Reading the Fantastic Four comics from the start. What if the Fantastic Four were real people, without all the superpowers and whatnot? That’s the scenario in the four-part Unstable Molecules miniseries.
What’s all this, then? Unstable Molecules was part of Marvel’s “Startling Stories” line, where creators not normally associated with Marvel were invited to tell Marvel stories in their own style. This included Richard Corben’s Banner, a horror comic with the Hulk as the monster, and Peter Bagge’s The Megalomaniacal Spider-Man, using the Spidey characters to parody the writings of Ayn Rand. Unstable Molecules comes to us from writer James Sturm, co-founder of the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont, and artist Guy Davis, best known for Vertigo’s Sandman Mystery Theater.
It’s Columbia University, 1958. Reed Richards is a scientist studying subatomic particles. Susan Storm and her brother Johnny live in a house in the suburbs. Ben Grimm lives in an apartment in the city with his new girlfriend Myrna. Reed gives a presentation about new particles he has discovered, which could be used to make a futuristic new textile. We also learn about Reed’s former colleague, Dr. Victor Dunne, who claimed to be co-creator of Reed’s new microscope. Reed shoots down other questions, insisting this is not science fiction.
Reed and Sue have been dating, and Reed invites her to a faculty cocktail party. She agrees to go, even though it conflicts with her women’s club meeting that night. She’s also having a tough time raising Johnny on her own, as he’s rebellious and doesn’t want to go to school. He has a crush on neighbor girl Dorrie Evans, shows an interest in cars, and is bullied by some local goons. Ben, meanwhile, works at a gym, training boxers and arranging boxes matches. One match conflicts with his date night with Myrna.
A government stooge invites Reed to the Pentagon (!) where he meets with General Twining. The general wants Reed to relocate to Huntsville, Alabama, to put his research to use in fighting the Cold War. Johnny learns that a hot rodder named Joey King is back in town, and this spells trouble for everyone.
Issue #2 begins with Sue conflicted over having to sacrifice so much of her time for Reed and Johnny. She bickers with a disapproving old lady who lives next door, and says she feels like a stranger in her own home. This is intercut with panels from Vapor Girl, a superhero comic book Johnny enjoys. Then we meet Sue’s women’s group, who also bicker with each other, with the older women disapproving of the younger ones. One of the women breaks down in tears, hiding some shameful secret.
Sue then learns Johnny and his friend Richard has been arrested after reckless driving around town. Sue tries to contact Reed, only to learn he unexpectedly left town. She then meets with Ben, who is a friend and a surrogate big brother to Johnny. We learn Reed and Ben are former college roommates. Ben was also invited to college cocktail party thanks to his former glory as a college athlete. Sue meets Myrna, who seems jealous of Sue, but Sue invites them both to the party. Johnny is not going to party, as Sue grounds him. He responds, “I hate you.” At the store, Sue runs into the oft-mentioned Joey King, and we learn that once had a fling. There are several pages devoted to Sue drowning in sadness as she prepares for the party, which is apparently at her house.
In issue #3, the narration is from Richard as an adult, reflecting on 1960s Fantastic Four comics and their similarities with Sue and Johnny. Richard has a bit of a crush on Sue. Richard dislikes his low-income single mother, and he dwells on comic book villains always swearing revenge on the heroes. Although Johnny is grounded, he and Richard go for a walk around town, running into the bullies again. They lead the bullies on a chase, eventually stealing the bullies’ car and driving off with it.
Johnny and Richard ditch the car and head to a beach party, where Johnny disappears. He finds Johnny with Joey King, talking about leaving town, and Joey fascination with Sue. Joey is apparently also a Jack Kerouac and/or beat poet type, ranting about love and fire, and Johnny is transfixed by his words. Johnny wants to leave town with Joey, and Richard fantasizes himself as a comic book villain, murdering all the beat poets. The bullies find Johnny and Richard and beat them up.
