In 1961 Stan Lee had been writing comic books for twenty-two years while still writing television material, advertising copy, and newspaper features in his spare time, when his wife, Joan, asked him why he did not put as much creativity and effort into the comics as he seemed to be putting into his free-lance endeavors. Lee took her words to heart and when the publisher of Timely noticed that D.C.'s "Justice League of America" with its team of superheroes was selling better than most, Lee went to work creating a comic book featuring a new team of superheroes. Working with artist Jack Kirby, with whom he had been turning out monster stories like "Xom, the Creature Who Swallowed the Earth" and "Fin Fang Foom," Lee created a different type of team. This time the hero and heroine would actually be engaged, they would not have any secret identities or costumes, and they would have one member who not only had brute strength and a hair-trigger temper but would be ugly, morose, and totally antisocial. Thus was born "The Fantastic Four."
The first issue introduced the Thing (Ben Grimm), Mr. Fantastic (Reed Richards), the Human Torch (Johnny Storm), and the Invisible Girl (Sue Storm), and the cover proclaimed "TOGETHER FOR THE FIRST TIME IN ONE MIGHTY MAGAZINE," which is true since they had never been in any magazine before. But keep in mind that by issue #4 the words "The World's Greatest Comic Magazine!" would appear over the title of "The Fantastic Four," so it is not like hyperbole and Stan Lee were strangers. "Marvel Masterworks: Fantastic Four, Volume 1" collects the first 10 issues of this comic book in what passed for glorious color in the early Sixties.
#1 "The Fantastic Four" has the group coming together for the first time so that we can learn about the cosmic rays that gave them their powers and their first fight with the Mole Man; #2 "The Fantastic Four Meet the Skrulls from Outer Space" has the first encounter against those aliens and with one of the strangest solutions to dealing with defeated aliens of all time; #3 "The Menace of the Miracle Man" presents the Fantasti-Car and the FF's new costumes; #4 "The Coming of...Sub-Mariner" is the classic story in which the Human Torch discovers Namor and reintroduces him into the new Marvel Universe; #5 "Prisoners of Doctor Doom" introduces the FF's greatest villain; #6 "Captives of the Deadly Duo" has the might Sub-Mariner and the evil Doctor Door team up up to take on our heroes; #7 "Prisoners of Kurrgo, Master of Planet X" offers another set of alien invaders, who turns the people of Earth against the FF; #8 "Prisoners of the Puppet Master" continues the bondage theme and introduces not only the Puppet Master but his blind step-daughter Alicia; #9 "The End of the Fantastic Four" brings back Namor, who has bought a Hollywood studio to make a picture about this arch foes; and #10 "The Return of Doctor Doom" has the Lord of Latvaria switching bodies with Reed Richards.
One of the keys to a successful comic book is coming up with good villains and clearly Lee and Kirby were very happy with both Namor and Dr. Doom, who show up in half of these stories. Namor was in love with Sue Storm and Victor Von Doom was jealous of Reed Richards, so there were all sorts of fun subtexts to their battles. Meanwhile the Thing keeps changing back and forth into Ben Grimm with more frequency than you would expect; nobody else has their powers coming and going, but then nobody else in the FF has the pathos of the Thing. Fortunately Alicia is around to make the big guy feel better.
If you have read any of the Lee and Kirby monster stories then you will recognize the same sort of format, with all of these stories divided into five chapters, and for several of the early stories the FF does end up fighting giant monsters. But with Namor and Dr. Doom everything changed and "The Fantastic Four" moved into the next gear. Those stories that are classics in this volume earned that status because of their historical value than the actual story telling, but you can still read these ten issues and appreciate how the groundwork was being set for not only this comic book (the world's greatest by its own admission), but the entire Marvel Universe as well. It is not until the very end of Volume 4 in the Marvel Masterworks series that the FF starts to earn that title, but this is where it all began and it is not hyperbole to say that issue #1 of "The Fantastic Four" is the most important comic book produced in my lifetime.