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Fantastic Four: Road Trip mixes "quintessential family story" with "visceral" body horror

Fantastic Four: Road Trip #1
(Image credit: Filipe Andrade/Chris O’Halloran (Marvel Comics))

Christopher Cantwell is no stranger to the world of the Fantastic Four, as the writer of Marvel Comics' ongoing Doctor Doom title. Now, on December 2, Cantwell will see how the other side lives with the Fantastic Four: Road Trip one-shot.

Featuring art from Felipe Andrade, Fantastic Four: Road Trip #1 will combine a lighthearted family vacation with a gruesome body horror twist, all set against the backdrop of Reed Richards's secret experiments.

Newsarama spoke with Cantwell ahead of Road Trip's release to discuss the writer's own history with family trips, what it's like writing flawed geniuses, and why this seemingly safe story will veer more into the realm of David Cronenberg than Chevy Chase.

(Image credit: Marvel Comics)

Newsarama: Christopher, you've got plenty of experience writing Doctor Doom. What's it like moving on to writing his enemies the Fantastic Four?

Christopher Cantwell: It's a joy. I've mentioned this before about writing Iron Man, but heroes have tighter constraints on them in terms of their choice. It's a box I like writing inside of because it's fun to push against its walls without breaking them. And the FF is so upstanding and pure in so many ways that it was fun to honestly screw with that in a way that also felt true to them.

Nrama: A Grand Canyon road trip is a relatively ubiquitous experience for a certain generation - my family took one when I was 13. What personal family vacation memories are you drawing on for Fantastic Four: Road Trip?

Cantwell: I took so many road trips as a kid. Many were from Texas to St. Louis or Chicago—12 and 17 hours respectively. My parents almost always insisted on doing them straight through. I had family in both places so they would just do straight shots. I would be sprawled out in the back with comics and Star Wars toys price guides and all kinds of stuff. 

(Image credit: Filipe Andrade/Chris O’Halloran (Marvel Comics))

But they're also mind-numbing and rather disorienting. This whole story is very disorienting, so starting with so many people crammed in one car for a few hours felt like a good place to start. The funny thing is though, I have never been to the Grand Canyon. But most of my adult road trips have been through the Southwest, since I live in California.

Nrama: Seeing the title of the one-shot and knowing the Richards family, I thought of Chevy Chase and National Lampoon's Vacation. But you mentioned a very different filmmaker when Fantastic Four: Road Trip was announced - David Cronenberg. How do you go about mashing up a family trip with extreme body horror?

Cantwell: Yeah this story is as if Cronenberg directed the original Vacation film. I picked the Grand Canyon because I wanted something all-American to contrast with what I was planning to do. Originally this issue was supposed to come out in the summer so I thought of a summer vacation. I also wanted to tell a quintessential family story because that is what the FF is at its very essence. Also, precisely because of movies like Vacation, audiences are kind of prepped for road trips to go awry. Vacation is an incredibly American movie.

The body horror side of that comes from my visceral response to the FF at an early age. I was very scared of the Thing when I was a kid because I imagined something like what we do in this book happening to his body. I have kind of intense trypophobia and something about the Thing's skin really activates it in me. Also, the FF are mutants—in the true sense of the word, in that an externality was introduced into their physiology that changed them forever.

There's something disturbing about that on a visceral level to me, to have one's body become distorted or strange. It's like how we also have a subconsciously strange appreciation of redheads. They're literally mutants and I don't mean that pejoratively. The gene has mutated. Mutation can be beautiful, powerful, and also quite horrific.

(Image credit: Filipe Andrade/Chris O’Halloran (Marvel Comics))

That's the FF in a nutshell to me. I thought if I leaned into the extreme of that idea I could make it really upsetting. But then I combined it with the other integral part of the FF—family. The family operates best as one unit. Well… how far can we take that? Felipe and I take that pretty dang far.

Nrama: The solicit mentions Reed's secret experiments. What can you tell us about what the FF are up against here?

Cantwell: The original title of this story was 'Presolar Syndrome!'.

I wanted to harken back to old comic story titles and I also have this odd obsession with presolar grains and have for several years. It's just dust but it also comes from stars older than our sun. I have actually been trying to do a sci-fi presolar grains story for seven years. I finally got one out there.

I know 'presolar' pops up in a lot of my comic work, I can't even remember where at this point. So do go-to jargony words and phrases that I've made up over the years because I just like the way they sound: 'Remote Quadrant Zulu,' 'Goss Sector,' 'Petawatt,' 'Graphene,' 'EON-DEF,' 'Ty-Con Battery,' and other stuff that just pops up because I need to fill in a blank.

Dan Aykroyd did that a lot with Ghostbusters and I just love having my own dictionary of weird-sounding stuff.

Nrama: You're building a small body of Marvel work based around odd twists - symbiote Santa, a body horror family adventure... What motivates you to find that kind of wrinkle in a more common Marvel story?

Cantwell: Marvel stories are like our modern-day Greek myths - ironclad in their lasting stories and also very malleable. It's the best of both worlds.

I can rely on an audience's collective knowledge of something but then also add something new or subvert it. The trick is to identify that unifying concept we can all agree upon and then twisting it in a way that is acceptable. I can't always win over the whole audience with twists and I'm already experiencing that with some fans. But if I just build with dry cement blocks, it's really uninteresting.

