I've taken the written tests, I meet all the physical requirements, I'm mentally stable, I'm the right age, I'm healthy, I can fly... (I know that's not a requirement; I just thought I would mention it).
--The Human Torch, applying for work with the Fire Department.

Writer: Roberto Aquirre-Sacasa
Penciller: Steve McNiven
Inker: Mark Morales
Colorist: Morry Hollowell

Series characters: Mr. Fantastic, Invisible Woman, the Human Torch, the Thing, Franklin Richards.
Cameos: Captain America, Hammerhead, Willy Lumpkin, She-Hulk, Tony Stark.

I read various comics as I found them when I was a kid, but two regularly: Spider-man and Fantastic Four. I'd abandoned them by the end of elementary school, and gave away or sold most of my collection in university. If I wanted now to show someone what made the FF appealing to me, I might well recommend Marvel Knights 4: Wolf at the Door. A crooked financial manager absconds with the FF's fortune, leaving them bankrupt. They struggle, metahumans facing the mundane realities of life. The Thing and the Torch fight, and then the group faces down an otherworldly threat. In short, this trade paperback, comprised of the first seven issues of Marvel Knights 4, features the classic FF, flaws and all, in a contemporary setting.

The initial premise can be traced to Fantastic Four #11 (1962) which included a classic second feature, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's "A Visit with the Fantastic Four." The story simply showed Reed Richards, Sue Storm, Ben Grimm, and Johnny Storm on an average day, without villains to pester them. Reader response proved positive, and it paved the way for many future Marvel stories, including the visually stunning Marvels. I found that the premise afforded pages of very interesting interactions between the characters and the workaday world. It actually works better in this regard than Marvels, which became too fixated on the "omigod look at the scary freaks!" reactions of everyday folks, and suggested some problematic psychology for the average citizen of the Marvel Universe..* Marvel Knights recognizes that, after a couple of decades of this sort of thing, people would have a tempered view of superheroes. If anything, they're a little too blasé.

The circumstances which allow for these interactions, however, do not entirely make sense.

Look. I know that prodigious amounts of disbelief must be suspended when reading about superheroes. I'll buy a world where ridiculous circumstances bequeath to people superhuman abilities while removing from them any semblance of fashion sense. I buy that strange forces stalk that world, giving our heroes regular challenges. The Jersey Devil makes an appearance in this comic. Things like the Jersey Devil would exist in the Fantastic Four's universe.

And I know their bankruptcy is a plot device that forces our characters to cope with difficult situations. It strains credibility that the FF, with so many sellable assets, could be so easily and totally financially ruined. Reed Richards has invented "unstable molecules," which allow his suit to stretch with him and the Torch's to flame on without burning up. What on earth would those be worth? The story, however, makes attempts to explain how they might lose all income, and hints that still-unexplained forces may be at work in the background. It's a stretch, but comix get away with a lot.

But even once we accept their financial desperation, how would they cope? We're reminded that Richards ranks among the top scientific brains on Marvel Comics's earth; he may hold the top spot. The best job he can find is repairing a law office's computer system? Ben Grimm, ex-test-pilot and celebrity, forced into a desperate financial situation, works construction? Sue Richards, however, who never finished college (she was twenty when she became the Invisible Woman), lands work for which she has absolutely no qualifications, as an English teacher at a prestigious school. At the same time, using her invisible force-fields for financial gain never enters her mind.

We never get a resolution to the initial story arc-- though I was somewhat relieved that the inevitable reset button of mainstream comics will take some time. A conclusion occurs only because of a second plot which develops as the heroes-- minus the Torch-- take Franklin Richards and four of his buddies camping in New Jersey's Pine Barrens.

Reed: Who was that?

Ben: Well.... you know how in the Friday the 13th movies, there's always an old coot who warns the campers to go home because Jason's gonna chop'em up?... That was him.

The Barrens have a reputation for natural beauty and supernatural doings. With the balance between pop culture heroics and tongue-in-cheek humour typical of comic books, the story throws its characters into a horror movie scenario, complete with sinister portents, dark doings, and locals who know more than they're telling. We also meet two slacker wannabee filmmakers, who hope to create the next Blair Witch Project. Naturally, they only complicate the situation once danger presents itself.

A more typical FF adventure, this plot blends several too-familiar elements. The creatures resemble more than a little H.R. Giger's alien and behave like Hollywood's Predator. As for the underlying explanation, it has been used frequently, most recently in Neil Gaiman's American Gods.

Marvel Knights 4 is beautifully illustrated. While McNiven's art isn't as superrealistic as Alex Ross's, it ranks among the best in contemporary comic books. Yes, he draws the usual physical distortions and idealizations. That's not a flaw in this case. He gives us conventional superhero comic-book art, done very well, as suits this story. Hollowell's coloring also deserves note, especially in the nighttime sequences and flashbacks.

This isn't Watchmen or Ghost World, but Marvel Knights 4: Wolf at the Door provides a well-done, conventional superhero comic, which can be enjoyed by readers unfamiliar with the group's history.

*Marvels, however, takes a more original approach to a superhero comic, and it's difficult to complain about Ross's photorealist, Easter Egg-filled artwork.

A variation of this review, by this author, first appeared at www.bureau42.com

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