Fantastic Four: Life Story #1 Review

by Charles Martin on May 19, 2021

Fantastic Four: Life Story #1 Review
Writer: Mark Russell
Artist: Sean Izaakse
Colourist: Nolan Woodard
Letterer: Joe Caramagna
Publisher: Marvel Comics

First, there was Spider-Man: Life Story. Now there is Fantastic Four: Life Story.

You realize what comes next? Wolverine: Life Story. God knows how many issues that's gonna take.

But never mind the kidding; we're here to talk about the Fantastic Four. Their story -- and Marvel as we know it -- started in 1961, with a stoic scientist and his goofy tagalongs stealing a spaceship to get America into space before the Commies.

Which superpower would reach orbit first was an open question when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby started work on FF #1. But the question had an answer by the time their book reached the newsstands: Yuri Gagarin broke the space barrier just a few months before the world met the Fantastic Four.

That's the sort of fact you can tweak the narrative to reflect when you're constructing a real-time historical retrospective.

In this telling, the Fantastic Four is tied even more intimately to the Cold War. Reed Richards is tasked by John F. Kennedy with catching up to the Commies, no matter the cost.

Writer Mark Russell makes that Cold War urgency a core theme of this issue. JFK delivers a memorable rendition of it in the very first panel: "Every good idea [is] the product of inspiration … and every bad idea the product of desperation." 

Reed Richards takes those words to heart, pondering (before and after the accident) the great desperation that drives him to gamble with his life and those of his teammates.

Putting the FF into a more realistic historical context is just the start of Mr. Russell's changes to the team's origin. Roles and relationships are altered in fascinating ways. This time, for example, Ben Grimm is Johnny Storm's casual acquaintance, not Reed's best friend.

That's an inspired change because Mr. Russell is excavating the vein of resentment and guilt running through the Reed-Ben relationship. To make them strangers instead of old buddies pulls that vein closer to the surface and lets it bend the story in a direction that feels both rational and novel.

The visual storytelling falls into the capable hands of Sean Izaakse. He's one of the spillion artists who's had his shot at the current volume of the main FF title, and he was one of my favourites. This retro adventure gives him a chance to add great 60's design touches to his capable illustrative chops (I swear there's a DeSoto in there!). 

Most importantly for a story that moves as quickly as this one, Mr. Izaakse has a strong command over the narrative flow from panel to panel. He always keeps the story running smoothly, whether the jump across the gutter covers an instant or a span of months. 

Colourist Nolan Woodard also leans into the retro vibe, using a warmer, earthier palette than you'd expect for a cosmic story. It gives this issue the feel of aged film. But Mr. Woodard also turns up trumps when Mr. Izaakse needs cosmic power, blasting high-intensity colour into the cosmic ray storm, the Human Torch, and a certain looming antagonist-to-come. (Hint: purple.)

Turning back to the script, I believe that Mark Russell's (re-)imagination is focused more on the plot than the characters, possibly to a detrimental degree. The historical adjustments are whip-smart and the ways that they alter the Fantastic Four are thought-provoking. But in this first issue, at least, the character changes are circumstantial and largely unexamined. 

How these characters feel about their grand adventure is not nearly as clear as the nuts-and-bolts plot changes that separate this story from the Lee & Kirby original. Even their reasons for being in the story are a little too vague. In this version, Sue Storm is Reed's … assistant? Maybe? She's got some science mojo of her own, that's all we get to see.

Although I'm unsatisfied with the cold, shallow treatment the characters receive in this issue, I do hold onto one big caveat: The only character perspective used so far is Reed's. And "cold and shallow" is an entirely valid way for Mr. Fantastic to look at people -- particularly in his early days, with his family bonds still in an embryonic state.

It's possible, if not downright probable, that future issues will shift into the other team members' viewpoints. That would be a very good thing -- but this initial serving of Reed Richards' relentless rationality doesn't guarantee that other, warmer voices will be handled with equal skill. 

Fantastic Four: Life Story #1 changes up the origin of Marvel's first super-team just enough to breathe fresh life into a 60-year-old story. The art is beautiful and the script poses fascinating questions -- some already answered, some still mysterious. Character work is lagging a little, but the rest of the storytelling is strong enough to make me hope that that's merely an effect of kicking this series off from Reed's point of view.

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Charles Martin's picture
I'm always game for a retelling/reimagining of the FF origin. But you lose some of my enthusiasm if you don't let the cosmic ray shower go "TAC TAC TAC." That's just how cosmic rays sound.