[SPOILER WARNING: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS FOR "FANTASTIC FOUR" #600, IN STORES NOW]
Fifty years ago this month, the legendary creative team of writer Stan Lee and Jack Kirby introduced readers to a quartet of characters that would revolutionize comic books. They were the heroic "Fantastic Four" and they would become the First Family of the Marvel Universe.
That description is a fitting one too, because first and foremost the FF are a family. Over the years they tackled larger than life super hero dramas including alien invasions and the plans of would be world conquerors, but they also dealt with real familial issues as well -- weddings, births and deaths. The latest death the Fantastic Four weathered was one of their own, Johnny Storm AKA the Human Torch. Johnny met his end in "Fantastic Four" #587 by writer Jonathan Hickman and artist Steve Epting. In the wake of his death the Fantastic Four's three remaining founding members joined with Johnny's friend Spider-Man to create a new team, the Future Foundation, whose adventures are chronicled in the pages of "FF."
Johnny's death was part of the larger story Hickman started telling when he began writing "Fantastic Four" in 2009. Now that the team's 50th anniversary has arrived it's no coincidence that the curtain has risen on the final act of Hickman's epic FF saga. It's a story that will be told in an arc called "Forever," which began in the milestone issue "Fantastic Four" #600 by Hickman and artists Steve Epting, Carmine Di Giandomenico, Ming Doyle, Leinil Francis Yu, and Farel Dalrymple. Going forward that story will continue to be featured in "Fantastic Four," which is once again a monthly series. However, Hickman will explore another angle of that same story in "FF," which also continues as a monthly series. CBR News spoke with Hickman about "Fantastic Four" #600 and his plans for both titles.
Writing the adventures of the Fantastic Four and adding to their mythos has become a labor of love for Hickman and the writer was delighted at the chance to celebrate the team's 50th anniversary by penning "Fantastic Four" #600.
"I'd like to think I have a decent understanding of 'Fantastic Four's' legacy; what Jack and Stan created together," Hickman told CBR News. "I hope I've done a pretty good job keeping that all in perspective from day 1. The fact that I got to stick around long enough to do issue #600 and it fell on the 50th anniversary was a big deal. It was quite an honor."
When Hickman first took over writing "Fantastic Four" with issue #570 he submitted a grand plan for the epic story he wanted to tell. That outline included a vision of what issue #600 would be, but, as things often do in the world of comics, that plan morphed and changes to account for story opportunities and fan reaction.
"One of the things that changed half way through my plan was us deciding to launch 'FF' as a new series using Johnny's death as a departure point. That, along with some other changes like double-shipping, kind of changed when everything was going to hit. My editor Tom Brevoort and I had long discussions about what issue #600 should actually be. At the beginning, in my mind it was going to be the final issue of this longer story that I've been telling; the final act of it," Hickman explained. "However, Tom pointed out that we always get a lot of new readers picking up these things just out of casual interest and the fact that it is a significant issue from a memorabilia perspective so we fudged things a bit to make it part one. And because we wanted to launch this last arc in as impressive a manner as possible, that demanded that the issue be big and expansive and as epic as possible."
"Fantastic Four" #600's first chapter begins with the titular group and and an army of New York-based super heroes trying to repel an invasion by the armies of the militaristic alien empire known as the Kree. Placing the team amongst those heroes was the final part of Hickman's plan to reinvigorate both the Fantastic Four and their place in the Marvel Universe.
The tale becomes even richer at the end of Part One of "Fantastic Four" #600, where the portal to the Negative Zone opens and Hickman and artist Steve Epting reveal Johnny Storm, still alive and fighting the good fight while trapped in the Negative Zone.
"Johnny's death and then resurrection in the Negative Zone was always part of my initial plan for the book. That's why when I heard talk about editorial mandates I chuckled, because it just wasn't the case with this at all. Even though I tried to write 'Fantastic Four' like it was the most important book in the world, I never believed that a bunch people would start buying it again," Hickman said. "I never imagined that Johnny dying would be as big a deal as it was or that it would get promoted that way, and I never thought we'd split the book and all that other stuff. Of course, I wanted it to be important, but at its core, it was just part of the larger, broader story I was telling."
