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The Essential Fantastic Four Volumes 1 and 2
Marvel Comics paperback £11.99 each
review by Patrick Hudson
In the early 1960s, Marvel Comics launched a series of titles that changed the face of the superhero genre. Before then Marvel - a venerable member of the funny book trade with roots in the post-pulp, pre-Superman four-colour books in the 1930s - had specialised in romance, horror and war comics during the 1950s. Editor Stan Lee, facing a waning market, launched a financially and creatively ambitious publishing programme of titles that are still evocative today: The Fantastic Four in 1961; The Hulk, Thor, and Spider-Man launched in 1962; Dr Strange and Iron Man, and the classic team books The X-Men and The Avengers in 1963; and Captain America and Daredevil in 1964. It's an incredible roster for just three years of creativity, but Lee, in partnership with the artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko established in these titles a mythological framework that is as powerful to males of a certain age as classical or biblical myth.
More than just the franchises, however, the early Marvel comics set the tone for superhero fiction for decades to come. DC, Marvel's only real competition, didn't achieve anything so ambitious for another 25 years, and the foundations set by Lee et al stood Marvel in good stead until financial and artistic crisis nearly led to the company's collapse at the end of the 1990s. What saved it in 1999 is the same thing as saved it in 1961 - Spider-Man, The Hulk, Daredevil and The X-Men, their stories retold through glossy high-grossing films and their Ultimates series of comics, which retell the events of early Marvel but with a contemporary twist.
Over the last four or five years, Marvel have been reprinting the comics from this classic period work in fat, affordable monochrome, each volume comprising 20 comics and assorted specials and annuals. In these pages it is possible to see just how much of the appeal of the Marvel characters was laid out right from the beginning. The Fantastic Four came first and set the tone for much of what was to come. Super-scientist Reed Richards launches an experimental space capsule piloted by his friend Ben Grimm and assisted by his fiancée Sue Storm and her hotheaded brother Johnny. Once out of the Earth's atmosphere, the capsule is bombarded by cosmic rays giving them all superpowers. Richards becomes the malleable Mr Fantastic, Sue Storm the Invisible Girl, Johnny Storm the Human Torch and Ben Grimm the orange-scaled, monstrous Thing. Gifted with incredible powers, they pledge to use them to help humanity.
It's not a difficult concept - basic even by the simplistic standards of the superhero comic - and the storytelling is accordingly concise. The characters' introductions tell us everything we need to know about their personalities and powers in a few panels: Sue Storm is first seen "having tea with a society friend," Ben Grimm cannot buy clothes to fit his inhuman frame and says "Bah! Everywhere it is the same! I live in a world too small for me!" Johnny Storm is seen fixing up his hot-rod with a young pal, and Reed Richards wears a sports-jacket and smokes a pipe and calls them all together with a futuristic flare gun. Each gets a chance to show off their powers, and then Kirby and Lee get on with the action.
Their first adventure - mysterious monsters have erupted from underground creating havoc in the city - has clear antecedents in the monstrous creatures from the earth are familiar from the Lee/Kirby monster comics that Marvel published in the late 1950s, and Kirby's Challengers Of The Unknown, created for DC in 1957. In some ways, it doesn't seem like a superhero comic at all: the F4 don't wear costumes (until issue #3) and their foe - the bitter genius the Moleman - is a mad scientist rather than a super-powered villain.
But the characters are more than just pulp heroes: they argue, they have doubts and the mantle of heroism is more often a burden than a boon. The Thing, especially, suffers for his powers. Transformed from a handsome jock into a hideous, orange monstrosity, he has paid a higher price than the others for his powers. Although he eventually finds love with the blind sculptress - and daughter of the Puppet Master - Alicia, he is always insecure, fearing that she'll leave him for "a normal Joe." The high price of superpowers is a constant theme in Marvel comics.
Public relations are a perennial problem for Marvel superheroes: they are not just instruments of the law or justice or patriotism, they are celebrities with fan clubs, admirers and detractors. In issue #2, shape-shifting aliens the Skrull use their power abilities to frame the Fantastic Four for a series of crimes and acts of terrorism and the public turn against them. Lee and Kirby understood the importance of fame in the modern world, a device that was turned into an ongoing theme of Spider-Man, where the hero had to contend with cigar-chomping newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson. The superhero as outsider is a commonplace today, but in the era of the cosy adventures or Superman, Batman and the Justice League of America, Marvel's angst-ridden heroes had a natural attraction (as they do today) to the burgeoning teenage culture emerging in the wake of the new rock 'n' roll.
