The Marvel Universe began with Fantastic Four #1 back in 1961. In 2015 it’s fueling the film output of three separate studios and ruling comic and book stores all over creation. Ironically, the Fantastic Four, the heroes that began the world’s love affair with all things Marvel, is currently the least represented major Marvel property.
The two films that were released in the mid-2000s are easily forgotten, there is no animated series airing on Disney and, since the film rights are locked up at Fox and the new movie is underperforming at the box office, there is no chance of the Fantastic Four or any of their huge supporting cast appearing in any of the Marvel live-action television properties. Unless Marvel and Fox strike a deal…
But the Fantastic Four was the spark that ignited the Marvel Age of Comics and it deserves to be part of the modern love affair with Marvel’s greatest heroes.
Here is a look at the best creators and most memorable eras that made up the history of the Fantastic Four, a history that is possibly the most fascinating of all Marvel properties.
Fantastic Four #1-103 (1961-1970)
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
In an era where creative teams barely last a whole story arc, it’s hard to imagine two creators last over one hundred issues on a single title. From the Fantastic Four’s first encounters with the Skrulls, to the reintroduction of Atlantis, to the coming of Dr. Doom, every single issue added something to this new shared universe, fictional geographies that acted as perpetual story engines with four flawed characters as the centerpieces of the action. In the first ten issues of FF alone, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby introduced the team, had them face off against their first foe (the Mole Man), brought Sub-Mariner back to comics as the team’s first arch villain, introduced Dr. Doom (arguably the greatest villain in comic book history), and had the team face off against the Puppet Master for the first time.
Throughout this run, Jack Kirby practically reinvented the language of comics with every successive panel, defying and breaking preconceived ideas of what was possible on the comics page. Almost fifty issues in, and Lee and Kirby were just getting started, With the Frightful Four’s Medusa as the starting point, the duo introduced the Inhumans, a race of super-powered aliens that lived in secret on the Earth. The motif of a hidden civilization of godlike beings is something Kirby would return to again and again throughout his career, and fans got to witness Jack’s acumen at civilization construction first hand.
Stan and Jack’s finest hour remains Fantastic Four #48-50, the introduction of Galactus and the Silver Surfer. Comics just did not come this big at the time. Suddenly, the Marvel Universe seemed endless in scope, a place that contained primal forces of creation and destruction. Lee stuck around for about twelve more issues after Kirby departed making the length of his run even more mind blowing, but it was Lee’s time on the FF with Kirby that set the foundations for the Marvel Universe.
Fantastic Four #164-183 (1975-1977)
Roy Thomas and George Perez, Rich Buckler, John Buscema, Ron Wilson
Roy Thomas’ legendary run began with an issue that saw the return of a Golden Age Marvel character: Marvel Boy. Thomas’ new take saw the nearly forgotten character from yesteryear going insane and taking the new name, the Crusader. Thomas is at this best while exploring the forgotten past characters of a comic company and these issues were no different, adding a tragic element to a once innocent character.
Aided by George Perez, Thomas’s issues are pure back issue gems that led to the introduction of Quasar. Following The Crusader epic, Perez got to do his version of the Thing/Hulk feud in Fantastic Four #166, a truly powerful sight to behold. With Perez on board, Thomas hit his creative stride on the FF after a forgettable earlier run.
Rich Buckler returned to the Fantastic Four in #168 which saw a powerless Ben Grimm replaced by Luke Cage. George Perez returned two issues later to continue the Cage storyline as the book kept readers guessing and doing the unexpected like Ben Grimm wearing a Thing exo-suit, a giant, yellow, glowing gorilla named Gorr (because what else would you name a giant, yellow, glowing gorilla?).
Taking a break, Perez gave way to John Buscema in a story featuring the Thor villain, the Destroyer along with Galactus, that was just about as awesome as it sounds with Galactus attempts to devour the counter-Earth of the High Evolutionary.
