FANTASTIC FOUR: LIFE STORY #1/ Script by MARK RUSSELL/ Art by SEAN IZAAKSE/ Colors by NOLAN WOODARD/ Letters by VC’S JOE CARAMAGNA/ Published by MARVEL COMICS
Back in 2019, there was a mini-series that sailed under the radar of many reviewers and readers; Spider-Man: Life Story. Written by Chip Zdarsky with art by Mark Bagley, the series was centered around an alternate timeline where Peter Parker continued to age in real time after being bitten by a radioactive spider in 1962. In addition to putting neat twists on some classic stories (such as how the Clone Saga would have played out with a Peter Parker halfway to retirement age) Spider-Man: Life Story also offered a look at a version of the Marvel Comics world more like our own, with a firmer tie to real-world historical events.
Hither come Fantastic Four: Life Story – a series build around the same basic idea, but with the focus on Marvel’s First Family. I’d been looking forward to this series since I first heard about it. Partly because I loved Spider-Man: Life Story and partly because I was curious how Mark Russell, who has a bit of experience writing alternative histories set in unusual worlds, ala The Snagglepuss Chronicles, would tackle the concept.
It should be noted that the relationships between the Four are completely different in this reality. Susan Storm and Reed Richards are still a couple, but Susan is also a scientist and Reed’s chief collaborator. Johnny is still Susan’s annoying younger brother, but it is he who introduces pilot Ben Grimm to the rest of the team, when they need someone to test Reed’s experimental atomic fuel and pilot a ship into space. (Exactly how Johnny knows Ben is never explained.) This results in a team that is less of a family than in the original Kirby and Lee comics, but still recognizable.
Surprisingly, Russell largely avoids the politics of the era in this first chapter. Whereas Spider-Man: Life Story had Peter Parker debating whether or not he should enlist and put his spider-powers to work for the United States during the Vietnam War, this comic only briefly touches on Vietnam during a brief meeting between Reed Richards and Lyndon B. Johnson. Even then, the focus is on Reed’s work and how LBJ is more worried about the concrete conflict in Asia than Reed’s fears that there is an alien being whose very existence threatens the Earth. There’s also a quick shot of Sue marching arm-in-arm with Civil Rights protesters, but nothing quite so daring as her shielding the crowd during the Selma March.
This might be tolerable if the rest of the Four got equal billing, but Russell’s script is frustratingly focused on Reed Richards. Sue exists only as an extension of Reed’s plans. Ben stands as the ultimate expression of Reed’s hubris, but without any of the good-will usually associated with the character because of the friendship between the two. And Johnny Storm…. well, he shows up now and then to make jokes. One feels that much more could with all these characters, especially Sue and Johnny.
The artwork by Sean Izaakse is generally good but doesn’t quite manage to grip the reader, despite some interesting angles in the panel-to-panel perspective changes. Unfortunately, most of the scenes are static conversations, giving Izaaks little chance to cut loose until the very end. Many of the panels seem claustrophobic and cramped and the color art by Nolan Woodard seems overtly muted in turn.
All in all, while Fantastic Four fans may find Life Story to be an interesting diversion, there is little in this first chapter to hold the interest of anyone else. Russell’s script doesn’t make the same bold strides that Spider-Man: Life-Story did with the same setting and the artwork, while competent, is not outstanding.