This series of articles will track the early rise of all the elements (the recurrent alien beings and venues) that lay the foundation for what will later be known as Marvel Cosmic. So you know this will be a love letter to the wonder-working duo of Stan “the Man” Lee and Jack “the King” Kirby. We’ll focus on moments where some new critical element is added or significantly revised or retconned. We’ll also look at what was happening at the time in US society and global affairs, broadly speaking (obviously, we’ll have many references to and analogies with the [first] peak of the Cold War but also sci-fi and even the counterculture). Our aim is to simply create a chronological guide to this particular (but vast) aspect of Marvel comics that hopefully inspires a deeper appreciation of our favorite cosmic characters and settings as they pop up throughout the Marvel Universe.
With the introduction of each new significant cosmic player or element from the early ’60s on, we’ll look at just the original portrayal, but I’ll try to clarify to the best of my ability how readers of the time would likely have seen these Kirby wonders, distinguishing them from the way we read them now in the 2020s.
Again, we’ll mostly focus on the alien, but the progeny of Earth, humans and otherwise, will be included as they appear, even if they aren’t immediately cosmic players or take their sweet time getting off-planet (like Adam Warlock and the High Evolutionary). (Rick Jones, however, very much to your chagrin no doubt, must wait until he’s bound to Captain Marvel.)
(Also, a side piece on Jack Kirby’s Challengers of the Unknown at DC in the late 1950s might be of interest down the line. After all, it would prove, in retrospect, a trial run for exploring many of the zany sf elements he more successfully expanded on in FF—more grounded by Stan Lee’s character-focused melodrama, however much their contrary styles would see the creative team drift apart over time.)
Anyway, it’s going to be hella fun just salivating over some of that classic Kirby crackle and giant hat porn 😉
I. The Watcher on the Blue Area of the Moon: Fantastic Four #13 (1.1963)
Unlike the Skrulls’ loony, camp silliness in Fantastic Four
#2, which we’ll touch on briefly in the last section, Stan and Jack’s introduction of the Watcher* in issue #13 was the first time they presented a cosmic being and venue in the modern Marvel Universe that clearly had majestic staying power.
And while the story’s plot is only slightly less silly and nonsensical than issue #2’s, the story itself does carry what would have been a strong message to 1963’s American youth. But the real difference for our purposes is simply twofold: The eeriness balanced by the majesty of Kirby’s rendering of the Watcher and his home and the way his ancient origins imbue the Marvel Universe for the first time with a sense of deep time and cosmic scope.
Not long after, this early work would have appeared rather humble, but taking note of it here will help make the perpetually penciling Kirby’s subsequent astonishing achievements all the more impressive.
*While we’ll see some of his fellow Watchers given individual names in Tales of Suspense #63-64 (1964), Uatu was known only as “the Watcher” until 1975 (Steve Englehart and Al Milgrom’s Captain Marvel #39).
The Soviet scientist Red Ghost, debuting here as well, has just dosed a baboon, gorilla, and orangutan with (you guessed it!) cosmic rays, transforming them into super-apes—and now it’s time to race to the Moon and notch another victory in the space race against the laggard Americans.
Already, the Soviets had beat the US twice, first in 1957 with the world’s first successful satellite launch, Sputnik 1, and then with the first manned spaceflight in April 1961 courtesy of the dashing aviator and cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. But a few weeks later, the US followed suit with astronaut Alan Shepard, who was actually the first to safely land inside the returning craft (although the USSR lied about Gagarin’s landing by parachute until 1971) and is technically the first human to have full pilot control while in suborbital space. Shortly thereafter, JFK announced America’s intent to land a crew on the Moon. Of course, this wouldn’t become a reality until July 1969, with the Apollo 11 mission. But the so-called “Sputnik shock” kicked off the intense, decades-long competition between the two superpowers, and Marvel’s space-related stories were originally born out of this popular mania to defeat a painfully worthy opponent to the final frontier.
Oddly enough, however, the Soviets weren’t the first to put a great ape (or any other primate) into space. That distinction goes to the US with the Mercury-Redstone 2 in January 1961, a suborbital test flight “crewed” by Ham the Astrochimp. Granted, both the superpowers had already lobbed plants and animals beyond the atmosphere, but in August 1960, the USSR beat the Americans again in at last seeing the return of still-living “specimens,” among them two now-famous dogs. The ignoble nature of this is of course kept out of the funnybooks.
