FANTASTIC FOUR: BIG TOWN (Mania.com)

By:James Busbee
Date: Wednesday, November 08, 2000

This is a tale of two Big Towns. Fantastic Four: Big Town, the much-talked about four-issue mini-series, tells the story of a world where the advanced technology of Marvel's superheroes has filtered down to the street-level everyday society. But in recent days, the series' behind-the-scenes story has eclipsed the four-color version. Big Town has become yet another freelancer-versus-editorial throwdown, and in the minds of many fans marks the first major test of new Marvel Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada's authority, leadership and creator loyalties.

The problems began early last week, when Big Town creator Steve Englehart says he received a cryptic message from Marvel informing him that editors had made changes to the first issue of the series, altering pages and, in some cases, according to Englehart, characters' entire motivations. Englehart decided to take his concerns public, excoriating editors for making changes and distancing himself from the finished product. 'In the end, the first issue of the series that I've said such great things about over the past several months was just gone,' said Englehart in a public statement. 'And I just heard about it, weeks after the fact.'

To longtime followers of Marvel's editorial policies, the changes came as no surprise. Talessome true and some notof Marvel editors altering or even completely rewriting scripts without even informing writers are legion in recent years, the most infamous being Captain America #14, in which writer Mark Waid removed his name from the finished product in protest to uninvited changes. But Englehart's very public posting drew the attentionand ireof Quesada, who stepped into the fray with his own take on the entire situation.

'I called back the book after reading a black-and-white review copy, which was given to me for my approval...because parts of it were simply unclear and confusing, not just to myself but to several other editors as well,' said Quesada in his first statement to the comics press. 'Maybe this was due to the fact that it was cut from six to four [issues, a decision made months ago]. Nevertheless, [certain story aspects were not] clear. Plus, when you're dealing with a story based on an alternate future, proper character and story setups need to be made so that the reader isn't totally confused.'

From there, matters quickly disintegrated into an online shoving match, with Quesada and Englehart each refuting the other's words in dueling press releases. At the moment, matters appear to have reached a stalemate of sorts, with Englehart acknowledging that discussions have taken place and Quesada expressing a willingness to work with Englehart to iron out concerns over the handling of the entire situationand answering any doubts that he'd left his creative roots behind in filling the EIC post.

'No matter what the situation, if Marvel was wrong, I wouldn't be here defending the decisions,' says Quesada, who added in a Friday press release that he's removing himself from the online duel, preferring to continue dealing with the matter inhouse. 'I may be a larger part of the company now, but as all of my freelancers can attest, my allegiances are always to the creative community.'

Still up in the air is the fate of the original script to Big Town #1. Englehart has said he intends to publish it online, and added that fellow Marvel scribe Kurt Busiek recommended Marvel host the script on its own site. Quesada expressed support for the idea while pointing out that copyright issues still come into play. 'Seems that if we're going to do anything like that it would be prudent for Steve to see if Marvel can do it, since they do own the script,' said Quesada in the Friday release.

But what about the series itself? After all the political infighting, will anybody even care about the book that started all the fuss? They should. All sides agree that Big Town is a heck of a story, and a potential franchise, even without the office politics that have surrounded it.

Velcro, Tang and the FantastiCar

An analogy best demonstrates what Englehart had in mind when creating Big Town. When the United States kicked off its space program in the 1950s (we're talking about our world here), it not only ended up sending men to the moon, it spawned a technological tidal wave that affected every man, woman and child back home on Earth. Innovations as varied and unrelated as Velcro, artificial hearts, cordless power tools and NASCAR drivers' thermal protection suits are a direct result of space research.

Now imagine where we'd be if Neil Armstrong and company had been bathed in cosmic rays, and you'll see where Englehart and artists Mike McKone and Mark McKenna are headed. After all, if the FF can cruise New York in a flying car, why must everyone else sit in traffic below? Big Town's the story of a world in which Marvel's most famous heroes don't keep their most amazing inventions to themselves.

'The [current] Marvel Universe is based on the idea that things didn't change once the superheroes appeared,' says Englehart. 'That's so Peter Parker could continue to worry about normal things, and the FF could worry about their landlord and stuff like they used to do.' The conceit connected heroes with their readers, who loved the idea that even the amazing Spider-Man often had trouble getting dates. But how realistic was it, especially in the current everything's-got-a-price world?

'I thought, jeez...as soon as Galactus appeared to eat New York, and as soon as Reed had to invent some incredible invention to overcome Doctor Doom, and as soon as Doctor Doom invented another incredible invention to take over New York, all that technology would change things almost at once,' says Englehart. 'Not only would it make people aware that there was this whole new level of reality going on, but I figured that Reed and Tony Stark and other people, as they invented these really cool things, would funnel the technology down into the general public.'

The series' original title was, simply, Big Town. 'New York'Big Town'has always been a very cutting-edge place,' says Englehart. 'In New York live the FF, the Avengers, the group that would have become the X-Men, Daredevil, Doctor Strange. I wanted to do a story where all these various heroes live and interact, and we see what they're like with this new reality in place.' But since this mini-series focuses primarily on the members of the FF, Marvel decidedlong before the current controversiesto add the 'Fantastic Four' moniker to the title. 'Marvel told me the book would sell another 5,000 copies if it had 'Fantastic Four' on it, and who am I to argue with that?' concedes Englehart.

Standing on Top of the World

The series begins in a time of dual celebrations. The world is celebrating the tenth anniversary of the FF's fateful trip to the stars, while the FF itself is also celebrating the impending marriage of Johnny Storm. They all live in a world dramatically different from the Marvel Universebut, strangely, not unfamiliar.

