Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Best Comics Ever: John Byrne's Fantastic Four

Best Comics Ever will be an occasional feature looking at the highlights of my back-issue collection. These are the back issues I go back to re-read again and again, my "desert island" comics, if you will. Some of these books shaped the way I look at "graphic literature" to this day, others are just rollicking fun. Share your thoughts on this classic Fantastic Four run in our comments section!

The Fantastic Four have long been one of my favorite comic book superteams, dating back to the first time I remember noticing them, in the pocket books reprint of Amazing Spider-Man #1, where Spidey tried and failed to join the popular team. As a child, I mainly followed Spidey, but as often as he crossed paths with the FF, I became familiar with them as well. When my parents drove me to my first comic book store, and I discovered the joys of the quarter-bin, Fantastic Four was one of the first titles I branched out towards, so my history with Marvel’s first Family goes back nearl as far as my general comics’ experience.

But the actual Fantastic Four comic books weren’t all that great by the early 1980’s. Despite the efforts of some talented creators, Fantastic Four was in a rut, and I remember liking the various back-issues that I had acquired a lot more than the newer issues. I wasn’t yet trained to follow specific creators yet, so I usually only picked up FF at 7-11 or the grocery store when there wasn’t much else available.

I can still remember seeing the cover of Fantastic Four #232 on the stand at the Security Book Exchange, with its striking Autumnal-hued cover. A leering Diablo gesturing over a set of glowing effigies, (FF-igies?) with a brilliant, creepy color scheme drawn by the guy who had been drawing Marvel-Team-Up caught my twelve-year old eye immediately, and told me there was something exciting here. I cajoled my mom out of the extra .50 cents, and off we went. I didn’t know it that day, but I had just started a five year journey with writer/artist John Byrne into one of the best damn runs of Fantastic Four the book would ever see. I basically read FF #232 to pieces. It was a simple enough one-off tale, but it cleared the deck of so much accumulated stodginess; that’s what I remember best of all. Under John Byrne, the matronly Sue became adorable, the Thing became craggy and frightening, the Torch was a fun hothead again, and Reed looked more brainy than brawny. The cumulative effect was a complete redesign of the team, without really redesigning anything.

Over his tenure on the title, Byrne showed a knack for looking at everything with a fresh eye. His second story was a Human Torch solo story, placing the Torch in a more grounded, human-interest setting, something that is hardly ever done with the character. The landmark 20th anniversary issue, #236 featured “Terror in a Tiny Town” an eerie tale that appeared to give the FF the normal life they had always craved, but at a terrible cost. As his tenure continued, Byrne mastered the art of keeping things changing and moving, without “breaking” anything permanently. The Thing devolved for a time, Frankie Raye gained Human Torch powers and briefly joined the team before becoming the next herald of Galactus, Reed and the FF first fought Galactus, then saved his life, an act that would haunt him later. The Inhumans, long hidden in the Himalayas, left Earth, a move that could be said to have led to their current space-bound status, and Doctor Doom regained his throne with the FF’s help, in an especially twisted, excellent storyline.

1983 saw an extended trip to the negative zone, and a return that culminated in new uniforms for the team (caused by negative zone energy, rather than tailoring), pregnancy for Sue (the child would be stillborn but was later retconned back to life as Valeria, the Richards’ super intelligent daughter) and the destruction of the Baxter Building (rebuilt as Four Freedoms Plaza). Doom returned as well, with Terrax in tow, and his craving for power once again led to his ultimate destruction, this time for sure! (Riiiight…!)  This was about the time, though, that Reed went missing.

In a clever twist, Byrne followed up on his previous Galactus story by playing out the implications of Reed’s previous rescue of Galactus. Issue #257 was an interlude issue, showing Galactus devouring the Skrull homeworld, an action that continues to have repercussions in the Marvel Universe today. The Galactic powers-that-be then abduct and place Reed on trial for his culpability in saving Galactus. In “The Trial of Reed Richards” the argument was successfully made that Galactus was more a force of nature than a villain, and Richards was freed. This was more thought than most had put into the wandering devourer before, and the story was quite controversial at the time.

1984 brought with it the Secret Wars, and a roster change, as the Thing elected to stay on battleworld, after a breakdown in his relationship with Alicia. She-Hulk replaced him on the team, and returned to Earth with them just in time for tragedy to strike, as Sue’s pregnancy terminated despite Reed’s best efforts. The team forged ahead, however, fighting Terminus, before a strange reunion with Reed’s time-lost father, Nathanial Richards.

1985 brought us the famous She-Hulk centerfold issue, and Byrne’s first crack at a solo story featuring the character with whom he would become much more closely associated. Shulkie had become a favorite of the naysayers by this time, and the cheesecake factor made this issue equally controversial and popular.  By this time, Byrne had hit his stride, but he had a few more tricks up his sleeve, such as starting up a romance between the Torch and Alicia, a move I heartily approved. As much as I like the Thing, the relationship had stagnated by that time, and this was an intriguing twist, especially when Ben returned from Battleworld and predictably flipped out. Of course, as soon as Byrne left, the next guy couldn’t wait to undo it.