So obviously, the FF is just as jazzed to get the Moon as the Red Ghost and his commie apes. And since this is an American comic, they get there first! But lo and behold, what’s this?! Ruins of a forerunner civilization!
Now, when the Watcher shows up at last, he pits the two groups against each other in this strange arena, and of course, even though the opponents end up appearing evenly matched, especially with the Red Ghost stumbling on the deadlier artifacts first, it’s the Red Ghost’s treachery, in trying to steal from the Watcher himself, that ensures the Americans’ victory by default. They are clearly the nobler breed.
(But it is awesome to see the super-apes mutiny against the Red Ghost at the very end—though it’s undercut when virtually everything here is replayed in issue #29, albeit in peak pop-art Kirby fashion.)
Or maybe we’re really meant to see the FF, or more specifically Reed Richards, as nobility itself. That’s sure how he’s drawn here! After all, as would become increasingly clear, Stan had a pretty dim view of humanity given its intolerance and unwillingness to change (cf. his experience in WWII, antisemitism, racism, and perhaps above all, given its existential threat, the arms race—unfortunately, he himself pandered to misogyny for far too long; those were the times, but that’s little excuse when he was soapboxing about everything else). But in this story, he criticizes our barbarity only very briefly, through the voice of the Watcher, but it is memorable, thanks to Kirby’s freakish artwork rendering the beasts of war humans already do all too often devolve into; see the bottom-right panel below.
I’d say this couldn’t be more relevant right at this very moment—but, really, when is it not?
Stan found cosmic beings and venues quite suitable to such existential morality, but while Jack felt similarly, Jack’s vision for his more out-there creations did more to inspire a noble solemnity through making strange, lavishing a gaudy vitality on celebrations of what could now best be labeled posthumanity. Whether this was more effective than Stan’s moralizing isn’t a question here—it’s time for them cosmic goodies!
The Blue Area of the Moon will be instantly familiar to any classic Uncanny head as the setting for the trial of the Phoenix Jean Grey in 1980’s X-Men #137 by Chris Claremont and John Byrne, where the Watcher makes a famous appearance as well—as observer to the cosmic tragedy, in the company of the Rigellian robot Recorder. Two years later in Byrne’s Fantastic Four #240, the Inhumans would move their secret city of Attilan there from the Himalayas, making the Kree ruins their home for the next almost three decades, in terms of publication history (until the Secret Invasion: War of Kings one-shot).
Since 2019’s House of X #1, sited just off its edge sits the Summer House, the Krakoan biome residence of the mutant Summers family—and Logan.
But the Blue Area’s full origin is only revealed more than a decade after its debut, in the (in)famous* Celestial Madonna Saga by Steve Englehart, Sal Buscema, and Dave Cockrum—specifically 1975’s Avengers #133. (*As in beloved but also infamously muddled!)
(Here and there throughout the Bronze Age and beyond, Englehart plays the architect cosmic, often to fun but very confusing effect, edging into unnecessarily baroque elaborations on Kirby’s Silver Age visions. Still, he’ll be a major figure going forward!)
Yet until that grand explanation, the mystery of these ruins, I think, is much more evocative of a kind of cosmic vertigo: It’s as if a time abyss opens up when the Watcher sets the humans (and super-apes) down into this anciently moldering ghost city suddenly turned—deadly arena.
Popular children’s sf/fantasy writer Andre Norton adopted the word “forerunner” as an sf term sometime during the course of her “Forerunner” series (1960-1973), really starting with the second and third volumes, wherein new colony worlds are found rife with ancient, often subterranean ruins of a vanished alien race—likely influenced by the extinct Krell in the 1956 classic movie Forbidden Planet. Larry Niven’s Ringworld of 1970 would be, famously, the most ridiculously outsized example. (Here, we’re not talking about Lovecraftian elder races, but throughout the 2010s, mashing together cosmic horror and sfnal time abysses has largely become just another hackneyed contrivance. Everything is hackery now unless handled with finesse.)
It would be fascinating to know whether Stan or Jack read one of the great classics in the field from 1960, Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys, which features an alien-made death-maze on Earth’s moon, wherein death is certain unless one works out its incomprehensible logic, in part from those who have gone before and been killed in enigmatically inventive ways; Alastair Reynolds’ 2001 novella Diamond Dogs is a grim homage. (More famously to modern audiences, another enigmatic landscape as deathtrap is found in the 1977 movie Stalker, a beloved piece of avant cinema, itself adapted from the great Russian novel Roadside Picnic (1972) by the Strugatski brothers.)