In Part Two of "Fantastic Four" #600 Hickman and artist Carmine Di Giandomenico show that Johnny Storm really did die at the end of "Fantastic Four" #587, but he was resurrected by Annihilus and forced to fight in the despotic Negative Zone ruler's arena as a gladiator. When Johnny met another group of gladiators known as the Light Brigade he went from slave to freedom fighter by convincing them to help him fight back and overthrow Annihilus.
"All the trappings are really just set design for what has been the thematic heart of Johnny's arc -- The world says, 'everything dies.' Johnny is the opposite of that; everything lives. That's always been his role," Hickman explained. "The Light Brigade and all of the other stuff is cool window dressing for what is essentially a story about Johnny representing life when things look their bleakest."
Johnny and his allies were able to fight back and defeat Annihilus, but that battle came after a hellish ordeal that lasted months and Johnny was killed and resurrected several times. As a result, the Human Torch's time in the Negative Zone has changed him in certain ways. Those changes will be explored in upcoming issues of "Fantastic Four."
"You'll see in #601 and #602 what Johnny gets from going through all of that," Hickman remarked. "This is something we'll be dealing with months and months down the road. Right now he's literally just walked through the door a distilled version of what he always was."
In Part Three of "Fantastic Four" #600 Hickman and artist Ming Doyle give readers a look into the relationship between the Inhuman king Black Bolt and his wife Medusa, which evolved when he returned from his apparent demise at the end of the "War of Kings" storyline and joined his Royal family with the group of Universal Inhumans living on the moon.
"The Inhumans have a brilliant setup with their background, powers, and shortcomings. I've tried to add to that mythos by directly linking them to the Kree's Supreme Intelligence and introducing the Universal Inhumans. I've tried to make them even more significant and the Medusa-Black Bolt relationship is what lies at the heart of it," Hickman stated. "What I didn't want to do was an Inhumans story where everything falls apart and then at the very end of it Black Bolt speaks. It's effective, but we've seen that so many different times. And, frankly, I wanted to write something about how much they love each other. Anyway, we're not close to done with the Inhumans. There's more stuff down the road."
Black Bolt and Medusa aren't the only Inhumans with an agenda in "Fantastic Four" #600. Crystal, a member of Black Bolt's royal family, and her husband Ronan the Accuser, the Kree monarch, have a plan of their own in motion. Their marriage began as an arranged one but the duo have come to truly love each other and that's why Crystal has chosen to side with her husband and the Kree instead of the Inhumans.
"That kind of comes to a big point in #601 when Ronan realizes what he's unleashed on the universe in the form of the reconstructed, multiversal Supreme Intelligence and Crystal realizes what she's given up for a man that she loves," Hickman said. "They have an interesting future ahead of them. Maybe we're stuck with two people that have abandoned both of their tribes and all they have left is each other. Maybe it's a romance, maybe it's a tragedy."
In Part Four of "Fantastic Four" #600 Hickman and Leinil Francis Yu flash back several days to show that like the Inhumans and the Kree before, the world-devouring entity known as Galactus also has plans for Earth. The surprising thing, however, is that Galactus wants to save the Earth, not consume it. This all happens as a result of the events of the recent "Galactus Seed" storyline in Matt Fraction's "Mighty Thor" series, which concluded with a Galactus seed now on Earth. If the planet is destroyed that seed would become adrift and eventually give birth to a being that would try to replace Galactus and destroy the Universe.
"Galactus may be the second most important character in the book over the next six to seven issues. It's definitely a fresh, new look at him and his role in the birth and death of universes," Hickman said. "It's maybe a broader look at what being Galactus means and there's some stuff that we're building towards in issue #603 and #604 that we haven't ever seen with Galactus. I think people are really going to dig it."
