The Great American
                Novel Act 1:
                the danger Act 2: rising action Act 3: the ball Act 4: crisis Act 5: triumph the Franklinverse part 2, act 1:
                the new danger
rocket

"Lee and Kirby's Fantastic Four run is
the Mount Olympus of comic book storytelling.

Nothing else can touch it in its innovation, sustained excitement,
consequential events, and unprecedented character development."
(Mark Engblom in Comic Coverage: March 21, 2009)

"Stan and Jack's Fantastic Four was, at its peak, almost unarguably
the richest and most imaginative comic in the history of the medium.
"
(Mark Waid's Fantastic Four Manifesto, in "Comics Creators on Fantastic Four" page 202.)

"Those fifty issues [FF25-75] were, simply put,
the best super-hero comics ever done

and nobody, let me repeat that, nobody, has done it better"
Marv Wolfman

"For about twenty Issues, on either side of 50, it was possibly
the best comic book ever done."
Len Wein

"The general wisdom is that the Stan and Jack Fantastic Four is
the greatest run of any comic book, ever."
(Bob Reyer, comics expert on talkingcomicbooks podcast 89)


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The Fantastic Four (1961-88) was The Great American Novel

Act 1: The Danger
FF 1: the origin
FF 2 -5: major themes and motifs

Act 2 : Rising Action

FF6 -24: Reed comes to dominate
FF25 -43: First defeats.

Act 3: "The Ball"

FF annual3 -FF60: greatest triumphs
FF61 -80: Crystal
FF81 -102: Franklin

Act 4: Crisis

(not as long as it seems: see dates)
breaking up
FF103 -125: everything goes wrong
FF126 -132: separation
FF133 -149: divorce papers
Reed's triumph
FF150 -175: the battle of the sexes
FF176 -200: Reed's triumph
falling apart
FF201 -218: false dawn falls apart
FF219 -231: nervous breakdown
denial and despair
FF232 -250: last chance gamble
FF251 -273: attempted suicide
FF274 -295: Alicia saves everyone

Act 5: Triumph   

FF296 -303: the turning point
FF304 -321: a new day; triumph

The Franklinverse

FF322-333: continuity ends
A different Fantastic Four
FF334-354: the Franklinverse
FF355-569: Valeria Von Doom
FF570-now: The Great Reboot
The future

Science and technology

C o s m i c
Reed's technology: realistic?
Science and superheroes
The message:
anything is possible!

Quick start
Family portraits
Everything on one picture
QUIZ

Why care?
About this site
What is the Great American Novel?
Parallels with Shakespeare
Tributes to issue 1

1 minute guides
Reed
Sue
Ben
Johnny

Marvel Comics
What made Marvel great
Marvel and DC sales figures
Marvel in the 1960s: real time

What went wrong
The Marvel Universe, 1961-1991
1968: when Marvel "sold out"
Value for money
Continuity
The sliding timescale

How to fix it
Real time comics
How to make great comics

More about the cast
Mr Fantastic
Sue: soft power is the strongest kind
How strong is The Thing?
Crystal
Franklin
Doom, Mole Man, Pete
Lockjaw (2)
 
Real people
Lee and Kirby: who did what?
Readers' letters: 1-50
51 and on

Other comics
Examples of real time comics
Other comics
and the first comics I ever read:
Badtime Bedtime Books
A classic Fantastic
                Four issue A classic Fantastic
                Four issue A classic Fantastic
                Four issue A classic Fantastic
                Four issue A classic
                Fantastic Four issue
A classic
                Fantastic Four issue A classic
                Fantastic Four issue A classic
                Fantastic Four issue A classic
                Fantastic Four issue A classic
                Fantastic Four issue
A classic
                Fantastic Four issue A classic
                Fantastic Four issue A classic Fantastic
                Four issue A classic
                Fantastic Four issue A classic
                Fantastic Four issue

The Fantastic Four begins with the story of Reed Richards, the smartest man in the world, and the greatest hero.

hero

Like a Shakespearian hero, he has one fatal flaw: he finds it hard to relate to others or see their (different) talents.
Reed's hubris

The twenty seven year story shows Reed rise to ever greater glory. But as the stakes continually rise he needs his team mates more and more.
But he treats them like children. This weakens the team, and finally they can't take it any more and they leave. Reed's confidence and health is destroyed.
the others leave

Being a genius and a proud man he tries to solve his own problems on his own: he defeats his greatest enemy in hand to hand combat (FF200), he creates the perfect house for his family (FF265), and has crazy secret schemes to fix everything (see commentary to FF251 and FF279). But nothing helps, the situation gets worse and worse, until finally he realizes... perhaps it was his own fault. Then the healing can finally begin.
he realizes 

Reed represents American confidence. He is sincere and genuinely cares, but sees himself as separate and apart from others. He thinks he is the beacon of freedom, the world's policeman. But the learns that parochialism never solves anything: success or failure comes from the community, not from one person forcing their will on another. This reflects the cold war, the period covered by the Fantastic Four: the Soviet Union could only change from within, and the only enemy that can defeat America is America, when the nation forgets that all men are created equal.

