Grant Morrison and Jae Lee’s take on the Fantastic Four opens with First Family going through a routine that’s all too familiar for fans. Reed Richards is locked in his lab deep in thought while Sue rants about her husband’s unwillingness to make time for their relationship. Johnny runs off to get laid while Ben tells another sob story about how no one ever likes him. Meanwhile, Doom sets in motion his plan to destroy his enemies with the help of Namor and Mole Man while they get distracted by their squabbles. It’s business as usual for the first family, so how could this story be any different from the rest? In true Grant Morrison fashion, what seems to be like your run-of-the-mill story soon descends into a fever dream of Doom’s madness.
In the late 90s, Marvel was in the shitter. They had no money. People were getting let go. Office furniture was literally being sold to keep the lights on. The glory days of the very lucrative early 90s had clearly ended. It was the lowest of the low so there was no place left to go but up. So up they went.
Editors Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti were given the keys to the kingdom and created the Marvel Knights brand, an imprint where creators were given as much freedom as they could have to create a Marvel comic. They brought in the industry’s most exciting writers to do their own take on Marvel’s most iconic characters. Established names like Kevin Smith, Peter Milligan, and Grant Morrison were brought in along with burgeoning names such as Brian Michael Bendis and David Mack.
They probably were given too much freedom at first as Grant Morrison approached their own take of Marvel’s First Family in the most insane way possible. In an interview he did before the comic even came out, Morrison said:
“I’ve worked out this whole Freudian shit. The incest thing in The Fantastic Four. What you’ve got is a family. There’s Reed and Sue, the Mom and Dad. Johnny’s the big brother and Ben’s the little crazy baby. But in that situation you’ve got Johnny and Sue — brother and sister! So there’s an incest thing that the Fantastic Four hides.I looked at it and said, okay, Sue actually wants to fuck Johnny and Johnny wants to fuck Sue. So how do you do that? They make Namor, the Sub-Mariner who is always a linked pair with Johnny. The Human Torch and the Sub Mariner have always been together since the ’40s. Namor is the dark, seedy, watery, wet, dirty side of it. And Johnny’s bright, mercurial. So he doesn’t fuck his sister — but Namor does.”
Thankfully, that idea never came to fruition as Morrison insisted their intention was to simply create a story out of that idea and not have Johnny literally bang his sister. Still, it’s a fucked up notion to begin but one that’s in Morrison’s wheelhouse, for better or worse. All that said, Morrison’s idea of the First Family was never going to be one that we fully recognize despite the story delving into each of the characters’ archetypes.
Fantastic Four 1234 is a great read for a bunch of reasons, not the least of which is how Morrison and artist Jee Lee managed to concoct this unique tale of Doom attempting to destroy the First Family. Lee’s artwork is one of the most distinct in the business. His style, what I’d describe as gracefully grotesque, beautifully coalesces with Morrison’s bizarre sensibilities. The result is stunning; a vivid portrait of Marvel’s most iconic characters that cascades into nightmarish imagery with each turn of the page.
Morrison explores each of the family members’ pathos and desires in different ways. By far their most interesting exploration is that of The Thing. The mopey Ben Grimm is thrust into an It’s a Wonderful Life scenario where he’s freed from his monstrous form. Unfortunately, this life is wildly unrecognizable to Ben Grimm, who’s a total normie now. Reed is a rockstar scientist while Ben is thrust into obscurity. Ben’s notion of what a good life for him means is put into question.
As for Johnny, he does the only thing he knows how to do: have a good time. A chunk of the story has him driving with a girl who likes hanging out with him for his celebrity. However, the charade of being too cool for everything quickly wears off on Johnny, who soon decides to patch things up with Ben, who he fought with earlier.
Sue is visiting family friend Alicia Masters to vent about her marital woes when she is interrupted by the Sub-Mariner. Namor and Sue have always had a steamy dynamic, even more so than her and Reed. The sexual tension between the two is on full-display as Namor makes an argument to leave the life she complains about daily. Sue has always been the family’s keeper so for her to be devilishly seduced by Namor, who is essentially the antithesis of Reed (handsome, attentive, and rich), is something to see.
And then you have Reed. The galaxy’s smartest being doesn’t do much until the very last issue when his master plan is revealed. I don’t wanna spoil it but his fight with Doom is one of the coolest showdowns I’ve seen with these two icons. It’s a highly cerebral battle of wits that spans the warping of reality and it brilliantly showcases what these two characters can really do when up against the wall.
Doom is absolutely stellar in this. His plan is over-the-top that it’s almost reminiscent of the silliness of the Silver Age days of Marvel. Morrison writes Doom’s monologues as overindulgent poetry and it fits the madman perfectly. This version of Doom is grandiose and theatrical, something that tends to get lost in depictions of him throughout the decades I think. Jonathan Hickman does it the best but Morrison’s take on the character holds up.
With only four issues to it, some of the story beats don’t align as smoothly as Morrison’s deft take on thematics. I wonder if Morrison personally confined themself into doing 4-issues as a ludicrous easter egg of sorts. Moments feel rushed and don’t really get to simmer. I imagine that if this was a 5 or 6-issue arc, the story would be a lot more explorative. But even with all its flaws, Fantastic 1234 is a must-read for anyone interested in learning about Marvel’s First Family.