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Thursday, March 06, 2008


Since childhood my favorite team of superheroes has been the Fantastic Four, a group less devoted to fighting crime than to exploring the limitless, literally “fantastic” realms of comic book super-science, to say nothing of squabbling amongst themselves like the dysfunctional family unit that they are. Created in 1961 in a bald-faced attempt to cash in on DC Comics’ then-new Justice League of America, the FF were the first of the post-modern superheroes, beings with amazing powers but all of the foibles and neuroses of regular Joes like you and me, and that revolutionary tweak to the spandex formula not only established the flavor of the “Marvel Age” (roughly 1961-1970) but informed how superheroes have been portrayed ever since.

Co-creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby brought us a quartet of recognizable New York types (yeah, I know Reed Richards is from California and only hit New York when he left for college, so check yerself before ya wreck yerself) who just happened to have superpowers and found themselves in the thick of everything from alien invasions to hidden societies of bizarre supermen, all the while reacting to it like normal people probably would have (well, as normal as one could possibly find in a comic book anyway). They eschewed secret identities and individualized, gaudy costumes, instead adopting uniform blue jumpsuits with a “4” emblazoned on their chests (except for the Thing, whose inhuman build was best served with a pair of trunks), giving them more of a “team” feel than any other super-group, and in no time they came to be regarded by readers as a family unit. The crazy sci-fi elements of their adventures were certainly fun, but all of that took a back seat to the FF’s effed-up dynamic, a formula that became the template for Lee’s fusion of men-in-tights histrionics and family soap opera.

The Fantastic Four: bringers of human frailty and dysfunction to the superhuman arena.

For those who may not know, the Fantastic Four consists of the following main characters:

Reed Richards-perhaps the most brilliant human mind in the Marvel Universe, Reed’s endless quest for knowledge and building of incredible high-tech devices often renders him sometimes cold and distant, blind to all concerns save for the cerebral, often to the chagrin of his girlfriend (and later wife), Susan Storm. While his brain is his chief asset, Reed’s body is pliable to a degree second only to Plastic Man, allowing him to stretch to amazing lengths and assume various forms, such as spheres, enormous shields (he’s pliable enough to absorb and repel projectiles such as bullets and spears) and whatever else the story may call for. Goes by the ludicrous superhero moniker “Mister Fantastic;” seriously, how much of a douche do you have to be to call yourself Mister Fantastic? Sheesh! NOTE: at the time of his first appearance, Reed had served in WWII, thereby placing his age at approximately somewhere in his early forties, but as time went by the wartime history was ignored.

Susan Storm-“girly” beyond belief and rockin’ a serious Jackie Kennedy ‘do, Sue is the FF’s lone female, a state made painfully all the more obvious by her being surrounded by a boyfriend (and later husband) who at times seemed to barely tolerate her, a younger brother who was the quite literally hotheaded teen writ large and obnoxious, and a disgruntled brawler with anger management issues. Her power of invisibility can be read as a metaphor for her own initial sense of uselessness to the team, providing little by way of the muscle needed to handle many of the threats they faced; even after the discovery of her ability to generate invisible force fields that could be put to a myriad of uses, Sue long remained the least of the quartet, a female stereotype in a sometimes creepy May/December romance scribed by a guy who had great difficulty writing believable females who weren’t of the villainous variety. Pretty much there solely to provide Reed a love interest and to embody a woman’s perceived fickleness while mooning over the hunky and nearly naked Sub-Mariner, Sue’s Invisible Girl code name was perhaps the most wistfully appropriate of the bunch.

Johnny Storm-a testosterone-driven teen whose principal concerns are girls and fast cars, Johnny is Sue’s devoted younger sibling whose heated nature is reflected in his powers as the flame-wielding Human Torch. Youthfully impetuous and more than a bit of a brat, Johnny’s arrival pissed all over the legacy of kid sidekicks like Robin, Aqualad, and Bucky, each a squeaky clean analog for their mentors, instead bringing the reality of the volatile and hormonal teen to the comics page.

Ben Grimm-the member of the team who got the shit end of the stick during the group’s origin, Ben is blessed with great superhuman strength while cursed with a monstrous, rocklike appearance. Extremely bitter about the cruel hand dealt to him by fate, Ben is angry, rude, and at times downright hostile, even to his own teammates, but his rough persona barely disguises a combination of sheer heart and humanity. NOTE: Ben also served in WWII, but that bit of back story has also been dropped.

