Fantastic Four Goes Back to Basics With ‘Season One’ Graphic Novel [Review]
"Space tourism." That's the neat way writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa establishes new context for his take on the origin of the Fantastic Four. The FF spaceflight is one of those richly crazy Silver Age ideas that need to be pitched just right to get past modern audiences. In an age when private enterprise really is funding space travel, putting the Fantastic Four on a trial flight for a space tourism operation makes it a touch more plausible than having the world's smartest man fly a bunch of amateurs into a cosmic storm on an unauthorized rocket ship. Not entirely plausible, of course, but you can't completely sober up the Silver Age.
That superhero origin stories are important, and that they are often intimately tied to storytelling, aesthetics and ideas that seem dated and hokey to modern audiences, is a challenge for selling superheroes to new readers. It's a challenge that Marvel's new "Season One" line of graphic novels is designed to address by bringing the origins of several characters up-to-date.
Fantastic Four: Season One, by Aguirre-Sacasa and artist David Marquez, is the first of the line to reach stores. Future volumes will cover Spider-Man, Daredevil, the X-Men, Hulk, Ant-Man and Dr Strange. These books not only provide a fresh coat of paint to stories in need of refurbishment; they also provide readers with a single point of entry. These books are not reboots or alternate realities. These are new first chapters for the current continuity.That's an important distinction, because it's clear from reading Fantastic Four: Season One that this book is not intended in the spirit of Batman: Year One or All-Star Superman. Marvel is not looking for idiosyncratic auteurs to provide an advanced masterclass in Fantastic Four-ology or an intensive psychological breakdown of its characters. In fact, editor Tom Brevoort said that Marvel sought out creators for Season One who "have not been so far around the block that they're stuck down either by their own tropes or by the tropes of the medium." In other words, Season One is a showcase for the characters, not the creators.
Fantastic Four: Season One is a book with a job to do. It needs to provide a compelling and contemporary origin story for its characters. As a result, there is nothing controversial or dramatically new going on here. This isn't a book that meditates on themes already familiar to an audience steeped in FF stories, but one that rattles through its ideas with confidence and charm as it works to induct new readers into its universe.
And it does its job well. Season One is a fun, fast-paced and comprehensive new take on the FF's origins. It hits every beat it needs to hit, but it does so in a fluent and organic way. The rocket ship incident only takes up about a quarter of the book's 100 pages, leaving plenty of room for two super-villain confrontations and lots of the sort of character moments that serve to establish the FF's family dynamics.
As the space tourism angle suggests, Season One does take some liberties to re-contextualize the story. Aguirre-Sacasa's Sue Storm was born into a post-women's lib world, so she starts out closer to the modern version of the character than to the original damsel-in-distress; she's not content to be called "girl," or get left behind by the boys while they rush off to fight a monster.
Yet where anachronistic tics are so deeply rooted in the characters that they seem indelible, they have not been stripped out. Reed Richards was a product of the '50s; now he's established from the outset as a '50s throwback. Johnny Storm is easily repackaged as a post-metrosexual modern himbo, but Ben Grimm somehow still exists in the back alleys and boxing rings of Depression-era New York, because that's who he is.
Striking the right balance between old and new is a challenge that artist David Marquez seems well suited to. The cinematic glamor of his pencils make everything feel contemporary, but there are retro elements like Johnny's James Dean look, Reed's fatherly cardigans and Sue's giant sunglasses that make his character designs timeless. Even the team jumpsuits marry the classic look of the FF with a touch of modern style. It's contemporary without being radical - which is not a pretty good description for the book as a whole.
The crispness of Marquez's storytelling also seems a good fit for a book for new readers who are perhaps more likely to read on glass screens than on paper, and though I think Marquez could have amped up the scale on some of the set-pieces, he does an excellent line in monsters.
It's likely that digital is a big part of what drove Marvel to launch Season One. The book is a single graphic novel rather than a serial, and that's not unprecedented - Marvel published OGNs in the '80s, including The Death of Captain Marvel, Emperor Doom and Dazzler: The Movie - but it suggests that Marvel is getting serious about reaching readers outside of comic stores. Marvel has never made much effort to establish a permanent library of definitive works (if Alan Moore had written Watchmen at Marvel, he'd have got the rights back years ago), which means there are no clear entry points into its universe. Everything is mired in crossovers and continuity, nothing stays in print, and first chapters are hard to identify. That damages reader confidence and limits Marvel's reach.
With Season One, Marvel is finally making an effort to tell readers very clearly, "this is where you start." I don't think it was the bookstore market that pushed the publisher to address this problem; I think it was digital.
Season One feels like a successful solution. It offers a fresh yet consistent origin story, and new readers can leap from here to any point in the FF's history and know they have a solid grounding. Season One actually comes with the first issue of Jonathan Hickman's FF at the back, and while it's clear that Hickman's story is set several years and two children later, it feels like a consistent world. (The FF benefits from an especially robust status quo, so that helps make the transition seamless. I'm not sure that other Season One trades will offer such smooth continuity. There's a lot of ground to cover between X-Men: Season One and X-Men: Schism, and if you pick up Ant-Man: Season One, where are you meant to go next?)
Old readers who are familiar with 50 years of Fantastic Four continuity may not get much out of Season One, but it really isn't meant for them, and Season One succeeds because it makes it much easier for new readers to catch up with dinosaurs like you and me. It also gives me a book that I feel I can send my nephews in order to get them hooked on superheroes, which is something Marvel has never really offered me before.
The challenge now is for Marvel to hold on to the value it has created here. That means keeping the book in print (because digital copies make bad gifts) and not creating any sequels. If Marvel commissions Fantastic Four: Season Two, it will repeat the mistakes of the Ultimate line by creating yet another parallel continuity. Season Two should be every existing Fantastic Four comic that isn't Season One.