I just learned this morning of the passing of Stan Lee, one of the masterminds behind the Mighty Marvel line of comics—and subsequently one of the most influential comics creators in the world, whose influence on pop-culture would be difficult to overestimate. His relationships with several creators were (allegedly) rocky at times, but as a SPOKESMAN for comics and superheroes, he always presented a happy smile and sly sense of humor (as his numerous movie cameos can attest.) Good luck in your travels, Mr. Lee… Meanwhile, we can still enjoy your books, like this little gem, right here…
Stan Lee & Jack Kirby – The Fantastic Four – Marvel Masterworks Volume 1 (2012)
The first issue of The Fantastic Four hit news stands in 1961 (!!!) and within the ten issues covered by this Marvel Masterworks collection, we already get a real sense of who this group is and the kinds of challenges that they are going to face. The comic is attributed to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and in a very real sense, THIS series, specifically, was the beginning of the Marvel Comics that we all know today. According to Stan Lee (in an interview presented in the documentary, Comic Book Confidential,) Lee was about to give up on comics, until his wife told him that he should try telling stories the way HE thought they should be told. Lee wanted characters with flaws, and although there should be fantastic elements in the story (he thought) there should also be little snippets of reality to help make the characters and situations a bit more relatable. Apparently, his formula worked!
The Fantastic Four, as we learn in the first issue, are a group of (sometimes) friends, the brilliant scientist, Reed Richards, and his test pilot friend and romantic rival, Ben Grimm, plus the brother and sister team of Johnny and Sue Storm. This group of adventurers set aside their differences in order to attempt to fly an experimental craft into space (so they can do it before the COMMIES are able to!) Unfortunately, the ship isn’t properly shielded against “COSMIC RAYS,” and the four passengers receive a massive dose of these potentially deadly rays, then crash land back to Earth, only to find themselves CHANGED by the experience—although, aside from Grimm, who now looks like a living pile of rocks, everyone else seems to have benefited from the exposure! (It’s never really explained why nobody ELSE in the Marvel Universe who flies through the cosmic rays gets super powers—but maybe that’s because the F.F. were mutants all along, and it just took the cosmic rays to set their powers in motion??? Who knows…) Regardless, with their new-found abilities, The Fantastic Four decide that they are going to protect humanity from threats, foreign and domestic, from here on out!
And boy oh boy, do we get some interesting threats in these pages! The Moleman, Skrulls, Dr. Doom, the Sub-Mariner, a hypnotist called The Miracle Man, The Puppet Master, an alien from Planet X—some really entertaining bad guys… But unlike OTHER super hero groups, it almost seems like The Fantastic Four THEMSELVES are often their own greatest foes! Ben Grimm (aka The Thing) and Johnny Storm (aka The Human Torch) are CONSTANTLY at each other’s throats, bickering, fighting, quitting the group…and Sue Storm (who would later go on to marry Reed Richards) is also a wild card in these pages, as she seems to have a crush on Namor, the Sub-Mariner, in several issues. (The Sub-Mariner is a primary antagonist in at least three issues out of the first ten—the same number of issues that Dr. Doom is given—and there’s even one where Subby and Dr. D team up!) And in one issue, The Fantastic Four has to declare bankruptcy because Reed Richards loses all of their money on a bad stock investment! How will they survive? By going to Hollywood, of course, and starring in an action film!
There are some entertaining premises (and full on wacky moments) in these pages, and I have to admit that the overall tone is pretty cheesy, by today’s standards. Kirby’s art, as usual, is entertaining, but the stories are full of weird plot-holes and bizarre attempts at logic that strain believability FAR beyond the breaking point. For instance, we have the Moleman, who we meet in the first issue, who digs his way up from deep in the Earth’s core, appearing at various nuclear sites around the world, and dragging power plants down into his underground domain. When the F.F. confront the Moleman and his army of monstrous subterranean creatures, the battle ends with a cave in that blocks the access porthole to the surface world, and Johnny Storm yells, “We’re free!! And the entrance to the Moleman’s empire is sealed forever!” BUT…can’t the Moleman just dig another tunnel, like all those other tunnels he’s been digging up all over the world??? Apparently not—for some reason…
Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE these stories. They’re charming and goofy and imaginative and weird—and as always, Jack Kirby’s art is a treat to look at. Just don’t go looking too hard for logic or realism, as these are nowhere to be found. It’s funny to me that what Stan Lee wanted for the comics that were going to be told “his way” was more realistic characters and stories—and THIS is what they came up with! (To be fair, I haven’t read very many comics from BEFORE the Marvel era, so it’s completely possible that comic stories in the 1950s made even LESS sense than these stories do—if so, I should probably try to find some and read them! I love nonsense.) I really do enjoy this book, though. I’ve read it three times through already, and I’m certain that I’ll read it again someday.
For those wondering if the book is safe for kiddies—yep. No cussing, no nudity, no blood… Sure, there are a number of plots to KILL the main characters in these stories, but there’s no gore, just MENACE. The characters can get a little whiny and melodramatic at times, and the plot lines (as I mentioned) are pretty nonsensical, but the book is a great read if you just want some fun, imaginative storytelling and playful, exciting comic-book style action. Kirby’s work is perfect in its imperfection, and some of the facial expressions that he draws seriously make me laugh out loud. (Not lol… I never lol…)
And, as of today, both of the creators of this book are gone… But they left behind quite a legacy, which I highly recommend people READ, along with watching the movies. Reading the books is a completely different experience, and one that I find incredibly satisfying. If you’ve never read an actual comic by Jack Kirby or Stan Lee, then this book would definitely be a great place to start!
—Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Supreme Bunny Lord of The P.E.W.)
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