An Appreciation of Chris Claremont’s Fantastic Four

This post is part of Fantastic Adventure, How to Love Comics’ celebration of the Fantastic Four’s 60th anniversary. Find out more and read other posts in this series.

I’m going to start by telling you something about myself that has nothing to do with comics, and I promise it will be relevant later. When I put the Glen Hansard/Marketa Iglova movie Once on to watch with my wife, I was convinced it had a happy ending. I had seen it before; she had not. At the end of this essay, I’m going to have to spoil that movie for you.

Over sixty years, the Fantastic Four have been written by a wide assortment from Marvel’s bullpen, some becoming legend, others forgotten or standing as odd footnotes. One of the less celebrated runs is Chris Claremont’s, which ran from Fantastic Four (1998 series) #4-32 (including Annuals 1999 and 2000). I say less celebrated – no one is mentioning it in the same breath as Lee and Kirby, despite Claremont’s pedigree – but it’s fascinating nevertheless, especially in its second half, when Valeria von Doom is introduced.

Then and now, Claremont was most associated with the X-Men and its many spinoff titles. He wrote the Uncanny X-Men for a whopping 17 years (starting in 1975), building off the “new X-Men” introduced by Len Wein in Giant-Size X-Men #1. Over that time, he introduced Kitty Pryde, Emma Frost, Rogue, the Phoenix Force, Sabretooth, the New Mutants, and Rachel Summers and the dystopian future of Days of Future Past. He didn’t create Wolverine, but he gave us Wolverine as we know him now – tough as nails, old as dirt, constantly holding himself in check. Just as importantly, he pioneered the multi-titled crossover that has become synonymous with superhero comics.

This is exactly why I found Claremont’s FF so fascinating when it came out. This was one of Marvel’s best and most famous writers, but he worked in a well-defined niche. There’s something inherently interesting here, like hearing Frank Miller was going to write Dr Strange, or that Bob Dylan had released an album of David Bowie covers.

The differences between the teams are stark. The X-Men were grim, brooding, and badass before the 90s made that a whole thing. They were outsiders, often treated not just as outlaws or terrorists but as innately untrustworthy because of their mutant birth. They had an enormous cast – dozens of characters have been members of the X-Men or the New Mutants. The Fantastic Four, though? One book, sometimes two if The Thing had a solo title or the Human Torch had half of Strange Tales. A stable cast of four members. And far from outsiders, they’re a genius family of beloved science cops who don’t even have masks or secret identities.

Fantastic Four (1998 series) #19 page by Salvador Larroca.
Fantastic Four (1998 series) #19 page by Salvador Larroca.

Claremont emphasizes the similarities rather than reinvent the FF as a family of persecuted refugees. Both teams invest in family dynamics – literally in the FF’s case, figuratively in the X-Men’s. Additionally, Claremont creations like the Phoenix Force, the Shi’ar, the Starjammers, and the Technarchy had given the X-books a more cosmic dimension that was perfectly at home with the Richards family.

To set the scene, Marvel had just concluded the ill-advised Heroes Reborn event. In 1996, many of the most popular characters, including the Fantastic Four and Dr Doom, were sent off to their own imprint overseen by Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld, artists who had left Marvel to start Image Comics four years earlier. When the Heroes Return event brought them all back, it revealed that they’d been in a pocket universe created by Franklin Richards. Doom remained missing for a couple years, having claimed the Heroes Reborn world as his own.

Now, I’m not going to tell you that Claremont’s FF is his best work ever. If you’re new to Claremont, read his first few years – maybe his first ten years! – of the X-Men, and the first few years of the New Mutants and Excalibur. His FF is a deep cut, a neglected curiosity. Keep that in mind when I mention some of the bumps in the road.

It gets off to a rough start, because Claremont (with artist Salvador Larocca) arrives on the title abruptly, beginning with #4. Scott Lobdell had written the first three issues, and the next couple issues are scripted by Claremont from Lobdell’s leftover plots. I’m sure there’s a story there, but I have no idea what it is.

Fantastic Four (1998 series) #8 spread by Salvador Larroca.
Fantastic Four (1998 series) #8 spread by Salvador Larroca.

For the first year, Claremont leans hard on characters from the X-books. The Technet, a group of interdimensional bounty hunters Alan Davis had created as Captain Britain villains, are familiar to US readers almost entirely from Claremont’s Excalibur run, and they kick things off in the first issue on which he has sole writing credit. Originally, Claremont even intended Kitty Pryde to join the Fantastic Four, and while he doesn’t go that far, he does bring in the Captain Britain Corps and Caledonia, an alternate universe version of an Excalibur supporting character. The tone is vividly Claremontian. Characters suddenly have a much greater tendency towards self-reflection and that distinct Claremont dialogue. With that comes a deep interest in the inner lives of these characters, more than you may be used to seeing when it comes to the Fantastic Four.

