Television review: Netflix’s The Punisher

Netflix's The Punisher

I finished up Netflix’s The Punisher the other day, and wanted to put a few thoughts down, because I really enjoyed it. There will be SPOILERS in the following review! So stop here if you haven’t finished watching it yet. Come back later! I won’t be offended.

What is it? The Punisher Season 1 (13-episodes)
Who made it? Netflix; Steve Lightfoot, Executive producer
Who’s in it? Jon Bernthal (The Punisher); Ben Barnes (Billy Russo); Ebon Moss-Bachrach (Micro); Amber Rose Revah (Dinah Madani)
When did it come out? November 2017

Netflix’s The Punisher might be their best Marvel show yet

From top to bottom, I think this is best overall thing Marvel and Netflix have done. Every other Netflix show, with the exception of the much shorter Defenders, has really struggled to hold its story together for 13 episodes. They felt like they all should have been 8-10 episodes. But The Punisher doesn’t. The story is compelling and has enough layers to it to keep it interesting and engaging over the entire run. And it has a truly compelling hook, that of examining the challenges that veterans of combat face integrating back into “regular society” following their service. I mean, that’s not new—we’ve been seeing it since The Deer Hunter and Rambo—but we certainly haven’t seen it in a comic-book based television show, and it’s truly impressive how well thought out this backdrop of veterans dealing with PTSD is.

Now, I’m not saying it’s my favourite Marvel Netflix show—I think at the end of the day, I still found Cage the most entertaining, and Daredevil Season 2 the most thrilling from a comic book fan standpoint—but I think it’s the most well-made. And I think when you factor in the difficulty of translating a character like the Punisher to a television show (or movie), I think Steve Lightfoot and his team deserve a ton of credit—this show is really good.

… but is it really a Punisher show?

The thing is though… this interpretation of the Punisher doesn’t really have much basis in the comic book character. (At least in my view of the Punisher through the years.) Frank Castle came back from Vietnam a broken man and then his family was killed and it shattered him, never to be put back together again. He’s a remorseless, relentless killing machine who has no desire to stop putting bad guys in the ground. Yet in this show, we see him trying to escape his life of violence right in the beginning. He shows a gentle side, a family man side, with Micro’s family (and even Micro himself) and especially Karen Page that I don’t think the (comic book) Punisher really has; he doesn’t make human connections like that. Netflix Frank Castle doesn’t even reclaim the Punisher mantle until episode 11; and even in the second last episode, when it seems like he leaves his memory of his dead wife behind and accepts his life of violence… he comes back from that edge at the end of the last episode. (He even lets Billy Russo live, which I don’t think the Punisher would ever do.)

So with all of that in mind, I don’t really think of this character as the same one I see in the comics. He’s not really the Punisher. But… I’m OK with it. In fact I love the choices they made. Because I honestly wasn’t sure I wanted to watch 13 episodes of an unsympathetic character like Frank Castle. What would be the point? Comic book Frank Castle has no real character arc; there is no coming back for him, there is no growth for him. That would be difficult to do on TV. And although it doesn’t ring true to the comic book character, the final scene is truly fantastic, and it could only have been done with this version of the character.

The cast is excellent…

I would also say, expressionless killing machine Frank Castle would be a waste of Jon Bernthal’s talents. He is really great in this show. I wasn’t a big of his on The Walked Dead, but looking back, maybe that’s because his character was such a dick. Here he shows the range complete from loving and caring father figure to… well, to expressionless killing machine, when he has to. He was a great choice for the role in Daredevil and he erased any doubts anyone may have had about him carrying his own show. Meanwhile the supporting cast is also damn good. Ben Barnes almost veers into snarling villain territory a couple times, but the conflicted soldier who still holds the bonds of brotherhood is still there. Ebon Moss-Bachrach is perfect as the frantic, nebbishy Micro, who’s uncomfortable with guns and killing but willing to let Frank do the dirty work. He also manages to balance the line where he’s the nerdy tech guy, but he’s also not a coward—he did a lot of brave things to protect his family, and his anguish at seeing them suffer without him is true. Daniel Webber is great as Lewis, the vet who goes off the rails, and Jason R. Moore provides a strong, steady hand as Curtis, Frank’s confidant.

