After more than a 3 year absence, the Fantastic Four are finally returning to the pages of Marvel Comics in their magazine once more. Writer Dan Slott and artist Sara Pichelli will be reuniting the original members of the team (and their children) and preparing to take them on new adventures across the Marvel multiverse. The new title will also feature backup stories from top talent like Skottie Young and Esad Ribic. It is a very exciting moment for fans of the team and superhero comics in general.
The Fantastic Four has not experienced the same sort of sales success as other Marvel books in recent decades, like X-Men and Amazing Spider-Man, and they certainly haven’t found the same sort of success in adaptations to movies and television. However, The Fantastic Four remains the most important title to the publisher and its brand. From its origin to its current status, this is a team and storyline that embodies everything great about Marvel Comics.
The World’s Greatest Comics Magazine
There are multiple iterations surrounding the origin of Marvel Comics as we know it today, but they all agree on some essential elements. The publisher was close to going out of business, a few months away from shuttering at the absolute most. Their monster comics were not selling well enough and everyone would be out of a job. That’s when two of soon-to-be biggest names in comics came up with an idea. Jack Kirby and Stan Lee decided to tell a superhero story of a different style, one where the heroes were flawed, sometimes even monstrous. So they created The Fantastic Four #1 and it was a smashing success.
Kirby and Lee are so widely revered for good reason. They along with a few others, including Steve Ditko and Bill Everett, would quickly construct the entire line of Marvel Comics around this initial success. It was a shared universe, far more cohesive than anything the competition could present, and it was filled with characters with more personality than anything else on the stands. At the heart of so many other titles, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Avengers, Thor, Daredevil, etc., there was always The Fantastic Four. Lee named it “The World’s Greatest Comics Magazine.” While he was a fan of hyperbolic rhetoric, his declaration in this instance became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Exploration and Imagination
It is not simply that The Fantastic Four came first in the Silver Age of Marvel Comics when only a handful of creators were building an entire universe of superheroes, it’s that it continually set the bar and expanded the possibilities for the line. Many of the earliest crossovers appeared in its pages with less popular superheroes like The Hulk and Ant-Man receiving early cameos as they helped to battle Doctor Doom or other nefarious threats. Kirby and Lee collaborated on the first 102 issues of the series, plus the first 6 annuals (as later annuals reprinted existing material), and it is one of the most generative periods in any superhero comic ever.
Together they created almost all of the Fantastic Four’s most iconic villains and many of the greatest foes for the entirety of Marvel Comics: Doctor Doom, Galactus, Annihilus, the Skrulls, and so on. That’s not to mention the many allies they accumulated along the way, including a reimagined Black Panther, Silver Surfer, and the entire royal family of the Inhumans. They even went back into the vaults of Timely Comics and resurrected classic Golden Age characters like Namor the Sub-Mariner. Every new issue was a step forward as this pair of creators both improved their craft and continued to shape a constantly expanding universe packed with new ideas.
This sense of wonder and imagination came from the framing of the series. As early as Fantastic Four #1 the team was posed as adventurers and explorers, rather than superheroes. They initially sought to beat the Soviet Union into space and only came across their superpowers accidentally. When the Mole Man first appeared, it was out of obligation to their city that they beat him back. The Fantastic Four don’t go seeking out supervillains though, they spend their time exploring the unknown and testing wonderful new inventions. They are a family driven by a love of science and knowledge who just happen to defeat evil on a regular basis. This sense of complexity and embrace of more than the pure superhero tale is essential to the DNA of Marvel Comics.
The First Family
Exploration. Imagination. Adventure. A wide variety of tones and stories, all assembled into a single narrative and shared universe. This is what The Fantastic Four introduced to superhero comics and how it transformed Marvel Comics from a dying publisher to one of the greatest entertainment juggernauts of the 21st Century. They were ideas that permeated the runs of later greats like John Byrne, Walt Simonson, Jonathan Hickman, Michael Allred, Mike Wieringo, and Mark Waid. However, there was one theme that loomed even larger above all of that: Family.3comments
The thing that both Kirby and Lee stress the most in interviews about the creation of The Fantastic Four was that they wanted the characters to be real. They expected individuals to have flaws or for relationships to be imperfect. The Thing is the most obvious example of this, a lovable and loyal friend who also struggles with depression over his rock affliction and often lashes out as a result. In creating this team as a family unit, they wanted them to reflect a realistic family with both the triumphs and heartache that entails. As the series continued and the cast expanded, so did their conception of family. New characters from Alicia Masters to the Silver Surfer and the Inhumans all provided new relationships that expanded the hearts and stories of the central cast. Reflecting the changing trends and beliefs of the 1960s and 1970s, the Fantastic Four broke down the boundaries of the nuclear family in order to assemble a found family bound by a diverse array of ties.
This is where the greatest heroism in The Fantastic Four and all of Marvel Comics can be found. They are heroes who stand by the people they love and always leave an extra place at the dinner table for someone new. They care for outsiders and adore the diversity of their changing world. They love science because it allows them to make the Marvel universe a better shared universe for everyone. It is a big tent conception of family that entails all of the struggles and disagreements that would occur in reality. Yet the Fantastic Four are inspiring because they overcome those issues and ultimately always do the right thing in taking care of their ever-growing family. It is why they are the giant, beating heart of Marvel Comics.