Operating out of the Manhattan-based Baxter Building, the Fantastic Four were the first of Marvel’s post-WWII superheroes to make saving the world just another nuisance that interrupted their otherwise mostly mundane lives, bitching like mad all the while and somehow saving the day without killing each other in the process. It was a breath of fresh air into the moribund superhero arena dominated by DC’s archetypal and mostly bland pantheon of heroes who maintained the status quo firmly etched in stone since ACTION COMICS #1 back in 1938, and their popularity lasts into the new millennium, showing no sign of slowing down.

Reprinted and collected many times since their early-1960’s inception, the adventures of the Fantastic Four sent a seismic change throughout comic book storytelling, and their ground breaking (and balls-out fun) adventures have finally been collected in editions worthy of these genuine classic back issues. The two seemingly pricey Marvel Omnibus editions thus far released of the FF’s tales are hefty and handsome hardcover volumes, each weighing in at over five pounds and featuring over eight-hundred pages for the retail price of $99.99, but can be had through Amazon sometimes for considerably less. That’s a steal considering how much you get for your cash; the first volume contains issues 1 through 30, as well as the first annual, while the second volume provides issues 31 through 60, annuals 2 through 4, and a parody piece from NOT BRAND ECCH #1. There’s also the added fun of the letters pages being reprinted for the first time, and it’s a hoot to read what the readers thought of the series at the time when it was new and unpredictable, especially when some of the fan mail came courtesy of several names who later went on to make their own mark the comics industry some years later. I won’t tell you exactly I’m referring to and will instead let you read the letters for yourself, thus allowing you the same pleasant surprises I encountered.

As for the stories themselves, much of what’s found here is rightly considered classic material and is still entertaining as hell some forty-seven years after the fact.

Volume one (cover by Alex Ross, after FANTASTIC FOUR #1)

Volume one sees the intro of the FF, Doctor Doom, blind sculptress Alicia Masters, the Watcher, the Impossible Man, the Hate Monger (whose true identity made me laugh my ass off when I read it age ten), the Skrulls, the Mad Thinker and his Awesome Android, and many others, as well as the terrific “A Day With the Fantastic Four,” a story in which nothing happens other than the FF wandering the streets of Manhattan and later directly answering some of the readers’ questions. When I first read that story in a reprint when I was nine years old, it answered every single question I could have asked about the characters at the time, and was intrigued to see a superhero story that was literally all talking yet held me riveted to every word. Perhaps a tad primitive by today’s standards, these issues mostly amount to a shakedown period, a time of testing the waters and refining the characters and concepts, the results of which start to fall into polished place in Volume two.

Volume two (cover by Ladronn, after FANTASTIC FOUR #49)

The second volume finds Lee and Kirby clicking on all cylinders, their efforts resulting in a streak of excellent multi-part stories that may just have been their collaborative peak (there are those who make a case for their run on THE MIGHTY THOR, but I stand by this stuff). With these pages readers witness the debut of Medusa (who would figure prominently in many later FF tales, and even replace Sue for a while in the 1970’s), the Frightful Four, the Inhumans, the Black Panther, and the first of Marvel’s epic tales, the Galactus trilogy, an arc that not only introduced the planet-devouring Galactus, but also gave the comics world the Silver Surfer.

Catching some bitchin' waves: the arrival of the Silver Surfer.

These editions are simply must-haves for any serious comics enthusiast, regardless of whether they may own the previous collections of these stories; I have the Marvel Masterworks that have this stuff, but now that I’ve traded up I’ll just give them to my pal Chris, a guy who loves this stuff as much as I do, so I suggest that those who also have them do likewise and make someone very happy. I’ve read these stories so many times that when I received these new collection I didn’t unwrap them for about a week, but I eventually gave in to curiosity over how well they were reprinted and broke them open. I was surprised to discover that once opened I could not put them down, eventually reading them from cover to cover on my daily subway commute and during any available downtime over a period of two weeks, and I still enjoy them as much as I did when I was a kid. A definite feel-good addition to your comics library and a bargain at the price, these books get my HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION.

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