I was warned about teaching these comics.
More than one colleague told me their students hated the Lee-Kirby Fantastic Four--too weird, too ugly, too hard to read. This one would be a heartbreaker in the classroom.
Teaching anything you love always runs the risk that your class won't love it as much--which is to say, the risk that you will love it too much and expect the same from your students. I try to avoid the problem by reminding myself that I'm not looking to replicate my tastes in them. I want to create scholars, not connoisseurs (and certainly not clones).
To that end, I think it helped our discussion of Essential Fantastic Four volume 3 that I opened by giving the class a chance to vent any displeasure they might have had in their reading experience before I explained why I'd assigned these comics in this format. Beyond its low cost (and its convenient collection of the Inhumans, Galactus, and the Black Panther under one cover), the Essential volume gave me a chance to walk the students step by step through the creative and production processes.
This is a book where you can see the serendipities and snags of the Marvel method unfolding before your very eyes. (Here's Stan Lee encountering the Silver Surfer for the first time just as we are, and cooking up a name for him on the fly; wait, there he is burying the art in redundant wiseass captions.) You can see the change when Vince Colletta stops inking and Joe Sinnott takes over, lending Kirby's art new form and solidity and dynamism. And with the aid of some color scans of the same issues, you can see how Stan Goldberg's colors add further definition and delineation, resolving the muscular abstractions of Kirby's art into figures in space. This volume exposes much of the invisible labor of comics, highlighting everybody's contributions except the letterer. (Sorry, Artie.)
Taking the students behind the scenes in this manner not only addressed their concerns, it seemed to forestall them. They became more interested in the process of making these comics, but they also grew much more willing to look past their initial resistance--when they had any--and talk about the Lee-Kirby Fantastic Four in terms of its theme and meaning. Perhaps not the first frame that comes to mind with these comics, but one where they stack up surprisingly well.
Kirby's outburst of creativity after issue 44 doesn't just produce a flood of new characters, it inspires new attempts at thematic and moral complexity (relative to what came before), from the easy liberal universalism of the Inhumans story ("We are not Inhuman! We are the same as they!") to the contradictions of Wyatt Wingfoot and the Black Panther to the apocalyptic technologism of Galactus. These attempts at profundity don't always work--in fact, they fall short more often than not--but our study of the creative process meant that even the failures were educational. And in a surprising reversal of my expectations, the students were a lot less likely to latch onto those failings than I was. They were more willing to read grand themes and cosmic allegories into these hastily concocted stories (pleasing Stan Lee to no end, I'm sure), but that kind of engagement in the classroom is never a bad thing.
There is something incredibly rewarding about discovering that a book you love not only supports a week of intensive discussion and analysis, but thrives under it. Writing up these lecture notes was some of the most fun I've had as a teacher--well, until the next reading surpassed it.
And that one was the heartbreaker...