Most licensed fiction takes one of two approaches to its stories: tales set before the main narrative, showing what characters were up to before their original story, or stories set after, showing the further adventures of the characters. IDW’s new Back to the Future series, subtitled “Untold Tales and Alternate Timelines” intends to do both (and more), telling tales set before, after, during and sideways to the events of the movies, as Bob Gale, co-writer of the three films, is joined by a series of writers and artists for a unique kind of anthology series.
The first issue in the series is comprised of two stories, both set in the past (relative to the events of the first film). The first, in which Gale is joined by writer John Barber and artists Brent Schoonover & David Witt, tells the tale of Marty’s first meeting with Doc. It’s framed as a story being told by Doc, still in the Old West, to his young sons (seen at the end of Back to the Future III), and is built around suggestions hinted at in the films (like the Brown family land being sold off to developers) and culled from earlier script drafts and cut scenes. Like many prequel stories, the ending is less important than how the ending came about, and Gale & Barber make the “how” entertaining by forcing Marty to solve a series of puzzles to gain entrance to Doc’s garage (and ultimately Doc himself).
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There are, of course, plenty of nods to the films sprinkled throughout even this short story, which work to varying degrees (a callback to Marty’s hatred of being called chicken, one of the more hamfisted elements of the latter two films, feels unsurprisingly shoehorned-in and unnecessary, while the Rube Goldbergian machine at the center of one of Doc’s puzzles is an effectively subtle nod to the similar breakfast machine seen in the early moments of the first film), but the ultimate takeaway from the story is that Doc and Marty work well together and get along, despite their gaps in age and education, because they both approach problems in a similar manner.
That different, slightly-askew mindset is also at the center of the issue’s second story, one set in the early 40s and chronicling Doc’s involvement with the Manhattan Project. Written by Gale & Erik Burnham, with art by Dan Schoening, it is relatively continuity-lite (in that it doesn’t detail a significant untold story of the films), but nonetheless provides an effective portrait of Doc’s character at a time long before he became obsessed with time travel. Its depiction of a young Doc and his way of thinking, which proves so attractive to the recruiting scientists, is consistent both with the character in the film and the character who developed an appreciation for Marty in the first story, tying the two stories together nicely despite their differences in content.
Artistic likenesses, so often a concern of licensed fiction, are mostly eschewed in these two stories, with both artists focused more on creating representations of the characters than film-accurate likenesses. No one will ever mistake Schoonover’s Marty for Michael J. Fox or Schoening’s Doc for a young Christopher Lloyd, but it’s never difficult to tell which character is which. Schoonover’s work favors basic panel layouts, but brings a lot of characterization to the figures, particularly via Marty’s facial expressions. Schoening, meanwhile, brings a lot of energy to his story, crafting an almost-manic Doc who seems to always be in motion (and making the two recruiting scientists resemble FDR and Stalin makes for a fun yet subtle visual joke).
According to a text piece in the back of the issue by Bob Gale, the series has an initial order of four issues from IDW – whether more follow depends on sales, of course, and it remains to be seen just how many worthwhile stories there are to tell, even given the series’ expansive approach to it settings. But those are concerns for the future. While there’s certainly nothing in this issue that is required reading or radically changes the text of the films, fans of the series will nevertheless be entertained, and there’s definitely potential in the idea of an anthology series featuring a variety of different creators set all across the Back to the Future universe. This first issue meets that potential.