When I was a kid, Marvel published a series of mass market paperbacks that featured the first six issues of their most popular titles. I bought the first three Spider-Man paperbacks along with the first volumes of the Hulk and the Fantastic Four. My favorite title was and continues to be Spider-Man, but rereading the first volume of Marvel Masterworks: Fantastic Four years later, I was surprised at how good these comics are.
The first ten issues of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s Fantastic Four run feature a hodgepodge of classic heroes and villains, including Alicia Masters, Doctor Doom, The Mole Man, The Puppet Master, The Sub-Mariner and the Skrulls. Each issue is a stand-alone, with no two-parters or trilogies. It feels like effort went into the creation of these stories.
Whatever the reason, this volume has juice. Maybe that’s because, like Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four are created when someone messes up. That someone is Reed Richards, who decides it’s a good idea to sneak into a military base with his fiancée and her teenage brother so that he can steal a rocket and blast off into outer space. When Ben Grimm, the ship’s pilot, points out that the rocket has no protection against cosmic rays, he’s shamed into coming along. Of course, Grimm is the guy who wins the booby prize. While the others gain cool powers, Ben transforms into a pile of orange rocks. His reaction to this development is realistic: he’s pissed off at everyone and everything, but especially his teammates.
Reading these comics gave me the impression that the members of the Fantastic Four are like a big, dysfunctional family whose members hate each other, but will stick together in a crisis. Grimm, who is dubbed The Thing by his loving teammates, gains super strength and is a danger to everybody. The only reason his teammates put up with him is because they made him.
The other members of the team aren’t quite as interesting as Ben Grimm, but they’re all flawed in interesting ways. Reed Richards, aka the Human Rubber Band, is heroic, but has a habit of making stupid decisions. Johnny Storm, who can burst into flames, is a typical 60’s-era teenager whose powers fluctuate depending on whatever the plot requires. His sister, Susan Storm, is the least interesting of the bunch. She has a weak power set (invisibility) and is too passive, but later gains the ability to project invisible force fields.
The stories are a blend of superhero action and 60’s era science fiction. The standout supporting character of the first volume is the Sub-Mariner, who appears in three of the first ten issues. Unlike Doctor Doom, who is the prototype of a moustache-twirling villain, the Sub-Mariner is more than a two-dimensional character. He’s a villain with sympathetic qualities, just like The Thing is a hero with villainous qualities. In one of the issues, he even saves the day; this after he betrays the Fantastic Four and is double-crossed by Doctor Doom.
The first volume of Marvel Masterworks: The Fantastic Four is well-worth a read, and shows why the Fantastic Four used to be Marvel’s flagship title.