The troubled heroes had their counterparts in the conflicted villains, and many of the Fantastic Four's villains are not truly evil. In #4, we meet one of the great morally ambiguous antagonists. The Sub-Mariner was an old Marvel property from the 1940s who had fought the Nazis with the original Human Torch (a highly-flammable android, who reappears less memorably in King Sized Special #4), and Captain America (who was revived in The Avengers in 1964). Prince Namor, the rightful ruler of the undersea kingdom of Atlantis is found living as a Skid Row bum until Johnny restores his memory. Neither hero nor villain, Namor is essentially honourable but driven by his bitterness over the hegemony of the "surface world" and his mad love for Sue Storm. In issue six he teams up with the F4 to defeat Dr Doom, although he only got involved in the first place because Doom promised that he could make Sue love him. He is a brooding, romantic figure, noble but forever frustrated in his quest for romance and his ambitions for his undersea people.
Lee and Kirby took another great leap forward by placing their heroes squarely in the real world. For the first time, in the opening panel of issue four, we are told that the F4's headquarters is in the centre of New York. Before that, although their setting has been definitely urban, it has not been specified which city it is and has no more character than the bland Metropolis of Superman or Gotham of Batman. Kirby and Lee, both native New Yorkers, capture the speech patterns and street scenes of the with great skill, whether it be a glittering up-town party or an encounter with the Yancy Street gang in the Bowery, the New York of the Fantastic Four is convincingly the New York of the early 1960s.
In time, the Marvel superheroes colonised New York: the Avengers' Mansion on Park Avenue, Dr Strange's brownstone in the Village, Spider-Man leaping from the Empire State to the Chrysler building on strands of webbing. This gave the early Marvel comics a grittiness that was lacking in other superhero comics of the time, as if they were happening in the same world inhabited by the readers. This is underlined by Lee and Kirby's introduction of the real world into their fantasies. In #9 the F4 go to Hollywood and the issue features guest spots from, among other, Dean Martin, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. The dialogue is peppered with contemporary references and Kirby and Lee themselves turn up to Sue and Reed's wedding in Giant Size Annual #3 (1965) but are turned away by Nick Fury and the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, who are acting as bouncers.
As Marvel's flagship title, The Fantastic Four was also a useful vehicle to publicise new comics as they came out, something Lee - a born marketer - was quick to exploit. The Hulk appears in #12, Ant Man in #16, the Avengers in #26, Dr Strange in #27, the X-Men in #28, Daredevil in #39 and the Black Panther in #52. They gave Spider-Man a boost by appearing in the first issue of his own comic. By the time of Reed and Sue's nuptials they are so well connected that their wedding is a who's who of Marvel superheroes.
What started as a convenient way to cross-market their products became, gradually, the intertwined Marvel Universe where if Dr Strange sneezed in The Defenders, Iron Man caught a cold in The Avengers. Although easy to deride for its blatant commerciality and Byzantine complexity, it is a revolutionary way of telling stories. The story of the Marvel Universe became multi-stranded, in the hands of no single artist or writer, a truly decentralised story. For years in comics the creator had been displaced by the character (around the time DC fired Siegel and Schuster from Superman) but here was something else again - the primacy of the character displaced by the world around them. However unwittingly, this laid the groundwork for the next stage in the development of Lee and Kirby's technique.
Perhaps the most profound transformation that occurs in these volumes is the metamorphosis of the superhero comic from a procession of self-contained one-shots to a soap opera-like serial, where one-dimensional character motivations were transformed into plot arcs that extended over several issues, years and even decades. At the beginning, the stories follow a set format: cover-featured villain is introduced; he commits a few signature crimes; the F4 track him down and defeat him. Starting in #25 (and guest starring the Hulk and the Avengers) Lee and Kirby introduce a story that stretches over two issues. Following a few more one-offs, issues #39 and #40 give us another two-parter where Daredevil helps the F4 defeat Dr Doom. The third volume opens with a three-parter and in #44 the real paradigm shift occurs with the introduction of a subplot involving the Inhumans.
