I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.
As I occasionally must, I’ll note that this entry abuses the accuracy of the term “youth.” As recounted at great length elsewhere, I tried at various times to kick the comic book habit, always finding excuses to keep buying monthly adventures, usually based on seeing one particular series through to the end. I also had a few enablers during this time, those who, always in acts of kindness, put into my anxious hands the very periodicals I was trying to avoid. When your barfly buddy is trying to dial back consumption levels, you still might be tempted to buy him a drink. It’s nice to have company at the end of the bar, after all. One such enabler was my old movie reviewing cohort. He knew I had a helpless affection for Marvel’s First Family, so when Fantastic Four was suddenly, shockingly good again after a particularly dreadful patch, he made a point of gifting me the issues in question.
This was in the latter half of the nineteen-nineties, when Marvel Comics was making egregious decisions with such consistency that the company was driven into bankruptcy. A chief plan to reversing their flagging fortunes involved recruiting creators Rob Liefeld and Jim Lee, enormous fan favorites at Marvel a few years earlier who’d fled to help form Image Comics, to relaunch key titles. Fantastic Four was turned over to Lee, resulting in some truly hideous–looking comics. Branded “Heroes Reborn,” these eyesores were enough to convince me that I never needed to revisit the characters that I’d once considered my clear favorite. I stand by my instinctual aversion and even the sense of near-betrayal I felt, but I also should have remembered that all things can be mended in the comic book universe. After Lee’s tenure was complete, Marvel once again relaunched the series with a new #1 (a tiresome conceit that was just starting to infect the comics publishing world then). As should always be the case with a Fantastic Four #1, it had the Mole Man in it.
The writing chores were given to Scott Lobdell and the art was handled by Alan Davis. Right off the bat, they seemed to declare their own animosity towards the version of Fantastic Four that immediately preceded their run. It wasn’t quite the full-on announcement of back-to-the-basics storytelling that distinguished the beginning of writer-artist John Byrne’s justly lauded run on the title, but it was close. In the writing, Lobdell did everything he could to highlight the difference in his approach to that of Lee and his collaborators, including some meta commentary on the whole “Heroes Reborn” concept.
Occasionally, Lobdell was even more pointed, calling attention to the tendency, woefully present in the nineteen-nineties to feverish update ever character design, usually by loading down the characters with ludicrous futuristic guns and bazookas that made it look like they were strapping fully armed kayaks to their shoulders. As far as the new creative team was concerned, these characters had endured through the years for a reason.
The on-target knocks against previous caretakers of the Fantastic Four were satisfying and welcome. If that were all Lobdell had to offer, though, it still wouldn’t have been much of series. Instead, the writer consistently displayed a keen understanding of what made the Fantastic Four work as a concept: taking wildly fantastical adventures (especially the presentation boundless imagination as exuberant future-science) and grounding them in acutely observed family dynamics. Three of the four teammates officially shared a family tree, but even the fourth, the ever-lovin’ blue-eyed Thing, was clearly integrated into the bickering affection that was recognizable to anyone who’s, say, reunited with siblings and parents over the holidays. These characters liked each other, loved each other, needed each other. Throwing a super-villain with a clever scheme against them was undoubtedly useful to building a strong story, but the true necessity is in getting their voices right. Lobdell did that wonderfully, aided by the expressive art of Davis.
My friend was right. I thought these comics were terrific. They were also too good to last. At the end of the third issue, there was an announcement unceremoniously dumped at the bottom of a pin-up page. Alan Davis and inker Mark Farmer were off the title, to be replaced the following issue by Salvador Larroca and Art Thibert. Lobdell was also downgraded, getting a story credit for a couple more issues before vanishing altogether in favor of Chris Claremont, the writer who was central to elevating the X-Men to phenom status in the nineteen-eighties. I don’t know that any reason for the new creative team’s relatively rapid departure was ever officially given. I presume that the leaner, smarter, more creative approach was at odds with what Marvel editorial wanted. What I saw of Claremont’s lengthy run suggested the powers that were had a strong preference for convoluted and humorless. Even when Marvel stumbled into something worthwhile, they were quick to flee from it. When I was trying to spend less in the comic ship, sometimes the publishers were kind enough to make choices that made me feel very unwelcome.
Fantastic Four by Stan Lee and John Buscema
Contest of Champions by Bill Mantlo and John Romita, Jr.
Daredevil by Frank Miller
Marvel Fanfare by Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum and Paul Smith
Marvel Two-in-One by Tom DeFalco and Ron Wilson
Fantaco’s “Chronicles” series
Fantastic Four #200 by Marv Wolfman and Keith Pollard
The Incredible Hulk #142 by Roy Thomas and Herb Trimpe
Uncanny X-Men by Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum
Godzilla by Doug Moench and Herb Trimpe
Giant-Size Avengers #3 by Steve Englehart, Roy Thomas and Dave Cockrum
Alpha Flight by John Byrne
Hawkeye by Mark Gruenwald
Avengers by David Michelinie and George Perez
Justice League by Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis and Kevin Maguire
The Thing by Dan Slott and Andrea DiVito
Nexus by Mike Baron and Steve Rude
Marvel Premiere by David Kraft and George Perez
Marvel Super-Heroes Secret Wars by Jim Shooter and Mike Zeck
Micronauts by Bill Mantlo and Butch Guice
Batman: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland
What If? by Mike W. Barr, Herb Trimpe and Mike Esposito
Thor by Walt Simonson
Eightball by Dan Clowes
Cerebus: Jaka’s Story by Dave Sim and Gerhard
Iron Man #150 by by David Michelinie, John Romita, Jr. and Bob Layton
Bone by Jeff Smith
The Man of Steel by John Byrne
Fantastic Four by Doug Moench and Bill Sienkiewicz
“Allien and How to Watch It” by John Severin
Fantastic Four Roast by Fred Hembeck and friends
The Amazing Spider-Man #25 by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko
Marvel Two-in-One #7 by Steve Gerber and Sal Buscema
The New Mutants by Chris Claremont and Bob McLeod
Dark Horse Presents
Bizarre Adventures #27
Marvel Team-Up #48 by Bill Mantlo and Sal Buscema
Metal Men #20 by Robert Kanigher and Ross Andru
The Avengers by Roy Thomas and John Buscema
Fantastic Four by Marv Wolfman and John Byrne
Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra
American Flagg by Howard Chaykin
Marvel and DC Present by Chris Claremont and Walter Simonson
Batman by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli
Marvel Two-in-One Annual #5 by Alan Kupperberg and Pablo Marcos
Web of Spider-Man by Louise Simonson and Greg LaRocque
Super-Villain Team-Up #12 by Bill Mantlo and Bob Hall
What If? #31 by Rich Margopoulos and Bob Budiansky