Fantastic Four Life Story #1
This is not the origin of the Fantastic Four…at least the way we know it.
It’s 1961, and after three failed Cassandra space missions, President John F. Kennedy recruits the eminent Dr. Reed Richards to build and launch the Cassandra 4 and get it into space before the U.S. falls too far behind in the Space Race with the Soviet Union. He puts Reed in charge over the resentful Dr. Ricardo Jones (a name that should ring a bell), who postpones the launch because of Reed’s untested new antimatter fuel. Reed vents his frustrations to his girlfriend Susan Storm, who is also a scientist and engineer in this version instead of a model and actress. When Sue proposes going ahead with a launch without authority, her younger brother Johnny overhears them and blackmails Reed into letting go along, threatening to call NASA if Reed doesn’t.
I told you this isn’t the way we remember this. Hang on, there’s more.
Somehow Johnny knows the test pilot they will need to fly the Cassandra 4: a down-and-out Top Gun type named Ben Grimm, who’s been sacked by his superior after a dispute. (Ben says he mailed the guy to Singapore in a crate.) Ben has nothing better to do, so he signs on for the mission, and they all go to the launch site and put on…Fantastic Four uniforms. Only right now, they’re not Fantastic Four uniforms, they’re Cassandra 4 uniforms, get it?
It would have been a nice touch if artist Sean Izaaske had put them in original FF uniforms the way Jack Kirby first had them in Fantastic Four #3, with the wide-collared turtleneck top. Instead, he’s gone directly to the narrow-collared jersey top that the suits became in FF #6–an unfortunate and rather disappointing oversight in details. I would have loved to see the way Izaakse would draw the original FF design. But then we also have Reed and Ben meeting for the first time the night of the launch instead of being best friends from college, so this whole thing is getting WAY off the beam, diverging wildly from the real story. How much more of a departure can all this be? Hang on, you ain’t read nothing yet.
In space, they all get saturated by the effects of the cosmic rays interacting with the aforementioned antimatter fuel, and you know what happens—to a point. During this excrescence, Reed has a terrifying vision of the mass of the Earth being rendered into energy and sucked into the gaping maw of an armored alien life form with a crazy-looking helmet. Sound familiar? I thought it would.
They make it back alive to Walter Reed Hospital on Earth, where Johnny has to be extinguished in bed, while poor Ben…well, that part of the story is pretty much the same. On television, JFK praises “the Fantastic Four” for their bravery and sacrifice as the first Americans in space. (Which makes them national heroes and saves them being feared as freaks and monsters.) There’s a ticker-tape parade and everything, though Ben goes along with it very grudgingly. Further events quickly unfold. The Fantastic Four battle the Mole Man (but not Dr. Doom). Reed and Susan marry. Kennedy is assassinated. The FF are on Ed Sullivan the same night as the Fab Four from Liverpool, England. Sue Richards marches for civil rights for blacks with Martin Luther King, Jr. And Reed keeps having that vision of something from space devouring the Earth.
Reed tries to warn LBJ about what he’s seen, but President Johnson has his hands full with Vietnam and civil unrest at home. So Reed takes matters into his own hands and builds his “radical cube” (as in Fantastic Four #51) to try to contact the dangerous intelligence through sub-space. Reed needs Ben to assist him in this most dangerous experiment, but Dr. Ricardo Jones gets to Ben first, offering to take the “affliction” of the Thing onto himself and return Ben’s life to him via an exotic technology that Jones has invented. Recognize this guy now? In the real Marvel Universe, this is none other than the Changeling from “This Man, This Monster!” Reed hardly suspects when “the Thing” shows up to help him with the sub-space experiment that this is really the envious and bitter Jones in the Thing’s brick body.
Everything goes well until “the Thing” pushes Reed through the sub-space chamber, meaning to strand him on the other side, only to go flying through after him. Both of them end up face to face with an unusually cruel and malevolent-looking Galactus, who tells them that he is “coming for you all!” Jones in the Thing’s body realizes he was wrong to resent and hate Reed, and hurls him through the portal back to Earth, trapping himself in the Negative Zone. Meanwhile, on Earth, the human Ben Grimm knocks on the door of his girlfriend Sally, ready to propose to her—until he suddenly morphs back into the Thing. Dejected, he trudges away from the human life and love he’ll never have.
And here’s yet another wild departure from real FF history: It is not the Silver Surfer who leads Galactus to Earth; it is Reed who shows him where to find us. What happens next, writer Mark Russell does not share with us.
