Then and Now: Fantastic Four

Fantastic Four Feature Image

The Fantastic Four are finally back—after two years of earth-shattering events, changes in editorial leadership, and interim placeholder books—in a brand-new run by Dan Slott, Sara Pichelli, Marte Garcia, and Simone Bianchi.

Back then, the Fantastic Four were the first comic superheroes written and drawn by Marvel Comics architects Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, eventually self-proclaimed as “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine!” The adventures of Mister Fantastic, the Invisible Woman, the Human Torch, and the Thing would soon become the heart of an ever-expanding Marvel Universe.

Now, the four have become less prominent as a world with Avengers, Guardians, X-Men, and growing cinematic universes passed them by, leaving them separated and even joining different teams. However, this does not mean their return to form isn’t greatly anticipated, nor does it mean their legacy has been forgotten.

So read on in this Then and Now special, featuring Marvel’s First Family and their contributions to the comics and movies of today!

THEN

Lee Kirby Fantastic Four #1

The idea for the Fantastic Four was born in the spirit of competition, both in real life and the world of publishing. In 1961, the United States was head-to-head with the Soviet Union in a race to the stars as the derisively-called “Commies” beat the US to sending the first man, Yuri Gagarin, into space in April of that year. Also in that year, the Silver Age of comics was in full swing as a publisher called National Periodical Publications started putting out comics featuring characters created the 1940s, later dubbed comics’ Golden Age, that were reimagined to be virtuous authority figures, superheroes. The direction of this publisher eventually reached its peak with the release a superhero team comic called the Justice League of America.

These comics, especially JLA, were selling very well. This led Martin Goodman, the head of another publishing company by now called Marvel Comics, to sell their own superhero team comic to compete with National. He left this endeavor to Marvel’s editor-in-chief Stan Lee, who allegedly found the current state of the comics medium to be creatively restrictive. These frustrations inspired Lee to create the kind of comic only he would want to make and superheroes only Marvel Comics could have. Lee teamed up with artist Jack Kirby and the two began creating what they thought would be their last comic.

Then, in November 1961, Fantastic Four #1 hit stands across America.Fantastic Four #1 Cover Image

At first glance however, who could say that Fantastic Four #1 was actually a superhero comic? All the human characters were in civilian clothes, not superhero costumes like Flash or Green Lantern, and the powers weren’t very noticeable. It was this down-to-earth approach to the cover that would define what the Fantastic Four were and what core virtues each Marvel creation would possess going forward: subversion and contradictions.

The Fantastic Four weren’t just superheroes who beat up bad guys. They were a group of friends with flaws who treated their powers as curses rather than a blessings. Reed Richards is a stubborn and hardened father-figure who is also the most flexible man alive as Mister Fantastic. Sue Storm is a glamourous show-off whose power as the Invisible Girl (later the Invisible Woman) was to hide those qualities. Johnny Storm is impulsive and can turn into the Human Torch and control a dangerous power. Finally, Ben Grimm got transformed into The Thing, a monster with a rock-hard exterior, but is actually revealed to have a sensitive heart while insecure in his new body.

Reed was the leader and father-figure struggling to keep his family unit on task. Sue was the mother-figure flustered by her family’s actions and often the team’s object of affection. Johnny was the volatile one constantly arguing with his brother-figure Ben. Later in the first issue, when the family battles the Mole Man and his army of underground titans, the issue isn’t whether these characters will save the day, it is whether these characters will be able to save each other. Sometimes they even fought each other.

From the first issue, The Fantastic Four was not a superhero book, it was a family situational comedy story combined with sensibilities steeped in science fiction, monster movies, body horror and 1950s futurism.

From the pages of this comic came the Skrulls (Fantastic Four #2), Doctor Doom (Fantastic Four #5), Namor and Atlantis (Fantastic Four #4), the Inhumans (Fantastic Four #45), the Silver Surfer and Galactus (Fantastic Four #48), Annihilus (Fantastic Four Annual #6), the Kree (Fantastic Four #65), the now-world-famous Black Panther (Fantastic Four#52), and so much more. For years, they were the center of the Marvel Universe.

Fantastic Four Group Shot

Before every Marvel character was an Avenger, every Marvel character was a member of the Fantastic Four, or at least joined them for an adventure or two. She-Hulk took on the role of the team’s muscle when the Thing was indisposed after being cured of his monster form in Jim Shooter’s Secret Wars. The Thing’s first brawl with the actual Hulk in Fantastic Four #12 was presented as a major event. Black Panther and Storm led the Human Torch and the Thing on adventures after the team separated during Mark Millar’s Civil War. The first issue of Lee and Ditko’s The Amazing Spider-Man co-starred the Fantastic Four and the character joining formed a famous friendship with the Human Torch. Even Luke Cage was a member of the core team.

