StashMyComics.com is happy to host a series of articles reviewing classic runs of comic books from different eras of comics history. The first installment of this series is by guest writer and StashMyComics.com user J. R. Macnamara aka JuRM.
HISTORY AND LEAD UP TO JOHN BYRNE’S FANTASTIC FOUR RUN
One cannot discuss the history of comics without discussing the Fantastic Four. Next to Superman and Batman, it is probably THE most important comic book in the history of comics. Why? Well, while it is not the conception or gestation, it is certainly the birth of Marvel comics and it is the Genesis of a four color bible of which ALL comic fans should be aware.
For those who are not in the know – and if you are here at Stash My Comics how could you not be – the Fantastic Four like all comic characters, have two origins. The first is the fictional one: a scientist (Reed Richards), his pilot buddy (Ben Grimm), his girlfriend (Susan Storm) and her little brother (Johnny Storm) breaks into a rocket launch site and steal a ship to fly into space. On the way back the ship is bombarded by so-called Cosmic Rays, which change their bodies in ways that reflect their personalities. Reed, who has always stretched himself beyond his means, becomes the pliable Mister Fantastic. Grimm, the guy with the tough exterior, literally gains a rocky skin and becomes The Thing. Sue, who always feels like no attention is paid to her, becomes The Invisible Girl and hothead Johnny Storm can burst into flames at will, becoming the Human Torch.
The ‘real world’ story of the FF is a grand one as well. In the early 60s, Marvel Comics publisher Martin Goodman went to writer/editor/comic’s legend Stan Lee and told him he wanted to do a book like DC Comics’ Justice League of America. With artist supreme/writer/creative genius Jack Kirby, Stan created the Fantastic Four which was a revolutionary book in many ways. The main was that the book had a sense of family. These weren’t just a bunch of heroes who decided to form a club to fight crime. They were a family unit of adventurers who were not reactive and did not wait for a crime to be committed to get into action. They were a group who proactively sought out danger. Whether it be exploring space or cracking dimensional walls. And if they unseated a despot or destroyed a harmful weapon whilst doing so, well that was just a plus.
Lee and Kirby worked on the book for over 100 issues and basically created the entire Marvel Universe with the FF as its solid foundation. The book had an absolutely ideal tagline: ‘The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine’. This comic introduced and/or built upon characters like the Silver Surfer, Galactus, Black Bolt, Medusa, The Black Panther and far too many others to mention in a mere essay, but sufficed to say every comic you read that has galloped from the Marvel stable was influenced by this phenomenal run.
In the early 70s Jack Kirby left Marvel to go to DC to do comics over which he felt he had more control. At DC he created Fourth World, The Demon, Kamandi and OMAC. All well done comics, I say. Meanwhile accross the street at Marvel Kirby fans felt the FF comic languished for a few years with many top level writer and artists teams unsuccessfully attempting to do what Stan and Jack had done. It wasn’t until John Byrne’s post X-men run on the title that FF really became relevant again.
John Byrne is a talented writer and artist who calls a spade a spade and generally stands by his opinions even if it is detrimental to his career. He got his start in comics with Charlton doing back-up stories and one of my favorite cartoons, Wheelie and the Chopper Bunch before doing a story in Giant Size Dracula which led to Iron Fist, The Champions and of course his phenomenal run of The Uncanny X-Men. In his career he has browned off many people in the industry with Erik Larson, Steve Gerber and even Jack Kirby creating un-flattering bad guys based on his character and visage. But I don’t care about Byrne’s life outside of what his talents presents to me in four colors, and in this case it was a kick ass run of the Fantastic Four.
Byrne started his run of the FF with a bang! A fairly straightforward one off story featuring Diablo who had conjured up some elementals to fight the FF. This was a way of showing the reader not just the powers but also the creativity of the characters themselves. This creativity was evident when the Thing, drowning, as a water elemental encapsulates his head in a bubble filled with water then runs into a scuba shop to grab some sub aquatic breathing equipment. This story also demonstrated that Byrne was going to turn the conventions of the FF on its head by giving Sue a more modern haircut than the long hair she had been sporting for 20 years.
The next few issues simply established Byrne as a writer who really had a grip on the family dynamics of the book while subsequent issues celebrated the 20th anniversary of the book with a great Doctor Doom and Puppet Master story including the revelation that Frankie Rye – the Torch’s new girlfriend – was a flame generating super hero herself. In addition to this Byrne wrote a reunion with both the Inhumans and The Black Panther. We also saw an amazing return of Galactus who dumps his herald Terrax and takes on a new one as well as another battle with Doom. But it was after issue 250 that things really kicked off and Bryne took the sci-fi and adventuring aspects of the comic to the next level.
First the team takes a six part journey into the Negative Zone where Reed and Sue conceive a child which leads into the death of Doctor Doom at the hands of Terrax the tamer – If you want to read some ANGRY comics fans letter read some of the ones received by the Marvel offices after THAT issue. Reed is then kidnapped and put on trial for saving Galactus which he did as Galactus is a necessary cosmic force like death. Finally we get a spectacular fight with the Mole Man.
