Fantastic Four: 1961

in the 1960s, pt. 1.

"Lee and Kirby's Fantastic Four run is the Mount Olympus of comic book storytelling. Nothing else can touch it in its innovation, sustained excitement, consequential events, and unprecedented character development."
- Mark Enblom, Comic Coverage (2009)

I've always taken such sentiments on faith but never actually sat down with the Lee/Kirby run start-to-finish. As a dedicated Marvel Zombie in the 80s and a huge fan of Byrne's run on the book (1981-1986), I still knew the history of their run pretty well, but the original issues weren't collected or reprinted (not counting the Marvel Masterworks editions, which were too pricey for me) back then. I thought it might be fun to do so in 2016, tackling one year every month. A leisurely enough pace through one of the defining comics of the Silver Age.

Some of my previous decade-crawls got a little on the bloated side. I hope to be a bit breezier here (and in my other planned year-long series Watchmen at Thirty Years Old, as much if not more of a game-changer and emblematic of its era as FF was of its own.) I will almost certainly fail in this objective, but that's the plan.

For today's post, though, since there were only two issues with cover-date 1961, I didn't bother restraining myself. Let us begin.

November 1961

Reed Richards recalls the other members of the Fantastic Four - his fiancĂ©e Sue Storm, her brother Johnny Storm, and surly test pilot Ben Grimm - to investigate a series of nuclear power station disappearances. After reflecting on their origin story, they follow the clues to Monster Isle where they discover it's all the work of the Mole Man.  

If he really does pray this, he's in for pretty much constant disappointment.
The "Fantastic Four Assemble!" opener effectively demonstrates each member's super-powers, along with their unintentionally-amusing disregard for public safety.
Hell, Johnny's so anxious to get there he melts his own hot rod:
not to mention probably scorching this mechanic guy who's awfully close to Johnny's steel-melting temperatures.

None of this would have raised much of an eyebrow in 1961 - public endangerment took a distant backseat to action-panels. What comes across loud and clear, though, is how unfamiliar the FF are to the general population of New York (called "Central City" in this issue.) As are the military, who try to bring down Johnny's answering Reed's signal first with fighter jets and then a nuclear warhead.  

You and a hundred thousand other people, Johnny. I guess you can't blame the military, here, since the general populace is not aware of the FF's existence as of yet.

As for the origin story, here's Lee/Kirby's (left) side-by-side with John Byrne's tribute to it from FF 236 (right), which as mentioned elsewhere is pretty much my favorite FF story ever. You can clearly see the care he took in transcribing it faithfully enough (right down to the same sound fx in the 2nd set of panels) while still making it his own. You can learn a lot about the difference between Silver and Copper Age art (and maybe even how one evolved into the other, and maybe even what came after) by examining what Byrne added to his panels:

Above: Byrne (far right) compartmentalizes a little -
and here as well:

It might be shocking for the un-or-later-initiated to hear this Clubber Lang talk from Ben to Reed re: Sue. It sure is/was for me. By the time I came along, Ben was the "ever-loving Thing," a kid-friendly monster with pathos to spare. Sure, he had a temper and was given to cigars and colorful expressions, but you never had to worry about his bashing Reed over the head and dragging Sue back to a cave. This all speaks to the considerable character development to come.

By the way, I'm not suggesting Byrne's take on it is better than Kirby's with all my Silver/Copper Age talk up there. Just trying to draw a line between the two era's illustrative storytelling approaches. I'd like to see a comparison of each and every time the origin story was drawn, actually. If you know of someone having already done such a thing, please let me know. 

Back to the origin - as soon as everyone calms down, naturally they decide to give themselves names and use their powers for good.  

I've seen these panels dozens of times but it's never quite registered how hilarious Reed's choice of name is. This is the first thing that occurs to him? And we think of Doctor Doom as the resident megalomaniac in FF. It's even funnier when you consider the nature of his powers. ("I can do what? (thinks about it for all of three seconds - probably less, given he's a super-genius.) I'll be MISTER FANTASTIC! IN BED.") Or all the hand-wringing he does in issues to come about how everything is all his fault. Mister Fantastic indeed! The moniker is an ironic and constant reminder of his hubris.

FF#1 is an interesting intersection of Marvel Comics history: the end of the Monster Age (exemplified by this cover to Strange Tales, published the same month, as mentioned in Sean Howe's Marvel: The Untold Story.)

"After 35 years of change in comics * it's difficult to appreciate the impact that first issue must have had on the young fan spinning the rack in search of something new to read (...) The emphasis of the stories was completely reversed: plot, pace, and mystery were shunted into the background while brawling, bickering heroes took center stage, soaking the pages in pathos, anger, and romantic melodrama.
- Gerard Jones and Will Jacobs, The Comic Book Heroes.

Difficult indeed, if not damn near impossible. Here's a look at some of what else was on the rack, November 1961.

*Their book was first published in 1996.

INTRODUCING... THE MOLE MAN: The Mole Man was never exactly an A-list villain, but he retains a certain notoriety for being the villain of Fantastic Four #1. An outcast in the world above, he falls into a crevasse, is blinded, and then gets super powers and an army of monsters at his command. 

'Twas a simpler time.
That is some fine super-villain-ing from the Mole Man.

