Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Marvel Masterworks: Fantastic Four, Volume 1

I was going to continue reading the Marvel Masterworks editions reprinting THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN (I have Volumes 2 and 3 on hand), but I got sidetracked to another title, the original cornerstone of the Marvel Universe and a title I’ve long considered to be my favorite comic book of all time: FANTASTIC FOUR.

MARVEL MASTERWORKS: FANTASTIC FOUR, VOLUME 1 reprints the first ten adventures of the F.F. from 1961 and ’62. The first issues I ever read were #16 and #17, so I had to catch up on these later, but I’d read them all in various reprints and even owned a couple of those first ten issues at one time or another. No need to recap the origin – you probably already know it if you have any interest in this post at all – but I will make a few comments on some of the stories. The menace in the first issue, the Mole Man, seems like a refugee from one of the Lee/Kirby monster comics. I don’t care that much for Kirby’s art here (or in any of the first three issues, for that matter), and Ben Grimm’s personality is really the only one that stands out in the origin. Reed, Sue, and Johnny are pretty much stereotypes. The second issue, which introduces the Skrulls, is a little better because of the nice twist ending, but the third story regresses with a really lame villain, the illusionist known as the Miracle Man.

In the fourth issue, though, something happens that lifts the series to a higher level. The Submariner, the famous Golden Age character and nemesis to the original Human Torch, returns, albeit in a manner that relies ’way too heavily on coincidence. But there are some really effective scenes in this one.

With the fifth issue, the series begins to hit its stride with the introduction of the F.F.’s all-time greatest villain, Dr. Doom. The time travel plot is a little silly, but the art, with Joe Sinnott inking Kirby, is really good, and we get The Thing dressed as a pirate, so what more do you want? The sixth issue teams up Dr. Doom and Submariner against the F.F. and is also a good story with decent art as Dick Ayers takes over the inking chores. I always liked the Kirby/Ayers art, although I think Sinnott was the best inker ever for Kirby.

The seventh and eighth issues are pretty forgettable, although #8 introduces blind Alicia Masters, who becomes Ben Grimm’s long-time girlfriend. The Submariner returns yet again in #9, which has a silly but entertaining plot about the F.F. going to Hollywood to make a movie, then Dr. Doom shows up again in #10, which also features cameos by Lee and Kirby and introduces the concept that the members of the F.F. know there are comic books being produced about them (and it’s even implied that they share in the revenue from those comics).

Up until this point, the complaints I had about Kirby’s plotting in the early issues of THE AVENGERS haven’t really cropped up, but F.F. #10 really falls apart in terms of logic and continuity. Stan’s script basically ignores the fact that characters do things that make no sense and show up in places they couldn’t possibly be. But out of the first ten issues, two of the stories are excellent (#5 and #6), two are pretty good (#4 and #9), and the others are okay except for #10, the only real dog in the bunch. Unlike THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, which started out great, FANTASTIC FOUR had to grow into greatness, despite the cover proclamation about it being “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine!”

Which it was, a couple of years later and for several years after that. But who knows when or if I’ll get around to reading the reprints of those stories?

One more comment: These early issues feature the tragic, surly Ben Grimm who’s always losing his temper with his teammates and threatening to quit. Gee, Reed, Sue, and Johnny, do you think he might have felt a little better about himself and been easier to get along with if you’d actually called him “Ben” every once in a while instead of always calling him “Thing”? No wonder he always felt like it was clobberin’ time! (Although that phrase doesn’t actually appear in any of these stories.)


Bruce said...

I would love to get those Masterworks but for that money. I can pick up the first three Essentials which has the bulk of the Kirby/Lee run. With the bonus of all that great KIrby art in black and white.

James Reasoner said...

I've been picking up the trade paperback editions of the Masterworks volumes, which are considerably less expensive. Just got the first two volumes of the X-Men yesterday and will be reading those in the relatively near future, too.

Bruce said...

I thought you were picking up those overpriced HC. I mean I own two Marvel Hard Covers and the main reason is that it was a 50% off sale: Marvel Westerns* and Marvel Visionaires John Buscema. But most of the time its Essentials or Showcases for me.

*Reread this over the weekend and just wish that Marvel would do it again.

Fred Blosser said...

James, if I step back and look at it analytically, your points about the early issues are valid. Still, I have great nostalgic/absurdist fondness for those pioneering, somewhat goofy stories. Most of those early FF issues featured monsters, as if 1) Lee and Kirby were uncertain whether the superhero stuff would stick, or 2) they had written the monster comics so long that it was difficult to shake the habit. I may be the only person ever who liked the really silly early-Marvel bad guys like Mole Man, Paste Pot Pete, Miracle Man, Mad Thinker, Ringmaster, Asbestos Man, etc. By the way, I lucked out 3 or 4 years ago when Barnes & Noble remaindered the original editions of the SPIDERMAN Masterworks trade paperbacks, #s 2 and 3, and I picked up each one discounted down to $4.98.

James Reasoner said...


You're absolutely right. I love these early issues, warts and all, and I still get a big grin on my face when I see some of the artwork that's been burned into my brain for forty years now and read the lines I remember so well. Interesting point about how Lee and Kirby might not have been sure that the superhero boom would last. That probably played a part in how the early issues were produced. The tone of the stories changes quite a bit as they go along, and by the time Spidey was introduced a couple of years later, Marvel was firmly established as a producer of superhero comics.

Richard Prosch said...

I recently listened to the first couple episodes of the FF radio show from the '70s (Bill Murray pre-SNL stars as the Human Torch) and since they read copy straight from the first issue, I was nearly able to recite captions and dialog with them. Burned into memory, indeed! They've never quite recaptured the magic of those early stories, though I've picked up some recent issues and they've been okay.

James Reasoner said...

There was an FF radio show? I don't remember that at all!

Lagomorph Rex said...

I've never actually read any of these Masterworks volumes.. Have never had the $$ to spend on them.. But I've really been enjoying the Marvel Essentials volumes.. most of these comics were out 20 years before I was born, But on the same hand my mom read all these, so it gives me something to talk to her about. Kirby/Lee/Ditko/Buscema Bringing the Generations together!

I really enjoy the DC Showcase volumes as well.. I just wish they started at the beginning instead of silver age stuff..

Richard Prosch said...

The FF radio show was pretty short-lived. I think it lasted a year or so --'74 or '75. They advertised it in the comics but living in northern Nebraska, I couldn't pick up any AM stations that ran it. You can find copies for the free download on the web or at YouTube.

Bruce said...

here you go James: http://www.archive.org/details/FantasticFour

James Reasoner said...

Richard and Bruce,

Thanks for the info about the radio show. I'll check out those episodes. If it was advertised in the comics, I must have known about it because I read 'em all in those days, but I don't remember it at all.