Monday, August 12, 2019

Marvel Masterworks: The Fantastic Four, Volume 1 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby

The dawn of Marvel’s Silver Age
The Marvel Masterworks series reprints classic Marvel Comics in hardcover and trade paperback editions. Marvel Masterworks: The Fantastic Four, Volume 1 reprints the first ten issues of The Fantastic Four, which were originally published from November 1961 to January 1963. The FF was created by Marvel’s greatest Silver Age creative duo, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, who handle the story and art for all ten issues featured here.

As early as issue number 3, Marvel began billing The Fantastic Four as “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine,” but the first two or three issues don’t quite live up to such high praise. In the debut issue, the origin story is breezed through very quickly, the FF become instant celebrities without proving themselves, and a very underdeveloped Mole Man shows up for a story not much different than many of the monster comics Lee and Kirby used to crank out in the 1950s. In the next couple issues, the Skrulls are introduced and the Sub-Mariner is resurrected from the 1940s, but the stories so simplistic they make you wonder how Marvel ever went on to build such elaborate mythologies around these characters. In these first few issues, Kirby’s art is also subpar and appears a bit rushed.

By issue number 4, however, the series is in full swing and perhaps worthy of its tagline. Kirby’s art really starts to shine, and one begins to see the complex stories one expects from this creative duo. Doctor Doom makes his debut, and right from the get-go he is one of the most interesting and formidable villains in superhero comics. The odd family dynamic between the group members blossoms, with all their unique quirks and personal grievances on display, such as the constant animosity between the Thing and the Human Torch and the uncertain romance between Reed Richards and Sue Storm. (She’s got a thing for the Sub-Mariner.) The team’s fantasticar and the Baxter Building headquarters are already established by issue 3. In fact, the FF’s mythology gets developed so quickly that by issue 10 one can already see the repetition of familiar themes. In these first ten issues, the Thing reverts back to Ben Grimm three times, and on at least two occasions some form of mind control causes one of the members to battle the others, as will happen again so many times over the next few decades.

Although Lee takes most of the credit for creating the Fantastic Four, the group bears some notable similarities to the DC series Challengers of the Unknown, which Kirby worked on as early as 1957. Though that team was composed of four non-superhero adventurers, they engaged in sci-fi adventures similar to the FF. Two of the Challengers had similar personalities to Ben Grimm and Johnny Storm and engaged in the same persistent bickering, teasing, and attempted clobbering.

One of the great things about the Marvel Universe is that each of the major titles has its own style and tone: Iron Man is the tech hero, Dr. Strange is the mystical hero, Daredevil is the urban hero, and the Fantastic Four are the sci-fi heroes. Likely no other Earth-based superheroes have encountered as many memorably bizarre alien races, lost civilizations, and alternate dimensions as the FF. Even in these first ten issues, the reader begins to see the epic scope of Lee and Kirby’s sci-fi vision. The Fantastic Four was a truly pioneering comic book, and issues one through ten are still a pleasure to read over a half century later. The series would go on to even bigger and better stories, but it would have never gotten there without the strong foundation of these first ten issues.
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