Grant Morrison and Jae Lee team up for a story pitting the Fantastic Four against their eternal nemesis Doctor Doom, who has now found a way to use reality itself as a weapon.
Considering how well-known Grant Morrison is, and how every one of his stories is endlessly discussed and referenced on the internet, it was shocking to find out about this little story from 2002 that no one ever talks about.
Then I read it, and found out why.
Fantastic Four: 1234
It starts out as pretty standard stuff. The FF are off-duty, bored and restless. With Reed in isolation, Sue feeling neglected, Johnny being a jerk and Ben griping about being a monster, there’s nothing too out of the ordinary. Even when Doctor Doom begins systematically dismantling the team one at a time (giving the title its name) things feel pretty on-point. Ben is given his heart’s desire to be a normal (i.e. powerless and vulnerable) man. Namor tries to seduce lonely Sue. Johnny is dragged to the center of the Earth. And Reed is trapped in one of his experiments.
It’s when we find out that Doom has managed all this by somehow finding a way to warp reality in a not-greatly-explained way, literally building his own Deus-Ex-Machina, causing Reed to build his own reality/history re-writing device, that things go off track.
And I get what Morrison is trying to do here.
He’s taking the classic structure of an FF story and using the “clichés” against them. Everyone becomes a slave to their own over-used stereotypes. Alicia Masters even points out to a complaining Sue that in a few days, she’ll be talking about how great Reed is again, and the cycle will start all over. It’s a story about Fantastic Four stories.
Beyond that, Morrison does his typical thing of taking a concept to its fullest “Morrison-y” conclusion, attempting to update the classic Lee/Kirby Super-Explorers theme for the 21st (or 31st?) century with concepts so far beyond the typical Negative Zone stuff you finally get the chance to feel like Johnny or Ben must when Reed is explaining how all this hyper-science stuff works.
I get it. I just didn’t much enjoy it.
Maybe the problem is I’ve read so much Morrison that this feels like old-hat. I’ve seen all this before (admittedly, in stuff that’s been written since) in stories that made much better use of this formula. Final Crisis and Superman Beyond both told stories about being trapped in “bad” stories, and needing to think up “good” ones to counteract them. Animal Man had a villain (Morrison himself) that could re-write reality at a whim, making the hero his plaything.
As for the Four themselves, something just feels off about their personalities. Despite the fact that these are the characters on a bad day, this feels more like a Bizarro World, fun-house mirror take on the team. Everyone feels as disconnected and ephemeral as the plot itself, likely leaving a bad taste in the mouths of classic FF fans.
The best thing I can say about Jae Lee’s art is that it perfectly suits the story. Claustrophobic, tight, and a little hard to follow at times.
But it’s not totally hopeless. There was still stuff to be enjoyed. Unlike a lot of popular comic writers, Morrison is one of my favorites because his stories are usually ABOUT something other than continuity or slug-fests. As I mentioned above, the point of this story is that perhaps we all get trapped in our own cycles, becoming self-stereotypes. And that the only way to fight that is to confront the worst aspects of ourselves and deal with them. That’s something I can take into my everyday life and find useful.
Also, I never get tired of Morrison’s character’s “thinking” their way out of a problem. The connection between thought and reality, and the notion that everything we’ve built and done as a people originally started as an idea in someone’s head is inspiring, even when used here as a classic comic book magic plot device.
The “What If” style fake-origin for Doom was the best part of the entire story, and it’s something I wouldn’t hate to see work its way into the mainstream, except that it’s just goes too far against established continuity. Still though, it would work for some hero/villain pair out there.
If you are a Fantastic Four fan, you might like this story for Morrison’s nuanced look at the characters addressing their typical problems. If you are a Morrison fan, you might like this story for its out of the box structure, and the chance to see some of his bigger ideas in their infant stages.
But I seriously doubt this will be anyone’s favorite FF or Morrison story.