People forget how odd the Fantastic Four were back in 1961. Unlike other superheroes of the time, they didn’t have secret identities and they were treated like celebrities. And unlike their levelheaded counterparts in the Justice League, they often bickered, cried, squawked, and suffered from bouts of depression and hesitancy.
Now, of course, such things are commonplace in the world of comics. Celebrity superheroes suffer from angst and self-doubt all the time. If you’re sick of deconstructed superheroes, you can blame Reed Richards, Sue Storm, Ben Grimm, and Johnny Storm. They were the fantastically flawed bunch that started the whole damn thing.
Fifty years ago, the comic series, populated with an amazing array of monsters, aliens and freaks, grappled with existential problems that were (somewhat) in-tune with a mid-century culture struggling with a massive generational shift. Looking back, the Fantastic Four, along with creators Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, did a good job of reflecting the pulse of its era with insight and humor.
But it’s questionable whether the Fantastic Four remain relevant today. For evidence, take a look at the group’s big screen debut from 2005. The characters retained their core personality traits. And their situation was more-or-less preserved (in spirit, anyway). But the group had lost its zing. It was hard to be freaky and funny when the world around them was freaky and funny too. In our opinion, the film might have fared better as a period piece.
As you’d expect, the movie’s accompanying novelization suffers from the same fatal flaw. In a world filled with Watchmen and Dark Knights, there isn’t a place for the Fantastic Four. The book does, in a way, give long-time fans a few crumbs to nibble on. Wyatt Wingfoot, Willie Lumpkin, the Yancy Street Gang, Frankie Raye, J. Jonah Jameson, Fire Chief Stan Lieber, and even the Doom Patrol (!) all get name-checked at some point. Sharp readers may even pick up on a cute Ben Grimm/Michael Chiklis/John Belushi joke on page 80.
It’s questionable, however, whether these tidbits are enough to warrant a good review. We’re thinking not. The author, himself, seems a tad bored with his assignment. Johnny Storm is a hothead, Ben Grimm is a hard-ass, Reed Richards is limp (TMI), and Sue Storm is easy to see through. This type of descriptive language is rote, witless, and easy. On occasion, the author adds a bit of content not seen in the film. But even these moments don’t add extra value to the affair. At one time, The Fantastic Four was “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine.” Oh, how the times have changed.
[Fantastic Four / By Peter David / First Printing: May 2005 / ISBN: 9781416509806]