And how about the recurring guest roles? You’ve got C. Thomas Howell, Shohreh Aghdashloo, and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio—a great range of character actors. You’ve also Deborah Ann Wall reprising her role as Karen Page, and she’s joined by Rob Morgan and Royce Johnson as Turk and Officer Mahoney, respectively.

… but Amber Rose Revah’s Dinah Madani is the weak link

All right, so part of this is on the character; Madani is often clueless and seems to make one bad decision (or non-decision) after another. (Example: why she didn’t call for backup/first aid during the raid in episode 8 until Stein was stabbed (and all the bad guys were dead or escaped)? About 10 other officers were shot before that!) She’s also a terrible cop (how the heck did she manage to get herself shot in the last episode after sneaking up on two guys hell-bent on beating the shit out of each other?) Meanwhile, there were just a few too many scenes that Amber Rose Revah drifted through with a blank stare. Maybe that was the character, maybe that was the actor, I don’t know. But I thought the character left a lot to be desired.

The show seems to have an odd relationship with the violence it portrays

The show’s only real misstep was in the gun debate that spanned episodes 9-10. It seemed out of place in a show where the main character’s claim to fame is his proficiency with guns, and how many people he’s killed with them. It was also presented so lightly, that it did the entire debate disservice; this isn’t something that can or should be debated in three scenes of a television show. It was also, frankly, one-sided; pro-gun Karen is a character we know and love, whereas pro-gun-control Senator Ori exists only to (weakly) present the other side. What was the point? And the thing is, the debate seemed out of place in the context of the show; the character who sparked it, Lewis, was using bombs, not guns, in his attacks. That was a potentially interesting debate—at one point, Frank says he hates bombs and prefers guns—but it wasn’t really followed up on.

—–

All of that said I highly recommend Netflix’s The Punisher to comic book fans and action fans. It’s violent—gruesomely so, at times—so it’s not for everyone. But I think it’s got a compelling narrative, a great cast, and some fantastic action pieces.

Review: Marvel Masterworks: Fantastic Four Volume 2

Marvel Masterworks Fantastic Four Volume 2

I continue my Fantastic Four re-read and review with a few thoughts on Marvel Masterworks Fantastic Four Volume 2!

What is it? Marvel Masterworks Fantastic Four Volume 2
Who did it? Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
When did it come out? 2003 (revised edition)
What does it collect? The Fantastic Four #11-20 and Annual #1 (1963)

Issue #13 is Stan and Jack at the height of their zaniness—and brilliance

There is so much crammed into this issue! First, you have the FF being the first humans to walk on the moon (using an experimental drive Reed just whipped up from a meteor, NBD). Then the Russians being right behind them. Oh, and not only that—the Russians deliberately flew a copycat of the FF’s first spaceflight, in the hopes of gaining similar powers! That’s a brilliant idea from Stan and Jack, co-opting the space race into a super-powers race. Hey, and did I mention the Russian crew was one man and three apes? Yep. How about the Watcher? Yes, this is the first appearance of the “man in the moon” who watches over us. There’s also the little mystery of the “blue area” of the moon—an ancient city abandoned eons ago by some spacefaring race.

