Monday, August 1, 2011

Review: Maximum Fantastic Four

Review Maximum Fantastic Four #1 Issue One Stan Lee Jack Kirby Walter Mosley Mark Evanier Marvel Cover hardcover hc comic book
Writers: Stan Lee, Walter Mosley, and Mark Evanier
Artist: Jack Kirby
Collects: Fantastic Four #1 (1961)
Published: Marvel, 2005; $49.99

There’s probably little to say about Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four that hasn’t already been said by people more knowledgeable and more eloquent than me. Still, I feel like I’m constantly reading comments from people who have never read a single page of their work, and I find that terribly saddening. If you’re one of the many people who haven’t experienced this seminal run at least in part, I encourage you to pick up the first Marvel Masterworks: Fantastic Four trade paperback, which collects the first ten issues of the comic. For those already initiated, though, Maximum Fantastic Four is a truly amazing presentation of the series’ first issue, one that fully lives up to its name.

Conceived by the novelist Walter Mosley as a “visual exegesis” of Fantastic Four #1, the book provides perhaps the most innovative reproduction of a single comic book that I’ve ever seen. Nearly every panel is blown up to extraordinary size and devoted its own entire page, with some of the pages folding out to give certain panels an even more dramatic flair. Segments of dialogue and narration are occasionally pushed off the page in order to give more room to the artwork, placing the emphasis on the utter spectacle of Kirby’s artwork rather than the plot itself.

That being the case, Maximum Fantastic Four certainly isn’t the way to read this issue if you’ve never read it before. But if (like me) you’ve already read it several times or more, the presentation here is more than a breath of fresh air; it’s a release, a chance to marvel at the sight of super-powered men (and one super-powered woman) doing the spectacular things that we only wish we could do. Indeed, this book suggests a way of reading comics completely different from that which many readers today are accustomed to – one in which each and every panel is a work of art unto itself, and worthy of individual attention.

It’s a way of reading that I’ve embraced (without even realizing it) ever since I started reading comics by Lee and Kirby as a kid. Over the years, I’ve often puzzled over why I seem to take longer to read my comics than a lot of people do. The answer, it’s clear to me now, is that while I often pause to admire an artist’s work, many readers simply let their eyes fly across the page without taking the time to truly absorb what they’ve experienced visually. In many cases, especially when the artwork is average or subpar, there’s not much fault to be found in that; but, as Mosley reminds us with this book, the rewards for taking our time with artists like Kirby are nearly limitless.

The main content is supplemented with wonderful essays by Mosley and Mark Evanier (author of Kirby: King of Comics). In addition to explaining Mosley’s reasons for creating the book, the two writers also contextualize the comic within its time and provide the reader with a deeper understanding of its enduring influence on American popular culture. If you don’t already believe that it was pure magic flowing from Lee’s typewriter and Kirby’s pen when they created the Fantastic Four, these pieces, in combination with the unique presentation of the material itself, will likely change your mind. In the end, Maximum Fantastic Four is truly an affirmation of the genius of two creators at an artistic peak, one of the many peaks that each would experience throughout his long career in comics. And even more importantly, it’s an affirmation of why we read comics – of that sense of exhilaration and wonder that draws us back again and again to the medium we love.

Rating: 5 out of 5


  1. I've got this book, but I have to say that, despite it's good intentions, it fails to present the story in a way which it deserves. Merely enlarging panels at random and turning some on their side does not a worthwhile venture make. And the arbitrary cropping is incredibly infuriating. Also, the binding seems a little fragile in my copy, meaning the book must be handled delicately for fear the pages will become detached. I'd much prefer to see a treasury-sized printing of this issue, which would more than adequately present Jack's art in a way this book aspires to but falls far short in delivering. Incidentally, the recent softcover Masterworks you refer to contains the best printings yet of those first 10 tales.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Kid, and I'm sorry you didn't enjoy this book as much as I did. There was only one spot where I was slightly bothered by the cropping -- in the panel where the Human Torch reduces his sports car to a pile of molten slag as he flies away, we don't see as much of the damage he's done as in the original comic. But it's a minor quibble about a book that, otherwise, I enjoyed very much.

    I agree that the binding could be better, but the book does come from an era when Marvel hadn't yet switched to sewn binding for its oversized hardcovers. Speaking of which, I also own the original printing of the first Fantastic Four Omnibus, and the reproduction of the first issue is great there too. From my understanding, it's even better in the most recent Masterworks printing. So in terms of reading the story as it was originally presented, there are many different options; I just think it's nice to have one so radically different from the others in the form of Maximum FF as well.

  3. In the Omnibus printing, there's a vertical splice on the last page of #1, and issues 2 to 10 (at least) are from the same inferior proofs as the early hardback Masterwork volumes. As I said, so far the best presentation of the first 10 stories are in the softcover Masterworks edition from a year or two back.

  4. Thanks for the info. I didn't realize they had redone issues 2-10 in addition to the first issue for the Masterwork. I also don't remember noticing the vertical splice before, so I'll have to give it a look when I get home. I have to say, I'm very tempted to pick up that first Masterwork softcover now. It's really too bad that Marvel refuses to go back to press on the two FF Omnibuses, using the better remastering...while it's unlikely that I'd re-buy the first one, even with better reproduction, I missed the second originally and I'd jump at the chance to buy it now.

  5. Marvel did produce a 2nd printing of FF Omnibus Vol 1, but from the same proofs. In this version, they corrected some (but not all) of the oversights in Stan's account of FF's beginnings from Origins of Marvel Comics. They seem to be particularly careless in this regard - they missed out a paragraph from Stan's introduction to the Thor hardback Masterworks when they did the softcover version a while back (which was superior in every other respect). I worked as a restoration artist on the first printings of volumes 25 & 26 of Masterworks - see my post called 'Restoring The King' at for more details if you haven't already.

  6. Yes, I did know about the first Omnibus's second printing; I had assumed there were no changes made to the content, just to the trade dress and paper stock. But that's just baffling that entire paragraphs would somehow be omitted -- surely they must be working from copies of the original material in order to be presenting it at all.

    Is the Thor Masterwork you mentioned one of the volumes collected in the recent Thor Omnibus? Because I do have that, and I could see if the paragraph has been reinstated.

  7. The Thor Omnibus also omits the paragraph I refer to. I think it happened because two paragraphs started the same way and caused whoever was copying it to lose the place. It came before the one that begins "As for the artwork..." - if they had changed "artwork" to "dialogue", I wouldn't have noticed the paragraph was missing.

  8. Thanks for the info. I didn't realize they had redone issues 2-10 in addition to the first issue for the Masterwork. I also don't remember noticing the vertical splice before, so I'll have to give it a look when I get home. I have to say, I'm very tempted to pick up that first Masterwork softcover now. It's really too bad that Marvel refuses to go back to press on the two FF Omnibuses, using the better remastering

  9. I'm sorry, but am I the only one who feels all this attention to the first Fantastic Four issue is misplaced? I'm mean, seriously, it's another monster tale that has been adapted into a new concept book and at that, the artwork, characters and development of the plot are all somewhat tentative and not upto the standards withwhich we regard The King. I would have waited and put the effort into the outstanding FF #25-26 two-parter, or maybe the Galactus Trilogy, or #51 "This Man This Monster". I think we've seen enough time wasted on this tentative start to a new direction in comics. A better target would have been one who showed the King hitting his stride or a Key Marvel issue, like #4, 5 or 6...