On the Enduring Popularity of Marvel’s Fantastic Four
"The fact that the stories and characters that made me a reader as a kid are still as prevalent today just goes to show how truly fantastic they still are."
If you’ve ever heard someone ask me what I read as a kid, I always say, “I went from Dr. Seuss to Marvel Comics, to almost nothing else until I was practically an adult.” For me, Marvel Comics offered something that I rarely found in books. Sure, there was action that I loved! But that wasn’t it. For the first time in my life, I saw characters who I could relate to. Even as an African American boy, or maybe I should say especially as an African American boy, I found more of me in characters such as Peter Parker (aka Spider-Man) and Ben Grimm (the Thing) than I did in. many of the Black figures who resided in the so-called literary classics. Even though they both saved countless lives, in their regular day-to-day they were just two guys who didn’t fit in. And for a variety of reasons. In the case of Peter Parker, it was his shy, nerdy personality, while in the case of Ben Grimm, it was his physical appearance that made him hide in the shadows like a modern-day Frankenstein monster. In fact, he is so monstrous that the only person who can truly love him is Alicia Masters, who just happens to be blind. Only she can “see” Ben’s truly gentle and sensitive spirit. Oh, by the way, her stepfather is the notorious Puppet Master, one of their biggest foes. In-laws! And in the case of both Ben and Peter Parker, they were as kind as they were strong. Just imagine having that much power and ability but still having to hide. Although I was too young to know it, that is probably why I gravitated toward reading anything with Spider-Man (his own books, as well as Marvel Team-Up) and the Fantastic Four (along with Marvel Two-in-One, featuring the ever-lovin’ blue-eyed Thing). Anyone who ever felt overlooked could definitely relate.
However, the Fantastic Four offered one thing (no pun intended) that most of the other titles lacked. Cosmic energy! And to me, that’s what made it “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine!” You see, while I loved the fact that my friendly neighborhood Spider-Man kept the streets of New York City safe from the likes of the Green Goblin and Doctor Octopus, I also loved how the Fantastic Four kept the entire galaxy safe! What made them even more interesting was that for them, that was the easy part. The difficult part was getting along with one another. Each issue showed the FF not only having to deal with the most dangerous supervillains of multiple universes; they also had to deal with a seemingly unsurmountable array of personal problems. Like marriage. And sibling rivalries. And dealing with an arrogant teenager who could also incinerate you if you pushed him too far. Because unlike the Avengers, there was a different kind of bond between these four that you didn’t see elsewhere. They were husband and wife (Reed Richards and Sue Storm). They were brother and sister (Sue and Johnny Storm). They were longtime friends (Reed and Ben Grimm). And they were whatever Ben and Johnny were. In some ways, and in other ways Ben was a big-brother figure who was both protective who was both protective while also always being two seconds away from pounding his hotheaded teenage teammate into ashes. It was these complex relationships, as well as unparalleled action and the most omnipotent villains in the Marvel Universe, that made the Fantastic Four truly fantastic!When I look back at my youth, “the classics” were never novels written by authors from a previous century.
I also loved the fact that the sum of the FF was always greater than their individual powers. Mister Fantastic stretches, but we all know that it is his brilliant mind that is his greatest strength. The Invisible Woman’s powers are summed up in her name, as are the Human Torch’s. Good powers. Not great powers. And as strong as the Thing is, he’s not as strong as the Hulk. Don’t get me wrong, if I had any of their super powers, I would be the most powerful person in children’s book publishing. But in the Marvel Universe, none of them make it in the top one hundred most powerful beings. Maybe not even the top two hundred. But somehow when they work together, they always get the job done. Always!
That’s why when I look back at my youth, “the classics” were never novels written by authors from a previous century, they were the tales that were brilliantly orchestrated by the duo of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and others. Stories such as “The Galactus Trilogy” that began in Fantastic Four #48, and is still one of my favorite story lines ever. Partially because of the excitement/fear of the impending annihilation of our entire planet, but mostly because it was also the first appearance of one of my all-time favorite, and coolest, comic book characters—the Silver Surfer. How in the world could the Fantastic Four defeat him and Galactus—a being with godlike power? You know it couldn’t be by strength alone, and that’s what kept me anxiously turning each issue page by page.
But Galactus and the Surfer weren’t the only two to make memorable appearances in the pages of the FF. There was Doctor Doom, the ruler of Latveria and would-be ruler of the world. To me, Doom was the perfect villain. Powerful. Brilliant. Ruthless. Plus, a really cool costume and a perfect name. Others who frequented the pages of FF include Namor (the Sub-Mariner), the Inhumans, the Skrull, the Kree, and of course mainstream comics’ first Black super hero—the Black Panther.
All these characters were so amazing, many of them went on to star in their own series and have continued to play huge roles in the Marvel Universe.
The Fantastic Four comic pushed my imagination to new heights, both with its writing and its art. With each character having their own struggles (like the Thing battling the Yancy Street Gang), there was literally never a moment that didn’t appeal to me. And the fact that the stories and characters that made me a reader as a kid are still as prevalent today just goes to show how truly fantastic they still are.
From Fantastic Four by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Published by Penguin Classics, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Foreword copyright © 2023 by Jerry Craft.