Can characters really change?
For me, Comic Book continuity occupies a strange liminal space. On the one hand, stories constantly build and expand upon themselves, referencing and interconnecting in various paths, which to many outside observers make them impenetrable. On the other hand, partially due to self-awareness over this issue, Comics are often hesitant to veer too far from the expected. Dramatic events often occur, but their aftermath is short-lived, the status quo eventually reasserts itself. Things may happen in mainstream Comics, but they rarely matter. Characters are rarely allowed to evolved beyond their stock roles, tradition holds them in stasis.
Of all the superhero teams, the Fantastic Four seem the most interlocked with tradition. Although perhaps starting as a radical subversion of the family unit, as Colin Smith has argued, the FF has now become an emblem for predictable dynamics. Their alternative unit has become the new normal. The members, which were once semi-realistic representations of family (given they had inter-personal dynamics and arguments), have become so over-reproduced they are now generic. Marked by familial comfort and reassurance, the Fantastic Four appear eternal, and trapped.
Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Steve McNiven’s first arc of Marvel Knight’s 4, “Wolf at the Door” removes the First Family of Marvel from their comfortable status quo, dragging the fantastical group into a confrontation with reality. In this story, swindled by their financial advisor Giocometti, the FF are left bankrupt, evicted from the Baxter Building and forced to find new jobs. Through this paradigm shift follows an introspective story, wherein the team examine what must become flexible about their lives into their new reality, and what remains unchanged.
“A real job? With, like, an office?” (#3); Reality
Aguirre-Sacasa and McNiven’s story was already marked for advanced realism by the ‘Marvel Knights’ imprint it falls under. Yet while many other titles conflated ‘realism’ with ‘grittiness’ (something seen more vividly with the ‘Marvel MAX’ imprint), Marvel Knight’s 4 is ‘realistic’ by depicting the day-to-day responsibilities of average life. Furthermore, given the imprints emphasis on characterisation above continuity, the story is relatively ‘non-canon’. While perhaps limiting the long-standing impact of the arc, it also frees the creators to make bold changes and fresh takes, within the self-contained world of the imprint. This shift of the FF from heighten superhero adventures to grounded stories is demonstrated through their eviction from the Baxter Building, their super-high-tech and glamorous headquarters. Called their “symbol of hope, heroism and prosperity” (#1), it is lost alongside the rest of the team’s fortune. The Invisible Woman reflects how none of their foes, “not the Puppet Master, not the Mole Man. Not even Victor” (#3) were able to take this “symbol” from them. This new, realistic, threat is more pervasive than traditional supervillains. Whatever physical danger they had faced, their way of life was always secure.
By aligning their material belongings to their superheroic identity, combining “heroism and prosperity” (#1) together, the story could risk equating stardom and heroism. The Human Torch seems to take this stance, admonishing a financial advisor; “You see this ‘4’? It means something, okay? That’s we’re celebrities. Superheroes. And superheroes do not declare bankruptcy” (#1). For Johnny Storm, the hot-headed and superficial younger brother, symbolism and status matter as much as the FF’s actions. Their “4” chest emblem “means something” to him, it is a shield that separates the grandeur of celebrity from the inconveniences of “bankruptcy”. While Johnny’s rather entitled complaints stem from his vanity, his point is somewhat exemplified through The Thing, whose rocky exterior and superhuman strength (literally) physically demonstrates the discrepancy between these two worlds, of the fantastic and the mundane. While trying to obtain construction site grunt-work, his super-strength makes Ben Grimm “too good” (#3), and in the land of the ‘real’, having the strength of 10 men means having to “fire ten of [the workers] so” (#1) he can be hired. Being extraordinary makes the Fantastic Four incompatible with the ordinary.
These separate worlds are only perpetuated by the inability of the Fantastic Four to face this new ‘realistic’ threat. Bankruptcy or poverty does not materialise into a physical form that can be beaten or imprisoned, and so the FF cannot attack this realistic threat, only cope with it. Such impotence gives the member’s doubt over their self-conception. The supervillain Hammerhead offers to help Mister Fantastic take revenge on Giocometti (given Hammerhead was conned himself), and while Reed declines, he admits “there’s a small part of me that wants Hammerhead to find Giocometti” (#4). Unable to take a direct, heroic approach, Reed is tempted towards a less noble option. He wonders, “does this make me a bad person? Or just human?” (#4). Herein lies an insidious implication, that if ‘ordinary’ people are subject to different rules, they also obey different ethics. That now being “just human”, robbed of their former exceptionality, the team can operate in murkier terrain. Denied their former power, perhaps the FF no longer have responsibility.
