Fantastic Four Life Story Review

By | Tuesday, March 29, 2022 Leave a Comment
The idea behind Fantastic Four: Life Story seems straight-forward enough. What if the Fantastic Four aged in real time after they were introduced in 1961? It's not an entirely new concept -- we've seen both the-Fantastic-Four-aged-in-real-time and the-Fantastic-Four-but-they're-old stories before -- but I think this is the first one that's looked at how they would fit in with the culture of the times as those times progressed. Typically, we get suddenly dropped in the middle of whatever their current continuity is and the story is about highlighting the contrasts, whereas Life Story is more about showing that evolution over time. "Here's what the FF looked like in the 1960s, and how they changed in the 1970s and 1980s..." and so on. As each issue of this series covers an entire decade, we're still only getting snippets of the team's adventures, but they act as a sort of condensed long-term study and we don't just see the end results.

I think the first thing that struck me was the timeline. Time is a weird construct in terms of comic book storytelling, particularly within Marvel comics. I believe the current continuity has it that the Fantastic Four's first flight was about twelve years ago, so the Human Torch and Spider-Man are still in their late 20s and "older" heroes like Mr. Fantastic and the Thing are maybe 40-ish. Which means that, if you condense all their adventures down into that timeframe, Galactus would have attacked Earth on pretty much a yearly basis. In Life Story, Galactus does act as the overarching, impending threat but it takes him decades to reach the planet -- Reed has to spend something like 20 years convincing people Galactus is coming and another 20 years getting any government to do something to prepare for it. And once the Silver Surfer makes it to Earth as Galactus' herald, his warning to the planet is "Galactus will arrive ten years from now."

This makes sense from a stroytelling perspective. If the intent is to show the FF change over time, you can't place them in a culture where a potentially world-ending threat is just an everyday occurance. (Seriously, if you map the original stories to the actual times they were published, Galactus shows up about to destroy the Earth every 4-5 years. Basically as often as the US has a presidential election, and you know how blasé Americans are about that!) I think it also nicely reflects the glacial pace at which we see actual progress in the world. That Reed spends decades trying to convince anybody to do anything even after his assertations have been independently corroborated feels not unlike the climate change debate we've been having since the 1970s.

The characters of Sue, Johnny, Ben, and later Franklin generally work well. They're recognizable in their 1960s incarnations, of course, and the changes they undergo as they age make sense. Sue marches in civil rights protests, Franklin struggles with Reed and Sue's breakup/divorce in ways which were largely ignored in the comics, Johnny essentially burns himself out before really reaching old age... that all clicked pretty well for me. I had more trouble following Reed's journey, however. Because he became aware of Galactus' imminent threat early on, he becomes pretty obsessed with protecting the planet, to the point of alienating pretty much everyone. And while the scientist-buried-in-his-work-at-the-expense-of-loved-ones idea has been part of Reed's character since the 1960s, it's always been shown as a back-and-forth struggle not a permanent character trait. Here, Reed effectively hides in his lab for his entire adult life, not really connecting with his loved ones at all until he's in his 60s or 70s. (Reed's age is a bit fuzzy here. If you assume he's 30 at the start of issue #1, that would put him in his 90s at the end of the series. Plausible, certainly, but my point is that it's largely glossed over and he could easily be a few years older or younger throughout the series.) While I know it's not uncommon for people on their deathbeds to note regretting not being closer with certain people, I don't find it that common for people to actually change their behaviors that radically that late in life, so I find Reed comes off pretty aleinating to readers throughout most of the series and his change towards the end feels a bit hollow.

Although not a complaint per se, I did question some of the character references they changed from the primary continuity. The two notable things for me were the prominence give to Ricardo Jones, a character who originally only appeared in a single issue and wasn't even considered significant enough to be given a name until decades later. (Jones was that nameless scientist from Fantastic Four #51, in case you're wondering. Seriously, I've never even been able to find how/when/where he was named because he's never appeared after that one issue. I think maybe it was in one the Handbooks that came out around 2010 or something?) Why make him a big protagonist instead of, say, the Wizard or geez, even The Quiet Man? I mean, Jones serves a decent enough purpose here and is written well, but I find it an odd choice for as minimal an impact he had on the original stories.

The other thing that was a weird question mark was Ben's pre-Alicia-Masters girlfriend Sally. I know Alicia was originally introduced early on and has been a pretty solid mainstay of Ben's life as the Thing, but it makes sense to introduce a pre-space-flight girlfriend to show how Ben cuts off close ties in Life Story. But why create an entirely new character for this when there's already TWO existing in-continuity characters Ben was deeply (to the point of buying an engagement ring) involved with prior to Alicia? Alynn Chambers who he dated in college (first seen in Thing #2) and Dr. Linda McGill who he was dating at the time of the space flight (first seen in Marvel Fanfare #46). Sally isn't really a major or complex character here -- she's mostly absent for the story itself and is more just window dressing for Ben's character -- so why not at least call her Alynn or Linda to provide some additional layering or context for deep cut fans? It would be a bit of a shortcut in lieu of charaterization, but given Sally has no real character anyway, that would provide the illusion of some. This is what I was talking about yesterday when I noted that Marvel has, for a couple decades now, seemed pretty dismissive of characters' history and continuity; yes, it can be a crutch if you rely on it all the time, but you can also leverage it to your advantage when you don't have time within the story to build up an extensive backstory for a side character.

One curious thing I'll mention, something that I might not have noticed if I were reading these issues as they came out. Towards the end of the story, Sue comes across a recording Reed had made previously where he tells her that he loves her and the whole family, and wishes he had more time to spend with them. It mirrors the end-of-life regret notion I alluded to earlier. But what's interesting is that in the FF anniversary issue, where they find a recording from Reed's father, Nathaniel notes that he regrets abandoning his families (not just Reed, but apparently others across multiple worlds) and that he envied the relationships Reed had and the family he built. The messages don't quite parallel one another, but that they touch on the same theme, both noting that Reed's greatest strength is the family he has around him. Also, in the recordings, both Reed and Nathaniel acknowledge that it's a lack of courage that's forced them to record their respective messages rather than tell people in person. The two scenes make for an interesting way to compare and contrast father and son.

Life Story doesn't have the Fantastic Four you know, regardless of what version of the team you're most partial to. That's by design. For as much as your typical monthly comic reflects the times it's created in, it necessarily means adjusting the characters as the move along. This story grounds them very much in their times and doesn't just ebb and flow with contemporary fashion. Particularly as you get farther and farther beyond Marvel's 10-15 year sliding timescale, the characters evolve much faster than the society around them and they wind up in places you've never seen them after only the first two, maybe three issues. The books thus show what the constants of their personalities are, at least as interpretted by Mark Russell and Sean Izaakse, and what's more fluid given the way society moves forward. A set of character studies that showcase the Fantastic Four in a manner I haven't seen before. The final issue came out just last month, and I believe a collected edition will be available in August if you're interested.
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