They had no secret identities per se, just code names. Folks all over Manhattan knew where they lived and why to avoid the Baxter Building. Instead of an all-for-one iconic team, this was more like a real family with the usual bickering between “brothers” (Ben and Johnny), romantic curves (Namor and, at one time, yes, even Ben after Reed’s fiancé Sue), and unusual darkness and pathos (“This Man, This Monster” anyone?)
No, instead of creating a book that would, as their publisher hoped, challenge the popularity of Justice League of America, Stan and Jack created what is now the Marvel Universe, a place of wonder for us all that began 50 years ago with that rocket ride through cosmic rays and a laying on of four hands (one rather orange, lumpy and large).
Now, after the last issue of Fantastic Four has been put to rest (along with Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, R.I.P.) comes a teaser image from Marvel this week in the form of a familiar, stylized “4” and the names of creators Hickman and Epting. And what is coming will be here in November 2011, marking the 600th issues that the original Fantastic Four #1 was released upon a waiting world.
Does this mean curtains for a sometimes-brilliant FF book? Is it a one-shot celebration of five decades of imaginative and creative stories? Are we getting caught in relaunch fever in answer to DC’s New 52? Or is this a case of a well-planned scenario by writer Jonathan Hickman and Marvel ED?
Our colleagues at Newsarama go further, wondering that, if this is the return of the Human Torch, does that mean “the return of the Fantastic Four as a family team? What does that mean for Spider-Man's membership and the current Future Foundation?”
Similarly over at IGN, the crew is wondering if this does “signal the return of Human Torch, the end of the Future Foundation, or something else entirely?” Legitimate questions, all.
No doubt that, more than any other book Marvel has ever produced (including all variations of Avengers and Spider-Man), Fantastic Four during its middle Lee/Kirby period created more “building blocks’ of the M.U. and enduring characters we continue to explore.
During the run, we meet: the hidden race of alien-human genetic experiments, the Inhumans; the Black Panther, an African king who would be mainstream comics' first black superhero; the alien race the Kree along with old-timers (at this point) the rival, shape-shifting Skrulls; Him, who would become Marvel Cosmic’s beloved Adam Warlock; the Negative Zone; and unstable molecules, still working in them suits today, new and improved!
Of course, the tale most frequently cited as Lee and Kirby's finest hour is the three-part “Galactus Trilogy” that begins in Fantastic Four #48 (March 1966), chronicling the arrival of that Devourer of Worlds, Galactus, and his Herald, none other than the stellar Silver Surfer! As Stan would opine: Nuff said.
Luckily, it was a well-thumbed Fantastic Four #48 that was my introduction to this part of the Marvel Universe, and wow! That Galactus-Watcher standoff! Big Ben helpless! The Surfer and Alicia; a powerless blind girl (in the 1960s, mind you) making all the difference! The Big G vs. Surfer Friday Night Fight! And the Watcher guiding Johnny to the World Ship after the Ultimate Nullifer (still makes me shiver, brr …)!
I have been COSMIC ever since!
So what does Marvel have in mind with its ominous release of the familiar “4” symbol high above our world? I guess we shall just have to wait and see if "#600" will be the lucky one for that which was once called “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine.”