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Extreme Makeover

  Fantastic Four: Imaginauts

 

Mark Waid, Mike Wieringo

Marvel, 2003

Rating: 3.7

 

 

Posted: May 27, 2003

By The Gentleman (exclusive to Shaking Through)

Trailblazers. Pioneers. We so seldom give them their due. Or sometimes, we give them too much. Not too much credit: too much reverence. So it is with the Fantastic Four, the groundbreaking superteam that ushered in the Marvel Age of Comics, that introduced us to the concept of the superhero group as dysfunctional family. Reverence? I can hear you asking. No one's revered Fantastic Four, the comic, in almost two decades, at least since John Byrne's pivotal early '80s run on the title (which itself was doggedly reverent of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's seminal, early '60s work on the book).

But as writer Mark Waid (JLA, Ruse) points out in his eye-opening essay, "The Fantastic Four Manifesto," if readers have been uniformly unexcited by the FF, it's because so many creators over the years have stuck too closely to the form of the classic Lee/Kirby era, rather than the content. By wearing the series' signature elements into clichéd caricatures, they've mistaken the letter of the title for its spirit. In the book's first hundred or so issues, Fantastic Four was all about shaking up the status quo; ever since, it's been about preserving it.

Reading Waid's manifesto, included in this first volume to collect his run on the ongoing series, certainly casts some light on the stories contained herein, but it's not crucial to enjoying his execution of those ideas. That's because in the seven issues that make up Imaginauts, Waid puts his money where his mouth is. The first issue nicely sets up one of the major cornerstones of Waid's take on the team (and thus his run on the title). Reed Richards, the super-malleable super-scientist who serves as the team's father figure, hires a PR firm to help the FF boost its public profile. His teammates -- wife Susan Storm Richards, the Invisible Woman; brother-in-law Johnny Storm, the hot-headed Human Torch; and best friend Benjamin Grimm, the orange, rocky (and aptly named) Thing -- puzzle over Reed's actions. Why does the world's leading scientific mind care about something as trivial as the Fantastic Four's Q rating?

The answer Waid provides is so simple, it seems astonishing that no other creator over the last four decades has introduced it. It lies in Reed's feelings of guilt for having hastily led his teammates into the event that changed their lives forever. Desperate (at least in the original early '60s version of the title) to beat the Soviets to the moon, Richards tests an experimental spaceship of his design, bringing along two civilians -- Sue and Johnny -- to prove its safety. That his actions were tragically premature -- the ship's lack of shielding leads the foursome to become bombarded by the cosmic rays that give them their powers -- is both a matter of record and the source of Reed's unending shame. The only way to even begin to make it up to them, he decides, is to make them celebrities instead of sideshow freaks. (This handily explains the long-unanswered question of how the foursome went from ill-fated explorers in the book's first issue to household names in its second.)

An intriguing premise, and one that Waid follows up with engaging plot twists. Sue puts eternally immature Johnny in charge of the financial arm of the corporation that funds the team's lifestyle, in an effort to force him to grow up; Reed's occasional aloofness toward son Franklin inadvertently leads to the creation of a sentient mathematical expression who seeks to eradicate the FF in order to become "one" with Reed. If these developments (and a comical but lightweight interlude involving Ben, Reed and a stowaway insect from another dimension) don't exactly burst with the sheer inventiveness of the book's high-stakes, space-operatic scope, they do prove a refreshing change of pace and a promising harbinger of inventiveness to come.

One wishes that the artwork strove for the same level of imagination for which Waid reaches. Penciler Mike Wieringo is a capable comic artist, but his somewhat cartoony look is too clean for a book of Fantastic Four's breadth (and pretty but decidedly sterile computer coloring doesn't help matters any). Also, the inclusion of a pre-Waid/Wieringo tale, in which The Thing "comes out" as a New York Jew, detracts from the theme of broadening horizons; it's a rote "very special episode" tale, and not a well-executed one at that, of the type for which Marvel was too often known in the '70s and '80s. But Waid's thoughtful and enervating take on what he rightly describes as "four of the very best comics characters ever created" makes Imaginauts worth picking up for anyone whose inner kid was once stirred by the restless creativity of the Fantastic Four in their prime.

 
Further Fantastic Reading
Interested readers should definitely bring themselves up to speed via the first two black-and-white reprint volumes Essential Fantastic Four. Fantastic Four Visionaries: John Byrne, Vol. 1 and The Trial of Galactus are good representations of Byrne's influential run, widely considered as classic and reminiscent, in the best way, of the essential Lee/Kirby era. Fantastic Four: 1234, by critical favorite Grant Morrison, is a shakily executed attempt to define each of the four members, but it's worth picking up as a curio for diehard fans of either Morrison or the FF.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: Breaks new ground
 4.0-4.9: First-rate
 3.0-3.9: Solid
 2.0-2.9: Mediocre
 1.1-1.9: Bad
 0.0-1.0: The worst

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