By Stan Lee & Jack Kirby, Marie Severin, Joe Sinnott, Tom Sutton & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-2203-0 (TPB)
Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Groundbreaking Blockbuster Entertainment… 10/10
Concocted by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby (with inks by George Klein & Christopher Rule), Fantastic Four #1 (bi-monthly and cover-dated November 1961) was crude, rough, passionately uncontrolled excitement unlike anything young fans had ever seen before.
Thrill-hungry kids pounced on it and the raw storytelling caught a wave of change starting to build in America. It and succeeding issues changed comicbooks forever.
This full-colour compendium – also available as a digital download – gathers issues #68-87, Annual #6 and material from Not Brand Echh #6 & 7 (cumulatively spanning November 1967- June 1969): an astounding progression of landmark tales as Stan & Jack cannily built on that early energy to consolidate the FF as the leading title and most innovative series of the era.
As seen in the ground-breaking premier issue, maverick scientist Reed Richards, his fiancée Sue Storm, their close friend Ben Grimm and Sue’s teenaged brother survived an ill-starred private space-shot after Cosmic Rays penetrated their ship’s inadequate shielding and mutated them all.
Richards’ body became elastic, Sue gained the power to turn invisible, Johnny Storm could turn into living flame whilst tragic Ben shockingly devolved into a shambling, rocky freak. After the initial revulsion and trauma pass, they solemnly agree to use their abilities to benefit mankind and thus was born The Fantastic Four.
Throughout the 1960s the FF was the indisputable central title and most consistently groundbreaking series of Marvel’s ever-unfolding web of cosmic creation: a forge for new concepts and characters at a time when Kirby was in his creative prime and continually unleashing his vast imagination on plot after spectacular plot whilst Lee scripted some of the most passionate superhero sagas ever seen.
Both were on an unstoppable roll, at the height of their creative powers, and full of the confidence that only success brings, with The King particularly eager to see how far the genre and the medium could be pushed…
Without preamble the wonderment commences with FF #68 (inked as ever by the remarkable Joe Sinnott), wherein the Mad Thinker resurfaces to enact his latest scheme, ‘His Mission: Destroy the Fantastic Four!’ beginning as the cogitating criminal replaces a famous doctor to subvert a potential cure for The Thing’s irradiated condition.
Phase two involves a mind-warping scheme turning the rocky stalwart against his comrades, progressing in ‘By Ben Betrayed!’ as the newly malevolent Grimm tries to mercilessly murder his comrades before being temporarily driven away.
Desperately searching for their brainwashed friend, the FF quickly capture the Thinker and free Ben’s shackled mind in ‘When Fall the Mighty!’, but the victory leaves the heroes unconscious with only Sue conscious to tackle the villain’s last-ditch killer android in ‘…And So It Ends…’
Having plucked victory from certain doom, a fresh drama opens with the team in crisis. With a baby due, Reed and Sue resign, leaving Ben, Johnny and his Inhuman girlfriend Crystal to hold the fort just as cosmic calamity comes calling.
In ‘Where Soars the Silver Surfer!’ the sky-born wanderer imprisoned on Earth by world-devouring Galactus goes cage-crazy and attacks humanity, forcing an intervention by the supposedly aloof Watcher and Reed’s return, after which FF#73 offers a classic crossover and the conclusion to a long-running Daredevil story wherein the sightless crusader is ousted from his own body by Iron Tyrant Doctor Doom. After warning the FF of the imposter’s imminent attack, the Man without Fear subsequently defeats Doom on his own but neglects to tell the heroes of his victory…
Outmatched and unable to convince them any other way, DD enlists currently de-powered Mighty Thor and the ever-eager Spider-Man in to solve the problem Marvel style – with a spectacular, pointless and utterly riveting punch-up – in ‘The Flames of Battle…’…
The Surfer resurfaces in #74’s ‘When Calls Galactus’ as the planet-eater returns to Terran skies demanding his one-time herald once more become his food-finding slave. However, despite his increasingly violent and world-shaking probing, and the FF’s holding action against the ravenous invader’s robotic Punisher, Galactus cannot locate his quarry…
That’s because the Surfer has already – and utterly obliviously – departed for ‘World Within Worlds!’, forcing Reed, Ben and Johnny to follow if humanity is to be saved from cosmic consumption. When the pioneering micronauts are subsequently attacked by sadistic alien Psycho Man, our heroes are then ‘Stranded in Sub-Atomica!’
