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Fantastic Four Best Comics (1971-1981)

Updated: May 15

The Fantastic Four. The superhero team that launched comics into the Silver Age and was one of the main titles and biggest sellers for Marvel for most of the 60s, a team that is poised to make a triumphant return to the big screen next year with a star-studded cast. A team that sadly fell to the wayside for a good portion of the 70s. Yeah, the Fantastic Four was sadly one of the titles that suffered from the change in writers. After Jack Kirby left as artist duties after issue 102, the stories already began to suffer. Stan Lee still managed to provide a few good stories but it became clear he was treading old ground. At that point, he had been promoted to Publisher and had more duties to the whole Marvel business meaning he had less time to work on the titles. More and more he had to bring other writers in like Archie Goodwin and Roy Thomas to fill in for him. He brought back Galactus for a fun story that started off the next decade of Fantastic Four but sadly didn't capture the magic of the Galactus Trilogy. After one more story trying to bring back an old monster-movie based villain from an older issue, Stan Lee finally called in quits and passed writing duties to Roy Thomas.

Thomas, while not as adept as Lee for the FF, still understood the fundamentals of what made the comic work i.e. they were a family first and foremost. Sadly, Thomas also had other duties in the Marvel office. After a solid start in his run with a story bringing back the Frightful Four and introducing new villain and later FF ally Thundra, he was forced to pass on his duties to Gerry Conway who carried the torch for the next year and a half. And that's when the Fantastic Four really fell apart. No offense to Conway, he has written many great stories over the years. But sadly none of them were from the Fantastic Four. Conway was already making a name for himself after taking over Amazing Spider-Man and Thor but whatever worked there did not work here. At best, his stories were mediocre. At worst, well...they were a chore to read. Conway fell into the familiar trap to many writers then of trying to emulate the previous writers in how they made their stories work. Because of that, the stories didn't feel true and thus fell apart.

Once he left the title, it became clear what a main problem was that continued for most of the 70s into the 80s. No ongoing writer could be found. The title bounced around from writer to writer, never truly settling on anyone. Len Wein was hired to be the next main writer but due to his own duties had to leave after only a few issues. Thus, Thomas came back and was fortunately able to stay on mostly for the next two years, scripting many classic stories that will be talked about in this post. His main contribution was making the Fantastic Four a big thing again after their fall from grace. But his time sadly came to an end, his editorial position as well as other scripting duties leaving him less time to work on the title. By the end, other writer were serving as co-writers or fill-ins.

Len Wein came back but only for a brief run and he left due to problems behind the scenes. After him came Marv Wolfman who noted that when he'd begun, he was only a few issues away from the big 200th issue. So he began writing towards that to make it as epic as possible. And, thankfully, he succeeded. Wolfman's run goes back and forth but thankfully two of his stories stand out as instant classics and some of the best FF stories ever made. But sadly, after he left came another dark time for FF fans as Doug Moench came in. Now, again, Moench has written many fantastic tales for comic readers. Just not for FF readers. And even he knew it. Moench himself stated that he wasn't the right fit for the role, his work finding more success on titles like Moon Knight or Master of Kung Fu. They were also too mainstream and under management control for him. Still, he was tasked with doing it and he did his best, but sadly none of his stories clicked. He only stayed on for a year which was plenty. As I said, Moench is a good writer, just not for the Fantastic Four. Thankfully, right after him came a good writer who was perfect for the Fantastic Four and his name is John Byrne. He managed to write one story before the second decade on the FF came to an end but it became clear that better things were on the way for readers.

In addition to all that, in the 70s Marvel saw success with Marvel Team-Up, a comic that saw Spider-Man team-up with different faces from across the Marvel universe each issue. So, editorial decided to replicate that success with Marvel Two-in-One that had the Thing do the same thing. It was fun to see the different interactions of the heroes and Ben Grimm is one of my favorite Marvel characters so I really didn't mind reading more of him. But the comic never really stood out in terms of storytelling other than one issue by John Byrne and a few moments from Mark Gruenwald and Ralph Macchio's run.

The Fantastic Four was one of the top comics in the 60s but sadly fell to the wayside in the 70s thanks to a constant shift in writers, mediocre stories, and for some, failure to understand what made the team click. It was only thanks to Roy Thomas and Marv Wolfman that the title didn't tank completely. Still, while the 70s was not the best time for the Fantastic Four, the 80s was a renaissance but that's a story for next time. Til then, please enjoy the best FF stories to come from 1971 to 1981.