Issue 265 brings the biggest change to the FF with a post-Secret Wars change in their roster. At the end of Secret Wars the Thing decides to stay on the Beyonder’s planet and a replacement is required which comes in the busty form of the green sexpot She-Hulk.
She-Hulk was a great addition to the series as it gave Sue a female figure to interact with and the team was able to retain a powerhouse. The She-Hulk issues are an interesting turn of events as Byrne seems to be comfortable enough to start really making the comic his own. The next few tales feature a clever plot where Reed and Sue need the skill of Doctor Octopus to help Sue through a difficult baby delivery. We also have the re-introduction of Native American Wyatt Wingfoot who quickly becomes She-Hulk’s man, the return of Reed’s father AND the return of the Thing who is quite happy to not-yet rejoin the FF.
After all that serious stuff, Byrne delivers a smart story about how in the ‘comic’ world heroes are treated like superstars and chased by the paparazzi. For instance, She-Hulk is photographed topless on the roof of the Baxter Building. It is light entertainment but allows She-Hulk to give her lawyer alter ego – Jennifer Walters – a whirl as well.
Byrne developed some great ideas in the VERY serious issues that followed. First comes the return of Doom… you didn’t REALLY think he was dead, did you?… but apparently he REALLY is dead and has been replaced by his ward Kristoff. The next tale is one that really gives Sue a new standing as the most powerful member of the group when she is used by Psycho-man as a foil to attack her own family. This arc really has some excellent storytelling and Sue’s altered-mindstate is subtle analogy for rape… without the ‘R’ word ever really said. (see image on the right. Click any image for a larger view)
Following this Byrne writes some crossovers with Secret Wars II. One is a very human story where the Torch questions whether or not a guy who can set himself on fire is a good role model especially when a child emulates him. We also see the return of Phoenix which facilitates the birth of the X-Factor title.
As a finale we get another Negative Zone tale. In my opinion when the FF take Nick Fury back in time and the assignation of Adolf Hitler is on the cards, it seemed to everyone – apparently Byrne included – that the FF well was running dry. The last issue he drew was 293 and the story continued into the next which he wrote but the subsequent one was written by Roger Stern with a special thanks.
Of course, Byrne did a few FF annuals in this time but the one which really stands out to me though is the tale of a town whose citizens have become shape-shifters from drinking the milk of cows that are hypnotized Skrulls. Seriously this is a daft but intelligent story where the subterfuge is revealed by a lactose intolerant friend of the Torch’s.
As you can surmise, the FF grew in some amazing ways during Byrne’s tenure on the title. But they weren’t the only ones. Byrne’s writing was amazing with single panels in one issue becoming massive story lines later on and even though the stories were all of grand quality it was the art that won me over.
Byrne’s art started as cartoony and after the piles of Kirby emulations done previously by Rich Buckler and others it was initially a relief. But as time past Byrne’s pencilling developed into a mix of his cartoony style and something so much more. To me there has always been a real class to Byrne’s art. He doesn’t attempt to draw ‘real’ people but what he does render is a spectacular mix of cartoon and realism. Also, his aliens are ‘alien’ and not just human bodies with a different shaped head, like, say, half the Green Lantern Corps. Comics are a medium with NO budget other than the imagination, so why limit one’s creativity? I must admit though, that Byrne’s aliens are designed in such a way that when you see an alien designed by him, you can tell immediately!
BYRNE BEYOND FF
I quit reading FF pretty soon after Byrne’s run finished as I could see that the new team didn’t have the same feel for the series as Byrne did. This is understandable as the FF Family had become John’s family after being with them for so long. One of my biggest disappointments of the DVD release of the FF film was that Byrne’s contribution to the series is glossed over and not discussed in the documentary The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine. I understand that if he himself had not wanted to comment that it would pose a challenge but surely there are other creators who either loved or were influenced by his work who could have been interviewed.
Whilst doing FF, he was also doing Alpha Flight, another amazing and innovative book and afterwards he started on The Incredible Hulk. Byrne then left Marvel and like Jack Kirby,went to do some work at DC, including the company wide crossover Legends and the revamp of Superman in the kickass series The Man of Steel. He has since been back to Marvel and DC on several occasions and even did a few creator owned comics including Babe and Next Men for Dark Horse.
To me though, no matter what Byrne does he will never be able to better the work he did on his run on the Fantastic Four. Elements of his stories still have repercussions in the Marvel Universe today. Considering that more than 20 years has past since he worked on FF, that’s impressive. I suggest to any fans of the Marvel Universe that they should not just assume that the Lee/ Kirby run on the FF was the only one that counted. Byrne’s run is second only to that and to this ever-lovin’ blue-eyed fan, has not been surpassed by any team since.
What are some of your favorite runs? Tell us in the comments section below or head over to our forums to discuss this and any other comics subject you like!