To many of Marvel Comics' "True Believers," the Fantastic Four are some of the greatest comic characters ever created and their adventures are a must read; but to many of those same readers, Franklin Richards (son of Mr. Fantastic and The Invisible woman) and H.E.R.B.I.E, his robot friend, seem out of place or too cutesy. Here's the funny thing- their stories, as featured in the back of "Power Pack," have been some of the most critically acclaimed and universally beloved superhero stories of the entire year. With a special "The Fantastic Four Present Franklin Richards: Son Of a Genius" one-shot arriving in September, CBR News caught up with co-writer Mark Sumerak and co-writer/artist Chris Eliopoulos to talk about the origins of the Franklin Richards stories.
"The roots of this started back almost three years ago," explains Eliopoulos. "I was in a meeting with Bill Jemas and he liked a comic I was self publishing called 'Desperate Times' and asked me to pitch him an idea on an existing Marvel character that I could do. I pitched this Franklin idea. Somehow, over time it got lost in the cracks until one day I was in C.B. Cebulski's office when he told me about the Marvel Age line. I mentioned the Franklin idea and he got the ball rolling. That's when MacKenzie took control and really guided the Franklin ship. She suggested bringing in a co-writer and Marc's name was brought up. I've know Marc for years, so it seemed like a good fit. And the next part of the story is Marc's."
Sumerak shares a similar enthusiasm for the project and explains that the timing was perfect. "I was working with editor MacKenzie Cadenhead on the beginning stages of 'Power Pack' when I got the call about the 'Franklin Richards' project. I loved the idea the second I heard it, and I knew it would be a blast to work on if Chris was involved. So I did a bit of a try out, tweaking a few of Chris' early plot pages and writing a sample script. Things must have turned out okay, 'cause here I am -- and I couldn't be more thrilled to be a part of the 'Franklin' team!"
According to both members of the team, the creative synergy is great and the two have become even better friends working on "Franklin." "Marc is just so easy to work with. We've known and worked with each other for years and have a mutual respect. He takes the disjointed plots I give him and makes them gold. He rocks."
Sumerak smiled and adds, "And then Chris somehow manages to come back in and make my silly little scripts look absolutely pitch-perfect in a way that seems almost completely effortless on his part! The guy is like the one-man band of comics. Pencils, inks, colors, letters, animal husbandry. It blows my mind how much he can do!
"There's a lot of great back and forth going on between Chris and I... and between the two of us and editorial as well. As Chris said, I think that stems from a sense of mutual respect and the satisfying knowledge that we're all on the same wavelength when it comes to this project. And really, that's the nicest thing about working on 'Franklin.' Everyone on the creative team is in it for the same reason -- to tell super-fun stories that everyone can enjoy. And we're honestly having a blast doing it! "
In the current comic continuity, Franklin Richards is a young teen and has been featured in many stories over the years, but the writers of "Franklin" said that there's a reason they preferred to use a younger Franklin. "Can we be honest?" asks Eliopoulos. "The "current" Franklin is not a real kid. I've got two six years olds and they act nothing like the Franklin portrayed in the regular FF series. He's gone through a lot and reminds me of Haley Joel Osment. He's a grown up in a kid's body. I wanted to see him acting as the kid he should be--surrounded by this cool stuff, with no worries of consequences. I thought, 'What would it be like for me as a kid to live in that world.' I would so be stealing my dad's Fantasticar and going for joyrides!"
Those sentiments are echoed by Sumerak, who believes that the environment of the current Franklin also changes the kind of stories that can be told. "In the core FF titles, you only tend to see Franklin in a specific FF-related context. You see him when he's with the rest of the family or is somehow being affected by the larger storyline taking place around him. The world of the FF is a very adult one, full of danger and responsibility. But there has to be another side of Franklin outside of those situations...and that's the Franklin we're shining the spotlight on! The one that finally gets to act his age when he's left to his own devices (or, in this case, Reed's devices!)."
In the eyes of some, H.E.R.B.I.E is simply the annoying robot from the classic Fantastic Four cartoon who came into replace the Human Torch, after parents complained that 'Torch might inspire children to set themselves on fire. And Franklin is seen by some as the "annoying brat" who hangs around or in some stories, a deux ex machina. "They are totally necessary," maintains Eliopoulos. "In the traditional FF, everything has consequence for a family. If you're a cop, there's a chance you might not come home to your family and that life affects others. What Reed and Sue do affect Franklin. It's also important to see these lives from a child's perception. In the Marvel Universe, it's daunting and scary. In ours, I choose to see it the way my kids look at life--like nothing bad could happen, except if they couldn't have candy."
"And that sense of wonder is really what these stories are all about," Sumerak continues. "While Reed may be focused on curing world hunger and discovering new dimensions, Franklin looks at all of the gadgets in front of him with a totally different set of eyes. He doesn't want to save the world (seriously, what kid does?), he just wants to explore all of the exciting things around him and play with all the awesome toys at his disposal. He doesn't see the consequences as much as he sees the potential for adventure...and that makes him a unique and important part of the family.
"As for H.E.R.B.I.E., laugh at him all you like... but if you had a robot that helped you get out of all of your stickiest situations, you'd be powering him up all the time! I know I would..."
