The Fantastic Four, Marvel’s first family, has been around since 1961, and during that time, the team has been at the center of hundreds of comic books — each one adding a new wrinkle to the mythology.

In the five decades since its launch, the Four has served as a cornerstone of the Marvel Universe. Mr. Fantastic, Invisible Woman, the Human Torch and the Thing have become synonymous with the House of Ideas, thanks to their larger-than-life battles with iconic foes like Galactus and Doctor Doom, and their dysfunctional – yet earnest – family dynamic.

However, the Fantastic Four is also a victim of its own success. With decades of backstory to catch up on, it’s almost impossible for new fans to sift through all of that history in order to find the essential comics and see what makes the Fantastic Four tick.

Do you just stick with the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby run? How much of the John Byrne stuff should you read? What about the Jonathan Hickman tenure?

With the new Fantastic Four movie hitting theaters on August 7, fans will no doubt be asking the same thing: where do I start? And how do you do all of this without breaking the bank?

Well, lucky for you, I've had very little to do over the past 27 years outside of reading comics and attempting to build my own Ultimate Nullifier — so here's a rundown of the seven essential Fantastic Four comics to start your collection.

The Galactus Trilogy (1966)

Published In: Fantastic Four #48-50, Silver Surfer Epic Collection: When Calls Galactus
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Jack Kirby

After four years of beating on would-be dictators, creatures from beyond the stars and mole men, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby decided to up the ante by pitting the Fantastic Four against a literal force of nature — the planet-eating demi-god Galactus. In the three-part "Galactus Trilogy," the team squares off against the titanic purple being and his herald, the conflicted and Shakespearean Silver Surfer.

There had been plenty of earlier comics that put the entire world in danger — but as the skies turned an eerie shade of blood red and the mysterious Watcher warned the people of Earth about the coming of Galactus, something about this story just had a different feel to it. The stakes were high, the danger was real and the panic was palpable — there was a biblical sense of dread in the air.

All wrapped up in this tale of destruction is the human drama that made the Fantastic Four work so well for decades. The story not only puts the team's family dynamic on full display, it’s also notable for the characterization of the Silver Surfer, whose philosophical and brooding nature gave this story the depth and gravitas that separated the Marvel Universe from its distinguished competition.

This Man…This Monster! (1966)

Published In: Fantastic Four #51, Fantastic Four Omnibus Volume 2
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Jack Kirby

In reality, this whole article could be filled with stories from the Lee/Kirby days, but I’ll stop here with Fantastic Four #51, which is still (Hot Take Alert!) the best single issue of a comic that Marvel has ever published. In “This Man…This Monster!,” Lee and Kirby strip the Fantastic Four of their dynamic super-brawls and colorful villains in order to deliver a quirky morality tale more in the vein of a Twilight Zone story than a superhero comic.

I’m not going to run through the entire story here, because a simple plot synopsis wouldn't do justice to the beauty of Lee and Kirby's creation. All you need to know is that the story perfectly encapsulates everything that the Fantastic Four is — not only as a comic book, but as a living, breathing family. It’s not often that you can sum up 50+ years of history in 20+ comic book pages, but if you’re new to the Fantastic Four, this issue tells you all you need to know about the characters.

The Trial of Galactus (1982-1984)

Published In: Fantastic Four #242-244, #257-262, John Byrne Omnibus Volume 1 & Volume 2
Writer: John Byrne
Artist: John Byrne

Picking one story from John Byrne’s mammoth Fantastic Four run is tricky, mainly because you can almost categorize it as one large tapestry made up of individual – sometimes unconnected – issues. But if there is one plot thread that always stands out, it’s “The Trial of Galactus.” This story – which is sporadically told from Fantastic Four #242 to 262 – deals, again, with the world devourer Galactus and the effect he has on the universe at large.

In the first act of the story, told in #242 through 244, Galactus rampages on Earth until he is defeated by the heroes of the Marvel Universe in an issue that features one of the most memorable splash pages in Marvel history, when the world-eater gets trounced in #243:

Instead of letting him die, though, Reed Richards demands his life be spared. The story eventually boils over in Fantastic Four #257, when Galactus devourers the Skrull homeworld. While it’s easy to point the blame at the big purple dude with a craving for planets, the Shi’ar empire abducts Reed and puts him on trial for originally letting Galactus go and allowing countless billions to die as a result.

(Side Note: If you're ever in any legal trouble, just hire Uatu, the Watcher as your attorney. Dude got Reed off the charge of genocide with a slap on the wrist) 

Instead of doing a six-part story arc told all the way through, like most writers do now, Byrne built to this point little by little over 20 issues, introducing the Shi’ar characters and having a Skrull invasion in #249 and #250, only to bring them back for the trial later on. There are also completely non-related stories in between, including some classics with Doctor Doom, which make the entire 20-issue span work.

