It appears that the Invisible Woman is on Death Row again. Marvel’s been making a fairly big deal out of Jonathan Hickman and Steve Epting’s forthcoming Fantastic Four story arc “Three,” in which one of the long-running superhero team will die for realsies, and they’ve been understandably hush-hush about which one. This week’s Fantastic Four #582 doesn’t give it away, although there are a couple of pages in which not just mortality but utter nonexistence is alluded to by way of everything on the page fading to pure empty white–invisibility, get it?
(That’s a trick that’s turned up in comics before–in the mid-’90s Zero Hour-associated conclusion of the original Legion of Super-Heroes continuity as well as a few earlier issues of Legion, in the leap to DC’s “One Year Later” gimmick a couple of years ago, even as recently as the great fakeout death scene in Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour. But it works: it’s always effective, and so natural a visual metaphor it seems always to have existed.)
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Open another one of this week’s Marvels, though, and there’s a house ad for Fantastic Four #583: a great big “3” in the background, Mr. Fantastic and the Thing and the Human Torch wearing “3” insignias in place of the usual 4, and… no visible woman. It’s not the first time in the last few years that Susan Richards has been scheduled for the chop: there was that Fantastic Four: A Death in the Family one-shot in 2006 (in which the Invisible Woman’s death was not exactly avoided but relegated to another one of the branching paths of possible history), and then Mark Millar’s “The Death of the Invisible Woman” storyline in 2008 (in which she did indeed die, but it was a future version who’d come back to the present day), and now, apparently, this.
What “this” is is the latest in a long line of attempts to stand up to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the invincible, unforgiving fathers of the Fantastic Four family, or perhaps to honor them by, however briefly, taking a path that isn’t theirs, although everyone knows that all of the FF’s roads lead back to them. Of all the big superhero franchises, none are quite so haunted by the specter of their creators as the Fantastic Four. As Lee and Kirby established the FF, their premises are inflexible: they’re a family. They’re explorers. They have adventures together. The Thing, the Invisible Woman, the Human Torch and Mr. Fantastic are respectively earth, air, fire and water. If you stick to those axioms, you’re not just making a Fantastic Four story, you’re making one in the Lee/Kirby tradition (the fact that they collaborated on more than a hundred straight issues means they established that tradition pretty firmly). If you ignore any of those axioms, then it’s not really the Fantastic Four any more, and the question becomes how, and how quickly, it’s going to get back to being the “real” Fantastic Four.
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Superhero serials demand at least the illusion of change, though, and Hickman’s comics generally suggest that he’s more interested in expanding tradition or riffing off of it than in working directly within it (as, say, Mark Waid and John Byrne did in their fine FF runs, and as Millar did too, for all the souped-up surface affect of his run with Bryan Hitch). The most obvious way to say “this isn’t your granddad’s Fantastic Four” is to change part of the premise: what if there were… three of them? (Actually, that’s been done before too, back when Mr. Fantastic was spending a few months dead for sales-boosting purposes.) Or five? (No, that’s also been done.) Or what if one of them were replaced by someone else? (Oh–Lee and Kirby did that the first time around.)
It’s necessary for gifted creators to rebel against the traditions of long-running serials once in a while, just to prevent them from stagnating. Sometimes those rebellions even take; Walt Simonson’s Thor, for instance, wasn’t much like Lee and Kirby’s, and Ed Brubaker (with Epting and others) has effectively turned Captain America into something of his own. And if anybody’s ever going to be able to unseat Stan and Jack as the unofficial fifth and sixth members of the Fantastic Four, Hickman’s got a decent chance; his fascinating interview at Comics Alliance last week suggests that he’s got broad plans or the series. But he’s also writing the only superhero team series whose lineup is effectively immutable. Susan Richards isn’t even dead yet, and it’s already almost too easy to figure out when she’s going to be back (Fantastic Four #600 is a bit over a year away). She can’t stay out of the series for long. Without her, there’s no air.