This is a post I’ve been thinking about writing for ages. I originally envisioned it shortly following the “First Impressions: The X-Men” post I wrote last year. But, for one reason or another, I always stopped short of finishing it. Now, on the eve of the Fantastic Four’s return, shepherded by Dan Slott and Sara Pichelli, the time is right. So let’s take another trip down memory lane and revisit the very first Fantastic Four comic I ever read! It was 1993 and the cover leapt out at me from the spinning rack in a local grocery store (the now long-gone Loblaws on W 12th St, if I remember correctly). It was Fantastic Four #374 and, while I didn’t know it at the time, I was about to meet the characters who’d become my all-time favorite comic book team. To this day, they still hold this place in my heart!
On that fateful day it wasn’t the Fantastic Four who called out to me from the cover, urging me to buy the issue. I had no real idea who they were, outside of the general impression any comic fan would have of them. Rather, it was the characters opposing them that made me consider picking up this issue. The cover of Fantastic Four #374 boasted the FF versus the “new Fantastic Four,” a group made up of Spider-Man, the Hulk, Wolverine, and the Ghost Rider. Um, do I love Spider-Man? FOREVER YES x INFINITY. Did I love Wolverine? You know it, bub. Was I a huge Hulk fan and read his title monthly? Check and check. Was there a chance I was an avid and excited reader of Ghost Rider & Blaze: Spirits Of Vengeance too? Hells yes. I remember the thrill that ran through me when I saw the cover. “These characters are all on the same team?,” I wondered. “Really?? This isn’t a dream?!?” The fact that I was finally going to read a genuine Fantastic Four comic book was a secondary thing. Sure, I was excited to meet Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic), Sue Storm (Invisible Woman), Johnny Storm (the Human Torch), and Ben Grimm (the Thing). But my mind was BLOWN at the idea of having Spidey, Hulk, Ghost Rider, and Wolvie all in the same issue!
Nothing could prepare me for what was to happen. I had no idea how quickly and completely I’d fall in love with the Fantastic Four.
This issue was written by Tom DeFalco, who’d pen all the “current” issues of the Fantastic Four I’d read through my years with the title. The story opens with Johnny Storm on the run from police. He was in the middle of a Skrull ambush at Empire State University when he went nova to escape, leaving a great deal of damage in his wake. Wanting to help his friend, Spider-Man turns to Doctor Strange to help reassemble the team of heroes he worked with when they stood in for the Fantastic Four (issue #347-349) to try to bring the Torch in. The FF are looking for Johnny too – amidst a sea of personal trouble. Reed and Sue’s marriage is not in a great place and they are constantly sniping at each other. Franklin is upset by his parents’ fighting and begins to lash out unconsciously with his power. Sharon Ventura (Ms. Marvel) heard Ben say he still loves his old girlfriend Alicia Masters, so their relationship’s in trouble too. Johnny’s predicament is just adding fuel to an already tense fire and, when Spidey’s squad finds him first, a fight quickly escalates with Johnny calling in his family for backup. Then we get down to the cover-promised superhero brawl.
I’m going to be honest. I wasn’t ready for the brutal turn it took. I was freaked out when Wolverine sliced Thing’s face open. Who even knew that could happen?!? Then the FF all disappear at the end of the issue?? Yeah, like I wasn’t coming back for more. I needed to see what happened to them! I needed to see what Thing’s face looked like and learn if he’d be okay! So I bought Fantastic Four #375…and never looked back. My final issue of Fantastic Four would be #414, which came out in 1996. While I’d read Spider-Man until 1998, the end of my first phase of comic collecting was really beginning in ’96, when I’d also drop other beloved titles like The Incredible Hulk.
On a purely superficial note, it’s funny to look back at this issue and realize their costumes certainly weren’t at a high point here. Sue was in her uber objectified phase wearing…whatever the hell that was. There’s more skin than costume! Granted (and sadly) that was par for the course for women in comics during the ‘90s but, thankfully, it wasn’t a style she kept long. Reed was all into vests and pockets. Oh yeah, they had the prerequisite ‘90s bomber jackets too, which Johnny occasionally wore while he was on fire. Listen…the stories were amazing even if there’s much about ‘90s superhero fashion we’d all like to forget okay??
