I Read FANTASTIC FOUR (1961 to 2023) — Here’s What I Learned

Marvel’s First Family — the Fantastic Four — ushered in the “Marvel Age” of comics. They had ties all the way back to the publisher’s first superpowered beings, the android Jim Hammond (AKA the Human Torch) and Namor the Submariner, bridging a gap of over 20 years. But they were also new in so many ways. Unlike the idyllic Justice League, they were constantly bickering. They were the first superhero team to seem entirely human in their interactions. They didn’t always get along but they were family.

There’s been a dozen or so runs of the Fantastic Four, spanning over 700 issues. Plenty of those runs have gotten lots of attention — yet some are never even mentioned despite being downright brilliant in their execution. This tension between the old and new, this pull between the roots of Marvel and the frontlines of new discovery, has always been a defining factor of the Four and any new creative team has had to grapple with this balance. While many would say that a return to the old ways of doing things is always what makes for good FF material — John Byrne’s legendary run, for instance, begins with an arc called “Back to Basics” — I’d argue that the most game-changing creators took the biggest liberties (including Byrne). From Lee and Kirby to Hickman and Eaglesham, no writer/artist team was effectively memorable without being willing to switch some things around.

But making changes isn’t the only thing that makes for a good Fantastic Four run. The changes only mattered, they only left any kind of mark, if they were tied to the heart of the story and if they got us emotionally invested in the human inside each character. Every pitfall and misstep comes about when a creative team thinks nostalgia or novelty are enough reason for a reader to be invested, without the emotional substance to back it up.

But let’s get specific. I’d like to talk about some of the Fantastic Four runs that stuck with me and tell you what made them so darn memorable.

(Quick note on this article: My reading did not include extra-canonical Fantastic Four stories like Life Story1234, or Full Circle. I stayed mostly within the main title, except for any extra reading required to give me more context.)

Lee/Kirby: Big Universe — Little People

There’s an inherent tension to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s creations. They seem to hate each other half the time, yet they’d die for one another. Their struggles go from the hysterical to the deadly serious in the space of only a couple of panels. But one of the biggest juxtapositions Lee and Kirby play with is the idea of these little people in a huge universe.

The Fantastic Four are often at the mercy of forces and powers beyond their own. Even their conception as a team is characterized by nature being greater than they could have expected: the cosmic rays their rocket flies through are more powerful than even the brilliant Reed Richards had prepared for. At other times, they’re often seen standing before giant beings, like the Watcher or Galactus, who operate on levels beyond human intellect. Their most interesting issues see them thrown into whole new planes of reality like the Micro-verse and the Negative Zone. And it’s in the Negative Zone that we get a single image that summarizes the whole mission statement of Lee and Kirby’s creation.

In Fantastic Four #51, we get a full page of Reed Richards, drifting through the vast expanse of the Negative Zone. Kirby, through a collage of images, creates a startling, colorful, and mysterious cosmos. Reed, baffled by what he sees, calls it “the crossroads of infinity — the junction to everywhere!” He’s a little man in a big, scary, yet beautiful universe. He’s going where no man has ever been before, discovering things he can barely describe. And yet, by the next issue, he’s back to keeping Ben and Johnny from tearing each other’s heads off over petty pranks and name-calling. Lee and Kirby know that it’s the individual characters and their personalities that makes this series work. The big otherworldly concepts are only interesting if we’re seeing it through their eyes.

John Byrne: The Brilliant “Back to Basics” Con

Writer and artist John Byrne understood that it was the characters that drove this story forward. And while he titled his first arc “Back to Basics” that was all really just one brilliant con. He immediately began changing things. The first villain that the Four face in Byrne’s run might be a familiar face — the dastardly alchemist Diablo — but he’s evolved so much since we last saw him. He has become upgraded both in his bitterness and his power. And that’s just the first of many big changes. Ben Grimm, the ever-loving blue-eyed Thing, leaves the team and is replaced by Jennifer Walters, AKA She-Hulk. The Invisible Girl becomes a twisted version of herself — the evil Malice — and her first act after regaining control is to change her moniker to that of the Invisible Woman. Franklin instantaneously grows up into an adult and then is reverted to a child once more. The list goes on…

But every change is rooted in the development of each character. Byrne makes us question whether Ben really wants to be cured of being the Thing or whether it’s his own insecurities that make him feel he deserves to live as a monster. Byrne ties Sue’s change into Malice and subsequent transformation into the Invisible Woman to her bitter struggle with feeling like she’s ignored and unappreciated simply because she’s seen as a girl. Even when the team goes into places like the ever-mysterious Negative Zone, we’re focused more on how these new discoveries are changing them as people than we are the discoveries themselves. Byrne’s whole run changes everything. When he says he’s going “Back to Basics,” what he really means is he’s cutting right to the intimate and personal dynamics that make this series so great.

