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The Commando Interviews Part 10: An Essay on War Comics

An Essay on War Comics

By Sarah Allison

(Please note: This essay was originally published in 2006 and some information in it may be out of date.)

Commando is a series of war comics first published by D.C. Thomson in 1961. They have been the only war comic in print for the last ten years and print eight issues every month. This essay will explain the reason for their popularity and their continuing longevity as we move through an era of developing technology, with the Internet, computer games and DVDs being the frontrunners of modern entertainment. This essay will analyse the historical context of British comic books by briefly outlining popular titles and discussing the reasons for their success or decline.

It will identify the initial success of Commando comics by comparing them to other similar titles published at the time such as Air Picture Library (1960) and War Picture Library (1960). It will also compare Commando with 2000AD (1977). Like Commando, 2000AD is still running today.

The essay will conclude by identifying Commando's core audience and the reason for their loyalty. Having sent emails to the current Editor George Low, and some of the collectors. The essay will use their responses, as well as information gathered from a wide range of material to provide evidence for why Commando comics have remained popular for so many years without changing their format, major themes or story concepts.

In 1880 a number of American newspapers began to publish on Sundays despite campaigns for the continued observance of Sabbath. (A. Aldridge & G. Perry, 1971). It was Joseph Pulitzer who first used the Sunday supplement as a showcase for his newspaper, The World. In order to attract readers, he increasingly used colour and cartoons. These are said to have lead directly to Richard Outcaults historic ‘Yellow kid’ on 16th February 1896, reputed to have signalled the birth of the comic as a distinct medium. (Horn, M, 1976).

It is said that the Funny Folks (1874) was the first British comic publication more than twenty years earlier although many argue that the first British comic strip was Ally Slopers Half Holiday which appeared 3rd May 1884. The first adventure of ‘Ally Sloper’ had appeared in Judy Magazine in 1867 (Sabin. R, 2003). Ally Slopers Half Holiday was published in London by the Dalziel brothers. It was a great success and pioneered a whole new format. The year 1890 saw the birth of two great comic papers which were around for over sixty years. These were Comic Cuts and Illustrated Chips. They were both published by Amalgamated Press and were the inspiration of its twenty-five-year-old proprietor, Alfred Harmsworth, who had just inherited the company. (British Library Board, 1999). Illustrated Chips and Comic Cuts notoriously republished material from American and British newspapers. Their success was such that Harmsworth was able to launch both the Daily Mirror and the Daily Mail newspapers with the profits. (A. Aldridge & G. Perry, 1971).

More comics followed in the 1890´s, such as Wonder (1892), also from Amalgamated Press, Larks (1893) from Dalziel and Comic Life (1899) from Hendersons. Despite this Comic Cuts and Illustrated Chips remained the leaders in the field.

In 1914 publishers saw the youth market as the most profitable so they produced comics aimed at children. Rainbow (1914) and Film Fun (1920) appeared and both did extremely well until D. C. Thomson launched three comics in the 1930s. These were The Dandy (1937), The Beano (1938) and Magic (1939). The first two still remain today and are perhaps the most well known British comics. Although Film Fun was hugely popular it used real comedians and therefore had to remain tame to keep within libel laws, whereas Beano, Dandy and Magic ridiculed teachers, policemen and other officials at every opportunity making them far more popular than their rivals. (A. Aldridge & G.Perry, 1971).

The Second World War was hard on comics, paper shortages and restricted circulations meant that titles vanished. Ian Norrie summarises the impact of World War Two on the book trade as follows:
Compulsory national service was introduced in June 1939, three months before the declaration of war, and it eventually left few but the old and the unfit in most publishing offices and bookshops. Air raids brought loss of life and property, also dislocation of trade… paper was rationed and rose dramatically in price and many important books went out of print for the duration and longer.—Ian Norrie, 1984, pg.95
1950 was the start of a new era, after the drab post war years it was the beginning of a new way of living. Hulton Press entered the comic field with Eagle (1950). Eagle was a science fiction comic and the first edition sold 1 million. The science fiction element was new and exciting, however the novelty wore thin and their sales quickly began decreasing as children became interested in other forms of entertainment such as television and music.

