Hickman and Epting's Fantastic "Three"

The Fantastic Four are the Marvel Universe's premier team of explorers, having been to places both wondrous and nightmarish, yet always surviving the trip. This September, however, things change when "Three," a new arc that runs through "Fantastic Four" #583 - 588, begins. In this six part arc writer Jonathan Hickman and new series artist Steve Epting chronicle a tale of high adventure that will end tragically for one of the members of the Marvel Universe's First Family.

But before "Three" begins, Hickman has a summer of fun, big adventures planned for his protagonists. "Fantastic Four" #580 is a one-off adventure that pits the Human Torch against the villainous Arcade and "FF" 581-582 is a two part tale starring Reed Richards, Doctor Doom, the Thing and Reed's father, Nathaniel Richards. "It's actually a flashback/flashforward story chronologically starting when they are all in college and continuing far into the future. It's got an explanation of why Reed is the way that he is and why he attacks problems the way that he does; that general disconnectedness he's had over the years in regard to the world. The 'why' in relation to his process," Hickman told CBR News. "We get to see (a version of) Doom in the book for the first time and we'll also see Nathaniel Richards, now of 'S.H.I.E.L.D.' fame. If you remember, I started everything off in #570 with Reed and his dad. Now, 13 or 14 issues later, we finally get back to that [Laughs]. It's kind of a warm up for, and rolls directly into, 'Three.' It's a fun, introspective, time travel story...which are always kind of neat."

In the recent "Prime Elements" arc, the Fantastic Four explored four different, strange cities located in remote corners of the world, and in "Fantastic Four" #579, Reed Richards created the Future Foundation, a group dedicated to coming up with discoveries that will advance the future of humanity. These experiences have left the foursome energized and ready for the big adventure that is "Three."

"The characters have recommitted themselves to each other and to other various causes that they think are important to the direction of humanity. Sue is the ambassador for the underwater world. Ben has taken on some kids from deep in the bowels of the Earth. And Johnny is, well, still stuck being Johnny, but he's working on it," Hickman said. "Reed has got a rededicated mission statement and we've got all these new characters that are living in the Baxter Building that are the physical manifestation of Reed's belief in the future. So things look great - if only they were going to stay that way..."

Ever since beginning his run on "Fantastic Four," Hickman has been introducing new elements to the title and it's mythos. Over the course of the past several issues, readers have met a council composed entirely of other dimensional counterparts of Reed Richards; revisited the changed artificial planet Nu-World; visited cities located underground, underwater, on the Moon and in the Negative Zone; and been introduced to a group of youthful inventors. "Three" is the storyline where all of these elements and more start to come together.

"We see the Four Cities again. We see Nathaniel Richards again. We bring Doctor Doom back into play. We dive headfirst in the goings-on of Nu-World. A lot of little pieces that we've just kind of grazed the surface of are now going to come crashing together," Hickman explained. "So this is a story with a lot of pieces. If you've been following the story since I began it in #570, the vast majority of what we've been playing with shows up in this storyline and should bring a sense of clarity regarding my plan for the book. The 'why' of some of the things I've been doing will become pretty obvious."

The backdrop for the events of "Three" will be a war that breaks out between the Four Cities that Hickman introduced in the "Prime Elements" arc. "I went out of my way to establish that there were these four cities and they were reflective of characters that we felt like we couldn't use yet because of goings on in other places like 'Annihilation,' 'Dark Reign,' 'War of Kings,' and on...," Hickman said. "We set up a structure to reintroduce those elements, and all of that is going well, but there are other independent pieces at play as well. Specifically, the Council of Reeds who I introduced in my first arc."

"Three" may involve a lot of different elements and characters, but the spotlight of the story will indeed be on the Fantastic Four themselves. "I don't know if you've noticed or not, but I've gone out of my way to not show a whole lot of the Fantastic Four in unison. That's intentional. There's a reason for it. We've got some mail asking for some more time for Ben and some more for Sue. In 'Three,' everybody shines, but if you've been waiting for Ben and Sue moments, there certainly are plenty of them in this story," Hickman remarked. "Even with all the pieces being brought in, 'Three' is a story about the main characters, and for a while it's the last story about the four of them."

