The Fantastic Four. So, for most people, the only thing they know about the Fantastic Four are the three films. Two of them play off more as sitcoms than superhero movies and the other was an angsty, boring turd. So basically, the Fantastic Four didn't seem like that big of a deal. The thing is, without the FF, there would be no Marvel. Stan Lee launched the title back in August 1961 starring Mr. Fantastic aka Reed Richards (a man who could stretch his body out as much as he wanted), Invisible Girl aka Susan Storm (a girl who could turn invisible and later create force fields), Human Torch aka Johnny Storm (a boy who could turn his body into a fireball), and the Thing aka Ben Grimm (the strongman who looked like he was carved from rock) and it was so popular that it prompted the launch of all other titles as well and thus, Marvel became one of the leading comic book sellers. Going in, I didn't really know what to expect. And the first few issues aren't too good in this day and age. Stereotypical, bland, cliché. But, as it goes on, it gets better and better to the point where it's just, well, fantastic. This series is epic. Stan Lee pulled out all the stops in his storytelling and Jack Kirby brought them to life expertly, throwing in alien races, underground creatures, Atlantis, a race of superpeople, a living god, and so much more. But the main thing he brought was a sense of family. Cause that's what the Fantastic Four were: Marvel's first family. Readers came for the high stakes action but stayed for the interpersonal drama. These four lived together, worked together, and fought together throughout it all. Sure, they had their problems and issues with one another like any family but they always found their ways back to each other. The main critique I have is that the Invisible Girl is basically like the housemaid of the group. Girls should not read this comic if they're looking for a role model. I recommend waiting until the Fantastic Four line of the 1980s where I'm told her character becomes much stronger and defined than just the female member. But most everything else was great. The villains were awesome. Doctor Doom was such a fantastic creation and it is easy to see how he became so popular. He's got a Darth Vader type level of menace about him, someone who is evil and yet at times you can find yourself rooting for. Galactus was epic from the get-go, and he is so much better seeing in the costume than as a giant space cloud. Annihilus, Mole Man, the Frightful Four, Diablo, Mad Thinker, Puppet Master, Namor, Super-Skrull, and others. And, I don't know why the Yancy Street Gang hates the Thing so much, but their feud it is without a doubt one of the funniest things I have ever seen. So, without further ado, here are the top Fantastic Four comics from their first ten years:
18. Fantastic Four Vol 1. 20: The Mysterious Molecule Man
At this point, the Fantastic Four have gone up against many foes and always come out on top. But here they're forewarned of a new threat by Uatu the Watcher (alien who observes all and is forbidden from interfering, so him warning them of this threat was kind of a big deal). A threat that could destroy the universe. Dun dun dunnn. And then he appears. The Molecule Man. And don't let the name fool you, he is dangerous. He can manipulate any molecule which means basically any inorganic material: streets, buildings, the very air is his to control and manipulate, turning it into whatever he wants. And the FF find themselves outmatched. For the first time, they turn and run, not sure what to do. They do beat him as apparently his powers don't work against organic matter (I'd explain but it's too complicated). This comic is at the bottom of this list cause it was cool to see them face off against someone so powerful and them for once at a loss of what to do but at the same time doesn't get much better than that. Still, a lot of fun.
17. Fantastic Four Vol 1. 68-71: By Ben Betrayed
In his time on Fantastic Four, Stan Lee wrote three stories about Ben being manipulated into betraying the team. The first one was great (more on that later). The second one was good but kind of lost itself towards the end (this one). And the third just felt like a rehash of the old. In this one, Ben is tricked by the Mad Thinker into a state of pure rage at Reed Richards and he goes on the warpath to destroy him and anyone who gets in his way, tearing through the city on his path to revenge. Now, the FF are rushing to find the Thinker and restore their friend before they find themselves as his victims. Unfortunately, the Mad Thinker has a few more tricks up his sleeve. I like this story because it really showed the danger of what an out of control Thing would look like and moved the Mad Thinker to one of the FF's more dangerous adversaries.