Due to the loss of interest from the once profitable youth market comic companies decided to rekindle their lost adult audience. As the war had a real resonance for boys growing up in the 1940´s war comics were the natural choice for publishing houses. The 1960s saw a surge in war comics such as War Picture Library (1960), Ace Picture Library (1960) and Victor (1961).

1961 was the year that D. C. Thomson first published Commando war stories in pictures which was an immediate success. Commando war comics are a series of British comic books that draw their main themes and backdrops from incidents of the First and Second World Wars. They are action and adventure stories in black and white drawings. They contain certain characteristics without which no issue of Commando would be complete, such as cowardice, patriotism, dying for the sake of ones country, enmity turning to friendship and noble actions in the face of danger (J. Donal, 2006). What made Commando so popular were these characteristics, the graphic art work and the portrayal of the soldiers which maintained the positive national stereotype. Soldiers in the Commando stories were brave, honourable and heroic.

Competition between war comics was fierce in the 1960s. Chick Checkley who was the editor of D. C. Thomson at the time decided not to compete with Fleetway in terms of content and writing as Fleetway had the biggest budgets and access to the best studios in Europe, instead Checkley made Commando more lurid than War Picture Library and other war comics by hiring Ken Barr to create gritty and outrageous front covers.
His Nazis wore the blackest shiniest jack boots ever; all his characters had gritted teeth, bulging eyeballs and enough tungsten back lighting to sear your retinas.—Peter Richardson, interview with Mike Eriksson, July 2004
The covers were the nearest thing in Britain to American Pulp Art and they aroused a voracious curiosity that could only be relieved by buying them. (P. Richardson, 2004). Checkley knew he couldn’t actually better the writing of the Fleetway competition, so he chose stories that were strong on concept. Commando weren’t striving to be politically correct either and other titles seemed sedate and boring in comparison. Commando’s popularity soon increased and as it did they produced more comics. From 2 issues per month in the first year, then 3, then 6 and eventually 8, which we still have today. Commando’s peak years were the 1960s.

During the late 1970s the industrial economy of Britain experienced a rapid drop in manufacturing and other industrial sectors. Manufacturing lacked the flexibility and skills needed to move into new markets. (Bilton, T et al, 2002). British comics were in steady decline due to competition from more sophisticated American imported titles. Both the publishers D. C. Thompson and IPC/Fleetway, who dominated the British market, created a range of comics by a factory production-line editorial system which hadn’t changed since the war. (R. Loveday, 2004). The British public were looking for something ahead of it’s time and slick. The appearance of 2000AD in 1977 was just that. This comic was seen as a natural successor to comics such as Eagle.
…these predecessors had an essentially benign, utopian take on technological fantasies of the future - catching the optimistic mood of the Britain of their period - 2000AD was an animal of an entirely different nature.—(R. Loveday, 2004).
2000AD excited the public and as a result of its appearance a number of new more adult orientated titles arose like Crisis (Fleetway, 1988), Deadline (Tom Astor, 1988) and Strip (Marvel UK, 1990). Unfortunately there wasn’t enough demand for them and none of them have survived.

2000AD has shown greater longevity than all its science-fiction predecessors. The reason for its success is in its ability to appeal to a young, unsophisticated audience whilst simultaneously appealing to a more knowing, older fan market. 2000AD out sold many of its competitors and because of this many titles finished. Despite many of Commando's readers, also turning to 2000ADCommando continued to sell 8 issues per month and retained a strong fan base. Commando was certainly not as glamorous as 2000AD but unlike other titles it didn’t try to compete with the new science-fiction image and D.C.Thomson kept publishing Commando comics in the same digest format, using the same concepts.

