The Fantastic Four are the explorers of the Marvel Universe, blazing trails across the globe, outer space and other dimensions in order to find new people, places and cultures. During his tenure as writer on the book, Jonathan Hickman has led the First Family of the Marvel Universe to numerous new discoveries, all the while putting events into motion that will result one of the family being killed. The death will occur early next year in the finale of the current "Three" story arc by Hickman and artist Steve Epting. CBR News spoke with Hickman about what readers can expect from the remaining chapters of "Three" as well as his plans for the book after one of the title characters meets their untimely demise.
Beginning his run on "Fantastic Four" with issue #570, Hickman has since had the FF embark upon a number of important but seemingly unrelated adventures. First, Reed encountered an organization composed of alternate reality versions of himself, dedicated to solving all the problems of the Multiverse. Johnny and Ben then ventured to Nu Earth for some time, and the FF discovered four secret cities and their inhabitants - a city beneath the Earth, a lost city of Atlantis, a new settlement on the Blue Area of the moon inhabited by four Inhumans-style races and a city in the Negative Zone. With "Three," readers have begun to see how all the elements from these seemingly unrelated aventures fit together and what they mean.
"It's kind of how I tell stories. Sometimes things will seem random or haphazard, like in my issue (FF# 575) where the team is underground. It was my sixth issue and there's that one page where they're going through the caverns and they come across the dead body of Galactus from the future. It was a full page splash - and then they went on their merry way. I'm sure that some readers were like, 'That's kind of a waste of a page,' or 'Wow, that was pretty random.' Now, with 'Three,' you see why it's such a big deal," Hickman told CBR News. "In the fourth issue, the Nu-World one, Johnny, Ben and the kids went on this adventure. It seemed like an arbitrary story, but if you go back and read it you'll see that I was setting up a conflict that would begin to pay off in the now. I work pretty far ahead and now we're to the point where all of this is starting to tie together, pay off and unfold into what is going to be a new kind of Fantastic Four story. Okay, I'm rambling - you'll see what all of that means going forward."
"Three" began in "Fantastic Four" #583 with an issue that saw Reed Richards young daughter, Valeria visit her father's old nemesis Doctor Doom. Despite her young age, Val is as smart as, if not smarter than, her father, and she knows the Fantastic Four are about to tackle a major crisis that could have disastrous consequences for her family. She informed Doom that if he assists her with the handling of this crisis, she'll help him with a problem of his own. "During the Intelligencia stories in 'Hulk' and 'Incredible Hulk,' Doom suffered brain damage. He came out of it less than what he was. Up until this point, he's hidden the fact that's what happened. Doom isn't Doom. He's some inferior version, and of course with Victor, that's unacceptable," Hickman explained. "So he's got to do something about that. We won't see a whole lot of him in the rest of the 'Three' arc until the epilogue, but when he shows up at the end everybody will go, 'Ah-Ha!'
"So we have big Doom plans coming up," Hickman continued. "I'm very excited about getting to write him. I think the only thing I've written with Doom besides this little bit so far in FF is that story I did for 'Dark Reign.' It was kind of a Doom daydream story, which was a lot of fun. I think I get the character. I think I can write him well and I'm really, really looking forward to it. Oh, I'm also looking forward to Kristoff as well."
With Marvel's First Family only a few months away from a time of great sadness, Hickman gave one team member a particularly happy moment in "Fantastic Four" #584. In the issue, part two of the "Three" arc, The Thing was reverted back to his human form for a week and spent time with friends and loved ones doing things that are difficult, if not impossible for him to do in his normal rocky form.
"That issue was a lot of fun to write. Ben Grimm is a lot of peoples' favorite character, not only within the FF, but the Marvel Universe as a whole. He's a pretty simple character, not confusing at all, but one that lends itself to being able to tell a lot of fun stories. He's a good character." Hickman remarked. "The issue was kind of a mix between a 'What If?' and 'Day in the Life' story, and we got a lot of fantastic fan mail for it, so clearly it resonated. I also think that it benefited from being in what was a non-action issue, [with] Steve doing a wonderful job of making it dramatic. No surprise there - Steve is a superior artist and I think he did his normal superior job with the issue. Just good comics, nothing wrong with that."
"Fantastic Four" #585 continues "Three" with a story that examines the dynamic between the Invisible Woman and Namor, The Sub-Mariner, who has long carried a torch for the lovely Mrs. Richards. " I think it's interesting that Reed is not oblivious to it, but confident in his position in Sue's life. I think it's interesting for Susan because while she's a mom and a dutiful wife and all these other semi-parochial things, there's this other side that, while it doesn't engage in Namor's overt advances, she never puts an end to it," Hickman said. "Then there's Namor, who clearly respects Reed Richards, but in the most primal way doesn't. [Laughs] I think it's one of those interesting character triangles that, while nothing may ever happen, it's a constant potential dynamo of drama. You know the tension is very real."
In "Fantastic Four" #586, Hickman explores another character relationship he finds compelling; the one between Reed Richards and Galactus, the world devourer. "Reed is of a universally relevant intelligence. So as we've seen with the council of Reeds from my first storyline, 'Solve Everything,' if Reed truly puts his mind to operating on that scale, he can build worlds and repair suns. For even Galactus, he's not someone to be ignored. And maybe it's not just Reed. Maybe it's his entire family. There's always the potential for Franklin to turn into what we know he could be," Hickman remarked. "I know it's not in continuity, but I thought it was interesting that in 'Earth X,' Franklin became Galactus. We're not going to do that, but I thought that was kind of cool. [Laughs] Regardless, Galactus is intrinsically tied to the First Family, so if we can't put together a good Galactus story, what the hell are we doing?"
