The Fantastic Four launched the Marvel Universe all the way back in the '60s, and their creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby birthed a whole universe of wonders around them. And in the decades since, they've had their share of timeless tales told by legendary creators.
With Marvel's "first family" about to undergo a shift in status quo in October as foretold in Marvel's just-released October solicitations, we're counting down the best Fantastic Four stories of all time.
New Fantastic Four (Fantastic Four Vol. 1 #347-350)
It may seem strange to have a story on this list that doesn't even feature the characters we usually think of as the Fantastic Four, but Walt Simonson's energetic story of an unlikely replacement team is too much fun not to include on this list.
Simonson's Fantastic Four isn't as prominent in the writer/artist's catalog as his Thor run, but this gem with artist Arthur Adams takes the FF to a somewhat meta-level by having the team be replaced by some of Marvel's hottest characters at the time – Hulk, Wolverine, Ghost Rider, and Spider-Man – all while drolly pointing out the marketing potential of the team-up in clever cover blurbs. And of course the whole thing culminates in the return of the original FF (and a massive team-up between both teams) in #350.
The story (and its replacement team) have been fan-favorites ever since, though the magic of Simonson and Adams's collective sense of both action and humor has rarely been repeated – especially in the pages of Fantastic Four.
1234 (1234 #1-4)
Grant Morrison is known for his massive, reality-stretching ideas, so taking on the Fantastic Four is a bit of a no brainer, and his limited series 1234 with artist Jae Lee does not disappoint when it comes to high-concept. But what 1234 also manages to do is arrive at its big super science conclusion through a roadmap of personal stories and narratives.
Splitting the Richards family through a series of personal misfortunes and pitting them against a who's who of some of their greatest foes, Morrison and Lee dial-in on Doctor Doom as the team's greatest adversary. As the various events that unfold through the plot are revealed to be Doom's machinations, 1234 becomes a tale about two of the smartest men in the Marvel Universe - Reed Richards and Victor Von Doom – clashing in a reality-bending test of intelligence and will.
The Peril and the Power (Fantastic Four Vol. 1 #57-60)
Many of the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby stories on this list (and stories in general) focus on the philosophical, the wondrous, the, well… fantastic. But there's also something to be said for a high-octane thriller in the hands of Marvel's first architects, too. And that's what Lee and Kirby deliver in 'The Peril and the Power,' a four-part story in which Doom uses a machine to steal the Power Cosmic from the Silver Surfer.
What follows in a globetrotting adventure that brings in the Inhumans, the Frightful Four, and numerous other FF characters as Doom flits about wreaking havoc at the height of his power. Melodramatic action, bombastic sci-fi concepts, and more Kirby crackle than you can wield with clutched armored fist make this one of Lee and Kirby's most ripping adventures.
Fantastic Faux (FF Vol. 2 #1-16)
Following Jonathan Hickman's years-long Fantastic Four run, writer Matt Fraction took over both the core title and its sister title, FF. Fraction sent the FF into space (and through time) and brought a substitute team into the Baxter Building in the pages of FF alongside artist Mike Allred.
Ant-Man, Medusa, She-Hulk, and the newly introduced Ms. Thing (Johnny's pop-star girlfriend Darla Deering wearing a mechanical Thing suit) formed the new team, who were left in charge of the Future Foundation's group of advanced science students. The entire volume lasted 16 issues (the last handful of which were scripted by Lee Allred, Mike's brother) and get to the core of the Fantastic Four's family dynamic by examining the family we choose as well as the one we're born into.
FF also managed to keep the sci-fi weirdness dialed way up with a Voltron-style Doctor Doom/Annihilus/Kang mash-up villain named Kang the Annihilating Conqueror, a one-eyed future Johnny Storm, and of course the adorable oddity of the Foundation's many students. And, in its heartfelt finale, it brought Scott Lang face to face with Doctor Doom, the man responsible for his daughter Cassie's death.
This Man, This Monster! (Fantastic Four Vol. 1 #51)
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby are often credited with bringing superheroes into modern storytelling with the Fantastic Four by focusing on the team's humanity and personal relationships - an innovative concept in the early '60s, especially as an insight into characters whose powers can be as much a burden as a blessing.
This dynamic is best explored in the story 'This Man, This Monster!' in which a criminal scientist does the unimaginable and steals Ben Grimm's powers, impersonating him among the FF and endangering Reed Richards in the process.
The single-issue story culminates in a daring sacrifice that has tragic, unforeseen ramifications on Ben Grimm and his quest to rediscover his humanity. It's a beautifully crafted O. Henry-style story twist that shows off the best of what Lee and Kirby could accomplish together.
Unthinkable (Fantastic Four vol. 2 #67-70, vol. 2 #500)
Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo's Fantastic Four is largely hailed as one of the greatest runs on the title of all time – a reputation it earned in no small part thanks to 'Unthinkable,' a story that took the FF's arch-foe Doctor Doom to new levels of villainy which included dark arcane power, a suit made of flesh – and eventually the death of one of the FF's own.
After seizing tremendous arcane power through a dark ritual in which he turned the flesh of his former lover into new necromantic armor. Kidnapping Franklin and Valeria, Doom set about besting Reed Richards once and for all through magic – the one 'science' Reed can't grasp.
'Unthinkable' forced the Fantastic Four – and Reed specifically – to stretch himself in every imaginable capacity, and Doom still ended up magically disfiguring Reed's face and setting him on a course of action that would eventually lead to Ben Grimm's death.