For instance, the entire 40-block area between the FF's Baxter Building and Avengers Mansion has been cleared and turned into what appears to be parkland. In fact, beneath the surface is a 40-block power grid running all this new technologyan idea that makes sense, given the fact that until now, Reed, et. al. have apparently run their Negative Zone portals and ultra-powerful combat simulators off of wall sockets. The entire cityindeed, nearly the entire worldradiates out from the Baxter Building and Fantastic Four Enterprises, which is headquartered within. It's there that Johnny Storm has met his fiancée, Sally Juarez, one of the many people working within the FF's vast infrastructure.

'It was mainly a matter of letting my imagination run wild,' says Englehart. 'If people get off on this one and we get to do another one, I'd probably call it Avengers: Big Town, just to make it clear that this is about more than just the heroes.'

Still, the heroes are at the top of Big Town's food chain. And at the point of the pyramid is Mr. Fantastic himself, the man responsible for humanity's renaissance. He's richer than Bill Gates, more popular than Tiger Woods and yet still refuses to take credit for his accomplishments. The series begins with Thor and Iron Man praising a humble Reed for his amazing body of work. 'But Reed's still Reed, so he's not walking around in golden robes lording it over everybody,' explains Englehart. 'His goal was not just to lift up, say, rich white people with his technology. So there aren't too many bad parts of New York anymore. Lives have been uplifted, the general level of income has gone up and everybody seems to be pretty happy.'

And with the technology now at their fingertips, why wouldn't they be? The residents of Big Town zip through the city at speeds of up to 200 mph, courtesy of the 'StarKar,' a Tony Stark creation that uses the Iron Man technology for mass transit. Everyone also carries a portable wireless unit, a combination cell phone/Internet browser/global positioning systema device, Englehart notes, that's likely not too far off in our own future. When New Yorkers see supervillain trouble afootand they still do, quite oftenthey simply punch in '111,' the superhero alert code, and the heroes come a-runnin'.

'This technology is what the superheroes use on a regular basis, so I tried to imagine how it would work in 'real' technology,' says Englehart. 'Iron Man's armor can do all this amazing stuff, so you would figure Tony Stark could turn a lot of it into consumer products.'

Villains Will Be Villains

While the heroes have created a virtual utopia in Big Town, Marvel's most famous villains have watched with growing horror. 'The fact that this conglomeration of superheroes has created this incredible tidal wave of technological advancement in New York has basically put the other claimants to the worldDoctor Doom, the Red Skull, Magneto, the Hulk, the Sub-Mariner and Ultronback on their heels,' says Englehart. 'Even though those six villains ordinarily wouldn't do anything for one of the others, they've decided if they don't hang together, they'll hang separately. Any dreams they had of taking over the world are going to be gone, real soon, if they don't put a stop to this 'hegemony' in Big Town.'

So, in the finest Marvel tradition, the Fantastic Four tries to celebrate an anniversary and a wedding while Doctor Doom and the other supervillains try to destroy all that Big Town touches and represents. The battleand its attendant casualties and falloutforms the backbone of the mini-series' storyline.

Down the line, assuming Big Town survives of course, Englehart would love to tell more tales about this new world, and the ways in which a few different decisions affect the lives of such familiar characters. 'The entire idea behind Big Town is observing familiar people in this new situation,' says Englehart. 'Some prosper, some don't, and a few do die. The great thing about an alternative universe is that you can do what you want to these charactersbut I'm also aware that if you're making things up without any regard to the past, it can become just an exercise in 'what-ifness.' I think it's a fascinating universe, and hopefully it's familiar enough that people can get behind it.'

In the end, Englehart says he has no 'Pandora's Box' themes in mind, but prefers to stay true to the spirit of the characters he's writing. 'The Marvel Universe was created in the 1960s, with Kennedy and his New Frontier thing going on,' says Englehart. 'It was a very forward-looking, optimistic kind of time. So if you're going to be true to the way the Marvel Universe started, you've got to assume things turned out pretty well. This isn't a 'Vertigo' take on the Marvel Universe. There are dark characters, and bad things do happen, but overall, Big Town is a pretty damn good place to be.'

The More Things Stay The Same, The More They Change



So, with this premise in mind, what were the specific changes made to the first issue? Fans will have to compare the actual comic with Englehart's first scriptwhen and if it's posted onlineto get the full story, but he does offer some insight. 'There were lots of changes, major and minor,' says Englehart. 'Some of the most interesting are the reversal of the opening sequence, the elimination of the Panther's hatred of Thorr [note the spelling, which also changed], and the exact relationship between Hank and Jan [Ant-Man and Wasp, in our world].' Even so, Englehart notes that the entire Big Town affair turned out 'pretty darned well,' and hopes to resolve any future concerns about the series well in advance of their printing.

The larger, remaining, real-world issues arising from Big Town concern the way that editorial politics will play out under the Quesada regime. Marvel's new EIC says the entire Big Town affair has left him frustrated, but also hopeful. 'As for creators venting their problems in public, that will never stop, it's the nature of the biz,' says Quesada. 'I was only concerned because usually when a creator vents, for the most part, you're half expecting it. This sort of took me by surprise. I know every company I had a beef with knew I was upset with them [beforehand].'

But throughout the affair, Quesada consistently expresses a desire to bring the whole matter to a close in order to focus on the book. 'As far as Marvel is concerned, Steve is a valued creator, and he's been told that directly by me,' says Quesada. 'Airing our dirty laundry is really not my style and for that, I take half the blame and apologize to the fans. That being said, Big Town is still a fun book with beautiful art, and everyone should run out and grab a copy.'