Comic book review: Marvel Masterworks Fantastic Four Volume 4

Marvel Masterworks Fantastic Four Volume 4

It’s another “Fantastic Four Friday,” with a look back at Marvel Masterworks Fantastic Four Volume 4! Stan Lee and Jack Kirby are really rounding into form here, and the characters and supporting cast are becoming more and more fleshed out.

What is it? Marvel Masterworks Fantastic Four Volume 4
Who did it? Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
When did it come out? 2003 (revised edition)
What does it collect? Fantastic Four #31-40, Annual #2

Fantastic Four Annual #2 might just be Stan and Jack’s finest work on the series so far

Marvel Masterworks Fantastic Four Volume 4 opens with Fantastic Four Annual #2. It’s a fascinating book. It starts out with a 12 page Dr. Doom origin story in which the Fantastic Four do not appear, except for flashback cameos of Reed and Ben; goes in to a pin-up gallery; then a reprint of issue #5; then another pin-up gallery; then finally, the “feature” story, “The Final Victory of Doctor Doom.”

Let’s talk about “The Fantastic Origin of Doctor Doom.” It’s a masterpiece. This is the story where we are finally introduced to Victor Von Doom’s home country of Latveria, and his rule over it as monarch; his faithful servant Boris; his deep love of his sorcerer mother, who died when he was an infant; the tragic death of his father; the Tibetan monastery where he fashioned his armor; it’s all here. And it’s glorious. I feel confident saying that no other comic book villain had ever received an origin story like this, with such tragedy and pathos; and, it hasn’t really changed, in the 50+ years since. Amazing.

As for Doom’s “Final Victory,” it is of course not that, but it is his best master plan yet (he’s had some kooky ones) with him inviting the FF to a state dinner, turning the FF against each other, and then agreeing to an honourable battle of the minds with Reed; which Reed wins, and Doom will eventually chalk up to trickery (of course). And we are introduced to the concept of Doom’s “diplomatic immunity” for the first time.

The whole thing is brilliant. Well, except maybe for one thing…

Sue is still battling 1960s stereotypes

I should probably stop writing about this, because I suspect it’ll keep popping up in the next, oh, 8-10 volumes… but man, does it suck seeing Sue treated so poorly throughout. In Annual #2, Sue chastises Reed because of an illusion Dr. Doom plants in her head (where she sees Reed kissing another woman); after she snap out of it, she apologizes to Reed, who dismisses her by saying she’s “merely a female” and couldn’t have reacted any differently. Then he doesn’t want to let her fight Dr. Doom in the same issue. Next, the Mole Man takes her hostage in issue #31. Then you might think, hmm, maybe they’ve given up on the Sue-as-hostage trope… but no, the Frightful Four do it again in issue #38. Sigh.

Sue's "just a female" - from Marvel Masterworks Fantastic Four Volume 4
First, Sue’s “merely a female” (from FF Annual #2)…
Sue's one of the team - from Marvel Masterworks Fantastic Four Volume 4
…think Reed gets it now? (from FF Annual #2)
Sue's taken captive again... and again - from Marvel Masterworks Fantastic Four Volume 4
The Mole Man and The Frightful Four didn’t get the memo (from FF #31 and #38)

Speaking of repetitive tropes, Stan and Jack sure do go back to the well a lot

“Sue gets taken hostage” isn’t the only thing that we see over and over and over… and over… again in these early issues. I know it’s easy for me to judge this now, when I’m binge-reading the book as an adult when it was really written for 11-15 year olds who were reading it at most once a month… but then again, the Lee-Kirby FF is hailed as an unending stream of creative genius. I really should’ve been keeping a tally of the amount of times:

  • Sue gets taken hostage (twice in this volume)
  • Ben turns human momentarily, only to turn back in short order (twice in this volume)
  • Johnny’s flame burns out, and Reed has to stretch to save him (twice in this volume)
  • Reed act like a jerk instead of a leader (only once in this volume; he must be mellowing)
  • The FF turn against one another (twice in this volume)

Enough with the Mole Man already

Issue #31 is the Mole Man’s third appearance, and each time, his plot is basically the same (cause some underground calamity that destroys something above ground), the FF go underground to fight him, defeat some monsters, then defeat the Mole Man himself. And the Mole Man is just a sad, pathetic little man, not much of a villain. I think even Stan and Jack got bored with him in this issue; he only appears in 2 panels on the final 8 pages and the FF defeat him, essentially, off-panel. Other than a cameo in Annual #3, he won’t appear again for another 57 issues!

The other villains in this volume fare much better. The Super-Skull returns in issue #32, ultimately causing the death of Franklin Storm, and sending the FF off on a revenge mission to the Skull galaxy in #37; we get Namor and Attuma (in an ultimately forgettable tale in which the FF help Namor defend his throne) in #33; Gideon, one of Stan’s classic offbeat not-really-a-villain villains (who might just be a precursor to Donald Trump; check out the man’s desk!); Diablo, and the brilliant King Kong-like Dragon Man, in issue #35; and finally, the Frightful Four, in issues #36 and #38, who very nearly defeat the FF each time and will menace them again in the next volume.

Oh, and of course, Dr. Doom returns in issues #39-40, for the all-time classic “Battle of the Baxter Building.” This two-parter is tense, fast-paced and fun (even if it has a pretty lame deus ex machina), and culminates in a Thing vs. Doom fight that is one of Jack’s highlight fight sequences.

Real character growth and progression is starting to happen

For the first time we meet a family member from outside the FF proper: Sue and Johnnny’s father, Franklin, and learn more about their backstory: their mother, Mary, was killed in a car accident; Franklin, a famed and brilliant surgeon, was driving, and blamed himself, and his career went off the rails. He got into gambling debt, and killed a loan shark who came to collect. Even though it was self-defence, he allowed himself to convicted of murder because he thought his children were better off without him. Hardly your typical super-hero origin story! Of course, Franklin is killed in this volume, but we see Ben’s fears about leaving Alicia behind, we see Johnny finally mention Dorrie Evans, his girlfriend from Strange Tales, and of course, we finally—FINALLY!—see Reed and Sue get engaged and begin wedding preparations.

This issue also ends on a true cliffhanger, as we see Ben finally succumb to the reality that he’s trapped in the body of a monster and he leaves the FF in a grief-fuelled rage.

—–

There’s no doubt this is the best volume of the FF Masterworks to date, bookended as it is with two all-time classic Dr. Doom stories and the introduction of Dragon Man, the Frightful Four and Johnny and Sue’s father in between. Stan and Jack are truly hitting their stride, and I already know the next volume is going to reach even greater heights!

(Though one has to wonder if anything can top this:)

Ben thinks about joining that other Fab Four - from Marvel Masterworks Fantastic Four Volume 4
Ben thinks about joining that other Fab Four (from FF #34)