There are currently 96 issues of Commando published every year. 24 of these are reprints. There are thousands in the collection, and the most recent issue is number 3878. (Lawrence Curtin, 2004). The comic has remained a war comic but its themes have changed over the years.
Themes range from ancient history (Romans, Persians) right up to first Gulf war.—George Low, email to Sarah Allison, Jan 2006
George Low has been the Editor since 1963 and Ian Kennedy is the longest serving cover artist. He still creates around 20 covers a year. The writers tend to come and go but two recent writers are Ferg Handley and David Whitehead. Commando annuals were published in 1989 and 1990, but they didn’t sell well and there haven’t been any since.

The 21st Century has seen an even more rapid decline for comics than previous decades. There is no sign of growth in circulation for the few remaining titles and no sign for new launches from mainstream publishers. Comics seem to be more underground and older titles are mainly sold for the collecting market rather than the youth of today. Increasing numbers of small press and fanzine titles are being produced due to the cheapness and professional appearance of desk top publishing programs. (J. Donal, 2006). There is also an American reprint market but very little in the way of upcoming British titles. It is not surprising when the comic format has to compete with new media such as the Internet, Computer Games and DVDs. Children and adults alike are always waiting for the next modern gadget to come onto the market. Comics in general are regarded as a thing of the past and a way of looking back at our history. When Peter Richardson was asked in a recent interview if he thought titles such as Battler Britton and other titles of years gone by to be republished, he answered:
Definitely not! The whole thing about comics is like any other valid art form; they are a reflection of the society that spawns them. Battler Britton worked in the late fifties and early sixties but a lot has happened since then and unlike heroes like Superman and Batman whose historic references are less obvious, poor old Battler Britton, Captain Hurricane et al. are going to look a tad anachronistic these days.—Peter Richardson, Interview with Mike Eriksson, July, 2004
If this is the case, what is it about Commando comics that allow it to continue and remain so popular? The answer may be with the audience. The audience has an extremely broad age range. "Readers from 8 to 80" (G. Low, 2006). It seems that many of the collectors are older than 30 and that the younger readers are their children. This opinion is shared by Mike Eriksson.
In my opinion Commando has got a core audience of buyers that are probably older than 30… It seems that the love for Commando is passed down from one generation to the next…—Mike Eriksson in email to Sarah Allison, Jan 2006
Like 2000AD, Commando is able to appeal to a young audience whilst also appealing to the original readers. As well as appealing to a broad age range. Commando also appeals to the international market and exports issues to Canada, Australia and New Zealand, as well as occasionally to France, Norway and Greece (G. Low, 2004). There are also collectors in other countries and as Mike Eriksson (2006) points out "eBay makes it very easy to start a collection". Mike Eriksson is a Swedish writer and author of ‘Den svenska Victory hemsidan’ (Swedish Victory Home page) which is a website dedicated to classic war comics. It contains lots of information about Commando including interviews with Commando staff and collectors. It also has some information about a title from that is produced in Finland called Korkeajännitys (1953) edited by Asko Alanen, which is mostly republished Commando stories and is said to have a large readership. In Britain there is only 1 fan magazine called Achtung! Commando by Peter Richardson. There are only 4 issues so far but more on the way. There is also a Commando webpage by Lawrence Curtin. In previous years it has been difficult to get hold of Commando comics as they don’t sell in local newsagents but this year D. C. Thomson have published The Dirty Dozen which is a collection of the best twelve Commando comics. This has been on sale in high street bookshops such as Waterstones. This could be an indication of Commando reaching a more mainstream audience or an attempt to revive a dying comic.

To understand why Commando has succeeded for so long, not only do we need to look at the audience but also at the content and concept of the stories themselves. World War Two remains an interesting subject which has significance to people in modern Britain. It is recognised by many as a war that needed to be won for the sake of a democratic system and social equality; therefore stories based in World War Two may always be popular. Films such as The Thin Red Line and Saving Private Ryan and computer games such as Medal of Honour are a more graphic and exciting medium for these stories. The games and film industry provide much of today’s youth with a form of education as and entertainment. Playing Medal of Honour may feel more interactive than reading a comic. However, whilst films and computer games are stiff competitors for Commando comics they do indicate that interest in World War Two is ever present and will be for many more years.

