Marvel Comics’ “Fantastic Four” routinely face off against genius would-be-world-conquerors, hostile alien races, and ultra-powerful cosmic entities capable of wiping out planets. So they’re used to the odds being against them.
Though it’d be hard for anyone to properly prepare for the current challenge facing the First Family of the Marvel Universe, as they’re coping with a clandestine alliance between three powerful enemies, while trying to find a cure for a mysterious disease that’s killing them.
This challenge started under writer Matt Fraction, but Karl Kesel is on board with this week’s issue #13. Kesel’s writing a four-issue arc that will wrap the titular’s team’s road trip through space and time, and — as revealed this past weekend at New York Comic Con — will bring the book’s current volume to a close. CBR News spoke with Kesel, who wrote the book for a couple of short runs in 2002 and 2004, about returning to “Fantastic Four.”
CBR News: So Karl, this is the third occasion where you’ve come aboard “Fantastic Four” for another brief stint. How does that feel? Is it a sort of “Always the bridesmaid” type of thing? Or is it more that Marvel views you as a veteran relief pitcher for one of their biggest franchises?
Karl Kesel: It might be a little bit of both. [Laughs] I would certainly enjoy a longer stint, but I understand that you have to get names on these titles that will generate sales and perhaps my name is not one of those.
I’m also very touched and flattered whenever Tom Brevoort or anyone calls me to work on the Fantastic Four. The characters are very close to my heart. So I never say no. It’s always an honor and always a lot of fun to work on the book. I jump at the chance.
What makes the Fantastic Four as a group and individuals so endearing and interesting to you?
The thing I like most about them is that you can do anything with them. They can handle Daredevil or Spider-Man-style street-level crime, and then you’ve got Galactus on the other, far end of that spectrum. Plus, you’ve got the whole gamut in between. I’m very attracted to concepts like that where can do any sort of story you want to tell.
Individually the characters can have smaller more personal stories and then you can get them together and they can literally go to war. So what’s not to like about that?
Reed and Sue’s children Franklin and Valeria are also part of the story you’re taking over. Did you get a chance to explore these two characters in your previous “Fantastic Four” runs?
Yes and no. Quite honestly, Franklin was an important player in the “Fantastic Four Annual” I did in 1998. The story featured him both as a child and an adult in an alternate reality. Plus, I wrote the issues were Val was named and born. So she didn’t have a big role there, but it was an important moment for her.
I think what writer Jonathan Hickman did with both characters was astounding. I certainly enjoy playing with them, but you’re not going to see anything on the level of what he did with the characters from me. Hickman was an impossible act to follow. I really did pity Matt Fraction. [Laughs]
Rounding out the character dynamics of the story you’re picking up is an older and more eccentric Johnny Storm. What do you feel he adds to the story?
I know Matt has described him as the crazy old uncle and he really is. Figuring out the chronology of these events and how they all fit together has been interesting. The Old Johnny that appears in “Fantastic Four” is actually quite a bit younger than the Old Johnny that appears in the “FF” book. “FF” deals with old Old Johnny, while I end up dealing with the younger Old Johnny quite a bit in my four issues.
He hasn’t quite gone through the wringer that the older Johnny has, which is a lot of what had made him crazy old Uncle Johnny.
Let’s move from characters to your story, which is kind of unique since you’re working from Matt Fraction’s outlines. His last issues of “FF” and “Fantastic Four” suggest that both books are going to have some strong connections. Does your story have definite ties to the “FF” book?
Yeah, there certainly is give and take between the two. Lee Allred, who is handling the majority of the writing chores on “FF,” and I have been exchanging ideas and reading each other’s scripts. It’s the most enjoyable creative give-and-take I’ve had since my days writing “Adventures of Superman.”
It also feels like Matt has set you up to tell a story full of big emotional and action packed moments.
