If Fantastic Four Was an EC Comic
by Travis Hedge Coke
In 1994, the Fantastic Four returned to television with a new cartoon, fifteen years since the last, a Thing-only program that shared the bill with Barney Rubble and Fred Flintstone, itself a year after the last to have the team name. The show was met with mixed reviews, skewing to the negative with the first of the two seasons, and is more aptly written about elsewhere, by others.
Marvel published a comic concurrent with the TV series, Marvel Action Hour, Featuring the Fantastic Four, which ran for eight monthly issues, mostly written by Joey Cavalieri and drawn by Alcatena, retelling, in remix fashion, a handful of stories from the first year of the original Stan Lee/Jack Kirby Fantastic Four from 1961. Dialogue often hews particularly close to that from the original issues, while taking in later changes, scenes, and characters, to fit both Galactus and Dr Doom into the origin of our heroes’ super powers, and introducing early, the Skrull spy, Lyja, created by Paul Ryan and Tom DeFalco in the early 1990s.
The most dramatic change, both from the original comics and the television program, is that Alcatena used his considerable talents to render the series, visually, as a haunting, intense, grotesque and beautiful homage to classic EC Comics of the horror and crime varieties. The comic, with its borrowed 1960s dialogue and ’80s cartoon series’ stylings became a tempest of Johnny Craig and Al Feldstein monsters and gothic line work, cranky, terribly alive faces and brutality, the world swirling in a mess, young, blind women topless sitting in wait for their step-father who will dress them in another woman’s clothes to mislead her family.
Marvel Action Hour, Featuring the Fantastic Four is one of those rare, effortful comics that makes me truly wonder if the talent misapprehend what their ostensible preteen audience want in a comic, or if they really know something I, as an adult, have forgotten.
The book failed to find a substantial audience, and is largely forgotten even among Fantastic Four aficionados. While there were reprints of the comics the run emulated, they were niche within niche products, pricey or run in black and white on the cheapest paper. A Comics Code approved series, it skirted that so many ways I am unsure how it passed. Mature in ways that are not all that mature. As adult as a fifteen year old getting away with it.
There is sweetness in Alcatena and Cavalieri’s homages, and pinch-hitting penciller, Enrique Villagran, balancing a tone and style for kids and for adults, but Featuring the Fantastic Four is like no other Fantastic Four comic. It is certainly unlike the cartoon which is was designed to promote. Joe Andreani saturates the pages in the moodiest color palettes. While color and hatching which may only echo the Stephen Bissette/John Totleben/Tatjana Wood Swamp Thing of the 1980s, both comics have John Costanza lettering. Costanza had been working in comics since 1965, having lettered Fantastic Four and Silver Surfer: The Ultimate Cosmic Experience in the ’70s, Crisis on Infinite Earths and The Dark Knight Returns in the ’80s, and drawing Heathcliff, Roger Rabbit, and The Simpsons comics.
A comic which manages to make Ben Grimm’s transformation into the Thing new and upsetting! That presents an ethereal Silver Surfer with real gravitas! A terrifying Puppet Master! I mean, a genuinely real creepy Puppet Master, a character who vacillated between comedic and almost harmless for decades. A Namor who looks confident as hell!
Even when this comic retells a classic Fantastic Four story, it does so with a completely different tone and style, encompassing so much of a history of comic book aesthetics into something which does not feel academic or cheapened. Many retellings of older comics, like many comics adaptations of cartoons, are simplified, drained of vitality and pacing, and Featuring the Fantastic Four is vigorous. It has its own vibrancy, its own intensity and immersive, haunting, energetic quality. This is not a substitute for the cartoon or the original comics.
Marvel Action Hour Featuring the Fantastic Four has not been reprinted, it is not in print, it has not and is not collected into a trade paperback or even a little digest which would fit in a purse or a kid’s backpack. It should be.
If Fantastic Four @as an EC Comic