THINGS WE LEARN: The super-powered walk among us. And walking underneath us, a blind madman and his army of monsters, able to strike anywhere, at will. But not to worry:

That was a close one, but the problem is solved forever

Before we go on to issue #2, considerable ink, both virtual and actual, has been spilled on the subject, and the extent of Stan Lee's and Jack Kirby's respective contributions will likely never be answered to anyone's satisfaction. The way Stan told it, Martin Goodman (his relative and publisher of Marvel) played golf with Jack Leibowitz, publisher over at National/DC, who bragged about how awesome Justice League of America was, and Goodman directed Stan to come up with his own team. (Stan further credits his wife, who told him to put his heart and soul in the book, i.e. treat it as his one-last-gamble for comic book storytelling.) The way Jack told it, FF grew out of some of the above, but he basically combined his old ideas for Challengers of the Unknown (a book he did for National until falling out with Jack Schiff and Mort Weisinger) and his fascination with the Frankenstein theme. 

Lee alienated Kirby by being the "frontman" of their partnership and not doing enough to dissuade the perception (both with the public and with Marvel's corporate brass) that he was a co-creator. This led to Kirby perhaps overstating some of his contributions and undervaluing what Lee brought to the table, which in turn led to Lee hardening his own stance over the years, although he's always praised Jack's work to high heaven. This and the larger issue of copyright-credit due Kirby was a hugely divisive topic in the mid-to-late 80s and remains a source of litigation and consternation in 2016.

We'll explore this here and there in the posts ahead, but the truth is likely somewhere in the middle. And as Jones and Jacobs remark in their book: "It was rough going sometimes, as when a big block of Lee verbiage would descend upon a Kirby character's head, clearly intended to accomplish something in Stan's agenda to which Jack was indifferent. More often, it paid off (such as) how Kirby said he wanted to make an 'everyman' of Reed Richards. But the words Lee put in his mouth cast him as a dark and obsessive genius, a far more interesting figure."   

December 1961

The Skrulls - a shape-shifting alien civilization - have sent an invasion fleet to Earth. Having observed the Fantastic Four in action from orbit, though, they send four of their agents to the surface so that they can impersonate them in a series of acts of sabotage to turn public (and government) opinion against them. 

Of these acts, I think Skrull-Reed's (bottom r) is my fave.

After reflecting on their origin story, they allow themselves to be captured only to escape moments later. Johnny sabotages a test launch -

again endangering the lives of all military personnel in the area

- in order to draw their imposters out. The plan works, and Reed must act fast to fool the Skrulls into believing their attack will result in their destruction.

Despite fighting actual monsters last issue, Reed gambles on the Skrulls' lack of familiarity with Marvel's horror publishing line.

Chances are if you've never seen these issues but are familiar with Kirby's later (or even some of his earlier) work, you may be thinking "Wow, this looks worse than I remember." I can only imagine anyone picking it up in 1961 would not say "This guy is the best artist of our time." Not yet. 

Compared to the slick style of art over at DC (Mike Sekowsky on JLA, Gil Kane on Green Lantern, Carmine Infantino on The Flash, not to mention the Batman and Superman stables of artists) maybe this does look pretty rough. A lot of this has to do with Marvel's early policy of having whomever was hanging around the office that afternoon ink Jack's work as it came in. Things would improve when Dick Ayers started inking Jack in issue 5 and ultimately peak when Joe Sinnott - undeniably the FF's best inker, and arguably Jack's - took over inking duties in 1965. But even in these early issues you can see the shape of things to come: 

"Kirby rejected DC's use of the 'symbolic splash' and mannerly 'One day in Metropolis' openings, forcing himself to find a riveting visual moment to start every story. While DC's heroes still rarely threw a punch, Kirby's could brawl for pages. He was an emotional man, and it was powerful emotion that drove his stories. His heroes didn't save the day by deducing the chemical behavior of a sodium-based dust devil but through a burst of rage or desperation, or the hubris or madness of the villain.
- Jacobs and Jones, The Comic Book Heroes 

I'll have much more to say about Kirby in the posts to come. In these first two issues, though, he's just getting warmed up.

INTRODUCING THE SKRULLS: The events of this story - and Reed's Kobayashi-Maru-esque thinking - have major reverberations down the line, not just for the FF but for the Avengers and a whole slew of other Marvel characters. Grant Morrison et al. did fine work with picking up and running with the events of this panel:

Morrison paid further homage to the end of FF #2 at the end of his first JLA arc ("New World Order") a few decades later when he had the Martian Manhunter "psychically lobotomize" a dangerous group of White Martians (also shapeshifters) and sent them out into the world thinking they were ordinary humans with no knowledge of their Martian heritage.


THINGS WE LEARN: Not alone in universe. And between the first and second issue, the Fantastic Four are now world-famous. Makes sense, actually.


Next Up: 1962. The Sub-Mariner! Doctor Doom! It'll be up sometime at the end of February. Hope to see you then. 


  1. "Now, before I slay you all, behold my master plan!"

    That might be the finest sentence of its type -- OF ITS TYPE, mind you -- ever written. Concise, grandiose, jovial, horrifying; really, it's got it all.

    I have to confess that (A) I am no expert (or even a knowledgeable neophyte) on the subject of Jack Kirby and (B) some of this early stuff does indeed look rough as hell to me. Not all of it; but the early Thing is difficult for me to even look at. I wonder if my opinion would change if I immersed myself in comics (particularly Kirby ones) of that era; I'd be willing to be it would.

    This should be a fantastic series. Looking forward to learning more about the FF by proxy!

    1. I'll be curious to read your impressions of Kirby's art as we go along. I agree on these first few issues, definitely.