16. Fantastic Four Vol 1. 61-61: Blastaar
After a deadly attack from the Sandman (in the beginning, he was more an FF villain than a Spider-Man one), Mr. Fantastic gets knocked into the Negative Zone, another universe that is basically the flip version of ours (more on that later). As the FF rescue him with the help of the Inhumans, they also accidentally bring back someone else: Blastaar. And like his name, he comes in with a bang, literally blowing stuff up as he appears. Thus begins one of the FF's toughest battles. This story was simple but a lot of fun and managed to keep pace all the way through. Plus, it helped introduce the Negative Zone which is one of the most important places in FF history and the rescue sequence of Mr. Fantastic was beautifully drawn by Jack Kirby. And the fight scene of the Thing and Sandman underwater was just epic.
15. Fantastic Four Vol 1. 84-87: Within This Tortured Land
When Nick Fury asks the FF for help in investigating Doctor Doom's new army of Doombots, they travel to Latveria to help. And then find themselves trapped in a nightmare as Doom messes with their minds and unleashes his army on them and, just for good measure, all the townsfolk as well. This is Stan Lee's last story working with Doctor Doom and he goes out with a bang, enforcing why Doctor Doom is the FF's mortal enemy and what makes him such a great villain. While the story lost itself a little towards the end, it was still a thrilling read from beginning to end.
14. Fantastic Four Vol 1. 52: The Black Panther
The introduction to a superhero who would one day dominate the box office with his own movie. Black Panther. First appearing in 1966, this one hero made his impression with this one comic and the rest was history. From the beginning though, Stan Lee stressed that he was a true power set and his nation of Wakanda was no third-world country. No, Wakanda clearly shows off its technological wonder and advancement while still holding onto the traditions of the past. This issue deals with the Panther hunting down each member of the FF and defeating them as a way to prove himself and he nearly pulls it off until the FF get some unexpected help. A great issue that kickstarted one superhero's journey that continues to this day. Wakanda Forever.
13. Fantastic Four Annual Vol 1. 2: The Final Victory of Doctor Doom
If nothing else, this super-sized issue solidifies the fact that Doctor Doom is the Fantastic Four's archnemesis. It also shows his origin, a strange fact for a supervillain, showing him in a more sympathetic note, as well as how he is the ruler of Latveria and thus subject to things like diplomatic immunity. In this issue, Doctor Doom wants to humiliate the FF and then destroy them in a battle of wits, pitting himself against Mr. Fantastic in a battle of mind over matter. Doctor Doom, a character who was really just a member of their rogues' gallery before this, becomes so much more with this issue which made him so popular and eventually led to his own series being launched.
12. Fantastic Four Vol 1. 41-43: The Betrayal of Ben Grimm
The Thing has left the Fantastic Four, finally having enough of being pushed around and being used to clean up their messes and fight all the battles. So, he gets captured by the Frightful Four, a group of supervillains teamed up to defeat the Fantastic Four and who really need to workshop their name. Then, the Thing gets brainwashed into fighting his former comrades. The premise is a little much but the story works as the FF are thrown around, fighting for their lives and desperate to help their friend just as he is doing his best to kill them, them narrowly escaping death too many times to count. Plus, here the Frightful Four (despite the name) show off how powerful they really are together, a true threat to the Fantastic Four. Their one drawback is that unlike the Fantastic Four, they don't want to work together and share no camaraderie. Drawback for them, for me it was great cause their banter is really funny. Even Medusa is made into a sizable threat which is odd considering that Stan Lee made the female member of the opposing team a weakling (again, Sue gets better later on. I just think Stan Lee liked the idea of a damsel in distress).
11. Fantastic Four Annual Vol 1. 4: Let There Be...Life
This super-sized issue has the Fantastic Four (or three) entering the Negative Zone, an anti-matter universe which is basically the flip version of ours. Kind of like the Upside Down except more it's more inside out with gravity flipped so that it drags you away from planet's surface so everyone burrows inside the planetoids and asteroids. Anyway, this issue introduces readers to one of the FF's greatest foes, Annihilus. Yes, corny name and corny appearance cause he looks like Robobug. But he is powerful and extremely dangerous, one of the most powerful cosmic characters. And all he wants is eternal life (don't we all?). But the thing that gives it to him is also what Reed Richards needs in order to save his wife as she goes into labor. The artwork by Kirby is the main reason this issue is ranked here as he goes all out in drawing this new universe and its colorful monsters that go with it. It also has a frantic pace as Richards struggles against the clock to find the materials and get back home before it's too late. It's also the issue Reed and Sue's baby is born: Franklin Richards. Awww.
