"Lee and Kirby's Fantastic Four run
the Mount Olympus of comic book storytelling.
Nothing else can touch it in its innovation, sustained
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
(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"
"For about twenty Issues, on either
side of 50, it was possibly
the best comic book ever done."
"The general wisdom is that the
Stan and Jack Fantastic Four is
the greatest run of any comic
comics expert on talkingcomicbooks podcast 89)
This web site is about the Fantastic Four as a single story:
how the world's greatest comic magazine reflected America, the world's
The story reflects the cold war, from the first man in space (1961) to the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989).
each feels trapped. The story shows how they grow and eventually become free.
The Fantastic Four (1961-89) was The Great American Novel
about a family with super powers, and their Cold War.
The Fantastic Four begins with the story of Reed Richards, the smartest man in
the world, and the greatest hero.
Like a Shakespearian hero, he has one fatal flaw: he finds it hard
to relate to others or see their (different) talents.
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
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.
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.
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
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 journey is almost the reverse of
Reed's: The event that gave Reed everything he wanted took everything
his friend. Once a handsome, self made man, a football star and test
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 story was created by dozens of artists and writers over a period
of 28 years:
Story structure, 1961-1989
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):
|Reed is #1
The big story ends in 1989 with the end of the Cold War, leaving us with four possible futures, four American Dreams.
1990-2009 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
- 1989 (FF333): rogue Watcher
- 1991 (FF354): multiple realities
- 1997: "Heroes Reborn"
- 1998 (volume 3): "Heroes Return"
- 2000 (3: 34): numerous realities
- 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
The story was published over 28 years, but only takes around half
that time. There are
four ways to approach the problem:
Our preferred choice depends on our attitude to realism.
- Ignore it. This means
never asking questions. This means missing out all the best
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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
- Ignore it: If we don't
care then we don't care. period.
- Slide it. If we only
care a little then the sliding scale works - as long as don't
- 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.
- 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.
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:
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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
Other Marvel Comics might be realistic
There is another explanation for all the impossible stories: Mystic Marvel.
Every Marvel title has a half hidden undercurrent of magic. In some
it is explicit (Dr Strange, Excalibur, etc.). In others it is more
subtle (the community of Salem in the Fantastic Four, or the Juggernaut
and Cyttorak in the X-Men). Nathan Adler, in his Fanfix blog, argues that mystic forces are central to the X-Men, and mutants are not what they appear to be. The Dr Strange comic describes titanic secret battles with higher beings who wish to remain largely hidden. So these are the real story of Marvel and the superheroes are
merely the surface. The mystic forces could have their own reasons for
keeping the world as it is, and that is enough to explain anything odd
in Marvel Comics.
This is a huge conspiracy theory, but there is evidence for it everywhere. It would take years to develop this coherent theory of magical realism in the wider Marvel Universe, so I won't even begin to try. For convenience I apply Occam's razor and just say other comics as less canonical than the Fantastic Four, but I acknowledge that this is not the only possible view.
Other Fantastic Four related comics
You only have to read one title for the full story: just the
Fantastic Four. The 28 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
"Strange Tales" featured the early adventures of the Human
Torch. Some were written by Stan Lee, but most fans consider
them poorly written. That is true, but I find them charming
and fascinating as an insight into the early days. They
contain the first appearance of a few characters who turn up
in the main book, but they are not essential reading. They
demonstrate clearly that the Torch loves being a superhero,
and feels overshadowed by Reed and Sue, but we already know
that from the main title.
"Marvel Two In One"
featured The Thing and various guest stars, but is not by the
regular writer of the FF. It demonstrates clearly that Ben is
highly efficient and well balanced when away from Reed, but we
know that already.
Perhaps most interesting is "The Thing" (the 1983-1986
series), particularly issues 1-4 by John Byrne, the regular
writer of the FF. These issues expand on Ben working through
his personal demons. In the Battleworld issues (11-22) Ben's
demons become visual. The results are summarized in FF294 and
elsewhere, but are interesting if you want more depth about
Ben Grimm at this turning point in his life. Of special
interest is issue 3, the controversial issue where we learn
that Lockjaw can talk (more
about Lockjaw here), and issue 7
("Goody Two Shoes"), the clearest examination of the principle
of the unreliable narrator.
- Giant Size FF 1-4 is by Gerry Conway, the regular writer. The
series does not add anything to the core story, but can still be
interesting. For example, Giant Size FF issue 1 is a lot of fun,
and is a key text in the Hulk-Thing
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:
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.
Essentials are lower priced. Each volume reprints around 20 issues
in black and white. Volume 9 (up to FF207) is due out August 2013.
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
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.
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!