9. Fantastic Four Vol 1 232: Back to Basics

John Byrne arrives on the scene and starts his famous run with a bang while also simultaneously, as the title says, going back to basics for the team. For a little while now, the comic has floundered and fallen out of the mainstream due to weak stories. So Byrne comes in with a simple story that still has bombastic action and brings the family together to fight this latest threat to remind readers why they loved these characters in the first place. He also brings in old FF foe Diablo who has always been on the lamer side, and he still is. But he also proves how powerful he could be by nearly taking out the team. Unfortunately, it’s their very teamwork that is his undoing. A stellar first issue that cements the Fantastic Four’s status as still one of the greatest comics out there.

8. Fantastic Four Vol 1 166-167: Titans Two

At this point in Marvel comics, the Thing and Hulk had squared off at least four times since their initial epic battle by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and each time felt more like an add-on than the previous, all trying to copy the thrill of the first bout and never quite succeeding. Here, Roy Thomas tries a different approach with the Fantastic Four asked to help capture the Hulk and when they succeed, the Thing sees himself in the Hulk as the soldiers brutally restrain him. In the end, he decides to free him and the two titans then work together to take on the whole army as well as the other FF members, ending on a twist that had major ramifications for the Thing. Thomas changed tactics for this Hulk and Thing storyline and made it that much more memorable, deepening the two characters’ relationship while still providing good-old fashioned action.

7. Fantastic Four Vol 1 129-130: Battleground: The Baxter Building

In this storyline, Roy Thomas brings back the Frightful Four and introduces their newest member of Thundra, a woman warrior from a dimension where women are the dominant sex. She joins the Frightful Four to take down who she sees as the most powerful male, the Thing. At this point in Marvel comics, writers were attempting to move away from their more sexist stereotypes against their female characters and Thundra is proof, proving far stronger than the Thing and that she doesn’t even really need help from her compatriots, but also that she has a nobility herself in her unwillingness to kill innocents or in cold-blood. Amidst all the action, Thomas also tackles one of Lee’s best elements of his run, the family dynamic and shows how the team begins to fall apart with Sue refusing to stay on the sidelines anymore and Johnny disobeying orders to go and fly off to his girlfriend. It also incorporates Medusa into the team, setting up her eventual membership.

6. Fantastic Four Vol 1 120-123: Galactus Unleashed

Stan Lee’s last main story on the Fantastic Four and he tries to recreate the epicness of his greatest storyline to mixed results. While this Galactus tale isn’t unique by any standards, it is still a great story and actually has Galactus and the Fantastic Four trade blows with one another. First opening with the appearance of the mysterious Gabriel the Air-Walker who easily bests all who oppose him except for the Silver Surfer, the story reveals Galactus’s involvement who has returned to Earth to force the Silver Surfer to return as his herald. When he and the FF refuse, this leads to a major confrontation between them all with Galactus threatening to destroy the planet and Mr. Fantastic threatening to destroy his ship and stranding him. In addition, the army gets involved, demanding the FF hand the Surfer over but they still refuse, considering the Surfer to be a friend now. While it still retreads some of the old, this story still stands on its own as a great tale. Sadly, Stan Lee’s time on the Fantastic Four came to an end after this, writing one last story before moving on. But he left behind a true legacy that lasts to this day with truly fantastic stories.

5. Fantastic Four Vol 1 168-170: Power Man

After the Thing loses his powers and reverts back to regular-old Ben Grimm, the Fantastic Four need to find a temporary replacement for him. Enter: Luke Cage, the Power Man. In this story, Roy Thomas takes the opportunity to explore Ben’s dynamic on the team outside of his powers when he’s just a man and he quickly grows jealous, thinking his teammates want to replace him permanently, leading to a confrontation with Cage. And then the Puppet Master gets involved, forcing the Power Man to fight against the FF. While the action is pretty similar to other stories, what shines here is the focus on Ben Grimm as he tries to find his place on the team without his powers with Reed eventually revealing he was building a full-body exo-suit for him to wear on missions. While the change to human form was never going to last, it was still fun to see how long it would and the effects it had.

