I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.
It was, I would come to realize, a lucky convergence. When Fantastic Four #232 hit newsstands, I’d been a convert to superhero comic books for less than a year, making the leap from far more frivolous fare. I quickly glommed onto Marvel’s first family as my favorite characters and the their title as the one I’d buy no matter what, making every anxious effort to be sure I didn’t miss an issue. Truthfully, it was probably more happenstance than aesthetic decision-making at that point. Even though I will gladly defend the quality of those first issues I read — both new and reprint — the broad consensus was that the FF was uncommonly great during the hundred or so issues delivered by co-creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (especially the twenty or so surrounding the monumental Fantastic Four #50) and kind of a mess at just about any other point in their run, then at close to twenty years.
When I picked up issue #232, little did I know I was about to read the beginning of the characters’ creative revival. Pointedly entitled “Back to Basics,” this was the first issue that featured John Byrne as both writer and artist. (He’d handled penciling duties a couple years earlier.) Recently fled from a vital, character-redefining, but increasingly unhappy collaboration on Marvel’s X-Men, Byrne was determined to do right by the title that launched the Marvel universe and had completely spun his head when he, as a boy, happened upon the issue that introduced the Fantastic Four’s arch-foe, Doctor Doom. With an adeptness that he never quite managed again, despite repeatedly being enlisted to revive similarly moribund characters and concepts, Byrne affectionately honored established history while shrewdly progressing forward.
Byrne figured out, or maybe instinctively knew, that the secret to creating a great Fantastic Four story was finding the sliver where the mundane and the outrageously imaginative comfortably overlapped. Fantastic Four was a spirited domestic dramedy that happened to have spaceships, cross-dimensional portals, and wacky neighbors who were open-mawed megalomaniacs. The quartet would bound across the cosmos, but there’d be familial bickering the whole way. No matter how impossible the adventure, it could be tethered to believability by the comfy interplay of the characters.
When I think back on those first few issues, when Byrne was establishing the voice he would bring to Fantastic Four, it is that primacy of character — of personality — that resonates the most. Before long, Byrne would incorporate signature FF bad guys, like Doctor Doom and Galactus (Byrne correctly realized that these major figures were effectively additional cast members, worthy of their own subplot storylines, as if they were fifth and sixth members of the team), but I always found it telling that he started his run with Diablo, a villain who certainly figured in the title’s history but felt slightly incidental. These stories weren’t going to be about raiding the most glittery and memorable portions of Fantastic Four history, trotting out the major nemeses like some panel-by-panel greatest hits set. Instead, it would be foremost about the fictional adventurers tallied together into the Four of the title of the book. They were the ones that mattered. That sound strategy eluded a remarkable number of others creators, then and now.
Byrne gave a solid five years to the title, delivering a slew of great individual issues and only the occasional clunker. To this day, it likely remains second only to the legendary Lee-Kirby tenure in any honest listing of the finest runs on Fantastic Four, and may very rank as one of the best tenures of its length by a single writer-artist on a superhero series. I’ll admit that nostalgia feed into this assertion, but I’m convinced it’s a flavoring catalyst, not a determining factor. Because sometimes great comics are simply great comics.
Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.
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