According to the SFE, the time abyss is a revelatory experience of “deep time,” “the sense that the gulf is or will be spanned by some understanding, some process,” and that’s what we have with the Watcher’s history: It’s perfectly legible to contemporary humans. There’s no stress or anxiety of encountering the truly alien here; the gaudy exoticism is instantly and easily allegorizable (just made that word up, sorry!).
Such deep-time social allegories have been common since H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895; followed up directly by the latter-day homage, Stephen Baxter’s The Time Ships, 1995). Another classic early example is Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars (1948/1956). (Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, however, while it pushes the field in new directions in many ways, is not evocative of an authentic sense of the abyss of deep time; that narrative’s sense of temporality is just too glib, both too swift and too dilated—and, maybe surprisingly, irrelevant to its actual modern-day themes and concerns. Compare with the novels above, and the one below…)
The last panel in the Watcher’s story is evocative of the “dying earth” trope, most profoundly encountered in Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun (1980-1983, 4vols): “planetary resources have been so pillaged over the aeons that copper is a precious metal, while mining is reduced to archaeological treasure-hunting since all accessible depths of the crust comprise humanity’s ruins and rubbish” (SFE – “Time Abyss”). Really, the reading experience here is much more subtle than this description, but I don’t want to get bogged down in trying to describe what a large minority of aficionados and writers would agree is perhaps the greatest sf novel of all time—itself a compendium of 20th century (“forerunner”) sf, and so much else. (Another relevant text here is the British fantasist/sf author M. John Harrison’s Viriconium, 1971-1985.)
When we actually get to the Kree/Inhuman revelations, we can look at not just the concept of posthumans and even genetic/eugenicist “uplift,” but also futuristic (paranoiac) keeps and arcologies, and cities that have the atmosphere of a last redoubt at the end of time.
In any case, the Watcher’s monologue in his FF #13 debut may be the first instance of a deep-time narrative for the Marvel Universe.
It’s amusing to think of a how Kurt Vonnegut might have creatively interpreted this solemn history, given Vonnegut’s famous black-comedy variation in The Sirens of Titan (1959), in which an intergalactic courier, from very far away, experiences technical difficulties spanning eons of time, primarily leaving him stranded on Saturn’s moon Titan, as he tries to diligently fulfill his task of delivering nothing than a sealed message, all of this absurdly shaping the course of human history from Stonehenge onward. It doesn’t spoil anything to say the letter is banal and has nothing to do with humanity, which gets caught up in the arbitrary silliness regardless!
The Planet of the Watchers (later called Planet T-37X) is never again referred to as a planet-sized computer (I don’t think), which is too bad! Much later, though, we’ll have a variation on this theme with Titan (Marvel’s version, that is), home-world of the exiled Titanian Eternals, who rebuild it into a techno-utopia. This is all quite silly given the opposite direction computing technology has necessarily taken, but virtually no writers at this time were envisioning PCs, much less microcomputers. The earliest example I could find of a computer planet is futuristic 1966 private-dick adventure Watchers of the Dark by Lloyd Biggle, Jr.—wherein the late-20th century is predicted to have a human-chaired Council of Supreme governing the galaxy, and itself a world-computer. (Way back, the Hugo-winning Biggle’s career was renowned, but I’ve never read him!)
A year (of real time) after FF #13, the first episode of Doctor Who would air (11.1963) in the UK, inaugurating Britain’s longest-running all-ages show. It famously stars the Time Lord Doctor Who, one of an ancient race of deep-time custodians, a trope that unsurprisingly pops up in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, to more satirical effect (Pratchett was a noted fan and critic of the franchise, lol).
