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Unstable Molecules #1
writer: James Sturm
artists: Guy Davis and R. Sikoryak

A few decades ago, science fiction writer Philip Jose Farmer produced a pair of "biographies" of pulp heroes. In them, he posited that Tarzan and Doc Savage were real people whose exploits had been greatly exaggerated on more than one occasion. Great fun on their own, Farmer expanded his biographical work by including a "family tree" that connected most major fictional heroes of the 19th and 20th centuries, and more than a few minor ones.

His work, which has spawned a dedicated following, has obvious echoes in pieces like Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. (And there are sites that have tied Moore's work in with Farmer's, most notably The Wold Newton Chronicles.) But all those works tie disparate fictions together.

With this week's Unstable Molecules, Marvel has thrown its own spin on the sub-genre. Instead of sharing a fictional universe (which the Fantastic Four already do), the book presents us with a Fantastic Four that might have existed.

Writer James Sturm asks us to accept that Lee and Kirby took the real team's adventures and adapted them into heavily fictionalized comic book adventures. But the big question is, in making them less fantastic, are they really more interesting?

Already the premise has some intriguing hooks. In the Marvel Universe, we've long moved past the point where the Fantastic Four's cold war origins make any sense. Reaching back to 1958, Sturm does a good job building up the paranoia, and in the case of Johnny and Sue Sturm (namesakes explained in a post-script), the limitations of the era. In the process, he also sets up an offstage Dr. Doom stand-in with a believable motivation.

Here Reed Richards works as a professor at Columbia University, his main thrust of interest sub-atomic particles. Rather than leading him to space travel or The Negative Zone (yet), the research focuses this more pragmatic Reed on the exciting world of …textiles. Mundane perhaps, but sensible.

Still engaged to Reed, Sue takes care of her younger brother Johnny, and unknowingly suffers slightly crude innuendos from Reed's colleagues. Though still interested in cars, the "real" Johnny is a far cry from the cool teen portrayed by Lee and Kirby. Bullied, a little sullen, Johnny retreats into the pages of a comic book for all sorts of gratification.

Completely separate at this point is Ben Grimm, here a fight promoter and trainer. His scenes have the feel of a typical boxing melodrama. Perhaps Stan Lee borrowed from Grimm's life again when creating Daredevil. How this rough and tumble character ties in with the rest of the four remains completely unclear.

We do know from this issue that the government has called Reed in to work with Werner Von Braun. Frightened by Sputnik, the U.S. needs its brightest minds on the space program, and we need only one guess to see the seeds of the well-known fictionalized origin of the Fantastic Four. But more than ever, you have to wonder how the heck Sue and Johnny will get aboard that rocket.

Helping it all work is Guy Davis, perhaps best known for his work on Vertigo's Sandman Mystery Theater. Something about his detailed but simple style evokes the past, dimly resembling novelistic illustrations. Providing a counterpoint to Davis is R. Sikoryak, reproducing panels from a non-existent Stan Lee project called Vapor Girl. (Shades of The Sentry!) So far, the conceit works.

Sturm offers a finely detailed afterpiece which adds to his illusion (or delusion). Citing biographical works of the foursome, he also announces future work detailing their adventures, all with titles from regular comic continuity.

While it's all clever, the book doesn't really reach much beyond that. It's the curse of modern storytelling that the four main characters are separate throughout this issue, with only our knowledge of the FF to tie them together. If anything, this introduction relies too heavily on that knowledge, as all of it occurs before the events we know.

It may be too inside an approach, and certainly not one that will drive the mainstream audience wild. But it is interesting, and worth following. Unstable Molecules is one more book that proves Marvel to be interested in giving the readers a good story first. And that's worth a lot.


Derek McCaw

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