This twice-weekly project posted throughout February sees us looking at the forgotten creative runs on some of Marvel and DC’s biggest properties. Uncollected, uncelebrated, and unexplored, these runs fell between the cracks of history – and in this series of articles, we try to decide whether or not they actually deserved to.
Title: Fantastic Four
Creative Team: Chris Claremont & Salvador Larocca
Core Issues: Fantastic Four (Vol. 3) #4-#32
Essential crossovers: Iron Man (Vol. 3) #14, Heroes Reborn: Doomsday, Heroes Reborn: Ashema, Heroes Reborn: Doom
After the conclusion of the “Heroes Reborn” event (which farmed out several of Marvel’s biggest properties to Image creators), Marvel intended to bring back those series with some of their top-notch creative talent. Busiek and Perez’s Avengers run was undoubtedly the jewel in the crown, while Waid and Garney reprised a celebrated run on Captain America. By comparison, Scott Lobdell and Alan Davis’ Fantastic Four series was over almost before it started. Only 3 issues in, the team was unceremoniously dumped and replaced by Chris Claremont and Salvador Larocca.
It’s clear that Claremont and Larocca’s arrival wasn’t particularly planned – Lobdell had previously stated an intention to stay on board the title for a 50-issue run, and his plots were used for two issues following his departure. Claremont, for his sins, had recently returned to Marvel to work as an “editorial director”, and was presumably just in the right place at the right time to take over at short notice when relations between Marvel and Lobdell/Davis broke down, for whatever reason.
Having written the Fantastic Four at least once in the past, during the X-Men Vs. the Fantastic Four miniseries, it’s relatively easy to see what Claremont’s interests in the team are, as many were reprised here. In that series, Claremont wrote Doom as the dark mirror of Reed, capable of forging a diary so convincing that even Reed didn’t notice it was fake. This duality would later inform the ongoing plot when Reed found himself trapped in Doom’s armour and becoming more and more Doom-esque in his actions, mannerisms and morality.
Such big, character-centric ideas were the high points of Claremont’s run. However, it would take nearly a year for him to make any steps towards the Doom/Reed plot, and the intervening issues were incredibly weak and convoluted. As soon as Lobdell’s plots had been worked through, Claremont immediately set about reinventing the book’s status quo in his own tradition. His first year on the title relied heavily on alternate universes, and he introduced three separate new female characters, all of whom were the standard, Claremontian archetype – spunky, brilliant and utterly flawless. Two of them – Alyssa Moy and Valeria Von Doom (the teenage version) – caught on and enjoyed life beyond Claremont’s run on the title. The third – Caledonia – didn’t. Not least because, as an alternate Captain Britain, she was really an Excalibur refugee (as were many of the title’s concepts and villains during this period)
Despite being Rachel Summers with the serial numbers filed off (she even took the codename Marvel Girl) Valeria Von Doom – apparently the daughter of Sue and Doom from the future – would eventually become the focus of the book’s direction, as much for what she implied about the future of the team than for the mystery of where she came from. Although the plots became turgid as Claremont bounced the core team from dimension to dimension, the mystery of Marvel Girl’s origins drove the book’s subplots – as did the tension between Sue and Reed over various extra-marital issues (Reed’s ex-girlfriend, Alyssa Moy’s presence, Sue’s villainously-revealed “heart’s desire” to be Namor’s Queen, and of course, Valeria’s stated origin).
The book only really got going when Doom returned, forcing the various plots Claremont had been seeding to actually start blooming together. His X-Men run had long since proven that Claremont was a master of long-term plotting, but the convoluted nature of the individual issues and massively off-theme storylines suggested that his single-issue plotting was much rustier than his macro plotting. The final issues (#25-32, together with a group of “Doomsday” one-shots) cap Claremont’s run off, and tie up the loose ends so satisfactorily that it almost excuses the 18-issue mess that precedes it. A wordless, underwater sequence that opens issue #32 even proves that despite’s Claremont’s much-criticised wordiness, he does know what to be quiet occasionally.
Unfortunately, despite a truly enjoyable finale, the flaws in Claremont’s run were incredibly pronounced, and probably familiar to those who read his subsequent X-Men stories. The supporting characters and villains Claremont used – many of them new creations – were usually little more than a codename and visual (I’m looking at you, Lockdown, Rosetta Stone, Caledonia, The Ruined, The Bacchae and the Twisted Sisters), and characters had a tendency towards exposition that constantly grated. Many of the stories involved mind-control and body-modification (more staples of Claremont’s work) and the plots were virtually photocopied from issue-to-issue. It wasn’t a high point for either Claremont or the Fantastic Four.
There is, at least, one thing that can be universally praised about this period in Fantastic Four history: Larocca’s art. For me, this is Larocca at this height of his ability – before the horrific digital inking of X-treme X-Men, before the lifeless photoreferencing of Invincible Iron Man – just pure storytelling. Even if he does have a habit of drawing Sue Richards like she’s smuggling melons in her uniform, and the computer colouring (by Liquid!) is so obviously a product of a company who just got access to their first copy of photoshop and want to squeeze every available colour onto the page.
In retrospect, it’s not difficult to see why Claremont and Larocca’s run has passed into history fairly unnoticed. Although his series finale works well as a postscript to the Heroes Reborn era, the series’ main contributions to the lore were to introduce Alyssa Moy (who was given a near-total makeover when she returned in the Millar/Hitch run) and to introduce Valeria, who was eventually replaced by her own infant self when Carlos Pachecho and Jeph Loeb were writing the book. Hardly broad strokes. Still, there are some good ideas in there, and if nothing else, it’s consistently a good-looking book, even if the writing is uneven. It might not be a hidden gem, but the finale plotline, at least, is worth a look. Just avoid everything before #24 and you’ll be fine.