Mighty Marvel Masterworks -The Fantastic Four volume 1 : The World’s Greatest Heroes

By Stan Lee & Jack Kirby, with George Klein, Christopher Rule, Sol Brodsky, Dick Ayers, Joe Sinnott & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-2979-4 (PB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: An Immaculate Concoction… 9/10

In August 1961, a rather peculiar new comic hit US newsstands. At first glance it looked not dissimilar from lots of other monster books, but it was the start of an actual revolution. Because it had a November cover-date – specifying when unsold copies had to be returned – I’m celebrating it here and now… and in a rather controversial new format.

I’m partial to controversy so I’m starting off by declaring that Fantastic Four #1 is one of most important American comic book of all time. Feel free to disagree…

After a troubled period at DC Comics – National Periodicals as it then was – and a creatively productive but disheartening time on the poisoned chalice of the Sky Masters newspaper strip (see Complete Sky Masters of the Space Force), Jack Kirby settled into his job at a small, struggling outfit that used to be publishing powerhouse Timely/Atlas.

He crafted mystery, monster, war, romance and western material for a market he suspected was ultimately doomed but, as always, did the best job possible. That quirky genre fare is now considered some of the best of its kind ever seen.

However, his fertile imagination couldn’t be suppressed for long and when DC’s Justice League of America enflamed the readership’s attention, it gave him and writer/editor Stan Lee an opportunity to change the industry forever.

When publisher/owner Martin Goodman ordered his nephew Stan to try a group of super-characters like the one DC was doing, the result quickly took fans by storm. It wasn’t the powers: they’d all been seen since the beginning of the medium. It wasn’t costumes: they didn’t have any until the third issue. It was Kirby’s compelling art and the fact that these new guys weren’t anodyne cardboard cut-outs. In a real and a recognizable location – New York City – fractious, imperfect, raw-nerved, touchy people banded together out of tragedy, disaster and necessity to face the incredible.

The groundwork for all the wonders to come had been laid with 1957’s Challengers of the Unknown (Kirby’s prototype partners-in-peril at National/DC) but that company’s staid, cautious editorial strictures could never have allowed the undiluted energy of the concept to run all-but-unregulated. The Fantastic Four was the right mix in the right manner at the right moment and we’re all here now because of it. These stories are timeless and have been gathered many times before so I’m diverting to talk about format here.

The Mighty Marvel Masterworks line has been designed with economy in mind. Classic tales of Marvel’s key creators and characters re-presented in chronological order have been a staple since the 1990s, but always in lavish, expensive collectors editions. These new books are far cheaper, on lower quality paper and – crucially – are physically smaller, about the dimensions of a paperback book. Your eyesight might be failing and your hands too big and shaky, but they’re perfect for kids and if you opt for the digital editions, that’s no issue at all…

This first compilation represents the tentatively bi-monthly Fantastic Four #1-10, spanning November 1961 – January 1963 and opens as it means to go on. Courtesy of Lee, Kirby, George Klein & Christopher Rule the introductory adventure is crude, rough, passionate and uncontrolled excitement. Thrill-hungry kids pounced on it.

‘The Fantastic Four’ is exactly as seen in that groundbreaking premier issue, with maverick scientist Reed Richardsperemptorily summoning his fiancé Sue Storm, close friend Ben Grimm and Sue’s teenaged brother before heading off on their first mission. They are all freakish survivors of a private space-shot that went horribly wrong 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 and tragic Ben morphed permanently into a hideous freak trapped in a shambling, leathery body.

The second half of the issue reported how ‘The Fantastic Four meet the Mole Man’: promptly foiling a mad scheme by another outcast who controls monsters and enslaves humanoids from far beneath the Earth.

This summation of the admittedly mediocre plot cannot do justice to the engrossing wonder of that breakthrough issue – we really have no conception now of how different in tone, how shocking it all was.

“Different” doesn’t mean “better” even here, but the FF was like no other comic on the market at the time and buyers responded to it hungrily. The brash experiment continued with another old plot in #2. Inked by Klein, ‘The Skrulls from Outer Space’ were shape-changing aliens who framed the team in the eyes of shocked humanity, before the genius of Mister Fantastic bluffed them into abandoning plans for conquering Earth. The issue concluded with a monstrous pin-up of the Thing, proudly touted as the first in a series…

Sure enough, there was a pin-up of the Human Torch in #3 (inked by Sol Brodsky), which headlined ‘The Menace of the Miracle Man’ whose omnipotent powers had a simple secret. The tale is most notable for the first appearance of their uniforms, and a shocking line-up change, leading directly into the next issue (continued stories were an innovation in themselves) which revived a golden-age great.

