In Rick Moody’s 1994 novel The Ice Storm, a copy of Fantastic Four #141 plays a small but significant role. 1973 teenager Paul Hood, one-quarter of the novel’s primary family, finds himself stuck on an ice-bound train between New York and his family’s home in the Connecticut suburbs; the comic is his only diversion throughout the night.
Moody uses the concept of the Marvel Universe—its connectivity, its longevity, its magic—as a screen on which he projects young Paul’s thoughts and anxieties. Paul attempts to slot his family into the totemic roles of the members of the Fantastic Four. Is his gruff father the churlish Ben Grimm, or does Paul’s own inner ugliness make him a better candidate? Is his sister the Invisible Girl, or is she more like the elemental and Inhman Crystal?
It’s a neat bit of intertextualism on Moody’s part because he understands how easy it is to relate to these wide-open allegories, how telling a particular fondness is. The comparisons of his family to the Fantastic Four are deeper, richer than Paul is aware; the issue ends with the team breaking up in response to a bleak family tragedy (Reed is forced to shut down Franklin’s brain in order to save reality). While Paul sits on that train, major events are leading to his own family’s dissolution, and a series of circumstances both mundane and tragic will lead to his parents’ divorce and vast emotional rifts opening between each family member.
Reading Fantastic Four Epic Collection: Annihilus Revealed, in which issue #141 is collected, I can’t help but see yet another deep reading that isn’t explicit in a reading of the novel. Like Paul Hood’s arrested train—and, indeed, poor isolated Paul himself—the Fantastic Four of the early 1970s is a book mired in place. While the world is irreparably being altered around it, Fantastic Four seems resolutely unwilling to change.
Constantly bemoaning women’s liberation, deeply misunderstanding racial strife, and seemingly openly hostile to the very youth culture to which it is being marketed, the Fantastic Four of 1972-1974 (the years collected in Annihilus Revealed) is a book about futurists looking backward.
Major shifts were occurring, both on the world stage and in the realm of Marvel Comics. The Watergate hearings were eradicating the public trust of draconian leadership—the old guard had to change. At Marvel, Stan Lee had moved into a role of Publisher, promoting, on his way out, Roy Thomas to editor-in-chief. The youth had taken the reins. The company was about to undergo a major boom of reinvention.
The bronze age was coming, and though Fantastic Four had been adopted by the previous decade’s counterculture, it now felt rigid, outdated. Despite being one of the company’s longest-running series—a tentpole, an institution—Fantastic Four wasn’t the book where major reinvention was happening. The Marvel Universe was moving and expanding outside these pages.
The stories in Annihilus Revealed are created, in parts, by masters—and by people shaking things up in their other titles. The crushing family drama moves just barely, and the cast is broken, unwilling to reconnect. It’s a book dragging its feet, throwing us into disposable conflicts with Abominable Snow People, absolutely loathsome alternate versions of the long-gone 1950s, and impactless conflicts with major classic villains.
As a result, the book becomes an indulgent document of respecting one’s elders. It’s a comic for fathers grumpy about their kid’s new college politics. There are fun, bombastic moments. . . but those moments barely affect the moveless protagonists.
Perhaps for Rick Moody’s avatar Paul Hood, these issues feature an unmoving snapshot of a time before his family broke. The lone remaining comfort from a childhood unaffected by the ravages of growing up.
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