A History of the Marvel Universe – Part One (Fantastic Four)

A friend of mine who is more familiar with summer blockbusters than comics asked me for my choices for the main comics to read to establish a sense of the history of the Marvel Universe. It occurred to me that this might be of interest to others, as well. As a result, his answer appears here, in the first of a five part series (that will probably take a year or two to finish; there’s a lot I still haven’t read.) May 31, 2009 UPDATE: The series is now going to be more than five parts, and will likely be coming out erratically. All now have the “HistoryMU” tag; if you click on that down at the bottom of the article, you’ll see everything to date.

This five part series will begin where it all began, selecting the ten most entertaining and/or significant portions of the history of the Fantastic Four. The following are my choices for the ten most critical stories in the history of the Fantastic Four. Plans for the next four parts will follow at the end of this article. Selections are chosen in the order of continuity. The segments are either continuous runs of multiple stories, or stories and their fallout spanning multiple periods.

A General Overview of The Fantastic Four

Stan Lee has been known to say that “no idea is too crazy for Fantastic Four.” This, the first comic published under the Marvel banner, showed the world a new kind of hero and a new kind of team. More than any other team in the Marvel Universe, the Fantastic Four bring the mundane of family life out to the most extreme environments in the playground. Cosmic threats, other galaxies, and alternate dimensions such as the negative zone abound. If you’re looking for a healthy dose of science fiction in your superheroes, look no further.

The Choices

  1. Issues #1-2, November, 1961 to January, 1962 – Issue 1 started it all. Compare this to any of the DC Showcase volumes reprinting the most popular superhero comics of the 1950s. Try as I might, I can’t even finish Showcase Presents Superman Vol. 1 or Showcase Presents the Justice League of America Vol. 1. They are just far too saccharine to stomach that much in a row. The first issue of this must have been a welcome breath of fresh air when it hit in November, 1961. We were introduced to Marvel’s First Family, a team that was a family first and a group of superheroic explorers second. There was bickering and argument about who should lead the group, and a hero who couldn’t possibly maintain a secret identity due to the horribly disfiguring nature of his powers. Moreover, the origin was the second story in the issue; the team was first introduced facing off against the Mole Man for the first time, and then their origin was told after. The second issue of the series established the Skrulls, who have since become a major interstellar power in the Marvel Universe.
  2. Annual 2, 1964 – I’m cheating a bit on this one. This annual reprints issue 5 from July 1962, which introduced the world to Marvel’s greatest villain, Dr. Doom. I chose the annual instead of that issue because it also reveals the origin of Dr. Doom, which is one of the earliest instances of a villain’s origin being tied directly to the hero he faces, long before they meet. It also includes a new story with Dr. Doom.
  3. Issues #39-40, June and July, 1965 – This is the first story chosen for sheer enjoyment more than long term importance. The Fantastic Four have been robbed of their powers, and Dr. Doom has taken over the Baxter Building. Reed’s incredibly powerful brain cannot see a way past the defenses he created to undo the threat. Salvation comes in the form of Daredevil, in one of my personal favourite DD stories. One of the earliest and best team-ups Marvel envisioned, these two issues are among my all time favourites for the company, let alone for this title.
  4. Annual #3, 1965 – The lead story, “Bedlam At The Baxter Building!” marries Reed and Sue, breaking the tradition of the romantic status quo present in so many other titles. It also establishes the Marvel tradition of villainous attacks at the wedding of two superheroes, and provides one of the first cameos by Marvel’s real life talent when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby find that, contrary to their expectations, their names are not on the guest list.
  5. Issues 44-51, November, 1965 to May, 1966 – The pinnacle of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s run, this portion of the title starts the introduction of the Inhumans running from issue 44 through 47. This product of Kree genetic tampering founded a race that has been a major influence in much of Marvel’s history, including the current World War Hulk series. Issues 48 through 50 brought us “The Coming of Galactus,” which features the first appearances of the Devourer of Worlds and his herald, the Silver Surfer. If there is a single story that defines the long history of this title (548 monthly and 32 annual issues to date,) this is it. Aside from the characters introduced, this is one of the main instances of Reed’s brain winning out when no amount of punching things will do the job. Finally, issue 51 tells the story of “This Man, This Monster,” one of the more poignant tales in the title’s history, though not one that established a lot of continuity.
  6. Issues 57-60, December, 1966 to March, 1967 – The magnitude of Dr. Doom’s reach is revealed when he steals the Silver Surfer’s Power Cosmic for himself. This sets up much of Doom’s future plans, echoed in everything from Marvel’s Secret War miniseries to the Marvel Ultimate Alliance videogame to this summer’s Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer film.
  7. Annual , 1968 – This issue introduces two major characters in the title from this point on. Venturing into the Negative Zone in an attempt to smooth the birth of Franklin, the first child of Reed and Sue, the team encounters conqueror Annihilus for the first time. He was not only a major force against the F.F. for years to come, he was also the source of last year’s excellent Annihilation cosmic event.
  8. Issues 242-244, May to July, 1982 and Issue 262, January, 1984 – The first three issues deal with the return of Galactus and his then-herald, Terrax the Tamer. The immediate results include a mortally wounded Galactus, and a new herald. The long term results play out in issue 262, in which Reed is put on trial for his actions in issue 244. This ultimately defines the role Galactus plays in the Marvel universe, which was a major piece of foundation in future issues of Silver Surfer, as well as Infinity Gauntlet, Infinity War, and Infinity Crusade.
  9. Issues 276-277, 300, and 356-358, from March and April, 1985, March, 1987, and September to November 1991 – While Ben Grimm was off planet as a result of the Secret War, Johnny and Alicia found more than comfort in each other’s arms. Issues 276 and 277 deal with the affirmation of this relationship and Ben’s return to find out about it. Issue 300 features the wedding of Johnny and Alicia, and issues 356 to 358 reveal the complete truth about Alicia’s history before, during, and after the Secret War, effectively ending the wedding between Johnny and Alicia while establishing an assortment of new supporting characters from the Skrull empire.
  10. Issues 60 – 70 (Volume 3) and 500 (Volume 1), May to September, 2003 – The first seven issues of the Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo run do something that hadn’t been done with this title in years: they bring the fun back. The “Unthinkable” arc reestablishes Doom and the F.F. family dynamic at the peak of the Waid / Wieringo run.

Those are my picks for the ten “must read” portions of the history of the Fantastic Four and their corner of the Marvel Universe. Feel free to chime in your agreement or disagreement.

Parts Two Through Five: The Plan

The Marvel Universe has been built on four major cornerstones, The Fantastic Four, Amazing Spider-Man, The Avengers and The Uncanny X-Men. Part two will cover the ten most important stories from Amazing Spider-Man, followed by parts three and four covering The Avengers and The Uncanny X-Men respectively. Timelines are hard to predict: the Amazing Spider-Man article shouldn’t take long, as I’ve read every issue, but most of those were read last year, so I’ll need to review a bit. The others will depend on how long it takes me to get through their respective DVD-ROM collections. Expect a time frame in months for those.

Part five, the final part, will include ten stories from the rest of the Marvel Universe. This will take the longest to write, as I won’t choose them until I’ve read all GIT Corp DVDs available at the time of writing. Suggestions for this column are heartily encouraged. Additional stories from the first four cornerstone titles won’t be ruled out, but looking over the miniseries and other titles out there, I don’t expect to pick out a lot of them.