Commando has remained popular for so long. Not only because of its ability to appeal to a wide age range and across cultures but also because of the continuing fascination of World War Two. In order to avoid seeming anachronistic they have also sometimes diverted from the original backdrops of the First and Second World Wars and set their stories in ancient Persia and more recent wars. They have even on occasions used a western or science-fiction theme but have always kept the same strong concept of good prevails over evil. They have changed certain aspects. For example their characters no longer smoke and although you still get the odd reference to ‘macaroni munching’ Italians the racial serotypes used in Commando are far more light hearted than in the earlier years. Generally Commando have managed to adapt enough to attract modern readers whilst stylistically they have remained the same and used the same concepts to retain the original readership. Although the popularity of comics is ever decreasing there may always be those of us whom prefer the traditional literary medium and although Commando comics might not be to everyone’s taste there may always remain a market of war comics. D. C. Thomson has the monopoly in that field and there fore as long as they print Commando comics there will always be somebody waiting for the next issue to add to their collection.

The above essay by Sarah Allison was originally published by Michael Eriksson in May 2006 on his late and much lamented website Where Eagles Dare. It appears here with Mike's permission.

Essays on Comics Characters: The Fantastic Four!

I must have been first introduced to the Fantastic Four through the Hanna-Barbera animated version that aired on ABC in the late 1960s, and through that to the comic books. It's funny, but when I think about it, I'd imagine that at least in the early 1970s, most of my FF reading would've been in the pages of Marvel's Greatest Comics, as opposed to the FF's own book. Of course, the great thing about MGC was that it featured reprints of the classic Lee/Kirby FF tales (although often edited down for space constraints), so I got exposed to the good stuff quickly!

I did pay at least some peripheral attention to the FF's own title, although I don't recall buying many issues of it at the time... I think most of my reading of their book had to have been copies of the neighbor's oldest son's books, where I learned that Crystal ended up marrying Quicksilver instead of the Human Torch (that wench! I didn't realize that MGC was reprints at first, so I thought Johnny and Crystal still had a thing for each other). I'd known of Quicksilver through reading Marvel Triple Action's Avengers reprints, naturally.

As I started reading about the history of comics, there weren't too many mentions of the FF, as most of them tended to focus on the Golden Age, although there were some mentions here and there (most notably pointing out the similarities between the FF members and some GA characters, i.e. Mr. Fantastic = Plastic Man, The Invisible Girl = Invisible Scarlet O'Neill, The Human Torch = The Human Torch). Since I'd been reading about the original Torch, when the FF got their temporary new costumes (well, the Torch did... Medusa was taking Sue's place at the time, so her standard Inhumans outfit was changed to the FF blue and black with logo design), and the Torch's costume was changed to red and yellow, I recognized where it came from.

But I digress.

By the late 1970s, I'd become plenty familiar with the FF, between reading MGC and the FF's own book, as well as my earlier exposure to the FF cartoon (which, while it had poor animation, did at least adapt stories from the comics for the most part). When MGC was cancelled, I was in the middle of one of my brief non-comics buying periods... which wouldn't last long (they usually didn't... these days, I'm in a non-new-comics-buying period, which has lasted several years).

I think I really dug into the FF when John Byrne came along as penciler and writer of the book. By this time, I was older, naturally, and could appreciate the nuances in the stories he was telling (my younger self enjoyed the cosmic aspects of the Lee/Kirby stuff, but didn't really "get" most of the characterization stuff). The book felt "right" to me, and I enjoyed the hell out of it.

Like all good things, though, it didn't last forever... it lasted a good long time, though! Byrne wrote some really great stories, and then the book kind of backslid a bit. I kept buying it out of habit more than anything else, and while there was the occasional glimmer here and there, it wasn't my FF any more.