‘The Coming of the Sub-Mariner’ reintroduced the all-powerful amphibian Prince Namor of Atlantis, a star of Timely’s Golden Age but one who had been lost for years.

A victim of amnesia, the rowdy relic recovers his memory thanks to some rather brusque treatment by the delinquent Torch. Namor then returns to his sub-sea home only to find it destroyed by atomic testing. A monarch without subjects, he swears vengeance on humanity and attacks New York City with a gigantic monster. This saga is when the series truly kicked into high-gear and Reed was the star of the pin-up section…

Until now the creative team – who had been in the business since it began – had been hedging their bets. Despite the innovations of a contemporary superhero experiment, their antagonists had relied heavily on the trappings of popular trends in the media – and as reflected in their other titles.

Aliens and especially monsters played a major part in the earlier tales but Fantastic Four #5 embraced the unique basics and took a full-bite out of the Fights n’ Tights apple by introducing the first full-blown, unrepentant super-villain to the budding Marvel Universe.

No, I haven’t forgotten Mole Man: but that tragic little gargoyle, for all his plans of world conquest, wouldn’t truly acquire the persona of a costumed foe until his more refined second appearance in #22.

‘Prisoners of Doctor Doom’ (July 1962, and inked by the sublimely slick and perfectly polished Joe Sinnott) has it all. An attack by a mysterious enemy from Reed’s past; super-science, magic, lost treasure, time-travel, even pirates. Ha-Haar, me ‘earties!

Sheer magic! and the creators knew they were on to a winner, as the deadly Doctor returned the very next issue, teaming with a reluctant Sub-Mariner to attack our heroes as ‘The Deadly Duo!’ (inked by new regular embellisher Dick Ayers). It also introduced the concept of antiheroes as the conflicted Sub-Mariner falls out with the demon doctor and saves the day…

Alien kidnappers were the motivating force behind another FF frame-up, resulting in the team becoming ‘Prisoners of Kurrgo, Master of Planet X’: a dark, grandiose, cosmic-scaled off-world thriller in #7 (the first monthly issue), whilst a new returning villain and the introduction of a love-interest for the monstrous Thing were the breakthrough high-points in #8’s ‘Prisoners of the Puppet Master!’

The emotional saga was balanced by a Fantastic Four Feature Page explaining how the Torch’s powers work. The next issue offered another, detailing with endearing mock-science ‘How the Human Torch Flies!’

That issue – #9 – trumpeted ‘The End of the Fantastic Four’ as Sub-Mariner returned to exploit another brilliant innovation in comic storytelling. When had a super-genius superhero ever messed up so much that the team had to declare bankruptcy? When had costumed crimefighters ever had money troubles at all? The eerily prescient solution was to “sell out” and make a blockbuster movie – giving Kirby a rare chance to demonstrate his gift for caricature…

1963 would be a pivotal year in the development of Marvel. Lee & Kirby had proved that their new high concept – human heroes with flaws and tempers – had a willing audience. Now they would extend that concept to a new pantheon of heroes. Here is where the second innovation would come to the fore. Previously, superheroes were sufficient unto themselves and shared adventures were rare. Here, however, was a universe where characters often tripped over each other, sometimes even fighting each other’s enemies! The creators themselves might turn even up in a Marvel Comic!

Although cover-date January 1963, Fantastic Four #10 was released in October of 1962 and featured ‘The Return of Doctor Doom!’. Here, the arch-villain used Stan & Jack to lure Richards into a trap where his mind is switched with the bad Doctor’s. The tale was supplemented by a pin-up of ‘Sue Storm, the Glamorous Invisible Girl’…

Although possibly – just a bit, perhaps – somewhat dated in tone, these are still undeniable milestones of comic storytelling illustrated by one of the world’s greatest talents approaching his absolute peak. They are fast, frantic fun and a joy to read or re-read. This comprehensive, joyous introduction (or reintroduction) to these characters is a wonderful reminder of just how good comic books can and should be.

Happy birthday and many, many more please…
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