I only recently caught on to the “giant, floating Dr. Doom” cover trend

On the cover of his first appearance, a giant Dr. Doom looms over the FF on a view screen. In his next two appearances he’s on equal ground with the FF, but on the cover of #16, a giant Dr. Doom looks at a miniature FF in a magnifying glass. And thus the trend is born: Dr. Doom appearing far larger than the FF, either looming over the background or dominating the foreground. Look at the covers to #23, 39, 57, 84, 86 and Annual #2—giant Dr. Doom looms over the FF in each! And that’s only during the Stan and Jack days; future artists like Rich Buckler (#144), John Buscema (#198), John Byrne (#247, 259, 278), Ron Frenz (#320), Walt Simonson (#350) and Paul Ryan (#361) would all do the same. It’s a pretty awesome through line for  30+ years of Dr. Doom appearances!

The Thing’s gradual transition from angry to grumpy to lovably grumpy is so heartwarming

I’m not sure what prompted the change from Stan and Jack, but over the course of these issues, you can really see the shift in Ben’s personality. He’s not just angry all the time anymore, and before long, he actually starts joking around, using more slang and contractions, being joyfully dismissive of the Torch instead of annoyed by the Torch… basically he’s on the road to becoming the Thing we know and love. Johnny even comments in 17 you’re turning into Bob Hope! (Storywise, although I’m not sure this was Stan and Jack’s intent, you could very easily pinpoint this change on Ben’s relationship with Alicia.) Another gradual transition: The Thing’s appearance, from one big “lumpy” rock to a hide of sharply defined rocks. Check him out on the cover to #18; that’s pretty much how Jack would go on to draw him for years.

Stan and Jack’s treatment of Sue Storm ranges from progressive to medieval

In issue #11, Stan and Jack seem to be talking directly to the readers when the FF answer fan mail from fans who don’t think Sue contributes to the team’s adventures. Reed and Ben angrily defend her and Stan and Jack illustrate her value by recalling issues #2 and #5. All seems good! But then look at this panel in the very next issue:

Sue Storm from Fantastic Four #12

I mean, yikes.

Fantastic Four Annual #1 is the highlight of this volume

Issues #16 (featuring Dr. Doom and another brilliant, zany idea: The Microworld) and #18 (featuring the Super-Skrull) are both great; full of action and new characters. But it’s Annual #1 that closes this volume out, and it’s a corker: The Sub-Mariner has finally found Atlantis and reclaimed his throne; the history of Atlantis and Sub-Mariner’s origin is recounted (at the United Nations, no less!) and Atlantis declares war on the surface world. Yet even as Reed pushes back the invasion with an invention, Namor’s love of Sue Storm causes friction in his ranks, and his troops—and entire kingdom—abandon him. It’s a poignant climax that leaves you feeling pity for Namor for perhaps the first time. Meanwhile the backup story features an expanded version of the FF’s encounter with Spider-Man from Amazing Spider-Man #1; and the whole issue features pin-ups, diagrams and more. It’s truly a great package. Undoubtedly worth the 25 cents it would have cost in 1963!

—–

Next week we’ll move into the FF’s third year with Marvel Masterworks Volume 3, featuring the team’s first meetings with the Avengers and the X-Men!

Top Five: 1990s Marvel Comics

1990s Marvel Comics

A few weeks back on one of the comic book-related sites I visit, some of the guys were discussing their favourite 1990s Marvel comics. As you may know, the 1990s were not exactly a high point for quality comics; stylized art, big guns, big shoulders and big boobs were what seemed to sell, and variant covers and special bagged issues with trading cards and other gimmicks ruled the stands. Still, I read a lot of comics, so some of them must’ve been OK… right?

I think so. Here are five 1990s Marvel comics I enjoyed from 1991-1998 when Marvel, in my mind, righted its ship. (Note—I’m only considering ongoing titles, rather than mini-series like Marvels).

Namor, the Sub-Mariner by John Byrne (1990-1992)

This series didn’t look like much when it came out. Sub-Mariner, in his own comic? Even with John Byrne at the helm, didn’t seem like Namor was really a character that could carry his own book. And maybe he couldn’t, really, since Byrne filled it with guest stars! But either way, this was and is an excellent read, and some of Byrne’s best art in the 1990s. Byrne brought a lot to the character – while he’s often known for his “back to the basics” approach, it seemed to me that here, he was firmly taking Namor into the 1990s (they even declared it on the cover!), in bringing him out of the water, starting up a business, curing his “rages,” and having him fight for environmental causes.

