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THE ESSENTIAL FANTASTIC FOUR VOLS. 1 & 2

Two heaping helpings of Marvel madness!

Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Jack Kirby, various
Letterers: various
Trade Paperbacks
Published by Marvel 1998 & 1999
$14.95 each

Reviewed by Pindaros

The collaboration of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby on THE FANTASTIC FOUR was ground zero for the Marvel revolution in comics. Until the appearance of this book, Marvel had always been a marginal company that survived because of its ability to creatively exploit trends initiated by other companies. During the Golden Age of the forties and early fifties, this was normal business practice for most comic companies, so that Marvel was mainly remarkable for developing such bizarre variations on the costumed hero formula as the Human Torch and the Submariner. This approach was less successful after the institution of the Comics Code, when many of the surviving comic companies functioned to provide a secondary medium for children obsessed with television and movie icons.

Given that within a few years Marvel was not only still in business, but one of the two largest companies, the success of Lee and Kirby was no minor achievement. In later interviews, both men have stated that they considered themselves at a crossroads professionally. Lee had aspirations as a serious writer, and had remained at Marvel as the sole consistent creator surrounded by a web of work-for-hire deals only because his sister was married to the company's owner. Kirby, on the other hand, was devoted to the medium of comic books, but found the new world of licensed properties and standardized art styles completely disagreeable both temperamentally and creatively. In short, both men were set on trying to do comics their way one last time before they got out of the business forever.

"When [Lee and Kirby] returned to the superhero genre with THE FANTASTIC FOUR, they were in a unique position to explore its potentials"

While desperation is often a goad for innovation, it is not in itself sufficient for success. The literary and artistic aspirations of the two men have more often been credited for their success, but ambition also often creates only unrecognized eccentricity. It is far more relevant that both men were masters of the American comic book, in all the myriad shapes it had taken since 1940. Kirby had drawn westerns, horror and war comics, and had invented romance comics, while Lee had written nearly everything Marvel published for over 10 years, from CAPTAIN AMERICA to MILLIE THE MODEL. Thus, when they returned to the superhero genre with THE FANTASTIC FOUR, they were in a unique position to explore its potentials, once they decided to pull out all the stops.

The model for FF was DC's JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA, which had become the most innovative example of the company's fusion of superheroes with the tropes of literary science fiction. Writer Gardner Fox envisioned the core team of Flash, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, Martian Manhunter and Aquaman as council of space-faring enforcers not entirely unlike the LENSMEN of E.E. Smith. While the stories would have seemed old-fashioned as literary sci-fi, their exoticism and craft made them extremely exciting for comics. It should come as no surprise that when Lee and Kirby got the brief to exploit the formula of JLA, they decided that this was their opportunity to pull out all the stops.

THE FANTASTIC FOUR adopted the basic formula of a superhero team that battled a range of weird enemies bent on world domination or similarly incomprehensibly grandiose goals in a world in which spaceships, aliens and fabulous technology were commonplace. Lee, and many of his admirers, have claimed that his development on this formula was to make the characters more three-dimensional, more like ordinary people. Yet it's hard to see what this would add to a formula that relied so entirely on the suspension of disbelief, especially given that he was even less interested in scientific reality than were the writers at DC.

All the same, the depiction of the Fantastic Four as a family was a remarkable change for superhero comics, especially since it was treated seriously, rather than in the humorous way that such an image is more likely to suggest. The inherent tension between the team as family and the team as figures with powers capable of standing up to their outrageously monstrous adversaries was instead played for emotional resonance.

In fact the basic arrangement of know-all scientist, attractive girlfriend, no-nonsense colleague and rambunctious teenager resembles no real family so much as the central characters of some fifties monster movie. Kirby emphasizes this connection with his cover for the first issue, which depicts a monster that dwarfs the protagonists of the book. Of course this image also echoes the first JLA cover on THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD, but Kirby's monster is far more grotesque. Horror and the grotesque, subjects which lend themselves well to comics and which had dominated comics earlier in the fifties, had been in short supply since the imposition of the Comics Code. Kirby, in fact, had been making one of his minor careers for himself by pushing the horror envelope with a series of gigantic monstrosities with Lovecraftian names. The introduction of this imagery into the superhero genre is itself a remarkable achievement.