This elitist equation of status and morality, where only those deemed ‘exceptional’ are granted access to morality, is, of course, nonsense. Lacking fantastical resources is no excuse to abandon virtue. While many of the Fantastic Four are temporarily disillusioned, the Invisible Woman sees things clearly. Susan cites Jody Williams, a real-life political activist, who lacked the unrealistic advantages of the FF, being a “housewife” with “no support, with almost no money” (#3), but still achieved the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize for her actions. “You don’t need a fortune to do good”, Sue explains, “You don’t have to travel the galaxy to fight injustice” (#3). Their bankruptcy forces the FF to adapt their traditional approach to more grounded ways. Reed becomes obsessed with “beating” (#2) the stock-market, a fantastical plan only a fictional super-genius could attempt, but Sue discourages him. It is not a realistic strategy. “You always do this”, she tells him, “you’re a genius – so you think different rules apply to you” (#2). While the others are tempted to keep the worlds of reality and celebrity separate, thereby not having to adapt to new circumstances, Sue explains that, whatever their beliefs, the reality is these two worlds have collided. And in this grounded situation, they cannot avoid the world around them. They must all follow the same rules.
This lesson evidently takes hold. All of the team follow Susan’s lead and pragmatically address their situation, rather than evading it. Reed gets a “real job? With, like, an office? Like regular people” (#3) (as their son Franklin enthusiastically describes it), while even Johnny takes a mature approach towards a firefighter apprenticeship. At this new job, Reed comes across a suicidal “jumper” (#4), a small, human and all-too realistic threat, completely at odds from the FF’s typical superhuman foes. Reed begins the confrontation with his typical grandiose manner, stating “you probably don’t recognise me because I’m not in costume, but I’m Mister…” (#4), resting upon his celebrity and familiarity, before he stops himself. He realises he shouldn’t address this situation on a superhuman level, but on a personal one. He abandons his superhero persona, leaving aside his ‘Mister Fantastic’ identity so he can communicate on an equal and realistic, level, extending his hand and plainly stating “My name’s Reed” (#4).
“I think you’re thinking of Spiderman” (#1); Responsibility
The FF’s shift in reality comes with added responsibilities, financial self-preservation added towards generic ‘world protection’. While an overt reference to the 1978 Superman: The Movie, a rescued window-cleaner asking Johnny “You’ve got me? Who’s got you?” (#2) shows that while the team might save others, they also need to help themselves. Similar to the previously assumed dichotomy between ‘reality’ and ‘celebrity’, it initially seems private responsibility, towards professional and financial matters, clashes with public safety. When The Thing prevents a robbery, it narrates that while “Ben Grimm should be thinking good thoughts. Instead, though, he’s thinking ‘My break ended five minutes ago – am I gonna get docked for this?’” (#2). Johnny is even more ardently turned towards self-involvement, demanding his agent secure a job, his celebrity status and financial security seemingly entitled to him, before being bluntly told “the world doesn’t owe you anything” (#1). Such self-interest is the attitude of Hammerhead. Although he fakes concern for the FF, telling Reed “you’re falling, Professor, you’re drowning, and out of the goodness of my heart I’m throwing you a lifeline” (#4). But both he and Reed know this “lifeline” is not support but a debt, a bond that would tie the FF towards Hammerhead, who is only interested in himself. Hammerhead is incensed by Giocometti’s con, as “no one steals from” (#4) him, this pride being the catalyst for revenge, rather than concern or responsibility towards others.
The Fantastic Four, ultimately, never break this responsibility towards others, even with the added burden to themselves. While inconvenienced by their newfound financial status, the FF do not spread these issues outward, pragmatically dealing with it themselves. Tony Stark offers Reed a loan, but (knowing Giocometti also conned Stark Industries, albeit to a lesser extent) he gently declines, stating “we are on our feet. I’m working, Ben’s working, Sue’s working – she’s teaching – we’ve found a new place to live. We don’t need charity, Tony” (#4). Rather than bemoan or evade their financial responsibilities, the FF have accepted them, taking active steps to rebuild themselves without compromising those around them.
“Wolf at the Door” maintains a consistent focus upon those on the periphery, from the construction workers who “have families too” (#3), to the people “standing in [the unemployment] line forever” (#3), to the ex-employees of the evicted Baxter Building, who the Fantastic Four are personally compensating with “whatever money [they] make” (#3). Despite being dragged into near poverty, the Fantastic Four do not become self-involved, but maintain their caring, altruistic attitude. Such behaviour is rewarded, given they become accept as tenants (despite the genuine concerns landlords of known superheroes would have), as their landlord says “sometimes bad things happen to good people. And if you can help those people out, do it” (#2). Unfair treatment should not restrict behaviour towards others. This temptation for self-preservation is understandable. With limited options and little finances, your responsibility to others seems to enclose alongside them. A mugger vents at Sue, “I can’t get a job – any job. I ran out of choices!”. But Sue holds resolute, “There are always choices” (#1).
“You won’t die alone” (#4); Family
While their concerns extend to the wider world, family is always central to the Fantastic Four. With their failing financial situation, their traditional familial dynamic could also change, but the FF persevere precisely because these familial bonds are flexible. Susan tells their new landlord they are “Four… not counting my two children” (#2), with this “two children” comment humorously overlaid on the waiting Ben and Johnny. But this not only points out the pair’s immaturity, but demonstrates that while the FF are ‘family’ in a literal sense (being a married couple, with a brother-in-law and children), they are also a surrogate one (that groups Johnny and Ben with them regardless of shifting circumstances). Johnny later feels downbeat because he doesn’t have “friends… regular guys I hang out with” (#2), but Ben comforts him, reminding of the bonds deeper than friendship; “you got friends. More importantly, you got family” (#2).
