As tough as I am on the Marvel Comics of today, and as much as they deserve it, they do come up with a good idea once in a blue moon. For example, I absolutely love their new Epic Collections. Epic Collections are large (400-500 page), color reprints of old comics. They are a nice thick chunk of comics goodness. Since Marvel can’t do anything 100% right, they have been printing the collections wildly out of order, sometimes as late as volume 10 or 17 of a series coming out first. They finally got around to printing the #1 volumes of some of their classic series and I’ve been snapping them up like Hungry Hungry Hippos.
The first such collection I had the pleasure of reading is the Fantastic Four Epic Collection Volume 1. This reprints the seminal FF issues #1-18 from 1961-62 (two years before I was born). I’ve read a lot of the early issues of the Marvel Universe, but nowhere near all of them. The chance to read how it all started, in order, in color, on crisp white paper is a rare treat. Hats off to Marvel for thinking of it. I was a mite concerned that these stories may turn out to be lacking; that they wouldn’t live up to the golden glow of my childhood memories. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Of course these tales don’t have the sophistication of modern comics; no, in many ways they’re better. Turns out Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were geniuses from the get-go.
Fantastic Four #1 tells the group’s origin story, with the lovely and dated “beat the Commies into space” theme. The second half of that first issue introduces the villain Mole Man and his underground kingdom. The seeds of everything to come are here; Reed’s brainy aloofness, Ben’s anger and heartbreak, Sue’s motherly support of the team and Johnny’s humor relief. It is incredibly fun to see the creators and characters getting more comfortable in their skins as the series progresses. The group doesn’t even have uniforms until issue #3. Ben keeps changing back to his human self, then back into the Thing, compounding his bad attitude and disappointment. Issue #3 also introduces the Fantasticar and a full body uniform for Ben—this may have been the one and only time it was used.
Issue #4 introduces WWII character Namor the Sub-Mariner into modern Marvel continuity in one of the most memorable scenes in comics history. Continuing their red-hot streak, Lee & Kirby introduce the most famous and iconic comic book villain of all time in Issue #5, Victor Von Doom. It is also revealed in this ish that there are Fantastic Four comic books in the Marvel Universe. Apparently in the Marvel Universe, Reed Richards relates the team’s true adventures to Marvel Comics, and Lee & Kirby act as “stenographers” of a sort. Brilliant idea. Now totally on fire, Lee & Kirby have the first super-villain team-up in Issue #6. Namor and Doom work together to capture the FF, and in a breathtaking Kirby art scene, Doom’s technology actually lifts the team’s NY headquarters, the Baxter Building, into orbit. Issue #6 also introduces key Marvel concepts such as the FF’s uniforms being made out of “unstable molecules” and the Yancy Street Gang, who make life extra-miserable for the Thing.
Issue #10 is a fun body-switch story where Dr. Doom takes over Reed’s body and traps Reed’s mind in his. With a maniacal sneer, Doom/Reed tries to destroy the team from within. He completely underestimates Reed’s will and intellect, as he will continue to do for at least the next 50 years. Of course Issue #11 introduces the Impossible Man, a comedic treat that apparently Lee got a lot of guff for at the time. I’m not sure why, the story was hilarious and absolutely charming. Issue #12 was one of the first Marvel hero team-ups, as the FF attempt to capture the Hulk for the army. I remember reading this as a kid and being totally disappointed that the Thing and the Hulk didn’t throw down and have a major, city destroying battle. Those matches would have to come later. Luckily, come they did. In Issue #15, Reed faces another foe who rivals his intellect; the Mad Thinker (and his Android!). It’s a battle of wits until Reed humiliatingly puts the Thinker in his place. It’s great to see the Thinker strut and stutter and refuse to believe he’s been outwitted.
The alien, shape-changing Skrulls (introduced in FF #2) return in Issue #18, with their newest genetic experiment, the Super-Skrull! The Super-Skrull has all of the powers of the Fantastic Four and a really superior attitude, so he should easily defeat the FF, right? Well, one would think so. Also by now Ben Grimm is much more endearing and wisecracking, on his way to becoming the Thing we all know and love today.
These tales lived up to and surpassed every expectation I had of them. They nearly burst with energy and creativity. I had to remember while reading them that nothing like this had ever been done in comics before up to this point. A team bickering amongst themselves? The love interest who can’t decide between the lead and a villain? (Sue had a crush on Namor for years before she finally chose Reed, and is not shy about saying so). These stories invented internal continuity from one story to the next and are building the Marvel Universe one comic at a time. Reading them was pure pleasure, not to mention it was like looking through a time machine into the Cold War 1960s. I’m ready for Volume 2 next (not Volume 12)—Marvel, could you get on that, please?
Rating: ***** out of 5 stars