Right now,things are about as bad as they've ever been for Marvel's First Family, the Fantastic Four.
(And that's even before you start talking about the movies.)
The celebrity superheroes have been largely absent from the Marvel Comics Universe since the events of Secret Wars -- no, not that one, the other one -- in which they were abused and tortured by a Doctor Doom who had nigh-infinite power.
While traditionally, comic book storytelling conventions would say that the team would come out the other side of Secret Wars with a renewed mission statement and be one of the most highly-promoted series in the post-SW line, instead, Marvel went...another way.
Ben Grimm joined the Guardians of the Galaxy, Johnny Storm started palling around with the Inhumans, and the Richards family essentially disappeared into hiding.
Fast forward a year or so and the team that started Marvel's superhero revolution still haven't even reunited, let alone got their own book...
...Oh, but Doctor Doom is Iron Man now.
The Fantastic Four deserve better, and we are going to run down a few of the best runs from the comics to explain just what makes them so special, and why they ought to be back in comics again.
...And please note, this isn't meant to be an exhaustive look at the best Fantastic Four runs of all time, but rather the ones that speak the most to what makes the team, and the concept, so charming and versatile, so different from everything else Marvel and DC have on the stands, and so deserving of another go 'round.
Like John Byrne (we'll get to him, don't worry), Simonson drew the Fantastic Four in the years long enough after Stan Lee and Jack Kirby that it was more a part of the tapestry of the Marvle Universe and not necessarily a glamor job -- and like Byrne, he did have a habit of bringing other characters he'd already worked with into the story as often as he could get away with it.
For the Byrne years, that meant a bunch of X-Men stuff. With Simonson, it meant the early days of his run were surprisingly Thor- (and Iron Man)-heavy.
Still, one of the things that Simonson managed to do was restore a kind of epic scope and scale to the book. With the fallout from the forgettable event Acts of Vengeance to reckon with, Simonson quickly realized that the Four were better suited to wild visuals and widescreen storytelling under his guidance as writer (and more often than not, artist).
He would thrust the team into space, battling Galactus (of course) but also the Black Celestial, Death's Head, Gladiator, Kang, and more.
The Simonson run is available digitally on Marvel Unlimited, and in a number of trade paperback volumes including a Marvel Visionaries: Walter Simonson line.
Before John Byrne revamped Superman with The Man of Steel, he (along with fellow soon-to-be Superman types Jerry Ordway and Mike Carlin) had a memorable run on Fantastic Four.
In this case, Marvel has recognized Byrne's contributions to the long-term health of the series with a collected edition in the omnibus hardcover format. Here's how they describe his run:
It was the world's greatest comic magazine - again! Not since the days of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had a creator so perfectly captured the intense mood, cosmic style and classic sense of adventure of Marvel's First Family.
Fresh off an earth-shattering and reputation-making run as penciler on UNCANNY X-MEN, John Byrne proved his writing talent was every bit the equal of his art as he pulled double-duty on FANTASTIC FOUR, launching Reed, Sue, Ben and Johnny into realms of imagination and wonder into which few creators before had dared to travel.
From the four corners of the globe to the farthest reaches of space to the deepest depths of the Negative Zone, the FF face off against foes old and new - including the Dr. Doom, Galactus and Annihilus!
Plus: The FF aid the Inhumans, bid farewell to the Baxter Building, don new costumes and celebrate their 20th anniversary in style as Byrne reminds us all there's a family at the heart of this team of adventurers!
Both Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo are remarkable comic book creators with impressive resumes separately -- but whenever you put the two together, it was a recipe for something very special.
So it was when they took on the responsibility of trying to bring Fantastic Four back to its former glory during a down time for sales and reviews.
They succeeded critically, but the book still wasn't one of Marvel's top sellers, and eventually the publisher decided to give somebody else a try...
...but fans were unhappy about losing Waid and Wieringo -- so much so that the constant asking, begging, and demanding of Marvel encouraged the publisher to bring the team back and let them finish out their run.
Waid explored the idea of the Fantastic Four as "imaginauts" -- explorers for science -- and brought the wonder of discovery to the book in a way that meshed with the wide-eyed innocence and seemingly boundless creativity of Wieringo's pencils.
