Saturday, March 23, 2013

1980: The FF Forays Into the 80s part I: Moenching On Cliches

By Jef Willemsen (

In retrospect: it must have been rough to work on Fantastic Four in the 70s and early 80s. How can anyone make a book so closely identified with its original creators their own? In the Spring of 1980, Doug Moench and Bill Sienkiewicz gave it the old college try. Let's see why it never went anywhere. 

Stan Lee and Jack Kirby produced the first 102 issues of Fantastic Four together and Stan even continued on the book for over a year after Kirby left Marvel for DC. A remarkable achievement, but it also provided Stan's successors with the unenviable task to pick up where 'the man' left off. The FF's family dynamic is pretty much set in stone, the trick is to build on that firm bedrock instead of getting crushed by its inherent constrictions.

During the 70s, writers like Marv Wolfman, Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway tried to do just that, albeit with mixed results. Particular highlights during their respective runs were Reed and Sue almost divorcing, Doctor Doom having a cloned son, losing his mind ánd Latveria and Luke Cage filling in for a depowered Thing for an issue or two. And then there was Marv Wolfman's ambitious space saga that is best remembered for... bringing Herbie the robot from the late 1970s FF cartoon into regular continuity.

After Wolfman wrapped up his run with # 215, Bill Mantlo and John Byrne filled in for three issues until the new creative team of Doug Moench and Bill Sienkiewicz made their debut in an issue that is emblematic for all that is wrong with their 10 issue run.

While the excited cover blurbs promise both all-new excitement ánd proof why Marvel is still number 1, the actual story is as bland and FF by the numbers as you can get. And apparently, that's just what Doug Moench had in mind for the book!

Interviewed by Tom DeFalco for 2006's Comics Creators On The Fantastic Four, Moench provided an indepth look on his view of Marvel's first family.

"It's a family unit under a lot of stress and constantly bickering, but they really love one another (...) It's the ultimate buddy concept, sweetened with the love between a husband and a wife."

And, speaking of that husband and wife team, here's how Moench described Reed and Sue:

"Reed is the father figure and the smart guy, the conscience and moral centre of the group. Sue, please forgive me, has never been anything more than Reed's faithful companion. I'm sorry to say she was just there to back him up and make him look good".

Rounding out the foursome, Moench also offered his insights on Johnny and Ben.

"The Thing is the guy who does all the heavy lifting and also provides comic relief. The Human Torch is the teenager with angst, a prototype for the X-men all in one guy. The interplay between him and the Thing is always good for tension or laughs. Whenever you have a dull spot in a story, just let Johnny toss fireballs at the Thing and you can't go wrong."

So there you have it: Doug Moench's guide to writing the Fantastic Four as originally told and perfected by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby circa 1965. Even though the book was a year shy of its 20th anniversary, Moench' vision for the 1980 FF was still firmly rooted in the past. This 'check box' approach to his storytelling becomes apparent in FF # 219, a done-in-one issue featuring Namor.

Let's dig in. 

"My invisibility powers may be limited, but there's no reason I can't apply more imagination to them."

Do we have our score cards ready?

The Thing is doing the heavy lifting and cracking wise, while Reed is pulling double duty as the fatherly leader/scientist, instructing a clearly bored Johnny how to heat up some test tubes with poor defenseless little Sue is in the back, trying her darndest to lift a simple chair. Vintage FF right there.

A quick note on the art: Bill Sienkiewicz was all but 22 when he joined Moench on this book and his style was still developing, especially compared to his later work with Chris Claremont on New Mutants. Moench had some thoughts on this as well:

"Bill was in his Neal Adams phase. I loved what he was doing on 'Moon Knight', but to me the FF had always been Jack Kirby. I just wasn't sure his Neal Adams style was right for this particular book.

There's no accounting for tastes of course, but Sienkiewicz's tendency to turn down the lights must have taken quite a few readers aback, considering this is the style they were used to at the time. ...

Going from the soft, bright and cartoony style of one John Byrne (whatever happened to him?) to the 'my cat  knocked over the ink well' approach of Sienckiewicz was... quite a leap. This apparent disconnect even affected Moench: 

"Maybe it was my fault. I knew Bill would be drawing my FF run in his Neal Adams style, I just couldn't make the break from Jack Kirby in my head. I kept writing my version of Stan and Jack type stories and I was always surprised when I saw Bill's artwork (...) His FF pages were always jarring."


With the preliminaries out of the way, check back for part two of The FF Forays Into The 80s: Retro Oh-Noes. 


  1. Jef, first off let me say I loved your recent Defenders series, sorry I didn't say so until now.

    I didn't read all the Moench/Sienkeiewicz issues, but when I've looked at them recently, I think the problem is Joe Sinnott's inks. I'm generally a fan of Sinnott's inks, but I thought his style ruined Sienkeiwicz's pencils during their FF run. And the stories weren't very good either, that's an odd quote from Moench from the DeFalco interview.

  2. Ey J.A., nice to hear you enjoyed the Defenders.

    If you're familiar with the DeFalco interview, you'll also know Moench specifically requested Sinnott to ink Sienkewicz in an attempt to recapture that Lee/Kirby vibe he was so desperately trying to emulate.

    And as for the actual stories, more on that the next time around, Moench wasn't exactly given carte blanche in who the FF got to face. For one thing, editorial forced him to use (mostly) new villains to give the classic FF foes a little rest.



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