Monday, August 10, 2009

The Essential Fantastic Four - Vol. 1

Essential Fantastic Four – Vol. 1
By Stan Lee and Jack Kirby

(covering issues 1-20, Annual 1)

It wouldn’t be entirely true to say the Fantastic Four hit the ground running. In fact, the opposite is true. Unlike the Amazing Spider-Man, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were clearly trying to find their way in the first days of this legendary book. The concept and characters were works in progress. Ideas were being tweaked right there on the page. What we have here is a book in an embryonic state, with some characterization – the Thing especially – a far cry from what would later be established as “real.”

But flawed as they are (and they are), they’re sure a heck of a lot of fun to read.

Stan and Jack took a good 10 issues or more to really hammer into place what would be the core of the book. It wasn't even clear at first that they had something decent on their hands. Lots of adventure and imaginative ideas right off the bat, yes, but some of them were laughable -- The Thing as the historical Blackbeard the Pirate made me groan -– plus ugly inks and an unrefined Kirby make the silly stories visually unappealing. It’s not until the end of this volume that you begin to see Kirby’s strengths show themselves (though his storytelling skills are strong from the start) and the book itself to begin to gel.

But even with the uneven quality of the initial stories, he and Stan tossed out some terrifically fun ideas, mixing pulp science fiction with the early 1960s version of “realistic” superheroes. These early FF books exist in a nice place where they can be unabashedly pulp, with a dose of the grandiose, and plenty of good-natured fun. Sure, some of the stuff is downright goofy but taken in context and with a grain of salt, you could also argue that they’re a hoot.

Some things to note: Ben Grimm betrays Reed and Johnny, casting them into the sea to drift away and die, and the Thing uses a nuke – a NUKE! – to destroy a giant monster right in the middle of a populated city!

If it sounds like the Thing is different than the one you know, it's true. He is. And what a jerk! One of my favorite Marvel characters, so boy was it eye-opening to see how different he is here. Scheming, plotting, and full of honest to god disdain for his teammates. I was pretty surprised at how humorless and mean he was in his first appearances. A totally different character. Not even likable in the slightest. Rather than being the huggable curmudgeon we know and love, he was ... well, a creep.

It's hard to call the very first stretch of Fantastic Four essential reading. I had fun with them. As a historic curiosity they're certainly of interest. But if the truth be told, Stan and Jack don't starting hitting their legendary stride until partway through the second volume of these black and white reprints.

Read my regular, everything-and-anything (usually on writing and music) blog right over here.

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