"Franklin Richards," with just a few short stories, has done something few comic books can do these days- appealed to a truly broad group of readers, from children to adults. For Eliopoulos, the reasons for this success are simple and part of how he and Sumerak approach the series. "You know, I don't think comics that are suited for all ages need to talk down to kids. In the cases where it's done right, all age groups and demographics can enjoy something. Marc, MacKenzie and I are also having fun, which is key. If you're enjoying something, it shows. And, for me at least, I think we should all be trying to do comics that appeal to a wide audience. Isn't the goal to bring more people in to enjoy the artform that we all love?"
Like the fine oiled creative team that they are, Sumerak adds his own comments that re-enforce the views of his friend. "I couldn't agree more. Writing for all-ages is meant to include readers, not exclude them. Just because a 7-year-old can enjoy something doesn't mean a 27-year-old shouldn't be able to as well. We're not approaching 'Franklin' as if we're writing for a specific audience. The creative team is trying to tell stories that we all enjoy ourselves, stories that make us laugh and smile and feel the same sense of wonder, excitement and mischief that Franklin does. It's nice to know that people of all ages are connecting with these stories as much as we are!"
Upon first glance at the artwork by Eliopoulos, it's hard not to get a "Calvin & Hobbes" vibe from the work, with Franklin looking a bit similar to Calvin himself and the artist says there's a reason for some similarities. "That's all me. I grew up reading 'Peanuts' and 'Pogo' books. And later on I picked up 'Calvin and Hobbes.' My style has naturally progressed in a similar style. About a year or so ago, I literally put all my 'Calvin and Hobbes' books away because my style is so similar and purposely looked at other things to break me out. Guess I'm not totally there yet [laughs]."
Sumerak says that comments about similarities to the classic comic strip aren't uncommon and doesn't mind at all. "I've heard that comparison in a lot of places and every time I take it as a compliment (mostly to Chris). I mean, that's one of the greatest comic strips in history! If someone wants to mention 'Franklin' and 'Calvin' in the same breath, it's cool with me!"
The "cuteness" of Eliopoulos' art may be appealing to many, but at the same time there exists a concern in some that readers may dismiss the book as "cutesy kids stuff." "I'm sure the folks who like and enjoy the Max line of books may not find this to their tastes, but I think that there are a lot of folks who may enjoy that comic strip feel to it and see it for what it is--fun for everyone," says Eliopoulos.
"Everyone has different tastes, so sure, our stories may not appeal to all readers," adds Sumerak. "But diversity is what comic books are all about! I can only speak for myself, but I know that if I passed on every book that I didn't immediately think would fit my tastes, I would be missing out on so many wonderful titles. That's why we're giving everyone another chance to pick up the 'Franklin' stories in a brand new one-shot edition. We're letting readers of all kinds know that it's time to give something different a try! No one will make fun of you, we promise!"
Though the stories may be few thus far, "Franklin Richards" has been a critical darling in the eyes of fans and the most ardent critics, a fact that delights Eliopoulos. "I haven't really seen all the responses to it. I'm extremely happy to know so many people like it and I hope they continue to like it, but I only listen to two voices--my kids. They actually read these stories and can't wait for more, so that's good enough for me. Not to mention I'M having a blast doing them."
Sumerak feels equally blessed by the good response and says this new one-shot showcases that enthusiasm. "Me too! I'm loving every second of this project, and to hear that readers are are enjoying 'Franklin' as well is just icing on the cake! We had just as much fun putting together the new material for the one-shot as we did when we crafted the original stories, so hopefully the new stuff won't disappoint!"
The big question on the minds of fans is simple: will there be more Franklin Richards adventures from Sumerak and Eliopoulos? "I would do it in a minute," replies the artist. "But that's not up to me. I think it's up to the folks who head out to their comic stores. If enough of them like it, I'm sure we will do more."
"I'm with Chris!" says Sumerak. "If the fans (and Marvel) demand more 'Franklin,' you can be sure I'll be there to help make it happen!"
If you're still on the fence about picking up "The Fantastic Four Presents: Franklin Richards: Son of a Genius," then Eliopoulos has a few words for you. "Because it's fun and it's something you can show to a person who doesn't read comics and hook 'em in. I think everyone can find something to enjoy in this series. You have the Marvel Universe, a kid, a robot, cool scientific gadgets and humor. What more can you ask for?"
"How about special guest appearances by the four lead characters from this summer's mega-blockbuster FANTASTIC FOUR movie?" asks Sumerak.
"We got that too," replies Eliopoulos.
"Then count me in!" smiles Sumerak.
As with many Marvel Comics, the "Franklin Richards" creative team promises that mega crossover "House of M" will radically affect the titular hero. "Well, in the alternative HOM universe, Franklin used one of his father's devices to increase his brain matter in order to be the smartest person on the planet," explained Eliopoulos. "Unfortunately, it became so big, he fell over and couldn't get back up. As he kept screaming, 'I've fallen and I can't get up!,' H.E.R.B.I.E. Showed up and hooked him into the Baxter Building's central computer where he eventually got a computer virus and began downloading spam. When the Universe was restored, he crawled up into a ball trying to get the unwanted spam out of his head. He sits there to day wondering how to get that cash to that poor Nigerian man who needs money for an investment."
However, the story goes further from there and Sumerak explains that there will be dire repercussions. "Meanwhile, H.E.R.B.I.E. has found himself with an important new duty as well -- one that finally puts his astounding artificial intelligence to use in a far more appropriate way than being Franklin's robotic babysitter. See, it turns out that, right around the end of 'House Of M #3,' something terrible happened to the Internet..."
And if you haven't guessed, they're kidding- that's just the kind of humor you'll find in "Franklin Richards: Son Of A Genius," on sale September 14th, 2005.