by The Masked Bookwyrm


"A brilliant scientist -- his best friend -- the woman he loves -- and her fiery-tempered kid brother! Together they braved the unknown terrors of outer space, and were changed by cosmic rays into something more than merely human! ...And the world will never again be the same!"

Back to other GN and TPB reviews

For other FF appearances, see Silver Surfer: The Coming of Galactus,
X-Men: Phoenix Rising, for Thing appearances see The Thing: The Project Pegasus Saga, The Hulk and The Thing: The Big Change, The Life of Captain Marvel, for the Human Torch see Daredevil: Typhoid Mary, Essential Spider-Man 4
(and probably others, but I can't think of them right now)

The Fantastic Four is published by Marvel Comics

The Essential Fantastic Four Volume 1
  the material in this TPB I review as it was collected -- in colour -- in Marvel Masterworks: Fantastic Four Vol. 1 and Vol. 2

The Essential Fantastic Four Volume 2 1999 (SC TPB) 528 pgs.

cover by Alan DavisWritten by Stan Lee, Pencils by Jack Kirby. Inks by George Roussos (a.k.a. George Bell), Chic Stone, with Frank Giacoia, Vince Colletta, Steve Ditko

Reprinting: The Fantastic Four (1st series) #21-40, Annual #2, plus the Spider-Man/Human Torch story from Strange Tales Annual #2

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Continuing Marvel's shockingly economical "Essential" books, we have the second Fantastic Four volume presenting roughly two years of '60s FF continuity published in order, minus the original colors.

Lee and Kirby are still feeling their way as they create the self-labelled "Marvel Age" of comics, marrying the traditional juvenile fun of superheroes brawling with villains who have nothing better to do than expend all their energy trying to avenge themselves on our heroes, with more ambitious elements aimed at winning over older readers. The characters are a little more human, given to foibles and failings, the wisecracks are a little more knowing, and the adventures are a little more elaborate. And at one point villains Dr. Doom and Rama-Tut get into a metaphysical discussion about time travel and cause and effect that'll leave your head spinning.

I went into this half-thinking these early stories would be a tad too, um, kiddie-oriented for me. Maybe it's the kid in me that responded to it, but I enjoyed it much more than I expected.

Perhaps the most fun is in the humour -- the banter is genuinely funny. If the action seems a little too unbelievable, if the villain spouts lines that seem a little too cliched, Lee and Kirby cover themselves by having the Fantastic Four agree with you with some choice wisecracks. There's also a surprising elaborateness to some of the tales: complete stories with beginnings, middles and ends are crammed into 22 page adventures, and still make time for the characters to just kick back and hang out for a page or two. There are plenty of villains like Dr. Doom, the Mole Man, the Skrulls, and many others, as well as nasties first introduced in these stories: Diablo, The Frightful Four (with Medusa as a member, though it's unclear how she would evolve into the heroine who is part of the Inhumans), and others. There are guest stars like the Avengers, the X-Men, the Hulk, Daredevil, the Sub-Mariner, Dr. Strange, the Watcher and probably a few others I've forgotten.

Ironically, as often happens, some of the more memorable tales involve characters outside the usual black hat super-villain mold, like an alien infant with super powers, or a megalomaniacal business tycoon who learns the error of his ways when his schemes jeopardize his own son. Continuity-wise, in these stories Sue Storm first develops her force shield (apparently in the earliest issues her sole ability was her invisibility) and Reed and Sue become engaged. And we have what is (I assume) the first use of Nick Fury outside of a World War II setting (working for the CIA and sans an eye patch).

As noted earlier, Lee and Kirby were still working their way to the period that would see them create the Inhumans, The Black Panther, and Galactus (the latter a story collected in Silver Surfer: The Coming of Galactus), and deliver such semi-classic tales as "This Man...This Monster". All that's still to come (in  Essential FF #3). But you can see them heading there. And even here there are flashes of thoughtful characterization and even social commentary, like in a story featuring the aptly-named Hate-Monger. The down-side to the evolving techniques is that, after spending most of the book with fairly self-contained adventures, the final stories start employing the kind of on-going narrative technique that Lee and Kirby would use more and more (and comics to this day often employ), with otherwise unconnected tales bleeding into one another. The result is that the collection ends kind of inconclusively with a semi-cliffhanger as the Thing quits the team!