Interlude: Too Many to Count — The Ever-Changing Four

There have been so many brilliant runs on the Fantastic Four that if I wrote a deep-dive into each, I’d really never finish writing. So let’s knock out a few in a paragraph each before we get to Hickman and Eaglesham’s mammoth of a series:

Walter Simonson’s run is so much fun. Ben Grimm and Sharon Ventura (the She-Thing) are the emotional core of this series. They bring so much humanity and intimacy to Simonson’s larger-than-life premises. But Simonson also plays with satire, deliberately omitting moments of down-to-earthedness in favor of the flashy, splashy, writing that comics fans think they want. This satire culminated in the brilliant “New Fantastic Four” issues which had Wolverine, Spider-Man, Ghost Rider, and the Hulk take over for the team and boasted “the World’s Most Exploitative Cameo.” Simonson was writing as much about the medium of comics itself as he was the characters.

Tom DeFalco and Paul Ryan had a five year run on the series that was as 90’s as it gets. Sue switched out her classic uniform for one that showed more cleavage, Ben Grimm carried a giant gun around with him, and there were jackets, vests, and pockets galore. But for all its 90’s kitsch, DeFalco and Ryan also proved that they were longtime fans of the group. They tied together loose threads from old runs and made sense of odd choices by previous creative teams. One particular development with Johnny and Alicia makes so much sense for the characters that it becomes hard to believe it wasn’t planned all along. That’s what DeFalco and Ryan did. They mined the Four’s history for opportunities to tell stories that just made sense.

Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo are also one of the teams people discuss most when recommending the Fantastic Four to people. There’s a simplicity to this run that makes it a brilliant starting place for new readers. And while there are plenty of amazing developments — Doctor Doom becomes a Satanic Sorcerer, the Fantastic Four fight a living equation, and they even meet God — it’s the small moments that truly shine. In the midst of incredible circumstances, it’s when things get personal that you’ll feel the tears welling up in your eyes.

J. Michael Straczynski and Michael McKone begin a Fantastic Four run that seems to be woefully ignored. It really is one of my favorite interpretations of the team. Straczynski understands these characters on a level that few do and McKone’s art is epic yet entirely intimate at the same time. This run takes us all the way back to the beginning — which isn’t rare for runs on Fantastic Four, nearly every team takes a crack at retelling the famous origin story — but this is the first time it really feels earned and like it brings something new to the table. Truly an unforgettable run!

Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch waste no time in bringing their own brand into the mix. They are unabashedly their own style and it is a ton of fun. The major themes we see at play are the tension between brand new worlds and old flames. There is literally another earth that features — called Nu Earth — but it’s the ties the architects of this new planet have to the Four that create the stakes. Millar and Hitch do a lot of worldbuilding — no pun intended — but it’s the relationship dynamics that’ll get you hooked.

Hickman: The Universe is Your Oyster

A lot of people refer to Jonathan Hickman’s run on Fantastic Four — which kicked off with artist Dale Eaglesham — as the “best run.” It gets a whole lot of hype for some reason… and that reason is because it is the best run.

As much as the contrarian in me wanted to poke holes in what Hickman was doing, I couldn’t help but fall in love with this amazing take on Marvel’s First Family. In many ways, Hickman goes really, really big. He introduces the Council of Reeds, which expands our story into the multiverse, and then invents the Future Foundation, which splits the title into two books and takes its characters all throughout the galaxy. But, just like Lee and Kirby, Hickman also goes small. The things that drive Reed Richards’ tireless hunger for discovery are his memories of his father and his desire to be enough. The Future Foundation is populated by geniuses who are also children, excitedly making sense of the world around them.

There’s even a stunning moment where one of our characters comes face to face with a major villain. What they’re met with isn’t the dastardly monologue they were expecting. Instead, the villain quietly explains how tired they are and how they wish this could all just be over. Hickman’s culmination to this series (and his culmination to his Avengers and New Avengers books) takes place in the unbeatable Secret Wars from 2015. His every creative choice seems to be rooted in a character’s deep-seated desire for something. You could call this run an exploration of the Marvel Universe or a study of the soul of Reed Richards — both are accurate.

It’s Not Over Yet

While Hickman is probably the pinnacle of Fantastic Four comics, there have been plenty of wonderful runs since. James Robinson and Leonard Kirk’s “Fall of the Fantastic Four” arc (which actually takes place between Hickman’s run and Secret Wars) uses time jumps and rifts in the team to amazing effect, Dan Slott and Sara Pichelli’s tenure dove into what it meant for this group to really be a family, and Ryan North and Iban Coello have begun a story where scientific order struggles to make sense of the chaotic world around us.

The Fantastic Four are at the very heart of the Marvel Universe. They’re a group that has endured for over 60 years and through more than 700 issues. Every creative team brings something new to the Four, but all of the best runs understand that even the most incredible ideas only work when they’re tied to who these characters are at their core.

Zac Owens
Zac Owens
I'm a world traveler. I've lived in Australia, Canada, Tanzania, Kenya, and the United States. I studied theology in Switzerland and did humanitarian work in Egypt. I first got into the medium through DC Comics, but now I read everything under the sun. Some of my favorite works include HELLBOY, FRIDAY, ON A SUNBEAM and THE GOON. I currently live in Reykjavik, Iceland. That is, until my Green Lantern ring comes in...