As I noted when I began this project just about a year ago, John Byrne's FANTASTIC FOUR run never really clicked with me as a reader. True, I missed it the first time around and read it years after the fact in reprint format, but I did the same thing with Frank Miller's DAREDEVIL and Walter Simonson's THOR, among others, and I found those runs lived completely up to their considerable hype.
Byrne's FF, meanwhile, didn't floor me. I recall thinking at the time that it wasn't bad; just not as great as I had long been led to believe. I think, at least partly, this was due to the fact that I found myself comparing it with what I consider to be the gold standard Byrne run, his time on X-MEN with co-plotter Chris Claremont. This time around, I tried not to hold the FANTASTIC FOUR issues up against the X-MEN ones, but I must say that even with that in mind, I felt much the same way as before. I think the truth is that, no matter who's churning out their adventures, the FF just don't grab me (much).
"Second only to Kirby and Lee" is praise you often see thrown Byrne's way, but I have no way to know if that statement is true, having never read that revered original run either. I've just never been a big FF fan. I like them fine as occasional guest-stars in other characters' titles, but their adventures on their own, on the rare occasions I've checked them out, have never really floated my boat regardless of who wrote and drew them. I like a lot of John Byrne's output, but perhaps expecting him to make me love a group to which I'm inherently indifferent is unfair.
That said, I understand what the FF are about, and if I try to look back objectively, I think Byrne did some pretty good work, especially in the early issues. While his "TWILIGHT ZONE" and "STAR TREK" approaches of the FF discovering bizarre phenomena and exploring new civilizations didn't often appeal to me personally, I do believe this is the sort of stuff the Fantastic Four should be doing, and the first half of Byrne's run, roughly up through the "Negative Zone" saga which ended in the neighborhood of issue 260, suited the characters and their premise perfectly even if it wasn't always material I enjoyed reading.
Strangely, there seems to be a divide in how Byrne handled the FF over the years, and it can almost be drawn precisely between the pre- and post-She-Hulk periods. Up to the point the group returned from SECRET WARS, there was mostly -- as noted -- a very exploratory vibe to the series. Afterward, the book seemed to transition into more straightforward superhero adventure stuff. The thing is, while that sort of story is more what I look for in a Marvel comic, many (but not all; there are some exceptions) of Byrne's post-She-Hulk adventures feel a little pedestrian or "by the numbers". I have to admit that as I approached the end of the run, I often found it a chore simply to pick up the Omnibus and keep reading. I would go days or even a couple weeks without touching the thing simply because I was trying to put it off.
Then there were the sub-plots -- or lack thereof. I've said before that good, engrossing soap opera-style sub-plots can often win me over in spite of an otherwise lackluster story or run. Early on, Byrne's sub-plots were what kept me going through issues I was otherwise unimpressed with -- though it occurs to me in retrospect that they were practically all centered on the Human Torch, such as the secret and transformation of Frankie Raye or the love triangle with Julie and Sharon (a promising story which Byrne inexplicably and abruptly dropped in favor of the ill-conceived pairing of Johnny with Alicia). Yes, there was the stuff about Franklin's mutant power or the Thing's insecurity, but those weren't so much sub-plots as character arcs.
Further, by the time we reached the post-She-Hulk era, sub-plots, at least in the traditional soap opera sense, had nearly vanished entirely as everyone settled down happily with their significant others and there was little or no interpersonal conflict among the team or between the team and their friends. About the biggest sub-plot in this second chunk of the run was the "Richardses move to Connecticut" storyline which ran way too long and then abruptly ended. For me, this lack of meaty soap opera stuff is a bit of a black mark against the run.
At this point it occurs to me that Doctor Doom was pretty much the saving grace of Byrne's tenure for me. The series in his hands was never better than when Doom showed up. From Liddleville to "This Land is Mine!" to Tyros to Kristoff, practically every Doom story was a winner and, often, as I found myself slogging through a rough patch, I would count the number of issues left until the next Doom appearance, knowing the Latverian monarch would once more bring out the best in Byrne and, at least temporarily, reinvigorate my interest in the title.
So what have I learned from revisiting Byrne's FANTASTIC FOUR? Well, after reading the full run twice in the past decade or so, I can safely confirm that it really just isn't for me. Aside from some standout issues here and there, I find it a bit of a slog to get through. I know it's considered one of the premiere Marvel runs of the eighties -- or even of any era -- but I just can't get into it. There's plenty of other Byrne I like and still more I want to check out, but, other than cracking open my Omnibuses to look at the pretty pictures or check in with one of the sparse really good issues here and there, it seems unlikely I'll ever re-read the Byrne run again in its entirety.
At any rate, for good or ill, that's a wrap on my John Byrne FANTASTIC FOUR retrospective. In just two days, this Wednesday, I'll announce the next issue-by-issue project, which will commence one week from today. See you then!