Even if you weren’t around in the ‘60s, you’ve probably heard about the first time America put a man in outer space. Sure, the Russians got there first. But we were a close second. And it’s all because of a man named Reed Richards.
Fantastic Four: Life Story #1 by writer Mark Russell and artist Sean Izaakse, invites us into an alternate history. What if the Fantastic Four started their spacefaring superheroics in the 1960s?
“But wait,” you say. “Didn’t they already do that?”
That was the Earth-616 version of the ‘60s—the version that magically morphs into the 21st century while its inhabitants remain young and spry. Fantastic Four: Life Story grounds Marvel’s first family in a much more real, much more time-bound version of history.
Like its predecessor, Spider-Man: Life Story, this book takes a harder look at the 1960s than the contemporaneous comics could afford. Whereas Spider-Man: Life Story examined Vietnam, Fantastic Four: Life Story examines the space race and, briefly, women’s rights. And with that deeper examination comes a different tone.
Silver Age Marvel books notably felt more “real world” than those of the Distinguished Competition. They took place in Chicago and New York, not Gotham and Metropolis; they starred nerds and monsters, not gods and millionaires. But even so, they had lightness and optimism.
This book largely strips that optimism from the era. Even visually, the art and colors cast a modern, dramatic veneer on the nostalgic setting. It’s not friendship that binds this group together, but an uneasy sense of patriotic duty and celebrity. Space isn’t full of wonder and meaning—it’s a nihilistic vacuum.
To the book’s credit, this darker tone feels earned by the historically-rooted setting. And from that dark place, this story begins the long, hard journey back to that original sense of optimism and family.
Can that optimism really be regained? Can it really overcome the nihilism of this world? Only future issues will tell. Fans of Spider-Man: Life Story will remember that even its triumphs came mingled with loss and ambiguity.
Overall, this is a strong story. The issue tells a fairly self-contained story, making it a great individual read. Another point in its favor: Spider-Man: Life Story sometimes lost track of its hero and spent too much time exploring the alternate-reality setting; this book keeps the Fantastic Four in focus.
This issue covers a lot of ground, but there are decades left to go. And even though the plot points here feel familiar—stolen spaceship, cosmic rays, guy turns into rock monster—the characters and the setting make me eager for more. It’s bound to be a fantastic journey.