Saturday, March 10, 2012


So far as I can tell, the inhabitants of Barsoom never do anything except get captured, get rescued, and fight minor wars. So it is possible, not to say plausible, that Dejah Thoris was kidnapped on more occasions than the seventeen or eighteen recorded in the canonical texts. A twelfth John Carter novel would be no sillier an idea than a tenth or an eleventh. (The series had, in fact, run out of steam by volume 4.) So if I were to write a Martian fan fic, an admittedly remote contingency it could be judged purely on its own merits. The best you could say about such a book was that it captured the tone of an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel rather well, in which case I'd have given the world something it arguably needed – more stories in style of the second greatest pulp writer who ever lived. But the worst you could say is that my novel is rather dull, and you would rather re-read the ten and a half canonical stories than waste time with my apocrypha.

But why write a story set in Edgar Rice Burroughs setting rather than create one of my own? Because we all love the Martian stories and wish there could have been more of them. Because I think that Burroughs' Mars is a distinctive setting, and the the story I have thought of couldn't have happened anywhere else. Because the fact that it is pastiche gives me freedom to write in a way that I couldn't if I were using my own voice. (It is easier to write about abduction and rescue of incomparable princesses in a Martian setting because we already know that that's the kind of thing which happens there.) 

Or maybe the real answer is as simple as: "Yes, I could create my own setting in which to tell thrilling adventures. But I don't need to, because E.R.B has already done it just about as well as it could possibly be done." 

E.R.B did, in fact, write "Tarzan at the Earth's Core". He never wrote "Tarzan on Mars" but he damn well should have done.

This is, I think, how the endless stream of Fantastic Four knock offs have to be regarded. In one sense, the idea of the Fantastic Four without Stan Lee is almost as ridiculous as the idea of the New Gods without Jack Kirby. No-one but Stan could write Reed Richard / Ben Grimm dialogue; and no-one could fail to see that Reed Richards / Ben Grimm dialogue (and Reed / Johnny dialogue, and come to that Doctor Doom dialogue and Galactus dialogue) were a very major part of what made The Fantastic Four The Fantastic Four. The other major part was Jack Kirby's villains and alien worlds and plots and characters and fight scenes, obviously.

On the other hand, Fantastic Four #103  is not an intrinsically sillier idea than Fantastic Four #102. The Kirby conceived the F.F, not as the protagonists of a self-contained novel, but as heroes who would continue to have adventures, month after month, for as long as he could think them up and readers wanted to read them. No-one supposes that it is important to the impact of Fantastic Four 1 – 102 that after defeating the Submariner (again) they all gave up heroing and retired. 

But if you want to tell a story about a group of heroes who fight space monsters and mad scientists, why not think up your own group of heroes, rather than steal Kirby's? Well, because the chances are that any team you dreamed up would consist of The Clever, Stuffy One; The Sensible, Motherly One; The Firey, Impetuous One and The Strong, Bad Tempered One, because that's a natural kind of team to send on adventures. We know how they talk to each other and what they are going to argue about; we know what Reed will say to Ben and what Ben will say to Reed; we can drop them into any situation, however banal, and it can hardly fail to turn into a story. It would, of course, be possible for you to dream up your own group of interlocking characters and send them off on Adventure. But you don't need to: Kirby already has.  


Yes, yes, yes of course it is cool that the Fantastic Four lived in Spider-Man's city and Spider-Man lived in the Fantastic Four's city, and that that city was based on New York and this remained true even in those episodes of Spider-Man where the Fantastic Four weren't mentioned and those episodes of the Fantastic Four where Spider-Man wasn't mentioned

But get this: Marvel New York, or indeed the Marvel Universe doesn't really exist and never did. It isn't real in the way Camden Town is real: it isn't even real in the way that Barsoom is real. It is a way of thinking about stories; it is not itself a story. It is a literary conceit. The idea that we could read the Avengers because it "reveals" to us "fact" about "history" of the Marvel Universe is as fundamentally wrong headed as the idea that we might listen to Elenor Rigby in order to find out about the architecture of Father McKensie's church -- indeed, that the church has some kind of essential existence outside of the words of the song.

NOTE: Remind me to write an essay one of these days on The Fantastic Four as an instance of C.S Lewis's Four Loves. Reed loves Sue as a wife, Ben as a friend and Johnny as a son; Ben loves Reed as a friend, Johnny as a brother and Sue as a sister; Sue loves Johnny as a mother but Johnny loves Sue as a sister, etc etc etc. You could probably draw a map.