Fantastic Four: A Personal Recollection

Fantastic Four: The Secret Story

This is my second blog post on The Fantastic Four; in the first, I wrote about why the FF is my favorite comic. This time out, I’m tracing my history of reading FF comics, back to my early days of collecting comics in the 1980s. This post is written as an homage to “The Fantastic Four: A Personal Recollection” by John Byrne, which appeared in Fantaco’s Fantastic Four Chronicles in 1982.

I can’t remember the first Fantastic Four comic I ever read.

It was either issue #287 or #260. 287 seems somewhat more likely based on the timeline, as it came out in late 1985 (when I was well into reading comics thanks to G.I. Joe and The Transformers); 260 came out earlier (mid-1983), before I was really into comics full-bore, but then that might mean it was more likely to have been in a “blister pack” on the shelf at Toys “R” Us with other comics in 1985… either way, it’s 260 that stuck with me, because it has such an awesome fight scene between The Thing, the Human Torch and Tyros, plus appearances by Dr. Doom and The Sliver Surfer. Even Namor the Sub-Mariner shows up at the end! It was overload for my young senses, and I wanted more. (I’m certain the copy of #287 I have is the same, but I feel like I may have replaced #260 at some point—I remember that copy being really beat up.)

It was “The Secret Story” that really hooked me.

The thing that really cemented my love of the FF was a book called The Fantastic Four: The Secret Story of Marvel’s Cosmic Quartet, by David Kraft. Published in 1981 by something called Ideals Published Corp, I spotted this at the Erin Mills branch of the Mississauga Public Library in 1986 and checked out approximately 137 times over the next 2-3 years. It featured a reprint of the first half of issue #1 (the FF origin), the Inhumans story from #83 (these two stories representing my first exposure to Jack Kirby’s art) and the FF fighting evil doppelgängers of themselves from issue #203. #83, like #260, is an action-packed issue that I couldn’t get enough of. More importantly though, the book had text pieces on all the main characters, supporting characters and villains, so I was able to learn about the FF and their friends without reading 300 back issues. I recently snagged a copy of this book and it was quite the trip down memory lane!

My monthly collecting began with Ben Grimm’s “New” Fantastic Four.

The first new FF comic I bought fresh off the newsstand was issue #305 in mid-1987 (still have it!). This would have been at Smoker’s Corner in South Common Mall in Mississauga, the best place to buy comics in my ‘hood; issues #306-308 followed and then an actual comic shop, 1,000,000 Comix, opened up in the same mall. I continued reading The Fantastic Four  through the end of Volume 1 (#416), through the Heroes Reborn and Heroes Return era… until Volume 3 issue #19 (July 1999), when I gave up because I didn’t enjoy Chris Claremont’s writing on the book. I came back with the new writers (Jeph Loeb and Carlos Pacheco) at issue #35 (November 2000), and then stuck with the title through the end of Civil War (mid-2007) before I stopped reading monthly comics altogether. (The completionist in me is screaming to get those Claremont issues and fill that hole…!)

When did I first read the “real” FF?

It’s funny looking back on it, but those early FF issues I read never really featured the full team. Mr. Fantastic was missing in issue #260; the She-Hulk has replaced the Thing in #287; and in #305, Ben is putting together a new team, with Crystal and Ms. Marvel replacing the departing Mr. Fantastic and Invisible Woman, and that’s the team that I read for the next couple years. It was in back issues that I read the “classic” FF.

I became an early “Byrne victim”.

When it came to back issues, my main focus at first was filling in the gaps around issue #260—I wanted to know how that fight started, where Mr. Fantastic was, how the cliffhanger with Namor was resolved (it was years before I read that one, as it was an Alpha Flight crossover). I soon realized that John Byrne was the creative force behind those particular issues, and made it a point to seek out anything with his art in it. Meanwhile the first “vintage” FF back issue I ever bought was issue #106, from 1,000,000 Comix, for I think $2.75. I still have it of course. Other Silver Age FFs followed, and so began my quest to read every issue of FF ever published. There were only 350 or so at the time including annuals, so it seemed possible!

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Of course, with the advent of collected editions, reading every issue became much easier, and at this point, I have indeed read every issue of The Fantastic Four (volume 1). Collecting them all remains a challenge, of course, at least budget-wise; I’m still 28 issues away from having a complete run of originals… but more on that another time.

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!