The inking is a bit problematic, too. The early issues are inked by George Roussos (billed as George Bell) whose rough style is maybe a little too coarse. He's followed by Chic Stone whose style is maybe a little too clean and flat for Kirby. Like the fable of "Godilocks and the Three Inkers" (they teach that in kindergarten, right?) maybe what was needed is someone in Giacoia, who only inks one issue here.

Not, perhaps, sophisticated, but an imaginative and fun -- and funny -- book to chase the bblues away.

Cover price: $21.95 CDN./$14.95 USA.

Pocket Book Reprint / Marvel Illustrated Book
The Fantastic Four - cover by Bob Larkin The Fantastic Four
Published in 1982 by Marvel Comics - Black & White

Reprinting: The Fantastic Four (1st series) #55, 66, 67 

Written by Stan Lee. Art by Jack Kirby. Inked by Joe Sinnott;
Letters: Sammy Rosen, Artie Simek. Editor: Stan Lee.

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Many comics have a writer-artist team against which all others are measured, and for the F.F., it's Lee and Kirby, particularly from this later period, when the mix of wisecracks and human pathos, drama and bigger-than-life heroics, really came together. The F.F. have never seemed more real and human, with human foibles (including Reed's over-protective sexism), than they did in Lee and Kirby's hands. 

The first story here (reprinted from, I believe, F.F. #55), "When Strikes the Silver Surfer" (erroneously refered to as "The Peerless Power of the Silver Surfer" on the cover), is an O.K. if unexceptional two-heroes-have-a-misunderstanding-and-slug-it- out-for-a-few-pages-until-they-realize-their-mistake story. But Lee probably wrote them better than anyone, actually making you almost believe the characters' motivation. Throw in the source of the misunderstanding being the Thing's jealousy, fearing the Silver Surfer is trying to "beat his time" with Alicia, and there's an added element of character depth. 

But the real treat is the two part story that has Alicia vanishing from her apartment and the F.F. tracking her to a remote scientific project where mad scientists have created a new life form...a life form they fear will destroy them. It's a strong tale, mixing suspense and character drama, with some quips and flashy action. It's a wonderful illustration of Lee and Kirby's skills that there's little action in the first half...but you don't notice the lack of fisticuffs, the drama is so compelling. For continuity buffs, the "Him" refered to in the story would subsequently evolve into superhero, Adam Warlock. 

A nice little read. 

Silver Surfer: The Coming of Galactus
This could've just as easily been called Fantastic Four: The Coming of Galactus, but it wasn't, so it's reviewed in my Silver Surfer section.

Fantastic Four: Foes 2005 (SC TPB) 144 pages

coverWritten by Robert Kirkman. Illustrated by Cliff Rathburn.
Colours: Bill Crabtree. Letters: Clem Robins. Editor: Tom Brevoort.

Reprinting: the six issue mini-series

Additional notes: 3-page text piece about the FF's adventures

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed Nov, 2011

Fantastic Four: Foes collects a six issue mini-series in which Reed Richards decides to be pro-active when dealing with the team's multitude of arch foes, arranging the construction of a new super prison (in the other dimensional Negative Zone yet!) and then deliberately hunting down their foes, as opposed to waiting for them to strike first.

Curiously, the back cover seems to describe a completely different plot! Implying the story is told from the villains' point of view as we "watch their capers from start to finish". Either the writer of that blurb hadn't read the comic, or he got it confused with another series. As it is, the story remains firmly about the FF with the villains acting as just diversionary villains. Which, if you like your heroes to be your main protagonists, is a good thing. Unfortunately, that's among the best things I can say about this.