Then came Walt Simonson, whose work on Thor I also had enjoyed the hell out of, and the book got great again. But then he left it, too! There were a few good teams that came and went, but nothing that lasted very long.

So, there you have it... the three greatest runs in the FF... #1 - Lee/Kirby, #2 - Byrne, and #3 - Simonson.

What made these runs great? Was it the epic storytelling? Introduction of new concepts? Great art?

Well, it was all that, of course... plus one thing that seems to be missing in a lot of current comics: Characterization. A lot of current comics writers seem to feel that characterization means showing the dark side of a character, and that's about the extent of it. I'm probably oversimplifying this, but there it is. I don't like reading comics about characters I don't like, no matter what they're doing. And I like it when I like the FF.

Let's look at each of the members, how they have been presented and how I see them.

Reed Richards/Mr. Fantastic: The brains of the group, and acknowledged leader. Of the FF members, he's the one I tend to most identify with, because like me, sometimes he gets so distracted by the big picture that he misses what's in front of him.

Reed is probably the smartest man on Earth in the Marvel Universe. I'd imagine even Reed realizes just how much smarter he is than anyone else is. Oh, there are people who are close to his intelligence (Dr. Doom, Tony Stark, Bruce Banner), but truth be told, they are way behind him. Doom probably comes closest, but the way he uses his intelligence doesn't exploit it as far as he could. Reed invents stuff all the time... sometimes it's because he needs a particular gadget that doesn't exist, sometimes he just gets an idea in his head and needs to make it happen. There are probably times he invents something without realizing on a conscious level he's inventing it! Technology speaks to him, and he speaks back to it, probably on a better level than Reed typically interacts with people. This tends to make people feel like he's a bit distant as well as above them, and puts a barrier between him and the average person. Reed is unaware of this -- at least consciously -- and will talk to anyone as if they're on equal terms with him (we've seen this in the past, such as Reed's interactions with the writers of the FF comic within the comics). Also unconsciously, he avoids using too much tech speak when talking to the average person (this rule of Reed's doesn't apply with his fellow FF'ers, probably because of his familiarity with them).

He genuinely loves Susan, even if he doesn't always show it in ways the average person gets. He also loves his children (I'm assuming his daughter Valeria is still in continuity, but who can say these days?), and Ben and Johnny are like brothers to him. Ben in particular probably was the first person who really "got" Reed, back in their college days, and that was important to Reed.

I think one of the reasons Reed gets so passionate about his science -- even moreso since the creation of the FF and his marriage to Sue -- is that he views everything he does as trying to make the world a better, safer place for his family. Even his ventures into studying the Negative Zone are, in Reed's mind, a way to know more about everything. Sadly, sometimes Reed's scientific curiosity gets in the way of his better judgement, and while he researches things that he believes will be of benefit, he manages to set loose a menace (such as Blaster or Annihilus), although he puts things right once he's aware of it.

I think that's one of the driving factors of Reed's personality... the need to make things right. His greatest failure for many years was not being able to cure Ben Grimm of being the Thing (it was a brilliant idea that Ben himself was responsible for all the past failures, and that once he came to terms with it, gained the ability to change back and forth from human to Thing at will). I'm sure he also feels personal responsibility, shame and regret over the loss of his and Sue's second child (as depicted in Byrne's run). When Reed sees a problem, he needs to fix it.

The problem with this is, not all problems have a technological fix... so while he does truly love Sue, there are times he doesn't realize that there is a problem with their relationship until Sue herself points it out to Reed (admittedly, I think Sue is aware of Reed's need to fix things or otherwise make them better, and lets him get away with being distracted away from her and the children as long as he does).

