First Published: October 1998
Contents: Fantastic Four #1 (November 1961) to #20 (November 1963), and Fantastic Four Annual #1 (1963)
Key Creator Credits: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Key First Appearances: Reed Richards/Mr. Fantastic, Susan Storm (Richards)/Invisible Girl, Johnny Storm/Human Torch, Ben Grimm/The Thing, Mole Man, Skrulls, the Baxter Building, Victor Von Doom/Doctor Doom, Alicia Masters, Phillip Masters/The Puppet Master, the Impossible Man, Willie Lumpkin, Ivan Kragoff/The Red Ghost, Super-Apes, Uatu/The Watcher, Mad Thinker, Awesome Android, Super Skrull, Rama-Tut, Owen Reece/Molecule Man, Krang
Story Continues In: Essential Fantastic Four Vol. 2
Overview: In a race to beat the communists to space, scientist Reed Richards leads his best friend, Ben Grimm; his girlfriend, Susan Storm; and her brother, Johnny Storm; in an unshielded rocket to the stars. Cosmic rays bombard their spacecraft, forcing the quartet to return to Earth. They soon discover that the cosmic rays have changed all of them. Reed’s body has become elastic, and takes the name of Mr. Fantastic. Susan now has the ability to disappear at will, and becomes the Invisible Girl. Johnny bursts into flames, and adopts the moniker of the Human Torch (a nod to a Golden Age hero). And Ben Grimm becomes a misshapen lump of clay, soon to become rock-like, and dubs himself The Thing. So begins the Fantastic Four!
The team quickly adopts matching uniforms, made out of “unstable molecules”, and take up residence in New York City’s Baxter Building. Another nod to Marvel’s Golden Age came in issue #4, as Johnny discovered Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner, sitting in a boarding house. (Lee and Kirby would complete their trip down Golden Age memory lane in Avengers #4, when the Sub-Mariner’s actions helped bring back Captain America, who everyone thought had perished at the end of World War II.)
Each month, a new villain would appear on the scene, and it would take the combined efforts of the Fantastic Four to halt the latest menace. From shape-changing Skrulls from outer-space to the Red Ghost and his Super-Apes in outer-space, and from the controlling mind of the Mad Thinker to the mind controlling of the Puppet Master, the Fantastic Four faced all challenges head on. Perhaps the greatest villain in Marvel Comics was introduced in issue #5, when the FF came face-to-face with Dr. Doom, monarch of Latveria, who wants nothing more in life than to exact his revenge on Richards and his family.
What makes this Essential?: This is the cornerstone of the Marvel Universe. If this title had not succeeded, we probably would not have seen Thor, Hulk, Iron Man, Spider-Man, the X-Men, and everyone else that came after the launch of the Fantastic Four. Consider these 21 comics as Marvel’s Declaration of Independence, that told the comic book marketplace that they could do the same books as DC, and they can do them better. The Marvel heroes are real people, with their own character faults and issues. They may bicker and fight, but in the end, they stand together to make things right. Maybe Lee and Kirby were borrowing the challenge issued by then President Kennedy who had proclaimed earlier in 1961 that the U.S. would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Lee and Kirby put the Fantastic Four on the moon by issue #13.
Footnotes: Even though Fantastic Four #1 was the birth of the Marvel Age of comics, Essential Fantastic Four Vol. 1 was the 11th Essential released by Marvel, nearly two years after the first edition hit bookshelves.
If you like this volume, try: Marvel Visionaries: Jack Kirby Volume 1. This is the first of two Kirby volumes in the Visionaries collection, with a scattering of Kirby’s Marvel work from the early 1940s to the late 1970s. Kirby’s early work on Captain America is showcased, along with an assortment of sci-fi and western stories. Other stories featured include the previously mentioned Avengers #4; an early Spider-Man back-up; a three-issue arc on Thor; and arguably Kirby’s best four-month stretch on any book of his entire career, Fantastic Four #48 to #51, featuring the debut of the Silver Surfer, Galactus, and “This Man… This Monster.”