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Fantastic 4 and More

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Fantastic Four motion picture
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Fantastic Four comic book -- from the 1960's

Long before the new movie from Fox studios, The Fantastic Four made their debut in a comic book series from Marvel. In the early 1960's the FF helped usher in a new, more "realistic" type of super-hero. With scripts by Stan Lee, dynamic pencils by Jack Kirby (with Joe Sinnott on inks) -- both Lee and Kirby worked up the plots and characters -- the FF entertained hundreds of thousands of comic book readers and continues to do so today. Read all about them here [NOTE: for a review of the movie scan down below the article]:

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Dynamic pencilling from Jack Kirby for FF # 6 with Submariner and Dr. Doom

I first encountered Marvel Comics' Fantastic Four as a child when I picked up a copy of their sixth issue in the early 1960's. In this significant issue, arch enemies Dr. Doom and the Sub-Mariner teamed up to take on the Fantastic Four, blasting their Baxter Building headquarters into outer space with the FF still inside it. Jack Kirby's pencils were dynamic and thrilling, really making the story come alive. I was struck by how different the comic book was from the comics put out by DC (Batman, Superman, Justice League of America). Mr. Fantastic (Reed Richards), the Invisible Girl (Sue Storm), the Human Torch (Johnny Storm) and the Thing (Benjamin Grimm) all had distinct (if only two-dimensional) personalities. They had attitude, they were sort of shadowy celebrities and show-offs; only the Thing was tormented because he had been transformed into an ugly if powerful creature whose skin resembled a motley collection of orange rocks. The foursome argued the way real people and real families do, and they could be foolish, headstrong, proud and stupid. This was quite different from the Justice League, whose members always acted like super-boy and girl scouts, and who always respected one another. On the rare occasions they squabbled, their behavior was usually caused by a spell, a cosmic blow on the head, or the hidden machinations of a super-villain. It's not that Marvel's approach with the FF was necessarily better, but more that it was different, and a little more – for lack of a better word – adult.

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The Thing had an epic battle with The Hulk in issues # 25 - 26

Some of the early stories were a little insane, of course. The Sub-Mariner, the undersea noble and half-breed who had been both hero and villain in comics' golden age, bought a movie studio in issue # 9 only to that he could hire a broke FF (bad investments) and kill them off – they would think the villains fighting them were actors when they were really out to kill them. The story was a lot of fun but highly implausible, even for a comic book: an excellent example of how the FF combined “realism” (the bad investments made by Reed) with utter absurdity. Stan Lee's scripts were often tongue-in-cheek.

Lee and Kirby had created the FF as a reaction to DC's best-selling Justice League of America, but there was a big basic difference between the two titles aside from style and approach. The Justice League was a collection of already-established heroes, many of whom had their own comic books and whose only real relationship was their being members of the JLA. The members of the FF were brand-new characters and knew each other quite well before the series even started. Johnny and Sue Storm were brother and sister; Reed and Sue were a romantic couple; and Ben Grimm was a friend and colleague of Reed's. Later, Lee and Kirby created their own version of the JLA with The Avengers, a team comprised of Marvel heroes such as The Hulk, Thor, and Iron Man, who already had their own separate books. The Hulk eventually went rogue, and battled The Thing and his partners in a memorable two-parter in Fantastic Four 25 – 26. In the second half, the Avengers met and battled the FF as the two groups argued over who had the right to bring down the Hulk. The title of this epic was “The Avengers Take Over,” and they would have had the FF not given them a run for their money. The FF met and battled the X-Men two issues later, when the Puppet Master mind-controlled the members of the merry mutant band and had them attack the FF at the Baxter Building.

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The FF had to fight a mind-controlled X-Men in issue # 28

Issue # 36 introduced the team's evil counterparts, the Frightful Four, which consisted of alleged genius the Wizard, who had developed anti-gravity disks; the Trapster, formerly known as Paste-Pot Pete with his paste-firing gun and other devices; the Sandman, a Spider-Man foe who could turn his entire body into shifting sand that could either flatten you when rock-hard or blow you over like a sandstorm when loose; and Madame Medusa, an evil bitch with long red hair that she could twirl around and use to snare and snatch things up as if it were alive. She was the most interesting member of the team. [Later on we learned that she was a member of the royal family of the Inhumans, a hidden group of super-powered beings. She not only became an ally of the FF, but replaced Sue Storm on the team for many issues. Stan Lee never adequately explained this severe character reversal – MM as originally introduced was rather nasty and borderline sadistic -- nor was it explained why she was hiding out in a cave like a wild animal when the Wizard first found her. The scripts during this period often seemed cobbled together as they went along.]

