Sunday, November 7, 2010

Fantastic Four: Year One

I wanted to take a look at Fantastic Four (Vol. 1), #s 1-7, those issues released during the first year of the title's publication.  While Stan Lee's and Jack Kirby's finest work on the series was still several years away, I have always had a particular fondness for these very early issues of Fantastic Four.  I have fond memories of devouring the hardcover Marvel Masterworks volume collecting the first ten issues when I was a child, indisputably one of the greatest Christmas gifts I ever received, and one of my first exposures to "old" comics and, most importantly, the work of Jack Kirby.  I've recently begun a re-read of the series as collected in the awesome Fantastic Four Omnibus series, and have been delighted to find that these early issues stand up very well to my nostalgia-tinged recollections of them.  Indeed, Fantastic Four was a really great comic right out of the gate.

The first issue is one of the all-time great comic book origin stories, and confidently ushered in a new style of more "realistic" superhero stories, with characters who did not fit the mold of the then-fashionable clean-cut superhero.  There is of course a lot of debate about how much (if any) credit Stan Lee should be afforded for the creation of these characters and this type of storytelling.  The true "authorship" of these comics has been the subject of much speculation over the years, but I don't really want to get into that here.  The long and the short of it is that I think it entirely appropriate to assume the credits in the actual comics are more or less accurate, and consider Stan Lee to be the "writer" and Jack Kirby to be the "artist," inasmuch as those clean distinctions even apply to comics, at least for the purposes of this review.  But I digress.

Anyway, in the first issue they fight the Mole Man, and in the second the foursome battle the shape shifting Skrulls From Outer Space.  They don't have their costumes yet, but their personalities are pretty well formed.  These early stories strike me as a kind of mixture of traditional superhero yarns and the kinds of monster and science fiction stories Marvel was publishing in books like Journey Into Mystery and Tales to Astonish.  I don't know if this is what Lee and Kirby had in mind, and I haven't seen anyone make that comparison before, but it is interesting to examine the Fantastic Four in the context of what else was being published at the time.

By issue number three, Lee and Kirby seem to have realized they had a bona fide hit on their hands.  The cover proclaims it to be "The Greatest Comic Magazine in the World!!"  This phrase would of course be modified in the following issue to "The World's Greatest Comic Magazine," and be a more or less constant presence on the covers for years to come.  The off-beat group finally accepts some of the more traditional superhero trappings in this issue, as well, with the debut of their superhero costumes, their secret base of operations in the Baxter Building, and their flying vehicle, The Fantasticar.  They fight the Miracle Man in this issue.

Things really get cooking in issue four, wherein Namor, the Sub-Mariner, a hero from the Golden Age of comics, is reintroduced as a villain.  The anti-hero status of a character like Sub-Mariner was a clear indication that we were entering a whole new era of comics, and Namor's affection for the Invisible Girl (and hers for him?) further blurred the lines between hero and villain.

Dr. Doom, generally considered one of the greatest villains in superhero comics, is introduced in issue five, and in issue six he and the Sub-Mariner team up to battle the Fantastic Four.  The story ends with Doom betraying Namor, leading the Atlantean prince to team up with his sworn enemies to defeat Doom.  The issue also features the first of many "deaths" for Dr. Doom, as he hurtles into deep space at the story's conclusion.  He would return and "die" again many times.

Issue seven is an odd one-off that I'm actually quite fond of, featuring a villain called Kurrgo, Master of Planet X.  This story reads like one Stan Lee may have had in the vault, a story that could have appeared in one of the sci-fi anthologies with the Fantastic Four grafted onto it.  Still, it's a nifty little tale with a twist ending, the type we wouldn't see much more of as the series moved forward and further away from its sci-fi and monster comics roots.

Stan Lee's and Jack Kirby's long run on this title is unquestionably one of the greatest superhero epics of all time.  The series' "golden age" begins, for me, in issue forty-four with the introduction of the Inhumans and a particularly fruitful artistic collaboration between Jack Kirby and inker Joe Sinnott.  If you haven't read these comics and want a sample, by all means, start there.  But if you enjoy that later work, don't hesitate to jump back to these very early issues which, besides being great entertainment in their own right, lay some important groundwork for one of comics' truly great works.


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