Two years ago, Marvel arrived at a concept so simple and compelling that I am shocked it had not been used earlier. The idea: show Peter Parker gain superpowers in 1963 and then have him age in real time on the page. The result was Chip Zdarsky and Mark Bagley’s breathtaking Spider-Man: Life Story, a love letter to continuity, American history, and the evolution of one of popular fiction’s most iconic characters.
What began as a Spider-Man story is now a template for other Marvel properties, beginning this week with Fantastic Four: Life Story #1.
The second attempt at this concept has many of the same attributes that were so charming about the first: cameos from period-relevant figures, nods to the deeper corners of continuity, and sly retellings of the stories we all know are coming.
Writer Mark Russell plays the hits, giving us familiar scenes of the Fantastic Four going up to space and being bombarded with cosmic rays. The Mole Man, featured way back in Fantastic Four #1, shows up, as does a certain purple giant who looms over the story like a kind of dark shadow.
There are some kinetic scenes — one with legendary TV host Johnny Carson is a highlight — but many others fall flat as Russell speeds past important moments in the team’s life while homing in on minor events.
I was especially confused at Russell’s decision to frame the issue around a little-known character from one of the team’s earliest Silver Age stories. Russell changes the story slightly enough to make it new, but the result feels incredibly rushed.
Part of the problem is the team nature of Fantastic Four stories. The group has a soap opera dynamic built up through years of storytelling. It is hard to replicate that effect in one issue, meaning the readers who will get the most out of this story are the ones bringing their own, prior knowledge of the Fantastic Four into it.
Outside of Reed Richards and Ben Grimm, we don’t learn much about the team or what unites them. The central component of the Fantastic Four as a family of explorers is noticeably missing here, as is much in the way of action.
Most scenes are of people talking in rooms, which helps to establish the political milieu that launched the Fantastic Four into space, but also works against the book’s visual ambition. Those Silver Age Jack Kirby stories may have been cheesy, but the one thing they did not lack was fight scenes. In a book situating the Fantastic Four back in that ‘60s period, it seems like a missed opportunity to channel Kirby in artist Sean Izaakse’s work.
Certainly, Russell and Izaakse are not expected to pack every aspect of the team’s history into this first issue. There is still plenty of time to meet the Fantastic Four’s sprawling web of villains and close allies. (I, for one, cannot wait to see how a certain Latverian ruler makes his way into the series.)
The purpose of Russell’s storytelling choices will become more clear once we see where the story goes next. Zdarsky’s story reads better as a collected edition and I imagine the same will hold true here. Knowing that, I’m not inclined to rate this issue too harshly. What’s the use of rating the story of a life after only its first section?
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