As the years went by, the Fantastic Four family grew and their connections to other Marvel mainstays reached farther than any other book. The creators that worked on the Fantastic Four comic when Lee and Kirby eventually left—like John Byrne, Roy Thomas, George Perez and Walt Simonson—would be defined by what they added to the team’s history and how they fostered the family and their relationships.

NOW

By the twenty-first century, the Fantastic Four fell away from the spotlight as the characters and concepts they introduced took on lives of their own and became mainstays in their own right. The team itself, while still important figures, they were no longer the creative force driving Marvel Comics. However, from this newfound niche, modern creators were able to take this family to more daring stories that not only expanded their horizons but also questioned their purpose as characters and icons in a new world.

The primary creator to lead this charge to deconstruct, reconstruct, and modernize the Fantastic Four was Jonathan Hickman.

Hickman Fantastic Four #570

During his run on the Fantastic Four, Hickman—with an army of artists from Dale Eaglesham to Steve Epting—stayed true to the roots of the team’s family sitcom roots but the twist is that he used high concept storylines and ideas to question those sitcom archetypes. The main themes from Hickman’s Fantastic Four run was the duty of fatherhood and the morality behind power and no better characters were equipped to handle those themes than this team.

In his first arc, (Fantastic Four #570-572) Hickman created the Council of Reeds, a multiversal organization of Reed Richardses from different universes with the goal to solve every problem in existence. While this group is attractive to our Reed Richards as a scientist, this work would pull him away from his family, eventually struggling with what it even means to be a good man. Hickman also did character-defining work with Doctor Doom, turning him into a tortured figure seeking out power not to dominate but to prove himself a better man than his rival, Reed Richards.

Hickman eventually left the Fantastic Four to move onto bigger projects, but he used those projects to build a saga that further explored his ideas with Marvel’s First Family. In that saga, Reed Richards starred in the flagship title New Avengers, which featured Mister Fantastic, Iron Man, Black Panther, Black Bolt, Namor, and Beast in a reformed Illuminati, a secret group dedicated to saving the world through less heroic means.

Hickman New Avengers #1Hickman New Avengers #1

In New Avengers, Reed and the Illuminati faced an impossible threat called the Incursions, a phenomenon capable of destroying entire universes. The Illuminati went through great lengths and struggles to build devices that would destroy other universes in order to protect their own, but this proves futile as these heroes lose all credibility and all of existence is destroyed.

That is…until it all saved by Victor von Doom, leading to the climax of the Hickman FF saga: Secret Wars.

In Secret Wars, Doom manages to harness the power of the god, reforming lost universes into a broken dystopia called Battleworld while erasing Reed Richards from history and stealing his family. Reed manages to survive but then ignites a war across Battleworld to take back what was stolen from him. In a final showdown against Victor, Reed manages to triumph, gaining the power of a god and setting off with Sue and their children to rebuild the multiverse. As a consequence of this story, the Thing and the Human Torch were left behind, unaware of the sacrifices Reed made.

Fantastic Four Secret Wars #9

Between Secret Wars and now, the spirit of the Fantastic Four managed to live on. The Human Torch joined Uncanny Avengers by Gerry Duggan and Uncanny Inhumans by Charles Soule. Meanwhile the Thing joined Guardians of the Galaxy under Brian Michael Bendis. Doom also survived and even managed to have his disfigured face cured by Reed Richards, a sign that he can be better. Bendis incorporated him into his Invincible Iron Man run and took him on a path to redemption as the Infamous Iron Man. These three characters eventually reunited in a rebooted Marvel Two-In-One series by Chip Zdarsky and Jim Cheung with the goal to search for Reed and Sue, while navigating what it means to live on their own.

The new series by Dan Slott and Sara Pichelli works off from that point, but even as a new reader you can jump in no problem. Discover the fantastic because whatever anyone else says, everything lives.

EXTRA

Here are the trades I recommend to start reading about this family:

When he doesn't have his head in the clouds, Jose keeps his head down studying and reading books, both graphic and novel. When he's not reading, you can see him writing his own sci-fi adventures, photographing life in Los Angeles, catching up on television he's missed, or watching the latest MCU film. He's happy to live in the now.

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