Waid and Wieringo's entire run captured the boundary-pushing, adventurous nature of the FF, but Waid's ultimate showdown between Doom's magic and Reed's science, the dangerous new precedent for the FF's villains, and the start of Doom's connection to Valeria Richards make this one of the best stories of their run (not to mention Wieringo's masterful, expressive art) – and, it directly set the stage for the best story of the pair's work together.
Three (Fantastic Four Vol. 1 #583-588)
Writer Jonathan Hickman's Fantastic Four epic is a great read for fans looking for a big picture FF saga that touches on nearly the team's entirely mythos. But to dial his contribution to the team down to a single story is a tougher prospect, partially because of the magnitude of his narrative design.
There are a lot of gems in Hickman's FF, but the best story of his run is arguably 'Three' with artist Steve Epting. In the story's final chapter, Johnny and Ben Grimm fight alone to repel an invasion from the Negative Zone. Just as they're about to overcome the Annihilation Wave, a bit of Hickman's long-term tragedy kicks in, and Ben reverts to human form thanks to a potion he took that allows him to shed his rocky form once a year.
Johnny is overrun by the Wave as Ben seals the portal from the outside, lamenting his inability to help his friend thanks to the one thing he always wanted – the return of his humanity. Epting captures the unspeakable horror of the moment with gut-wrenching moodiness that echoes Ben's solemn resignation at his best friend's death.
It's a dark chapter in the FF's history to be sure (not that that's unique) but Hickman's ability to capture the true familial pathos of the Fantastic Four and the unique bond between Johnny and Ben make this a must-read story. The tale also formally brought Spider-Man into the team as Johnny's replacement and led to the creation of the Future Foundation.
Trial of Reed Richards (Fantastic Four Vol. 1 #262)
John Byrne's lengthy run on Fantastic Four in the '80s brought Marvel's first family back to prominence after nearly a decade of workmanlike runs that aspired to but didn't reach the heights of innovation and excitement the 100 issues Lee and Kirby produced in the '60s. But Byrne, with his cartoonist's approach to writing and drawing the series and his knack for sci-fi laced melodrama made him the heir apparent to Lee and Kirby's grandeur – and made the FF a can't-miss title for the first time in years.
It's tough to pin down everything Byrne contributed to the Fantastic Four, but his massive story 'The Trial of Galactus' sums up what Byrne was capable of at the height of his game, and the power of escalating a big idea. In the story, Reed Richards stands trial for saving Galactus' life and allowing him to consume more planets.
In the course of the story, we learn Galactus' history and his place in the cosmic order of the Marvel Universe. But the brilliance of 'The Trial of Galactus' is that by putting Reed on trial, it forces him to grapple with the ramifications of a universe without Galactus's monumental hunger – and even defend the way he sates it.
Hereafter (Fantastic Four Vol. 1 #509-511)
Fantastic Four has always been about family. Sometimes that means your blood relations, but sometimes it's about the people you choose. For Reed Richards, that means Ben Grimm, his constant companion, best friend, and fellow FF member. So when Doctor Doom used his mind-switching power to take over Ben's body and force Reed to kill his best friend to defeat him in Mark Waid and Howard Porter's 'Authoritative Action,' it left the still-physically scarred Reed inconsolable.
The follow-up arc to 'Authoritative Action' (itself presaged by the also must-read 'Unthinkable') 'Hereafter' brought the title's regular artist Mike Wieringo back to the fold for what would become the creative team's best story – and one of the greatest tributes to Marvel Comics, the FF, and even Jack Kirby ever put to paper.
'Hereafter' follows Reed's quest to bring back his dead friend. In doing so, Reed decides to put his faith in something other than himself, and it leads him to a destination unlike any the FF had ever visited previously – Heaven itself, complete with a Kirby-esque creator pulling the strings (or more aptly pushing the pencils). But unlike previous fourth wall breaking stories like Grant Morrison's Animal Man, 'Hereafter' is less about the consequences of learning the nature of one's reality and more about what is possible when you accept the right impossibility at the right time.
This isn't a story where Reed, Sue, Johnny, and Ben save the world. It's not a story where they bash down a supervillain or solve a cosmic crisis. 'Hereafter' is about love, hope, friendship, and ultimately, discovery – the core tenets of what Fantastic Four is all about.
The Galactus Trilogy (Fantastic Four Vol. 1 #48-50)
There's an apocryphal story about the origin of 'The Galactus Trilogy,' the FF's first encounter with Galactus, that says Stan Lee and Jack Kirby got the idea when Kirby asked Lee "What if the Fantastic Four met God?"
Whether that's true or not, the anecdote – and this story, the mid-point of Lee and Kirby's FF collaboration – is a perfect microcosm of the insane game of 'yes, and' that Lee and Kirby often embarked upon when crafting their stories (and which is largely responsible for the discrepancies in how they're often credited).
Every turn in 'The Galactus Trilogy' adds another level of apocalyptic cosmic fantasy, driven by increasingly bombastic plot devices and characters – from the arrival of the enigmatic Silver Surfer to the looming presence of Uatu the Watcher, to Galactus himself, and of course, the tool of the FF's final desperate victory, the Ultimate Nullifier, Lee and Kirby simply don't slow down once this story starts.
In some ways, 'If This Be Doomsday' set the blueprint for the modern epic storyline, spreading its surprises and big ideas out over three issues (a lengthy tale at the time) with the highest stakes possible. It's also not just the pinnacle of Lee and Kirby's run artistically and creativity, it's also the one FF story any fan absolutely a must-read.