By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & various (Marvel)
I’m partial to a bit of controversy so I’m going start off by saying that Fantastic Four #1 is the third most important American comicbook of the last 75 years, behind Showcase #4, which introduced the Flash and therefore the Silver Age, and The Brave and the Bold #28, which brought superhero teams back via the creation of the Justice League of America. Feel free to disagree…
After a troubled period at DC Comics (National Periodicals as it then was) and a creatively productive but disheartening time on the poisoned chalice of the Sky Masters newspaper strip (see Complete Sky Masters of the Space Force) Jack Kirby settled into his job at the small outfit that used to be the publishing powerhouse Timely/Atlas. He churned out mystery, monster, romance and western material in a market he suspected to be ultimately doomed, but as always he did the best job possible and that genre fare is now considered some of the best of its kind ever seen.
But his fertile imagination couldn’t be suppressed for long and when the JLA caught the reader’s attention it gave him and writer/editor Stan Lee an opportunity to change the industry forever.
Depending upon who you believe, a golfing afternoon led publisher Martin Goodman to order his nephew Stan to try a series about a group of super-characters like the JLA. The resulting team quickly took the fans by storm. It wasn’t the powers: they’d all been seen since the beginning of the medium. It wasn’t the costumes: they didn’t have any until the third issue.
It was Kirby’s compelling art and the fact that these characters weren’t anodyne cardboard cut-outs. In a real and recognizable location – New York City – imperfect, raw-nerved, touchy people banded together out of tragedy, disaster and necessity to face the incredible.
In many ways, The Challengers of the Unknown (Kirby’s prototype partners in peril at National/DC) laid all the groundwork for the wonders to come, but the staid, almost hide-bound editorial strictures of National would never have allowed the undiluted energy of the concept to run all-but-unregulated.
Fantastic Four #1 (bi-monthly and cover-dated November 1961, by Lee, Kirby, George Klein & Christopher Rule) is crude: rough, passionate and uncontrolled excitement. Thrill-hungry kids pounced on it.
This full-colour compendium (also available as a digital download) collects the first 18 issues of progressive landmarks – spanning November 1961 to September 1963 – and
opens with ‘The Fantastic Four’ as seen in the ground-breaking premier issue.
It saw maverick scientist Reed Richards summon his fiancé Sue Storm, their close friend Ben Grimm and Sue’s teenaged brother before heading off on their first mission. They are all survivors of a private space-shot that went horribly wrong when Cosmic rays penetrated their ship’s inadequate shielding and mutated them all.
Richards’ body became elastic, Sue gained the power to turn invisible, Johnny Storm could turn into living flame and tragic Ben turned into a shambling, rocky freak. In ‘The Fantastic Four meet the Mole Man’ they quickly foil a plan by another outcast who controls monsters and slave humanoids from far beneath the Earth. This summation of the admittedly mediocre plot cannot do justice to the engrossing wonder of that breakthrough issue – we really have no awareness today of how different in tone, how shocking it all was.
“Different” doesn’t mean “better” even here, but the FF was like no other comic on the market at the time and buyers responded to it hungrily. The brash experiment continued with another old plot in #2. ‘The Skrulls from Outer Space’ were shape-changing aliens who framed the FF in the eyes of shocked humanity before the genius of Mister Fantastic bluffed them into abandoning their plans for conquering Earth. The issue concluded with a monstrous pin-up of the Thing, proudly touted as the first in a series…
Sure enough, there was a pin-up of the Human Torch in #3, which headlined ‘the Menace of the Miracle Man’ (inked by Sol Brodsky), whose omnipotent powers had a simple secret, but is more notable for the first appearance of their uniforms, and a shocking line-up change, leading directly into the next issue (continued stories were an innovation in themselves) which revived a golden-age great.
‘The Coming of the Sub-Mariner’ reintroduced the all-powerful amphibian Prince of Atlantis, a star of Timely’s Golden Age but one who had been lost for years.
A victim of amnesia, the relic recovered his memory thanks to some rather brusque treatment by the delinquent Human Torch. Namor then returned to his sub-sea home only to find it destroyed by atomic testing. A monarch without subjects, he swore vengeance on humanity and attacked New York City with a gigantic monster. This saga is when the series truly kicked into high-gear and Reed was the star of the pin-up section…
Until now the creative team – who had been in the business since it began – had been hedging their bets. Despite the innovations of a contemporary superhero experiment their antagonists had relied heavily on the trappings of popular trends in the media – and as reflected in their other titles. Aliens and especially monsters played a major part in the earlier tales but Fantastic Four #5 took a full-bite out of the Fights n’ Tights apple and introduced the first full-blown super-villain to the budding Marvel Universe.
