The one upside of the recent Fantastic Four movie slinking into and out of theatres is that Comixology had a flash sale on several starting points in the continuity of Marvel’s First Family. I bought four of them and in what we’re calling “Fantastic 4X4″, we’ll be going through each one in chronological order.
We start with Fantastic Four Masterworks: Volume 1 which collects the first ten issues of the iconic Stan Lee/Jack Kirby Fantastic Four, a storied run that lasted for 102 consecutive issues and laid the foundation for the entire Marvel Universe. This is actually my second time reading these: my college library had the first four Essentials volumes and a couple of years ago—since spring always puts me in a mood to read Silver Age Marvel—I blazed through them in weeks, captivated by the crazy amount of creativity and momentum that Lee & Kirby maintained.
But this Masterworks was my first time reading these early stories in color and believe me, it makes a huge difference. It’s like going from seeing Pulp Fiction edited on AMC to seeing all of that film’s profane glory on Blu-Ray. The difference is night and day.
Like most modern reprints, new digital coloring has replaced the original newsprint. While not quite as seamless an update as Rich Tomosso’s work on the Carl Barks Library for Fantagraphics, it still keeps the look and tone of Silver Age coloring while making it more appealing to modern eyes. It’s terrific stuff that brings Kirby’s already incredible illustrations to life in even more vivid detail.
That aside, it was remarkable going back to these early issues to see just how much gets packed into these. Within these first ten issues, the FF’s origin is revealed and the team battles the Mole Man, Dr. Doom, the Puppet Master and Namor the Sub-Mariner. While the characters aren’t fully figured out in the first issue—the Thing especially is way gruffer initially and his look really doesn’t solidify by the end of this book—the makeshift family dynamic is present as is the constant bickering and tension between the four. That’s what made Marvel’s name after all: heroes who weren’t perfect. And although the FF are painted as this happy nuclear family straight out of the ‘60s, they fight and disagree all the time. A lot of the comedy here comes from the Human Torch and the Thing constantly using their powers to try and one-up each other.
Speaking of one-upping, Lee & Kirby outdo themselves constantly, even at this early stage. Issue by issue, you get the sense that they’re getting a better handle on what makes these characters tick. In the first issue, Mr. Fantastic and co. all speak in really stilted unnatural tones but the sense of excitement is there from the beginning. Even the stilted prose has its charm, though “Bah! Everywhere is the same. I live in a world too small for me!” isn’t exactly the most natural thing to come out of ol’ Ben Grimm’s mouth.
Kirby is of course typically great from the beginning. There’s a reason you see the cover of Fantastic Four #1 a lot and that’s because it’s amazing. Right from the start, you know that these guys are facing down all sorts of weird stuff.
What’s also important is that, even at this early date, the Marvel Universe is willing to tie into its established history. When Johnny brings Namor the Sub-Mariner back to his senses in issue #4, that implies everything Namor did in the ‘30s and ‘40s was real and canon. It’s exciting stuff.
But the most exciting of all is seeing the ways in which the FF differ from heroes of the past. Indeed, they actually argue and fight. The Human Torch and the Thing are going at each other constantly and it’s only through the levelheadedness of Reed & Sue that they actually lay off each other. It’s worth noting that as hamfisted as Lee’s dialogue is, these fights feel natural. It adds up along with the action and kookiness for an exciting, original blend even all these years later.