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Fantastic Fathers Week 2 - Solve Everything

by David HJ on September 12, 2014

When I was younger, my dad worked quite a bit. He actually still does – he’s a fairly specialized doctor, one of the most qualified in his unit at the hospital he works at. He sees patients, runs clinics, gives consults, and teaches at the local university’s medical school, as well as being on call a few times a month for consultations. He was certainly never absentee, but he worked hard and came home tired, so he didn’t always have a lot of time to just hang out. I know now that that’s something that he had to work on – finding a good balance between being able to give his all to do important, even life-saving work, and having something left to invest in his family.
 
If Hickman were to tell me his life story, I wouldn’t be terribly surprised to hear that he had similar experiences with his father. Franklin and Valeria Richards certainly will. I say that because the theme of balancing work and family is at the centre of Fantastic Four’s first arc, Solve Everything (albeit on a slightly grander scale). It’s implicit in the title; if Reed’s ambition is so unlimited as to make it a goal to “solve everything”, how can there possibly be room in his life for family?
 
This is the entire conceit of the Council of Reeds, one of the many instantly imagination-grabbing ideas that Hickman puts forward throughout the series. If you haven’t read the book (and you really, truly, should), the Council of Reeds is exactly what it sounds like, with different versions of Reed gathered from throughout the multiverse gathered together to work towards the common goal that unites them all: solve everything. Together they pursue the greatest possible good, feeding universes, saving galaxies, and lobotomizing Dr. Doom wherever he may be found. And three of them have Infinity Gauntlets.

The Council in session. Fantastic Four #570
 
Okay, so yeah, those last two definitely bring some pretty serious moral and ethical concerns with them, but not only is that outside the scope of this discussion, it’s also why the Council is such good story idea. The Council is fascinating as a multi-faceted portrait of all the things Reed could be. Sometimes they do things that are… questionable, but they always do it in the name of what they believe is right, and at the end of the day they’re doing much, much more good than they are bad. They’re scientists, magicians, warriors, philosophers, and in at least one case, Quasar.
 
And none of them are fathers. Not a one. This terrible truth is discovered by Reed (our Reed, that is) as the Council reels after an attack by Celestials – one of the Reeds warns him: “The cost of solving everything is everything. The work will consume you. How we can we think about little things like our personal lives when the fate of all we know lies in the balance?” This is a pretty flat out statement of the thesis of the Council. If Reed pursues all that he can be, he does so alone.
 

Fantastic Four #573
 
It’s hard to argue with. One of the biggest emotional conflicts in this story, after all, is Susan’s struggling, flagging ability to wait while Reed conducts his work in secret. He keeps his family, especially his wife and children, shut out of what he’s doing from the get-go. What the Council has accomplished is only possible because so many different Reeds have chosen to sacrifice everything but their mission. How could our Reed possibly hope to succeed where they have struggled and, in the face of the Celestial attack, arguably failed?
 
Hickman, of course, doesn’t answer this question outright, and won’t for another few dozen issues. He does, however, plant seeds. We know that our Reed is different. For one, he refuses outright to leave his family for the work, immediately setting him apart from the rest of the Council. This speaks to his character. We see a similar confirmation during the Council’s battle against the Celestials, when five Reeds are sent back to their own universes to bring reinforcements or weapons and only ours returns. Our Reed alone is so self-sacrificially committed to doing what’s right that he goes back to fight Celestials under very grim circumstances.
 
But at the end of the day, as the last chapter of Solve Everything plants the seeds to reveal, it’s not really about Reed at all. His specialness isn’t what sets him aside from the others – his family is. And when all the chips are down, Reed actually has very little to do with saving the universe – it’s his family. Especially his kids. Fatherhood in action.
 
Throughout the series, especially in the first issue, we have a few dark contrasts to Reed. The first is his own father. The generational Richards family is closely tied to a lot of important story and thematic points, and Reed’s desire to both live up to his father’s expectations and not repeat his mistakes with his own children are two important ones. Nathaniel ultimately supplies Reed’s motivation to turn his back on the Council and stay with his family, imploring him to “Be a better father… Be a better man.” We learn in the course of Solve Everything that Nathaniel himself was an absentee father who chose undeniably important, life-saving work over his family (for more on that work, Hickman’s miniseries S.H.I.E.L.D. is what you want to read. It’s an important companion piece to his work on F4).
 
Nathaniel is one extreme of what Reed is determined not to become, an abandoner. At the other extreme is the Wizard. Where Nathaniel chose his work over his son, the Wizard endeavours to his sons his work, cloning them and attempting to use them in his supervillainous schemes. Doing so renders him a far colder and darker thing than Nathaniel could possibly be. “I know that a father is supposed to unconditionally love his children,” he tells Bently-12, one of his numerous clones, “But I can only find room in my hear for Anger for you and your current generation.”
 
The Wizard represents a different sort of danger for Reed. He sees his children as tools to accomplish his goals, a line that it doesn’t seem too difficult to imagine Reed toeing himself. He loves his children, there’s no doubt about that. But there’s nevertheless something chilling about him reassuring the Wizard, saying “I’ll visit regularly. I promise. Maybe we can publish a paper together.” While Bently-12 stares at nothing, dead-eyed. Reed has certainly had his moments of prioritizing the work over the people.


Fantastic Four #570
 
The next arc, Prime Elements, is much heavier on grander plot points. Where the last chapter of Solve Everything set up the game board, Prime Elements is where a lot of the pieces start to get moved around. Nevertheless, there are still some key moments in keeping with our theme, so drop by next time as Fantastic Fathers takes on Fantastic Four #575-578: Prime Elements.

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