Issue #4 begins with Myrna breaking up with Ben, kicking over a table and smashing his dishes while she’s at it. Ben hits the bar with his friend Lester, commiserating over how none of his relationships last long. Lester asks about Sue, and Ben says she’s off limits because “She’s my buddy’s lady.” Ben flirts with the waitress at the bar, and he loses his temper when she rejects him.
Then it’s time for the big cocktail party. All the Columbia scientists – except for Reed – mill about in Sue’s house, and she’s even flirty with one of them. Kay, the crying one from the women’s group, is also there. Kay reveals that her husband is the one who draws the Vapor Girl comics, so Sue invites him and his work buddies to join the party. One of Reed’s coworkers tries to grope Sue, but Ben shows up and chases him off.
The comic book artists join the party, including “Stan, Jack, Art and Harvey.” Ben pitches Stan on a monster comic starring himself. Kay’s husband, Roy, jokes around with Sue’s disapproving neighbor lady, who comes over to complain about a car blocking her driveway. Sue goes upstairs to fetch Johnny, only to discover Johnny has run off.
Reed is in a taxi, back in town and heading to the party. He’s planning on proposing to Sue. Sue breaks down in front of Ben, saying she feels Johnny hates him and that Reed treats her like she is invisible. Ben comforts her, and they kiss. At that moment, Reed shows up at the party and goes looking for Sue.
Reed finds Ben and Sue in a partially undressed make-out session (wha-HEY!). He’s furious, calling Sue a “harlot” and Ben a “trainwreck of a man.” Sue throws him out of the house, but Ben is apologetic. At that moment, a black-and-blue Johnny shows up with Joey King, who takes over the party with his wild ways. Johnny tells Sue he’s leaving town with Joey. A fight breaks out, and Ben his knocked out a beer bottle hits him in the back of his head.
Reed takes over the narration, considering unstable molecules, and how everyone at the party is similarly unstable. He leaves with Joey and Johnny, hitching a ride with back to the city. Back in his lab, Reed remarks that systems built on unstable building blocks will inevitably collapse. Upon seeing his own reflection, Reed realizes he was not an observer in events, but a participant. He goes back to studying the unstable molecules, this time, measuring the molecules in their relationships to one another and not as isolated units. He says, “In these relationships, however tenuous and mercurial they may be, that bind our world together.” But his heartbreak shows through his academic exterior as he also mutters, “I trusted you…”
That’s where the comic ends, but there’s a whole other story going on in this miniseries, in which writer James Sturm alleges that these are the real-life characters who inspired the creation of Marvel’s Fantastic Four comics. He begins by saying that Sue and Johnny Sturm (no relation, he says) were important figures in the cold war, with several books written about them. By the time we get to issue #4, though, the text is about how Stan lee, Jack Kirby and others once attended a party in the suburbs that got out of hand, and that this is the event that eventually inspired the creation of Fantastic Four comics. Make what you will of this, I suppose.
Unstable molecule: Reed is unknowable throughout this series, with him and his government work taking place off-panel. Could this series have been part one of a much bigger story?
Fade out: Marvel writers are often criticized for their treatment of Sue, saying this woman should not have to put up with as much as she does. Sue’s depression in this series leans into these critics’ concerns.
Clobberin’ time: Ben credits Reed with pulling strings during WWII to get him out of foxholes and into pilot training. This explains Ben’s loyalty to Reed throughout.
Flame on: Johnny’s fate also remains unknown at the end of the series, leaving town with Joey.
Trivia time: Needless to say, this series is not considered canon, with the Marvel Wiki designating it “Earth-33.”
Vapor Girl never appeared again, although someone at the Marvel Wiki gave enough thought to the character to give her comic-within-a-comic its designation as well, naming it “Earth 33213.”
Fantastic or frightful? A melancholy slice-of-life story that leaves a lot of character arcs feeling unfinished. I’m not sure what to make of it all. It is nonetheless a satisfying read, thanks to sublime artwork by Guy Davis. Outside of the legendary Will Eisner, Davis is the best at depicting ordinary folks doing ordinary things and making it compelling. Davis communicates a lot of drama just out of just the characters’ faces and poses. Just great stuff.
Next: It gets even more startling.
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