Originally Published September 23, 1996
Jim Lee is sitting on a time bomb. The most second-guessed man in comic books today — and perhaps the most popular creator in the industry — just engineered the death of the Fantastic Four, the longest-running characters in the Marvel Comics Universe.
Killing a comic book character isn’t easy. Remember “The Death of Superman” hype a few years ago? Oh, he died all right. Which means he must be in Hell, because the Man of Steel is getting married in a matter of weeks.
Don’t shed many tears for the Fantastic Four, or the Avengers, Captain America and Iron Man, all of whom died this summer at the hands of supervillain Onslaught. The four are “Heroes Reborn” via the magic of Lee and his partner, Rob Liefield. Under the terms of a one-year contract with Marvel, they were charged with breathing new life — and sales — into the quartet of titles.
The mere thought of killing a Marvel character and bringing him or her back to life beyond the Marvel Universe is considered a treasonous offense by fans, who were promised by the father of these characters, Stan Lee, that relativity between all Marvel characters and their adventures is the Eleventh Commandment, “Thou shalt not screw with Marvel continuity.” At least that was the way it once worked.
But Lee questions whether the old rules should still be upheld. The adult characters in the Fantastic Four first appeared in 1961, making Mr. Fantastic, the Invisible Girl/Woman, The Thing and the Human Torch now old enough to join the American Associated of Retired Persons.
“In the original Fantastic Four, Reed Richards fought in World War II! So how old is he now?” Lee wonders. “Should Peter Parker (Spider-Man) reach 40 and develop a beer gut? These characters shouldn’t be like Archie characters who are timeless and never age.”
Marvel tried updating Spider-Man over the last few years. Peter Parker, who was bitten by a radioactive spider back in 1962, was married and an expectant father when a convoluted clone story put another man in the webslinger suit. “That was horrible,” Lee says. “It invalidated years of stories.” Fans agreed, noisily rebeling against the changes. That’s why, in a few weeks, Parker will be back in the blue-and-red Spandex for good.
So how do Lee’s re-creations of the Fantastic Four and Iron Man fare?
They’re wonderful. Great stories, strong characterizations and beautifully drawn. And coming from Mr. Media, an early skeptic of the whole concept who read his first Fantastic Four in 1965, that’s the equivalent of a standing ovation.
“People feared we would make these characters unrecognizable,” Lee says. But in reality, other creators had already done that. Daredevil in a yellow costume? Daredevil in armor? Captain America a traitor? Tony Stark/Iron Man as a teen-ager? As Lee puts it, “They were moving away from what made these characters unique.”
Lee says that the new world of the FF, Avengers, Iron Man and Captain America isn’t really separate from the universe they once inhabited alongside Spidey and the X-Men. He refers to it as a “pocket universe” and says plainly these characters will be reunited with the rest of Marvel’s cast. But first, he and Liefield will have some fun.
For example, there are incredible Hulks running around both universes, an issue that must be resolved. “Our Hulk is enormous and he’s a walking furnace,” Lee says. “When other characters touch him, they get radiation burns.” Dr. Strange, who travels the astral plane, will be first to discover the “pocket” universe, followed by the Watcher, Galactus and the Silver Surfer. Then there’s the issue of Franklin Richards, who was left an orphan when his parents, Sue and Reed Richards, were killed.
“Sue Storm (nee Richards) will hear a voice in the Baxter Building and, in a ‘Shining’ moment, see a boy standing there,” Lee reveals. “She doesn’t know she has a kid. At first she thinks it’s a dream. We’re not saying that the 400 previous issues of the Fantastic Four didn’t happen.”
Slowly but surely, the “Heroes Reborn” characters will encounter the rest of the Marvel Universe and experience deja vu, sensing they’ve shared adventures before. But Lee won’t say when, exactly, the two universes will become one again, only that it will occur, hence the famed Marvel continuity will remain intact.
As for Lee, 31, he’d be having a big year even without the Marvel books. This month, for example, the comic book industry magazine Wizard published an entire special issue devoted to Lee, who first became a fan favorite as penciler on The Uncanny X-Men. In 1992, he gave up drawing his childhood favorites and became a co-founder of Image Comics. At Image, his WildStorm Studio produces as many as 15 monthly titles, including bestsellers such as WildC.A.T.s, StormWatch, Gen13 and DV8. In addition, he just launched an independent company, Homage Comics, which publishes prestige titles such as Strangers in Paradise, Kurt Busiek’s Astro City and Leave it to Chance.
But don’t look for Lee’s name under the Homage imprint any time soon.
“I’ve got a few more slugfests before I get to that point,” he says, laughing. “Besides, if I did do work under the Homage label, it would be page after page of a guy sitting around the house, thinking.”