Oh, it's not that Foes is terrible...but it does seem fairly bland and forgettable.

For one thing, it's a six issue mini-series that probably could've been told as well (or better) in a single issue annual or something. There's not a lot of story or plot twists. Reed's whole impetus for the project is that he's acting a bit paranoid -- something even he acknowledges -- which is relevant to the climax. But it's a bit awkward when a major plot point in the climax is to say hey, guess what? the whole premise of this series was dubious! (When the reader was kind of thinking that already). The main thread to tease us along is that Reed recruits an architect who had helped design other super prisons, and there's clearly something going on with him (that even he's unaware of). Unfortunately, even that feels like just a single mystery that gets stretched out over six issues as opposed to being developed upon.

This is written by Robert Kirkman, of Invincible and Walking Dead fame, and since I'm guessing he wasn't writing the FF's regular comic, part of the intent might've just been his desire to concoct a premise that let him play with all the old toys (the villains) and trot out all the cliches (finding a baby sitter for the kids while the team is fighting; Johnny's womanizing). But as such it does feel like generally a collection of inconsequential cliches...and repetitious ones (I mean the babysitter idea is re-visited repeatedly in the storyline). As well, there's a problem with a lot of modern comics where humour-in-a-dramatic-context and simple tongue-in-cheek gets blurred. Kirkman's Invincible was often as much a parody of a super hero comic as a superhero comic, and there seems to be that here, where too much of it just seems light and spoofy, the battles with the various villains inconsequential and undramatic -- issues often ending on cliff hangers that are jokes more than suspenseful (young Franklin waiting on the steps of his school). And other things that aren't explained, like why there are two (Annihili)?

The FF was arguably one of the first super hero comics to regularly employ humour, wisecracks, and whimsy in the action-adventure formula, often to good effect, adding to the sense of real people in these unreal situations. But here, the humour just tends to nullify the realism, making it all seem like a joke -- and, worse, a not very funny joke, the quips and quirky scenes more cute than truly funny.

Perhaps compounding this is the art by Cliff Rathburn. It isn't that Rathburn isn't a good, talented artist -- he is. But his style is of a cartoony bent, with stiff, angular figures, and craggy featured faces that often lean toward caricature (the Puppet Master always depicted as wild eyed with gums pulled back and spittle flying). His style is of a similar vein as the likes of Roger Cruz (X-Men: First Class), or some of Kirkman's artistic collaborators on Invincible, and others -- but even moreso. Or should I say: less so. That is, less suited to the action/super heroics than, say, Cruz. It's art that seems cartoony and jokey, not capturing the action and suspense scenes. Part of the point of a series that exists just to trot out all the team's old foes might be just the fun of seeing them conjured up -- but that art doesn't really bring any drama or gravatus to them. I mean, you've got scenes in the Negative Zone which seem positively bland compared to Jack Kirby's envisioning of that dimension 40 years ago!

And when we get to denouement -- it all seems a bit anti-climactic. Just yet another big fight that, again, seems shy on suspense or thrills (and makes this supposed super prison seem less than super) and with a surprise "twist" that, again, seems a bit minor for almost 150 pages!

In the end, Foes isn't terrible in story and art -- the creators just seem a bit ill-matched for the material. Resulting in thin plot, and a tone that skews too heavily toward comedy and whimsy (despite some dark and grim aspects) at the expense of the story, action, suspense and, yes, even the human drama...without being particularly funny.

Cover price: $__ CDN./ $16.99 USA. 

The Fantastic Four: In Search of Galactus 2010 (HC) 200 pages

coverWritten by Marv Wolfman. Pencils by John Byrne, Keith Pollard, Sal Buscema. Inks by Joe Sinnott, and others.
Colours/letters: various

Reprinting: The Fantastic Four (1st series) #204-214 (1979)

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Given the glut of reprint collections -- for a medium once seen as disposable -- it can almost seem like it's a matter of when, rather than if, a story arc will be reprinted. Still, we're not quite there yet, so it can still be interesting to ponder why certain issues have been selected for a collection and not others.

