We Can’t See It Coming
Travis Hedge Coke
In 2003, James Sturm and Guy Davis (along with crack letterer, Paul Tutrone, and colorist, Michel Vrana) the four issue miniseries, Unstable Molecules, for Marvel Comics. In 2004, it won the Eisner Award for Best New Limited Series (A look at that year’s nominees in several areas, particularly “New Album,” is enough to make one cry. Yossel, Persepolis, The Fixer… P. Craig Russell, Al Capp, Andy Diggle, Kurt Busiek, Carla Speed McNeil. 2003 was a godsend year for comics, and I don’t think any of us really took notice at the time.). In 2015, where we now sit tight, it seems almost forgotten. Why?
Because it was always going to get away from us.
Unstable Molecules looks like another pastiche, another “true version” or “story behind the story.” The real people who inspired the comic book Fantastic Four, carefully researched and seriously laid out by intelligent, artsy comic book talent. There are endnotes and everything.
Dr. Reed Richards is a scientist with a teaching position. HIs long-suffering girlfriend is Sue Sturm, raising her younger brother after the death of their parents and trying to stand up, if not stand out, in a town and in a relationship determined to make her invisible. Johnny, the brother, is a moody, confused teen, looking for thrills, trying not to get beat up, and obsessed with a superheroine he doesn’t know is actually based on his sister. Why is Ben there? Why is Ben ever there? He’s Reed’s friend, he likes Sue, Sue likes him, but he’s Reed’s friend and Sue is with Reed.
So we have our four, and the comic tells us that Susan will, eventually, create a Fantastic Four Foundation (As well as have a foundation in her own name, The Susan Sturm Foundation), that Reed will do important government work, that these likenesses were approved for charitable or for governmental reasons. So, we’re seeing four disparate people in the late 1950s come together as a family so that a superhero comic can be based on them. We are even promised follow-up comics, The Mad Thinkers and The Negative Zone, which will detail how the four of them became government agents and “their sad final years,” respectively. It tells us that within a year or two of this comic ending, the four of them will be “national heroes.”
Of course, this is the “real” world, so it will be more cynical, perhaps, than the superhero world we are familiar with, and they’ll swear more, Ben can go to a dirty movie if he feels like it (and he does). But, we see the familiar threads of the earliest FF comics coming out in metaphor or parallel plots. Ben longs for Sue, as he does in the comics. Johnny is hot for a woman who looks just like his sister, as happens in the comics. Reed is absent-minded about things not relating to work or his immediate interests. The sexy, blustery Joey King, hipster hanging at the beach giving recitations and seducing everyone is a proxy Prince Namor, scion of Atlantis. Johnny’s friend, Richard Mannelman, lusts for Sue and feels incredible shame and possessiveness as befits a boy who the Moleman would be based on. The Dr. Doom riff, Dunne, is deported from America and blames Richards for everything bad in his life. Sue is stuck being mother-sister to all the men in her life. Reed’s discovered and working on unstable molecules. Johnny likes hotrods. Johnny, frustrated with Reed, Sue, and Ben, runs away from home.
We know where this is going. We see the threads, the weave, the emerging patterns.
We don’t, actually. We see what we’re expecting.
In 2015, as in 2003, we know that Johnny Storm only ran away for about half an issue or so, of Fantastic Four, and has been a member, as have the other three, almost the entire time there has been a comic with that title. They always come back. They are always a family.
When Unstable Molecules ends, Johnny is just leaving. He’s leaving his sister, who Joey King used to crush on. He’s leaving his best friend, who also “loved” Sue. He’s leaving childhood. He’s leaving his town and he’s leaving himself.
We forget, perhaps, in that moment, that the comic told us earlier than in a year or two they will all be together as national heroes, as government agents. We forget that we’ve been promised a storied history.
Amidst Johnny leaving, Reed finds Sue and Ben together, half-dressed, close to sex, a party of scientists, comic book letterers, housewives and beatniks full-bore below in the living room. Reed says some nasty shit. Maybe it’s because he’s hurt. Maybe he is just a dick. It’s enough to remind us, though, that for more than forty years, we’ve seen Reed ignore Sue, bark orders, hide in his lab, and we’ve seen Ben pine for Sue and stick around, let her berate him, let Reed order him, and we’ve generally ignored Sue except in relation to who wants to sleep with her. Sue hasn’t just been insistently made the mother-sister of every man in her life - and she is surrounded by men - she’s the mother-sister who should put out, who would, obviously, if it weren’t for this social complication or that.
By laying all this bare and by ending on what was, originally, a very “to be continued” note, Unstable Molecules leaves us in a queasy uncertainty. They are getting back together, right? As a team? Right? They will do great things? (They will. The comic tells us they did. Sue is successful as a feminist theorist, social critic, and director of charitable organizations. Reed continues to achieve great breakthroughs in science for his government. Ben… probably slept with more women before rejecting them for inane reasons, and probably had a few more professional fights in him, but he was a national hero, so.)
More than this, we are stuck - I am stuck - wondering if it’s worth knowing more. Is knowing more going to hurt worse?
We weren’t promised a happy ending. In fact, we were warned repeatedly that many things will go bad. But, Sue seems to have come out entirely well, really. From a generally frustrating and tragic youth, she marries a good man, she has a fantastic career; she affects the world. Susan Sturm, who for all the world reminds me of Pamela Zoline and her creation, Sarah Boyle, from The Heat Death of the Universe, comes through the fire and the cold to be a strong and influential and fully human being.
Like Reed realizes about the molecules he is studying, we have been looking at the equation of the story wrong, we have been expecting a pattern to continue because we saw it forming, but patterns are in our heads. When a pattern falls apart, it is not because the elements in play failed in some fashion, just that we misjudged what was forming and anticipated wrongly.
We could have seen the comic note, repeatedly, how important Sue was in her lifetime, what she accomplished. We could, easily, have taken note of her indelible empathy, especially compared to the selfishness or cruelty exhibited by Reed, by Ben, their pettiness, King’s myopia. Dunne’s. These myopic, selfish failures of men.
The book club scene, where they discuss Peyton Place and Sue winces when one woman alludes to crimes of her father against her and another woman, her mother’s good friend before her mother passed, smiles in satisfaction at the other woman’s pain. This scene should have told us all we needed, but we were not looking. We weren’t, at least, looking at it rightly. We’re banking on Reed, the leader and smart man, the father figure. We’re banking on Ben to be the heart or the rock or the man-baby who will hold the center. Johnny Sturm, fiery representation of burning and impish youth.
Sue Sturm was invisible in the equation we thought we were looking at. She’s the girlfriend. The sister. The girl who would would totally sleep with us if she didn’t have a boyfriend, if she wasn’t our sister, if she wasn’t a woman and we, a child, if… if…
That’s forty years of comics, and also these four issues, condensed down to one sharp, crystalline recognition. By the letter that closes out the final issue, from the son of the man who made the comics based on Sue, who passed his design and his knowledge of these people to Jack Kirby so he could make the Fantastic Four comics, it’s abundantly clear that Susan Storm, the Invisible Girl, has mostly been bounced around her entire existence by men writing and drawing for boys.
Where they go from there is more dangerous territory, perhaps, than we have ever seen in another FF comic. A more fantastical and daring adventure than they have set out on before because it cannot be flinched away from. They can’t run off to another planet. There is no come-to-life movie promotional statue to distract them. Whatever comes next, they’d actually have to deal with it.
And, we might not be ready for that.