The run comes into its own is when Claremont focuses on more purely FF elements from a distinctly Claremontian perspective: Dr Doom, to a lesser extent Namor, and Valeria von Doom, a Claremont creation who left the biggest mark on the comics. Native to a possible future, Valeria is Franklin’s half-sister, the daughter of Sue Storm and Dr Doom sometime after the heroic death of Reed. Sure, there is an echo of Rachel Summers here, which Claremont clearly realizes – Rachel is the alternate future daughter of Jean Grey (Marvel Girl) and Scott Summers, and Valeria has taken the Marvel Girl title as her own. Rachel was introduced when Jean was believed dead, so her very existence raised questions; Valeria’s parentage is similarly fraught.

Valeria gets criticized for being Rachel in FF garb, but I think that misses the presence of an important FF trope here: the idea that Sue might be just as well suited a partner to one of the team’s enemies. That’s traditionally meant Namor, but Namor and Doom have a lot in common, especially the way they’re used in this comic. Though Namor is portrayed heroically much more often than Doom is, they’re cut from similar cloth: arrogant but generally honorable, deeply committed to the moral codes that are important to them, with little interest in what the rest of the world sees as right or wrong. (Given the writer, I’ll point out that they’re the most Magneto-like of the FF characters.) The mutual attraction and respect between Namor and Sue has been a trope of the comic for decades. While we see no hint that Sue has any attraction to Doom, the story is still an evocation of that trope: this idea that maybe in some other world, it’s not Reed Richards the absent-minded professor Sue ends up with, but a man of stronger passions.

Fantastic Four (1998 series) #22 cover by Salvador Larroca.
Fantastic Four (1998 series) #22 cover by Salvador Larroca.

Reed accepts Valeria’s identity pretty readily, which I think is the best choice narratively. It puts the emotional focus of the story on Sue, who is being asked to accept two things: that this teenager is her as yet unborn daughter, and that she or some version of her will someday marry Dr Doom in the wake of Reed’s death. Sue comes around a little too quickly for my taste, but storytelling was a little faster-paced in 1999.

Doom inevitably returns to all of this, and to Valeria’s chagrin, he doesn’t welcome her with open arms. Soon, in a story too hard to sum up here, Doom disappears again and Reed is encased in Doom’s armor – though his voice and even retinal patterns match Doom’s, which is never really explained. For all that the world knows, the man in the armor is Dr Doom, a charade Reed maintains while dealing with the threat of the forces Doom brought with him from the Heroes Reborn pocket universe. He even marries Sue, who yes, becomes the Baroness von Doom. For several issues it seems like disparate threads have come together, that this will turn out to be our explanation: it’s Reed who’s Valeria’s father, Reed posing as Doom. For a while Reed even becomes more and more Doom-like, which made realistic the idea that in the future, maybe he doesn’t even remember that he’s really Reed. But no, eventually Doom returns, Reed is de-armored, the status quo is restored.

Fantastic Four (1998 series) #27 cover by Salvador Larroca.
Fantastic Four (1998 series) #27 cover by Salvador Larroca.

Here’s the thing, Valeria’s origins are never explained – the dots from these FF stories to the future in which she’s born are never connected. There are hints to her identity and later writers offer the canonical explanation, but Claremont himself never resolves it. I’ve always suspected that his original intention was to build on that Reed-as-Doom story, but just as I wonder about Claremont’s abrupt arrival on the title, I wonder about his departure. At times, looking back on these two years of comics feels like stopping on a movie while channel-flipping. You missed some of it, and you don’t know how much or if it matters.

Or maybe it feels like a movie you’ve misremembered. Back to Once. It does not have a happy ending. You can argue that there’s some ambiguity in how it ends, but that’s beside the point because it isn’t what I remembered. I remembered a sweet romantic comedy that ends well for the two leads. I remembered everything else correctly – everything except the one part I must have wished was different.

To connect the dots more clearly than Claremont did: part of what I’ve always enjoyed about this story, I’ve realized, is what’s missing from it, and what I consequently imagined in order to fill those gaps. When I would think back on the story, I was always sure that Claremont had wrapped it all up and that I just couldn’t remember the details – “oh, Reed ended up in Doom’s armor … that … had something to do with it … right?” Maybe! There’s a suggestion of that story, a silhouette formed by the edges of the things surrounding it. I’m not taking anything away from Claremont by saying that one of the things I enjoy about this story is the part he didn’t include, because without the parts he did write, that silhouette doesn’t exist.

Chris Claremont’s Fantastic Four run is collected in Fantastic Four: Heroes Return The Complete Collection Volume 1 and 2 and is available from all good comic book shops, online stores, eBay, and digitally on Comixology.

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