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.

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. This is the classic FF, flaws and all, in a contemporary setting.

General Information

Title: Marvel Knights Four: Wolf at the Door
Writer: Roberto Aquirre-Sacasa
Penciller: Steve McNiven
Inker: Mark Morales
Colorist: Morry Hollowell

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Premise:

A crooked financial manager absconds with the FF’s fortune, leaving them bankrupt. They struggle with being metahumans facing the mundane realities of life, the Thing and the Torch fight, and they end it all by facing down an otherworldly threat.

High Points

Fantastic Four #11 (1962) included a classic second feature, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s “A Visit with the Fantastic Four.” The story simply showed Reed, Ben, Sue, and Johnny on an average day, without villains to pester them. Reader response proved positive, and it paved the way for many future Marvel stories, including Marvels. Despite my objections to the plot, handled under “Low Point,” 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 citizens of Marvel-Earth.* Marvel Knights recognizes that, after a couple of decades of this sort of thing, people would have a tempered view of these characters.

See my comments on the artwork, below. Marvel Knights 4 looks great.

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

Low Point

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 destroying their fashion sense. I buy that strange forces stalk that world, giving our heroes regular challenges. The Jersey Devil appears in this comic; things like the Jersey Devil would really exist in the Fantastic Four’s world.

And I know 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.* The story, however, makes attempts to explain how this might happen, 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 in Marvel’s universe; he may hold the top spot. The best job he can find has him repairing a law office’s computer system? Ben Grimm, ex-test pilot and superhero celebrity, works construction? Sue Richards, however, who never finished college (she was twenty when she became the Invisible Girl, later 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.

*What would the patent on “unstable molecules” be worth?

The Scores

Originality: 2/6 See “premise.” In addition, the enemies they encounter in the “Jersey Devil” section have an explanation that has been used before; actually they’re a combination of several too-familiar elements. Most recently, the core explanation appeared in Gaiman’s American Gods.

Artwork: 6/6 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 standard physical distortions and idealizations. That’s not a flaw in this case. Marvel Knights 4 gives us conventional superhero comic-book art, done very well. Hollowell’s coloring also deserves note, especially in the nighttime sequences and the flashbacks.

Story: 4/6

Characterization: 4/6 This isn’t Watchmen or Ghost World. We’re getting a superior version of a conventional comic book, and the characters receive simplified, but plausible personalities. It’s not deep, but it is engaging.

Emotional response: 4/6

Flow 5/6 Comic-book aficionados argue about the distinction between a graphic novel and a trade paperback. Marvel Knights 4 is a trade paperback, comprised of seven previously-published comics. We never get a resolution to the initial story arc (though I was somewhat relieved that the inevitable reset button will take some time). The sense of conclusion occurs only because of a second story. However, the events within the stories move along nicely.

Overall: 5/6

In total, Marvel Knights 4: Wolf at the Door receives a score of 30/42.

Additional Comments:

The Fantastic Four made their debut a few years before I did; it amuses me to realize that I’m older than Sue and Johnny now, and roughly a contemporary of Reed and Ben. (If we go according to Knight‘s timeline, the four made their historic flight in the early 1990s, though an “Easter Egg” references the date of their actual first appearance).