Being a busy adult means that it is much harder to find the time or willpower to re-read long runs of favorite comic books. In my mid-teens, I often would pick about 10 or 12 comics to read each night before going to sleep and could easily power through a year’s worth of the old Marvel Star Wars or The New Mutants or Alpha Flight in a couple hours before turning out the lights. Most of the runs of comics I know by heart are still ones from those days, in large part because I was reading and re-reading them. I also used to devour new comics as soon as I got them home each week. These days, they often sit around in stacks waiting for me to carve out some time on the weekend or the occasional evening to get to them. Rarely do I find time to go back and re-read much. Because of that, there are some classic runs of comics I have accumulated slowly in recent years that never got a complete run through, and that’s what I’m going to rectify. I fully admit to lifting the idea from other blogs ( in particular, where they’ve been re-watching Star Trek and re-reading The Lord of the Rings).

I’m starting with The Fantastic Four by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. The reasons why should be obvious: this was the superhero comic book that launched what came to be known as the Marvel Universe. It was the backbone of Marvel’s rise to prominence in the Silver Age. It also was one of the best lengthy series that Lee or Kirby ever contributed to. And it remains essential and very good comic-book reading to this day.

For those who are interested in such things, I don’t have the originals of all — or even many – of these comics, but I do have the full run in Marvel Masterworks. These are the versions I will be using, with a few exceptions that I’ll note when the relevant post comes along. (And for those of you who like “shelf porn,” below is a picture of the Masterworks and DC Archives shelf in my office. Click to embiggen.)
What will these posts be like? I don’t know. I expect they’ll change significantly as I go through the series. My plan to start is to read each issue at least a few times and then see what I think it most interesting about it. I am going to avoid summaries because it’s tedious and there’s plenty of sites that serve that info far better than I can. 
By way of introduction, I’ll tell my history with The Fantastic Four. I first read Fantastic Four toward the end of John Byrne’s run. I think it may have been the last one or two issues he wrote, but didn’t draw, as he was on his way out the door at Marvel to do Superman for DC. I remember getting the 25th anniversary jam issue, #296, in 1986, and then stuck with the book for a couple of runs that featured plenty of solid but unspectacular work from artist John Buscema art and writer Roger Stern. Steve Englehart soon took over the writing and came up with some cool stories. It was an offbeat time for the team, as Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman — better known to most fans as Reed and Sue Richards — left the team and joined the Avengers. That left The Thing in charge of a quartet rounded out by the Human Torch, his girlfriend Crystal of the Inhumans, and the She-Thing.
Things picked up when Walter Simonson took over the book (as they usually do), and his take on the series was on a par with what I had read of Byrne’s. There was a popular story drawn by the excellent Arthur Adams in which Wolverine, Spider-Man, Hulk and Ghost Rider briefly became the new FF. But the best issue by Simonson was #350, in which Reed and Dr. Doom battled through time, popping in out of scenes throughout the comic that you could piece together in chronological order to get an entirely different take on the story.

Sometime in the mid-1990s, I completed my run of Byrne’s FF and really came to admire it. It was a prime example of one of the right ways to do a superhero comic, with each issue well written, well-drawn, easy to get into. It also captured something of the times, a nice mix of craft, nostalgia and just enough innovation to keep things interesting.

I don’t remember exactly when I first read any of the Stan Lee-Jack Kirby stories. I know I first learned of them in edited form in the pages of Marvel Saga, a short-lived series that retold the major “events” of the Marvel Universe in chronological order. It was a good primer on Silver Age Marvel, but not a substitute for reading the full stories.

So aside from a possible reprint or two, my first real chance to read these stories came from a copy of the first FF volume of Marvel Masterworks. That first copy is a third printing, which according to the excellent Marvel Masterworks Resource Page, was released in September 1989. I had several other original FF Masterworks volumes that I sold during the days when the series was out of print and the collector demand was high enough for me to get a really good price for them. I kept the first volume because I had it signed by Stan Lee at San Diego Comic-Con in the mid-1990s and didn’t want to give that one up. (I also have the first X-Men and Spider-Man Masterworks signed by Stan, and when we get to the Galactus trilogy, I’ll tell the story of another Stan Lee autograph.) When the re-mastered versions began coming out in the early 2000s, I began to pick them up and now have the first ten volumes. Some of these I haven’t read at all, so some of the stories in this run, which comprises 102 regular issues and six annuals, will be first-reads for me.

Before I get into the first issue, I think it’s worth taking a moment and put it in the context of the times in which it came out.

The story of how the Fantastic Four came to be is well-worn territory. In the early 1960s, comics were still recovering from the Frederic Wertham-lead witch-hunt and Senate hearings that prompted the creation of the Comics Code Authority. That put the crime, horror and other comics out of business and the comics field drifted into a period of strange, innocuous tales. Marvel, then called Atlas, followed the trends from Western comics to science fiction to romance comics to monster comics. They almost went out of business at one point when they lost their distributor, and were saved by a deal with Independent News that was a double-edged sword. Affiliated in some complicated way with DC Comics, Independent limited the number of titles Marvel could put out and, for at least a while, Marvel seemed to intentionally avoid putting out titles directly competed with those at DC.

