Matt Fraction is trying something devilishly clever in his Marvel works by writing nothing but loosely serialized mainstream comics. It’s a bold departure from the rest of the publisher’s line and even from Jonathan Hickman’s run on the title. By writing stand alone issues, he’s intelligently given his characters time to shine in a variety of situations while letting the stresses of each issue weigh on the characters.
Fantastic Four has benefitted from this writing style as much as the also excellent Hawkeye but the First Family also has the problem of starting with a premise. From the first issue, Fraction set up Reed’s need to find a cure for his cellular degeneration as well as Franklin’s dreams of a bleak future in space. It’s obviously a long game but one that constantly needs acknowledged.
Fraction may have made a small misstep in the third issue. When the family makes contact with a living planet, it’s clear Fraction and Mark Bagley were trying to set up a Dr. Who style sci-fi romp with a pure pulp heart but the characterization took a back seat. It’s clear Fraction is trying to highlight Ben’s struggle to fit in as he’s pushed out of his element but it just didn’t mesh together very well. It’s hard to tell if Fraction was setting up the pieces or if he had learned his lesson but the series’ fourth issue pulls it all together in a big way.
Reed and Sue are put in sharp focus here as the family stumbles onto an uncharted planet which worships the Fantastic Four after discovering cave paintings of the team thousands of years ago. It’s a neat premise and it pairs well with Reed’s flashbacks to the early days of his relationship with Sue.
Bagley is one of the reason this issue in particular shines. His style has always recalled John Romita Sr. and shows off the facial work that made Ultimate Spider-Man stand out on shelves for years. He’s great with people and his aliens are consistently depicted and well designed. His strength really shines in those pivotal flashbacks though. He brings a certain sense of soft, sunny nostalgia to Reed’s memories of his wife and it makes the sequence shine.
Of course, that’s all leading to the gut punch. Reed has to rewrite history to remind himself of what’s important in his life. Sue’s written for the first time in the series as a woman who sees and knows much more than she lets on. The future foretold in Fraction’s also excellent FF #3 is coming soon and Reed’s breaking down as the future rushes up to greet him and the family continues to splinter. This is one of Marvel’s best characters written excellently and forced into the only situation he can’t think himself out of. Frankly, there’s no better place for Reed to be.