Reed's rise, fall and eventual self knowledge can be summarized as a graph:

Reed graph

Reed isn't the only main character, as the name "Fantastic Four" implies. Reed's best friend is Ben Grimm, who became "The Thing". As his title suggests, the "Thing"'s story is a quest for identity. In Act 1 he competes with Reed. In Act 2 Reed beats him down, emotionally. In Act 3 Ben accepts his role as the tragic figure. In Act 4 Reed has his own crises and is less able to dominate Ben, who finds a kind of status quo, but this doesn't address his underlying issues. And finally Alicia forces Ben to face his demons. In Act 5 he achieves peace, takes his natural place as leader, and he becomes the man Alicia always knew he could be.

Ben's life


Ben's journey is almost the reverse of Reed's: The event that gave Reed everything he wanted took everything away from his friend. Once a handsome, self made man, a football star and test pilot with several advanced degrees, the space flight turned Ben into a creature who's appearance terrified people.  And despite his advanced degrees, when standing next to Reed he felt like an idiot. After initial violent anger, Ben retreated into years of depression and resigned denial. On the surface Ben is an "orange teddy bear", by far the most popular member of the team, the easy going regular guy full of common sense and fun. But this hides some very dark depths. Ben Grimm is a psychological study of surprising subtlety.

Then we have the most powerful and misunderstood member of the team:Sue Storm (later Susan Richards) is the Invisible Girl (or Invisible Woman): as the name suggests, her significance to the team is usually invisible. She makes alliances with the Atlanteans, Inhumans and others. as such she has more impact than her more flashy male counterparts. Sue is a heroine straight from classic literature: all she ever wanted was a normal life, but she is thrust into danger by men who are blind to her situation. Her one power, invisibility, is useless against most of their enemies: they all have either high technology (Doom) or enhanced senses (Namor, Mole Man). Through quiet fortitude she finally persuades her husband to cease his suicidal tendencies and see that her soft power is more effective than his hard power.


Sue's little brother (at least officially) is Johnny Storm, The Human Torch. As the name "torch" suggests this hot headed youth wants excitement! But his shallowness and womanizing is a facade. He lacks confidence when junior to the team, has had relatively few girlfriends, and is unable to keep them. Finally Alicia teaches him to mature. He has more potential than any other team member, but that potential cannot be met while living in the shadow of the sister who raised him, and of the greatest heroes who ever lived. Johnny is the prince in waiting.

The novel features dozens of other major characters, each with their own personal journey. Red and Sue's son Franklin is the driving force behind it all.Dr Doom, the Mole Man, Paste Pot Pete each have their own story. And we must never forget the greatest hero of them all, Lockjaw!
The super powers represent their personalities: Reed stretches his mind, Ben never gives up, Sue is often overlooked, and Johnny is a hotshot. The team represents the full range of family relationships: parents, lovers, children, siblings and friends. And of course their powers and technology mean they can interact in almost any conceivable time and place. So the story telling potential is unlimited.

The writers

The story was created by dozens of artists and writers over a period of 27 years:

time line


Story structure, 1961-1988

The story follows the classic five act structure: danger (act 1), rising action (act 2), the triumphant ball (act 3), crisis (act 4) then triumph (act 5):

Act 1:danger
2:rising action
3:the ball
4:crisis
5:triumph
key event
origin
Doom
Reed is #1
big defeat
marriage
Galactus
non-stop
Franklin
decline
separation
lost power
false dawn
despair
triumph
key issue
1
5
14
39
annual3
48-50
72
annual6
124
141
189
200
251
annual20
year
1961
1962
1963
1964
1965
1966
1967
68-70
70-1
72-3
73-6
77-80
81-6
87-88
Marvel year
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
OMU year
1961
1962
1963
1964
1965
1966
1967
1968
1969
1970
1971
1972
1973
1974
Ages:
Ben
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48->41
(de-aged)
42
43
Reed 35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
45->39
40
41
Sue
(*)
20
(31)
21
(32)
22
(33)
23
(34)
24
(35)
25
(36)
26
(37)
27
(38)
28
(39)
29
(40)
30
(41)
31->28
(42->28)
29
30
Johnny
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28

The big story ends abruptly in 1988: as with some movies, it ends when we can see a happy ending on the horizon, without actually showing that ending.

1989-2009 is a period of chaos called the Franklinverse, featuring a different team.
This period featured several "soft reboots", where history is partially re-written without explicitly saying so. The most likely reboots are:
  1. 1989 (FF333): rogue Watcher
  2. 1991 (FF354): multiple realities
  3. 1997: "Heroes Reborn"
  4. 1998 (volume 3): "Heroes Return"
  5. 2000 (3: 34): numerous realities
  6. 2002 (3: 49): Ultimate Nullifier

2010-2025 is The Great Reboot, when everything is reset in a big way.