I don't think Reed has an ego issue, however. I don't believe he believes himself that he's the only one who can fix a problem, and nobody else can... it's just that he's come to rely on himself to do what needs to be done, and it's more of a habit than an ego problem. Reed would never be caught telling anyone that he could cure Bruce Banner of being the Hulk permanently if Bruce had only come to him in the first place... or that he could've fixed any of a number of other problems that other heroes of the Marvel Universe have had. Certainly, if he focused on them, he could probably fix them, but that's not where his focus has been.

This is the problem I've had with the whole "Illuminati" thing that was introduced a number of years ago. That whole thing smacks of having a major ego, something I don't see Reed having. He doesn't think of himself as superior to the rest of humanity, despite his actual superiority.

As noted above, Ben and Johnny are like brothers to Reed... although Johnny most often is the annoying youngest brother who seems to always get in trouble and never has to deal with the consequences. After Sue, Ben is the most important relationship in Reed's life, and I think that has more to do with Ben than with Reed.

The two of them first met back in college. As has been retold a few times, Reed was originally roomed with Victor Von Doom, but that didn't last long (a few seconds, perhaps, before Doom announced he would not share a room with anyone). Ben showed up immediately and offered himself up as a roommate, and a friendship was born.

The two of them were complete opposites -- the scientific big brain and the all-American football player -- but one could argue that it was this complete difference between them that was the basis for their friendship. Ben could get Reed to loosen up and have some fun (or at least, what normal people considered to be fun -- Reed's enjoyment of the sciences never struck me as "fun" for him, as he didn't usually smile during any of this work), while Reed could help Ben focus more on his studies. It was an unlikely friendship, but one that stood the test of time.

Reed met Sue when he was 19, and she was 13 (at least, according to some stories -- this would've been after his time at State University with Ben, and even as big a brain as Reed was, would he have finished his degree at SU that quickly?), and she fell in love with him right away. Now, that age difference of six years doesn't feel right to me... I figured Reed was at least ten years older than Sue (yes, he was prematurely grey at the temples, but he'd always been presented as being older, and a six year difference isn't really that much... my wife is nine years younger than I am). Whatever the age difference was, Reed was embarrassed by Sue's affection towards him, although by the time Sue had grown up, he started seeing her differently. They met again as adults when Reed had moved to Central City, where the four got together as a group for the first time.

Reed, being of a more scientific bent, and despite Ben's help loosening him up, still couldn't manage to let Sue know how he felt, although I'd imagine he tried in many ways that most people wouldn't consider "normal." They ended up starting some sort of relationship, perhaps Sue ended up being an assistant of sorts to Reed as he was developing his spaceship engine. Whatever happened, the two were in love when we first met them in Fantastic Four #1, although it may not have been obvious to the casual reader, other than Sue's insistence on going along on the test flight.

Ben Grimm/The Thing: Simultaneously the most tragic as well as the most comic member of the group. For a long time after being transformed, Ben focused on his being a "monster" as a result of the cosmic ray exposure, and was definitely bitter. He figured he'd never be able to fit in with the rest of human society, and it's possible that, had the FF not been formed to use their powers for good, Ben could've ended up being a major villain! It was Reed taking the initiative to form a team and focus Ben's energies elsewhere that saved him.

I suspect that some of Ben's comic aspects fall into one of two areas: One of them is his letting himself be himself. As presented in his earlier college days, Ben was outgoing with a good sense of humor. His references to his Aunt Petunia, and his development of his battle cry, "It's clobberin' time!" I see as Ben being Ben. Other aspects of his humor I think fall into the category of, "I'm laughing so I don't cry," and is a coping mechanism for his condition (the same goes when he is able to cut loose with his full strength... it may appear he's reveling in his power, but it's more of stress relief, as he'd rather give up his strength to be normal... or so he'd said).

Alicia Masters, disguised as Sue when she first meets Ben
Of the other two males on the team, it's Ben who first meets someone and has a relationship, with the blind sculptress Alicia Masters, as you are probably aware. Alicia is a figure of tragedy herself, being the step-daughter of the villainous Puppet Master, and being forced to do his will in her first appearance. Alicia's presence in Ben's life helps humanize him greatly after his transformation, no doubt, although it also gave Ben the excuse to grumble about how he couldn't marry her and have a normal life because of being the Thing (while simultaneously thinking that Alicia loves the Thing, not Ben, which caused him to resist the cures Reed provided in the past).