Costumes aside, while it was the “new FF” who made the title a must-buy for me that day at Loblaws, it was Reed, Sue, Johnny, and Ben who would have me quickly adding Fantastic Four to my monthly file at Books Galore. I couldn’t wait to read about their adventures! It didn’t stop at their current exploits either. I needed more.
As a kid I sought out back issues of Fantastic Four more than any other title. Don’t get me wrong, Spidey was always my favorite. But my relationship with Spider-Man always seemed more grounded in the present looking forward. The same was true for the X-Men. Sure, I looked for fun back issues and tried to catch a certain run here or there with those characters but when it came to back issues I had two big loves. First was The Mighty Thor, which I tried to get from the beginning of Eric Masterson’s time as the Thunder God and on. Second was Fantastic Four. With Thor I knew what I was looking for. Eric Masterson was my favorite so I started with him and went forward from there (I’ve always loved Legacy Characters). But with Fantastic Four I wanted it all. At one point I remember asking my young self, where do I stop? Despite my endless love of the title, I realized it wasn’t practical to try and get them all. I mean Fantastic Four #1 was from 1961! In the days before collected trades, it just wasn’t possible to get all those comics. Plus, any comics I could find from those early years would be EXPENSIVE. A complete run was impossible. But I also didn’t want to have a random back issue as my starting point. I wanted to consciously determine the point from which I’d move forward.
Ultimately I chose Fantastic Four #230. Why? My rationale was twofold. First, it was a pretty sweet cover promising a story featuring both the Fantastic Four and the Avengers. This was obviously as good a place as any to start my collection :). Second, and this was by far the more important point, this allowed me to jump in right before John Byrne took over. When I think of my Fantastic Four, Byrne’s run (from issue #232 in July of 1981 to #295 in October of 1986) will always be my definitive FF. I remember actually doing research (remember, this required real work in the days before the internet) to see when he started to try and amass his whole run. I loved his art. Whenever I close my eyes and picture the FF it’s his characters I see. But, more than that, I loved his stories. To this day I’ve read few comics with as intimate characterizations as Byrne delivered here. This was unique for me too.
When I was young I tended to follow/be aware of the artists who drew the characters I loved more than the authors who wrote the story. I’m the exact opposite now, buying certain titles expressly because I love the author. I think though, as a kid, I sort of just loved it all and even a lame story could be made bearable with awesome art. But if the superheroes looked funky (which often affected, for a time, how I saw them in my head) it really threw me off. So the art was paramount but this wasn’t the case with John Byrne (even though he’s one of the best comic artists ever). In many ways, he was the first, great authorial love of my comic book reading youth. Of course I loved his art but I knew what a John Byrne FF comic felt like and I wanted as many of them as I could get my hands on!
To this day, of the hundreds of comics I read during my first wave of comic book reading, there is no author/title tie more prominent in my mind than John Byrne’s work on Fantastic Four. Everyone talks about how the Fantastic Four are a family first and foremost and how they love them because of it. While it would be cliché to say that’s what makes them most important to me, it doesn’t make it any less true. I often say how, as I’ve grown up, I’ve learned the beautiful and important truth that family has nothing necessarily to do with blood. Rather your family are the people you are bonded to in and through love. This love can be found a blood relation of course, but it certainly doesn’t have to be and it can be just as strong without. Family is about love. Byrne’s run illustrates this beautifully, showcasing Reed, Sue, Johnny, and Ben, of course, while also giving us She-Hulk, Ms. Marvel (Sharon Ventura), Crystal, Nova (Frankie Raye), and more. What was so important about all these other characters is – for a family team called the Fantastic Four with an obviously set membership – they always felt as much a part of the team to me as the original four. I can’t even begin to count how many times I reread Byrne’s issues when I was a kid.
