My first memory of the Fantastic Four is The Human Torch; not Johnny Storm, mind you, but The Human Torch; and to be fair, not really of the Fantastic Four.
The same way I knew The Flash and Iron Man without actually knowing who they were as a kid, I knew The Human Torch. I had no concept of who was under those flames and certainly no idea that he was part of something called the Fantastic Four, but I recognized—and dug—that a guy colored red with little black lines running up and down him and underwear you could still see underneath meant he was on fire and a super hero (even though just about every artist since the late 90’s has gone over to depicting a slightly more “realistic” version of the Torch’s flamed on form, in my mind the black lines and yellow eyes ala Kirby will always be what I default to).
Truth be told, I’m even less sure than usual how I came to know The Human Torch. Usually my gut goes with thinking I must have watched a cartoon and picked it up, but the Torch was infamously left out of the late 70’s animated series because the powers that be thought young viewers might light themselves on fire and was replaced by H.E.R.B.I.E. I know I watched the 90’s FF portion of the Marvel Action Hour, but I definitely was drawing the Torch before I was 12. Maybe I saw a toy or a t-shirt? Not sure, but regardless, I knew who The Human Torch was before I knew who or what the Fantastic Four were.
Sometime later, still before I read my first FF comic but also definitely aware I became aware of The Human Torch, The Thing came on my radar. Again, I’m not quite sure how it happened, but certainly Marvel characters were licensed all over the place dating back to when I was a kid, so it’s not unlikely I saw a lunchbox or whatever and the two most visually striking characters jumped out at me while the others receded into the background; honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that my established childhood fascination with the colors red and yellow—it wasn’t a coincidence Flash and Iron Man were my earlier examples—drew my eye first to the Torch, but surely the big dude with the dinosaur head made of rocks proved an irresistible lure to my young eyes.
I got my first Fantastic Four comic in a grab bag from the grocery store in 1988. I was six years old and it was issue #314, written by Steve Englehart, drawn by Keith Pollard, sporting a cover from Ron Frenz and edited by my recently-retired former co-worker Ralph Macchio. Belasco was the bad guy and the blurb next to him on front reading “From the pages of the X-Men” no doubt increased my excitement to read the book. I don’t remember much about the story other than that the FF were fighting demons, the sky was on fire at some point and a blind lady who was married to The Human Torch was really worried about him.
Oh, and the roster of the Fantastic Four was The Thing, The Human Torch, Ms. Marvel in her “She-Thing” incarnation and, of course…Crystal.
Again, recall that The Thing and The Human Torch were the only FF characters I knew; I had some vague idea that there was supposed to be a stretchy guy and a girl on the team, but I assumed Crystal was the girl and maybe I made the stretchy guy up or he was actually on the Justice League. It seemed odd to me that there was a female Thing, but I didn’t know any better so I assumed she had always been there; likewise, The Thing being extra mutated didn’t faze me because I was at least familiar with the concept of new costumes.
As far as I knew, The Thing, The Human Torch, Ms. Marvel and Crystal had been the Fantastic Four for over 300 issues.
Like some sort of crazy therapy hypnosis session, I do believe writing this blog entry has helped me recall exactly when my hatred for Crystal began. Like I said, there’s a scene in this issue where Alicia Masters—Johnny’s blind wife whose name I did not know at the time—is freaking out with the rest of the world’s population because the sky is on fire and she’s worried about her husband. On the flipside, the Torch keeps saying how worried he is about his wife since they’re underground fighting demons and he doesn’t know what’s happened to her. In the midst of this, Crystal keeps hitting on Johnny and wanting to talk about why he won’t get with her despite him repeatedly telling her to knock it off.
At six years old, with no knowledge of continuity or that Crystal had a husband of her own she was mistreating or a kid she had ditched to chase after her old boyfriend, I understood enough about the basic dynamics of marriage to know that this bimbo was bad news. I was a really smart kid.
Looking back, while I would gradually track down further issues of comics my dad would randomly bring me home in grab bags like X-Men and Spider-Man, it would be years before I ever got into reading Fantastic Four, and I think I now know why. While I’m sure there were merits to this particular version of the book, to a kid, all I saw was a super hero team with nothing to set it apart other than a reduced roster. Why would I want to read about only four characters when I could instead pick up Avengers or Justice League and see many more? Besides, two strong ugly characters seemed redundant and I didn’t understand Crystal’s powers.
It really goes to show how intrinsic to the value of the Fantastic Four that family dynamic is. I’ve since gone back and read the really good FF stuff—Lee/Kirby, Byrne, Waid/Wieringo, etc.—and gained a whole new appreciation for it as an adult because it’s so different. The banter, heightened emotions and genuine affection the core characters trade or feel for one another puts the FF on a level apart from all those other teams. Even now, while the Torch may be gone and the Four have become the Future Foundation with Spider-Man and a half dozen kids in tow, that feeling of family and casual closeness as opposed to the professionalism of the Justice League or office politics of the Avengers gives FF its own identity I couldn’t see from my first Fantastic Four experience.
As a bit of a postscript, I finally gave Fantastic four another shot around 1994 when the new cartoon was rapping its way into my heart thanks to Brian Austin Green. The Thing was sporting a mask, The Invisible Woman wore a bathing suit, and Mr. Fantastic was dead, replaced alternately by Namor and the Scot Lang version of Ant-Man. So while I considered myself a pretty hardcore Marvel fan by the mid 90’s, I still had no idea who Reed Richards was.