Indeed, "Three" is the "last story" about the Fantastic Four because at the end of the arc, tragedy will strike and one of the members of the Marvel Universe's First Family will no longer be with us. "The Fantastic Four aren't like a professional football team where you go out and try to logically assess the damage and, through the glory of free-agency, acquire a new wide receiver. They are a family, so if there is a piece missing, the whole is irreparably damaged," Hickman explained."So I would say, it doesn't matter who it is that dies. It will affect everybody equally. I don't think that there are any minor players in the book, regardless of how it seems like I may have written it up to this point."

The scope, scale, and aftermath of "Three" will resonate throughout the rest of Hickman's "Fantastic Four" run and in other Marvel Universe titles as well. "'Fantastic Four' has kind of been on the fringes of the Marvel Universe for a while, and that's another thing we want to accomplish with this story; to make the book matter centrally. We don't want to be this body in space that's orbiting this larger, greater body of events that are going on. We would like to be the axis of some of this stuff," Hickman stated. "The Fantastic Four should be an important book. For it to do that, it needs to emotionally resonate and it needs to have some gravity to the events that are going on. If these stories always occur in isolation, then they don't mean as much. That's one thing that we've learned over the last couple of years at Marvel."

Hickman is excited to have "Captain America" and "The Marvels Project" artist Steve Epting collaborating with him on "Three." "One of the nice things is, Steve and I live rather close to each other," Hickman explained. "So before we got started on the book, we went out to dinner and talked about where the book has been headed and where we both want it to go. I think there's a synergy here that may have been missing on the book and I'm pretty stoked that he's here."

Steve Epting is also pleased to be given the chance to draw "Fantastic Four." Throughout the course of his 21 year career drawing comics, the artist has only been given one other chance to draw the First Family of the Marvel U. "I think it was in '92, my first year working for Marvel, that I was given the opportunity to draw a few cards for that year's Marvel Card Set. One of the cards was 'The Coming of Galactus,' and I got to draw the FF for the first and only time - until now. Unfortunately, they had to be drawn so small that they would fit on a postage stamp, so I'm not sure it even counts," Epting said. "I'm really looking forward to a fun run on the book and I certainly consider it an honor to work on the book since it was the title that ushered in the Marvel Age of comics."

Though the "Fantastic Four" have been around since 1961 and have been written and interpreted by a number of talented creators, Epting and many others feel that it was Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the creators of the FF, who best defined the essential qualities of the characters. "Over the course of nearly 50 years, they have changed to reflect their times," the artist said. "But I think the essential elements of who these characters are can be found in those first 100 or so issues."

For several years, Epting drew "Captain America," a book that featured some fantastic elements, but primarily featured stories with a fairly grounded feeling to them. "Fantastic Four," though, is a book that embraces the weird, wild and high tech elements of the Marvel Universe, something that Epting admits to finding a little intimidating. "I know I don't have the imagination or creativity of Jack Kirby, who invented a whole new visual language for what far out machinery and tech might look like," the artist remarked. "'Captain America' had a more real world feel, but I'm not a stranger to drawing science fiction. There was certainly a good bit of it during my 'Avengers' run in the 90s, including 'Galactic Storm,' and it was a big part of 'Crux,' the book I drew at Crossgen. But yeah, when you're talking about the FF, living up to the over the top concepts and tech will be a challenge."

For "Fantastic Four," Epting plans on adopting an artistic style that suits the needs of each individual story. "I used quite a bit of inkwash and gray tones in the inks for my work on 'The Marvels Project,' because I felt it added to the atmosphere of the story set in the late '30s and early '40s, but I don't plan on using it on FF, except possibly for special occasions. I'll probably tighten up the inks a bit for a slightly slicker look, especially with tech stuff, but honestly I don't overthink this stuff too much. I'll work the stylistic decisions out as I'm drawing the story and go with what feels right."

"Three" promises to be a story jam-packed with a variety of elements, and Epting is enjoying the chance to bring it to life. "There will be plenty of opportunities and challenges for me. But really, it's the same for every story, no matter what it's about," Epting told CBR. "It's the artist's responsibility to convey the writer's intent as much as possible and even expand or enhance where he can."

"I'm really happy with how the book is going and everybody at Marvel is behind it and supporting it," Jonathan Hickman said. "And we have some really exciting things coming up after 'Three' as well. We're in really good shape, on target and ready for some fireworks. So, if you're not on board yet, this arc is a great chance to jump on because things are getting ready to get good."

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