In this case, why has Marvel collected a thirty year old run of issues -- in expensive hardcover -- from an era of The Fantastic Four that, frankly, wasn't generally that well regarded among fans to begin with? One obvious reason might be because it involves the alien Skrulls that were the main players in Marvel's 2009 crossover "mega event" Secret Invasion. It could be a Marvel collections' editor was scouring through back issues, trying to find something Skrull-related to release as a marketing tie in, and stopped at this because it's a pretty epic, sprawling story -- among the largest FF arcs from the Silver Age/Bronze Age! And when said editor realized it involved, not just Skrulls, but Galactus, a guest appearance by Spider-Man, The Man Called Nova, the introduction of Terrax, and the first appearance of H.E.R.B.I.E. (in the comics), and more, taking the team from New York, to alien worlds, and back -- it must have seemed like a pretty tempting morsel.

The result, though, is mixed.

I've said before that I kind of like these old school epics. In modern comics, a story can be drawn out simply by throwing in a lot of big panels, wordless reaction shots, extraneous minutia (a whole page showing a character walking down the street). Multi-issue arcs these days are often pretty minor, plot-wise. But a saga like this is crammed to the bursting, with various plots that overlap and segue into each other, forming a sort of whole.

It also starts fast and furious, beginning with the FF at their HQ and, within a page or two, an alien princess has materialized, followed instantly be a murderous Skrull. Soon three of the team are whisking off to Xandar, an alien world being attacked by Skrulls, while Johnny stays behind for a secondary plot involving a mysterious university. While battling Skrulls, Reed, Sue and Ben are subjected to a ray that will cause them to die of old age within three days, as well, a super being they had fought before -- The Sphinx -- shows up in the company of super hero Nova and a motley team dubbed The New Champions. Sphinx acquires god like powers and heads back to earth, vowing to destroy the planet. The reunited FF (Johnny having joined them after defeating villainy at the university with Spider-Man's help) head off into deeper space seeking the one being Reed believes can stop the Sphinx -- the planet eating Galactus.

Whew! There's a lot going on. And some of it is reasonably entertaining...and some of it is just a mess, not so much as if writer Marv Wolfman was making it up month to month, so much as he was making it up ten seconds before he sat down at the typewriter. There are a lot of spots where questions just seem to go unanswered, or when they are answered, it's with information the reader didn't have -- nor is it clear sometimes how the heroes had it!

The story is built on a lot of past continuity, not all of it clearly explained for the newbie. Wolfman had created and wrote Nova's series -- which had just been cancelled. So Nova and the New Champions carry over from that -- but with little explanation for who they are (or why he's teamed with villains like the Sphinx and Dr. Sun -- a carryover from yet another comic Wolfman had written, Tomb of Dracula). I mean, surely if Nova was being cancelled due to poor sales it stood to reason a large chunk of the FF readership wasn't familiar with the Nova comic, so Wolfman needed to factor that into his telling.

Using one series to tie up loose ends from another is a long tradition in comics...except Wolfman doesn't. Tie it up, I mean. The FF take off, leaving the Skrulls, Nova and the invasion of Xandar behind (to be resolved a couple of years later in yet another series, ROM #24) -- making that part of this arc a bit of a shaggy dog story. Still, when the heroes set off to search for Galactus, we get some decent episodic issues (notably #209) -- as I say, I kind of like epics that are comprised of smaller stories. Though oddly, Wolfman occasionally seems to forget the FF are actually the stars of the series -- in the Human Torch solo issue, Spider-Man actually takes centre stage (Wolfman was also -- yup, you guessed it -- writing the Amazing Spider-Man at the time) and a big chunk of the climax is the showdown between Galactus and the Sphinx.

It's also funny how we are treated to a whole issue introducing Terrax as Galactus' new herald (the cover proclaiming the introduction of a "new superstar") when I think Terrax's tenure would prove less than seminal.