Note: An earlier version of this story conflated the reasons for Waid and Wieringo's original departure with the story of Waid's run(s) on Captain America. We regret the error, and thanks to longtime Marvel editor Tom Brevoort for correcting it!
The Riverdale showrunner may not have had a run on the main Fantastic Four book, but he managed to make his mark on the characters with Marvel Knights' 4.
While Fantatsic Four doesn't seem like the best fit for a Marvel Knights title, Aguirre-Sacasa turned it into a character study that turned out to be surprisingly entertaining.
With art by Steve McNiven, 4 is a story that deals with how the world's most famous super-team deals with one of those scourges that tends to come to anyone whose entire life is full of massive expenditures of cash: bankruptcy.
That's the starting point for a series that explored the family dynamics of the FF in a way that, if they could have figured out how to translate it to the screen, would have proven that you can make a gritty, moody Fantastic Four work...as long as you understand what makes them so lovable in the first place.
It's from 4 that Aguirre-Sacasa's skill on books like Afterlife With Archie is arguably not very surprising. The core of the team remains intact and the characters drive the story more than the plot itself -- even while a casual reader picking it up might not see it as the bright, familiar Fantastic Four of the main title.
Here's our review of the final issue of James Robinson's amazing, too-short run on the rebooted Fantastic Four, from contributing writer Michael Brown:
It is with difficulty that I lift my metaphorical pen to try to review the “final” issue of The Fantastic Four. I put the word “final” in quotations because in the world of comics there is rarely (if ever) a true ending. In comics, death has a revolving door and often a series ends only just long enough to set up the next relaunch.
Here though, I can’t help but feel a greater sense of finality than I’ve ever experienced in an issue of Fantastic Four. Much has been made, rightly or wrongly, of the FF’s cancellation and no one, at least no one who isn’t a Marvel employee, knows exactly what the Marvel Universe will look like after Secret Wars. Taking it as presented, is The Fantastic Four #645 a good ending? Is it a good book on its own merits? Who’s cutting onions around here?
Full disclosure, I might be an easy mark for an issue like this. I’ve been a fan of this team almost as long as I’ve been alive and they’ve meant a lot to me. I can’t say precisely why. Maybe it’s just that it’s often so much fun. As dark as things can often get in comics in the modern age, the FF can usually crack a smile. Maybe it’s how much I identified with Ben Grimm for reasons best left unexplored here. Regardless, I’m going to try to take a critical and fairly objective look at this book, but I cannot promise to what degree I will succeed.
Starting with the cover, this book does something that I really appreciate. Yes, they go back to the original logo treatment but they go the extra mile by adding one very small word, “The.” This is an incredibly minor thing to notice but it has a certain amount of meaning. You see, for the first 15 issues, the official title of the Fantastic Four’s eponymous series was actually The Fantastic Four. Starting with issue 16, the “the” was dropped making it simply Fantastic Four. I can’t say with absolute certainty since I’m not in a position to sift through the intervening 630 issues as well as annuals, one-shots, and miniseries, but this might actually be the first time since issue 15 that we’ve actually seen the “the” reappear. It’s a small touch to be sure but it shows a level of attention to the team and their history that is carried through the rest of the book beautifully. I’m going to assume that this and a number of the other little touches in this book are the work of editor Mark Paniccia and give him his first shout-out on a job well done.
The main cover by Leonard Kirk and Jesus Aburtov is fairly simple, a shot of the FF from behind with their slightly revised logo created in the rubble just behind their feet. Still, it is a very effective image and appropriate give the level of chaos and danger in which this book opens. I’m not generally one to get hung up on variants but I did pick up the Character Variant by Michael Komarck, Connecting Variant by Michael Golden, and Avengers Variant by Pasqual Ferry and Chris Sotomayor. All are quite good and appropriate for this issue. Oddly, I might be most fond of the Avengers Variant which riffs on Jack Kirby’s cover to Fantastic Four issue 26, showing us what might have happened roughly one minute after scene depicted in the King’s original. It’s bright, fun, and has a slightly cartoon-y style that I quite appreciate.
Digging into the main story of the book, I found it to be an excellent ending to this arc and the series as a whole. The creative team (and in this one it’s a bit bigger) is firing on all cylinders with James Robinson writing, Leonard Kirk on pencils, Karl Kesel and Scott Hanna on inks, and Jesus Aburtov and Israel Silva on colors. There is a lot that needs to happen to properly wrap up this arc and it’s all done pretty beautifully. With so much going on, there was a risk that this book could feel jumbled or incoherent, luckily that isn’t the case. What is achieved is a sense of fast-paced action and a sense of things barreling toward a conclusion at an excitingly breakneck pace.