The New Warriors by Fabian Nicieza and Mark Bagley (1990-1992)

Man, did I love these stories! They’re pretty dated now—they’re very 1990s, and the dialogue is… well, it’s tough to read sometimes. But the 25 issues by Nicieza and Bagley are super-fun, they did a solid job capturing what it must be like to be a late teen with super-powers, and they dealt with some very real consequences too; the story where Marvel Boy loses control of his powers and mortally injures his abusive father is—while very comic-booky—still very affecting.

Fantastic Four by Tom DeFalco and Paul Ryan (1991-1996)

I’ll admit I haven’t re-read these issues since they came out. So I have no idea if they hold up. But, I was not a fan of Walt Simonson’s run on the title (that preceded the DeFalco-Ryan run) or the end of Steve Englehart’s run (that preceded Simonson) so DeFalco’s back to the basics approach, alongside Ryan’s solid, workmanlike illustration, was just what I needed. (Also, their first issue featured the aforementioned New Warriors. So that was a good start!) Sure, they did some of the most 1990s things ever—they had the Human Torch lose his mind, had Wolverine slice up the Thing’s face, put Sue in a skimpy costume and “killed” Reed—but I remember eagerly awaiting each next issue to see what was going to happen!

Avengers by Bob Harras and Steve Epting (1991-1994)

Ah, the forgotten era of Avengers! This run is, again, pretty 1990s—it’s got fancy foil covers, the Avengers started wearing jackets with straps and pockets all over them—but it’s entertaining and enjoyable. The highlight is the “Gatherers” story, that runs for about 2.5 years; it actually starts right before the most 1990s Avengers crossover ever, Galactic Storm. In Avengers #343-344, the Swordsman seemingly comes back from the dead, clamouring for revenge. But all is not as it seems; as the story unfolds (on and off) over the next 30 issues of Avengers, we learn Swordsman’s from an alternate dimension, where the Avengers—specifically, Sersi—destroyed the world. And he’s got friends too – alternate dimension versions of various Avengers – and they’re led by the mysterious Proctor. Maybe this doesn’t quite reach the pantheon of great Avengers stories, but it’s well worth a read and I look forward to it finally being collected, one day!

Thunderbolts by Kurt Busiek, Fabian Nicieza and Mark Bagley (1997-2001)

This series… I mean, it’s been 20 years and I still can’t believe that they managed to keep the ending of the first issue a secret! Everyone knows the gig by now, about how the newest super-hero team, The Thunderbolts, turned out to be villains in disguise. And about how Marvel eventually took the series away and ran in a different direction—twice. But those first 50 issues, plus Avengers cross-overs and annuals, are excellent. They’re straight-up page turners, and you never know what’s going to happen next. And the characters ring completely true, in how acting the hero changes each of them over time.

—–

A few honorable mentions: Mark Gruenwald’s Captain America run; David Michelinie’s Amazing Spider-Man run (this was hard to leave off the list); and Kurt Busiek’s Untold Tales of Spider-Man, which, truthfully, might be the best comic on this list, but was so hard to find in the 1990s thanks to its minuscule print runs, that I didn’t actually read most of it until the omnibus came out a few years ago.

Anywho, that’s 1990s Marvel Comics for you. I didn’t read much DC in those days, so that would be a much shorter list! Pretty much just Ron Marz’ Green Lantern, starring Kyle Rayner, and Grant Morrison’s JLA. Tough times for DC in the 90s!

Review: Marvel Masterworks: Fantastic Four Volume 1

Marvel Masterworks Fantastic Four V1

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!