Still, the accelerated aging thing provides an effective, off beat dilemma, with the team racing to save the earth even as their own lives are dwindling away. It provides a nice dramatic thread, building to a good climax -- one of the best issues is the final one, nicely intimate in contrast to all the high falutin' Galactus/Sphinx stuff. Wolfman also tries to tease along a character arc, involving Johnny's feelings of inferiority, which helps lend a sense of cohesion to the disparate plot threads.

As plotted, the arc can get tangled up with muddled continuity and dangling threads (including the sinister university thing, which though it resolves, hints at a looming threat posed by a mysterious "enclave"...something the accompanying letters pages assured us would be dealt with once the current arc was finished...but Wolfman left the comic almost immediately afterward and it was I think three years -- and FF #240 -- before it was returned to, and then rather perfunctorily so). BUT...a story can still entertain on a scene-by-scene level. Some of the dialogue is good (the Thing's wisecracks), but other times it's pretty clunky -- some of which can be attributed to the style of the times, but some is just bad dialogue that can be laid at Wolfman's feet. Part of the problem is Wolfman doesn't really bother much with subtlety. During the Skrull/Xandar sequence there's a lot cutting between various characters, hinting at machinations and hidden agendas...but they're not very interesting characters, or intriguing machinations. Wolfman writes the Skrulls as completely one dimensional villainy (as one letter writer at the time remarked, ruefully, Wolfman managed to write a comic that seemed racist against a fictional race!) And though Wolfman is hardly alone in depicting the Skrulls that way, it doesn't make for interesting drama. In the previous seminal Skrull epic -- The Avengers saga, The Kree/Skrull War -- we had been treated to at least one Skrull who didn't share this love of conquest. But Wolfman just replaces her with another one note evil character! Likewise, motivation such as the Sphinx's is pure comic book malarkey, with him setting off to destroy the earth...for no real reason.

Even the Terrax stuff is awkward, with the FF capturing him to act as Galactus' new herald. Sure, Terrax is an abominable tyrant...but the FF essentially kidnap him and sell him into slavery!

But I can't fully dismiss this saga, for all its rather egregious shortcomings. There is something surprisingly sturdy and resilient about the Fantastic Four -- specifically the traditional membership of Reed, Sue, Ben and Johnny. And Wolfman has a decent enough feel for them, capturing Reed's earnestness, the Thing's belligerent sarcasm, etc. Certainly there's a decent pacing at work that can, at times, give the saga the breathless feel of a rollercoaster ride. And I reiterate, just as the way the arc zigs and zags can leave threads unresolved, it also means that it does have a little something for everyone. And the aging plot does stand out as a compelling thread.

Though #214 is certainly the obvious resolution of the arc (specifically the accelerated aging plot) the collection editor might have thought to include FF #217 as well, which ties up a couple of minor threads left from the larger saga.

And that brings us to the art, which remains sturdy and appealing throughout. Keith Pollard draws the first few issues, Pollard being a solid artist of that era, whose work could fluctuate depending on the inker. And here, FF stalwart, Joe Sinnott (an inker who'd probably worked on more FF issues than anyone else -- writer or artist) provides a nice finish. Sal Buscema pinch hits a couple of issues. Then John Byrne comes on board for more than half the issues. Byrne would draw this and the next few FF issues, leave, then return as writer-artist for a long tenure. And Byrne's art here -- again under Sinnott's cosily familiar inks -- is quite good and effective. Byrne can be a bit of a polarizing figure, both for a personality that (whether he intends it or not) can seem to generate controversy, and for the fact that his art style has changed over the years. But I tend to think of this as among his peak period, and seeing his art here reminds me why I was a fan when I was younger.

So, the result: mixed, most assuredly. Rarely great, sometimes bad, but decent enough in spots, briskly paced and with the very erratic nature of the plotting meaning you can't quite get bored or feel the plot is belaboured. Not worth the hardcover price, perhaps, but can while away a few hours.

This is a review of the story as it originally appeared in Fantastic Four comics.

Cover price: $__ CDN./ __ USA. 



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