21 May 2008

"The Essential Fantastic Four, Vol. 1" by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby

The Essential Fantastic Four, Volume 1
Written by: Stan Lee

Art by: Jack Kirby

The Essential Fantastic Four, Vol. 1 collects the first twenty issues of Fantastic Four, along with Fantastic Four Annual 1, all originally published between 1962 and 1963, all written by Stan Lee and pencilled by Jack Kirby. To make the volume cost-efficient for Marvel Comics, the artwork has only been republished in black and white, cheating us of the doubtless brilliant colors that made Kirby's pencils so awesome to readers forty years ago. Because Kirby's pencils were meant to be colored, the text balloons and artwork become taxing on the reader; it is entirely unlike reading a volume that was meant to be published in black & white, such as Jeff Smith's Bone or Frank Miller's Sin City.

One thing that becomes apparent while reading this collection is that Lee and Kirby were not afraid to go back to the well often. Over half the collected twenty-one issues feature either Dr. Doom or Namor, the Sub-Mariner; a couple of issues feature both. Ben Grimm (a.k.a. "The Thing") frequently is transformed back to his human self, only to revert back and start again his ranting of how much he loathes Reed Richards for talking him into going into space in the first place. Modern day readers will either laugh or cringe when Lee focuses any attention on Sue Storm, who busies herself with cleaning and shopping, apologizing for not being very useful in combat situations and generally representing the docile female stereotype of the era.

Still, under all that are some genuinely original story ideas. Each villain, be it the Mole Man or the Puppet Master, Dr. Doom or Namor, has his own clear, understandable motivation for confronting the Fantastic Four. Each of the heroic quartet has his or her own ambitions and ideas about what to do with his or her powers, and although each issue is resolved by Reed Richards formulating a brilliant and hasty plan of action, it always seems a little fresh. Of course, these ideas have been gone back to a thousand times over since they were first employed, but there is something to be said for reading them in their original context. Watch Dr. Doom launch the Baxter Building into space...the first time! Watch the FF stymied by the Skrulls...the first time!

It's all very fun, and the only real complaint is that the black & white treatment makes reading it something of a chore. The artwork isn't clean enough for a black & white treatment, and it's an outright shame, too. Reading the work of such masters as Lee & Kirby as they establish Marvel Comics should be a thorough joy, and not the kind of thing that a reader sets down frequently to rest his eyes.

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