Three years later, it’s 1969, Earth is still here (having not been consumed by Galactus for some reason), Neil Armstrong is landing on the Moon, and Ben Grimm, who hasn’t seen Reed, Sue, and Johnny in all this time, comes to pay his respects to the Richardses’ newborn son. And we are left to ponder all the myriad details of how the first decade of the adventures of the Fantastic Four played out in this world. It’s really a head-scratcher.
Let me just preface this by saying I think this is a really well-written, well-drawn Marvel comic book. It truly is. The writing is couched in a particular conceit, that we are looking into a world where Marvel Comics time and Real World time pass at something like the same rate. (In regular Marvel Comics time, the time in which the real adventures of the Fantastic Four have unfolded, things work quite a bit differently. There is a chronological “sliding scale” on which the origin of the Fantastic Four is always between seven and ten years ago, and everything else in Marvel storytelling proceeds from that.) This means that a decade in this book and a decade of actual history are more or less the same thing, and you have to be on board with that to appreciate the story. So this first issue is an extreme compression of the time from FF #1 to FF #100. Fine.
With that in mind, this book is a clever and well-written manipulation of certain small portions of the history of the FF. So small, in fact, that we are left to wonder about things like Dr. Doom, who is such an important part of this saga that the Fantastic Four aren’t really the Fantastic Four without him. And the Skrulls and the Inhumans and the Silver Surfer and the Black Panther and…you get the point. (Though judging by the promo for issue #2, they are going to bring in the Sub-Mariner.) It makes me think that what we are seeing here is, in a way, the story of the Fantastic Four the way it would have been done in a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a place that so far has Fantastic Four ideas in it (the Skrulls, the Kree, the Black Panther, Wakanda), but no Fantastic Four. That, unfortunately, couldn’t be helped because of the way the licensing rights to Marvel properties were assigned before Disney took over. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe they do not actually do adaptations of Marvel comic books. Instead they take the characters, ideas, and history of the real Marvel Universe, take them apart, and put them back together again differently, so that we know what we’re looking at, but we’re seeing it in a way that it absolutely wasn’t. This, arguably, is what Mark Russell is doing with the history of the FF. This is not the real stuff. It is small parts of the real stuff, taken apart and put together again differently. And as such…it’s not bad. And Sean Izaakse, in spite of his historical goof with the uniforms, has brought it to life very pleasingly in the artwork.
But why is Galactus so evil in this story, for crying out loud? Where is the being who bears no malice to other living creatures, but only destroys worlds because he will starve if he doesn’t? This Galactus seems to want to annihilate and feast on our planet. He seems to take a malevolent pleasure in the idea. That’s really out of character!
What always concerns me about “the Marvel Cinematic Universe” is that I can see people who know NOTHING about comic books, Marvel or otherwise, who have never opened a comic book of any kind in their lives, who would never think to set foot in a comic book shop, going to these movies, watching these often very extreme reconfigurations of Marvel stories, and thinking they know something about Marvel Comics. If you know Marvel only from those movies, I’m sorry, you don’t know Marvel. I have something of the same misgiving about this book. As of this year, the saga of the Fantastic Four will be sixty years long, more or less. People coming to this book, who have seen none of that history, I can imagine them knowing the FF only from what Mark Russell is doing here, and that is a shame. What I hope for people who read this mini is the same thing that I hope for the people who go to the movies. I hope that movie-goers who enjoy Marvel films will seek out actual Marvel Comics, especially the history of Marvel’s first 25 years. And I hope that people who read the six issues of this miniseries will seek out the real stories of Reed and Sue and Johnny and Ben—especially the work of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and John Byrne, and Mark Waid. People need to know the real stuff of Marvel, and most especially the real stuff of The Fantastic Four, which is what defined Marvel and gave it its heart and soul and identity, and is still, regardless of Spider-people and X-people and Wolverines and armies of Avengers, the best damn comic book ever committed to paper. There’s a reason they call it “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine!” But as fine a piece of work as this miniseries is, no one is going to find the real greatness of The FF here.
Anyway, I honestly look forward to the remaining issues and the further clever manipulations of history they have in store for us. Knowing the history as I do, I’m finding this whole thing rather entertaining on its own terms. I think you’ll find it the same, whether you know the real history or not.
It’s gratifying to see Marvel doing things to celebrate the 60th Anniversary of its original comic book. Read this book; enjoy the different spins on history and the attractive-looking art. I expect the remaining issues will offer us some intriguing surprises—but I still want to know about the Silver Surfer and I still want to see Dr. Doom!
Fantastic Four Life Story #1: Same as it Never Was
Writing - 8/108/10
Storyline - 8/108/10
Art - 9/109/10
Color - 9/109/10
Cover Art - 7/107/10
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