Fantastic Four Epic Collection: The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine (2014)
Reprints Fantastic Four #1-18
Written by Stan Lee
Art by Jack Kirby
I’m not quite sure what Marvel Comics is anymore these days. They have gone all-in on making their books just variants of variants at this point. There’s the stable of adjectives they slap on books that don’t mean much (Uncanny, Astonishing, Immortal is one now with the upcoming Immortal Thor). There’s also the spamming of popular IPs with Spider-Man, Venom, Spider-Gwen/Ghost Spider, and Miles Morales being used in multiple comics a month in a way that I think is less about storytelling and more about keeping brands in front of the consumers at all times. While comics have always been a business about finding ways to keep people handing over their money for another monthly installment, in the “old days,” there was a certain freshness & creativity to it. These were comics being dreamed up by weirdos who had yet to determine if they would be popular with a big enough audience to make them economical.
Marvel Comics began with Fantastic Four #1. The company has existed since 1939 but under the name Timely. In 1951, it was renamed to Atlas Comics. While superheroes had been a part of that initial wave, with the original Human Torch being the first, by the 1950s, they were no longer the top sellers. Due to threats of censorship by authorities, the comics industry self-regulated itself into a medium whose best-selling books were science fiction anthologies, romance stories, and westerns for the most part. Superman and Batman existed at DC but were often the exception. DC succeeded in reviving its superhero line in the late 1950s by introducing new versions of The Flash and Green Lantern. This led writer-editor Stan Lee to think Marvel could do the same thing. Along with artist/co-writer Jack Kirby, Lee created the first chapter in the Marvel Saga, the Fantastic Four.
One of the things I noticed right off the bat with the first issue in this collection is that the Fantastic Four is not like we imagine it today. They are based in the generically named Central City (also where DC situated Barry Allen/The Flash so we know why Marvel likely changed this). They have no uniforms and are called together by a signal gun fired off by Mister Fantastic. Each character is introduced, and we get a brief display of their powers as they rush to find out what their leader wants. We get the iconic origin story: Reed Richards convinces his friend & pilot Ben Grimm (maybe girlfriend?) Sue Storm and her brother Johnny into helping him steal a rocket he’s helped design. The government says the cosmic rays they encounter are too much of a risk, but Reed doesn’t care. Never mind that the officials were right because the crew returns having undergone some extreme body horror. Reading this story now, the grotesque transformations, especially on Reed and Ben, are pretty gnarly. Despite how bad the last Fantastic Four film was, I never disagreed with its premise that the story of these characters is a body horror one.
Issue one always introduces The Mole Man, a perennial fixture in the Four’s Rogues Gallery. His first appearance frames the character as reasonably intelligent, leaning into the trope of the vengeful outcast. The portrayal of The Mole Man in more recent appearances feels like he’s been recontextualized into a simpleton, and I like this idea of the subterranean genius plotting his revenge on the overworld. However, that does create some overlap with Doctor Doom and Namor the Submariner.
Issue two gives us our first glimpse at the shapeshifting Skrulls. They begin their reign of terror by posing as the members of the Fantastic Four and using their morphing ability to mimic the team’s powers. The plan is to defame the Four, and once the team has been sidelined, they can conquer the Earth. It’s a mix of something Marvel was trying out (superheroes) and something they were already doing in the pages of other books (alien invasion stories). It doesn’t work all too well for me because the Four have only been just introduced, so there’s not yet a solid sense of how the public views the team. I am assigning some modern sensibilities to what was a children’s genre of storytelling, so I could be asking for more than was necessary. There is a funny easter egg when Reed uses images clipped from the pages of Marvel’s Strange Tales and Journey Into Mystery to convince the Skrulls that Earth is ruled by giant monsters. This issue also begins an ongoing plot beat which causes Ben to revert to his human form, albeit temporarily. I didn’t realize how often this would come up, but good, good, it was a regular part of nearly every issue. That’s one element I like that has gone by the wayside; I like Ben as someone who has accepted what he became and has found happiness in life.
One thing I want to point out early on is one of the major changes Marvel brought to the table with superheroes. Many of their characters had no secret identities. The Fantastic Four are publicly known by their real names and superhero nicknames. Marvel still succeeded with the secret identity trope, particularly with Spider-Man, the best exploration of secret identities ever written. But here, the Four are celebrities and create a defensive infrastructure that protects them (most of the time) from outside threats.
That infrastructure is introduced in issue three, whose cover advertises not a clash with a villain but rather the bathtub resembling Fantasticar and the team’s new matching costumes. Inside, they face off against The Miracle Man, a stage magician who is one of the more forgettable foes. The story also incorporates one of the company’s strong suits again, giant monsters. What is interesting to me is that while superheroes were not typical in Marvel’s comics at the time, this led to Lee & Kirby sticking closely to established plots from the anthologies. The Mole Man invasion is all about monsters, the Skrulls is an alien invasion story, and The Miracle Man brings a fake monster statue to life as part of his plot. Lee took the plots of the monster anthology books and made them stories in an ongoing comic about a team of super-powered people.
