Fantastic Four Omnibus Volume 1- 848 pages, Originally published 2005. Collects Fantastic Four #1-30 and Annual #1.
Here we are at the start of a new year, and nothing lingers from the previous year like the guilt of half-read novels and comics lying around, accusing me with their dogged corners and other make-shift bookmarks made of receipts and greeting cards. Instead of resolving to start exercising regularly or curing cancer, I’ve decided to finish every book I started last year before starting another.
One book that was on the ALMOST DONE list was Marvel Comics’ The Fantastic Four Omnibus Vol 1. I took a few hours today, hung-over and tired, and knocked it out. And then it knocked me out. Not literally, mind you (although one could render someone unconscious with its hefty 800+ pages and hardcover), but with its content.
It’s odd to think that the book that helped launch the modern Marvel age of comics has never again reached the level of attention and acclaim it had in its early years…forever eclipsed by Spider-Man, X-men, Hulk, and the Avengers in sales and popularity. An inauspicious fate for the book that by many historians’ reckoning single handedly revolutionized and revitalized the super-hero genre. But Marvel’s first family has always been a pleasant constant publication, proudly and prominently on comic racks for the last 40+ years. (That’s some aliteration Stan himself could be proud of.)
Coming of age in the 80’s, I never really identified with the FF, and preferred to read the more ‘hard-edged’ books like X-men or Batman. The FF always seemed to me like some odd artifact of how comics ‘used to be’ and not the way that they were now ‘supposed to be’ and definitely now how the future was looking.
Boy was I wrong. It took me wandering slowly and apathetically into adulthood to really appreciate the appeal of the family dynamic and sheer brilliance of what was established in those early years of FF with Stan and Jack at the helm. Sure there are dated elements…a good majority of the villains of the early issues spun out of a fear of communism, and Sue (Invisible Girl) Storm comes off as a fairly useless eternal-hostage. And let’s face it, Reed’s totally a dick to the team here…a LOT. All this is a far-cry from the polished concept that the FF has evolved into over the years, but it’s here in these early issues that the series really shines.
What is really suprising is just how much of EVERYTHING we know about the FF and a great portion of the Marvel Universe today is set in the first 30 issues collected here. Just about every recurring character and theme is evident-
Atlantean prince Namor get’s pissed at the surface world and tries to alternately take it over and hook up with Sue.
The Thing is a really great dude who alternately hates his rocky form and relishes in the power of it.
Superheroes can never meet each other with out having a totally awesome fight first.
Reed is an egghead who identifies with his machines more than his fellow man.
Skrulls are total jerks.
I could go on and on, but if you have the slightest grasp of the FF, you know all this. And that in itself presents a bit of a problem. From Stan and Jack’s last issue, #102, it seems that every subsequent creative team has been trapped by the greatness of the structures that had came before.
But is this really a bad thing? In my younger days, the FF seemed stale and played out, but now as an adult it appears fresh and revelatory. You could make the argument that new creative teams just re-tread and re-use the ideas set up in these old issues…each one wanting to do their version of the Galactus story, and their latest iteration of Dr. Doom’s world take over scheme. But in the face of the pure simple magic of these stories, wouldn’t any writer worth his salt want to take a crack at it in an act of homage and flattery-through-imitation? Even Issue 2’s throwaway aliens-of-the-month, the Skrulls were the instigators of this Summer’s Marvel event, Secret Invasion…A good 47 years after their 1st appearance.
As a comics reader, I had always wondered why the older crumudgeonly fans always complanied that today’s comics were nothing in the face of the older stories, and had often written them off as remembering things as better than they really were. And in almost every case, nostalgia is a powerful reality-suppresor, but in this case, the old grouches really, really were right. Any current fan of the FF or even comics in general owe it to themselves to read these classics, as it truly does inform almost everything that has come since.
Here’s a couple of highlights-
Issue #21- The villain that month was the Hate-Monger. Published in 1963, soon after the assassination of JFK, this is superheroics covering for a thinly-veiled call for social change. The Civil Rights movement of the time had caused a re-surgence in racial hatred and injustice…and the FF just HAPPEN to go up against a villain that looks a LITTLE bit like the local Grand Dragon. The Hate-Monger himself is revealed to be none other than public enemy #1 Adolf Hitler himself. Remember, this is ’63, not even 20 years since the end of WWII. And what better way to show how un-American the anti-civil rights movement of the KKK was than to (in this fictional four-color world) make it’s leader the face of evil around the world. Symbolically, this was truly brave writing for what was obstensibly a child’s publication. You can imagine how hard is was for 8 year old Billy-bob to be all right with Pappy’s nightly bed-sheet bedecked racist rides after watching the ever-loving blue eye’d Thing stomp a mudhole in Pappy’s comic-book counterpart.
Issue number 24 takes the spot as my 2nd favorite issue in this collection, as the FF are faced with a terrible menace- a child with reality warping powers.
This little cutie is stopped right before the plunges the Earth into the Sun, BUT not before he’s taken in by a gang of thieves who want to use him in a bank-heist. In what might be one of my favorite panels from any comic…EVER, they bribe this god-from-the-stars into the back of their car with candy. For reals.
Really, that guy could turn them inside out and burst their eyeballs into flame…but he just really wants an ice-cream.
Issue number 11, after a section of the FF answering your fan-mail directly TO you breaking the 4th wall a good 20+ years before Morrison ever got his hands on Animal Man (but a good 20 years after Bugs Bunny did the same), featured what proved to be a very unpopular character to the fans, at least according to Roy Thomas’ afterward to the Omnibus, The IMPOSSIBLE MAN. Now, against 48 year-old public opinion, this is my favorite issue of the collection because of the complete insanity of the Impossible Man. Again, we’re faced with an alien who could do whatever the heck he wanted via reality warping powers…but with more of a surrealist bent. By the end of the story, Reed stumbles upon the best way to rid the world of Imp-y is to just ignore him. And like an attention-starved Jim Carrey, if you ignore him, he’ll eventually turn into a rocket and fly away into space. (Actually, as I was writing this, I realized how much of a debt Carrey’s MASK owes to I.M. not just in hue, but hijinks.
But don’t take my word for it…you really should crack this tome open and soak it in yourself. It’s living proof that the FF lives up to its tagline, “The World’s Greatest Comics Magazine.”