Continuing my Fantastic Four Fridays, I’ve decided to (try to!) go back and actually read the entire Fantastic Four run (of volume 1, anyway) from the beginning. I have no idea if I’ll actually complete this—I know slogging through the 100s will be tough—or how long it’ll take, even if I do finish it! But let’s give it a shot. I’ll be reading this in the Masterworks format, so let’s start at the beginning…
What is it? Fantastic Four Masterworks Volume 1
Who did it? Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
When did it come out? 2003 (revised edition)
What does it collect? The Fantastic Four #1-10 (1961-1962)
The characters are fully formed right from the start
Sure, they’re fairly thin in the first couple issues; Johnny’s the hothead, the Thing is angry, Reed is steady, Sue is the mom, etc. But they’re consistent throughout these 10 issues. Reed and Johnny would be immediately recognizable today. Sue has obviously evolved significantly as society has become more egalitarian; in these early issues, she’s often little more than a hostage. But I’d say it’s The Thing that is the most different; for one thing, no one calls him Ben when he’s in his orange, rocky form; the rest of the team refers to each other by their first names regularly, but Ben is only ever The Thing. Which I found so… odd? Cold? Dehumanizing? And he’s just grumpy all the time—understandably so, given his situation, but he is definitely not the lovable Ben Grimm he would grow into. And yet, even so, the introduction of Alicia Masters in issue #8 sets him immediately apart from the rest of the team, as he’s actually the first team member to have some semblance of life outside the team.
The complexity of Alicia Masters is incredibly impressive
Alicia is by far the most unusual and unique recurring character introduced here. The complex relationship with her stepfather, the Puppet Master, is unusual for the time, as is, obviously her relationship with The Thing. And the fact that she’s blind is one of those strokes of pure brilliance; you’re left to wonder if she only loves the Thing because she’s blind and can’t see his hideous face, or if she loves him because her blindness allows her to see through his exterior to the person inside. (Also, make note of her “Is it you… you’re different…” comment when The Thing turns back into Ben Grimm… followed by her “Oh, it is you, the same wonderful man” as soon as he turns back into The Thing. John Byrne would pick up on this moment, tragically, years later.) And the relationship blossoms immediately; she first appears in issue #8, and then Ben is seen spending time with her in each of the next two issues.
These issues are relatively crude by the standards Stan and Jack would go on to set
That’s not to say there aren’t standout issues and brilliant ideas to be found. I mentioned Alicia’s appearance in issue #8. Returning Namor, the Sub-Mariner to prominence in issue #4 was another stroke of genius; notable here were both his “villain but not really” status, as well as the romantic was the dynamic introduced between him and Sue, and Reed as well. In issue #6 we get the first “super-villain team up” as Dr. Doom and Namor launch the Baxter Building into space; here, we get an even better since of who Namor really is when he realizes Doom is a true villain. In issue #2, shapeshifting alien Skrulls were petty cool on their own, but this issue stands out by showing us the first “world hates and fears superheroes” story, a staple that Stan and Jack would go back to again and again (Spider-Man, Hulk, X-Men). And how about the Fantastic Four living in New York City, rather than a made-up locale, as established in issue #3? And going broke in issue #9? All brilliant ideas. But all of that said: There’s a sort of goofiness in some of the plots (Blackbeard?) and Kirby’s art is nowhere near as refined as it would soon become.
Dr. Doom and the Sub-Mariner obviously made quite an impression
Namor appears in issue 4; Dr. Doom first appears in issue #5. They team up in issue #6. Namor returns in issue #9, and Doom returns in issue #10. In other words, they’re the antagonists in half of these issues! Stan and Jack may have been winging it, but they clearly knew when something they created struck a nerve. It’s also interesting to note just how steeped these early issues are in the monster-comic era; the FF fight giant monsters in issue 1, 3, 4 and 9, and monstrous aliens in issue 2 and 7.
Dr. Doom’s first appearance is a bit… underwhelming
There are hints of the Dr. Doom we’d come to fear and respect in his debut issue: his college connection with Reed, his robot double, his ostentatious castle, his obsession with black magic and desire for the mystical gems of Merlin (found, oddly, in Blackbeard’s treasure chest). (I’m also a big fan of his tiger enforcer/sidekick!) But you gotta wonder: he’s smart enough to develop a working time machine and this is best plan he can come up with? I dunno man. And Reed, Ben and Johnny’s trip to the past is completely hokey, as is Reed’s “we’ll just bring back an empty chest!” trick. (Next issue, his plan to launch the Baxter Building into space is much more Doom-like.) I will give this issue credit for this, though; the Thing wants to stay behind in the past because he’s feared and respected in his make-believe role as Blackbeard. He eventually realizes his error, but note how, just three issues later, Stan and Jack give him a reason to alter his viewpoint: Alicia.
I can’t imagine what it must have been like to read these comics in 1961. There are a ton of bold new ideas here, and refinements of older concepts, that had never been seen before. And for the most part they still hold up as fun, entertaining comics today!