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‘Fantastic Four: Life Story’ TPB (review)

Written by by Mark Russell
Art by Sean Izaakse
Published by Marvel Comics

 

Writer Mark Russell has made a name for himself in comics by bringing refreshing twists to classic characters, from his 2019 GLAAD award winning Exit Stage Left! The Snagglepuss Chronicles to Superman, The Wonder Twins, and other DC staples. Joined by South African artist Sean Izaakse, Russell finds a new lens through which to view Marvel’s first family, The Fantastic Four.

Fantastic Four: Life Story is an “exploration of the fabulous foursome’s lives if they aged in real time across the decades.”

Russell’s tale spans 60 years from the team’s historical debut in 1961 to the 2010s with familiar characters and elements from their continuity remixed and recontextualized across that timeline. The collection originally appeared as a six-issue limited series.

Each issue was set in a single decade and featured a single narrative POV from a central character.

Sean Izaakse brings Russell’s script to life with clean, expressive characters and a control of tempo. Art support from Francesco Manna, Carlos Magno, Ze Carlos, and Angel Unzueta on various issues blends seamlessly into Izaakse’s panels without interrupting the flow for the reader. Tempo and flow are essential to effectively weave the story across decades like a stone skipping across a pond.

The experience feels like watching a Marvel movie: Grounding the action in time adds realism, while hand picking familiar elements from continuity hooks longtime fans and provides newcomers with the essentials.

Russell’s chief concern is that most fundamental element of The Fantastic Four: family.

Fantastic Four: Life Story explores the bonds that hold a dysfunctional family together across time. Russell anchors that bond in the shared trauma of their origin story: the fateful rocket launch that transformed Reed, Sue, Ben, and Johnny into superpowered heroes and, more importantly, a found family.

As the years pass and shared tragedies mount, those bonds are tested time and again.

Johnny Storm considers as he narrates the arc of the 1980s, “It may have been a tragedy that brought us all together, but with time, tragedy fades, and what you’re left with are the people who helped you survive it.” Nearly a decade later, Ben Grimm will echo the theme as he muses, “it’s the pain you share that makes you family.”

While Russell delivers his themes and nails the plotting, the confines of the story’s structure do a disservice to the characters themselves.

With each chapter limited to a single decade and POV, the effect is like looking through a photo album that only features destination vacations and family reunions. Much of the characters’ lives happen off-panel as the foreground action of the story emphasizes a larger, decades spanning plot involving major villains. Even the bulk of the team’s classic adventures and career are seen as flashbacks or background action.

The result reduces the main cast to the simplest versions of themselves: the workaholic scientist, the woman who feels invisible, the self-loathing man-monster, and the hot-head.

Another consequence of the structural limitation upon the characters is than many emotional beats feel unearned.

Sue stands out in this regard as she struggles with her marriage, often feeling what the plot needs her to feel in the moment while the drama driving her emotions occurs largely off-panel.

Fantastic Four: Life Story is a sweeping look at Marvel’s first family that paints a powerful portrait of how our bonds carry us through time and pain.

Unfortunately, the rich, textured characters at the heart of the story ring a bit hollow in Russell’s telling, and his emphasis on the trauma and pain that binds them together eclipses another essential element of this classic Marvel franchise: a sense of wonder and optimism.

 

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