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.
Once I threw my heart into the fierce grasp of superhero comic books, there were certain older issues that I intensely coveted. Largely, my desired prizes weren’t the four-color publications that naturally set speculators’ hearts aflutter, like Action Comics #1, or Amazing Fantasy #15, or even the more recent landmark tales like the issue of The Incredible Hulk that introduced the world to Wolverine (though, as a true believer, I knew the cantankerous Canadian actually debuted in the final panel of the previous issue). I wanted to fill out my collection with a handful of comic books that simply caught my eye as I perused back issue stacks, promising little more than a rollicking or stirring story inside. One of the first specific comics I remember pining after was Fantastic Four #191.
Written by Len Wein and penciled by George Pérez, the issue held a special significance in the history of Marvel’s first family. The issue’s cover said it all. It’s a close-up of the feet of all the members of the do-gooder quartet. They are walking away, a battered issue of The Daily Bugle on the pavement. The headline: “F.F. RESIGN.” Entirely uncharacteristic for the era, there’s no other promotional copy on the cover, promising scintillating adventures inside, the florid description finished with a bursting exclamation mark. That choice alone bestowed solemnity, finality, and class in my dewy eyes. Of course, I knew the break-up of the super-team wasn’t going to last, but it didn’t matter. I needed to read this comic.
I eventually got my hands on it, shelling out exponentially more than the thirty-five cents it went for off the spinner rack just a couple years earlier (which still means it only cost me a buck or two). It did not disappoint, providing everything I looked for in my superhero stories: melodrama, superhuman fisticuffs, wry humor, and a strong sense of place within the sprawling Marvel Universe.
The Fantastic Four were ceasing their operation as a going concern, largely because the team’s leader, Reed Richards, had lost his powers of exaggerated elasticity. Even as the various members are in the midst of the sorrowful trek away from their Manhattan skyscraper headquarters in the famed Baxter Building, the inevitable attack by an opportunistic supervillain takes place.
Since heroes are always heroes, the portion of the Fantastic Four still equipped with heightened traits smashes into action.
The issue’s villain, the Plunderer, is ultimately fairly weak tea when pitted against the might of the Fantastic Four, and he’s accordingly dispatched in quick order. That’s not the point, anyway. It’s Wein’s way to provide a brief fake-out, while also fulfilling the mandate of the time that, come on, there’s gotta be a brawl, no matter what other heavy drama is happening in the issue.
The Fantastic Four are back, but only for a moment. Despite the hearty hopefulness stirred up, the team sticks with the plan to hang up their uniforms, seemingly for good.
“YOU’D BEST NOTE THE DATE, EFFENDI, FOR A LEGEND DIED HERE THIS DAY … AND THE WORLD MAY NEVER SEE ITS LIKE AGAIN!!”
There was a time when superhero comics were deliriously fun to read, built upon zippy ideas and filled with language that somehow intermingled luscious vocabulary with bounding chumminess. It was the Marvel creative voice, set a generation earlier by founding scribe Stan Lee. For a time, those who followed him took it as their duty to preserve that approach, even as they put their own stamp on the characters. Wein did so beautifully. And he had a unique skill at finding enticing hooks for his stories. There’s a reason the basic premise of the story, depicted simply of the cover with little of Marvel’s trademark showmanship, was enough to set me reeling.
Fantastic Four #191 was Wein’s last issue on the title. He jumped ship back to DC Comics, which was always his most natural home. That’s where he co-created Swamp Thing, presided over a beloved run of The Phantom Stranger, and served as a steadying editorial hand, especially with the combustible genius Alan Moore. Still, his plan for the next few issues of Fantastic Four were roughly followed, with each of the characters getting their own little showcase away from the now — and briefly — defunct team, all leading up to the momentous two-hundredth issue. It was a great idea, perfectly executed. I knew it then, and I know it now.
Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.