The Fantastic Four is one of Marvel’s most iconic titles. A good part of the lore of the Marvel Universe was laid out in the pages of early FF issues, written and drawn by legendary names like Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and John Bryne at their best, laying the foundation for and telling stories in a universe that has captivated the minds of comic readers for generations.
There has always been a high bar when it comes to the Fantastic Four, and it’s a title that deserves to be treated with respect. The title has had some amazing talented creative teams in recent years as well, with writers like Jonathan Hickman and Mark Waid at their head, who have been able to work their magic on it and create some truly meaningful and infinitely re-readable stories. While there have been some great successes, it’s unfortunate that it’s such a hard title to get right. It’s a bit tricky in that it’s a book unlike any other on the wall at the comic book store.
Because the comic is about a loving, and oftentimes dysfunctional, family that mixes superheroics with coming-of-age stories with family dynamics, it’s not an easy balance to strike, especially with an ever-expanding roster. Not only is the balance hard to strike, but because of the set-up itself, it is often dismissed as being a bit too wholesome, or not edgy or cool enough of a title.
Certainly, it’s a title that many fans share a similar story of picking it up and adoring it at an early age but growing out of later and moving on to other titles. It usually takes the draw of a heavy weight writer to get readers to come back for more, but when a creative team gets it right, it’s easily one of the most rewarding titles to read. Not only that, but the stories told within its pages are usually some of the most compelling that often send out ripples throughout the Marvel Universe and leave a treasure trove of ideas for other writers to explore in all the other titles.
At its heart though, like any comic book team, the story is about the family dynamic, so how “right” an issue of the Fantastic Four feels is often owing to how well a writer can get the characterization down and handle the play between the characters. How Johnny is reckless and self-absorbed and how much his powers are a part of that; how Ben deals with both his perception of himself and how others perceive him; how Reed struggles with saving the world and using his intellect for the good of humanity while trying to be a good father and husband; how Susan is more than just a mother or wife; how no matter what happens they’re always a family in the end cuts to the heart of the comic. For me, that’s been the hook from when I first started reading comics, when it was the first title I ever started collecting, and it still is.
So the first issue in this volume, which opens up with Susan Storm telling us that the Fantastic Four is no more, is a big hook that cuts to the heart and importance of the comic. It’s a murder mystery, and while perhaps a bit more bleak than what fans are used to, it’s just the first step in what becomes a non-stop, action-packed, just plain fun thrill ride of a comic.
One of the best parts of picking up a trade paperback is being able to get a chunk of the story all at once and being able to read it back-to-back. While some might say the first issue is a bit sparse in the characterization department, James Robinson devotes the page space to setting up the mystery behind the team being torn apart and the issue ends up none the worse for wear for it, especially with Leonard Kirk’s utterly fantastic artwork. Just looking at the cover, we know that something is different because of the team’s new costume, which is a new red design instead of the traditional blue, (for which there is a reason, but you’ll need to read even farther than the first volume takes us) but it’s not until you really delve into it that you really start to see how great Robinson’s writing is.
The first volume collects issues #1 through #5, but having picked them up religiously every month, I can tell you that the issues to date have also been an amazingly well-handled balancing act that Robinson handles with all the finesse he’s shown on his work over at DC. He satisfies the long-time fans and handles iconic villains and characters with deference, while at the same time managing to give everything its own flair before passing it on to Kirk, who puts down some of the best artwork I’ve seen on the title in a long time.
All the while, the mystery comes to a boil in the background, with mysterious figures plotting in the background, sinister villains stepping into the light to be seen from different angles, and a climatic extra-sized fifth issue that closes out the volume with some of the most satisfying history and characterization of the Fantastic Four I’ve ever read. The team ends up under a microscope and Kirk is joined by a slew of guest artists that summarize classic tales in a few pages (in which you can be sure you’ll find at least a few of your favorite FF moments!). It’s a great way to both pay homage and indulge long-time readers and catch new readers up on some of the team’s colorful history.
When all is said and done, I’d bet good money that you’ll be checking for when the second volume hits, as the first five issues, as fun and satisfying as they are, only scratch the surface of some of the intriguing developments that are so much more to come! The five-issue ride the first volume takes us on is more than worth the price of admission and is a ton of fun. Robinson’s writing is fantastic and he really embraces the history of the Fantastic Four, while perhaps gearing it to the fans that have grown up with comics or for a slightly older audience going in.
One part of me wants the comic to always be perfect for 8 year old kids going through their father’s comics and falling in love with relatable characters, and the other half just can’t stop reveling in and enjoying Robinson’s take on the book. It’s got just the right amount of fun and intensity that keeps you wanting more, couple that with some of the best artwork the title has ever seen, and you’ve got the start of a run for the ages that just might end up on the shelf next to some of those legendary names I was talking about earlier.