Friday, October 4, 2013

1987 and all that 015: the good son

by Matt Derman

...reading comics from the year i was born!

Fantastic Four #301 (Marvel)
by Roger Stern, Tom DeFalco, John Buscema, Sal Buscema, Glynis Oliver, John Workman

In his role as father, Reed Richards has always ticked me off.  I get that one of the key things about the Fantastic Four is that they are a family in addition to being superheroes, and this creates unavoidable conflict, since being a good superhero isn't always (or often) going to line up with being a contributing family member. That’s fine, and it’s what sets them apart from most other teams, and I wouldn't want them to lose that. The problem is that Reed regularly prioritizes the heroics over his duties as a husband and father, which is backwards and infuriating. If he’s going to try and live both lives, it seems obvious to me which should come first, but Reed’s too detached and logical and intellectual to see that he’s got it wrong. To him, taking care of his wife and/or kids is always going to be less urgent than whatever new super-threat or scientific discovery is on the horizon. I understand his point of view, that the work he does as Mr. Fantastic is on a grander, more important scale, affecting the entire world and therefore taking precedence over his family’s needs. That’s true as far as it goes, but it fails to take into account that there’s always going to be something new for Reed to do as a hero, but his chance to be a good father is limited, because whether he raises them or not, his kids are going to grow up.

Back in 1987, there was only one Richards child, Franklin. I’m not entirely positive how old he was supposed to be at the time—he was introduced almost twenty years prior, (but based on his size and the fact that he pronounces “uncle” as “unca”) I’m going to guess he’s somewhere between two and four in 'Fantastic Four' #301. It’s a raw age, too early for him to really understand the world around him. In Franklin’s mind, people either love or hate each other. There’s no space in between for the more complex emotions humans really have, because Franklin still feels things to a more extreme degree, and assumes everybody else does, too. He hasn't yet learned to think outside of himself. None of this is unusual for someone so young, but Franklin also has newly-discovered superpowers that complicate his life tremendously. When asleep, he’s able to send what he calls his “dream-self” out into the world, an incorporeal version of Franklin that can travel anywhere in an instant and even interact with the waking people there. Where he goes when he’s sleeping is not something he always has strict control over, which not only scares Franklin but his parents too. An understandable reaction, maybe, but no excuse for the way the Richards let their son feel overwhelming stress and shame over his abilities.

At the beginning of the issue, Franklin’s dream-self watches while his parents and The Thing demolish Mad Thinker’s headquarters, and he’s careful to stay hidden so his mom and dad do not notice him. Though he doesn't know why (because no one has tried to properly explain it to him), he’s aware that it upsets his parents when he uses his powers, and like any good-natured child, that last thing he wants to do is make his folks mad. So he tucks himself away in one corner of the room, remaining out of sight for as long as possible, incessantly worrying that he’ll be discovered. When he finally does reveal himself, it’s to save his father from a surprise attack, but as soon as Franklin does this totally brave and noble thing, he feels guilty about it and sends his dream-self away as hurriedly as he can. So concerned with whether or not his parents will be bothered by him using his powers, Franklin can’t even feel the tiniest amount of pride or joy when he actually accomplishes something good. That’s not even close to being a healthy outlook for such a young kid to have, terrified of himself and his family to the point of keeping even his good deeds secret.

The rest of the issue delves more deeply into Franklin’s damaged psyche, and the ways in which his parents have dropped the ball with him so far and continue to do so. He’s already a pretty severely messed up kid, basically living a double life before he’s even school-aged. And his family doesn’t make any noticeable effort to shield Franklin from their superhero activities. He doesn't come along on their adventures or anything (unless his dream-self shows up, of course), but it’s not like he’s unaware that he lives with the Fantastic Four or uninformed about what they do. That alone would probably be enough to skew his worldview, so when added to his confusing powers and the embarrassment he feels about them, the young guy’s got more than his fair share of baggage.