Lee and Kirby were particularly creative in their adaptations of stock monster-movie characters to the superhero genre. The figures of Scientist, Action Man, Love Interest and Teenager each had their place within the strict hierarchies of gender and age that dominated American thought well into the sixties. Science and rational work reflected the adult ability to distance oneself from emotional concerns and violence, while the emotional realities of men and women divided neatly into the aggressive desires of men to dominate anyone who resisted them and such passive feelings of women as empathy and vanity.

The powers of the FF fit neatly into this scheme: Johnny's emotional lack of control is reflected in his flaming body, while his sister Sue possesses powers related to invisibility that never challenge her role as a delicate woman. Reed Richards' power to reshape his body likewise allows him to join the ranks of superheroes without displaying the aggressive violence that had no place in the world of technological innovation. The greatest achievement, however, was the Thing; by locating the traditional mythical attribute of superhuman strength within a monstrous body, Kirby suggested that the violence of superheroes alienated as well as elevated them.

Having established the potential of bringing monster movie tropes into superhero comics with their very first issue, Lee and Kirby found in this new paradigm a canvas with plenty of space for all the talents they had developed in two decades of comics work. If Johnny was a teenager, then of course he would spend time flirting and getting into fights at a soda shop. As a beautiful blonde, Sue would frequent the finest stores in Manhattan, and could model an ever-changing range of clothes and hairstyles. The team and their enemies would be in possession of the wildest fantasies of the military-industrial complex, and live in an utterly unique skyscraper. And in one of my favorite genre experiments, the Thing ends up becoming the pirate Blackbeard in the 17th century.

"[Doctor] Doom has walked further along that thin line between unimaginable evil and utter ridiculousness than any other fictional character."

Still, it was in the melodramas of horror/sci-fi that the FF were most at home, and no one was more comfortable there with them than Dr. Doom, the tyrant/mad scientist/evil magician of Latveria. Expelled from college for meddling in the black arts, at war with the FF almost entirely because of his fear that Reed Richards may in fact be more intelligent than he is, Doom has walked further along that thin line between unimaginable evil and utter ridiculousness than any other fictional character. So much has been said and written about Doom that I scarcely need to add anything, except to note that when George Lucas wanted his own image of ultimate evil, he merely colored Doom black and called him Darth Vader.

THE ESSENTIAL FANTASTIC FOUR VOL. 1 collects the first 20 issues of the title, VOL. 2 the next 20. Both are incredible values at about $15 each, but the price of this economy is that the art is in black and white. Given Kirby's visual extravagance, this is less of a sacrifice than it would be with other artists, but it is missed, especially for the Torch's bright flame, the Thing's orange skin and Doom's green robes. Both volumes are basically smorgasbords of Silver Age madness that are best picked at and enjoyed at leisure rather than read as a graphic novel.

Volume one is slightly more interesting as a record of the development of the Marvel magic, but volume two has plenty of solid stories and benefits from the increased confidence of Lee and Kirby with the formula. If (when?) Marvel publishes volume three, that will be the most important document of Lee and Kirby's work together, as it will contain Kirby's mind-blowing introductions of the Black Panther, the Inhumans, the Silver Surfer and Galactus. Myth has it that for the Galactus saga, Lee gave Kirby the plot, "They fight God;" even given the excesses of the Liefeld era, the story remains the only one for which this is an adequate synopsis.

While that book will be a must-buy for all of us, and we should all put pressure on Marvel to get it out, in the meantime these first volumes give us plenty of opportunities to admire the genius of these Marvel madmen.

Recommended.


Pindaros is a staff writer for PopImage.


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