The various soft reboots are the shadowed areas in the time line :

timeline

Internal dating

The story was published over 27 years, but only takes around half that time. There are four ways to approach the problem:

  1. Ignore it. This means never asking questions. This means missing out all the best stuff.
  2. Slide it. The official position is Marvel Time, the sliding time scale. The origin story is always 13 years ago, and the past is constantly revised. This means losing all the contemporary details, but the stories follow the zeitgeist of the time so closely that there is very little left.
  3. Stretch it. Until 1968 stories took place in real time. After the birth of Franklin they age slowly but do not notice. This allows us to continue to connect modern comics to the real world. This is the explanation used in fourth wall breaking stories like She-Hulk.
  4. Anchor it. The Original Marvel Universe blog, or OMU, anchors all stories in 1961. Everything then takes place in the next 13 or so years. E.g. 1991 is really 1973; references to "Ronald Reagan" are really references to Nixon.
Our preferred choice depends on our attitude to realism.
  1. Ignore it: If we don't care then we don't care. period.
  2. Slide it. If we only care a little then the sliding scale works - as long as don't look closely.
  3. Stretch it. If realism is essential then slow aging fits with everything. No stories need to be changed, although some stories may be mis-reported. This is mostly a problem for other comics.
  4. Anchor it. If you want maximum realism but also want to accept other comics, then some changes are inevitable. To minimize changes you may need to change the dates just once, and reject everything after 1991.
On this web site realism is everything. So I choose the stretching method. The most compressed dates are toward the end of act 4. For how they are calculated see the notes to FF annual 18


Other Marvel comics

The success of the Fantastic Four spawned a whole universe of comics: It is much harder to place those other comics in the real world, This is why:

  1. Within the stories, the FF report their activities to Marvel and other characters do not. So within the stories, the Fantastic Four is more or less accurate, but other comics are largely made up.
  2. Other comics break the rules of realism. The FF has plausible deniability up until issue 321. Look closely at the stories:, when Galactus first appeared, the ordinary people only saw him from a distance and the Daily Bugle reported it as a hoax; when the Skrulls invaded in issue 2 only the police knew; and so on. In contrast, other comics break the realism rule almost from the start. For example, an early copy of the Avengers featured the entire eastern seaboard of the United States being flooded. I think we would have noticed. The FF do not break the realism rule until issue 322, when the entire city of New York is affected by magic, and people remember. This can be explained by Marvel paying less attention to the Fantastic Four's official reports from that point.
  3. Other characters seem (to me) inherently implausible. For example, they have secret identities. These would be impossible to maintain in the real world, unless characters had relatively few adventures. Also, other characters use colorful costumes. As the movies have shown, brightly colored costumes do not work in the real world.
  4. The large number of characters in the Marvel Universe makes superheroes impossible in the real world. The simplest way to reduce the numbers is to say that only the Fantastic Four is always canon and other comics are often exaggerated.
Other comics are not realistic, nor do they claim to be. The silliness of it all is exposed in She-Hulk's 1989 series, after any pretense of continuity ends. Soon after this the Fantastic Four had a similar story, showing that most characters from other comics are not a serious threat.

She-HulkShe-Hulk
In this example note that The Trapster/Paste Pot Pete was initially realistic (minor league, but realistic minor league) while in the Fantastic Four, but when he began appearing in other books he declined to be a parody of himself.

Of course, fans of other comics are free to disagree. They may argue that their comics really are realistic, despite all appearances. After all, plenty of people reject the Fantastic Four as unrealistic - perhaps I'm missing something in other comics. Perhaps somebody much smarter than me will find an ingenious way to explain it all. Until that happens, I will conclude that only the Fantastic Four are realistic (yes, really).


Other Fantastic Four related comics

You only have to read one title for the full story: just the Fantastic Four. The 27 year epic story is self contained.

However, there are other titles that may be of interest. Thanks to Modern Alchemy for this time line (click for a more extensive version).

timeline

After FF321 the original team is gradually replaced by a different team, and continuity becomes much harder to follow (which team is it? Why are they ignoring previous events? Why do they contradict what previously happened?) Consequently these later issues are generally harder work for less reward, and will be treated only briefly.



Where to buy Fantastic Four 1-321

From Amazon or your favorite book store:

Marvel Masterworks:
Masterworks are top quality reprints, with introductions by the original writers where possible. Each volume reprints around 14 issues. Volume 15 (up to FF163) is due out September 2013.

Masterworks


Marvel Essentials:

Essentials are lower priced. Each volume reprints around 20 issues in black and white. Volume 9 (up to FF207) is due out August 2013.

Essentials


Marvel.com

As far as I can tell, you can't buy FF1 to 321 direct from Marvel.com. I wish you could! But you can buy issues 1-30 as digital downloads.

Marvel

Second hand:

You can buy back issues from eBay, Amazon, comic shops, etc. If you're lucky then your local library can order some collections from other libraries.
 If you're very lucky you might find a "GIT corp" DVD: an authorized product that has all the comics on one disk, but it's no longer produced.

GIT corp
Where possible buy from Marvel. We need Marvel to make money from The Great American Novel. Then they might decide to start time moving forward again: Reed can then remember that he fought in WWII, Franklin can grow up and have his own kids, Johnny and Crystal can marry, and we can find out what happens next!



next: the Great American Novel





The Great American Novel