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In 1996, Marvel ended the run of some of their longest-running, and most successful comics, and relaunched them with new issue numbering. For astute historians of comic books, it will be noted this wasn't even a new idea at the time, since DC Comics had done the same thing 2 years earlier with Zero Hour, which involved releasing "#0" issues. At the time, however, the gimmick was still a somewhat new idea.

There were internal and external reasons that Marvel launched their titles: the internal reasons to the story was to clear up and reorder continuity, making it simpler for new readers to understand their comics. Marvel would do the same thing, a few years later, and more successfully, with its Ultimate line. Externally, Marvel had come under a creator's revolt, where some of the most famous young creators had left to form companies like Image and Valiant. The plan, then, was to give young creators more control of the titles. Also, to sell more comics. They gave Fantastic Four to Jim Lee, and this issue was both written and drawn by him, with the script being written by Brandon Choi.

After that somewhat lengthy introduction, this is basically the Fantastic Four's introduction, retold by Jim Lee for 90's audiences. Although they unfortunately don't get a credit, this is Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's story, updated, and with some added dynamism, because the 1990s were all about dynamism. Ben Grimm is a Gulf War veteran, instead of a World War II veteran. Sue Richards is a tough businesswoman, instead of a whimpering socialite. And they aren't trying to get into space because of the Cold War but for some other reason. Otherwise, the story is the same one most comic fans know well: four explorers take an experimental space craft into orbit, are hit with radiation, and crash land to discover they have gained new powers...with the issue ending on a cliff-hanger as they are about to fight The Moleman.

I have two minds about this issue. The first is that it is all done very well. Unlike his much-maligned contemporary Rob Liefeld, Jim Lee can really draw. Every panel shows care and attention to detail, both in human figures and in the requisite space ships and explosions. The anatomical impossibilities (Sue Storm's figure in a skintight jumpsuit, The Thing's musculature) seem to be more stylistic choices than incompetency. The story moves along nicely and has a few alterations on the formula. This is all done quite well, and it is hard to deny that technically, Jim Lee's art, together with the coloring technology of the 1990s (comic books had just moved to computer aided coloring), the art here was a leap above what was possible in the 1960s.

The problem is...I didn't really get too much out of this. One of the reasons for doing reboots of comic series, to simplify things for new readers, seems to be wildly counterproductive, as outsiders have to choose between 10 different continuities. I think most of the retconning was unretconned, a year later, in another complicated crisis event. And there was not many reasons to update the Fantastic Four: the Fantastic Four had never been that stodgy, and they had steadily updated and developed their character, so this reboot mostly changes a few cosmetic details in the timeline. My overall impression is that this issue is well done, but doesn't have a particular reason to exist.

One of the most interesting thing about this issue for me was not even part of the story, but found on an advertisement on page 5, something that would sadly be left out of collections. More than the story, this helped give me context for what I was reading. It was an advertisement for Soundgarden's new album, Down on the Upside. With two URLs to find out information about the album online! This is notable for several reasons. Through the 1980s, I don't remember seeing any ads for album releases in comic books. To have a full-page ad for an album by Soundgarden, at the time still a non-mainstream act, in a comic book, said something about the demographics of the comic book readership, or at least the perceived demographics. With the addition of the internet, this would have turned this single advertisement into something that would have seemed futuristic and cutting edge. So while when I read this issue now, it seems somewhat gimmicky and dated, when I put my mind into 1996, I probably would have, indeed, perceived this comic book as mature, serious and revolutionary in its content and style, based not just on the story, but even on the advertising it contained.

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