As they struggle to survive, Galactus applies ever-more pressure in ‘Shall Earth Endure?’ until the now-fully-apprised Surfer turns himself in to save Earth by finding the great Devourer an alternative snack. His reward is to be summarily returned to captivity here as soon as ungrateful Galactus finishes feeding (just in time to begin his own landmark series – but that’s the subject of another review…)
Meanwhile, after trashing Psycho Man and getting home, Reed and the gang risk another attempt to cure Ben Grimm in FF #78. The procedure goes tragically awry in ‘The Thing No More!’, due to inopportune interference from old foe The Wizard before, in #79, a now human Ben chooses to return to his rocky state to save his friends from the bludgeoning Android Man, resolved to possibly remain ‘A Monster Forever?’.
A brief change of pace then takes the team to the tribal homelands of old friend Wyatt Wingfoot to solve an eerie mystery and save the Indian oil fields from deadly subversion ‘Where Treads the Living Totem!’ before the sixth Annual features – at long last – the birth of Reed and Sue’s baby (known to us now as Franklin Richards).
Unfortunately, the happy event almost never happens since the transformative cosmic rays which gave the team their powers have affected the pregnancy…
Desperate for a miracle cure, Reed, Ben and Johnny scour the antimatter Negative Zone and are confronted by a monstrous creature named Annihilus whose cosmic energies are the only thing that can prevent the death of Sue and her unborn child. ‘Let There Be… Life!’ is a groundbreaking 48-page epic that is as stunning to read now as it ever was: passionate, thrilling and mind-boggling in its visual intensity.
With Sue adapting to motherhood, faithful Crystal elects herself the first new official member of the FF and promptly shows her mettle by pulverizing the incorrigible glutton-for-punishment Wizard in #81’s all-action romp ‘Enter… the Exquisite Elemental!’
Fantastic Four #82 sees Mrs Richards retire to tend her infant son and Crystal officially inducted as her replacement. Before long, however, the substitute’s violent past reasserts itself as her deranged cousin Maximus again attempts to conquer mortal humanity.
‘The Mark of… the Madman!’ sees the quirky quartet invade hidden Inhuman enclave Attilan to aid the imprisoned Royal Family in overcoming an entire race of subjugated super-beings before trouncing the insane despot in ‘Shall Man Survive?’
All-out action then gives way – at least initially – to tense suspense for the start of a 4-part epic starring the team’s greatest foe. ‘His Name is Doom!’ finds Reed, Ben, Johnny and Crystal making their way home after failing to capture Maximus, only to be intercepted by Nick Fury and the super-spies of S.H.I.E.L.D., looking for a favour…
Steel-Shod Dictator Victor Von Doom has apparently devised unstoppable super-robots and Fury needs the FF to infiltrate the sovereign state of Latveria to ferret them out. However, it’s impossible to sneak up on the most paranoid man in the world and the heroes are easily intercepted and captured by the totalitarian tyrant’s security team.
‘Within This Tortured Land’ opens with them as “guests” in Doom’s picture-book Ruritanian paradise, but even with their powers hypnotically cancelled out, the valiant heroes soon discover the cruel iron within their velvet prison once the Monarch of Latveria begins testing his deadly “Doombots” on his own subjects… and them.
When the automatons go berserk the entire postage-stamp kingdom is imperilled in ‘The Victims!’ and only the last-minute arrival of Invisible Girl Sue Richards allows the team and the villagers to survive Doom’s cataclysmic failsafe plan.
The shocking final confrontation and conclusion manifest in ‘The Power and the Pride!’, wrapping up the saga in a bombastic blend of super-science, soap opera and mesmerising melodrama seldom seen in comicbooks before or since.
After all that searing drama and tension, we end on a comedic note as this enticing tome includes a brace of pertinent parodies from Marvel’s spoof title Not Brand Echh. The opening is from #6 (the “Big, Batty Love and Hisses issue!” of February 1968) revealing how ‘The Human Scorch Has to… Meet the Family!’: a snappy satire on romantic liaisons from Lee, Kirby & Tom Sutton. It’s counterbalanced by a boisterous but non-canonical retelling of ‘The Origin of the Fantastical Four!’ (April’s #7, courtesy of Lee, Kirby, Marie Severin & Sutton).
Art lovers and history buffs can also enjoy a boundless hidden bounty at the end of this volume as we close with fascinating freebies in the form of original art covers for #71 – both the finished article and a stunning pencil rough inexplicably rejected at the time – plus a wealth of pencilled pages and a brace of cover reproductions from previous collections.
Epic, revolutionary and unutterably unmissable, these are the stories which made Marvel the unassailable leaders in fantasy entertainment. They remain some of the most important superhero comics ever crafted. Verve, conceptual scope and sheer enthusiasm shine through on every page and the wonder is there for you to share. If you’ve never thrilled to these spectacular sagas then this book of marvels is the perfect key to another – far brighter – world and time.
© 2020 MARVEL.