Fantastic Four: 1234 was written at the tail end of Morrison’s Day-Glo Years, during his brief period writing for Marvel in the early 2000s. Grant has spent the vast majority of his career writing for DC Comics, but he had a roughly four-year sojourn at Marvel during the “Nu-Marvel” era when Joe Quesada and Bill Jemas reinvigorated the Marvel brand and brought the company out of bankruptcy. It was a time when Marvel experimented with a variety of different series and gave a wide berth to prestige creators to work on their books. At its best, this led to wonderful, experimental titles like Peter Milligan’s X-Force and Morrison’s New X-Men. Over time, the experimental spirit wound down, and the company returned to big crossovers and safe books, but a lot of the best Marvel stories ever published came from that early 2000s era.
For Grant, the Marvel-era work was largely an outgrowth of themes and ideas he explored in The Invisibles. Marvel Boy and New X-Men both drew on the utopian ideals of the final Invisibles issue, while FF: 1234 pulls more from the “Black Science” storylines, placing the characters in the context of a larger game and interrogating their own identities and actions in the context of a higher power controlling them. Here, Reed Richards and Doctor Doom replace the Blind Chessman as figures with a higher-level perception of time and space, manipulating reality to serve their own ends.
The basic concept of FF: 1234 is exploring what happens to the other three members of the group when Reed Richards goes M.I.A. while “deep in thought.” Through a series of events orchestrated by Doctor Doom, Sue, Ben, and Johnny explore their own desires and the consequences of getting what they thought they wanted all along. By the end of the story, Reed is able to expose Doom’s scheme and stop him, but the effects of what happened linger through a melancholy ending.
Unlike most of Morrison’s super-hero work, this is not an attempt to reinvent the property or put his own unique spin on it. The story is uniquely Morrison, but he doesn’t try to find a new route into the Fantastic Four. Perhaps because it’s such a short series, he’s more interested in playing around with the archetypes and mythology of the characters.
Writing Flex Mentallo in the mid 90s reignited Morrison’s desire to write super-hero comics. At the end of that book, he realized how much super-heroes meant to him, and he saw in them the ability to explore new worlds and stories. However, as the Day-Glo Years waned, he became increasingly focused on the idea that corporate super-hero comics are trapped perpetually in the status quo. There can be no change, and any real evolution will eventually be cycled back to the original platonic ideal of the characters.
New X-Men‘s climactic “Planet X” storyline tears down all the progress and change Morrison brought to the characters, and it throws them back into conflict with Magneto once again. It’s the desolate end of a grand experiment, and it paves the way for his continued exploration of darkness in the “Abyss Years” of the 2000s. Fantastic Four: 1234 comes a bit earlier and is not as apocalyptic. But, there’s still a sense of resignation, that these characters are doomed to enact the same battles against the same foes again and again and can never really change.
When Ben Grimm takes Doctor Doom’s offer and returns to human form, he returns to a world that is altered and, in some way, wrong. One of the key themes of the book is that each of the Four has a part to play in their group. Take one away and everything falls apart. By reverting to his younger self, Ben throws the group out of balance and starts the process of decay that consumes most of the early part of the book. This functions as both an outright plot and a meta statement about the Fantastic Four as a comics property. Ben has to be the Thing or else the equation of the story doesn’t work.
Doom as manipulator of all these characters has resonance with Morrison’s own role as puppet master in Animal Man. Doom’s manipulations create the story, and his fight at the end with Reed is less about big action than it is about a duel between writers. Reed is able to create a more innovative, more powerful story than Doom can, and in the end, his story survives. In Big Two super-hero comics, only the strongest stories can penetrate the mythos of a character. Morrison’s own pairing of Cyclops and Emma has proved resonant enough to last ten years, while other less popular details of his run have faded away.
This entire concept has heavy similarities to Morrison’s notion of hypertime. Hypertime stipulates that super-hero universes are made up of stories, and what remains in continuity are the stories that resonate with audiences the most. If a story is illogical or bad, it will fade away, while stories that are not strictly in continuity (like Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns) can survive if they’re good enough. In the case of the Fantastic Four, Morrison can push them away from their archetypal roles, but the characters must inevitably return to status quo.
One of the strongest explorations of that is Sue’s flirtation with Namor. Sue’s role in this story is to be with Reed, but the allure of the unknown pulls at her. Her desire for Namor is the strongest emotion in the story. Morrison portrays Namor as a god (the physical, visceral opposite of cerebral Reed) and someone Sue is drawn to. Over the course of the story, she flirts with him but refuses to betray Reed. That frustration she feels with Reed is very real and grounds the story in something more relatable than the average super-hero story. What lingers with me after reading the book is not the encounter with the Mole Man or the giant robots, it’s Sue’s tangible, yet illicit, desire for Namor.
Part of what makes it come across so strongly is Jae Lee’s amazing art. Lee treads near the static photo realism that can make for boring comics, but he avoids most of the pitfalls associated with that style. This is absolutely gorgeous, realistic work that at the same time is alive with energy and uniquely comic book storytelling. Jose Villarubia’s colors help add to the melancholy, rain-soaked mood that layers the entire story. Every page of the book is a spectacle on its own, and the layouts are consistently inventive and exciting.
One of the notable ideas in the work is Doom trying to sell Ben on the notion that Doom is Reed’s tulpa, created to purge the dark side of Reed’s personality. In the context of the Fantastic Four mythos, Doom is Reed’s dark side, and they have a co-dependent relationship. To allow the stories to proceed as they need to, Doom must always be just a tiny bit less smart than Reed. To create the best stories, super-hero characters need villains who are their inverse, and Doom is that dark double to Reed.
In Fantastic Four: 1234, we see a reflection of many of Morrison’s thematic interests at the end of The Invisibles. The notion of life as a game was key there and is the structural motif of this work, but this time it is filtered additionally through the needs of an ongoing super-hero universe. It’s a work that uses the Fantastic Four mythology to build off of, but it still manages to tell a satisfying story on its own terms.