How Marvel Briefly Replaced the Fantastic Four With Their Bestselling Heroes

This post is part of Fantastic Adventure, How to Love Comics’ celebration of the Fantastic Four’s 60th anniversary. Find out more and read other posts in this series.

What characters come to mind when you think of the Fantastic Four? Whether you’re a Marvel die-hard or an average pop-culture consumer, you would probably think of Mr. Fantastic (aka Reed Richards), The Invisible Woman (aka Susan Storm), The Thing (aka Ben Grimm), and The Human Torch (aka Johnny Storm). Most of the time, you would be absolutely right. However, there was a brief moment in 1991 when you would have been dead wrong.

Writer Walter Simonson and artist Arthur Adams put together a brief story arc where the Fantastic Four were replaced with four of the most popular characters at the time. In Fantastic Four #347-349, the team consisted of Spider-Man, Ghost Rider, Wolverine, and The Hulk. They were called “The New Fantastic Four” and if you think that’s strange, just wait until you hear the set-up.

A rogue Skrull named De’Lila has come to Earth in search of a robot that could help her destroy the Skrull Empire. Unfortunately for her, she is being followed by Skrull loyalists who want to kill her by any means necessary. De’Lila knows that the best way to find the robot would be to use the Fantastic Four’s extensive database and records. So she infiltrates the Four Freedoms Plaza (The FF’s headquarters at the time) for the first phase of her plan. One by one, De’Lila uses her shapeshifting abilities to get close to each member of the FF and incapacitate them. Then, she ties them up and traps them in the plaza’s elevator. With the original FF incapacitated, De’Lila uses her telepathic abilities to send signals out to Ghost Rider, Wolverine, The Hulk, and Spider-Man to come to the plaza.

Fantastic Four #348 art by Arthur Adams.

Posing as Sue Storm, De’Lila tells the confused heroes that every member of FF besides herself has been murdered. She claims that she sent out a distress signal to the heroes so she could ask them to track down their murderers. As part of this, she gives them a tracking device that she says will lead them to the culprits. In reality, this is just another phase in De’Lila’s master plan. The device that she gave them tracks the Skrull loyalists (who are currently stationed at Monster Island) that are out to find and kill her. Our new group of unlikely heroes sets out to find the people who they think have killed several members of the iconic quartet. However, they are unknowingly doing De’Lila’s dirty work by tracking down the Skrulls that want to put an end to her plot.

A lot of people have the perception that the 90s era of comics was exclusively corny, silly, and more so resembled the cartoony nature of comic books in the 60s than the more serious and literary works that are being done today. While there were absolutely books coming out that did not fit this description, his FF story arc is not one of those exceptions. 

Every 90s comics stereotype is realized in this arc. There are dumb jokes, absoltuely ludicious body proportions, and a plot that feels like it came straight out of a Saturday morning cartoon. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it is a product of its time. But anyone looking to pick up these issues or, more likely, read them digitally through Marvel’s Unlimited, should be aware of what they’re getting themselves into. 

The success of the story arc wholly relies on whether or not this new team of heroes works together and plays off one another in an entertaining way. Marvel didn’t shy away from acknowledging that putting four of the most popular Marvel characters on a team was a bit of a cash-grab. All of these solo character’s books were doing quite well at the time, so why not put them together in a book that wasn’t selling as well? However, a story arc can be a cash-grab and still be totally entertaining and fun to read. So, does the New FF story arc succeed at putting together this unlikely team of heroes, or does it fall apart underneath its unconventional premise and grouping of four totally distinct characters?

Fantastic Four #348 cover by Arthur Adams.
Fantastic Four #348 cover by Arthur Adams.

The first aspect of the new FF that is important to recognize is how extremely different these characters are from the original Fantastic Four. The New FF have very little in common with the original team, so their dynamic is totally different.

