Every other week, Jason Shayer will highlight an issue or a run of issues pulled from the horde of comic book long boxes that occupy more room in his house than his wife can tolerate. Each of these reviews will delve into what made that issue or run significant as well as discuss the creative personalities behind the work. “Long Box” refers to the lengthy, white cardboard boxes most comics find themselves stored within – bagged, alphabetized and numerically ordered.
Fantastic Four #232 was John Byrne’s first issue as both writer and artist and his run would last over five years on the title. Byrne had pencilled the book a few years earlier working with writers Marv Wolfman and Bill Mantlo. The Fantastic Four is more of a family than a super-hero team and no one understood that better than Byrne.
What made Byrne’s take on this title so memorable was how he handled the characters and their relationships. All team books tend to be formulaic, but what Byrne couldn’t succeed at doing with Alpha Flight, he was able to do with the Fantastic Four. He grew them from the archetypes created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and changed them subtly, but meaningfully.
Take for example how Byrne drew the Thing. His version built on Kirby’s designs and actually improved upon them, changing it slightly but adding Byrne’s own mark. As I grew up in the 1980s, I’ve always seen Byrne’s Thing as the definite version. And similarly how Byrne changed their uniform colours or how he changed Sue’s name from the Invisible Girl to the Invisible Woman. And of course, it wasn’t simply a name change, but how she behaved and carried herself. Simple changes that were so powerful and effective, but didn’t change what the Fantastic Four meant and represented.
Now, let’s focus on this issue, aptly titled: “Back to Basics!” It’s easily as significant as Walt Simonson’s debut on The Mighty Thor or Frank Miller’s debut on Daredevil. In the space of 22 pages, Byrne, with a twist, brought the Golden Age of the Fantastic Four into the 1980s. This issue was also our first opportunity to see an unrestrained John Byrne, creatively free to do whatever he pleased. And he certainly didn’t disappoint. It was all there. The family, the inter-character conflict, a character driven plot, and fun! Each character has a clear, distinct personality that immediately grabs you and plunges you into their world.
The plot was straightforward, with Diablo targetting the members of the Fantastic Four with his elemental monsters. Visually the comic was beautiful with Byrne flexing his artistic muscles and clearly having fun drawing Mr. Fantastic in a variety of elastic shapes and visually displaying how the Invisible Girl was so much more than a woman who can turn invisible. Reed as the shrewd and intelligent leader assessed the threat and pulled the team together to overcome Diablo’s machinations.
The inker credited as Bjorn Heyn is actually Byrne himself who playfully used an anagram.
From Amazing Heroes #1 (June 1981), Byrne said: “I tried to do a very primal FF story. I decided to do something that was not much more than a punch-’em-up, with elements of characterization thrown in for good measure.”
And the rest, as they say, is history…
Jason Shayer has recently joined the Biff Bam Pop! writing team. He’s been trying his best not to grow up for that last 30 years and comics books are one of the best ways to keep him young at heart. He’s also known as the Marvel 1980s guy and has probably forgotten more than you’d ever want to know about that wonderfully creative era. Check out his blog at: marvel1980s.blogspot.com.