Jonathan Hickman and Steve Epting are responsible for one of the most popular runs of "Fantastic Four" in recent memory, and on Saturday, they appeared at their own HeroesCon panel to discuss how they began retooling the franchise with the creation of "FF." Heroes Aren't Hard to Find's Doug Merkle was on hand to moderate the panel and led off the discussion by asking Hickman about his original proposal for "Fantastic Four" and how close the current direction for the Marvel Comics book is to his initial ideas.
"I think we're pretty much on track," Hickman replied. "Johnny Storm dying was always in the outline. Spider-Man joining the team was new." Although Spidey was always intended to be involved in the title in some fashion, the popular hero's presence on the team itself hasn't been an unwelcome addition for Hickman. "I'm pretty happy."
Epting was asked about the general design of the book and how much of that fell to him. The answer? Not much. "Dale Eaglesham, who was drawing the book before me, had already done a lot of design work. He had already designed the Council of Reeds -- a lot of that stuff, he had already done the design work, so that saved me a bunch of time." Though he quickly adapted, it has been somewhat challenging for Epting to join the title during the middle of Hickman's run as opposed to the very beginning. "I'm constantly asking Jonathan to explain things," the artist told the audience.
Returning to the addition of Spider-Man to the FF, Hickman again clarified that the webslinger was always meant to be a part of the book, referencing Spidey's appearance at Franklin's birthday party. At the time, Marvel was still releasing "Amazing Spider-Man" as a weekly title. It was only once Dan Slott came on to "Amazing" as head writer that Hickman was able to iron out the details so the two series could work in tandem. As a result of their collaboration, the writer noted that he and Slott know where things are going for the two books, having worked storylines out for about a year into the future.
The floor then opened to questions from the audiences. One of the first queries raised involved the use of the Thing in "Fear Itself." "The reality is, we have a shared universe and characters pop up in various different places. I think one of the best things we're doing is that people who are usually on traditional teams are on non-traditional teams," Hickman said. "I'm fine with it. Like Doom being brain-damaged in 'Doomwar;' they asked me about it, it serves the story that Steve and I are telling and it's cool."
Another fan asked specifically about the costume design for FF, which Epting and Hickman mentioned were designed by Marco Djurdjevic. The outfits are made of unstable molecules, so they could change design at a moment's notice. "We're not stuck with any one design, so we'll be playing with that," said Epting. "Marco did those, and I think he did a pretty great job." Epting and Hickman did have one criticism of the uniforms, however. "We like Ben having bikini shorts on," Hickman said to a laugh from the audience. "More bikinis for Ben in the future! Unstable Speedos!"
Hickman revealed a bit about what would be happening with the FF kids in the next few issues of the series, telling con attendees that Alex Power will get some panel time in #4 and 5, though once again it's Valeria Richards who steals the spotlight in an upcoming issue. "Val gets grounded and somebody breaks her out of her room. There's a time out jailbreak in a couple issues -- inspired by my children," Hickman said, with a grin on his face.
When asked about characters that most surprised the creators when writing and drawing them, Hickman went into great detail about his process for researching his job as writer for "Fantastic Four," which included going back through the historical run of the book and reading every issue. "I was surprised, maybe because I'm a new dad, but I was shocked how much I fell in love with the book, and I think that kind of translates. We've got people reading it, and clearly you can see I care a lot about the book," he said. "I'm shocked how much I like writing the kids and how well it translates and how it seems to work."
Answering the next several questions, Hickman revealed that he has the next two years planned out for "FF" and divulged his influence when it comes to book and trade design, saying, "Marvel tolerates my behavior when it comes to stuff like that." One of the more interesting things he noted was comparing the work that he did with "Fantastic Four" to Geoff Johns' work on "Green Lantern."
"Structurally, I looked at what Geoff Johns did with 'Green Lantern' and how he made it a relevant property again, because part of my job when I got hired was to make this worth something again. I looked at what Geoff did on 'Green Lantern' and how he made it an interesting re-introduction to the character and the re-imagining of all that stuff," he said. "We got a new, fresh look at the FF. Then, we took that and we re-injected that into the Marvel Universe." After firmly integrating the title into the Marvel Universe through the additon of Spider-Man, Hickman's final part of the plan was to make it become a book that wasn't just integrated, but integral to the Marvel U. "The third part of which is that ["FF"] becomes a Marvel Universe book where you postulate what goes on, everything else revolves around it. That's what we're doing structurally."
After answering a few more questions, Hickman told the panel room that a face notably missing from "Fantastic Four" in recent years would be making a return. "Wyatt Wingfoot will be back," Hickman said. "There is a reason Wyatt wasn't at Johnny's funeral. Again -- we have plans."
Understandably, many questions revolved around Hickman's creative decision to kill Johnny Storm in "Three." Much of the writer's responses came back to the event as a linchpin to tell the best story possible. One of his other points came with the reveal that Fantastic Four is Tom Brevoort's favorite book -- and the death of Johnny Storm was in Hickman's original "FF" pitch to Brevoort. "He wouldn't have let me do that if we didn't have a really, really great story to tell," Hickman said.
After the Johnny Storm question was answered by Hickman, Doug Merkle asked Epting if he only worked on books where characters died. After some scattered chuckles, Epting commented on how "The Death of Captain America" was marketed. "I guess it hit at the right time, a slow news day or whatever it was," the artist said. "We didn't go in trying to make this a big deal. It was just another issue when we worked on it." As for "FF," Epting echoed Hickman's sentiments. "I'm trying to tell the story as best I can no matter what's going on. I'm glad to be a part of it. It's getting attention and it's nice."
Moving on, Hickman commented on his process for writing "Fantastic Four" and "FF." "I feel like our mandate is almost always to try to do it like Jack [Kirby] and Stan [Lee] and try to preserve the integrity of what they created," he said, again in response to a question about the death of Johnny Storm. "I think we're telling a story that matters a lot right now, and I think it outweighs the short term of people being upset."
As the panel began to wind down, one fan asked the creators' opinions on digital comics. "Until everybody has an iPad, which maybe half the people I know have one, I guess it's eventually going that way." While Epting also said he believes there could be some cool opportunities for digital comics, he continued, saying, "I love the print stuff and I go to my comic store every week."
"Digital? Who knows," said Hickman. "We support our stores, we'll continue to do that, we'll continue to make printed comics. Would it be great if we had a million new readers? Sure. You could sell more trades in your store." Hickman drove home the point, stating that physical books aren't going away. "I don't think that's going to change. Especially books that [readers] love."
Finally, Hickman fielded a query from a longtime "Fantastic Four" reader about the quicker, more condensed pacing of the Silver and Golden Age versus that of the Modern Age. "If you look back, the 'Death of Johnny Storm' arc was five issues and that was the longest story arc that we told," Hickman said. "Fantastic Four" is, in many ways, a blast to the past where story arcs were concrete and somewhat compressed. Until "Three," the longest arc was Hickman's first, "Solve Everything," which was deliberately told at a Lee/Kirby pace. As a result, the impact of the longer arcs like "Three" have a bigger impact due to their length. "I think perfect comics are the juxtaposition of the two [lengths]."
Before the panel wrapped, Hickman mentioned his new book from Image, which drops in July. "If you like Fantastic Four, if you like that kind of scale of storytelling, this is right up your alley."