Dating back to the very first issue of Amazing Spider-Man, Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four have been intrinsically linked as allies, adversaries and frenemies. With the Fantastic Four starring in their own movie this summer, superiorspidertalk.com is taking a look at the 10 very best Spider-Man/F4 stories.
There will always be debate about which post-Stan Lee/Jack Kirby Fantastic Four creative run is the greatest — I certainly love John Byrne’s writer/artist stint in the 1980s, and Jonathan Hickman’s run on scripts a few years back is the strictest definition of a modern classic. But I might be willing to stick my neck out and declare Mark Waid and the late Mike Wieringo the winners. Waid and Ringo, who also collaborated for their classic early/mid-90s run on The Flash, just had an uncanny amount of synergy and chemistry while working on the “First Family of Comics.” Together, they yielded stories that featured the cosmic fun of the Lee/Kirby years, while also really nailing the Reed/Sue/Ben/Johnny family dynamic in a way that is both intimate but self-aware. Plus, neither Byrne nor Hickman (though Hickman unquestionably came close) produced a Spider-Man/Fantastic Four story that’s as much fun to read as 2004’s “Spider Sense.”
The story utilizes the always classic comedic trope of “role reversal,” in that it features a Spider-Man/Human Torch team-up that’s completely turned on its ear due to circumstances (that transpired in an earlier Waid/Ringo story) that have transformed the F4 from beloved superheroes into America’s most despised costumed vigilantes.
Johnny, always the egotist, is forced to accept the fact that his one-time adoring public has now soured on him, making Spider-Man, by comparison, less detestable to the common New Yorker. So rather than accept what has happened to him, Johnny seeks out Spider-Man for PR advice — i.e., “how do you do it?” (translation: how do you get out of bed every day and put on your costume when the whole city thinks you’re a menace).
Rather than get offended by Johnny’s obliviously cruel question, Spidey plays to his audience and decides to take his long-time frenemy on a tour of a day in the life of the unlikable. Hijinks naturally ensue, leading to probably one of the best comic book stories to ever prominently feature the otherwise lame Spider-Man rogue, Hydro-Man.
What ultimately elevates this story into “classic” status is the way Waid and Ringo use story and art to build the comedy — culminating with a Vaudevillian punchline by the time the second issue of the arc reaches its final page. Waid and Ringo essentially deploy a bunch of sight gags and one-liners — but they are deployed with such expert timing and rapid-fire efficiency that “Spider Sense” becomes one of those storylines that tattoos a smile to my face just talking about it (I no doubt resemble the Cheshire cat when actually reading it).
Such jokes include having Johnny wandering the NYC streets aimlessly, muttering to himself as Fantastic Four merchandise like t-shirts and dolls has been replaced by Spider-Man ones. When he gets to the cover of a magazine that reads “ST ELIGIBLE BACHELORS” with five photos of Spider-Man and one of Johnny (representing the most recent selection for the magazine), Waid and Ringo deliver a classic bait and switch, shifting the focus of the panel to reveal the ENTIRE headlines so it reads “LEAST ELGIBLE BACHLEORS.” Rimshot please.
In a later sequence, Waid and Ringo deliver a joke without a single line of text. When Johnny obnoxiously solicits PR advice from Spider-Man, the Web-Slinger’s initial response is to stare blankly at his friend. The way Ringo frames the panel, the reader doesn’t even need an active imagination to picture the detesting scowl that crossed over Peter’s face upon hearing Johnny’s questions. The punchline is then accentuated by having the reader turn the page to see Spidey’s emotionally-charged response to the condescending Johnny.
Again, this is a story that’s all about timing. It’s those little tricks — faces that remain expressive despite being covered by masks because the script itself crescendos so effectively; or forcing the reader to take a beat and turn the page before showing an anticipated outburst by a character — that demonstrate an unquestionable level of comedic chops from the creators. And the fact that Waid and Ringo were so clearly great friends and loved working with each other, adds to the humor. It’s easy to believe that the two of them probably had numerous back and forths on the level of Spider-Man and Human Torch over the years.
The story is also clearly an homage to all of the great superhero “fights” between Spidey and Johnny that were a staple of Marvel’s early Silver Age library, like Strange Tales Annual #2, or Amazing Spider-Man #8 (which was considered strongly for this list but just missed the cut by a hair). As part of his free advice to Johnny, Spider-Man (wearing the Thing’s oversized trench coat as a disguise) brings him to a water park in Hoboken where he immediately outs his buddy as the now-reviled Human Torch. It’s just the latest installment of the game of one-upsmanship the two have played with each other over the years, though it gets a modern twist with some meta-gags (as well as a cliffhanger that involves Johnny losing his underwear in a pool that’s occupied by young children … yes, this also leads to a Michael Jackson joke).
Yet, even as Spidey revels in Johnny’s misery, Waid and Ringo find a way to capture Spider-Man’s unwavering obligation to do the right and responsible thing. In this instance, he throws Torch a lifeline when he notices the water park’s “mascot,” Squiddy McSquid (as funny to see as it is to write), hanging precariously from the top of a damaged waterslide. Rather than capitalize on his new-found adoration, Spidey tells a little white lie, claiming he’s out of web fluid, putting the squid’s life in Johnny’s hands. Johnny saves the day, and just like that, order is immediately restored to the universe in a fashion that probably had Fantastic Four fans cheering (but felt all too familiar to Spidey readers). The squid is actually an attractive girl under her costume and because Spider-Man fibbed about his web fluid, he has to experience the indignity of Torch carrying him home from the water park.
“Spider Sense” is just another example of how, when coupled with the right mix of creators, the Spider-Man/Human Torch dynamic is pure gold. There’s a reason why so many of these stories have already made this list (and perhaps more to come … spoiler, or not). Waid and Ringo were unquestionably at the top of their games when they were working on Fantastic Four, and we should all be thankful that Marvel brought them back to the book (after fan outrage prompted their return) so we could get this entry in the Spider-Man/F4 crossover library.