DC was far and away the king of the hill at the time, having found new success in its superhero comics starting in 1956 with its new version of The Flash. That was followed by more revitalizations, including a deeper mythos for Superman, new sci-fi heroes like Adam Strange and the Atomic Knights, a new Green Lantern and the crowning success of the Justice League of America.

During this period, Jack Kirby had decided to stick with comics after his longtime partner, Joe Simon, concluded advertising was a better field. Kirby worked at DC for a while and created the series Challengers of the Unknown, a concept not too different from the Fantastic Four, before heading over to Atlas.

The way he tells it, Stan Lee was pretty discouraged about comics. He was thinking of quitting, when his wife, Joan, told him he should give it one more chance and do a comic that he liked. When Marvel owner Martin Goodman asked for a team of superheroes to compete with JLA, Stan says he saw this as his chance, and got together with Kirby to come up with The Fantastic Four #1.

Early house ad for Fantastic Four that appeared in Hulk #1.
(Scanned from The Collected Jack Kirby Collector, Vol. 1) 

At the time, the comic book market was small and tame, but diverse. For example, these are the comic books DC Comics published either with the same November 1961 cover date as Fantastic Four #1 (or an October-November or November-December cover date), according to

Action Comics #282
Adventure Comics #290
The Adventures of Bob Hope #71
Batman #143
Blackhawk #166
The Brave and the Bold #38
Challengers of the Unknown #22
Detective Comics #297
The Flash #124
The Fox and the Crow #70
G.I. Combat #90
Girls’ Love Stories #82
Girls’ Romances #80
House of Mystery #116
House of Secrets #50
Justice League of America #7
Many Loves of Dobie Gillis #10
Men of War #52
My Greatest Adventure #61
Mystery In Space #71
Our Army at War #112
Our Fighting Forces #64
Rip Hunter … Time Master #5
Sea Devils #2
Showcase #35
Strange Adventures #134
Star Spangled War Stories #99
Sugar & Spike #37
Superman #149
Superman’s Girl Friend, Lois Lane #29
Tales of the Unexpected #67
Tomahawk #77
Wonder Woman #126
World’s Finest Comics #121

It’s a really interesting mix of superheroes, anthologies, romance comics, war comics and humor books. But not a lot of classics in there.

Thanks to DC’s excellent Showcase Presents volumes, I took a look at a couple of those stories: Justice League of America #7 and Adventure Comics #290. In the JLA story, Snapper Carr visits a funhouse and stumbles through a portal to an alien planet. After he’s rescued, the JLA members infiltrate and expose the funhouse as an alien operation. The biggest worry any of the heroes seem to have is whether they’ll expose their secret identities — a common theme in Silver Age DC stories. Adventure #290 is, amazingly, even weirder as Superboy heads off to all corners of the Earth to retrieve the elements of a super-powerful weapon the Legion hid in the past. Meanwhile, a reform school escapee who looks exactly like Clark Kent stumbles into Smallville and pretends to be Clark to enjoy the sweet, cushy life of Middle America. Lots of weirdness follows before memories are erased and everything reverts to normal. Both stories are fun, but pretty mild.

Superman #149 also happens to be a particularly famous issue, featuring a three-part imaginary story that culminates with the death of Superman that was written by Jerry Siegel, co-creator of the Man of Steel. This was one of Jerry’s best stories from the period and was reprinted in The Greatest Superman Stories Ever Told and featured by me in my first professional article about superhero comics, which was about — what else? — the “Death of Superman” story in 1993.

And here’s what the same site lists for the November 1961 cover dates at Atlas:

Amazing Adventures #6
Fantastic Four #1
Gunsmoke Western #67
Journey Into Mystery #74
Kid Colt Outlaw #101
Linda Carter, Student Nurse #2
Love Romances #96
Millie the Model #105
Strange Tales #90
Tales of Suspense #23
Tales to Astonish #25

And just for kicks, here are the other publishers’ titles for the same month, again from

American Comics Group
Unknown Worlds #11

Archie Comics
Adventures of the Fly #16
Adventures of the Jaguar #3
Archie #123
Archie’s Girls Betty and Veronica #71
Archie’s Pal Jughead #78
Life with Archie #11
Pep Comics #151

Atomic Mouse #45
Billy The Kid #31

Beep Beep #11
Combat #1
Donald Duck #80
Four Color Comics #1209
Four Color Comics #1267
The Lone Ranger #142
Tarzan #127
Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories #254
Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse #80
Walter Lantz New Funnies #286

George A. Pflaum

Treasure Chest of Fun and Fact, Vol. 17, #5
Treasure Chest of Fun and Fact, Vol. 17, #6

Prize Publications
Young Romance #114

It’s easy to see why Fantastic Four stood out and was such a sensation in this market when it hit the nation’s newsstands on Tuesday, Aug. 8, 1961.