Nrama: Speaking of which, is there anything Marvel has said no to so far?

Cantwell: I have been so wildly surprised by their willingness to take big leaps in the books. I know the MCU is entirely different, as is the way CBS handles things like Star Trek, or Lucasfilm with Star Wars. Marvel Comics at least is like "go for it."

It's incredible to play with 60-year-old characters or even 75-year-old ones like Hellcat and really bend them around. It's like an action figure collector handing these priceless figures from a shelf to a three-year-old who's going to bang them together, and the three-year-old is me.

For the record though, there are action figures I have that I won't let my three-year-old play with. Maybe that's silly but I understand sometimes when Marvel says no.

(Image credit: Filipe Andrade/Chris O’Halloran (Marvel Comics))

I wanted to kill Mole Man in Doctor Doom. I've gone back and heavily revised scripts after conversations with my editors and they've always come out better.

Some characters get tied up by other titles coincidentally and aren't available for use. I pitched an entire Witness limited series and there was clear consensus that there's not a big enough audience for that. I'd love to do a Mistress Death mini.

But there's so much freedom if I just go way to the back of Marvel's garage and go "What about this Canadian hero that appeared in one issue in the '70s" and they're like "sure blast him to pieces or make him evil or have him become a talking spider.

Nrama: You're working with Felipe Andrade on Fantastic Four: Road Trip. What does he bring to a story like this?

Cantwell: He has a surreality that is just amazing. It's incredible. His work reminds me of Bill Plympton cartoons - grounded but then easily distorted and disturbing if need be. I personally have never seen the FF done like this before. We're really leaning into their bizarre qualities here.

Nrama: How does he handle splitting the difference in the two sides of this story, the family adventure and the sci-fi horror?

Cantwell: They surprisingly blend together well. They're a family and have to work together. Can they all put down their own agendas and have a nice vacation? Can they count on each other when it matters most?

Every great FF story does both… we just maybe added more horror.

But I mean imagine getting fried in a spaceship and all your DNA changing and looking and feeling so messed up after that. I mean there's a version of the FF that is similar to Cronenberg's The Fly, right? "What's happening to my body?" is a freaky, freaky genre.

Nrama: You've got a few Marvel titles going right now, including Doctor Doom and Iron Man. You also created the TV show Halt and Catch Fire. What's the allure of flawed geniuses like Doom, Tony Stark, and Reed Richards?

Cantwell: Ego blindness. The ultimate hollowness of the idea of 'success.'

I think even Reed has it too, if maybe the least. But issue #9 of Doctor Doom deals with Reed and Doom finally, and I tried to write how Reed would be subtly passive aggressive to Doom in a way that is so maddening but also completely deniable.

Is it all in Doom's head or is Reed actually messing with him? We'll never know.

Reed is also an obsessive—which I am as well—and that ends up making someone very selfish even if it's out of their control. But I mean, he's also like, let's make a Council of Me's to run the universe. C'mon.

All the main characters in Halt and Catch Fire were flawed geniuses as well. To be so successful and driven I believe there's a part of someone that makes them a bit of an asshole. It's a ratio, really. How much of an asshole? What kind?

James Cameron insists that a klaxon horn sounds when he needs to go to set. Seriously.

(Image credit: Filipe Andrade/Chris O’Halloran (Marvel Comics))

Nrama: On that note, what sets Reed apart from Marvel's other super geniuses?

Cantwell: Well, more to the last question, his selfish decisions might not be intentional at all. He simply believes he's doing what's best. He's also more right than others much of the time. He's got a higher batting average.

But again, not perfect. They're all unavailable in their own ways.

Like if Captain America had geniuses on speed dial, 1 would be Reed but he's in his lab and can't be disturbed or if he tells you the answer you can't understand it. 

2 is maybe Tony Stark but no one can find him because he's either gambling in Monte Carlo or tormenting himself somewhere in the exosphere. 

3 is Bruce Banner - constantly changing places with Tony in the order, but maybe Bruce is destroying tanks or out of control and ripping apart trees for no reason. 

4 is Hank Pym but like… wanting to talk too much and catch up and get a soda and isn't taking it seriously enough. 

5 is Peter Parker but you've got maybe a 50% success rate, plus Peter is so distracted that he often does the equivalent of shrugging and going "I don't know, deal with it, I can't right now." 

6 is Stephen Strange, but that's very provincial and he's like "Is it an ancient ghost?" 

7 is Adam Brashear, but you know he's going to school you on everything you say and maybe not consider the problem too serious or interesting for him. 

8 is Hank McCoy and Charles Xavier but there is so much drama it might not be worth it. 

And 9 is Victor Von Doom, and Cap has to be really really hard up to push that number.

Nrama: What's next for you from Marvel, and elsewhere?

Cantwell: I've got a handful of indie books in development ranging from small thriller to sci-fi to fantasy, which I've never done. The final volume of my Berger Books title Everything will be out next year. In terms of Marvel, all I can say is… some other stuff. 

George Marston

Newsarama staff writer who learned to read from comic books and hasn’t shut up about them since.