Kleefeld on Death, Comics and the Fantastic Four

CBR has asked Sean Kleefeld, widely regarded by the comic book community to be one of, if not the biggest Fantastic Four fans in the world, to write a guest commentary on the death in this week's "Fantastic Four" #587, the culmination of Jonathan Hickman and Steve Epting's "Three" storyline. Sean created the FFPlaza website in 1996 and maintained it as the largest Fantastic Four site for over a decade. He was soon recognized as a leading expert on the FF and was tapped to help research projects for Titan Books, 20th Century Fox and even Marvel itself. He was named Comics #1 Fan by Diamond in 2003 and currently maintains the "Incidental Iconography" column in "The Jack Kirby Collector" and published his first book, "Comic Book Fanthropology," in 2009. He can found blogging at http://kleefeldoncomics.blogspot.com.

SPOILER WARNING: The following commentary contains spoilers for "Fantastic Four" #587, in stores now.

Death, of course, is a part of life. So it should come as no surprise that artists of all sorts tap into themes of death in an effort to better appreciate and even celebrate life. Comics are no exception, and Marvel has just released "Fantastic Four" #587, featuring the death of the Human Torch. But while the death of Johnny Storm occurs here, it's the subsequent stories that will be more interesting, I think. With that said, I thought we might take some time to examine some of the previous deaths that the Fantastic Four have dealt with.

The first significant death that the FF encountered was actually Sue and Johnny's father, Dr. Franklin Storm. Interestingly, Johnny had thought he was dead before he reappeared in "Fantastic Four" #31. But just as Johnny and he were getting reacquainted after a twenty year separation, by the next issue Franklin found himself a pawn of the Skrulls, who strapped a bomb to his chest and teleported him next to the FF. Franklin threw himself on the ground to take the full brunt of the explosion and died. Susan and Johnny were naturally saddened by the loss, but took some comfort in his heroic last act, sacrificing himself for his family. Susan later named her first child after him, and in this most recent issue, we see Johnny sacrifice himself in a manner not altogether unlike his father before him.

The next notable death in the book was that of the Thing. Reed had managed "cure" his best friend, allowing Ben to change back and forth to human at will. But that altered his personality which, in turn, got him into a fight with the Hulk. One ill-timed head-turn later, and Ben was lying flat on the pavement. The tension in the book was already high and Reed declaring he couldn't detect a pulse or heartbeat on the opening splash of "Fantastic Four" #113 didn't help. There was a lot of open aggression and agitation from everyone...until Ben recovered on page eight.

This actually raises an interesting question: how do you define a comic book death? With the impending news of a death in the Fantastic Four, I've seen a number of lists over the past couple weeks highlighting previous ones. That instance, and another in "Fantastic Four" #214 where Reed, Sue and Ben allegedly die, don't actually have the characters expire. Reed is again mistakenly declared dead in "FF" #290. In these cases, the characters are simply wrong in their pronouncements, but they obviously react as if the death were real. That threat of death is brought up as a distinct possibility, but the characters' hearts don't actually stop.

Conversely, some stories where the characters were clearly pronounced dead and were in fact removed from the mainstream Marvel Universe aren't brought up in those lists. The entire team was removed from existence in Infinity Gauntlet #2 and again in Onslaught: Marvel Universe. While the former limited its impact to that specific series, the repercussions of the battle with Onslaught were felt for the next year over the course of multiple books. Of course, readers knew the heroes were alive and well in the Heroes Reborn titles, so the emotional impact on them was negligible, even though characters like Spider-Man and Ant-Man grieved.

Is that the critical factor then? The reader's emotional response? It's certainly what drew me in; Reed's mind was wiped in "Fantastic Four" #254, leaving his body still alive and intact. I was mesmerized with the prospect of one of the lead characters dying and had to find #255 to find out what happened. As a reader, I was being told the man I had just begun to know as Mr. Fantastic was dead and I came back the next month (and the next, and the next, and...) because of my emotional response to him. How would the team go on? I had to know.

Even more interestingly, that emotional response resonated even more strongly when I read about Susan's death... in "What If" #42. It was clearly set up as an alternative timeline where Sue died giving birth to her first child. If the cover, emblazoned with "What If the Invisible Girl Had Died?" didn't tip off the reader, Uatu expressly notes in the issue itself that the story is of an alternate reality. Her death had no real meaning to the reader since it didn't "count." In another sense, though, it had no meaning within the context of the story; it was just a random accident really. In part because of that, it clearly had a deeply emotional impact on the characters, and the funeral scene in that issue remains one of the most heart-wrenchingly realistic ones I've seen in comics.

It was actually not long after that issue was published where Susan experienced the miscarriage of her second child in "Fantastic Four" #267. Sue was actually fine herself, but the several issues surrounding that featured many of the characters experiencing different forms of loss. Though very tastefully and artfully executed, this likely had less of an impact on readers as they did not really have the chance to form an emotional attachment to the unborn child. It's very much a study of grief, more than an exercise in in tugging readers' heartstrings. This is evident on a smaller scale with the deaths of Tommy Hanson and Ted Bannion in #285 and #342 respectively.

(It might be worth noting, though, that through the magic of retcons, readers would indeed see that unborn child actually born years later in "Fantastic Four" volume 3 #54! Valeria has since become a vital component of the book and was one of the key movers in this week's "FF" #587.)

From a creative perspective, a character's death is only the beginning of a story. What's really intriguing and engaging, it seems to me, is what happens afterwards. How do other characters react? That's probably what was most significantly missing in "Fantastic Four: A Death in the Family." The story is an interesting one and, much like this week's issue, highlights the heroism of the Human Torch, but the particular set-up here does not really allow for any follow-through.

But on the other end of the spectrum was Mr. Fantastic's death in "FF" #381. At the end of a protracted battle with an alien, Dr. Doom uncharacteristically asked for Reed's aid, using the opportunity to apparently obliterate the both of them. While readers were naturally skeptical with this death coming with little foreshadowing, Reed remained out of continuity for over two years. This provided creators with a great deal of opportunity to explore not only character reactions, but an entirely new set of character dynamics. There was little doubt among readers that Reed wasn't actually dead during that time, but how the other characters moved on without him afforded fans a chance to see other aspects of their personalities grow.

The two most recent actual deaths in the comics are the Thing in #508 and a future incarnation of the Invisible Woman in #560. Ben's death, in fact, turned out to be a deeper exploration of the character as his teammates followed him to the afterlife to retrieve him. As a post-contemporary version of Sue was the one who died, this allowed her current counterpart to literally witness her own funeral and, to some degree, the level of love and respect she commanded from those around her. These are both a little unusual in that the emotions are specifically reflective of the character who died, and have had little impact beyond those stories.

Undoubtedly, the Human Torch will "get better." In point of fact, we don't see him actually perish in "Fantastic Four" #587 and, absent of the marketing hype, I think there would be an inherent assumption among readers that he didn't. That we're less than a year away from two milestones (the book's 50th anniversary shortly followed by what could be their 600th issue if they pick up the historical numbering) only underscores the probability that the whole team will be reunited soon. But in the interim, readers will certainly see stories of the remaining members trying to carry on without Johnny's presence. Whether (or, more to the point, when) we see him again is not the most interesting story here; it's what happens in his absence.

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