Tom Beland talks "Fantastic Four: Isla De la Muerte"

Marvel's First Family, The Fantastic Four have explored many strange, wondrous and terrifying places in their 46-year history. This week, in the one-shot "Fantastic Four: Isla de la Muerte," writer Tom Beland ("True Story Swear To God") and artist Juan Doe take the intrepid heroes to another fascinating locale: Puerto Rico? CBR News spoke with Beland about the book.

"Isla de la Muerte" was born in 2006, when Marvel came to Beland solicited a one-shot exploring the family aspects of the Fantastic Four. "I'm sort of looked at over at Marvel as 'the relationships guy' and as 'that guy who won't adhere to the restraining order,'" Tom Beland told CBR News. "'The Fantastic Four' is really a unique book because you have so many different relationships at play in that book. You have the husband/wife, the sister/brother, the best friends, brother/brother, and they all fit within these four people."

Beland jumped at the chance to examine the relationships between the members of the FF because he's been a fan of the characters since the late '60s. "I missed the whole Jack Kirby era and I got hooked on the John Buscema/Joe Sinnott work," Beland said. "Joe Sinnott's inking was golden with Buscema's pencils. They had the Overmind, Frightful Four, Dragon Man and Gideon during that time. They also had the Silver Surfer and I fell in love with John's take on him.

"I also related to them as a family unit," Beland continued. "I had a little brother who was always trying to push my buttons and I could understand Ben's wanting to kill Johnny. I also thought Sue was hot. Not as hot as Romita's Gwen Stacy... but she was definitely a MILF."

His initial ideas for the one-shot weren't clicking, but inspiration came to Beland when he noticed Ben Grimm's resemblance to a fort located on the island of Puerto Rico, where Beland lives with his family. "I decided that Ben comes [to Puerto Rico] every year and that it's a big mystery as to why," Beland explained. "Then I added the Chupacabras for him to fight and a mystery villain who makes an appearance."

While The Thing has been visiting the island for years, he's less than thrilled to be sharing his secret vacation spot with his teammates. "Ben is idolized here on the island with a huge festival, for which he is Master of Ceremonies. But when the other three show up, everything falls apart," Beland said. "On the other hand, his teammates are stunned, each for their own reasons. Sue has the strongest reaction to the whole moment.

"There's a very wonderful scene with Sue and Ben that really reveals how she feels about him and why it's so crucial he's in her life," Beland continued. "There's actually a lot of humanity in this story."

The FF's humanity will be put to the test in "Isla de la Muerte" by an army of monstrous Chupacabras. "Their sheer numbers are intimidating," Beland said. "And there's more than one type of Chupacabra. There are small flying ones and the large tank-style versions. Plus, for some unknown reason, they can squeeze through Susan's force fields. But they're also sympathetic as the story goes on."

The Chupacabras aren't the only adversaries the FF encounter in Puerto Rico. A familiar foe also wants to ruin their tropical vacation. "I can tell you it's not Doc Doom," Beland confirmed. "It's not Dragon Man -- although I did try to find a way to get him in there! I'm a huge Dragon Man fan. But if I tell you who it is, that's going to ruin his opening line, and it's a great opening line."

The Fantastic Four are the explorers of the Marvel Universe, and in that role they've quite naturally visited alien world worlds and other dimensions, but Beland believes there are some truly amazing things for the FF to experience even in a seemingly pedestrian location like Puerto Rico. "I think it's cool to see them exploring the universe, but it's also cool seeing them exploring this planet too," Beland stated. "Ben knows a lot about the island, but to the others it's something of a new world to them. Reed has studied the area, but has never been there in person, so this is like a great field trip. Susan sees it as romantic and breathtaking. Johnny, well, he sees how many truly gorgeous women live here. Johnny also has the most problems when it comes to fighting here."

As artist Juan Doe told CBR News in November, "Fantastic Four: Isla de la Muerte" is loaded to the brim with local flavor and Puerto Rican references. "But even if you've never been to the island, there's a ton of stuff to enjoy in this book," Beland said. "But for every Puerto Rican whose seen so-called Puerto Rican characters wearing sombreros and panchos and only saying the phrase, 'ay dios mio,' this is what I proudly call your redemption. When we tell you this all happens here on the island, we're not shitting you one bit.

"I remember hearing about a super book taking place in Napa, where I used to live. I bought the book, saw the location shots and the backgrounds and, I tell you, nothing looked like Napa; just generic buildings and billboards. I was bummed. I was like, 'Dude, c'mon! At least give me a vineyard!' So, for that reason, I wanted this story to feature the actual Puerto Rican locations. The plaza, Old San Juan, the rain forest, the caves, and beaches, all of it was going to be drawn and, more importantly, be recognized by whoever reads it. Making it real and believable adds so much to the reading experience."

Beland feels Juan Doe's art also amplifies the reading experience of "Isla de la Muerte." "His style is very cool," Beland said. "It doesn't really come together until the coloring stage, so his pencils will look a bit rough. He also adds some realistic elements. You have to be patient and wait for the finished work and then you're just fucking blown away. He just brought his game to this book."

Collaborating with "Isla de la Muerte" editor Alejandro Arbona also proved to be an enjoyable experience for Beland. "I can't say enough about working with Alejandro. I think editors don't get enough credit on a good book," Beland said. "We've gone over every sentence and every scene and worked and reworked it to make it great. I hope to work with him more."

Beland and Marvel want every comics fan in Puerto Rico to be able to enjoy "Isla de la Muerte" right away, including the portion of the population whose native language is Spanish. As such, a Spanish language version of the book will hit stores the same day as the English edition. "I know my relatives here are freaking out over this book," Beland stated. "They keep asking when it comes out. They don't read a lot of English and my own work is too adult for them, so it's nice to see them actually be able to read something I've written and it's in their native language."

The FF's trip to Puerto Rico takes place in sort of a nebulous continuity, and big event stories like "Civil War" and "World War Hulk" don't factor into Beland's story. "This to me is 'Fantastic Four' mixed in with some Saturday morning 'Johnny Quest' cartoon fun," Beland said. "Seriously, don't read this book until you're sitting at the table with a bowl of Captain Crunch. It has humor and it has action. You won't be seeing anyone blowing a hole through a person's chest and you won't see Iron Man being a douche bag. Of all the books at Marvel right now, this is definitely a dandelion break."


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