While I had to scour back issue boxes and sales to track down John Byrne’s Fantastic Four, that wasn’t where I first found them. As I said above, I first met the team care of the comic book spinning rack at Loblaws. If you want to talk about nostalgic memories…wow. That Loblaws is still etched in my memory. The building hasn’t been a grocery store in about ten years and it hasn’t been a Loblaws in at least twice as long. Now it’s a Harley Davidson shop with a restaurant/bar attached. But if I close my eyes I can still vividly remember walking into Loblaws and I can still see right where the comic book spinny rack was. While I’m sure this memory isn’t accurate, I feel like I remember where Fantastic Four #374 was tucked on the rack too. I first found so many of the comic books I’d read and the characters I’d love on those spinny racks. My heart and my memory of comics will always be permanently tightly tied to those things. They’ve left an indelible mark on me. I still miss them.
I know the cost of comic book production has risen so, as a result, the cost of comic books has risen too. I know newsstands and drugstores and gas stations and grocery stores had to pay for all those titles and received next-to-nothing back for the ones they returned unsold. So I understand it’s just not economically feasible for comic books to be everywhere like they used to be. But to my mind and in my heart, we’ve lost something very special with the disappearance of those racks.
I learned to love reading, in part, because of comic books. My vocabulary grew because of them too! I have so many memories of putting one of my comics down and walking over to the closet in our family room, where Mom kept the dictionary, to look up something I didn’t know. Sure, in a “school book” I may try to get by on context clues. But I needed to be sure what Spider-Man or the New Warriors were saying! And I’d’ve never found comic books (let alone become a member of my local comic shop) if it wasn’t for those spinning racks. Comics were at the grocery store. Comics were at the gas station. Comics were at the drugstore. Comics were all around me and they were (relatively) cheap. Titles costing $1.00 or $1.25 or $1.50 were affordable to me as a kid and/or I could get an easy “yes” from Mom if I asked for one. It was so simple to find and fall in love with them.
I know this makes me sound old but I’m so sad kids today don’t have this chance, this easy avenue to find equally incredible characters and fall into these brilliant worlds. It breaks my heart The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl and Ms. Marvel and Champions and Moongirl and Devil Dinosaur and Captain Marvel and Black Panther aren’t where kids can easily find and pick up the monthly single issues. There’s something magical about seeing the adventure unfold month-to-month. There are trades, yes, but you still need to know where to find the trades anyway. Heck, a few years ago I had an aunt and uncle in from out of town (Dallas, to be exact) and Mom told them I was swinging by the comic shop before coming over to visit. They were shocked. They though comic shops were made up for The Big Bang Theory. I will repeat: they didn’t know they were real! This is the world we’re living in. Access to comics has dramatically changed and, as a result, kids today have a harder time finding these stories. (Back to the me being old thing, I wrote “kids today” TWICE in this paragraph…ugh. I guess I should be watching for my AARP card to come in the mail soon.)
I don’t want to dwell on how sad the state of comic availability for new readers has become. It will totally bring down the otherwise nostalgic/celebratory feel of the post. Suffice to say, if it wasn’t for those brilliant comic spinny racks – those magical revolving doors to fun and fantasy – I’d’ve never meet the Fantastic Four. I’d probably never have met a lot of the comic characters I came to love either. Thankfully, while an alternate reality where comic spinny racks didn’t exist in the ‘80s is something Reed Richards could easily find and explore, it isn’t a world I had to live in. Instead, I got to live in a world where I could follow the Fantastic Four on adventures to world’s beyond my wildest imagination just by opening the cover each month. While we may no longer have comic spinny racks, we’ll soon live in a world where new issues of Fantastic Four show up every month. And I can’t wait to see the family again :).
If you’re in the mood for even more Fantastic Four fun (and who isn’t??) you should wander over to the Green Onion Blog as he is the definitive FF fan I know. Here’s his recent look at Fantastic Four #178 from 1977 as well as his review of The Thing #9 from 1984 to get you started!