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Greatest Spider-Man/Fantastic Four Stories: #3

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Dating back to the very first issue of Amazing Spider-Man, Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four have been intrinsically linked as allies, adversaries and frenemies. With the Fantastic Four starring in their own movie this summer, superiorspidertalk.com is taking a look at the 10 very best Spider-Man/F4 stories.

Here’s #3:

Uncles 03“Uncles” — Fantastic Four #588 (published April 2011): script by Jonathan Hickman; pencils and inks by Mark Brooks

A distinct difference between the Silver Age origin tales of Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four is the mood and tone of the two stories. Both books star normal people who became super powered thanks to an unexpected dose of radiation. But the Fantastic Four, under the guise of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, quickly settled into a quirky scifi series about a tight-knit (but constantly bickering family) using their odd powers to explore new worlds and creatures, while Spider-Man, led by Lee and the more cynical Steve Ditko, featured a protagonist who is thrust into action after his arrogance directly led to tragedy.

In short, the two books demonstrate the difference between a glass half empty and a glass half full approach to superhero-dom. Even with so many early FF stories focusing on Ben Grimm’s misery of being the orange rock Thing, the series is far more optimistic and curious than Spider-Man, who in nearly every single issue of his series, confronts the guilt he feels for his Uncle Ben’s death.

One of the main reasons I find the short story “Uncles” so wonderful is how it brings together the inherent tones of these two books and integrates the traditional sadness and guilt found in Spider-Man stories with the youthful optimism of exploration and discovery of the Fantastic Four. Published as the backup tale in the first “final issue” of the Fantastic Four, four years ago during the aftermath of Johnny Storm/Human Torch’s death, “Uncles” is probably as intimate of a story one can find scripted by Jonathan Hickman – a writer who is filled with big visions, but who also sometimes becomes a little disengaged from the emotional core of his characters and readers.

Uncles 02“Uncles” is only a few pages long, and only features two characters – Spider-Man and the young Franklin Richards (child of Reed and Sue) — but it carries a ton of emotional weight while resonating for anyone who ever lost a loved one and feels partly responsible for their death.  It’s a shockingly complex (and realistic) examination of grief that is mournful, optimistic and pragmatic all at once. It acknowledges the initial pain someone feels, followed by the eventual acceptance of someone’s death. But it also doesn’t sugarcoat or mince words in terms of a person’s ability to fully move on from grief. Because in real life, the loss of a loved one tends to stay with us, one way or another. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

The story centers on Spider-Man attempting to comfort Franklin who is still devastated by Johnny’s death at the hands of the Annihilation Wave. Franklin partially blames himself for what happened to Johnny since he and the other Future Foundation kids were screwing around with the Baxter Building’s Negative Zone portal which inevitably led to Annihilus’s attempt to siege the building and Earth. Johnny seals the portal from the inside, leaving himself to presumably die at the hands of Annihilus’s army (reports of his death would naturally be greatly exaggerated).

Spidey, while sharing a couple of dirty water New York City hot dogs with Franklin (which he humorously makes the kid partially pay for since Spider-Man is perpetually broke), tells the child that he KNOWS when he was younger that he could have done something to save a person he loves. When Franklin follows up with “why not,” Spidey proceeds to explain the idea of “with great power must also come great responsibility.”

Something that’s pretty neat about the presentation of Spider-Man’s wisdom here is how he tells Franklin that Uncle Johnny would have wanted him to use his great powers for the benefit of others in need. I’m not sure if this was an intentional choice from Hickman, but it comes across as a nod to those who have mistakenly always cited Uncle Ben as the originator of “with great power …” when in reality the author of the mantra is Stan Lee (a couple of story retcons, as well as the Ultimate Universe, would eventually make the claim that it was advice Uncle Ben had given Peter in the past). In terms of the overall flow and impact of “Uncles,” it’s really a minor detail but it’s something that I found to be a smart choice from the creative team as it pays homage to one of the greatest final lines of text in a superhero comic book ever.

Uncles 01In the broader context of the Fantastic Four narrative, “Uncles” also expertly sets up the next stage of stories in Hickman’s run – namely the FF books that took the place of Fantastic Four until it was time to publish the milestone Fantastic Four #600.  While Marvel would inevitably shoehorn Spider-Man onto the Future Foundation because it was something Johnny apparently requested before his death, “Uncles” makes his role with the family read as being far more authentic. Spider-Man is the logical choice to suit up with Reed, Sue, Ben and the kid because he has a history with these characters that allows him to relate and interact with them on a level that very few other characters can. Considering the premise of the Future Foundation was to groom the kids as the next generation of heroes, it makes sense to have someone like Spider-Man on board because he clearly knows how to talk and relate to young heroes.

Reading “Uncles” makes me wish that FF focused more on Spider-Man and the remaining F4 members coaching the kids and helping them to move past their grief for Johnny and become better heroes for it in the end. As entertaining as Hickman’s stories about multiple Reeds or Valeria’s deals with Doctor Doom, I think a story that truly focused on the “future” of Marvel would have been far more compelling (and also would have utilized Spider-Man far better than what FF ended up doing).

Alas, that was not the case, but at least “Uncles” delivered in a way that only a small smattering of Spider-Man or Fantastic Four comics have ever delivered. Yes, there is something truly uplifting and fantastical about the superhero genre, but part of what makes the Marvel Universe so unique is how in touch it is with the emotional side of its characters. “Uncles” both brings a tear to the eye and a smile to the face of its reader while continuing to tease a whimsical future starring people with over-the-top powers using them for the good of humanity.

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