4. Marvel Two-in-One Vol 1 50: Remembrance of Things Past

John Byrne jumps on for this special 50th issue and delivers a special story for the ever-lovin’ blue-eyed Thing. While still trying to find a cure for his condition, the Thing learns that the latest serum won’t work on him now, but could work on him in his previous condition. With that knowledge, he decides to travel back in time and give the serum to his younger self. What follows is the normal, routine superhero battle between characters who don’t really know what’s going on. What makes it interesting is that it’s between the Thing and the Thing and John Byrne draws terrific action sequences as well as capturing great lines of dialogue that show he knows how to write this character. In the end, the Thing succeeds with the serum, but journeys back to realize that (as in Avengers: Endgame) changing the past doesn’t change his future, just creates another timeline. Still, he is pleased that he helped that other version of him and has also grown more comfortable in his body. Byrne’s work here is stellar delivering action, heart, and humor in spades, showing he clearly has what it takes and presenting a preview of the kind of work he’d bring to his Fantastic Four run.

3. Fantastic Four Vol 1 171-175: Counter-Earth Must Die

Close to the end of his run on the title, Roy Thomas decided to do his take on Galactus by having him decide to consume Counter-Earth instead. Counter-Earth is a second version of Earth created by the High Evolutionary to have a version of Earth with no superheroes or villains which was a major location in the Marvel Universe during the 70s. Normally, a storyline that starts with the arrival of a golden gorilla in a spaceship wouldn’t be considered one of the best, but the story quickly escalates from there, turning from King Kong to Armageddon as the FF once again find themselves facing off against Galactus who asks them to find him another suitable planet to consume or else he will proceed to destroy Counter-Earth. With the team divided and time running out, this really was the peak of Roy Thomas’s Fantastic Four run, having Galactus and High Evolutionary duel one another in an epic show of artwork and bring back some of the stranger characters of Lee’s run such as the mafia Skrulls, Torgo and his machine world, as well as the Impossible Man. Sadly, Thomas’s run ended shortly after this as he moved on to other things.

2. Fantastic Four Vol 1 196-200: At Long Last, Defeat. At Long Last, Victory.

Marv Wolfman takes over the comic here and decides to bring the team back together for their 200th issue to face off against their greatest enemy, Doctor Doom. There was a lot of build-up to this as Doom kidnapped the team while Mr. Fantastic tried to restore his powers after losing them earlier. While the story falls flat at times, what really works is Wolfman’s characterization of Mr. Fantastic, reminding readers why he is the leader and what makes him a hero, showing off his stretching abilities to the max and having him rescue his family almost single-handedly. Of course, this story wouldn’t have worked at all if Wolfman didn’t nail Doom’s character as well, but he did and then some, showing off the villain’s arrogance and lust for power that manages to distinguish from all other villains. Including a major battle with the Red Ghost and the mystery of Doom’s son, everything leads to the final fateful battle between Mr. Fantastic and Doctor Doom as these two rivals go head-to-head in the double-size 200th issue and Wolfman delivers in spades, constantly throwing in twists and turns to the battle to keep readers hooked as the titans duel to finally see who is better. For an anniversary issue, Wolfman knocked it out of the park and then some.

1. Fantastic Four Vol 1 204-214: In Final Battle

In his second major story arc of this run, Marv Wolfman goes full on space epic as he throws the FF into a battle between the last Xandarians and the invading Skrulls. But, in trying to save Xandar, the FF get captured (except for Human Torch who remained back on Earth) and are put on trial for crimes against the Skrull empire before getting zapped by an aging ray, effectively ensuring their deaths within a few days. However, Wolfman also brings back the characters from his Nova run as that comic was getting canceled, finishing off the ongoing story arcs there, especially major foe the Sphinx who draws power from the Xandarian supercomputer and attains godlike power. Now threatening Earth, the FF are forced to turn to the only being capable of stopping him: Galactus. Thus begins an epic showdown of titans as the two godlike beings duel for the earth while the FF are on their deathbeds, trying to find a way to survive. Throwing in the debut of new villain and Galactus herald Terrax the Tamer, this story was certainly the best of its time. Wolfman juggles a lot of different plot threads here and brings most of them home. He even gives Human Torch the spotlight by having him question his place on the team only to come through in the end. With epic action and spectacular artwork by Keith Pollard as well as the high stakes of the FF slowly dying over the course of the story, this saga has it all. Even a Human Torch/Spider-Man team-up which is always fun.

And that wraps up the Fantastic Four for the 70s. Thanks for reading and see you next time for the 80s.

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