I singled out Reed as a shitty parent before, but Sue Richards isn't exactly on her A-game when this issue starts either. It is “mommy” about whom Franklin is primarily worried, because she’s the one who gets most frightened by his powers. “They must be bad if they upset her!” he thinks, since that’s essentially how kids operate in any situation: if it bothers mom, it has to be wrong. Instead of offering Franklin care and reassurance in the past when his dream-self had been active, Sue has evidently responded with more negative emotions, and the results are clear. Bad as that may be, Reed’s approach is many times worse, strapping a sleeping Franklin to some kind of machine in his lab in order to study the boy’s powers scientifically. So Franklin, already in an emotionally and mentally shaky state, wakes up with wires running to his head, not the most comforting environment by any stretch. Neither Reed nor Sue does anything to remedy that, though she at least acknowledges that Franklin isn't happy about it. His surrogate uncle The Thing is the one who finally points out how horrible the whole affair is, how fundamentally wrong it is for Reed to treat his child like a test subject. Even then, the Richards don’t fully acknowledge the error of their ways. It takes Franklin being kidnapped and contacting his family for help via his dream-self for them to realize how poorly they have been treating him and commit to changing the future.

The whole issue is a study of Franklin’s deep-seated problems, their causes, and (to a lesser extent) possible solutions. As such, it fills me with a lot of anxiety and anger, because Franklin is constantly nervous about something and his parents keep not helping. But I’d rather share in his awful feelings than not connect with the story at all, so it’s still a good comic, even if I didn't feel great while reading it. Tom DeFalco (working off of a plot from Roger Stern) writes Franklin as believably childish, seeing everything in very simple, black-and-white terms. Mean and nice, good and evil, wrong and right—these are straightforward concepts for him. DeFalco also does a good job with the adults, who know the world is more nuanced than Franklin can comprehend, yet have to try and answer his many questions in a way that he can grasp. As comic books often were in the 80s, the script here is at times overwritten, with characters expressing everything they’re thinking and feeling out loud (or at least in thought bubbles). It’s not terribly excessive though, and when it comes to Franklin, that amount of self-expression is welcome and necessary. In order to empathize with his internal struggles, we have to see the full extent of what he’s feeling and why, and getting to do that is worth hearing The Wizard toot his own horn for a few lines too many. What’s most satisfying about the writing, though, is how self-righteously pissed The Thing gets when reprimanding Reed for his crummy parenting. He screams and throws fists, stubbornly unwilling to hear any excuse or explanation Reed might offer in his own defense. It’s a bit intense, yes, but also appropriate considering the circumstances, and it matched my feelings perfectly in the moment.

John Buscema pencils the issue with brother Sal on inks, and they too, do their best work with Franklin and The Thing. When it comes to Franklin, they capture all of his many different blends of fear and shame. Sometimes he’s outright petrified, screaming in terror. In other places, he’s wrestling with his secrets, pretending everything is fine when inside he’s all torn up. And there are brief moments of confusion, restlessness, exhaustion, and pure sadness along the way as well, all of which are equally effective and realistic. Without the emotional range of the central character being so wide and reliable, this story would feel considerably less meaningful. It all hinges on Franklin’s depression being something the reader can relate to right away and all the way through. John and Sal make it so.

As for The Thing, he’s a character that artists usually either get spot on or screw up entirely, and the Buscema's are firmly of the former category. Beyond the detailed line-work in his rocky body, they nail his inner softy, the well-meaning and vulnerable oaf who lives inside the unbreakable shell. He’s the best member of the cast in this issue, the only one considerate enough to put Franklin’s needs first. That inner decency is evident in every panel in which he appears, not because of what he says necessarily, but because of how he looks, his carefully drawn facial cues and body language. The rest of the characters are just as well done, but The Thing stands out because he is at once the least and most human among them.

At the end of 'Fantastic Four' #301, Reed and Sue finally apologize to Franklin for their previous missteps, for making him feel like he had to lie about his powers or be afraid of them. They promise to do better moving forward, and I’d like to believe that’s true, even though other more recent comics I've read tell me otherwise. Still, for this purposes of this single issue, it’s nice to have a sense of resolution. I’m always a fan of a standalone story, so I’m glad Stern and DeFalco chose to wrap things up, however tentatively.

The heart of the issue though, and its biggest strength, is that (up until the conclusion) it focuses on the damage rather than the repairs. This isn't a “Franklin’s life gets better” tale, it’s “See how bad Franklin’s life is right now?!?” And we do see it, in all its ugliness, watching as a boy who’s barely old enough to talk attempts to hide an enormous part of himself from the people he loves most. That’s a strong hook, especially when handled with the intelligence and thoroughness of the creators involved here. Even without his parents’ minuscule first step toward redemption at the end, this would be a solid read, a complete and compelling character piece about a particularly interesting young man.

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