10. Fantastic Four Vol 1. 55: When Strikes the Silver Surfer
This action packed issue shows off the battle between the Thing and the Silver Surfer. For those who don't know, the Silver Surfer is a powerful cosmic being who rides space on his surfboard. His name might be silly but his power level isn't, cosmic in origin. He is so powerful and beyond that he struggles to understand humans sometimes. In this issue, he finds solace in the presence of Alicia Masters, the blind girlfriend of Ben's. Ben then flies into a rage at seeing the Surfer getting cozy with her. He gets jealous easily based on his looks. What follows is one of the most epic fights Jack Kirby ever drew as the Thing and Surfer demolish buildings and race through the sky in their brawl. Throughout it all, the Surfer tries to placate the Thing to no avail. You may think the Thing is a jerk (and he is) but it comes from his insecurity, something Stan Lee dove deep into, as he doesn't believe he can find love looking like he does. Still, no excuse for his behavior and he totally deserved getting his butt whooped.
9. Fantastic Four Vol 1. 39-40: The Battle of the Baxter Building
After the Four lose their powers in nuclear explosion, they struggle to replicate them as much as they can before an enemy finds out. Problem is, one does. Doctor Doom comes in, takes over their building and all their fancy toys and uses them to hunt the Four down. Their only hope: Daredevil, who comes to the rescue. Daredevil is a blind vigilante who uses radar sense and echolocation to 'see' and fight. The Four are racing for their lives to get their powers back in order to combat Doom before it's too late and it all ends in climatic smackdown between the Thing and Doom. It also has a trace of sadness as the Thing, who had been made human once more, must revert back to his monstrous form in order to win the day.
8. Fantastic Four Vol 1. 44-48: Inhumans Saga
Introducing the Inhumans, a race of super-powered people who have hidden themselves for millennia from humanity. Black Bolt, Medusa, Gorgon, Triton, Karnak, Crystal, Lockjaw. All of them incredibly gifted and they're just the opening. Lockjaw is an adorable teleporting dog by the way. In these issues, the Fantastic Four face off against the Inhumans, struggling to understand what they are facing, and then find the Hidden Refuge, a city hidden from the world so Inhumans can live in peace. It is here that Jack Kirby really shines as he lays out this colorful and epic new world and species. With a Game of Thrones level of politics and backstabbing and so many awesome powers on display, the Inhumans Saga is one of Stan Lee's and Jack Kirby's finest achievements and cements the Fantastic Four as not just superheroes but explorers into the strange and unknown. (Btw, yes same Medusa as Frightful Four. She had amnesia, apparently).
7. Fantastic Four Annual Vol 1. 1: Sub-Mariner vs. the Human Race
Namor, the Sub-Mariner. One of the oldest Marvel characters created in the 1930s alongside Captain America. And, one of the Fantastic Four's greatest enemies and anti-hero to all of Marvel. Namor's origin is revealed as half-man, half-Atlantean and he has one goal: protect Atlantis and all of sea life. So when he declares the Oceans a soverign nation and threatens war with the surface, the FF take action. Before this, Namor and the FF had several fights and he was always one of their toughest foes as he is practically invincible, commands all sea life, and can fly. Now, he invades the surface with an Atlantean army and takes over New York City. And what follows is his greatest battle with the FF (or really the Fantastic Three as he had captured the Invisible Girl earlier. She sadly does get captured a lot). This issue is jampacked with exposition, politics, action, and drama and stood as the anniversary of Stan Lee's and Jack Kirby's run on the title.
6. Fantastic Four Vol 1. 113-116: The Over-Mind
In what I consider is the climax of Lee's run, the Fantastic Four face off against one of the most powerful entities they have ever met: the Over-Mind, a being composed of billions of minds. And the FF only irritate him at best when they attack. His origin is one of the more unique ones created, a tale of conquest in the stars similar to that of Germany vs Russia in WWII. Now, when Mr. Fantastic is turned against the FF and all hope is lost, they must turn to the only person who stands a chance against the Over-Mind: Doctor Doom. That's right, a classic hero-villain team-up (although, it was published in 1971 so it was a new kind of story by those standards). And even that can only buy them time for a last-minute rescue. This is one of Lee's last stories (Kirby had left to do other things by this point) on the title and even the last issue in this story isn't written by him but by Archie Goodwin, another accomplished comic writer. After this, the tales are retreading the old or just stand-ins. Lee had run his course and it was time to pass the title on. Still, if this was his last story, what a way to go.
