It’s monkeys, M.O.D.O.K. and misadventure on the island of Puerto Rico for Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman this June when writer Tom Beland and artist Juan Doe release their latest Marvel one-shot, “Fantastic Four in… Ataque Del M.O.D.O.K.”
Known for his autobiographical series “True Story Swear to God,” Beland first teamed with Doe and the Fantastic family three years ago in the December 2007 48-pager, “Fantastic Four: Isla de la Muerte.” The book came about after Marvel approached the writer to come up with a story focusing on the more familial aspects of the company’s first superhero team. After a few failed pitches, Beland came up with an idea during the San Sebastian Festival in Puerto Rico, where he currently resides. Noticing the rocky Thing resembled the historical El Morro fort, Beland pitched an idea focusing on Ben Grimm vacationing every year to the island for a huge party in his honor-without telling the rest of the team where he was going. Like any family, Reed, Sue and Johnny eventually became too curious and ended up following The Thing to his vacation destination, leading to all sorts of Hell breaking loose.
The book sold extremely well and even made comic book history as the first Marvel title to be released bilingually in both Spanish and English. Marvel asked Beland for more and he came up with other ideas that sent the various members of the family on their own Puerto Rican adventure. Last year’s “Bahia de los Muertos” saw Johnny Storm teaming up with Spider-Man and this year’s “Ataque Del M.O.D.O.K.” finds Reed and Sue on a second honeymoon of sorts in the town of Ponce. However, like an episode of “Johnny Quest” -which Beland admitted was a huge influence on the tone of his FF stories -the happy couple somehow manages to find evil to battle even while trying to get some rest and relaxation.
Part of the fun Beland had writing the previous Fantastic Four stories was the ability to draw from real-life aspects of Puerto Rican history and culture. Beland continues this tradition in “Ataque Del M.O.D.O.K.” “There’s this really big problem with monkeys in Ponce,” Beland told CBR. “Originally they were used for testing and then they just bred like no tomorrow, so they have a lot of monkeys on that part of the island. So we deals with that issue. There’s also a huge refinery explosion that really happened here. It actually showed up on the Richter scale, it was so big. It was so big that it shook our house when the place blew. Tthey never found out what caused it, so I pulled that moment into the book as well and we explain that.”
The writer also created a brand new Puerto Rican superhero named El Vejigante, a character based on traditional costumes of the same name worn during the Festival of St. James. “Every year, they have these huge celebrations on the island with handmade costumes. They put a lot of work into those things. So we’re taking one of those costumes and we’re making it into an actual character for Marvel,” explained Beland. “He’s not quite a spirit and he’s not quite a human. He’s in between. There’s a long line of Vejigante who live to protect the people on the island. They cannot leave the Puerto Rican soil. He’s like a mix between a Spider-Man and Daredevil, an agile guy. His back-story is cool so I’m not going to say much. But there’s definitely a reason to why he’s doing what he’s doing.”
Beland will use the new one-shot to finally explain why Reed Richards named himself Mr. Fantastic, something that made little sense given his stretchy with his super powers. “There’s a Norm MacDonald bit where he talks about how everyone else had the most obvious name except Reed,” Beland explained. “Johnny is the Human Torch. Ben is the Thing. Sue is the Invisible Girl. Then Reed because he can stretch called himself Mr. Fantastic. It’s such a weird choice for a name instead of Rubber Guy or Stretching Guy. So, you find out in this book why he chose that name.”
Of course, there is also the villain M.O.D.O.K., the bigheaded, tiny-limbed Mental Organism Designed Only for Killing. However, Beland admitted he was quite unfamiliar with the character prior to “Ataque.” “I had to do research on that character and how he speaks and what he’s about, he’s such a weird character and such a goofy character,” laughed Beland. “He can’t get out of his chair. He’s got a giant head. How do you take that seriously? It took me a while to get a voice for M.O.D.O.K. I sat in Starbucks for a number of days going, ‘Oh man.’ But once I started reading him I could see why people dig him. The voice I use for him is like the old grumpy guy who sat on the porch. Some old, pissy grandpa guy.”
Although it took him a while to discover an approach to writing M.O.D.O.K., Beland said writing the members of the Fantastic Four came almost like second nature to him, and not only because he’s been reading their comics since he was 7 years-old. “Since day one, they love each other, but man they get under each other’s skin easily. They know exactly who has what buttons to press,” he said. “In my family, I was more Johnny Storm. I was the one who pushed everyone’s buttons. My brother was more Ben. And Sue is just like my sister. My sister is glue that holds everything together. She’s the person you go to when you have a problem. She’s the one I go to when a book comes out and I want to show her something. She’s very much the mom of our family, especially since we lost our parents so long ago. So, in that sense, I totally understand the Johnny-Susan relationship. It’s really fun writing Sue. I had a great time writing her. I think a lot of times she’s sort of glossed over as being Reed’s wife.”
Reed proved a little more difficult to write than the other members of the family because of the whole super genius thing. But Beland said he found a way to make the character work toward his own strengths. “When I try to think of gizmos and science stuff, I usually have to go to Tech.com and see what people are saying,” laughed the writer. “But I am someone who totally loves his wife and I can relate to that instantly. So in this book it’s more about Reed and Sue being married than Reed being the incredible genius. There’s actually a sense of humor in Reed that you don’t get to see quite often. I think they sometimes make him a little too stiff. And I think when you’re a couple that’s been together as long as they have been together, you really have to have a sense of humor about things. And in this book I try to show that.
“I always thought that if there’s one thing that really get under Reed’s skin, if there’s one thing that bugs him the most, it’s that no matter who flies that Fantasticar, it gets totaled,” Beland continued. “He’s giving the keys to the car out and he’s like, “Okay fine, take it out. But please don’t get it blown up because I’ve got to put it back together again.’ Even when he takes it out with Sue it’s like, ‘Oh no. The turbines are gone,’ and they crash. For a genius, he’s always making this ship that’s easily explodable. I had to make up a thing called the Reed-boot that puts it back together all on its own.”
Beyond the fun of the story itself and writing characters he loves, there were a number of other elements at work in Beland’s set of Fantastic Four books – not the least of which is his artistic partner, Juan Doe. “His style is just so much fun. When you try to put it in a box, it kind of jumps out of the box,” said Beland. “His style, you think it’s cartoony and then you look at his backgrounds and it’s not. You think they’re kind of simplistic and they don’t have detail, but then there’s a lot of detail in them. It’s a weird thing. You can look at his pages and you’ll see new stuff that you haven’t seen before. What he does on a Wacom tablet is just mind blowing.”
Of course, the most fun for Beland came from the little things that working on a comic book lets you get away with. Members of Beland’s family often appear in his autobiographical “True Story” series simply by nature of the story. However, “Ataque” lets him use them in an entirely different and fun way. “I kill off all my family and friends in the opening sequences,” said the writer. “Whenever someone dies, it’s always someone in my family. I have a waiting list of people I can kill off in a comic.”
“Fantastic Four in… Ataque Del M.O.D.O.K.” flies into stores June 3 from Marvel Comics.