Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

08 October 2006

Fantastic Four: Unstable Molecules

Collects: Fantastic Four: Unstable Molecules #1-4 (2003)

Released: June 2003 (Marvel)

Format: 128 pages / color / $13.99 / ISBN: 0785111123

Fantastic Four: Unstable Molecules is not the sort of thing Marvel Comics publishes very often — well, not without a theme month, anyway.

Unstable Molecules writer James Sturm tells a story with four protagonists, each very similar to a character from the Fantastic Four. Reed Richards is a physicist, Ben Grimm’s a lovable, gruff boxing trainer, Johnny Sturm is a teenager with an obsession with cars, and Sue Sturm, his sister, is Reed’s fiancée. Sturm the writer uses these characters to tell a straightfaced story about what he claims, in the prologue and endnotes, is the real Fantastic Four. These characters, slightly altered from the first family of Marvel we know, are set in the 1950s, passions boiling against a sleepy Eisenhower-era backdrop.

As you might expect from that set-up, Sue is the focus of the story. She’s also the only character with a story relationship with the other three: Johnny’s sister and guardian, Reed’s “love,” Ben’s flirting friend. Sue feels trapped by the expectations of her neighbors and Reed, unable to carve or discover a role for herself that isn’t defined by traditional female roles. The disappointments of her life lead her to grab for whatever happiness those around her will allow, no matter how disastrous the consequences.

The others aren’t neglected by the plot; they aren’t happy, either. Johnny feels as confined by his hometown as Sue and is dealing with a confusing sexual awakening that veers between inadvertent incestuous desires and hints of homosexuality. (He still loves those cars, though.) Been lives a sleazy life and throws away chances for love because he can’t have Sue, his perfect woman. Reed, whom Sue accuses of treating her as if she’s invisible, seems invisible himself, reserved when he’s on the page but off it for most of the book. Still, in the end, he feels the dagger of Sue’s betrayal.

Kind of depressing, really.

Since this is the ‘50s, there are certain conventions to be observed. There must be beatniks, for instance, and Cold War concerns. Also inserted because they fit the timeframe is a faux proto-Marvel Bullpen; their appearance is worthwhile despite their tangential importance to the plot for no other reason than seeing Ben Grimm verbally dominate a conversation with Stan Lee. (It’s not very likely, but it’s still amusing.) If you like that last one, you’ll like Sturm’s other cute touches: a disgruntled Eastern European former lab assistant of Reed’s named Victor Dunne, a fat, bespectacled friend of Johnny’s who may be the model for the Mole Man, and a list of scholarly notes at the end that takes this fictional story very seriously.

Guy Davis’s art is perfect for this book, a little grubby and having no glamour. Everybody has a weak chin; no one shines. R. Sikoryak provides art for a faux ‘50s comic called Vapor Girl, which is inserted into the story occasionally; Vapor Girl is read by Johnny, who uses it to escape from his humdrum hometown, and is published by Marvel (the artist in the story bases Vapor Girl’s appearance on Sue). The book’s muted coloring by Michel Vrana is perfect — drab colors (without stinting on the palette) for drab ‘50s people.

There is a bit that confuses me, though. Sturm claims the members of the Fantastic Four are real — the four characters featured in Unstable Molecules. That’s fine; Stan, Jack, and the rest of the Bullpenners meet the four characters, and it makes sense that when it came time to create Marvel’s first team superhero book, Stan would pull on their personalities and Jack on their appearances. But Sturm also implies Sue et al. are superheroes or at least that they went up in Reed’s rocket. These four average people going into space in a rocket is absurd — yet that’s what we’re supposed to believe.

That’s a minor flaw, the least of a few small problems; Unstable Molecules is depressing, in that suffocating ‘50s way that so many equate with innocence. It lacks real closure, given that we know the turmoil at the end isn’t he last of the characters. Sturm claims there are plans for sequels, but Sturm also claims Sue Sturm met Betty Friedan.

Still, if the sequels came out (Sturm says part two, The Mad Thinkers, is due next year), I’d probably buy them.

Rating: Fantastic Four symbol Fantastic Four symbol Fantastic Four symbol Fantastic Four symbol (4 of 5)

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