Medusa of the Fearful Four (a rather lacklustre team of villains introduced in #36) is, it turns out, beloved of Black Bolt, the king of the Inhumans, a race of superheroes that has secretly lived apart from humanity for millennia (a typical Lee/Kirby ploy - their world is liberally salted with secret races and lost kingdoms). When Black Bolt and his friends come to rescue her and bring her back to their isolated home. Johnny falls for Medusa's sister, Crystal, but before the relationship can develop, Black Bolt's mad brother Maximus imprisons the Inhumans behind the impenetrable Negative Zone. Over the following dozen issues, the plight of the Inhumans and Johnny's attempts to penetrate the Negative Zone are a constant refrain to the action. Rather than being resolved in a single issue, or even in two issues, it becomes an ongoing problem, more like a soap opera storyline than a programmatic superhero plot.
At this point, the structure of the stories breaks away from the constraints of the 24-page format. Lee and Kirby finish stories in the middle of issues and start new ones immediately. Plot threads are dropped, but picked up again several issues later. Hitherto unsuspected relationships between heroes and villains turn up, complicating the plots with shades of grey not familiar in the four-colour world. This method of storytelling, of rolling stories and no real endings, just like soap operas, formed the basis of Marvel's development from this point onward, and of the entire superhero comics' genre.
Alongside the revolution in plotting and character is the growth in Kirby's art, redefining the visual vocabulary of the comic form. Kirby was always a great draughtsman, but F4 starts with crabby, lumpy drawing with sparse backgrounds and cartoony figures. Over these volumes, Kirby's style becomes sparse and clear. Noticeable developments occur with the introduction of new inkers: Chick Stone gives Kirby's work its distinctive thick black outlines, and Joe Sinott then adds detailed, often mind-bending backgrounds. The development is most obvious in the depiction of the Thing, who begins with skin like a wrinkled apple, and gradually develops a craggy, rocky look as if constructed from fist-sized stones. Kirby gradually starts using full- and half-page panels, breathtaking views of incredible machinery, bizarre extraterrestrial landscapes and titanic conflicts. He lays down a new visual code for the superhero comic that is still imitated today.
Apart from watching a previously moribund genre being transformed before your eyes, The Fantastic Four is an exuberant work of infectious enthusiasm and incredible invention. The pages brim over with over-the-top characters, a crazy mix of flippant and portentous dialogue, and wild plot twists that barely maintain credibility. Lee's scripts are bombastic and pretentious, making outrageous claims for their own genius: "A titanic tale tinged with that Marvelous Marvel Magic!" (#37), "one of the most startlingly different F4 sagas you have ever read!" (#39), "Possibly the greatest action drama you will read this year!" (#40), "Possibly the most daringly dramatic development in the field of contemporary literature!" (#41).
It is easy to parody, but very few creators have managed to capture the astounding excitement that illuminates these volumes. There is the sensation that they are constantly trying to outdo themselves, searching for a threat or storyline more bizarre than the one before, every issue creating something bigger, badder or weirder. The superhero genre has gone through several changes before and after the Marvel revolution of the early 1960s, but The Fantastic Four encapsulates the Marvel Age unlike any of its contemporaries.
It is clearly a labour of love for Lee and Kirby. Sometimes mawkish and simplistic, occasionally profound, always exciting, The Fantastic Four is a demonstration of the "sense of wonder" at work. While the New Wave was transforming SF into something respectable and serious, the pulp sensibilities of Lee and Kirby picked up the baton for simple-minded thrills and ran with it gloriously. Ultimately, perhaps, it didn't lead anywhere particularly interesting and certainly the whole thing was becoming increasingly tired by the mid-1980s when the British invasion changed superhero comics again, but for nearly a decade the superhero genre belonged to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Kirby and Lee worked on 102 issues of the Fantastic Four together and so we can look forward to two more volumes in the greatest superhero story ever told.
There are volumes covering similar periods in The Hulk, Spider-Man, Dr Strange, Daredevil, The X-Men, The Avengers and numerous other land mark Marvel titles. For lapsed comics fans they are a welcome reminder that we really were witnessing something remarkable and that they really don't make them like they used to.
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