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Fantastic Four Volume 2 is part of the Marvel Masterworks series and reprints Fantastic Four #11-20 and the first ever annual featuring the famous characters. These collections were part of the 70th anniversary celebrations of Marvel and this Stan Lee (writer) and Jack Kirby (art) creation takes us back to the misty-eyed silver age of superhero comics. Lee and Kirby's run on Fantastic Four is the stuff of legend and while not everything here has completely passed the test of time it is great fun and a wonderful trip back into marvel history. Everyone probably knows who the Fantastic Four are by now. Four astronauts are bombarded with uncanny cosmic rays in space when they test their experimental rocket. They return to Earth and realise they now have remarkable and very strange powers that take some getting used to. Brilliant scientist/inventor and Fantastic Four leader Reed Richards can now stretch his body like a piece of elastic and becomes known as Mr Fantastic. Sue Storm (Reed's girlfriend) can now make herself invisible (and is later able to generate force fields) and becomes Invisible Girl. Johnny Storm (Sue's brother) now has the ability to control fire and fly and becomes the Human Torch while the last member of the team Ben Grimm has his body turned into formidable orange rock (no idea why they made it orange but it looks good) and becomes the Thing. The four adopt blue costumes (well, three of them do anyway) and become The Fantastic Four, using their powers and scientific knowledge for good and vanquishing Earth threatening villains who have cosmic carnage up their galaxy spanning sleeves. This was a new type of comic in many ways at the time and became popular and famous for these irreverent qualities although the characters are largely great too of course. There is an interesting introduction where Stan Lee says that he tried to flesh the four of them out a bit during this period - especially Sue Storm. Her invisibility powers are rather passive though so they do struggle to incorporate her into the stories at times though.
The four central protagonists of Fantastic Four were not stoic square jawed superheroes with no flaws but very human and like a big dysfunctional family. They argued and bickered a lot and the comic was notable for its sense of humour. The Fantastic Four were somewhat radical in the way that they made no attempt to hide their identity and instead embraced their celebrity status. They didn't wear masks or have a secret headquarters. The Fantastic Four were an open book and would appear on television or do interviews. It was a nice premise and made for some good jokes. I like the fact that the team are quite self-deprecating too. Bickering superhero teams are nothing out of the ordinary now but it was a departure at the time. Stan Lee's approach was to make his heroes more flawed than the DC ones and also more bizarre. People who had got their powers from strange scientific accidents rather than being born with them. Pseudo-science superpowered troubleshooters. One thing that is noticeable in this volume is the way the art has settled down after the earliest issues and Jack Kirby's pencils are a delight as you would expect. The characters have all morphed into the look and design that we are familiar with today with The Human Torch a bit more, well, human in his fire blown form and The Thing wonderfully craggy and full of personality and humanity despite his intimidating appearance. The colourful retro vintage art is wonderful and considerably more charming than most of the stuff you get with modern comics today. Kirby's greatest strength here I think is way he makes characters expressive so you can see how they are feeling. Just simple panels of the team in their headquarters sitting around are somehow amazing in the hands of Kirby.
This is also the dawn of the Marvel Universe where all the characters exist in one big superhero filled world. The Fantastic Four therefore have a few encounters with famous faces and - best of all - you get to see the Thing tangle with the Hulk. These two would have their fair share of scraps down the years and it was always fun to see them meet. You are introduced to a number of famous characters and villains here over the course of the ten issues. Impossible Man (alien prankster who gets his name when Ben Grimm declares him to be "impossible"), the Hulk of course, and Red Ghost. The Red Ghost is Ivan Kragoff, a Soviet bent on Communist domination of the world and space! He takes three trained primates into space to find the same cosmic rays that gave The Fantastic Four their powers. The Fantastic Four rogues gallery is pretty good I think and always enjoyable. There is the Mad Thinker, an expert in robotics and the Skrulls - shapeshifting extraterrestrials. Fantastic Four battle the "Super-Skrull" here too and what a fight. Up there with Barrera versus Morales. They also battle Namor the Sub-Mariner, an Atlantean Prince and aquatic superhero. Namor is an interesting character as they flipped him a lot over the years. He's a hero but one who is always bad tempered and angry at humanity for perceived wrongs against the Atlantean, er, community. I believe in Atlantean rights myself so I'm with Namor on this one. While the stories are generally good if you had one quibble it might be that they do love the "reset" button here where the most incredible situation can suddenly be waved away at the end with some mumbo jumbo.
And of course we also have Victor von Doom aka Doctor Doom. Doom is an inventor and sorcerer and leader of the fictional nation of Latveria. He is the Fantastic Four's most recurring and famous foe. He is to them what Kingpin is to Daredevil, Dr Octopus is to Spider-Man or Lex Luthor is to Superman. I could go on but you get the general idea. Doom pops up here in both an issue and the annual and is always a great villain. His metallic mask and armour was based on a skeleton because Lee wanted him to be the personification of death. You also by the way get a first look at the microverse or Micro-World and Psycho-Man. I love the idea of the sub atomic universe in Marvel Comics. If you were shrunk to the size of an atom and then got smaller and smaller would you encounter races, worlds and entire galaxies in the microverse? It's something to think about. We are also introduced to the Watcher. This is a character in Marvel Comics who became best known for framing the What If? series. The Watcher watches out over the universe and monitors the future - intervening to alter the course of history when he deems it necessary. There are trips to Egypt, the Moon, battling Atlanteans, the Microverse and of course all the bickering between The Fantastic Four - especially Ben and Johnny. They might not even seem to like each other at times but ultimately you can always rely on the Fantastic Four and they make a great team. Maybe the comic and parts of the humour seem rather quaint now but there is a real invention here and the stories are often funny. The Impossible Man is a green sprite who thrives on mischief and attention. The solution of the Fantastic Four? They just ignore him until he gets bored and goes away! Clever stuff.
These old comic collections are hugely enjoyable and enable you to feel like you now own a part of comic history without having bankrupted yourself. Highly recommended. At the time of writing a paperback copy of this is about £8.