Fantastic Four: First Family

By Joe Casey, Chris Weston & Gary Erskine (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-1703-2

The Fantastic Four has long been considered the most pivotal series in modern comicbook history, introducing both a new style of storytelling and a decidedly different manner of engaging the readers’ impassioned attentions.

More a family than a team, the roster has changed many times over the years but always eventually returns to the  original configuration of Mister Fantastic, Invisible Woman, the Thing and the Human Torch, who have together formed the vanguard of modern four-colour heroic history.

The quartet are actually maverick genius Reed Richards, his wife Sue, their trusty college friend Ben Grimm and Sue’s obnoxious and impetuous younger brother Johnny Storm; survivors of an independent, non-governmental space-shot which went horribly wrong once ferociously mutative Cosmic Rays penetrated their ship’s inadequate shielding.

When they crashed back to Earth, the foursome found that they had all been hideously changed into outlandish freaks.

Richards’ body became elastic, Sue gained the power to turn invisible and form force-fields, Johnny could turn into self-perpetuating living flame, and poor, tormented Ben was transformed into a horrifying brute who, unlike his comrades, could not return to a semblance of normality on command.

The sheer simplicity of four archetypes – mercurial boffin, self-effacing distaff, solid everyman and hot-headed youth, uniting to triumph over accident and adversity – shone under Stan Lee’s irreverent humanity coupled to Jack Kirby’s rampant imagination and sense of adventure.

However, after decades of erratic quality and floundering plotlines following the original creators’ departures, Marvel’s First Family began a steady climb in quality at the beginning of the 21st century which culminated in their own blockbuster film franchise.

To augment the increased casual interest, in 2006 a canny, edgy retelling of the team’s earliest days was produced as a 6-issue miniseries by scripter Joe Casey and illustrators Chris Weston & Gary Erskine, re-examining the quartet’s coming to terms with their new status in terms far more in keeping with the cynical, jaded 21st century…

It opens with ‘There’s Was a Crash…’ as USAF General Walter Montgomery is called to a top secret military installation where four survivors of a fallen space-shot are being held. They were human once but have been hideously mutated by Cosmic radiation.…

The boy keeps bursting into flames, whilst his older sister is totally transparent. The pilot has become a rock-like atrocity and the General’s old friend Dr. Richards has been reduced to a catatonic mound of shapeless flesh.

His coma has nothing to do with the accident however. The scientist is locked into a cerebral mindscape where he is being lectured to by a fifth cosmic ray survivor…

The entity is explaining some facts of life. The facility they are in is a Air Force base designed to hold a variety of cosmically mutated humans. This is not the Government’s first Rodeo…

In ‘Late-Night Creeping’ Sue Storm surreptitiously escapes her cell to check on her companions, but boyfriend Reed is still beyond reach inside his own head. Dr. Franz Stahl is currently explaining to him that a fallen meteor supercharged with C-radiation has been transforming humans under USAF supervision for months and his own forced evolution is the most significant result.

Seeing Richards as a kindred spirit, the mind-ghost shares his radical theories of evolutionary dominance with his fellow future man but Richards remains unconvinced…

‘The Afterburn’ sees Ben Grimm’s fiancée run screaming from him and prompting a minor riot, allowing Stahl to take matters into his own psychic hands and instigate a further distracting crisis. Provoking one of his fellow monstrous transformees to go on a ‘Cosmic Ray Rampage’, the doctor escapes whilst the super-powered quartet gamely assist the soldiers in stopping the unholy horror.

In return Montgomery agrees to release the four on their own recognizance with assurances of Federal backing…

‘Remember the Alamo’ occurs just after the events of Fantastic Four #1, beginning when the heroes escape the atomic destruction of Mole Man’s Monster Island. Reed later briefs Montgomery and they plan to formalise the team. However, Reed is still being regularly mentally shanghaied by Stahl, whose agenda to improve humanity begins with the culling of his own far-too mundane family in ‘Domestic Disturbance’

Ben then heads for a disastrous drink in his old neighbourhood in ‘The Homecoming Dance’ even as Johnny, Reed and Sue all realise that their old “normal” lives are forever denied them.

A Mole Man monster resurfaces in New York ready for ‘Round Two’ and Franz again tries to convince the elastic hero to aid his plan to forcibly fix mankind, but Sue begins to worry that her man has lost all interest in a normal domestic future…

After General Montgomery sets up the four in a fabulous new, government funded HQ – The Baxter Building – the outcasts quickly begin to fall apart in ‘The Ties That Bind’ and no one is available when Stahl invades the Air Force’s secret Cosmic facility in ‘Evolutionary Modern’, intent on taking the life-warping meteor

In ‘Cold, Hard…’ Sue, Johnny and Ben discuss Reed’s distraction and underhandedness whilst the subject of their grievances has opted to tackle Franz in ‘Alone + Easy Target’

As they rush to save him, Reed is locked in psychic combat with Stahl, who has used the meteor to mutate the base personnel into a legion of monsters and has begun his ‘Extinction Event’ for humanity. The battered hero is losing however until his erstwhile cosmic comrades fight their way in and are pulled into the mental arena of ‘Signs and Salvation’ to happily tip the balance…

The titanic battle ends with a ‘Mind’s Eye Open’ leaving the four closer than ever and set upon together ‘Finding Destiny’

Dark, grimly post-modern and disregarded by many purists, First Family nevertheless offers a compelling rationalisation of epochal events from simpler times framed in the context of a more cynical century and certainly inviting to fans of a more grounded, less optimistic society. It’s also a pretty good yarn for open-minded fans who love the baroque theatrics of modern superhero stories.
© 2006 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.