Lacking these flexible and supportive bonds of family, individuals can feel isolated, lacking any grounding. This is how the suicidal ‘jumper’ Martin feels, relating to Reed the loss of his own family, how his son had died and his wife had left. When cancer results brought up his own mortality, Martin “wanted to call someone, to tell them what was happening, and that’s when it all came out. Because [he] didn’t have anyone to call” (#4). The absence left Martin adrift, despairing at the lack of support. So, Reed extends the multitudinous form of family to incorporate Martin too, promising that when Martin’s death comes, to call Reed, and he’ll “be there. You won’t die alone” (#4). Reed provides a safety net of empathy. Reflecting upon the turmoil and uncertainty of life, in Martin’s and his own, Reed turns to his own family, first to his grandfather’s advice, and his current one. He reflects overlooking a scene of domestic harmony. This scene is not contained or conservative, instead it is rather chaotic (Sue sets the table while Ben prepares dinner, frantically filling Reed in on the day), but the chaos is all constructive and loving, about “working late” and being “proud” (#4) of the family. It is one of active work towards family, of mutual support. Reed reflects on his grandfather’s words, overlooking this scene, that “if you ever find yourself falling – and you will, because life’s one big free-fall – believe that somewhere, somehow, there will be someone to catch you” (#4).
“Maybe we should take a break”; Change
Something reemphasised throughout “Wolf at the Door” is how the FF’s financial situation cannot be resolved by traditional means. It cannot be subdued or physically confronted. Within this absence of fighting, a large rumble between The Thing and the Human Torch erupts, to fill in the void. Reed explains this latest form of their antagonistic bickering is their version of “coping” (#3), as “whenever something bad happens, [Ben and Johnny’s] first response is ‘Let’s hit somebody!’. But this time, there’s no one to hit. No insane super-villain… no deformed madman… no egomaniacal despot” (#3). The pair revert to traditional dynamics, fighting each other, to compensate for their immense changes beyond their control. Reed understands because he also previously attempted this, attempting to beat “the stock market” (#2), when he was really only avoiding the reality. A telling, quiet moment within “Wolf at the Door” is when, as Reed sorts through storage and regurgitates scientific equations, he is struck silent by images of his family. Reed is confronted by an unquantifiable aspect that cannot be rationally resolved, reminded how his traditional ‘super-genius’ methods are insufficient against this latest challenge.
The very essence of the Fantastic Four is questioned by these changes. Some calls are made for total abandonment of the team, Johnny taking their eviction as “a sign. Maybe we shouldn’t live together, maybe we should take a break” (#2). Susan made similar, if more justified, complaints about the limitations of the group’s tradition. Devotion to the FF has hampered Sue’s individual growth; “I was twenty years old when we few into the cosmic storm that gave us our powers, I never finished college… Always meant to, but then I married Reed, and then Franklin came along…” (#1). Perhaps the traditions surrounding the FF, their comfortable status quo, prevented its component parts from proper development.
The FF’s bankruptcy, then, also provides an opportunity, the capacity for change. The aforementioned constant bickering between Ben and Johnny is entrenched in the team’s dynamic. However, the self-examination from their new situation reveals the deep emotion and affection underneath their outward aggression. Johnny is about to hurl another insult at Ben, but he hesitates, before breaking down and confessing “I can be such an idiot sometimes” (#2). Stripped of the security of both wealth and tradition, displays of raw emotion are now enabled to surface.
Yet, I think “Wolf at the Door” seems to argue, the Fantastic Four have always been marked by changes. Transformation of all kinds has surrounded their team. Their bankruptcy is not so much a ‘deconstruction’ so much as another challenge. Reed reminds Sue, and the audience, about Ben, how “underneath all that rock, he really is a softie”, before adding “at least nowadays, you remember? Right after we were transformed, we could barely talk to Ben he was so full of rage” (#1). All Four members have transformed, Ben has changed emotionally and physically, Johnny can turn into flames, Sue can turn invisible (and has changed from the Invisible Girl to Invisible Woman), and Reed’s power is his flexibility, the capacity to shape his body depending on the circumstances. Likewise the FF are adaptable, their reality can be questioned but not fully dismantled, they are impervious to destruction. Sue worries how their eviction from the Baxter Building will change them, but Reed calms her fears;
“We travelled to the stars and flew through a storm of cosmic energy… we became something more than human, but we were still the same people. We still are. You want to know how this will change us? It’ll make us better… the way you make me better.” (#3)
Reality and change can be tough to encounter. To move from the fantastic to the mundane can be jarring. But “Wolf at the Door” argues that while details and situations may alter, the essentials can remain steady. It argues neither for the status quo’s eradication, or its maintanence, but rather advocates for how groups can endure throughout challenges. While the uncertainty of finances and the turmoil of life might be unpredictable, there are some underlying figures and values which will always remain constant.
“Wolf at the Door” is comprised of Marvel Knight’s 4 #1-4, written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, drawn by Steve McNiven, coloured by Morry Hollowell and inked by Mark Morales. The storyline can be purchased here.