Jonathan Hickman Explains the Fantastic Four Death and What Comes Next
A member of the Fantastic Four died today in Fantastic Four #587, the latest issue of the comic written by Jonathan Hickman with art by Steve Epting. As fans have been reacting to the news of the casualty all morning, ComicsAlliance editor-in-chief Laura Hudson had a chance to talk with Hickman about why this particular character ended up on the chopping block, his thoughts on the spoilers that hit the mainstream media this morning, and what the future may hold for the remaining characters — and the issue that could have been #600. SPOILERS FOLLOW.
Jonathan Hickman: It was part of the initial pitch, Laura. Everything that I’ve changed about my pitch since I gave it to [Executive Editor] Tom [Brevoort] has been additive, not subtractive, so it’s grown organically out of the telling. What changed are things like Nathaniel Richards becoming more prominent, or the Doom thing I have coming up that grew out of me writing one scene. Everything in there from the beginning, including the death of Johnny Storm, were all part of the larger story that I laid out for Tom when I got the job. I actually read the article that David [Uzumeri] did, where he gets that it’s Johnny and why — and my point is that it’s all in there. From day one, we were leading to this, and I guess when you work as far out as I do it’s pretty easy to see future events and scenes. He certainly picked up on the relevant and poignant parts that lead to this.
CA: Yeah, it was funny – David pitched that story to me last week, and said that he felt sure enough that it was Johnny that he wanted to write the feature in advance. I said that if he was that confident to go for it, and crossed my fingers.
JH: I don’t know that anyone would have seen it coming if we hadn’t telegraphed that there was a death coming. This whole thing has been an interesting kind of experiment. What the greater benefit? A ton of people buying your book, or people not knowing what’s coming in the story? There are pluses and minuses to both sides. In this instance I believe that we won because I think the job we’re doing on the FF, especially Steve [Epting] and Paul [Mounts] on the art, deserve to be seen by more people. And I’m perfectly OK with what we’ve done.
CA: There has been some backlash from fans about the spoiler of Johnny’s death hitting mainstream media outlets this morning. Do you feel like the visibility that this gives the comic outweighs the effect of the spoiler?
JH: I do feel that way, but I also think the day we said “someone in the Fantastic Four is going to die,” the day we conceded that point — in today’s society there’s no such thing as compartmentalized information. It was never not going to get spoiled. The fact that we held it as long as we did is a testament to two things: the wonderful job that Marvel’s marketing department did keeping things as tight-lipped as they did, and also the story that I told. I gave you peril in every character’s story, and you never knew [which one was going to die] until this month. If you read it and dissect it the way that David [Uzumeri] did, yes, you have a much better chance of figuring it out. But I think we left enough people in the dark.
CA: I think it’s been an interesting reflection of how spoilers function right now in comics culture. There’s a lot of nostalgia about the days when people only learned about deaths and plot twists when they read the book, but with the internet it’s really hard to have that experience and to prevent information from getting out. Do you think the culture of spoilers is fundamentally changed in comics, that it can never be that way again?
JH: It is my belief that if you want something to be a surprise you have to tell no one. And you have to get them on the first day. Other than that, it’s only a true surprise — the ending of a movie is only a true surprise if you tell someone, don’t market it, and see it on opening night. Otherwise, the chances of it being ruined for you grow exponentially every day. We just have to accept that this is the world that we live in, and stop writing stories that are only about reveals, and make them more about stories that unfold. Which is why I’m OK with people knowing that a character dies. And I’m OK with them knowing who it is now, because we’re not done. It’s part of the journey and the greater story. I’d like to think that I’m embracing the way you have to tell stories nowadays rather than trying to desperately hold on to what I consider to be an outdated mode of storytelling.
CA: Johnny’s the one member of the Fantastic Four not to die or take an extended leave of absence before. How influenced were you by book history when you made the decision that his character would die, and how much of it was simply the momentum of the story you were telling?