Byrne also made great strides during his run in establishing the Invisible Girl as a powerful, competent fighter in her own right. Keep in mind, that up until that point, she had been considered the weakest link in the team, and largely a waste of a character. Over his run, Byrne made her more vital and interesting than she had ever been. His work on Sue culminated with the “Malice” storyline, where she was manipulated into fighting and utterly defeating the rest of the FF by the Psycho Man before breaking free of his control and revenging herself on him. The story arc ended with her renaming herself the Invisible Woman, now aware of her true abilities.

All good things must come to an end, and 1986 saw Byrne’s Fantastic Four run come to an end, anecdotally due to increased editorial interference. Doctor Doom returned yet again, followed by a time- travel story, but by the time Byrne began a story set in Central City, the fake city where the FF debuted, the increased involvement of other creators Roger Stern and Jerry Ordway made it clear that Byrne was on his way out. In those pre-internet days, a change of personnel was usually intuited more than officially reported, but clearly the Byrne era was over, and sure enough, issue 296 had not a hint of Byrne. The book would founder for awhile, with promising but short runs by Steve Englehart and Walt Simonson to come, but overall the years from 1981 to 1986 would be the best Fantastic Four years for some time to come. It was fun while it lasted, and I still consider Fantastic Four #232 – 295 to be some of the best comics ever.

All covers were found at the Grand Comic Database.
All images were found at The John Byrne Forum.


The One True GL said...

Wow, this must be synchronicity, because my last post was a wish list / fantasy about DC developing their own FF.

If you don't like scrolling down, here the link:

Cool Post.

I can't believe Terrax stole Deathstroke the Terminator's pants. Marvel characters can't be trusted. Don't believe me? Take a close look at the upper half of Deathstroke's costume. Why didn't he steal the boots as well?

The Groovy Agent said...

I agree with your assessments of Byrne's FF 1000%, Brian! Byrne's FF, Simonson's Thor, and Miller's DD were by far the best Marvel comics of the 80s. There were some nice short runs in other mags, but to me, the only other mag that comes close to those three (sorry Wolvie and Crew) is Roger Stern's Dr. Strange.

Truly, thou has presented a most far-out post!

Darryl said...

Thanks for reminding me about how great FF was during the Byrne years. Time for a re-read!

coco67 said...

@ Darryl: Maybe a re-Reed?

Mart said...

A terrific piece about terrific comics. But didn't we see what Sue could do long before Malice, in the Byrne issue that began with her being interviewed on TV?

Anyway, thanks for the memories.

Anonymous said...

Byrne's run on FF is a little overrated - let me break it down for you:

232-241: muddy art and way too much exposition. His first year was weak and only looked good in comparison to the previous dreck.

242-264: this is the good stuff only marred by Byrne's massive ego as he inserted his ugly mug into a cosmic trial of Galactus tale.

265-292: no backgrounds, increasingly contrived stories (Torch and Alicia? Sue in leather?), and a classic Byrne trait: leaving a story unfinished.

Sadly Byrne's bad attitude and crappy work ethic got him banned from DC and Marvel and now he just churns out boring licensed books and overpriced commissions.

How the mighty have fallen!

Joe Zhang

Rol said...

Like you, I'm a huge fan of Byrne's FF. I recently caught up with it through the trade paperback collections. I didn't recognise a couple of the images you used here though, they seem more recent. I particularly liked the one with the original FF vs. Byrne's FF. Where did that come from?

Brian Hughes said...

The newer images are commissions, and were found at he John Byrne Forum, linked in the post. The specific thread I got these pictures from seems to have been lost in the churn, though.

Rob Orange said...

Hey! Thanks for the mention. So nice.
Happy New Year!

Rob said...

Ah those were the days. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. John Byrne on X-Men and FF - Wowser!

Doc said...

The Silver Surfer/Terrax storyline was one of the best of this era.

That Byrne could really tell a story, couldn't he?

C Lue said...

Terrific special art! I still have many, many of these issues left to read or find. #236 in particular is special, as it is the first of my comics my wife ever read, on our first road trip.
The ones I could find or borrow from my friends (Hatemonger, Franklin's return from the future, the centerfold, Central City) are ever so vibrant to my mind. I was inspired by this era when I wrote (and partially illustrated) my novel's crossover with the Four. I think you'll find it very cool!

Dan said...

I met Byrne in Detroit and told him how much I love issue 232. I told him it was the PERFECT introductory story for new readers. It completely explains each character's personality and powers. You could read a year's worth of modern comics and not know them so well. But Byrne didn't agree. He didn't think it was that good. FF 232 is the first comic I bought multiples of. Not for investment, but I kept rereading it so much I wore two copies out--and I had to have at least one in great condition!

I agree with the author that the FF wasn't very good in the two years prior to Byrne's takeover. But I would disagree if that was applied to issues pre-200. I believe the FF was really good all the way to 200.