Sunday, March 7, 2010

1981 – Fantastic Four

Byrning the Fantastic Four
Fantastic Four #226-237
January 1981 - December 1981
Writer: Doug Moench
Artist: Bill Sienkiewicz
Writer/Artist: John Byrne

The Fantastic Four was in desperate need of a fresh breath of air. The title was painfully clinging to the past and was trapped in a vicious circle of mediocrity. The first half of the year’s stories were underwhelming to say the least. Doug Moench’s stagnant and predictable plots featured the likes of the Ebon Seeker, the Brain Parasites, Stygorr and the Samurai Destroyer. The team seemed like card board cutouts playing over orchestrated parts. Nothing new was happening; nothing really challenged who or what the Fantastic Four was.

The talented Bill Sienkiewicz provided uninspired layouts that were inked over by the legendary Joe Sinnott who did his best to provide a Kirby finish to the art. Just take a look at any of Sienkiewicz's Moon Knight and you’ll really get a feel for the unrestrained Sienkiewicz.

John Byrne, no stranger to the Fantastic Four having penciled issues #208-218,220, and 221, decided it was time for a change. He left the Uncanny X-Men and was given full creative control of the Fantastic Four as writer and artist.

John Byrne didn’t waste any time getting started in his first issue, #232. In an impressive debut, his take on Marvel's first family hit on all cylinders.  His approach featured a nostalgic back to basics feel, a focus on character driven stories, and a fresh artistic direction. Byrne clearly demonstrated in his debut issue that he had a thorough understanding of what made each character work and adeptly handles their interaction.

The only real complain I had was that Byrne inked his own penciled art. Actually, I still don’t like his art when he inks it. His art has always been stronger when someone else has inked it. As a point for comparison, take look at his penciled art in the Uncanny X-Men. It’s rather easy to see Terry Austin’s contribution to the art as he added focus and definition to Byrne’s penciled art. Later on in the 80s, Byrne’s pencils on the Fantastic Four title will get a real boost from Jerry Ordway giving his work a really polished feel.

To give you an idea of the resistance against change on the Fantastic Four that existed at that time, here's an excerpt from an interview with Jay Zilber in December of 1981 (published in The Fantastic Four Chronicles), Len Wein and Marv Wolfman:

"Len Wein: My principal complaint -- and I may feel stronger about this than Marvin [Marv Wolfman] -- is that I much resent what John is doing, I resent his implication that everything in the past 20 years hasn't happened, that it's still 1964. Everything he's doing is throwbacks to the past. I resent him tampering with so much of the legend. (…) It's really very imperious to suddenly decide to change so much that is integral to the whole Marvel mythos, as opposed to just a supporting character in a book.
He draws The Watcher the way he was drawn in the first story. Nobody else draws him that way. There's a whole issue The Watcher stars in, where he doesn't look the way he does in any other book.

Marv Wolfman: John may be right; but unless it's company policy to make the change throughout the whole line, it's really wrong for him to do it alone."

Byrne was clearly blazing a new direction for Marvel's former flagship title. Despite his early critics, Byrne's run on the Fantastic Four would go down in comic book history as one of the best runs ever on any comic book title. His work easily stands out as the best run on the Fantastic Four since Lee and Kirby and Byrne's run still has yet to be matched since then.


  1. I have always felt the opposite on Byrne inking Byrne, especially back then on the FF. Byrne's approach of inking over-sized art with marker made his work look even more fresh and dynamic, perfect for his bold new direction. When Sinnott took over inking, it gave his work an "everything's back to normal now" look I found disheartening.

  2. Thanks for including that poster image, that was my second comic book poster I ever got and I loved it (my first was Alpha Flight, also by Byrne!).

    No creator has his name in more of my comics than Byrne (excluding cases like editor-in-chief Shooter or "Stan Lee presents..."). That guy had a huge impact on my comic enjoyment and was certainly a pillar of 80's Marvel (plus I followed him to DC with Man of Steel, so he had an impact there as well!).

  3. i recently finished up reading the full run of FF (stopping after issue #354, the end of simonson's run) thanks to the 40 years of FF DVD which has every issue scanned in pdf format (obviously not the ideal reading format, but still a great way to kill time at work). i definitely agree with you on the moench/sienkiewicz run, they seemed like such an odd choice for the title. i have a great deal of respect for moench and especially sienkiewicz, but they were not doing their best work on the title.

    while i have always had some issues with byrne's work, i did enjoy his run quite a bit, partially because i could read it in the context of all the lackluster post-lee/kirby FF runs that preceded it. however, i have to say that it was the simonson run that really captured my imagination. definitely my favorite post-lee/kirby run, no question.

  4. As much as I appreciate the Byrne run, critical opinion of Wolfman & Wein aside, I am of the opinion that his run has been matched, nay, surpassed by the smaller Mark Waid/Mike Wieringo/Howard Porter run, which ran from Vol 2 issues 60-70 & then vol 1 500-525 (or arounds)

  5. Avalon must be kidding.

    But I liked the issues after Byrne when Buscema was drawing the FF. Beautiful art. The post-Johnny/Alicia wedding stuff was mediocre story-wise, though.



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