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# 36 introduced the evil arch-enemies the Frightful Four

The Frightful Four succeeded in defeating the Fantastic Four in issue # 38 when they left our heroes on a deserted atoll with a bomb that stripped them of their powers. Although they eventually regained their abilities, they enlisted the help of Daredevil when Dr. Doom chose that particular moment to attack them at the Baxter Building. These stories were thrilling, but they were topped by a trilogy in issues 40 – 42 ["The Brutal Betrayal of Bejamin Grimm"] in which the Frightful Four, angered that their enemies are still alive after the explosion, use Thing's anger at being a monster again [as well as a brain-transforming id machine or something along those lines] to turn him against his allies. The climactic battle between Reed and Ben, in which Reed used his powers in never-before-seen startling ways as his former friend tries to tear him to shreds, was an all-time highlight of the series. The next few issues introduced the Inhumans, who after a few mix-ups with the FF return to the Great Refuge that is their home even though they've been desperately trying to avoid this guy who only wants to bring them back there. The Inhumans were eventually given their own less successful series; more than one, in fact.

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The Frightful 4 hypnotized The Thing into hating his allies in issues 40 - 42

The FF also introduced the world-eating Galactus, and the tormented Silver Surfer, as well as the King of Wakanda, the Black Panther. After many issues the Thing nearly met his match in the dimensional-hopping Thundra, who came from a world in which women were definitely not the “weaker” sex. Determined to show everyone that she was stronger than any man, she took on the Thing in several entertaining battles.

Sue Storm [Sue Richards after she married Reed] became stronger as the series progressed. Originally she was a brave, but somewhat weak sister, who could hardly stand up against assaults by super-villains and was frequently rescued by the fellows. Gradually, she learned to use her invisibility and force field powers in highly effective and powerful ways. She rebelled against Reed's dictum that she stay home and care for their son instead of actively participating in missions and was, as previously noted, temporarily replaced by the now friendly Madame Medusa. She developed a stronger, more “feminist” personality, a very realistic conversion, without straying too far from Sue Storm. In one issue her mind was taken over by the Hate Monger and she became rather sexy.

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Daredevil helped FF fight Doctor Doom

There were various writers and artists on the series after Jack Kirby departed Marvel and Stan Lee moved on to other projects. Writer-artist John Byrne had a long run and came up with some interesting issues. But perhaps the FF never quite recaptured the glory of the early days of the 60's, when each issue – and the introduction of each new character – seemed a special event.

William Schoell [Schoell is author of Comic Book Heroes of the Screen and many other books.]

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The Thing took on amazonian Thundra in more than one issue
FF # 281
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Made "evil" by the Hate Monger, Sue Storm also became sexier!
Fantastic Four # 41
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Madame Medusa puts The Sandman in his place! Art: Jack Kirby

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AND AS FOR THE MOVIE ...
FANTASTIC FOUR (2005), Director: Tim Story. Screenplay by Michael France and Mark Frost. Some of the critics were not only extremely negative about this film, they completely misrepresented it, making it sound like something similar to the old Batman TV show and stating that its special effects are sub-standard. Okay, it doesn't have the strongest plotline, but the movie I saw was a very entertaining, well-made, and frequently exciting story that is surprisingly faithful to the spirit of the old comic books. Recognizing that the subject matter isn't Shakespearean, it doesn't try to be too deep, but it isn't mindless or campy either (there are a couple of silly moments, perhaps, but nothing too glaringly out of place). Ioan Gruffudd is perhaps more personable than the Reed Richards/Mr. Fantastic of the comics, but he certainly resembles him. Jessica Alba is a sexier but more than adequate version of Sue Storm (one critic suggested she can't even read lines, but she's really not bad in the film at all). Chris Evans is perfect as the cocky but likable, at times insensitive Human Torch, who is thrilled at the whole idea of having these nifty powers even as The Thing (Michael Chiklis) is horrified at the monstrosity he's turned into. Chiklis is wonderful, doing a fine job at delineating both the tortured Ben Grimm and the vainglorious orange creature he becomes to keep his sanity. Julian McMahon makes an excellent Victor Von Doom, although he's been given a different origin from the comic's version. Stan Lee has an amusing cameo playing Willie Lumpkin, the FF's befuddled mailman (although he neither resembles Lumpkin nor gets across the comic version's befuddlement). One odd moment has Grimm's girlfriend running into the street to meet him while still wearing her slip (sure, she has a silk dressing gown over it, but still ...!) It's a somewhat touching moment when, unable to deal with his transformation, she gives him his ring back right after he's cheered as a hero for saving lives on the bridge. Other highlights include the Human Torch outracing a missile, and the climactic battle with Dr. Doom in midtown Manhattan. Watching Mr. Fantastic turn himself into a human tarpaulin and throwing himself over Doom – just like something out of the comic book – is amazing! Not only are the effects excellent, but John Ottman's musical score informs and embellishes every scene with perfection. Forget the naysayers – this film is making a mint and there are bound to be several sequels. Let's hope we see more of Dr. Doom, not to mention Galactus, the Silver Surfer – and the Frightful Four! William Schoell

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The Human Torch lights up!
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The Invisible Woman strikes out with her force field
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The Fantastic Four have a conference
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First appearance of Dr. Doom way back when

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Entire contents copyrighted 2004 - 2005 by William Schoell and Lawrence J. Quirk, except for items written by other authors, in which case said authors retain the copyright of their work . Opinions expressed by individual authors and reviewers are not necessarily the opinions of High and Low NY.