The art is pretty uniformly gorgeous. I’ve praised the art team before and they deserve all that praise all over again. Every page feels full to bursting and no shortcuts are taken. We cut from intimate moments between just a few characters to group shots and massive fights scenes with everything feeling as though its received equal care and attention. Leonard Kirk fills each page admirably using wildly varied panel arrangements that draw your eyes along the proper narrative path with almost absolute perfection. In this issue, Kirk has to capture subtle facial expressions, battles, architecture, destruction, basically the gamut of superhero content and doesn’t falter in any particular. Kudos should also be given to Karl Kesel and Scott Hanna for their excellent work on inks.
The colors from Jesus Aburtov and Israel Silva are brilliant as well. The colors add form and substance to the inks, and fill out the artwork brilliantly. The level of detail in the coloring is quite evident as well with subtle shading, light effects, billowing smoke, fire, and energy constructs all dealt with wonderfully. If it feels like I’m barreling along myself, it’s only because there is just too much content here to really talk in great detail.
Turning to James Robinson’s work, I have to give him an immense amount of credit. This issue functions beautifully as an ending to his arc, the series, and as a blast of a read in itself. This issue touches on the ever-present theme of family inherent in the Fantastic Four, brings together numerous figures from the FF’s past, and tells an excellent story. I’ve said a number of times before that it seemed like Robinson was cobbling together a truly fantastic tale using bits and bobs from the FF’s past coming together in one awesome tale. He accomplished exactly that and did so in a way that felt like it made sense and wasn’t just gratuitous fan service and cameos. This issue sees appearances by just about every character that has popped up in the arc thus far making for some truly memorable moments. I for one will never forget Reed and the Quiet Man’s final fight, the Frightful Four’s appearance, Sue facing down Psycho-Man again, and the final word on Johnny’s powers.
The FF is about fun, family, exploration, and adventure. ALL of that is here in almost equal measure. The stakes are high and the scale is huge involving the fate of not only our world but encompassing the Heroes Reborn universe as well. In the midst of all of this, the characters shine and the little touches are not forgotten. I for one really appreciate such gags as Valeria’s display reading “Daddy” and “Evil Jerk” for her father and the Quiet Man respectively. Through everything that happens, this feels unquestionably like the Fantastic Four that I know and love. With its ending, this story feels as though it is simultaneously bringing closure and providing hope for the future, something difficult to achieve but handled deftly here. You’ll note that I’m deliberately not giving much away about the plot. That’s because you really oughtta read this book for yourself and I’m certainly not going to spoil that experience for you.
Beyond the conclusion to Robinson, Kirk, Kesel, and Aburtov’s story, there is a bunch of other content here. Aside from four back-up stories, we get a heartfelt letter from Senior Editor Mark Paniccia that is a touching tribute to the work of the creative team and the Fantastic Four themselves. Also included is a section where important creative figures from the FF’s past call out some of their favorite covers. We get to hear from such luminaries as Roy Thomas, John Byrne, Tom DeFalco, Stan Lee, and Joe Sinnott. We also get thoughts from Walt Simonson, the creative force behind one of (in my opinion) the more underrated runs in the team’s history. For a fan of the FF who grew up in the 1990s, I also have to thank Paniccia (I assume he made the call) for including artist Paul Ryan. In the dark days of the 90s, Ryan kept the FF looking their best and looking back I’ve always been thankful to him for that.
Finally, we get a Willie’s Mailbag feature where Willie Lumpkin answers fan letters. The letters themselves are all heartfelt expressions of appreciation for the FF and for Robinson and Kirk’s run in particular. It’s great to see this outpouring of love for the team but just as heartwarming is Willie. Whoever wrote Willie took the time to give him a Stan Lee-ish voice, letting him give himself goofy monikers like “Prof. Willie,” “Longreads Lumpkin,” and “Wistful Willie.” Short of having Stan himself answering the mail, I felt that this was an excellent touch. Heck, after playing Willie in the first-ish Fantastic Four film, Stan and the FF’s mailman are pretty closely intertwined in my mind, making this even more appropriate.
