As a kid, I never really got into the Fantastic Four. I think a big part of that comes from me being in the throes of oncoming adolescent rebellion and not particularly cottoning to the idea of a super hero "family" being cool. Truth be told, I'm sometimes surprised the FF has remained as commercially viable as it has for so many years given that a large part of its target audience has always been tweens who don't want to spend time with their parents, but that consistent success speaks to the strength of the core concept.
That appeal and the inventiveness of what Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created is something I came to appreciate a lot more on a more professional/critical level, if still not really a personal one, as I resumed reading comics as an adult (or close to it) and began drifting into the industry myself. I began to gain a respect for what a game-changer Fantastic Four was in terms of moving comics away from the "everybody has the same personality and everybody is always happy" early Silver Age DC stuff and into the more nuanced character work of the 60's and beyond.
My third phase of interaction with the Fantastic Four is where I'm at today: I still wouldn't say I'm among the world's biggest FF fans, but I've developed a soft spot for Reed, Sue, Ben and Johnny that was never there before. Part of that may come from working at Marvel and having been exposed to more material than at any other time in my life, but I also think as I've gotten older, strengthened my relationship with my parents, and settled down a bit in temperament, I've been able to move past the bias I had against a family-oriented comic once upon a time and see there are some really excellent stories starring these characters.
Here are some of them.
"Bedlam at the Baxter Building!"
If you want an example of how Lee and Kirby were able to make the Marvel Universe feel like an actual universe long before the advents of Civil Wars and Secret Invasions, this would be the one in the textbook. It's the wedding of Mister Fantastic and the Invisible Woman, an event that would in and of itself qualify as a comic book landmark, but Lee and Kirby up the ante by having Doctor Doom use a "high frequency emotion charger" to influence pretty much every prominent Marvel villain who had been introduced by 1965, including Kang, the Mandarin, Electro, the Mad Thinker, the Puppet Master, Attuma, Hydra and more, into attacking the big event. Fortunately, the Avengers, the X-Men, Nick Fury and others happen to be on the guest list (and Spider-Man and Daredevil happen to be in the neighborhood), so the baddies never get inside the church, allowing Reed and Sue to focus on tying that knot. While the sizzle here is getting to see Kirby's unparalleled rendition of the entire Marvel U in one place, at one time, in one book, the steak is still the emotional stuff between the FF members, be it Reed finally committing to something other than science, Ben displaying his softer side or Johnny growing up a bit as his sister gets hitched; you could say it's not just a marriage of two super heroes, but also of dynamite action with scintillating soap opera as well (and I just did!). "The Coming of Galactus"
Ironically, while I have read the actual Galactus Trilogy in its original form at some point, that's probably the interpretation I remember the least; I do recall having seen it in plenty of other incarnations, both in print (most memorably in Marvels) and on the small screen as part of the seminal 90's FF cartoon (featuring Brian Austin Green rapping!). The story has translated so well on so many occasions in so many ways (and while I wasn't the biggest fan of the animated series I just mentioned, I loved the Galactus episodes, probably because they adopted it pretty faithfully) because it really is Lee and Kirby hitting on all cylinders with huge concepts, amazing set pieces, and wonderful characters, from the FF themselves to Galactus to the Silver Surfer. It's an epic that feels like a huge deal even if you go back and read it today, with high stakes and pivotal moments, so I can only imagine the scale back in 1966. While the FF don't necessarily get the whole spotlight, in many ways that is one of the times when Fantastic Four is at its best as a comic: the lead quartet are familiar and likeable enough to take something of a backseat and serve as your guides to a world of unfamiliar and amazing heroes and villains. The pathos of the Silver Surfer, the humanity embodied by Alicia Masters, the brilliant Kirby designs of Galactus and his technology, and the FF's struggle basically against God all make for a classic story that earned its place there.
"Terror in a Tiny Town"
If (like I said above) Lee and Kirby spent their impressive formative run on Fantastic Four largley utilizing the FF as a door to introduce the universe in their minds, a decade after they wrapped up, John Byrne took over as writer/artist and, while not abandoning the exploration aspect of the book altogether, definitely excelled when it came to really getting in the heads of the FF, showing what made them tick, pushing them to their limits, then building them back up. In a particularly impressive yarn from Fantastic Four #236, Byrne cold opens the issue with Johnny Storm having a nightmare about a familiar space flight and bursting into flames only to wake up to his normal, happy life in Liddleville, alongside Reed, Sue, a human Ben, a not-blind Alicia and her stepfather, Philip, who is not the Puppet Master? What the hell? Of course it's all good to be true, and you know that from page one, but Byrne weaves a tearjerker of a tale about the FF getting everything they ever wanted at too great a cost, and the horrible sacrifices they must make to set things "right." It's emotional, it's intensely psychological, and it features an incredible villain reveal as well as great art by Byrne to match his words.
Fantastic Four: Unstable Molecules
I can pretty much guarantee that James Sturm and Guy Davis' Unstable Molecules is unlike any other Fantastic Four story you will ever read--that certainly rings true for me--but it's certainly worth it, as it takes the bedrock characteristics of the FF and uses them as the building blocks for an entirely different kind of story that is extremely thought-provoking and entertaining. Unstable Molecules is basically Reed, Sue, Ben and Johnny without super powers, placed in the complex world of America in the 1960's with their character quirks played out in what would seem to be logicial extremes in the "real world" without aliens and tyrants to battle. It's a fascinating commentary on relationships, gender roles, the class system, youthful rebellion and a lot more, as well as a surreal look at how bizarre it would be to live in the same neighborhood as the Fantastic Four even if they didn't turn invisible or have skin made of rocks. This sucker won an Eisner, so you don't need to just take my word for it.
My first real, prolonged exposure to the Fantastic Four as a reader began in 2006 when Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo came onboard as the creative team. I was a big fan of Waid and dug Wieringo too, but I'll be honest: the nine cent price on their first issue was probably the biggest factor in me picking it up. Said issue did it's job though, as Waid penned a story that summed up perfectly why the FF was a fun grouping of diverse archetypes who played off one another beautifully and also demonstrated his ability to tell the sad side of their story while Wieringo just made everything look absolutely gorgeous. However, while I enjoyed the initial seven issues of what would become an excellent run just fine, it was in the eighth story, the prologue to Waid's opus to Doctor Doom, "Unthinkable," that I truly became a believer. I know that some folks weren't huge fans of the revamp Waid and Wieringo gave to Doom (I worked with them at Wizard), but for me, the idea that Doom would eschew science for magic as a way to finally gain his revenge against Reed and the FF made perfect sense and I loved how it opened up the toolbox beyond Doombots and deathtraps. From the prologue issue, which swings abruptly and powerfully from poignant to tragic, through the utter torture Doom puts the FF through in the subseqeunt chapters, "Unthinkable" is just amped-up emotion incarnate and maybe the best demonstration I've ever seen if what makes Doom such an awesome villain and unstoppable force of malice. But as much as the big overtures make "Unthinkable," so do the clever twists Waid throws in, not the least of which is how Reed ultimately saves the day. "Unthinkable" is a case where you can really see two great creators having fun and demonstrating mastery over their craft; it's quite something to behold.