You might think that The Hulk has some similarities with the Thing, or, alternatively, that Bruce Banner could be compared to Reed Richards. However, The Hulk at this point in comics was Joe Fixit, a gangster alter-ego to the Hulk whose personality more closely resembled someone like Hammerhead or the Kingpin than any member of the original FF or the original Hulk. You may be able to see some similarities between Spider-Man and the Human Torch, although the latter is much more reckless, and much more of a wildcard than the Web-slinger. Wolverine also has very little in common with any of the members of the original Fantastic Four. His dark demeanor and combative personality does not mesh with the Fantastic Four’s more playful, teamwork-oriented style. Lastly, we have Ghost Rider. You would be hard-pressed to find any equivalent in the original FF, or most mainstream Marvel characters in general, to the stoic, violent, and methodical nature of the notorious Spirit of Vengeance.

Since the new FF bares little resemblance to the original team, their success as a group relies solely on the chemistry that Simson and Adams can create between the cast. While the story arc switches between the new FF, De’Lila’s scheming, and the Skrulls tracking her, we still get plenty of opportunities to determine whether or not this team meshes together well. And luckily, whether it was intended as a cash-grab or not, Simonson is able to turn the New FF into an entertaining, although short-lived superhero team that plays off each other excellently.

There are several occasions in which our heroes get into situations that display their unique brand of teamwork. One of these instances occurs when the team comes across a monster sent by the Skrull loyalists to takedown De’Lila that ends up attacking a commercial flight. The Hulk jumps right in, but Spider-Man is more hesitant and unsure about whether or not he should engage, citing safety reasons. But Wolverine neggs him on and convinces him to use his webbing to repair the flight. Lastly, Ghost Rider intervenes when he realizes Spider-Man and the Hulk may not be able to save everyone, and he feels compelled due to his moral code of not allowing innocent people to get hurt. Their dynamic and chemistry in this scene displays how the New FF actually have a dynamic that is not only entertaining but complementary towards one another. Even if they don’t intend to work as a team, their respective attitudes, styles, and, lastly, motivations turn them into a force to be reckoned with.

Fantastic Four #348 art by Arthur Adams.
Fantastic Four #348 art by Arthur Adams.

Another instance occurs when the new FF ends up in the middle of a tense encounter between the Skrull loyalists and Mole Man. Without giving too much away, the Skrulls find themselves on Mole Man’s terrain, Monster Island, which he is not too crazy about. The Hulk wants to, shockingly enough, smash Mole Man and all their adversaries. Ghost Rider calms him down, while Spider-Man takes the diplomatic route and attempts to “parlay” with Mole Man. Wolverine stands in silence, as usual. 

Diplomacy works at first to defuse the situation, but when questioning the Skrulls about their presence on Earth, they refuse to answer. Spider-Man’s diplomatic route reaches an end point, so Ghost Rider uses his “penance stare” to force the Skrulls to tell the truth. The team’s strategic maneuvering here shows how well they complement each other’s respective styles and approach. 

By the time the story arc reaches its conclusion, the New FF disbands and the original FF reunite. And it’s a shame, because, while putting the most popular 90’s characters together was intended, and even acknowledged as a cash grab, they had a genuine chemistry that cannot be denied. It certainly helps that Simonson’s campy but fun dialogue and story meshed perfectly with Adam’s masterful drawing style that is able to accommodate each character’s individual style and appearance. 

Despite the fact they had no leader, and no unifying emblem cause, they complemented each other really well. And they do so without realizing it themselves. Perhaps that’s what makes the New FF so unique; they never realize just how well they work together. They’re a group of characters with drastically different strengths and weaknesses that play into each other in ways that feel spontaneous and genuine. Will we ever see the New FF reunited, either in comic book form or perhaps even on the big screen? It seems unlikely, but it’s fair to say that the team’s chemistry would translate perfectly to any medium that gives them a chance.

The New Fantastic Four story, serialised in Fantastic Four #347-349. This is collected in Fantastic Four Epic Collection: The New Fantastic Four, which can be found at all good comic book shops, online stores, eBay, and digitally on Comixology or Marvel Unlimited.

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