Fantastic Four: First Family

You know the drill: the Marvel Age of Comics was typified by super heroes with everyday problems. Anger (the Hulk), social ostracism (X-Men) and even allergies (Spider-man) were all problems facing Marvel’s growing roster of stars in the early 1960s, and by giving their heroes the flaws and foibles of the readership, Marvel began to dominate the marketplace.

Of course, Fantastic Four was the first comic of the Marvel Age, a weird sci-fi/adventure book about four people fighting off giant monsters and galactic menaces. At their core, though, the FF were — and are — a family, and it’s the family dynamic that makes them interesting. Sure, most peoples’ brothers and sisters can’t turn invisible or catch on fire, even if we sometimes wish they would.

In First Family, writer Joe Casey (Uncanny X-Men, Wildcats 3.0) and British artist Chris Weston (Swamp Thing, Ministry of Space) tell the story of the Four’s earliest adventures, and the growing pains that plagued them as they learned to live with their newfound powers.

First Family is the kind of origin redo that comes along every so often to reinvigorate both the readership and the franchise, as well as rewrite the history books. In a sense these stories are all the same: Man of Steel, Year One, etc., update, rearrange and revise stories from the past to make them more palatable for modern readers, erasing any Cold War overtones for the sake of staying current. The stories that stand out not only make sure there are computers in every panel, they also focus on the human stories that just weren’t possible, even during the early Marvel Age. Of course for all the updating and explaining, it’s refreshing that readers are still asked to suspend their disbelief when it comes to Sue and Johnny being on Reed’s experimental flight.

Casey doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel: Reed, Sue, Johnny and Ben all are bombarded by mysterious cosmic rays during an unauthorized space flight, and they are all granted — or in Ben’s case, cursed — with fantastic powers. The series immediately feels like a better draft of the 2005 Fantastic Four movie, covering all the same bases but with a stronger focus on characterization than on product placement and Jessica Alba’s backside.

As Reed waits in quarantine he is telepathically visited by Dr. Franz Stahl, a scientist exposed to cosmic rays during experiments months before. Stahl attempts to recruit Reed to help bring about “a new evolutionary aesthetic” using the cosmic radiation that altered the Four.

Though there is never any doubt that Stahl’s plans will be stopped at the last minute, he is still an appealing villain. Weston renders him as plain man, a nerdy scientist-type with a bow tie and bad suit. He is a perfect balance of menace and power, with the Joker’s eerie grin and twisted, ruthless view of the world of a maniac like Hitler.

All this is a maguffin, however, as it gives Casey license to test the heroes, to get them to interact and experience the dysfunction every family must face at one time or another. Casey works on the themes of family and togetherness, including the usual FF elements — Reed’s tendency to pour himself into his work and ignore Sue; Johnny and Ben constantly fighting; Ben’s anger over his transformation. Though adding such strong characterization to any form of storytelling adds to the experience, there is a certain degree of danger that can arise when injecting too much realism into characters like the Fantastic Four. Instead of explaining the science behind their transformations, Casey uses the real world to add believability. The team’s introduction to a suspicious New York serves the story as much as the break down of Reed and Sue’s relationship and Johnny’s drive to be liked by everyone. In issue 5, Sue sums up the thrust of the series, saying, “We’re not born heroes, but we can learn.” More than telepathic villains or giant monsters, it’s this experience that drives Casey’s tale.

The Fantastic Four have been depicted by their fair share of talented artists during their 40-plus year history, including the King of Comics, Jack Kirby. With this series, Chris Weston has earned a place among that distinguished group. His art is gorgeous without being flashy and has the feel of classic comics. His Thing recalls Kirby’s and looks solid and rough. Chris Chuckry (She-Hulk, FF/Iron Man: Big in Japan) beautiful colors combine best of today with the warmth of the 1960s.

First Family wraps up in a way many super hero tales do: the good guys win. But that is never the point of a Fantastic Four story. Whether it’s hokey or not, what’s important is that they do it together. That’s what keeps the Fantastic Four relevant, even after all these years.