Marvel Masterworks: Fantastic Four vol. 3
Written & Illustrated by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Published by Marvel Comics
Man, I really appreciate that Marvel’s putting these old classic Marvel titles in affordable, quality editions. I appreciate why people like getting a giant chunk of story in the Essential or Showcase format, but I strongly prefer a color edition that represents the work as it was intended to be seen (“intended to be seen” is a loaded phrase, I admit, but the approach to the line work does change when the artist expects the work to be seen in black and white). So to my mind, Essential equals unacceptable, and the traditional hardcover Marvel Masterworks/Archive is, with very, very few exceptions (see Eisner, Will’s The Spirit), beyond what I’m willing to spend. But $25 for eleven issues of classic Stan n’ Jack, that’s a good deal and as long as Marvel has Stan n’ Jack Fantastic Four or Thor issues to publish, or Stan n’ Steve Spideys, I’m aboard.
As for this, the collected edition of the second ten regular issues and the first annual, Marvel Masterworks: Fantastic Four vol. 2 is – summing this up is harder than I expected; let’s say – intriguing. If you’ve read any amount of Silver Age comics, particularly DC stuff, you can really see why these issues blew people’s minds. The taunting between Ben and Johnny is extremely subversive in comparison to anything that had been done before, and the characters’ ability to exhibit less-than-heroic traits gave them a palpable humanity rarely shown before in adventure comics.
Seen from today’s context, all of that humanity seems a little quaint, sometimes overwritten, but that’s what happens when everybody since Stan Lee has taken Stan’s lessons and honed the rough edges off.
Personally, I miss the edges, though. Although they infused the series with a sense of soap opera humanity like that superhero comics hadn’t previous displayed, Lee and Kirby never forgot how fun superhero comics should be. The banter is lively, yes, but better yet, the plots are still outrageous. The Impossible Man, a green sprite from the planet Popup, shows up on Earth, causing insane chaos in the name of intergalactic vacationing, and he’s defeated by ignoring him until he’s sufficiently bored to return home. Ridiculous. Yet totally, totally awesome. It’s not that I necessarily adore the story or hope for more Impossible Man comics, but I appreciate that Lee and Kirby are open to a balance of silliness, drama, comedy and tragedy. Other stories have the FF battling Dr. Doom in the microverse, time traveling to ancient Egypt to possibly cure Alicia Masters’ blindness, and sparring with the Atlantean army on the streets of New York and beneath the Atlantic.
The verve and spontaneity of plot is still there, balanced and enhanced by the more rounded (yet still stylized) characterization. I can’t help but feel that most superheroes today, and it’s a huge reason why I favor rebooting and legacy characters, have sort of slipped into their slot and don’t offer the surprises that these old comics provided with regularity. Stan and Jack provided a formula (as did the crew at DC at the time), and that formula’s been reduced to plug and play. More violent and with better production, but essentially interchangeable.
To regress back to the point, Marvel Masterworks: Fantastic Four vol. 2 is pretty entertaining stuff. I totally dig Jack Kirby’s work; the more angular, more bombastic 70s work is really my preference, but his work is still very, very strong here. The illustrations are still stylized, but not as excessively so as later work. There is a quality of naturalism to the pages. Dick Ayers inks most of the book (and what he doesn’t ink, a meeting with Spider-Man, is handled by Steve Ditko), so Jack’s in able hands. The panel and page compositions are intact and gorgeous, and the color reconstruction doesn’t try to overwhelm the pages.
The stories have some clunk and not necessarily a whole lot of subtlety, but the early Stan Lee/Jack Kirby Fantastic Four run remains one of the most influential, deservedly so, comics of all time. The run will get much sharper in later issues, but even here it manages to at least entertain. It’s good, fun, escapist entertainment, and I’m glad Marvel is making it available in affordable, attractive editions. Marvel Masterworks: Fantastic Four vol. 2 is a treat for anybody interested in good comics and the development of same.