The creative team took myriad aspects of old Lee and Kirby concepts and mashed them together to great effect. Perez returned after the Galactus story with a palate cleansing Impossible Man story. Not bad when a writer like Roy Thomas has a rotating art team of George Perez and John Buscema! Thomas was a master at delving deeper into the worlds and concepts established previously by Lee and Kirby, and with Perez and Buscema on board, the Marvel Universe and the world of the FF never seemed bigger.
Fantastic Four #209-219 (1979-1980)
Marv Wolfman and John Byrne with Bill Mantlo
John Byrne had a style that made the worlds he created just seem bigger, like his characters and scenes were barley continued in a simple comic. Nowhere was this more evident than in Byrne’s work on the FF which began in issue #209. The only thing that seemed special about this issue was that it introduced the reviled HERBIE, the robot nuisance that replaced the Human Torch in the Hanna Barbera Fantastic Four cartoon.
The duo continued their cosmic opus with more exploration into the Skrulls, the expansion of the Nova Corps, and the return of Terrax, all looking better than ever before thanks to the power of Byrne’s art.
Fantastic Four #220-221,233-293
John Byrne (1980-1986)
After an interlude with Doug Moench and Bill Sienkiewicz, the Byrne era began. From his first issue featuring the return of the Sub-Mariner, Byrne made every issue burst with energy. His characters leaped off the pages and, after a few years of sub-par FF runs, the great days of the bantering foursome plagued by human foibles had returned. Byrne turned a new and very modern lens on the world of Kirby and Lee and stripped each character and concept down to their core foundations for a new generation of readers.
With issue #232, Byrne began in earnest with the return of Diablo. Byrne turned the villain from forgotten also-ran into an ominous John Dee like figure that seemed like a real threat for the first time. Byrne would not stop with Diablo, working his same magic on Ego, and then finally, reimagining Doctor Doom for modern comic readers.
Ideas flew fast and furious issue after issue, from the first on-panel appearance of Aunt Petunia Grimm to the introduction of Frankie Raye as Nova, the soon to be new herald of Galactus. Byrne explored Franklin Richards, who seemed innocent and harmless, as a future powerhouse in the Marvel Universe. Like Days of Future Past, these Franklin stories gave readers a sense that the Marvel Universe would continue into the future and be a much different place than readers were experiencing at that time.
Fantastic Four #250-251 saw the X-Men guest star to help the FF take on Gladiator and the Imperial Guard. Fans who want to see how potent comics could be should seek out these issues. This was followed by Byrne’s exploration into the Negative Zone as each issue continued to be a perfectly prepared dessert for the eyeballs, which saw Annihilus become an A list threat.
Byrne didn’t rest after the Negative Zone as he had Galactus devour the home world of the Skrulls. These ideas are still being felt in the Marvel Universe today. Byrne excelled in the unexpected as he replaced the Thing with She-Hulk when Ben Grimm was off fighting the Secret War. She-Hulk added a new dynamic to the book as Byrne’s unparalleled run on the book continued.
That isn’t to say that the run wasn’t without is warts (Bondage Sue Storm, John? Malice? Really?) but the hits greatly outnumbered the misses. The book greatly affected other titles as well as Fantastic Four #286 (co-written by Chris Claremont) saw the return of Jean Grey, a huge event that would affect the X Universe for decades. The Byrne era ended with a whimper in a pretty, no-frills issue guest starring the West Coast Avengers, but the team and the expectations readers had for the book were forever changed.
Fantastic Four #329-355 (1989-1991)
Walt Simonson, Rich Buckler, Ron Lim, and Art Adams
With Fantastic Four #329 Walt Simonson came on board. His first story was a return to greatness for the FF as the Acts of Vengeance hit the Marvel universe like a ten ton hammer. The classic FF were back under the watchful eye of an energetic and motivated creator. Simonson’s run was defined by the return of the FF as the explorers into the unknown.