Turning to those four back-up stories, we get tales that spotlight the FF family pretty beautifully. Karl Kesel writes a Johnny Storm tale that sees him being his usual cocky self until a face from his past emerges. I know that at least some longtime readers will appreciate this blast from the past and a reminder that Johnny hasn’t always been a “player” or womanizer. I also appreciate this story for the art by Joe Bennett which has shades of Jack Kirby and Bruce Timm, the latter possibly without intending to. Writer Louise Simonson and artist David Marquez contribute a simple yet effective entry showcasing Susan Richards and her son Franklin which delves even deeper into the family aspect of the FF. Toms DeFalco and Grummett then treat us to a short Ben Grimm scene. It’s pitch-perfect and gives us that “working stiff who can’t catch a break” vibe that works great with Ben.
Perhaps my favorite back-up comes from writer Jeff Parker and artist Pascal Campion, and features Reed Richards and his daughter Valeria. This is a touching vignette that hits the themes of both science and family in a heartwarming way. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Reed get the opportunity to have this kind of bonding with Valeria and it is extremely welcome. I think part of the reason I enjoy this scene so much is that it reminds me one of the reasons I love the FF. This story doesn’t involve powers except in an incidental way and it brings home that the FF isn’t about crime-fighting and they don’t need to be doing more than just existing as a family to be their recognizable selves.
What else can I say about this book? It’s a must-read for fans of the series and the team, but I think that goes without saying at this point. It’s a perfect end to Robinson and Kirk’s run, and has made it one of my personal favorite runs of the series. I suppose the best compliment I can pay it is that if this really were the absolute last issue of the series to ever be printed and the characters were being well and truly retired, I would feel that all involved had done right by them. I would actually be content to have this stand as THE final issue.
As Mark Paniccia said in his letter:
Fantastic Four Forever, my friends. Fourever.
After Jonathan Hickman successfully created the "FF" brand as a viable second title for Fantastic Four, writer Matt Fraction took it in a wildly different direction as numerous members of the Future Foundation, including Ant-Man, Miss Thing, and Medusa, headlined a comic that didn't feature the Fantastic Four hardly at all but did an extremely effecitve job of showing what makes the property so versatile and so special.
In FF, a ragtag group of substitute heroes were called upon to watch after the kids of the Foundation and the Baxter Building itself while the "real" Fantastic Four went on a wild, interdimensional jaunt that was largely not seen.
The result was an exploration of what made the post-Hickman Fantastic Four and their world tick, seen through fresh eyes.
The title happened as the Fantastic Four series was getting ready to wind down, and so too was Fraction's time at Marvel, but frankly its brevity made it feel even more special: it was always an odd, beautiful book that felt like it was being subversive by simply existing in the conservative publishing environment of modern comics.
Its wild execution, big ideas, and short lifespan simply reaffirmed: Yep. That's the kind of book this was.
A wild, futurist take on the property full of big ideas, Jonathan Hickman's Fantastic Four brought the team kicking and screaming into the 21st Century, and as a result spoke to readers who hadn't given the FF a chance in years.
Unfortunately, it also put the team on the road to cancellation, in part because of Hickman's culminating experiment in Secret Wars and in part because it could be argued that the aggressively modern spin he put on the team didn't serve the strengths of the Fantastic Four as characters.
In any event, Hickman's acclaimed run took cues from Jack Kirby and Mark Waid, once again focusing on the idea of the FF as a family of explorers and asking a question with some truly inspired and bizarre answers:
When exploring the unknown in the Marvel Universe, of all places, what might one find?
It also put the team through the wringer, with the death of a major character and the follow-up that would examine how a team that's a family first navigates one of the things that's central to being a hero in the Marvel Universe in the modern age.
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's The Fantastic Four was the series that kickstarted the Marvel Age of comics, helped to revitalize superhero comics as a whole, and ultimatley charted the course for the rest of the industry for years to come.
More than perhaps any other comic he worked on in the '60s, Fantastic Four gave Kirby the room to breathe and do the absolutely crazy things -- both story-wise and visually -- that would become his hallmark at Marvel and DC over the years.
Seriously: if you have any affection for modern superhero comics (or the TV and movies they have spawned), you probably owe a debt of gratitude to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, upon whose foundation so much was built over the years.