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.
I was initially quite skeptical when I learned Spider-Man was going to join the cast of the Fantastic Four following Johnny Storm/Human Torch’s death in 2011. It’s not that I necessarily thought Spidey was a poor fit for the team — he’s obviously been linked to Reed, Sue, Ben and Johnny since the Silver Age and there was definitely some poetry to the idea that Peter would be supplanting (under tragic circumstances) one of his best friends and rivals in Johnny.
However, my concerns were more rooted in the creator who would be co-piloting the ship, Jonathan Hickman. Prior to the launch of the Future Foundation, aka, FF, I had read very little of Hickman’s Fantastic Four run, but I understood that he was a very gifted, if not very high-minded and complex writer. Despite his claims in interviews that it was a dream to write Spider-Man, I just didn’t think Hickman could be grounded enough to write “your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.” And while now, after having read the entirety of his Fantastic Four work, I can say FF was a very good series, I still maintain that Spider-Man, as Johnny’s replacement, under Hickman’s thumb, was a poor choice. That joy Hickman reportedly experienced upon learning that he could play with Spidey for a bit, never found its way onto the page in a way during the first 12 issues of FF.
But “The Roommate Experiment,” which was created during the aftermath period of Johnny’s return from certain death in the Negative Zone, is a talking alien horse of a different color. It’s unquestionably the most joyful and absurd Hickman comic I’ve ever read, and a fantastic demonstration of the Spider-Man/Human Torch dynamic now that both characters are sorta/kinda grown up. Meanwhile, Nick Dragotta’s pencils and inks add an extra element of Hunter S. Thompson-esque mayhem to the story that make it a wholly unique entry in the Spider-Man/Fantastic Four universe.
The actual plot of “The Roommate Experiment” feels like something straight out of one of Marvel’s vintage What If? stories of yesteryear. Out of nowhere, and with little buildup or fanfare in either The Amazing Spider-Man or Fantastic Four/FF series, Peter and Johnny are roommates. In a shocking reversal of fortunes, Peter is depicted as the responsible, competent roommate (after years of having to sneak into his home past a rent-demanding Miss Muggins). He has his steady job at Horizon Labs (courtesy of Slott’s “Big Time” era status quo shift) and is even organized enough to have a “to-do” list for each of his separate personas: Peter and Spider-Man.
Unfortunately, the key item on his to-do list as Peter AND Spider-Man is to evict Johnny, who is as insufferable and unpredictable as ever since returning from his “death” at the hands of the Annihilation Wave. This is actually a fantastic evolution of character for Johnny, whose always been portrayed as a bit of a loose cannon and a narcissist. Now that he’s basically cheated death (though, to be technically accurate, I believe he is killed and reanimated multiple times over within the Negative Zone before he and the “Light Brigade” are able to overcome Annihilus), not only is he a little shell-shocked, but his devil may care attitude has been accentuated.
Sure, a legitimate case could be made that this story is really just a hyper-exaggerated situational comedy. It’s filled with a whole hosts of clichés that one would expect from Chandler and Joey, not comic book heroes: Johnny using the “emergency phone” to get Peter to pick up drinks for a party that evening (soda pop of course); Peter taking some kind of alien beverage and finding himself unable to control his actions (while Johnny macks it to Mary Jane); Peter waking up and finding himself sitting upside down on a couch (a cute play on the Spider-Man web pose from Dragotta, mind you).
If any of these visuals/situations sound off-putting or juvenile, then “The Roomate Experiment” is not the comic book for you. For me, I think the fact that something so uproarious came from Hickman’s pen of all places elevates it for me.
We also get a recurring trope of Peter’s “to-do list” being updated to reflect his seething rage for Johnny’s obviousness and obnoxiousness. It starts with Peter needing to kick Johnny out, and ends with Peter boiled so over that his writing is incomprehensible. It’s such a simple but effective way to humorously convey how Peter reaches the end of his proverbial rope. Yes, it’s always great when someone can deliver some high concept comedy, but there’s also something to be said about the side-splitting-ness of watching a mild-mannered guy like Peter lose his stuff over Johnny’s cockiness.
The storyline also deserves credit for adding a heavy slathering of levity to Johnny’s then-current situation. Johnny’s death and its immediate aftermath led to some profoundly sad comic book stories courtesy of Hickman, as he really zeroed-in on the youthful energy Human Torch provided the “first family of comics.” Once the machinations of his revival were explained in Fantastic Four #600, the character suddenly felt more tragic than vibrant. Having the brash, young Johnny Storm get tortured to the point of death by a killer like Annihilus over and over again felt like one of those things that the character would never be able to move on from. However “The Roommate Experiment,” is a throwback to the Johnny of old, plus in the way it deploys his alien cronies, the Light Bridgade (“my home is engorged”) is a double bonus in making the Human Torch more approachable and relateable again.
And as creepy and suggestive as the final sequence is, where Johnny is assumedly sweet-talking Mary Jane on the other end of the phone, telling her to “forget” whatever happened the night before, Hickman and Dragotta end the whole thing with one of the most crudely funny visual punchlines I’ve ever seen in a Spider-Man comic (or any superhero comic).
What we’re left with is one of those great “Catch 22s” because on one hand I found this whole story to be so funny it made me almost annoyed that Hickman couldn’t tap into this level of characterization while writing Spidey in FF, but then I also realized that having something that’s akin to a chained-up Annihilus relieving his bowels on a toilet would probably ruin the tone and vibe of the epic story that was being built prior to the publication of “The Roommate Experiment.”