Although the Time Lords look nothing like the Watchers, their function is somewhat similar, except that the latter are not nonlinear manipulators of the timestream—but the Doctor is known for being a renegade, more proactive and outside-the-box. (The first one was actually vaguely framed as an extraterrestrial human, not a Time Lord.) Going forward, we’ll see Uatu as something of a nonconformist among his kind, as well—if you can imagine old cue-ball as a hep cat, daddy-o! 😉
II. Skrulls Walk Among Us! – And: Galactic Alien Empire: Fantastic Four #2 and 18 (1.1962, 9.1963)
One of the most famous sf stories of all time is 1938’s “Who Goes There?”—although most people know it today as the source material for the three alien nightmare movies called The Thing. John W. Campbell, Jr., however, was much better known, at least within the sf field, as a towering editor, gatekeeper, and ideologue. Very few people nowadays could recall offhand any other fiction he wrote. His fiction skills were rough at best, but this short story captured the same sort of appeal to base fear and paranoia that had been so famously achieved that very year by the Orson Welles radio play of H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds (1898). Of course, at the time, the latter production was taken by many listeners to simply be misidentifying the actual invaders—Hitler’s Nazis! (It wasn’t at all obvious that there wasn’t really an invasion in the offing; radio was the Twitter of the 1930s—sigh.)
But Campbell’s alien invader was conceptually much more frightening—a shapeshifter taking on the form and identity of any of its victims. There may have been folkloric/mythic precedence for this sort of horror, but “Who Goes There?” may be the first such modern sf version (reaching a large readership for whom such a nightmare would’ve been unheralded). (A much more interesting and sophisticated take on nonhumans who morph to a human shape is by, you guessed it, Gene Wolfe, with his Fifth Head of Cerberus, 1972, where the invaders are colonizing humans; it’s one of the most sophisticated tales of postcolonialism in anglophone sf.)
Since the famous 1938 tale, there have been countless other versions, many of them much more sophisticated—or even sympathetic, as seen in later Golden/early Silver Age stories like Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles (1950) and James White’s much less known but fascinating “Sector General” stories, starting with 1959’s “Visitor at Large” (in the collection Hospital Station).
Stan and Jack, writing popular periodicals under the heel of the Comics Code Authority in a US still reeling from McCarthyism, and with McCarthy’s successors on the HUAC only a bit more restrained (until 1965), it’s no surprise that we get the unsubtle version of shapeshifting aliens as basically a stand-in for the Reds. They’re certainly no more ogre-ish than their depictions of the commie villains filling the pages of Hulk and Journey into Mystery in the early ’60s (FF #13 was actually much subtler than these raw beginnings).
But with 1963’s FF #18, Stan and Jack revamped one of their throwaway alien races for the first time, putting in a greater effort by depicting the Skrull home-world and giving them slightly better logic than aliens aborting their invasion of Earth over drawings of scary monsters from a Jack Kirby comic book (thinking they were evidence of real Terran beasts). This time, no mention is made of this past silliness, only a desire for vengeance against the dastardly FF for foiling their plans before.
This is the first appearance of the as yet unnamed Emperor Dorrek VII and his new one-man super-army—Super-Skrull! Also, we get Tarnax, the Skrull home-world, and since villains of the time had to be purple, well, how about a whole planet of ’em?!
Since space opera pioneer E. E. “Doc” Smith’s pulp adventures of the late 1930s (like his Galactic Patrol), galaxy-spanning empires had become very common in sf. Throughout the 1940s, Isaac Asimov fully realized the concept with a deeply thought out “psychohistorical” framework (Foundation), but we’re not going to see anything like at Marvel, the closest thing being what Roy Thomas does in the early 1970s with the Kree-Skrull War. The Skrull empire at this early date is sketchy and superficial—but the designs are great!
(The most popular imperial space opera storytellers of the same time were Smith, Edmond Hamilton (who also wrote Superman), A. E. van Vogt, and C. L. Moore (Judgment Night). The 1950s, saw the emergence of my favorite pulp sf writer—Jack Vance (a relevant early sample being The Languages of Pao). And then there was Poul Anderson, who built off Asimov’s “foundation” to tell much better/more fun galactic yarns, with his massive “Technic” series.)
We also start to get some of that totally unnecessary but beautiful Kirby techno-baroque, while Super-Skrull displays his Thing-like strength.
Later revealed to have an everyday Skrull name, Kl’rt, the Super-Skrull is a classic early Marvel creation, combining diabolical alien science, the Skrull version of the super-soldier program, and the superpowers of the Fantastic Four all in one dastardly foe. He’s one of those enemies who’s so powerful that in this age of one-and-done stories, the wrap-up is just exceedingly silly—just like Stan’s interpretation of Jack’s art here:
It’s a lot of fun, though—and looks great compared to anything else at the time. Kirby ascendent.
NEXT TIME! The return of the Watcher with the debut of the Molecule Man; more of Dorrek and Super-Skrull; and the introduction of the Inhumans