And You Are . . . ?
It is a certainty that any comic book character or concept that exists for more than a few years will be “rebooted”. This recreation attempts to update or renew the concept for a new generation in the concern that what appealed to society before is now considered passé or, even worse, boring. “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile,” or his Casablanca, or his Great Gatsby or his Superman. What determines the success of these reboots is primarily the quality of the people behind them. Sometimes they work and the character enjoys a revival as a new generation discovers them for the first time. Often, though, these reboots end up being retracted by the next generation that comes along and decides that the original version wasn’t all that bad anyway.
Such a thing happens often in the world of comic books. In order for them to survive commercially, they have to be redefined every ten years or so in search of the newest audience or trend. Batman and Superman have probably been the worst victims of this chronic ‘rebirth’ syndrome but, lately, Marvel’s stable of superheroes have been undergoing this as well. In Unstable Molecules, the group that started it all back in the early 1960s, The Fantastic Four, is reinvented for a new century. The question is if that’s necessarily a good thing.
Unstable Moleculesis not your basic reboot, though. The origin of the Fantastic Four is completely re-imagined. Originally, Dr. Reed Richards, pilot Ben Grimm, Reed’s girlfriend Sue Storm and her brother Johnny were exposed to mysterious Gamma Rays when they secretly launch their space rocket in an attempt to beat the “evil Russians” to space. Arriving back on Earth, they discover that they now have super-powers. Reed becomes Mr. Fantastic with the power to stretch like rubber; Ben is transformed into the ugly but powerful Thing; Sue becomes the Invisible Girl; and hothead Johnny is now the Human Torch. They band together and become superheroes. Or so we’ve been told. Unstable Molecules takes a look at what is supposedly the ‘true story’ behind the myth and how nothing is the way it was shown in the comics.
It is an interesting concept, to be sure. In the early issues of The Fantastic Four, Marvel claimed that real people had licensed Marvel Comics to print comic books based on their adventures. It was a weird version of a “celebrity behind the scenes” but still managed to stay close to the way the group was presented in comics. In Unstable Molecules, we learn that Reed is a cold, uncaring scientist, Ben is a washed-up boxer, and Sue is a stifled woman trying to provide a stable home-life for her rebellious, teenaged brother, Johnny. Nothing is the way it was presented and no one is the way they seemed.
To be sure, the first origin didn’t make a whole lot of sense if you looked at it too closely. Why would a scientist bring his girlfriend and her teenaged brother on an unauthorized, highly dangerous space flight? Why did a pilot suddenly lose his intelligence once he turned into a brutish monster? And how could exposure to some strange kind of radiation give people super powers? In the postmodern world of conspiracies, the thought that there is something else behind that origin is not as preposterous as it might have once seemed.
But, and here comes the tough part, what does all of it mean? Does having a series like this make us look at The Fantastic Four differently and provide a fuller understanding of what could be perceived as a modern myth or fable? Or does it simply mock what came before and anger those who cling to the old origin as part of their childhood innocence? Based upon the first issue of this mini-series, the reader would tend to feel as if the latter were true. At first, it seems that this reconstruction is purely meant to drag The Fantastic Four concept, kicking and screaming, into a reality that it is neither prepared nor meant to be in. But, with the appearance of the second issue, the reader sees that we are being treated to a larger picture than the mere deconstruction of a myth. The first issue centers on Reed Richards and shows his cold, dispassionate nature even when called upon by his government to help ensure that the Russians do not beat America to space. The second issue shows the life of Sue Storm as she struggles to fit into the straightjacket that was a woman’s life in the early 1960s. This is shown particularly well in the scene where she hosts her late mother’s social circle where they attempt to discuss the “ugly book,” Peyton Place. The old guard refuses to even read the book and delight in the torment they inflict upon Sue’s younger friends. Sue agonizes over her inability to connect with Reed emotionally and to provide Johnny with the kind of home he so desperately needs. Of all the characters, only Ben appears to be happy with his life so, of course, he will be the one faced with the most pain and isolation with their transformation into superheroes.
Unstable Molecules attempts to place the characters of The Fantastic Four into a more personal reality than ever before. The adult reader is able to relate to the characters in an entirely new way and think of them more as people caught up in extreme circumstances that they manage to rise above. Without the larger context of the social environment of the 1960s, it would be conceived as merely a “gimmick” series that just tries to make comic characters palatable to an adult audience. Thankfully it is more than that and deserves to be read in that context.