referred to humans' "frail, human frames" who was the physically weakest member of the team?
courage

Who was effectively powerless at the start, because her enemies could detect her footfalls? Who was he only one who (at the start) was not bulletproof when in action, yet took the same risks as the others? Who was the only one to do so due to so purely out of duty (unlike Reed who was driven by the need to be on top, Johnny who had loved the action, and Ben who had no choice)? Who was the only rounded member, fully understanding both force and compassion?

courage

The choice: war and destruction or peace
Sue is different from the boys. While they react to every crisis with "we must fight", Sue can see the bigger picture: that fighting does not solve anything. The "bad guys" always come back, and eventually this leads to everyone being dead. Instead, Sue provides alliances with powerful friends, and a son who can do anything, but the boys cannot see it.

Eventually Reed reluctantly puts Franklin first, and the rest of the team finally reach their potential. They even find that they never needed Reed's inventions: in the very first issue they could have befriended the Mole Man and gained access to his teleportation system and advanced machines, but they were held back by always treating everyone as an enemy.
But in the epilogue to the story (issues 322-333 from 1990), Reed misses being in charge. He wants to come back. So at the end of the story we are offered four possible futures. The best hope is that Reed continues to listen to Sue, puts his family first, and life is good.
happy ending?

But at the worst, the boys return to their old ways of trying to solve every problem alone, using ever increasing violence, and end up destroying everything.

explosion at end

That is the family's choice. It is the world's choice. it is America's choice: peace or war. That is the message of the Great American Novel.



Key issues

Here are some of the key issues. Click on a cover to jump to the commentary.

A classic Fantastic
                Four issue A classic Fantastic
                Four issue A classic Fantastic
                Four issue A classic Fantastic
                Four issue A classic
                Fantastic Four issue
A classic
                Fantastic Four issue A classic
                Fantastic Four issue A classic
                Fantastic Four issue A classic
                Fantastic Four issue A classic
                Fantastic Four issue
A classic
                Fantastic Four issue A classic
                Fantastic Four issue A classic Fantastic
                Four issue A classic
                Fantastic Four issue A classic
                Fantastic Four issue

This infographic shows more key issues, and the five act structure. Click for a high resolution version.

timeline



The story of the Cold War

The story mirrors America in the Cold War, beginning the month when the first man entered space, and ending with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The story follows the classic five act structure: danger (act 1), rising action (act 2), the triumphant ball (act 3), crisis (act 4) then triumph (act 5). The story ends with four possible futures for America, ranging from peace and love to nuclear armageddon.

1990-2009 is a period of chaos called the Franklinverse, featuring a clone team. This period features several "soft reboots", where history is partially re-written without explicitly saying so. The most likely reboots are FF333 (where we begin following the clone team), FF354 (where multiple realities collide), volume 2 ("Heroes Reborn"), volume 3 ("Heroes Return"), 3:34 (jumping between numerous realities) and 3:49 (the Ultimate Nullifier). These soft reboots are the shadowed areas in the time line :
timeline

2010-2025 is the The Great Reboot, when everything is reset numerous times, and the final result is not yet clear.



Where to buy Fantastic Four 1-333

From Amazon or your favorite book store:

Marvel Masterworks:
Masterworks are top quality reprints, with introductions by the original writers where possible. Each volume reprints around 14 issues. Volume 15 (up to FF163) is due out September 2013.

Masterworks


Marvel Essentials:

Until 2015 Marvel also published lower priced black and white compilations, taking us to FF207. These are gradually being replaced by full color "Epic Collections".

Essentials


Marvel.com

Digital copies are gradually being made available from Marvel.com.

Marvel

Second hand:

You can buy back issues from eBay, Amazon, comic shops, etc. If you're lucky then your local library can order some collections from other libraries.
 If you're very lucky you might find a "GIT corp" DVD: an authorized product that has all the comics on one disk, but it's no longer produced.

GIT corp

Please buy from Marvel!

We need Marvel to make money from The Great American Novel. Then they might decide to start time moving forward again: Reed can then remember that he fought in WWII, Franklin can grow up and have his own kids, Johnny and Crystal can marry, and we can find out what happens next! Also, if MArvel sees this site as an ad for their comics they are less likely to shut it down for copyright infringement. (But please note that I am careful to almost never show a complete page, ounlike many comic sites.)


Other Fantastic Four related comics

You only have to read one title for the full story: just the Fantastic Four. The 28 year epic story is self contained.

However, there are other titles that may be of interest. Thanks to Modern Alchemy for this time line (click for a more extensive version).

timeline

After FF333 the original team is replaced by a different team. This web site is mostly about the original 28 year story.


next: the Great American Novel





The Great American Novel