Essential Fantastic Four runs now that the Hickman run is over
With the Jonathan Hickman era on the Fantastic Four completed, and a new surprisingly good creative team starting up, I thought a review of some of the best runs of “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine” might be in order.
Stan Lee & Jack Kirby – 1961 to 1970
Originally released in 1961, the Fantastic Four (labeled as “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine” with issue #3), created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, was not an overnight hit. While it was the most popular Marvel book within a few issues it did not become a monster hit for quite some time. Stan and Jack created the vast majority of what fans know today as the Marvel Universe but The Fantastic Four was unlike anything ever seen before. From the story to the characters, even down to the art and layout, Fantastic Four was the richest, most fertile ‘new’ ground broken in the last 25 years. The first 100 issues or so of this book contained some of the most amazing stories of the era. Stan and Jack worked on this book together for nearly a decade and gave the “House of Ideas” its name.
The cover to Fantastic Four #49
In a modern context these stories are a bit of a mixed bag. Stan Lee was the perfect writer for the 1960′s but reading these today can be an irritating experience if you are not in the right frame of mind. The plots were generally well done but the dialog is SO dated and even a little hokey that these books can really bug a modern reader. “This is what everyone is so high on?!” is what I would often hear from someone reading these for the first time. The stories are surprisingly wordy in comparison to other books of the day. Marvel had a real need for exclamation points and even the most mundane conversations were peppered with them. These comics are a fun read and a good example of the best written comics of the 60′s but they need to be taken with a small grain of salt.
Many younger fans, there are very few Kirby fans between the ages of 15 and 20, will not care for the art. The very young look at Kirby’s art and see dynamic action and motion, but once you get to the jaded teenage years, the art can lose its appeal. Many young readers do not get the context and will feel what they are seeing just seems dated. As the fan matures they rediscover what they originally loved about the art and begin to appreciate Kirby’s style and skill. It is only as we get older and our visual sense gets more sophisticated that the art shows us the dynamic power and magic within. Jack Kirby is one of the foundations of modern comics. If you take out the characters he either created or helped to create, Marvel would not exist. The entire language of comics owes a tremendous debt to Kirby’s work. Kirby’s career spanned the entire history of comics up to his death in 1994 and he has even been credited with creating the entire romance comic genre. Well known comic concepts and iconography from the 1930′s up to today would simply not be there without Kirby’s work.
Reading these books lets you touch history itself and no, I am not overstating. There are many people who were vital to the creation and development of the comics medium but get all of them in a room together in the afterlife (as most of them are now gone), and they will all point to Jack as ‘the guy’. There was a reason he was called the King. The entire Lee/Kirby run is available in several different collected formats and there needs to be no other excuse to read them.
John Byrne – 1980, 1981 to 1986
Suddenly in 1970, Kirby left Marvel and the Fantastic Four behind or at least from the fan perspective that’s what happened. With his departure the magic was gone from the book. Lee kept writing for a while, working with many great artists, but it didn’t seem to matter. Eventually Lee left the book and other writers tried their hand at it. Many of them were very good writers but the book went into a decade long decline. There were good issues and story arcs in the mid-70′s and some very talented creators but they just could not recreate the magic. It seemed that copying Lee and Kirby was the only real goal but no one could match their success. It was not until John Byrne took over the writing and art on the book in 1981 with issue #232 that things improved.
Byrne successfully merged the Old with the New. He loved the Lee and Kirby stuff and it shows but he never let the ongoing homage to the Lee/Kirby era get in the way of a fun, well told story. The high point was the Nova/Frankie Raye storyline in issues 242 to 244 where everything meshed flawlessly. In these issues, Byrne gave a master-class on how to create a strong, well-crafted character. There was no reason a reader should have cared about Frankie who was a very new character to the book, but you did.
It was in the Byrne run that the Invisible Girl became the Invisible Woman and finally started to be something more than a potential hostage and liability to the team. We also learned more about Franklin and his powers and why Reed has never been able to cure Ben. Byrne left the title with issue #293 after an amazing run. His entire run is collected in the Visionaries series of reprints and some Omnibus hardcovers.
A lot of people have asked Byrne if he would ever go back to the book. His answer is always the same…
“One of the things I have realized from reading umpety-ump postings here On Line is that my work on the FF has been elevated far beyond its proper station. Sure, it was mostly good stuff, and some of it even flirted with greatness, but in many respects it shines because of the ol’ Tiberius/Caligula scenario — it looks so great because so much that followed was dross. Thus I face a terrible problem: if I were to return to the FF I would not only be expected to instantly “save” the book, I would be expected to “return” to those grandiose heights which I never really achieved in the first place! Frankly, I can live without that kind of pressure!” (1/4/98–Byrnerobotics.com)
Hit ‘NEXT’ for more of the greatest FF runs…
Article by: Taylor Ramsey 3121 Points
While I quietly wait for a really good excuse to go on an interstate mayhem spree, I read comics and watch movies. While I do the "writing" here, my wife makes it readable.