JH: It doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that he’s the only one who hasn’t, because I didn’t consider Susan Storm to actually have died. I had just finished reading everything, and I had glossed really quickly over when Reed did, so in my mind that wasn’t a consideration at all. The reason why it’s Johnny is because he’s thematically relevant to the story I’m telling. If you’ve been reading the book, you know that Reed believes that the world we live in is not the world that we have to have. He’s trying to create the world as it could be, and Johnny is a child of that. He’s optimistic and he believes in tomorrow; he’s the uplifting character. To increase tension and create better story, it’s Johnny who has to go. It makes what Reed wants to do even more difficult.
CA: How is his death going to affect the family dynamic of the team?
JH: I think it’s going to affect them greatly, and as with death, it will affect them all in different ways. Is it possible that a character will laugh about it because they want to spend more time thinking about how Johnny made them feel when he was alive? Absolutely. Is it possible someone will be angry about it because they feel like it’s their fault. Absolutely. We’ll try to deal with it in as realistic a way as possible, but because it’s not the real world we’ll try to do it in a hyper-dramatic way.
CA: When you first started your run on Fantastic Four, you said you had a plan that would take the book up to issue #600. With the renumbering that is going to follow this issue [starting over at #1] is that still the case, or has that changed?
JH: Let me answer you like this. Like I said, the story has grown, and it definitely hasn’t had anything taken away from it. My original plan has radically shifted. The next issue, #588, is the last issue of the Fantastic Four, but these characters will continue on in some form or fashion. We’re just not saying what that is yet.
CA: Issue #600 seems like it would have been a big milestone for the Fantastic Four; should we expect anything special from the equivalent of what would have been #600 in whatever iteration comes next for the characters?
JH: I think would be fair – not only would there have been an issue #600 coming up, but also the 50th anniversary of the book. Some type of recognition of those milestones wouldn’t be out of order.
CA: Will whatever the characters of the Fantastic Four go on to do play into the Fear Itself storyline?
JH: Reed and Sue and Ben and the kids – everyone I’ve been featuring in the book – their stories will continue. If you’re asking me if some of them will be relevant and included in Fear Itself, the answer is yes. If you’re asking me if some of them will integral to the story the answer in absolutely.
CA: We saw the relationship between Franklin Richards and Johnny develop over the course of your run; how is Johnny’s death going to affect Franklin? We’ve seen Franklin in the future talking about how Johnny was his favorite superhero of all time, so there’s the implication that it affects him profoundly.
JH: Yeah, absolutely. Is it possibly that these children are more affected than these adults? Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s a very realistic way of looking at it. Is it possible that Franklin is more affected than Susan? Yeah, sure. I will say that Val steals the book in #588 in her scene in how she deals with Johnny’s death.
CA: I think the kids have been stealing a lot of the book for a while.
JH: The kids are fun. Listen, I made the argument early on that if you want the book to feel like a family book, you have to include the children and make them prominent characters. Because kids always make things so much more like it’s family. And I would argue that the way they keep screwing up the [Fantastic Four] movies and the reason that they feel slightly fraudulent – the way to fix that would be to put a kid in the movie. Not only that, it would totally work to get more kids out to the movie. But Hollywood, right?
CA: Looking forward, I know that you’re a planner – how much of your future with these characters do you have mapped out right now?
JH: It is in my nature to tell a larger, multi-part story that interconnects and weaves in and out of plot and character threads. And when I am done telling my story, I leave. That’s kind of how I naturally thought my tendencies would be. But Tom [Brevoort] and I have had discussions about how much I enjoy writing these characters, and how personal the book feels to me unlike almost everything else I’ve ever written. So I’m certainly not opposed to wherever these characters go and whatever they’re doing next. I can see myself with my hand in this for quite some time, and that may make some people happy and some people sad, but there it is. I could write the kids’ school forever.
CA: You mentioned that you have something coming up with Doctor Doom that spun out of a particular scene you wrote. Can you say what scene it was that influenced you?
JH: When I wrote all the Val and Doom stuff in Steve Epting’s first issue, I had originally an idea for how all of that was going to work. But when I wrote it, it kind of – all these changes started coming off the main thread of what I wanted to do. I’ve intentionally not written Doom up till this point because when I brought him in I wanted it to have a big impact. So let me just say that whatever is coming down the pike, Doom’s relationship to the surviving members of the Fantastic Four is going to be very interesting during the next year.