The Fantastic Four: A few highlights from my collection

The Fantastic Four "Galactus Trilogy"

This is three Fridays in a row blogging about The Fantastic Four. I might have to start calling these Fantastic Four Fridays! Today I wanted to take a look through my collection and share a few memories about actual issues that I’ve bought. My previous posts were about why I enjoy the Fantastic Four, and my history of reading Fantastic Four comics… today it’s about collecting them.

The three issues of the “Galactus Trilogy” are the most important in my entire collection

Featuring the first appearances of Galactus and the Silver Surfer, you can’t go wrong with Fantastic Four #48-50. I acquired #49 first, around 1990, at 1,000,000 Comix at South Common Mall in Mississauga. It was $19; that was definitely a couple of weeks worth of allowance, and (by far) the most I’d ever paid for a comic at the time, but even in its pretty beat up condition, I felt (still do!) it was a bargain. I remember seeing it up on the wall, behind the counter, and thinking, wow, I gotta get that! And just hoping it would still be there when I’d saved enough to get it. Thankfully it was. #50 was a 16th birthday present from my friend Ali, without a doubt a very thoughtful and considerate gift. Ali was not a huge comic book reader so I have no idea how he knew how much I coveted these silver age FFs or how he knew I needed this one, or if he knew how important this issue was… and I am certain it wasn’t cheap. By condition alone he definitely paid more than the $19 I paid for #49. Thanks Ali!

Fantastic Four #48 was my “holy grail” for many years

I acquired #48 many years after #49 and #50 – in 2004 to be exact, at FanExpo in Toronto, on the Sunday. Every year at FanExpo I looked for an affordable copy; I could never find one that I felt was the right price for the condition. In 2004 I’d decided I wasn’t going to do FanExpo again as the crowds and general mismanagement of the event had exasperated me for the last time, so on the Sunday I said if this is it, I’d better get my copy of FF #48 now. The vendor was selling this for $130. I tried to talk him down to $100 as that was my (self-imposed) limit; I got him down to $110 and he wouldn’t budge further, so, close enough! I very much felt like I’d acquired the holy grail. The first appearance of The Silver Surfer! And Galactus! And it was mine at last: The “Galactus Trilogy” complete.

Fantastic Four #15 remains the oldest comic book I own…

…but I’m not sure it counts because it’s missing pages. If my memory serves me right, I bought this one at the Toronto Comics and Sequential Art show in 1991. It was clearly in rough shape—I wouldn’t have been able to afford it otherwise—but I didn’t realize it was missing pages until I got home of course. Incredible bummer. And shitty to have to think about replacing it one day, ‘cause it ain’t gonna be cheap! (If you don’t want to count FF #15, as my oldest FF, then the honor goes to FF #22, another one-time birthday gift from Ali!)

Collecting today isn’t quite the same as it was 25 years ago

Before the internet, and before the days of collected editions, back issues were the only way to read these stories. So if you were missing an issue—like, say, issue #85, the second part of the Doctor Doom story from issues #84-87, you had no alternative way of catching up other than hoping you found the issue at a local comic shop. (That story, where the FF “invade” Doom’s home country of Latveria, remains one of my all-time favorite. I acquired #84, #86, and #87 early on, but it took me years to get #85 and get the full scoop on Dr. Doom’s killer robots!). I would guess about half of my Fantastic Four collection came from me spending my weekly allowance at 1,000,000 Comix; the other half comes from the various other local shops (Grey Legion at Square One mall; Grey Region/3rd Quadrant on Queen Street and Yonge Street; Altered States in Clarkson; Dragon Lady on Queen; and of course, the Silver Snail) and then the local conventions. You never knew what you might find, in what condition, for what price. Nowadays it’s much easier to search eBay or one of the online sellers to find what you need. And even the local shops have a social media presence that can give you a heads-up when back issues come in!