Yeah, in a way what Matt did was he set up this Thanksgiving-style feast, but what’s exactly in that feast was really left up to me and Lee. So while I’m certainly following his outline, and there’s a lot of good points of interest and direction in there, there are some places where the outline didn’t go in a direction I felt comfortable with. Tom Brevoort listened to my arguments in those cases and some times he said yes and sometimes he said no.
How much story time passes between the end of “Fantastic Four” #12 and the beginning of your first issue #13? What kind of shape are your protagonists in when the story begins?
They’re in a pretty bad place, Dave. [Laughs] They’re powers and bodies are falling apart. It’s really not a good time for them. When dealing with ongoing characters like these that have been around for decades, I’m always hesitant to say things like, “Val and Franklin have never seen their parents this close to death,” but that’s really how I see it.
In addition to the difficulty of dealing with their own pending mortality, it looks like the Fantastic Four will also have to face a who’s who of some of their deadliest enemies. Is that correct?
Well, no Dave. [Laughs] What happened was while I was scripting issue #15 — which I know the solicits say included the Frightful Force — it wasn’t working. I talked to Brevoort about it and said, “The problem is I don’t have enough space for all of these characters.” And Tom voted on the side of a better story.
We still have Doom, Kang and Annihilus, but my original idea was going to be a lot more.
That’s still two heavy hitters from the Fantastic Four’s rogues gallery, and one huge Avengers villain.
Right, and Lee and I have been having a lot of fun working out the dynamic between those three characters. Why they are working together is a really big question that Matt had not answered.
Since your story deals with the Fantastic Four facing the evil of three great foes and the possibility of their own pending mortality, is it safe to describe it as both a tale of high adventure and family drama?
Definitely. I think the best scene I’ve done so far is in issue #14. It’s a scene where Johnny gets badly wounded and there’s a lot of emotional moments and family drama that arise from that. I was very pleased with how that came together and how it was drawn by Raffaele.
Let’s move from story into art. You’ve worked with artist Mark Bagley before as an inker, but have you worked with him as a writer?
I don’t believe so. I’ve inked him on a number of occasions here and there, but I don’t recall ever working with him as a writer before. We only got to collaborate like that for issue #13, but it was a great joy to work with him. His story telling is on point. There was one moment towards the end of issue #13 where he thought my pacing was a little off, and he was 100 percent right, too. So it’s always good to have someone who can see clearly like that.
I also got a chance to ink some of his work on “Fantastic Four.” He pencilled the cover to issue #16 and I inked it.
You mentioned an artist named Raffaele worked on issue #14. What’s his last name? And will he draw the rest of your arc as well?
Yes, issues #14-#16 are done by Raffaele Ienco. His work is very beautiful and has a European look and feel to it.
Your “Fantastic Four” run comes to an end with January’s issue #16. Do you have any other projects in the works that your fans should be on the look out for?
Things are in flux right now so I can’t really say. I know I’m being considered for a few things and we’ll have to see if any of them come together. That’s all I can say right now.
I’m having a great time working on “Fantastic Four,” though. I love these characters and enjoy any chance I get to work with them, and working off of Matt’s outline and building towards the climax that he had mapped out has been a very interesting, enjoyable challenge. It’s been fun in that it’s probably not a story I would normally think of or do. That’s what makes it so cool, though.
â€¨As a writer, I generally lean towards smaller stories. I don’t naturally think of big stories. So to be thrown into this big story has been a lot of fun because it makes me think in ways that I don’t normally think.
So in terms of scope and scale, these issues of “Fantastic Four” you’re working on are pretty colossal?
Yeah, basically all of time and reality are in jeopardy. So: pretty high stakes.
Plus, Lee and I came up with a really interesting idea bout the Negative Zone while we were figuring out how all these pieces fit together. And as far as I know, our idea is going to see print, which will make it canon. If someone looks at what we say, it could make the Negative Zone extremely important to certain people in the Marvel Universe. It certainly makes it important to Doom and Kang.