The Fantastic (2003)

Published In: Ultimate Fantastic Four #1-6, Ultimate Fantastic Four Volume 1: The Fantastic
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Millar
Artist: Adam Kubert

When Marvel first conceived of the Ultimate Universe, it was meant to serve as an alternative option for younger fans. These stories were set in real time (then the early 2000s), and featured modern updates for heroes like Spider-Man; the Avengers, now known as the Ultimates; and the X-Men. A few years after the initial 2000 launch of the universe, Marvel finally got around to rebooting its first superteam, the Fantastic Four.

In Ultimate Fantastic Four, the architects of the Ultimate Universe, writers Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Millar, presented a much different team than what came before. Instead of stealing a rocket, flying it into space and being hit by cosmic rays, as told by Lee and Kirby in 1961, this squad took a much more (relatively) believable route toward getting their powers.

In the first six-part story featured in the book, called "The Fantastic," the four are part of an experiment led by a young Reed Richards, who has found a way to transfer matter into the N-Zone, or the Negative Zone, for all you purists. Along with them is Reed’s rival, Victor Van Damme, who scolds Richards for miscalculating. Those warnings fall on deaf ears as the transportation went awry, leaving the five scattered all over the globe with strange new abilities.

This take on the team is notable for people who don’t quite buy into the ‘60s origin and are seeking something a bit more current with the times. It’s also a major influence on the new movie — with many of the characters and dynamics true to the vision of Bendis and Millar.

Fantastic Four: Unstable Molecules (2003)

Published In: Fantastic Four: Unstable Molecules #1-4
Writer: James Sturm
Artists: Guy Davis, James Sturm, Bob Sikoryak

What if the inspiration for the Fantastic Four was a group of real people? That's the direction writer James Sturm went in Unstable Molecules, a four-issue miniseries that reimagines the Four as real people after whom comic book writers modeled the superheroes.

Based in the late '50s, Unstable Molecules sees Reed Richards as a professor at Columbia University; along with his girlfriend, Susan Sturm, her younger brother Johnny and their old friend, Ben, who is now a boxing trainer. Unstable Molecules doesn't have the name recognition of other groundbreaking superhero books from the past 30 years, and it's a crime that it's not held as one of Marvel's great achievements.

To see the Four's dynamic come to life in this real-world, mundane setting brings a new perspective to Lee and Kirby's original creation. You realize that without the super powers, these are still characters who can engross readers in any time frame or genre — even in a comic book that feels more like Revolutionary Road than something from the House of Ideas.

Unthinkable (2003)

Published In: Fantastic Four #67-70, #500, Fantastic Four By Waid & Wieringo Ultimate Collection - Book 2
Writer: Mark Waid
Artist: Mike Wieringo

For comic fans growing up in the '60s, you had Lee and Kirby; in the '80s you had Byrne (the less said about the '90s, the better) and for Millennials, there was writer Mark Waid and artist Mike Wieringo. While most creative teams after Byrne in the '90s were more concerned with the size of Invisible Girl's bustline than actual storytelling, Waid and Wieringo went back to basics, and with that decision came some of Marvel’s best comics of the 2000s.

In the landmark "Unthinkable" story arc, the team is yet again pitted against Doctor Doom. But ol' Victor wasn't playing around this time: in the first issue of the story, he literally skins his first love, Valeria, and reconstitutes her flesh into a new enchanted armor.

Sacrificing Valeria gave Doom unprecedented access to magic more powerful than any weapon he’s ever wielded before, as Waid added a new, sadistic wrinkle to the team’s classic foe.

Skinning Valeria and pulverizing the Fantastic Four into a bloody heap sounds like something out of the Alan Moore school of grim and gritty comics — but Waid and Wieringo stick the landing by never losing focus on the resolve and sense of hope that the Fantastic Four bring to Marvel. If anything, Doom’s abhorrent violence only amplifies why Reed, Sue, Johnny and Ben have been one of the shining beacons at the company for 50+ years. It’s part character study and part spectacle, handled by two creators who were simply made for this franchise.

Solve Everything (2009)

Published In: Fantastic Four #570-572, Fantastic Four By Jonathan Hickman - Volume 1
Writer: Jonathan Hickman
Artist: Dale Eaglesham

Jonathan Hickman's Fantastic Four run is the type of thing you have to follow with a Marvel encyclopedia, a flow chart and a handful of Aspirin — but if you have the patience and a few spare weeks to move through it all, you'll find the best FF stories told in the past decade. The best place to start, obviously, is with Hickman's first story arc, called "Solve Everything."

In this story, Reed Richards attempts to literally solve everything — but how does a man with a four-digit IQ actually do that? Well, if you're Mr. Fantastic, solving the universe's problems is as simple as building a bridge to alternate dimensions, teaming up with various versions of yourself throughout the multiverse and joining the Interdimensional Council of Reed Richards.

Armed with multiple Infinity Gauntlets and limitless intellectual potential, the Reeds immediately go deal with a Galactus threat on another Earth. With beautiful art by Dale Eaglesham, Hickman's run is filled with comic book bliss, such as this Kirby-esque double-page spread:

It's a little heady and maybe a bit too Grant Morrison-y for people who don't want to invest too much time in a Fantastic Four run, but if you're willing to take the plunge, "Solve Everything" is a brilliant place to start.

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