Advance Review: Fantastic Four: Season One

The Marvel Season One project is a way for the House of Ideas to update the canonical origins of all their biggest heroes, paying respect to the work of Stan Lee and company by incorporating the stories they told with a modern-day sensibility.  Given the “Season One” title, this seems to be entirely un-subtle code for making their big-name properties a lot more movie and TV-friendly for spin-off purposes.  Here’s your storyboard, Hollywood, please give us money now. Of course, it’s also a nice way to bring in new readers who can’t yet appreciate old-school 1960s-era storytelling, or may be daunted by the long and storied histories.

Fittingly, the first of these books is Fantastic Four: Season One, by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, currently a writer on Glee with a history of working with Marvel’s First Family during the Marvel Knights era, as well as Secret Invasion.  The release of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four #1 back in 1961 is what launched the Silver Age and the modern superhero era, so it’s certainly the best place to start.  So… let’s start!

Keep in mind HERE THERE BE SPOYLERS, as it’s kinda hard to discuss how this origin differs from what came before without discussing major plot points.

What this 130-odd page book does is roll most of the major early Fantastic Four events into one big issue, and this is your new canon… unless nobody likes it, and then it won’t be (see also: John Byrne’s Spider-Man: Chapter One).  The cosmic rays, the Mole Man and the return of Namor are all packed into this graphic novel. It’s worth noting that Dr. Doom, however, only has a one-page cameo, commenting amusingly on the public reveal of the FF… which was now initially known as The Fearsome Four, thanks to a hot-headed Johnny Storm thinking it sounded badass and blurting it out on television. 

It all flows fairly well together, and while I’m not encyclopedic in my knowledge of Fantastic Four history, the changes made don’t seem too catastrophic.  There’s no space race against the Commies anymore, but instead, Reed Richards’ ego wants to establish himself as manning the first entirely privatized excursion into space, to help subsidize the rest of his work.

Aside from revealing that Reed has self-diagnosed a mild case of autism he’s inventing a cure for – a development sure to cause some strong debate – perhaps the most significant of the alterations is the incorporation of Dr. Alyssa Moy, a former flame of Reed’s that was introduced in the late 1990s by Chris Claremont, into the origin story as one of Reed’s colleagues at the Baxter Building.  In the new origin, she basically plays Mission Control for their secret excursion into space, while providing a little bit of dramatic tension in the potential nuptials between Reed and Susan Storm and eventually becoming their PR lady.  How this affects her previously established canon, we don’t quite know, but retcons can be ruthless to minor characters.  Then again, this is a pretty big upgrade, and it prevents them from having to make Sue into a scientist Ultimate-style just to prove the FF isn’t all antiquated in its social mores about gender roles – a point made a bit too fine later when the boys try to leave Sue behind, and she joins them anyway after making a pissy speech about not being window dressing and saves the day against underground monsters.

Yes, the Mole Man still attacks, as pictured on the cover of Fantastic Four Vol. 1 #1, but the team fights him and his beasts in New York City instead of Monster Isle, and  in street clothes while still discovering the extent of their powers – and they solve the problem by having Sue just talk down ol’ Harvey Elder, have him call off his big monster named Korgu, and offer him a lab in the Baxter. That ain’t how it originally happened back in 1961.

However, that change sets up the solution to the Namor problem, when the public revelation of a new Human Torch fires a few synapses in the shaggy bearded transient who has apparently forgotten his true identity.  When he suddenly realizes he’s The Avenging Son of Atlantis, and goes home to find his kingdom ransacked by surface-dwellers, he goes to a museum, finds the big magic horn, and calls the Leviathan to come stomp New York.  Thankfully, the FF recruited the Mole Man, and thus have their Korgu to defend the city.  That’s right – Fantastic Four: Season One culiminates in a big-ass kaiju battle.  Ain’t nothin’ wrong with that.

All the familiar tropes are still present – such as the Reed guilt about Ben Grimm becoming stuck as the Thing (and Ben flipping out and feeling justified in making Reed feel like crap about for a while it is a nice, humanizing touch – and it’s a way of referencing the animus between Reed and Ben in the original origin issue, without making it about competing for Sue). After finding a cure for the rockness, his choosing to take on the burden again to save his surrogate family is a fairly solid moment, even if it feels a little rushed and we’re not entirely sure why he can’t re-cure himself afterward.  The ball-busting between Ben and Johnny is always entertaining, too. If anything rings hollow to me, it’s the forced contemporary references out of Sue.  She tosses out names like Mad Men, J.J. Abrams and “Zach Snyder” [sic], which entirely defeats the purpose of making sure your story isn’t dated.  Rooting your new origin story in a specific era is part of the problem you’re trying to solve, folks, so don’t just up and root it in THIS era as a solution.  It’s called making it timeless.

There’s also a minor quibble that I should just shrug off, because it’s in service of a fun joke at Johnny’s expense.  They establish him as a big comic book reader, and thus familar with Namor and the Invaders, but earlier, he’s surprised to learn that there was a Human Torch before him.  It’s funny because it makes him look like the dope he is, but it’s one or the other.  Or we can No-Prize it and just say ‘hey, you can know who Captain America is without knowing who the Whizzer is.’

The establishing of the dynamic between Sue, Reed and Namor is somewhat curious.  Sue has that initial hypnotic attraction to him and his crazy speedo suit – and it’s just after one of her girlfriends encouraged her to try flirting with other dudes to maybe spur Reed (apparently now her college professor she eventually started dating) into proposal action.  However, Namor’s obnoxious sexism and general conqueror vibe immediately douse that into ‘pff, you’re a pig.’  There’s also a moment where Reed thinks Namor has just casually killed Sue and Johnny, and he absolutely flips out in anger and threatens to kill ol’ Baby Fish Mouth, which is something you just don’t see out of the brainiac.  This is all just the beginning of that triangle, but what’s here doesn’t really seem like the kind of basis to build a long-simmering tension.  Then again, the fact that apparently Mr.Fantastic’s body apparently actually feels like an inflatable pool toy to the touch now might mean Mr. Imperius Jerkx is more forgivable.

The art from David Marquez is very solid, however – clean and shiny with well-rendered characters, and the coloring from Guru E-FX is just as bright as the Fantastic Four should be.  Marquez is a bit too waify-supermodelly with his ladies, but that’s just a systemic problem with the entire medium, and there’s a lot more Torch and Namor shirtlessness going on than there is any focus on how nose-jobby Moy looks.

There are nods to the original origin issue, though, as the first time we see Sue, she’s brunching with friends, just as she is in Fantastic Four Vol. 1 #1, and Johnny is obsessing about a car – although now he’s also flashing his abs as a model and flirting with his photographer. Then there’s the official announcement of their names – Reed swears “Mr. Fantastic” isn’t his idea from the get-go, while Sue takes umbrage at Moy introducing her to the world as Invisible GIRL instead of WOMAN.  Little things like that. But it’s very much a modern story that generally captures what’s fun about the FF, so long as you don’t let yourself get all worked up about continuity issues or come to it with intention to just pick it apart.  There are moments that taste vaguely of ham-fist, but overall, it’s a nice piece of storytelling.

It’s just fun, which is what the Fantastic Four should be.




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