In last month’s Fantastic Four #3, writer Ryan North promised that we would finally get an answer as to what caused the Fantastic Four to split, and Fantastic Four #4 by North and artist Iban Coello, with colorist Jesus Aburtov, and letterer Joe Caramagna of Virtual Calligraphy does, in fact, take us back five months before the beginning of the series to show us what separated the team in the first place.
In flashbacks, Ryan North reveals that the Baxter Building was under attack by the bug-like inhabitants of the Negative Zone and this time the Fantastic Four can’t beat them through conventional means, leading Reed to trigger a device that sends the building forward through time, but not space. He strands the insectoid invaders to six months in the future, when the Earth has already rotated to the other side of the Sun; because the swarm hasn’t moved while traversing through time, they’re left floating in the void of space where the Earth used to be. However, the building itself, its inhabitants, and the surrounding block are set to arrive exactly in the place they vanished from in a year. However, Reed can’t just time travel to one year later and pick everyone up due to the novel nature of the tech that he used.
This is a problem because Franklin and Valeria (Reed and Sue’s kids) and N’Kalla and Jo-Venn (Ben and Alicia’s adopted alien children) were inside the building when it was sent to the future. While the kids will instantly find themselves in the same place a year later, their parents won’t be reunited with them until all 365 days have passed in real-time. Also, quite a few New Yorkers were around the Baxter Building and got sent to the future with it, and while they’ll eventually return unharmed, their parents, siblings, loved ones, friends, and even children will be separated from them for an entire year. While Sue understands that Reed reluctantly did what he had to do to save everyone, Ben, Alica, and the world at large become furious at him. Assets were frozen, tech was taken, and the Fantastic Four went their separate ways on less-than-ideal terms, leading to the way things are at the beginning of this series.
I’ll be completely honest, despite Reed’s attempts to explain his plans at a Johnny Storm level of simplicity, I didn’t entirely understand how the bugs ended up in a separate time from everything else, or why Reed considers this form of time travel to be more complicated than usual when it removes spacial travel from the equation. When Ben directly asks Reed why they can’t just go to the future and pick the kids up, he doesn’t seem to give a satisfying answer beyond “it might make things worse somehow”. While time travel stories frequently include “don’t think about it too much” explanations, this one just feels a little more dismissive of valid questions than usual. Also, it feels kind of weird that the Fantastic Four can’t beat a swarm from the Negative Zone, because they do that sort of thing all of the time. But, I suppose none of the specifics are that important: Reed’s choice is more of a narrative device to set up the present status quo where the Fantastic Four are broke, on the road, and without their kids.
Speaking of narrative devices and the present, this information is all provided via an alien parasite that has Ben and Alicia psychically trapped in the moment where it all went wrong. This is interesting because it focuses on the incident with the Baxter Building specifically from their perspective – a detail that becomes more and more important as Fantastic Four #4 progresses. There’s a lot of emphases put on how Ben and Alicia initially perceive Reed as not being as concerned about the fate of the children as they are. As someone who’s autistic and frequently misread by people, it feels like this is an example of Ryan North deliberately writing Reed as someone on the spectrum, especially when it’s revealed that Ben and Alica are wrong about him. Iban Coello also communicates the couple’s initial difficulty understanding Reed through his art. There’s a page where Ben and Alica go through a wild display of emotions from panel to panel. In each one, Reed’s head is faced away from the reader, completely unmoving and unchanging.
Again, I can’t praise Coello’s art enough. From battles with insectoids in the streets of New York to the eerie insides of a massive alien, everything he does is just gorgeous. I particularly like the way he draws Reed using his powers in unusual ways like cutting off samples with a knife-flat finger or extending his eye out like a tentacle for a close examination. Coello takes imagery that should be revolting and makes it a gentle mix of whimsical and unsettling. This combination feels appropriate for a comic about four people whose bodies were warped by cosmic rays.
Fantastic Four continues to be one of the best titles that Marvel is putting out. Fantastic Four #4 loops more into the overarching plot established at the beginning of the series, but at the same time it maintains the episodic feel of the previous issues. The Fantastic Four once again encounter another unusual problem in their travels that requires an unusual solution. Now that the main mystery has been revealed and the team is back together, I expect that the series will be able to even more faithfully commit to providing stand-alone adventures in each month’s release. As mentioned before, North has cited the episodic, monster-of-the-week nature of classic Star Trek media like The Original Series and The Next Generation as an inspiration, and now that the status quo of the team is locked in place, I’m eager to see where the foursome boldly goes from here.
Fantastic Four #4 is available now wherever comics are sold.