No, I haven’t forgotten Mole Man: but that tragic little gargoyle, for all his plans of world conquest, wouldn’t truly acquire the persona of a costumed foe until his more refined second appearance in #22.
‘Prisoners of Doctor Doom’ (July 1962, and inked by the subtly slick Joe Sinnott) has it all. An attack by a mysterious enemy from Reed’s past; magic and super-science, lost treasure, time-travel, even pirates. Ha-Haar, me ‘earties!
Sheer magic! And the creators knew they were on to a winner as the deadly Doctor returned the very next issue, teamed with a reluctant Sub-Mariner to attack our heroes as ‘The Deadly Duo!’ inked by new regular embellisher Dick Ayers.
Alien kidnappers were the motivating force behind another FF frame-up resulting in the team becoming ‘Prisoners of Kurrgo, Master of Planet X’; a dark and grandiose off-world thriller in #7 (the first monthly issue), whilst a new returning villain and the introduction of a love-interest for the monstrous Ben Grimm were the breakthrough high-points in #8: ‘Prisoners of the Puppet Master!’ The saga was topped off with a Fantastic Four Feature Page explaining how the Torch’s powers work. The next issue offered another detailing with endearing mock-science ‘How the Human Torch Flies!’
That issue, #9, trumpeted ‘The End of the Fantastic Four’ as the Sub-Mariner returned to exploit another brilliant innovation in comic storytelling. When had a super-genius superhero ever messed up so much that the team had to declare bankruptcy? When had costumed crimefighters ever had money troubles at all? The eerily prescient solution was to “sell out” and make a blockbuster movie – giving Kirby a rare chance to demonstrate his talent for caricature…
1963 was a pivotal year in the development of Marvel. Lee and Kirby had proved that their new high concept – human heroes with flaws and tempers – had a willing audience. Now they would extend that concept to a new pantheon of heroes. Here is where the second innovation would come to the fore.
Previously, super-heroes were sufficient unto themselves and shared adventures were rare. Here, however, was a universe where characters often tripped over each other, sometimes even fighting each other’s enemies! The creators themselves might turn even up in a Marvel Comic! Fantastic Four #10 featured ‘The Return of Doctor Doom!’ wherein the arch villain used Stan and Jack to lure the Richards into a trap where his mind is switched with the bad Doctor’s. The tale was supplemented by a pin-up – at long-last – of ‘Sue Storm, the Glamorous Invisible Girl’…
The innovations continued. Issue #11 had two short stories instead of the usual book-length yarn; ‘A Visit with the Fantastic Four’ and ‘The Impossible Man’, with a behind-the-scenes travelogue and a baddie-free, compellingly comedic tale, rounded out with an epic pin-up of the Sub-Mariner.
FF#12 featured an early crossover as the team were asked to help the US army capture ‘The Incredible Hulk’: a tale packed with intrigue, action and bitter irony and is followed by ‘Versus the Red Ghost and his Incredible Super Apes!’: a cold war thriller pitting them against a Soviet scientist in the race to reach the Moon: a tale notable both for the moody Steve Ditko inking (replacing the adroit Ayers for one glorious month) of Kirby’s artwork and the introduction of the cosmic voyeurs called The Watchers.
Issue #14 featured the return of ‘The Sub-Mariner and the Merciless Puppet Master!’ – with one vengeful fiend the unwitting mind-slave of the other – and was followed by ‘The Mad Thinker and his Awesome Android!’, a chilling war of intellects between driven super-scientists with plenty of room for all-out action. The pin-up extra this time was a candid group-shot of the entire team.
Fantastic Four #16 revealed ‘The Micro-World of Doctor Doom!’ in a spectacular romp guest-starring new hero Ant-Man and also offered a Fantastic Four Feature Page outlining the powers and capabilities of the elastic Mister Fantastic. Despite his resounding defeat, the steel-shod villain returned with more infallible, deadly traps a month later in ‘Defeated by Doctor Doom!’
This astounding collection concludes with the tale of a shape-changing alien who battles the FF with their own powers when ‘A Skrull Walks Among Us!’: a prelude to the greater, cosmos-spanning sagas to come…
Although possibly – just, perhaps – a little dated in tone, these are still classics of comic story-telling illustrated by one of the world’s greatest talents approaching his mature peak. They are fast, frantic fun and a joy to read or re-read. This comprehensive, joyous introduction (or even reintroduction) to these characters is a wonderful reminder of just how good comic books can and should be.
© 1961, 1962, 1963, 2014 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.