Whatever Happened To The Fantastic Four?
One of the biggest pieces of news from New York Comic Con this year was Marvel’s confirmation of a rumor going back to the beginning of the year: that the publisher is cancelling their Fantastic Four title. The news is both surprising and not (the aforementioned rumor). This rumor started back around March, not long after James Robinson took over writing duties for the book, but honestly, the groundwork for cancellation had already been set.
Back in the 90s, Marvel was destroying itself. Then editor-in-chief Bob Harras had gotten too greedy. News at the time had stories of fans selling their old copies of Detective Comics 27 (first appearance of Batman), Action Comics 1 (debut of Superman), and Amazing Fantasy 15 (premiere of Spider-man, which also included a cameo by the Fantastic Four oddly enough) and making serious money for them. A whole new secondary market had developed, and Harras decided he wanted a taste. Those comics had become particularly rare. There were reprints, of course, which were worthless, but the original printings—those were worth a ton of money. The word “rare” was making its way into the comic vernacular. Harras and Marvel decided to flood the market with incentive covers—foil, hologram, 3-D, alternative, whatever. They were specifically advertised as being rare and promotional. Fans and collectors all thought the same thing—$. The only problem was that Marvel flooded the market with these covers, and the stories weren’t exactly landmark either. It soon became clear that these “rare” comics were actually driving the cost of comics down. Eventually, they literally became worth less than the paper they were printed on.
Of course, Marvel blew full steam ahead—straight into bankruptcy. By the mid-90s, it was over. Comic sales, for the most part, never recovered (included today). Their attempts at revitalization resulted in the Onslaught arc, the Clone Saga, Maximum Carnage and Heroes Reborn which is to say, it was an incredible and impressive failure.
NOTE: There were plenty of other reasons Marvel—and the comics industry itself—was suffering at the time, including the rise of Image Comics, The Liefeld Effect and the Grit Renaissance, but this isn’t the time or place for that discussion.
Anyway, Marvel was a corpse to be picked apart for rights. Rumors flooded that DC was preparing to buy them outright, or at least pick the flesh for some of their best-selling characters properties (Spider-man, the X-Men, etc.). Now, none of this has ever been confirmed by either company, and it’s essentially hearsay. Other factors were in play, however. In the 80s, Marvel started selling film rights to studios, hoping to also cash in on the success of Richard Donner’s Superman and Tim Burton’s Batman. The rights to Daredevil, X-Men, The Punisher, Spider-man, and the Fantastic Four were sold off to other studios because—at the time—Marvel wasn’t connected to a studio the way DC Comics is connected to Warner Bros.
It was a sensible move. The first X-Men and Spider-man films made enough money for Marvel to rebound and then some. As both Marvel and DC started shifting focus from their comics to creating movies, Marvel found itself competing not only with DC, but with its own properties. While they do make a cut of the profits from everything they create, the majority of that money goes to the studio that developed the films.
When Disney purchased Marvel, they increased the publisher’s visibility, but also shined a light on the fact that the film universe was incomplete. The rules are, if one of the franchises goes stagnant with no films being produced within X amount of years, then the rights revert back to Marvel. The rights to both Daredevil and Punisher have already reverted due to a number of aborted attempts at relevance, but the X-Men and Spider-man franchises are still in the domain of Fox and Sony, respectively. This is why you can’t cough without running into a new movie of either franchise—they have to keep churning them out in order to keep them in-house and away from Marvel.
The Fantastic Four’s film rights are owned by FOX, and resulted in two films that were moderately successful commercially and crucified critically. On the comics’ side, however, The Fantastic Four—lovingly referred to as Marvel’s First Family—were doing great. When the characters debuted back in 1961, they were part of a major pushback in comics. They helped usher in a new “realism” into comics and seemed to be a reply to both the paranoia surrounding space exploration and the development of nuclear arms. Even the costumes were stripped down to something more utilitarian, and vaguely naval in practicality and function. The title was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, though really, it was Kirby’s creation (again, this isn’t the time or place for that conversation).
The title enjoyed a long respectable run that included spinoffs, crossovers, costume changes, and animated incarnations. If a character in any book needed scientific guidance (or wanted to steal something cool) they went to the Fantastic Four. The series and the characters were treated like royalty, in universe and out. Creators like Mark Waid, Matt Fraction, Chris Claremont, Jeph Loeb, Dwayne McDuffie (rest in peace), Mark Buckingham, Mike Wieringo, Paul Ryan, Jonathan Hickman, Tom DeFalco, Roger Stern, Steve Englehart, and Walt Simonson have all written or drawn the title over the last fifty years. While the Fantastic Four were not the center of Marvel (see Wolverine and Spider-man) they were at the center, adding a cohesion and a point of reference—a marker, an icon, a totem.
But Marvel and Disney don’t own the film rights.
There have been attempts in recent years to either buy back the film rights to the Fantastic Four, X-Men and Spider-man—or at least lease them for roles in Avengers movies—but the sides have never come to terms. The idea then became—from someone at Marvel or Disney—the freeze them out. Marvel still advertises and promotes their X-Men and Spider-man lines despite the separation. Marvel is on good terms with Sony studios, and while their relationship with FOX (who has X-Men and Fantastic Four) stinks, the X-Men comics do a great deal of money for the company, so they’re pretty safe.
However the Fantastic Four have become less visible because their sales have sharply decreased. The question over why is argued greatly. Is it a sign of the times? Have they gotten stale? Is it the creators? It’s really a matter of opinion, and not something we can really get into here, though for the sake of brevity my opinion would be that they’ve gotten stale. They’re a reflection of an American family that doesn’t really exist anymore, and they haven’t exactly moved on from the 1960s Space Age futurism which nowadays looks like a parody of Logan’s Run. But that’s neither here nor there.
During Sunday's Axel-in-Charge panel at NYCC, current Fantastic Four writer James Robinson told fans that the book is "going away for a while,” ending in 2015, right before the rebooted film is released in theaters. The reveal was strategic as it was an obvious attempt at hurting the box office potential of the reboot while also trying to capitalize on the presumed surge of Fantastic Four comics sales as lapsed fans might want to see how it “ends.”
Given the self-awareness of Robinson’s “a while” statement, Marvel knows that either those characters will cameo elsewhere in other books, or launch the title again once there is a fan hunger for it. At the same time, it should also be considered that Joe Quesada, who’s running Marvel comics, is a mark for #1 issues. Constantly, Marvel will cancel a book and within 90 days the same books will be relaunched with a new #1 because sales on #1 issues are notably higher for two reasons. The first is that lapsed former or curious new fans will see it as a jumping on point, while others will see it as an opportunity, thinking that in forty years it may be worth as much as Detective Comics 27, Action Comics 1 or Amazing Fantasy 15, which, of course, they won’t because although Marvel no longer does as many variant covers as they used to, they have now oversaturated their catalogue with so many new re-launches those books are barely worth the paper they’re printed on.
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