Although I’m down on Facebook, I wouldn’t be writing this post without it

I follow the comic shop closest to me, Paradise Comics, on Facebook. When they acquired a massive collection of Silver Age books over the summer, they shared photos of it on Facebook; that’s what renewed my interest in my own Fantastic Four collection and brought this wave of FF nostalgia forward. A few weeks later they posted about their back to school sale, and that’s what made me go visit them and buy a few of those old FFs! I bought about 20 issues, most notably Annual #1 (July 1963, which now that I think about it is actually older than the aforementioned #22). Now that I had the bug, and the gaps on the checklist were getting smaller, I set out to find a few more issues online, and bought about 20 more, including the first appearances of Ronan the Accuser and Warlock, from issues #65-67, which I’ve long worried would be out of my price range, for a decent price. I did have to pay more than I would have liked for issue #112 (July 1971), which features a Hulk vs. Thing fight and always seems to go for premium prices. All told though – I now have every issue from #31 (October 1964) through to the end of volume 1, including every annual and Giant-Size special.

—–

That means that I only need to acquire 28 issues of Fantastic Four to have a complete run (well, and aother copy of #15)—. Of course, they’re the most difficult to find and most expensive issues. Paradise had a copy of issue #1, in poor condition, for $5,000. I spend a lot of money on books and comics and toys, but spending that much on one thing… I can’t even imagine. But maybe one day!!

The Fantastic Four: Five thoughts on the World’s Greatest Comic Magazine

The Fantastic Four #1

A couple months back, the comic shop up the street from me put a large selection of silver age (1961-1970) Marvel comics up for sale, including a large number of Fantastic Four issues from that era. I became quite nostalgic as Fantastic Four was my favorite comic as a kid, and the title whose back issues I sought out the most. My goal was to one day own every issue of Fantastic Four! Seeing those old FFs at the shop brought back memories of the days of hunting down back issues at shops and comic cons, so I pulled out my old, hand-made checklist and thought, “why not?” And off hunting I went!

More on the outcome of that hunt later, but ever since, I’ve had the FF on my mind. Why has Fantastic Four been my favorite comic for 30 years? A few thoughts…

  1. The Fantastic Four—scientist Reed Richards, his fiancee Sue Storm and her kid brother Johnny, and Reed’s best friend Ben Grimm, are a family, not just a random collection of super-heroes. They have interpersonal conflicts whose roots extend well beyond the first issue of their comic, where they got their powers; they have a shared history. None of them have adventures in solo titles, with the odd exception, and even then, not very successfully—they work best when they’re together.
  2. Their shared goal isn’t to defend the weak or innocent, or to stop criminals or threats other heroes can’t handle—it’s “to help mankind.” Much loftier than your usual super-hero!
  3. In fact they’re not even really traditional super-heroes; they’re explorers, adventurers. Or as Mark Waid dubbed them, “imaginauts”—the places they explore and things they discover are only limited by the writers’ imaginations. They also don’t have secret identities, which, nowadays isn’t that unique, but in 1961 and when I discovered them in the ‘80s, was definitely unusual.
  4. Because they’re not traditional super-heroes, their stories have a much more science fiction-y flavor to them than action adventure. They make contact with alien races, travel through time, discover new universes and dimensions, invent new technologies and devices. Their headquarters and vehicles are like something out of Star Trek.
  5. They live “real lives” – again, all comics do this now, but it used to be a big deal that the FF lived in New York City, that Reed and Sue got engaged, married, and had a kid and then a miscarriage and finally a second kid, that Johnny had his heart broken by Crystal and that Alicia Masters left Ben (for Johnny!). The status quo changed, often, in the first 100 issues or so—less so, after, as the demands of serialized storytelling over decades took its toll, but still. You felt this family growing older (slowly!) together.

People cite the reasons above and others when talking about what makes the Fantastic Four distinct from other super-hero teams, and while they’re all true to an extent, it’s really the combination of them all together that makes them work; the whole is greater than the sum and all of that.

I have many more thoughts on the FF rattling around my head these days—more to come!