Ben is one of the strongest beings on Marvel Earth. We know the Hulk is stronger (heck, Hulk is strongest of all, right?), and there are others who are possibly stronger (Colossus and Sasquatch come to mind), but the fact remains that Ben is so strong and powerful that in the beginning, he really doesn't know his own strength. He's got to be aware that Reed had specially reinforced structures and furniture provided in the Baxter Building to accommodate this, but he still manages to cause a fair amount of collateral damage, especially when he and Johnny Storm are having one of their innumerable fights.

To the casual observer of these fights, it would seem like Ben and Johnny hate each other, but nothing could be farther from the truth: They are the best of friends. Johnny is Ben's second closest friend (Reed being closest), although Ben and Johnny do more things together due to Reed's focus on science and technology. Ben looks at Johnny as a younger brother in a lot of ways (letting Ben take the older brother role his late brother Daniel had), so tends to be protective of him, although not always in ways Johnny appreciates.

So Ben has several roles in the FF: He's there to try to keep Reed focused on what's right in front of them, instead of being amazed at the scientific wonder of it all; he's Johnny's older brother, trying to keep him out of trouble; and he's also the team's cheerleader of sorts, rallying them as needed.

But what's his relationship with Sue? We can tell from the first issue that he at least acted as a rival to Reed for Sue's affections, and certainly he had strong feelings for Sue (remember, too, that in Alicia's first appearance, the use of a simple wig and FF uniform had Reed and Ben fooled into thinking Alicia was Sue, so they do look alike other than hair color). However, even before meeting Alicia, Ben backed off. Perhaps it was after the events of the first several issues (especially after Sub-Mariner's memory was restored by Johnny, and Namor subsequently met Sue and became a new rival of Reed's), but whatever the situation was, Ben started looking at Sue more as a sister, and possibly also as a mother figure (the role Sue mostly takes within the group). Ben is closer to Sue in age than Reed is, but she's still younger than him, and of the team, Sue is the one who can most easily get Ben to back off. Even Alicia couldn't get away with handing Ben a broom and dustpan to clean up the mess from the last fracas between Ben and Johnny!

Despite Ben's gruff exterior, he's the member of the team who's made the most friends in the superhero community. Perhaps this is due to his being the only member who's a native New Yorker, so he fits in better... or perhaps it's just Ben's outgoing nature. I suspect that pretty much anyone who spends much time with Ben would start to forget that he looks like a monster, and focus on the man.

Sue Richards/Invisible Woman: I think that for many writers, Sue is the hardest of the FF to write. She can come off as being just the "mom" of the group, helping to keep Ben and Johnny in line, or always complaining about Reed's spending too much time in the lab. At the worst, she's either the damsel in distress or acts shrewish and self-centered!

We know she's devoted to Reed and her children -- they come first, specially Franklin and Valeria. It's way too easy to focus on just that aspect of her personality, and forget that (as has been noted more than a few times) that she's probably the most powerful member of the team, due to her force fields. The best writers have found interesting ways for her to use that power, such as forming a force bubble around a foe's head to make them use up the oxygen available quickly and pass out, or John Byrne's innovation of letting her use her force fields like Iceman's slides. Really, with the proper practice, Sue could take out Doctor Doom easily -- all she has to do is probe with her field to find the slightest opening in Doom's armor, force her way through it with the field, and then expand it to cause the armor to break loose (or at the very least, causing Doom some major pain and disrupting systems). For any foe that isn't able to fly, generating small force field "marbles" can cause them to lose their balance and trip.

