Through my usual series of suave and gentlemenly maneuvers (lucky, I just got lucky), I managed to get my hands on an advance copy of Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. The insanely detailed biography covers the complete insider history of Marvel, from Captain America punching Hitler to present. I’m still making my way through the book (Jim Starlin and Steve Gerber are wreaking havoc on Marvel’s 70’s comics at the moment), but as I do so I’m finding that the book is providing a ton of inspiration to go back and enjoy early, iconic marvel story-lines. And you don’t get much earlier or more iconic than Fantastic Four #1.
In an industry that loves origin stories, it’s not surprising that Fantastic Four #1 has built up a level of mythology (not to mention financial worth) rivaled only by the first issue of Spider-Man. After all, this is Marvel’s first family, the game-changer that kicked off the wave of conflicted and troubled superheroes like Thor, Iron Man, The Hulk, and so on.
Marvel Comics: The Untold Story makes it clear that the classic Stan Lee explanation (paraphrasing: my wife encouraged me to finally write the kind of story I wanted) isn’t necessarily the simple genesis we all know:
Stan Lee: “I wrote an outline containing the basic description of the new characters and the somewhat offbeat story line and gave it to my most trusted and dependable artist, the incredibly talented Jack Kirby.”
Jack Kirby: “Marvel was on its ass, literally… They were beginning to move, and Stan Lee was sitting there crying. I told them to hold everything and I pledged that I would give them the kind of books that would up their sales and keep them in business.”
We won’t get too heavy into the depths of this debate (heck, even God has some trouble with those tricky 7 days in Genesis), but the important thing is that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby came together in 1961 to create the first issue of Fantastic Four. How does it hold up?
Timely Comics Indeed
One of the first things you’ll notice about FF #1 during a read in 2012 is just how rooted some of the plotting is in 1961. This is perfectly logical – comics are very rarely timeless, nor should they be – but it does provide some easy, unintentional comedy.
While most cursory fans know the Fantastic Four backstory, I have to admit I was not aware of the main reason the Fantastic Four launched into space in the first place.
Love that Sue Storm uses the space race against the commies as an argument for risking life and limb against those untested cosmic rays.
And as long as we’re on Sue… no character is as dramatically wrong in this first issue as kind, loving, strong Sue Storm. Going back to read FF #1, knowing the character Sue develops into, is like reading a long-lost Harry Potter chapter where he holds a fellow powerless eight-year-old’s head in the toilet. Wait… that’s not Harry. That’s not my Harry! Exactly what we have with Sue here.
Literally pushing people over in a crowd? Hopping on a spaceship because “Reed is my fiance and I go where he goes!” Using the dialogue “Save your breath gruesome” towards a Ben Grimm who had just transformed into a monstrous thing! How far you’ve come Susie Storm.
Of course, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby would have plenty of time to develop these characters. It’s very easy to forget that as they created the Fantastic Four, they really had no way of knowing if they’d get a chance to write another issue. Given that, you know the infighting and character conflict is going to be a little stronger (Ben’s a straight up ass to Reed, not that he’s much better). And you also know that the team is going to casually steal a government space ship like it was an unlocked bike.
You know what, I’m actually ok with the Fantastic Four stealing a full on rocket to space. A lot of commentators have found this ridiculous, but I’m cool with it. Reed’s a smart guy, and their altruistic “screw you commies” reasoning is admirable. What I can’t forgive Stan, is the use of “She’s behaving like a baby” to describe a smooth rocket launch. What? Babies are terribly behaved creatures. This is uniformly acknowledged. There is nothing in my life I want to behave like a baby. They’re erratic, and they communicate poorly, and they never leave the space center when you’re ready. I almost had to stop reading at this point.
There are a few other gems of activity before the FF get cosmic-ray’d in space and wind up on Monster Isle with the Moleman. Now, we’ve all become quite familiar with Bat-signals and super calls to action, but Reed Richards opening salvo in FF #1 is a little questionable. His plan to gather the team in a crisis? He shoots a flare gun out his New York City Window. I mean, my God, Reed. You could have hit a kid! At the very least a power line or a bird or the Silver Surfer. There are Bachelor Pad contestants taking smaller risks.
Of course, that almost pales in comparison to Jonny Storm’s response to the flare gun. He tells the mechanic working on his car that there’s only one thing he loves more than this car. Just making chit chat with a mechanic, right? Wrong: he’s dead serious.
So, just to make sure we’re clear, Jonny declares the Fantastic Four are the only thing he loves more than his car, sees the FF signal Reed just flare-shot right in the faces of NYC’s finest, and melts his car beyond hope of repair. I’m gonna say he overreacted. This would be like me telling a friend, “There’s only one thing I love more than my wife,” seeing a pizza delivery guy walk by on the sidewalk, and unloading a flamethrower on my poor wife as I walk towards the pizza. There are other options Jonny!
Taking some of the more absurd panels with a grain of salt, Fantastic Four is still a fairly tough issue to really get behind. The FF get their powers, we get to know them a very small amount, and they stop the moleman from stealing atomic power before Monster Isle mysteriously blows up. Unless you have the power to put yourself in a position where this is not the norm, and is a complete cultural shift for the artform, reading Fantastic Four #1 40 years later is going to feel very by-the-numbers. The trick is remembering Stan and Jack invented the damn numbers.
I’m excited to continue reading through these early FF plots, mostly to see how and when shifts in character and story-telling start to take place.
Have any thoughts on how Fantastic Four #1 holds up? Think it’s underrated/overrated/properly rated? Let’s hear about it in the comments!