In the fifth and final part of "Fantastic Four" #600 Hickman and artist Farel Dalrymple show that while the rest of his family have been busy with other matters, Franklin Richards, the son of Reed and Sue, has been busy using his newly reactivated mutant powers to create and explore universes. The story raises two big questions -- just how powerful is Franklin and who is the mysterious white figure offering to train him in the use of his powers?
"You'll be getting answers to those mysteries relatively quickly," Hickman said. "I featured six primary characters in the first half of my big storyline. Those characters were the original members of the Fantastic Four and Franklin and Val. Of those characters, the one that has sort of disappeared the most during this second act has been Franklin.
"That's kind of what the story in issue #600 is about. It shows us what Franklin's been doing; playing in his head with his trusty sidekick Leech. Franklin's the most powerful mutant on the planet," Hickman continued. "If his powers have been reignited that's going to mean something. Maybe it means saving his family. Maybe it means saving Doctor Doom."
Franklin may yet save Doctor Doom,but the title of the upcoming "FF" arc which begins on November 30th in issue #12 suggests the Latverian monarch might do some saving of his own. The "All Hope Lies in Doom" arc tells a story parallel to the one in "Fantastic Four." It will features characters including Doctor Doom, his ward Kristoff, and several of the younger members of the Future Foundation.
"It was never our plan for there to be an 'FF' book. We simply looked at what we had done with Johnny dying and Tom noted there was a clear departure point, so we decided at that point to do 'FF, ' but then after that, 'FF' became a more significant performer dollar wise than 'Fantastic Four,'" Hickman said with a laugh. "So when it was time for 'Fantastic Four' #600 there were discussions about how maybe the book is just 'FF' now. Maybe there is no 'Fantastic Four' book. Maybe we do issue #600 then we go back to everything being 'FF.' I looked at how much of the story was left and I proposed to Tom that we do two books. He agreed it was the best way to handle the story.
"I didn't want to spend 10 months wrapping everything up. Everybody has been really, really patient with the story that I'm telling. I don't think they have been ripped off or anything, but there's a certain amount of velocity that you want as you you're racing to the conclusion," Hickman continued. "The possibility of it coming out twice a month as we race towards the finish line was very appealing to me. Also I have a lot of FF and Fantastic Four stories that I want to tell after the conclusion of the big story that we've been telling. So it worked very well for me, and it worked for Marvel. And that's just kind of how it fell into place."
While "All Hope Lies in Doom" unfolds in "FF," the current "Forever" storyline will continue over in "Fantastic Four." As issue #600 shows, the arc will take the big concepts found in cosmic Marvel stories and super size them up to 11. "It's a book about big ideas, that's the Fantastic Four. The good news is we have even more going forward," Hickman explained. "If you think the book has been cool and a lot of fun up to this point, just wait. It gets even better."
Once "Forever" and "All Hope Lies in Doom" wrap up Hickman will use the "FF" title to explore the characters and concepts of the larger Fantastic Four universe. "Often it will be about the kids. Sometimes it will be about everybody in the family; the legion of Fantastic Four characters. Some months it will be about Doctor Doom. Some months it might be about the Inhumans," Hickman explained. " And then, some months, it will be about other things that readers don't know about yet. So it's definitely a very interesting vehicle for a lot of the cool concepts surrounding the FF."
Hickman's original plans for the First Family of the Marvel Universe conclude with "Forever" but the plethora of ideas he has for both "Fantastic Four" and "FF" means he'll remain with both books for some time. " I think I can pretty comfortably say that I've got over a year's worth of stories still to tell. And because we're essentially double shipping "Fantastic Four," it's really double that. The market being what the market is I think it would be foolish to plan beyond that, but yeah we've got plenty of stuff left to get to.
"I was incredibly honored when Tom asked me to pitch the book and then gave it to me. And, honestly, I don't think any of that feeling has left," Hickman continued. "The Fantastic Four is just a joy to write. It remains a big honor to work on anything that Jack and Stan created."