I would argue that Fantastic Four #4 is where the book becomes what we think of it today. In an exciting twist, issue three ends with Johnny flying off angry at the team, and that story continues here. He crashes at a homeless men’s shelter (such an odd thing, but I like it), where he discovers one of the residents is an amnesiac Namor the Submariner, a Golden Age antihero from Atlantis. This is interesting because it’s the first Marvel Comic that acknowledges this is the same universe as the Timely Comics from the 1940s. This means Johnny named himself after another superhero he’d likely heard about as a kid. Where DC gave The Flash and Green Lantern new origins, identities, and powers, Marvel would go back and find characters from their past and revive them, acknowledging their histories and finding ways to make them a part of this new world. Also, Namor summons a giant whale with arms and legs, so giant monsters as a significant plot device continues in the book.
Issue five is arguably the most essential Marvel Comic ever published, as it introduces an archetype that continues to dominate comic books: Doctor Doom. Unfortunately, there’s not much to say yet about Doom. Like most villains’ first appearances, his first appearance isn’t what makes him as impressive as he eventually will be. He’s pretty standard though we do get the skeleton of his origin which is expanded on considerably in the next volume of this series. There’s also some time travel which leads to the fun fact that Ben Grimm is the historical Blackbeard, the pirate. Doom must have proven popular as the next issue sees him returning, and this time in a team-up with Namor. I can only assume how popular these two villains were because we get many of them over this comic’s first two and half years, at certain points in every other issue. Teaming them up also allows Namor to be shown as a misunderstood character instead of Doom’s outright desire to do evil.
Issue seven is a straight-up plot from a monster book anthology. However, issue eight introduces the villain, The Puppet Master. Visually, he’s one of the creepier bad guys of the era, his face made up to resemble a ventriloquist dummy. This story also introduces Alicia Masters, the blind woman who would become Ben Grimm’s true love. Alicia quickly becomes a recurring character and fixture in every issue. I think the Fantastic Four issues I had read as a kid had temporarily written her out of the book, so I can only say I had little familiarity beyond her basic concept. She’s playing into a Beauty & the Beast trope, but it works. There’s clearly some tension in the book about Sue’s role on the team because, wouldn’t you know it, she often ends up the damsel in distress that motivates the other three. I think Alicia was introduced to give Ben a love interest and develop his character as a backup damsel while the writers tried to bump up Sue’s powers as the Invisible Woman.
Issue nine is Namor (again), issue ten is Doctor Doom (again), and issue eleven introduces the Impossible Man (an alien trickster). Issue twelve breaks things up with the Hulk making a guest appearance as the villain of the month. I noticed some advertisements for the upcoming Hulk book in earlier issues, and then in issue seven, they show Johnny reading the Hulk comic…which I guess exists in some form within the Marvel Universe? It’s clear that Marvel was hyping this character, and if you know his publishing history, he didn’t necessarily become a breakout success at the time. General Thunderbolt Ross recruits the Four to help stop the Hulk, who has been sighted nearby. Bruce Banner is presented as a science expert, and the team never learns the connection between him and the green giant they are facing, which I liked.
Issue ten is very wild with the debut of The Red Ghost. I wouldn’t blame you if you drew a blank on that villain. He’s a Soviet scientist who wants to emulate the Four’s cosmic ray bombardment that gave them powers. He plans on doing this with himself, a gorilla, an orangutan, and a baboon he’s been training. It works, but they end up with a different suite of powers. The gorilla is super strong (not that big of a deal), the baboon can shapeshift into objects like a gun (peculiar), the orangutan can control magnetic waves (okay), and Red Ghost himself can turn invisible. It will be the first of many “evil” versions of the Four. Even more important, this issue introduces The Watcher, the alien who is meant to only observe but, more often than not, interfere with helping the good guys.
Issue fourteen sees Namor Surface (once again) teaming up with the Puppet Master this time. Issue fifteen introduces the criminal mastermind, The Mad Thinker, and his Awesome Android. I just realized this when reading his original first appearance, but The Mad Thinker is modeled directly after Rodin’s The Thinker sculpture; like every time they show him, he’s in that pose. I love how weird that is. It’s like a villain modeled after the Mona Lisa or The Girl With the Pearl Earring. The Android counts as a giant monster for me, so the book maintains its integrity in that regard. As for The Thinker… he’s not interesting beyond what inspired him.
Issue sixteen sees Doctor Doom return (again again again) but with a guest spot by Ant-Man, who lends a helping hand. This story continues into issue seventeen, however, without Ant-Man involved. The collection wraps things up with the first appearance of the Super Skrull, the Skrulls’ attempt to put the powers of the Four into a single being. I count him as another of the “evil” versions of the team, and he’s an interesting enemy to pit them against.
Overall, there were some really stand-out stories here though you have to do some additional research to contextualize how strange this would have been at the time. In a world where Marvel superheroes have been present in the media to one degree or another our whole lives, it can be challenging to see how Lee & Kirby were creating new things. It’s most apparent when Kirby can go all out in his art. We only get a little of it here, though we have glimpses. It’s also interesting to see something become the concept we know as a common thing in all media. This makes the fans complaining that a new media presentation of something “isn’t like the comic book” much more ridiculous. For a long time, the comic book was different from what you perceive the comic book as. These stories evolve and change as the people working on them figure out what they want to do with the characters. I’ll be back next week to talk about the second volume of this series, where things start to get really good.