Reading the Fantastic Four comics from the start. In the miniseries Fantastic Four 1234, Marvel gave writer Grant Morrison and artist Jae Lee a blank slate to do whatever they wanted with the FF, and it shows. This was part of the Marvel Knights imprint, one of several attempts by Marvel to compete with DC’s Vertigo line of weird, dark, and edgy comics.
The first issue begins as NYC is facing an unusually humid heat wave, believed to be caused by Atlantis. Ben is on the outs with police after causing property damage while stopping some crooks, and Reed has locked himself in his lab with a special project and a do-not-disturb order. Ben is in self-pitying mode. He wants someone or something to fight, but no one’s out there.
Oddly, there is a damaged and partially-reconstructed Doombot outside Reed’s lab. When Ben tries and fails to get Reed to open the lab door, Dr. Doom speaks through the Doombot to Ben, saying he still has backdoor access to the bot. Doom activates the bot’s gauntlets, which teleport Ben to Latveria. Confronting Ben in person, Doom says he’s tired of playing the villain in his Reed’s ongoing conflict. Doom promises to turn Ben human again by sending him through a glowing doorway. It works, and Ben returns to the streets of New York as a human. He rushed to the Baxter Building to tell Reed what happened, only to be hit by an oncoming car.
It’s now pouring down rain in New York, with rumors of Atlantis rallying troops outside the city. Sue is having lunch with Alicia. After some chitchat, Alicia gets Sue to admit that Sue is thinking of Namor. Sue says the fantasy of being with Namor is romantic, but she married Reed. She just wishes Reed had more time for her. Alicia suggests that everything Reed does is for her. Then Namor appears on Alicia’s balcony, and Sue says to him, “I’m married.”
Ben, meanwhile, wakes up in a hospital missing an arm (!). He only has his memory up to just before the FF’s famous spaceflight. Johnny mopes around the streets of New York, just as a giant monster bursts forth from underground.
Johnny flies to Sue and Namor for help, but Namor uses his “bio-electric aura” to render Sue and Johnny both powerless. Namor wants Sue to run away with him, but she remains concerned about her family. Everyone reconvenes deep underground, where the Mole Man has abducted Johnny and Alicia. He plans to make the handsome Johnny his slave and he will marry Alicia and make her his queen. Namor and Sue show up, and the truth comes out. Namor and the Mole Man both made a deal with Doom. If they agreed to help Doom split up the FF, then Doom would give them Sue, Johnny and Alicia. Namor is outraged that Doom considered him an equal to the Mole Man, so Namor smashes open a cave wall and floods the underground cavern. Before he can do that, though, the Atlantis troops unleash a giant Doombot on New York. Doom then contacts Reed to gloat, asking what Reed has been doing inside his lab all this time. Reed answers, “I’ve been thinking.”
Issue #4 mostly takes place inside Reed’s thoughts, making it hard to summarize. He starts with false memories of him in college where he’s the one who turns into Dr. Doom instead of his friend Victor. Reed then says Doom has built a “game board as big as real life” allowing him to move human beings around time and space as if they’re game pieces. Doom says he found the machine from “a spaceship,” and Reed says that rather than play Doom’s game, Reed went ahead and built a game board of his own. Back out in the city, Ben catches up to Sue, Johnny, and Namor, who come to realize that Doom has been messing with them, Johnny gets his powers back and manages to destroy the giant Doombot.
Sue finds the Doombot gauntlet from issue #1, which teleports her and Ben back to Latveria. Ben reenters the glowing door, which transforms him back into the Thing and gives him his memory and arm back. And it teleports him back to NYC. Sue confronts Dr. Doom, separating him from his machine. She calls him a “stupid, lonely, ignorant man” and threatens to kill him (!) if he ever tries a plot like this again. The FF regroup, and Sue and Reed embrace. Doom reawakens, defeated, in Latveria, saying “no” over and over.
Unstable molecule: This issue suggests that Reed’s genius is connected to his stretching powers, with references to his brain being “malleable.” But then this goes even further in another panel, when he says he grew a “whole new brain” for himself to outthink doom. The ending scene then really spills forth the gobbledygook with Reed talking about the team traveling to a “quintasphere” to explore a new reality made entirely of “superconducting living material.”
Fade out: A few readers over the years have been upset over a line of dialogue where Sue compares Namor to Johnny. I believe she’s comparing their impulsiveness, and not something unseemly, but you never know.
Clobberin’ time: The glowing doorway in Latveria is apparently a time machine, but instead of Ben traveling through time, it transforms into who was at an earlier time? I don’t quite get it.
Flame on: Johnny is on a date with an unnamed blonde woman in this series, who runs off after he gets too hotheaded. Maybe this is Namorita, but I find it hard to believe that Atlantis would be on the verge of attacking New York and she wouldn’t care.
Fantastic fifth wheel: Namor fights alongside the FF in this, and he’s the one to defeat the Mole Man, so let’s count this as him acting as an alternate fifth member of the team.
Commercial break: Funny how this one hasn’t been mentioned as much in all the “Brendan Fraser is great” memes that have been going around lately.
Trivia time: The big, BIG question is where and when does this take place in continuity? It’s almost a soft reboot of Fantastic Four. There’s no Franklin or Valeria, and the Reed/Sue/Namor triangle has been reset after it was officially resolved during Onslaught. And there are so many unanswered questions. Where did Reed get this Doombot, and why is just sitting there on the floor outside Reed’s lab? What is this alien machine Doom just happened to find? Did Doom really construct a kaiju-sized Doombot just to gift it to Atlantis? If this series was ever mentioned again, the Marvel Wiki doesn’t say (the Wiki barely mentions it at all, somewhat suspiciously). Because so much of the story is in Reed’s head space, and because it deals with messing with the characters’ subconsciousness, I fear we’re in “it was all a dream” territory.
Fantastic or frightful? This is a tough one. The characters don’t speak to each other in dialogue, but rather make big grand statements and/or speeches. Jae Lee’s art is more about making each panel dynamic and interesting, but not so much about action moving from panel to panel. And yet, it is enjoyable. It’s a big operatic story combined with Vertigo comics edgy weirdness. The scene where Sue tells off Dr. Doom is an all-timer.
Next: Manifest destiny.
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