In the wake of the Civil War that has shaken up the Marvel universe, Reed and Sue Richards have left the Fantastic Four to try and save their marriage and have been replaced by another married couple, the Black Panther and Storm. So it was interesting that the same week I heard this news I was reading through Volume 4 of the "Essential Fantastic Four," which covers the first time that the FF had a new lineup, when Crystal, the elemental Inhuman who was Johnny Storm's girl friend, replaced Sue when she was dealing with her newborn son, Franklin. Sue's pregnancy was announced in the "Fantastic Four" Annual #5 and she gave birth a year later in Annual #6, both of which are included in this volume along with issues #64-83 of the comic book. The stories are all written by Stan Lee, with Jack Kirby being credited as co-plotter and penciler. With the exception of Annual #5 all of the stories are inked by Joe Sinnott, who did as nice of a job of inking Kirby's pencils as anybody. I like what Vince Colletta did with Kirby on "The Mighty Thor," but Sinnot's work on the "Fantastic Four" represents the King's artwork at its best for my money.
Comic book superheroes having children was a rather novel idea, but then having them get married was a rather radical notion (it took decades for Superman and Lois Lane to finally get hitched). But during the Silver Age of comic books the big idea at Marvel was to try and be (relatively speaking) more realistic. Reed Richards and Sue Storm loved each other, so instead of having years of lovers' quarrels like Hank Pym and Janet Van Dyke, it made sense for them to get married, and once they got married having a kid would be the next logical step. Of course as soon as Sue gets pregnant she is not going to go out fighting villains (although I swear Kirby never draws her as clearly being pregnant (in issue #79 Sue wears a long dressing gown), so most of these issues feature Mr. Fantastic, the Thing, and the Human Torch going it alone, although Wyatt Wingfoot shows up for a couple of issues. Actually, Crystal does not put on an FF uniform until issue #81, after the baby is born, and becomes an "official" member of the group by the end of the story.
The Fantastic Four tangle with the Sentry (#64) and then the Ronan the Public Accuser (#65) in a Kree story line, followed by Alicia unlocking "the mystery of the year" and the first appearance of Him (#66-67), who later becomes Warlock years later. Annual #5 features the Inhumans and the Plant Panther fighting alongside the FF against the Psycho-Man, ending with "A most surprising announcement from Mr. Fantastic," along "posters" of the Inhumans and the FF by Kirby followed by a bonus story with the Silver Surfer tangling with Quasimodo. The Mad Thinker turns the Thing against the others in a four-issue story arc that also involves the Thinker's killer android (#68-71). At that point Reed announces he and Sue are "cutting out," because he is not going to jeopardize his wife's life, especially now that she is going to have a baby. However the Silver Surfer shows up (#72) and then following up on the events in "Daredevil" where Dr. Doom switched places with ol' hornhead, we end up with the three male members of the FF fighting Daredevil, Thor and Spider-man because they think DD is still Doom (#73. This is as close as their arch-nemesis gets to the FF in this volume, which is the first in the series not to have a Dr. Doom story in it.
What we get instead is another visit from Galactus (#74), who wants to end the exile of the Silver Surfer because the hunger of ages gnaws within him. Reed's solution is to find the worlds within worlds in the microverse (#75), which only gets the boys stranded in Sub-Atomica (#76) and then rematched against the Psycho-Man (#77), all while the tummy of Galactus rumbles on and on. Then we have yet another example of Reed coming up with a way to turn the Thing back into Ben Grimm (#78), which works right before the Wizard attacks. Of course Ben realizes his friends are at risk and wants to be able to turn back to the Thing when the group needs him, but Reed warns Ben can change back to the Thing just one more time, but if he does he can never become Ben Grimm again, so you know exactly what happens in issue #79. Wyatt Wingfoot shows up for a multi-part story involving the Living Totem (#80), and then we have Annual #6, "Let There Be Life." Sue goes into labor and Reed needs to get anti-matter from the Negative Zone to save mother and child. The FF can face Annihilus, but they wimp out at the hospital and stick to the waiting room. Crystal joins the boys against the Wizard (#81), who then travel to the Hidden Land to help Black Bolt put down a rebellion by Maximus the Mad (#82-83). As an added treat you will find several pages of Jack Kirby's original pencils from some of the issues.
Overall it is not that there are any bad stories in the bunch, but rather that you really do not have any first-rate classic stories in the "Essential Fantastic Four, Volume 4." Galactus and the Silver Surfer have been around before, the Thing has changed back to Ben Grimm before, and Maximus is always trying to dethrone Black Bolt. So I do not think I can round up on this collection and make it seem like it is equal to what we had seen in the previous couple of volumes when the FF were at their zenith. That being said, you have to at least go through Volume 5 of these black-and-white reprints you have to at least get to the end of the road for Jack "King" Kirby, who left the comic book he co-created after drawing the first 102 issues and half dozen annuals of what the cover of each issue insists is the "The World's Greatest Comic Magazine!"