For me, it has always been Fantastic Four.
It wasn't my first comic. It wasn't even the first comic I actively collected (Adam Strange in Mystery in Space, Batman, Detective, Superman, Action, Adventure, Flash, Green Lantern, and Justice League all predated it). But to this day, when I think of comic book collecting, the first title I envision is Fantastic Four.
And I think I know the reason.
Fantastic Four was the first comic I actively collected from the very beginning of its run. I purchased my copy at the Enloe's Rexall Drugstore on Shorter Avenue, the day I first saw it on the stands. Didn't even know it was a superhero book. I recognized the art style as being the same as the art in of some of the pre-hero Marvel monster books I was buying and enjoying, and there were no costumes to identify these characters as superheroes. Heck, one of the good guys looked as monstrous as the behemoth he was combating!
So I bought a copy, and my life was changed.
The ill-tempered Ben Grimm. The intellectual Reed Richards. The brash Johnny Storm. The compassionate Sue Storm. Before I finished that first issue, I felt like I knew them. And right then, I knew that, if I saw another Fantastic Four comic, I was going to buy it.
Six weeks later, I stumbled across Fantastic Four #2 at Conn's Grocery. (The fact that I found it six weeks later meant that I was actually a couple of weeks late finding FF #1, since the title was bi-monthly to begin with. Imagine if I had been a few weeks later and had missed it entirely!...) I had already spent my entire allowance that week (mostly on comics, of course), but I cajoled my Dad into buying FF #2 for me. I finished it in the car before we got home.
And right then, I wanted the next issue. I couldn't wait to read more stories starring these characters and their bizarre, almost monstrous adversaries.
I was hooked. I was a collector. And I watched the entire world of the Fantastic Four--and the entire Marvel Age of Comics--unfold, month after month, as Marvel added more superhero titles and converted some of their existing titles like Strange Tales, Tales to Astonish, Tales of Suspense, and Journey Into Mystery into superhero titles.
No matter how good the book was, though, it wasn't Fantastic Four. Stan and Jack were doing their best work here; they really wanted to live up to that bragging "World's Greatest Comics Magazine" blurb. Even lackluster issues like FF #7 (an alien kidnap story featuring a forgettable villain named Kurrgo) or FF #13 (the Red Ghost tale that is memorable only for the stunning Steve Ditko inks on Kirby's pencils) or FF #24 (the Infant Terrible story that seemed to be taken right from the pages of a pre-hero Marvel) were fascinating because they were part of the greater tapestry of Fantastic Four tales.
No matter how much I enjoyed Batman or Superman or any of the other DC heroes, I could never experience them from the beginning. With enough money, I could acquire all those old issues--but I'd be reading them as a part of history. There could be no real suspense, because I had already read later issues and knew that everyone was alive and well. (I was too young to realize that all suspense in comics was largely artificial, because publishers back then were wise enough not to do anything drastic to their moneymaking characters.) But with Fantastic Four, I had no idea what might happen next.
There's a lot to be said for "getting in on the ground floor." In the case of Fantastic Four, it introduced me to the world's greatest comics magazine, and it made me appreciate the genius of the two men responsible for those tales.
So if I reduce my entire comics collection to one series, this is it. And I could be happy with that.