Review: Marvel Masterworks Fantastic Four Volume 3

Marvel Masterworks Fantastic Four Volume 3

My Fantastic Four re-read continues with Marvel Masterworks Fantastic Four Volume 3! There are some definite ups and downs in this volume, with fun crossovers but overly wordy action scenes.

What is it? Marvel Masterworks Fantastic Four Volume 3
Who did it? Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
When did it come out? 2003 (revised edition)
What does it collect? The Fantastic Four #21-30 (1963-1964)

These are good issues, but creatively they suffer a bit

Around issues #25-26, Jack’s art drops off quite a bit. Faces aren’t consistent, the linework isn’t as detailed, figure poses are a bit awkward. Meanwhile, Stan’s dialogue and captions get wordier and wordier, and become a bit of a slog to read;  it gets to a point where he’s often describing (or has characters themselves describe) in detail exactly what you can see in the art. Even in the middle of fight scenes! Which robs them of their intensity. But, no wonder these two titans were suffering! In the May 1964 publishing month, Jack drew FF #26, Avengers #5, X-Men #5, Journey in Mystery (Thor) #104, Sgt. Fury #7, and the Human Torch story in Strange Tales #120. Stan wrote all of those plus Amazing Spider-Man, Tales to Astonish (Ant-Man), Tales of Suspense (Iron Man), Kid Colt, Two Gun Kid and Millie the Model. It’s amazing these two didn’t burn out completely.

The “soap opera” elements continue to be highlights

At various points in this volume we see Ben and Alicia nearly break up (because neither of them thinks they’re worthy of the others’ love); Reed buy an engagement ring for Sue, only to doubt her feelings over Sub-Mariner; Sue finally choose between Reed and Namor, but still leaving Reed unsure; the team complain about Reed’s leadership; Ben and Johnny bickering; the public admire Sue as a sex symbol; Ben tussle with the Yancy Street Gang; and more. These moments really help humanize these characters, and I often find myself breezing through the action scenes, hoping to get back to more “down time” with the characters. The early Stan Lee-Steve Ditko Spider-Man issues were the same way; Stan clearly had a gift for balancing these soap opera moments with traditional comic book storytelling!

The Marvel Universe really expands in this volume

Let’s see, we get Nick Fury in issue #21, the Hulk in #25, the Avengers in #26, Dr. Strange in #27 and the X-Men in #28. Stan and Jack were fully embracing the idea that all of these characters existed in the same universe! (Of course, having the X-Men or Dr. Strange guest star in the most popular title surely couldn’t hurt sales of those books, right?) The Avengers and FF getting in each others’ way while battling the Hulk is totally goofy, but entertaining; the fight with the X-Men is a little more successful as an action set piece (although I could have done without them kidnapping Sue, which continues to happen all too often).

The Hate-Monger story is a doozy

Reading the first few pages of issue #21 is an uncomfortable experience; the hatred, racism and bigotry hits a little too close to home here in 2017. If only we could blame it all on a reincarnated Adolf Hitler and a hate ray… anyway, this story establishes that Nick Fury is still around in the then-current Marvel Universe, and that he’s working for the CIA, which is all the background needed to turn him into the director of SHIELD in a couple of years.

Stan and Jack finally give Sue more power

Presumably responding (again) to the criticism that Sue didn’t bring much to the team, Stan and Jack considerably upped her power levels in issue #22. Now, in addition to her ability to turn invisible, she can turn other people and objects invisible (though not at the same time as herself, a caveat that would fade away over time) and she can generate invisible forcefields. Naturally, she puts these abilities to use in this very issue against the Mole Man, preventing him from activating his doomsday device with a forcefield, and then protecting her teammates from a radioactive wall with another forcefield. All told this was a welcome addition to Sue’s character; no, she’s not defined by her powers, but it allows her role within the team to expand significantly. Of course, they still had her get kidnapped by Namor in #27 and the X-Men in #28. Sigh.

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Although at times I found this volume a chore to read thanks to Stan’s verbosity, it was still entertaining. Now on to Volume 4, which features (among other things) the origin of Dr. Doom!

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.

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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!