I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This new series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

I came to superhero comics a little late, during the summer of 1980 shortly after I’d turned ten-years-old. As I’ve noted before, it all started with an issue of Fantastic Four, and my devotion to Marvel’s first family was absolute. While I excitedly bought every subsequent issue of the ongoing series as it came out, it was a different, concurrently-running title that truly shaped my perception of all the potential wonder inherent in tales of the cosmically irradiated quartet.

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This was back when comics were sold at the drugstore or the supermarket, loaded into spinner racks or piled up next to the magazines. I would dig through these haphazardly stocked supplies with the determination of a weathered action hero on a last-ditch mission. I’d grab anything that looked interesting, but I was guaranteed to collect any comic that gave the Fantastic Four a featured position. Since publishers were still operating under the model which maintained that consumers were really only purchasing these astounding adventures in low-price monthly installments that had fleeting availability, they were very willing to raid their dusty vaults to offer periodicals solely devoted to reprinting bygone adventures. So I wound up with a respectable stack of stories that had first seen the light of the newsstand nearly a decade earlier.

Marvel’s Greatest Comics, a title well in keeping with the company’s uniquely immodest approach to self-evaluation and promotion, was the series that wrung some extra dollars (forty cents at a time) out of old Fantastic Four stories. The first issue I picked up reprinted Fantastic Four #111, which found, as the cover promises, the team’s dauntingly strong, tragically bepebbled member, the ever-lovin’ blue-eyed Thing, turned evil and on a rampage in New York City.

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Though I didn’t know it at the time, this was from an era of the series that would inspire melancholy feelings at best for Marvel aficionados. Less than a year earlier, Jack Kirby had worked his pencils in service of the title for the last time. Kirby, as you ought to know, was the King, and he was also one of the chief architects of the Marvel Universe, collaborating with writer Stan Lee across a bevy of comics to create the sort of boundless, galaxy-spanning wonders that can only be contained by four-color panels. The Lee-Kirby run on Fantastic Four is one of the most revered in superhero comics, in part because the uncommon longevity of two creators working on over one hundred issues together, in part because of the historical significance of the series, and in part because they were just damn great comics. When Kirby left the company under unpleasant circumstances, Lee soldiered on, initially with art chores assigned to John Romita. He lasted only a few issues before ceding the Bristol board to John Buscema. He was the artist on the first reprint issues I read, and, to my young eye, he was the definitive artist on the “classic” Fantastic Four. So much so, in fact, that it took me a mortifying long time to properly appreciate the blocky, heavy dynamism of Jack Kirby. Indeed, Kirby’s work just looked wrong to me at first, lacking the fluidity and graceful muscularity of Buscema, a complaint that I now realize is as foolish as being perturbed that Picasso’s work isn’t as pretty as Monet’s.

Even if this wasn’t the peak of Fantastic Four, it still offered a fine representation of its charms. This stretch of stories was filled with delicate familial politics between the team members, impossible battles that descended upon the fictionalized New York City like an especially colorful brand of urban mayhem, and supervillainy in the form of godlike intergalactic titans. In fact, from that first issue I bought, I needed to wait more than thirty true-believing days before being treated to the sort of high impact fisticuffs that merry Marvel fans clamored after.

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Behind an iconic cover, two of the line’s mightiest, most monstrous musclemen faced off in a thunderous bout. And even in the midst of all these epic thrills, Lee and Buscema could still take a momentary break for a dash of zippy low comedy, which always resulted when The Thing received a piece of correspondence from his fans in the Yancy Street Gang.

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That’s the balance between the personal and the magnificent that exemplifies the Fantastic Four at its best. The above pair of panels is from issue number 114, the last that Lee was credited as the writer. He began the gradual transition from driving creative force behind Marvel Comics to cheery figurehead, so it wasn’t an especially lengthy collaboration with John Buscema on the company’s premier title. But for one little kid–a kid who’s not so little anymore–it wound up as the run that all others were measured against.

49 thoughts on “My Misspent Youth: Fantastic Four by Stan Lee and John Buscema

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