5. Fantastic Four Annual Vol 1. 3: Bedlam at the Baxter Building
The wedding of Reed Richard and Sue Storm. And literally every superhero published at that time attended. And they needed to because Doctor Doom unleashed every villain published at that time as well to disrupt the wedding. This issue is jampacked full of battles as everyone tackles everyone until the entire page is just a full on battle. And yet, victory triumphs, the heroes gather, and the wedding continues with the two lovebirds finally saying their vows and locking lips. And in a highlight, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby write themselves in at the end in a cameo (wink, wink) where they are barred from entering due to not getting an invite. This is just one fun super-sized issue with tons of action and a super sweet and cheesy moment at the end.
4. Fantastic Four Vol 1. 25-26: The Hulk vs. The Thing
In Marvel comics, the rivalry between the Incredible Hulk and the Thing is legendary. And this is where it began. Two powerhouses facing off and destroying a lot of public property in the process. When the Hulk goes on the rampage, only the Thing can stand up to him but even he isn't enough and is constantly on the defense against the Hulk's power. Kirby's art is flying all over here as the two go at it page after page. Even with the Fantastic Four helping and the Avengers stepping in, it doesn't seem like anyone can stop the Hulk, but the Thing keeps going in one of the most action-packed stories. These two issues were what started making the Fantastic Four line truly great and it didn't stop there.
3. Fantastic Four Vol 1. 52: This Man...This Monster
This issue takes a deep look at the Thing and his psyche. As an old enemy of Reed Richards steals the Thing's power in order to exact his revenge, he learns a painful lesson. All his life he's blamed others for his mistakes especially Reed who he views as entitled who just got by in life without doing any work. It's only upon meeting him and watching him risk his own life to explore the Negative Zone to scope out future threats does he realize that this man did the work and is noble while he himself never actually did anything. To save Reed, he throws himself in and sacrifices himself to save the man. As he does this, because of the procedure to steal the Thing's powers, Ben finds himself a human and plans to propose to his girlfriend. But at the moment he is about to knock on her door, the other man dies and Ben reverts back into the Thing, leaving him heartbroken. Stan Lee went above and beyond to tell this poignant and sad tale of redemption and loss as the Thing only sees himself as that, a thing, while the rival scientist finds something more as he faces death.
2. Fantastic Four Vol 1. 57-60: The Peril and the Power
When Doctor Doom steals the power cosmic from the Silver Surfer, he then declares war on the world and no one can stop him, the Fantastic Four themselves being helpless. Thus begins one of the FF's greatest battles with the good Doctor as they struggle to come up with anything to give them a chance against him and his newfound power. The stakes have rarely been higher than this but what these four issues prove is that no matter the odds they face, the heroes keep fighting, keep going. And in the end, find a way. Sometimes Lee writes deep, poignant stories. Other times, he writes action-thrillers with heavy art and epic action.
1. Fantastic Four Vol 1. 48-50: The Galactus Trilogy
And here we are. Number 1. Ask any Fantastic Four fan their favorite story and this will be it. These three issues are the highlight of Stan Lee's and Jack Kirby's run as they have the Fantastic Four face off against a living god, Galactus. And no, he isn't no damn space cloud like in the movie. This is the purple-helmeted, impossibly tall figure who has come to devour Earth's resources to feed his never-ending hunger. He doesn't have any evil scheme or villainous motive. He just needs to eat. And if a planet dies, so be it as to him, it is nothing but an ant hill. Apparently, this came about because Lee wanted the heroes to meet 'god.' Instead, they got this guy and they prove to be no match for him and his infinite power. The Silver Surfer makes his first appearance here as the herald of Galactus who seeks out worlds for his master to consume. You know it's bad when Uatu (mentioned above) comes in to warn about this guy and actually helps out since he's forbidden to do anything. In the end, all the FF can do is buy some time, delaying Galactus as much as they can, as Uatu plays a desperate card. This story also goes deep into the Silver Surfer as he discovers the true meaning of humanity and comes to understand how each life does have significance. This story has everything you need from a great Fantastic Four story and lives up to the hype. My only problem would that be it starts by ending a previous storyline and ends by starting a new storyline, so it's really two and a half issues. But those are good enough on their own.
And that's it. The top Fantastic Four stories from 1961-1971. Give it a read and enjoy. And stay tuned for my next posting on the Hulk.