Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Essential Fantastic Four, Volume 1 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby

Glory days of the Silver Age
Essential Fantastic Four, Volume 1 reprints the first twenty issues of the Fantastic Four comic book, which originally ran from November 1961 to November 1963, as well as the first Fantastic Four Annual from 1963. Marvel’s Essential series reproduces comics in black-and-white on newsprint paper. I have previously read the first ten issues of Fantastic Four in Marvel Masterworks: The Fantastic Four, Volume 1, which reprints the comics in color on glossier paper. With over twice as many issues included, however, the Essential version gives one a better idea of how the characters and the series developed over time.

Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s work for Marvel in the 1960s was truly groundbreaking, and perhaps no title was more innovative than Fantastic Four, which they immodestly subtitled “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine!” Though the FF bears obvious similarities to an earlier team of heroes that Kirby created for DC, the Challengers of the Unknown, the addition of a woman to the cast and the introduction of a family dynamic among the heroes made the FF a unique reading experience for its era. While saving the world, the FF faced real-life problems and displayed the personality flaws of mere mortals. At the same time, however, this was the most sci-fi of Marvel’s Silver Age superhero titles, and the Four faced bizarre and outlandish menaces at every turn. In these first 20 issues, Lee and Kirby introduced villains that would prove eminently memorable for decades to come, most notably Dr. Doom, Marvel’s all-around top bad guy. In addition to resurrecting Bill Everett’s Golden Age character the Sub-Mariner, Lee and Kirby introduce readers to the Mole Man, the Skrulls, the Puppet Master, the Impossible Man, the Red Ghost and his Super Apes, the Mad Thinker, the Molecule Man, and Rama-Tut (later revealed to be an incarnation of the time-traveling Kang).

These landmark stories are not without their flaws, however. The first is the role of Susan Storm, the Invisible Girl. She hasn’t yet discovered her ability to create force fields, so her powers here are limited to just turning herself invisible. This gives her very little to do but play the hostage in most situations. On the other hand, the other three members protest too much when they assert that she plays a valuable role in the team by providing moral support to the men. In contrast, the powers of the Human Torch and Mr. Fantastic seem almost limitless. Like some orange version of Green Lantern, the Torch seems to be able to make all sorts of unreasonable constructions out of flame. He can even create “fire that doesn’t burn” and holographic “flame images.” He already knows he can burn hotter than a supernova, which always seemed ridiculous, but even more so in these earlier tales. Reed Richards can manage his stretching ability so well he’s able to squeeze through molecule-thin gaps, and one panel describes him as a judo expert!

Though these issues were some of the most innovative comics for their day, to the modern reader the first 20 issues do start to get a bit monotonous. Dr. Doom and the Sub-Mariner make multiple appearances, the Thing continually changes to Ben Grimm and back, and the squabbles between team members start to get repetitive. Fantastic Four Annual #1 is a great addition to this volume because the epic 37 page story gives Kirby a chance to indulge in elaborate world-building visuals for the Sub-Mariner’s Atlantis, like an undersea Asgard. In terms of plot, these first few years of the Fantastic Four have their ups and downs, but Kirby’s art is always a joy to behold, and there’s no denying that these initial stories laid a monumental foundation upon which to build many classic comic adventures to come.

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