Even without the force fields, applying her ability to make other people and things invisible can be devastating. Imagine a tactic where Ben picks up something heavy and throws it at a target. In mid-flight, Sue turns the object invisible, perhaps before the target even notices it -- wham! Instant surprise attack. Just turning the surface someone's standing on invisible would be disconcerting at the least, giving her teammates an advantage in combat.

While Ben may be the cheerleader of the team, I think Sue is the heart of it. She looks at the human side of situations and sees things differently than her teammates. While she is not as scientifically bent as Reed is, she is a very intelligent woman, as well as intuitive.

It's important that writers keep all this in mind when writing her.

Johnny Storm/The Human Torch: Johnny is a jerk, self-centered and quick to react without thinking. Oh, he's a good kid for the most part, but he lacks self-control for the most part. Having the power of the Human Torch has caused him to grow up and take some responsibility, but as the youngest member of the team, he still tends to act like a jerk a lot.

But how much of that is the real Johnny, and how much of it is an act? I suspect that Johnny's personality, like a lot of youngest brothers, was developed due to the need to get attention. He needs to be noticed (which he is, being the most flamboyant member of the team, powers-wise). One has to bear in mind that Sue pretty much brought him up after their mother passed away, and so he went from being the youngest to suddenly being the "only child" in the family, getting all the attention... and then the four got together.

Johnny had no part to play in the test flight in the FF's origin. He basically talked his way into being part of the crew. I think this is because of his need for attention, and not wanting to be left out. He found himself suddenly in a new "family" in its nascent stages, with Ben as an older brother who was already famous thanks to his college football days as well as his military pilot career -- that's a lot to compete with! Honestly, I think he wanted to come on the test flight not because Sue was going (as he said), but because Ben was going, and he had to prove he was just as capable as Ben.

Johnny's focus outside of the FF was on cars and girls, which is typical for a boy of his age. Remember, Johnny was probably 16 or 17 when he got his powers. His emotions tend to always run hot (a lot has been said about how the FF's powers are a reflection of their personalities -- Johnny's a hot head, Ben is the "rock" of the group, Reed's mind is as flexible as his body became, Sue tended to remain in the background, invisible). When he falls for a girl, he tends to fall hard. Heck, he fell in love with Crystal when he barely knew her!

Johnny was always about Johnny, and working in a team was hardest for him than the rest of the group. Remember, he was the first one to quit (in FF#4)! He's certainly grown up a lot since then, but even now, when he's presented as being in his early to mid twenties, he's still got some growing up to do. He still likes to show off when he can, especially when using his powers. But there is some restraint now that he didn't have before.

The Team: While the FF is most often referred to as a superhero team, it's important to remember that they aren't the Avengers or the X-Men. They're more of an adventuring family. The FF's focus is not on fighting crime (although they've done that as needed), they're more about pushing the boundaries and seeing what's out there, as well as protecting humanity from what they find. As a result, the FF has ended up being First Contact with other civilizations more often than not, whether by accident or design (they were the first to encounter the Kree and the Skrulls).  An adventure might start with the discovery of something in Reed's lab instruments, or it might come to them. In a lot of ways, they're similar to Doc Savage and his Amazing Five (there are parallels... Reed is Doc, Ben is Monk, Johnny is Ham to an extent, Sue almost fits into the Pat role), in that they will go anywhere they're needed.

They'll work with other heroes or teams when needed (better now than in the early days, such as when the Hulk came to New York, and the FF and Avengers basically tripped over each other trying to deal with the Hulk in their own ways), but usually operate by themselves. If they do fight crime, it's because the criminals involved are beyond the police's capabilities and are weird enough that it doesn't seem like the Avengers are the team to deal with it.

The FF is probably my favorite comic book team of all time, as you might have guessed from the length of this particular essay. It's sad to me that because of all the issues involving the FF's film rights that Marvel Comics has basically said, "Screw this, we won't publish the book until we get the rights back!" (although I can't see that lasting forever). But in the meantime, thanks to back issues, Essentials and Masterworks, the best of the FF is still out there for me to read and re-read!