With all the high concepts, Simonson never lost his sense of fun. Nowhere was this more evident than the classic three issue arc, drawn by Art Adams, where the original FF was lost and replaced by a “new Fantastic Four” of Spider-Man, Hulk, Wolverine, and Ghost Rider. The story was a celebration of ’90s excess, and no one did it better.
Fantastic Four #60-71, 501-526 (Marvel went back to the original numbering during the run) (2001-2006)
Mark Waid, Mark Wieringo, Casey Jones, Howard Porter, with Karl Kesel
Loving Silver Age tributes were the order of the day when Mark Waid took over the Fantastic Four writing duties, but Waid, aided by the late, great Mike Wieringo, reminded fans why they loved Marvel’s legendary foursome, and why these were the characters that ignited the Marvel generation.
Despite banging heads with outgoing Marvel president Bill Jemas, Waid had the right balance of pathos, humor, heroic drama, and over the top action that defined the team for generations. Weiringo channeled Kirby while maintaining his own distinct style to create one of the most beloved comic runs of the early 21st century. Karl Kesel would do infrequent fill-ins that kept Waid’s tone and story structure.
If fans want to see just how perfect the FF can be, seek these books out. One story featured Jack Kirby as, basically, God…what else do you need to know?
Fantastic Four #542-553 (2007-2008)
Dwayne McDuffie, Mike Mckone, Paul Pelletier
After a disappointingly mundane run by the usually solid J. Michael Straczynski, the late, great Dwayne McDuffie crafted an all too brief Fantastic Four era that could be used as a textbook on how to get the FF right. McDuffie guided the FF through Marvel’s Civil War and Initiative eras and never missed a beat. His stories were fun, personal, and huge.
These issues stand for the greatness comic fans lost when McDuffie passed. Sandwiched between big name creators, McDuffie’s run has kind of been forgotten, but it shouldn’t be, as he presented some truly great Black Panther and Silver Surfer stories while reminding fans how much fun the FF can be. If given a longer run on the FF, it can be said with confidence that McDuffie’s imagination and his penchant for pitch perfect characterization combined with McKone’s art would have made this era unforgettable and legendary. As it was, McDuffie and McKone briefly shined as they gave fandom an eleven issue gift that should never be forgotten.
Fantastic Four #554-569 (2008-2009)
Mark Millar, Bryan Hitch, Stuart Immomen
Some fans were concerned when it was announced the team behind The Ultimates would be taking over Fantastic Four. Millar and Hitch were known for their ultra-cheeky stories with R-rated flavor and almost mean spirited sarcasm, but their FF was pure fun, fantasy driven, cinematic dramas that spotlighted both creators’ unique skill sets.
Mark Millar remained unusually restrained and told very cool stories, including introducing the character of the Marquis of Death, a character so evil even Dr. Doom kneels before him. Millar is known for his get in and get out, fast paced summer blockbuster like stories, and his run on FF was one of his best thanks to his reverence for the characters.
Fantastic Four #570-588, FF 1-23 (2009-2013)
Jonathan Hickman, Dave Eaglesham, Nick Dragota, Steve Epting
Jonathan Hickman’s run was so experimental, so huge, that each issue was a thread in a giant tapestry that fans could not view until the whole thing was finished. Concepts and new ideas filled the pages as fans were forced to endure the dramatic death of Johnny Storm, an event that led to the formation of the Future Foundation. For years, the FF operated under the illusion of change, with the status quo always returning, but not under Hickman.
During the run, a ton of new kids joined the FF’s school, Dr. Doom and Spider-Man joined the team, and new cosmic ideas were introduced that would affect the Marvel Universe moving forward. Many cosmic elements introduced during these issues currently inform many of Marvel’s cosmic books like Guardians of the Galaxy and the Infinity crossover. Just like Stan and Jack, ideas formed in the pages of Fantastic Four end up encompassing the rest of Marvel, and making the shared universe a truly fantastic place.
This article originally ran in 2014. Want more? In our latest podcast, we discuss the new Fantastic Four film…