Daily Graphic Novel Recommendation 157

Unstable Molecules

by James Sturm, Guy Davis, and Robert Robert Sikoryak, with Michel Vrana (colourist) and Paul Tutrone (letterer)
Genre notes: superhero secret origins
128 pages
ISBN: 0785111123 (Amazon)

Back in 2003 Marvel was doing a lot of experimentation. A lot of it was in-genre variations on themes, stuff like Alias (and their MAX line), The Call Of Duty (about first-responders in the Marvel universe), Sentry, Neil Gaiman's 1602, and Powerless. Among the most interesting books Marvel produced in that era is Unstable Molecules, the real-life origin of the Fantastic Four.

As author James Sturm relates in the backmatter, he was visiting a relative and flipping through old family news clippings and noticed some stories about a brother and sister, Johnny and Sue Sturm, who shared harrowing Cold War adventures around 1960. Sturm remarked to his aunt that the coincidence was funny because he read a comic book with a similarly named brother and sister. His aunt looked at him like he was a moron and let him know that the Marvel's Fantastic Four was based on a real-life Johnny, Sue, Reed, and Ben, who together did some very-non-superhero-y Cold-War-era heroics - and that through one of Sue's neighbours, Stan and Jack got to meet the quartet and modeled (loosely) their fantastic family on these real-life characters. And so Unstable Molecules' conceit is that this is the true secret origin of the legend. The back-matter contains all sort of info and bibliography for further reading - if celebrity non-fiction is your thing.

Unstable Molecules is a semi-mature work. The cover says it's rated PG. Ben is in bed with his girlfriend of the month making jokes about the sex they'll have in a moment. Johnny is jerking off under the covers at night to a Vapor Girl comic (Vapor Girl is based on his sister Sue, though Johnny doesn't know it). Reed calls Sue a slut. It's all fun and games.

The book (the first of a proposed trilogy), doesn't actually ever get to the foursome doing any Cold-War spywork. This is just a four-chapter snapshot of their lives in terrible, awful suburban 1958. Ben is a boxing trainer and womanizer. Reed is a science professor who is cold and dead inside. Sue is 26 and is Reed's unmarried housewife kind of thing. Johnny is in highschool some of the time. This is the story about how life's not particularly great for anyone and then it all falls apart. Unstable Molecules probably should have been shortlisted for the Man-Booker in 2003.

It's good and sometimes real good. And Guy Davis is of course an amazing illustrator and perfect for the book.

Oh, and SPOILER. - Though it never admits it within the book itself, the whole thing is a put on. Sturm's story about his aunt, the bibliography, the idea that the FF were based on a real family who did crazy stuff during the Cold War. All of it is just part of the metatextual craziness of a secret origin to the secret origin.

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