Post-Galactus, much of the action in the remaining chapters of "Three" will involve an assault on the Baxter Building by the Anti-Priest and his army. "The Anti-Priest is the advocate for Negative Zone ideology. He's the face of the cult of the Negative Zone," Hickman stated. "That's part of the 'Four Cities' stuff that I kind of dropped on everyone eight or nine issues ago. All of that comes to a head in 'Three.' This just another piece of the puzzle."
In January, Hickman welcomes in the new year with the conclusion of "Three" and the promised death of a team member. "I'm a pretty analytical guy, but writing that scene was an emotional thing. For me, it's S.O.P. that I don't really write myself into a lot of the things that I do, but, clearly, the Fantastic Four is the most personal book that I write," Hickman revealed. "I steal a lot of Franklin and Val's lines from my kids. Certainly, the way I write Reed talking about Sue is how I feel about my wife. I had a great family growing up, which just makes it generally easier to write this kind of stuff. Back to the point, it was pretty emotional. I believe I actually wrote the death scene after I finished issue #583. I did it that way so I wouldn't miss the spine of the story."
The identity of the Fantastic Four member meeting their final fate won't be revealed until issue #587, but whoever it is, the team will suffer terribly with their passing. "If Reed is not around, then I think the drive of the book won't be there, and by that I mean the super narrative; the bigger picture. If we lose Reed, the team, instead of having a thrust of being able to navigate these huge cosmic events that are coming our way, they'll be lost, which is an interesting story to tell," Hickman remarked. "There's so many potential things that could come out of that. Like, would Val step up and try to take his place? Or would they try to replace him with someone who's similar to him? Would they need help from Tony Stark? Or would they need help from Hank Pym? Someone like that? Obviously, the strengths and flaws of those characters added to the book would make things extremely interesting."
"If we lose Sue, we lose the glue that keeps everybody together. In essence, we'd lose the family. If we lose her, clearly one of the things that would happen is that the team would fly apart a little bit. The stories that we would get out of that would be, 'What's the purpose of what we're doing?'
"If you lose Ben, you lose the heart and soul of the team; what's good and what's right. Not on a simplistic level, but on a level of moral purity. That's the question of what is a hero in the Marvel Universe. Ben is all about overcoming, and in the darkest moments, it's Ben that keeps fighting. So, if we were to lose Ben, then the stories where the chips were down and someone has to make a difference, the question would be who would step up in a way that would not only save the team, but when you extrapolate things to the readers' perspective, save us all. That's that character. He's Rocky, like Tom Brevoort likes to say. He keeps getting up. And that's a perfect metaphor for humanity, which is one of the things we're touching on with all the Future Foundation stuff. So, obviously, there would be a ton of stories we could tell there as well.
"If we lost Johnny, I think we officially lose the spirit of the Fantastic Four; the reckless abandon of adventure. The willingness to wide-eyed and innocently jump head first into things. Johnny's also really the connection between the kids and the adults. In a lot of ways, he makes the family's generational dynamic work. He's the bridge between them. If we lose him, we lose the ability to properly step in both of those worlds. We've done so much with the kids, and I don't know whether or not you noticed, but Johnny has always been around whenever we do a kids story. It's almost always Johnny because he's a perfect kind of tweener. So, that would lend itself to stories about the disconnect between the now and the future."
Hickman stated that he and his editors thought long and hard about who they were going to kill off before making their choice. "After the fact, what we're going to do will make a lot of sense if you go back and analyze the choices that we made. It's going to be an interesting story," Hickman explained. "I do want to stress, as always, that it's not haphazard. There's a narrative structure that I think will make the book better and more relevant. I really do."
February's issue #588 is a special epilogue issue where the fallen Fantastic Four member will be mourned. "There's a lot more going on. It's oversized. It's got an eight page back-up story and a 22 page silent story in the front half," Hickman revealed. "The silent story is really interesting. It's really kind of a closure point and gives a lot of hints of what's going to be launching out of 'Three.' It's one of my favorite issues of 'Fantastic Four' that I've written. And, as an added bonus, I've never written a silent issue before, so it was educational and fun as well."
In the back-up story, the Amazing Spider-Man makes an appearance to console Reed and Sue Richards's grief-stricken son Franklin, and it won't be the only involvement Spidey has with the post-death Fantastic Four. Teaser art for Dan Slott's "Amazing Spider-Man" series has hinted that at some point the web-slinger will don a costume with an insignia that's a combination of a spider and the FF's trademark 4. Hickman also has more plans for Spidey after issue #588.
"Well, it's early yet, but we're not saying that we're only going to be selecting one new member for the group. Spider-Man would be kind of a logical choice in that the kids love him so much, but, again, we're not saying it's set in stone by any stretch of the imagination. One of the things that I'm going to be doing in the book going forward, in whatever form it takes, is [making the title] much more of a Marvel Universe book. Up until now it's been a very insular Fantastic Four story. This, the story going forward, will be me injecting all of those characters back into the Marvel Universe," Hickman said. "There's going to be a lot of other characters in the book. In fact, we don't even know that the team really is going to be a team anymore. Will they become something else? You'll find out soon enough."
Hickman is very grateful to the readers and all his collaborators for the support they've given the story. "I think that Steve and Paul [colorist Paul Mounts] are doing a phenomenal job on the book. It looks beautiful. The story feels epic. I'm very happy with the support we're getting from the company," the writer remarked. "I think they're trying to make 'Fantastic Four' a more relevant book and I'm very, very excited about the plans for the upcoming year. Very, very exciting stuff. The plan I laid out at the very beginning remains intact and, yes, I'm very excited about that, but we're going to turn up the volume a bit more. It should be very cool."