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Fantastic Four # 1 Review

So here’s the deal.   A while back Bill Reed linked to a long-form essay by Colin Smith comparing  the first eight issues of the Avengers from way back in 1963 to the current model.

I thought “Hey, that was fun!” After which I thought “I wish there was more blog-style writing on the earliest Silver Age Marvel superbooks.” And THEN I said “Oh, yeah. I’m part of a group blog.  I could just get off my laziness and make it happen.”

So here’s what we’re gonna do.  I’m going to do a critical/historical survey – with bonus added terrible comedy! – of the first issues of each of the major Marvel franchise books:  The Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Amazing Spider-Man, Thor, Iron Man, Avengers, Daredevil, and Captain America.   I’m planning on following Colin’s example and comparing the original model to what came after.

But I’m planning on discarding that plan if I feel about writin’ about other stuff.

And I figure what better place to start than with the debut of the Marvel Age of Comics?

——————————————————————————————————–
So I’ve been reading this comic. It’s about giant, Godzilla-type critters menacing civilization.  It’s about mad dictators planning terrifyingly destructive schemes that threaten our sanity and our very lives from their secret lairs miles under the earth. It’s about beings secretly wielding life-or-death magical powers, living amongst us in secret.   And it’s about the steps  a panicked population takes to defend themselves from this hidden threat.

Here’s the cover.


Fantastic Four #1 (of four-hundred sixteen) (“The Fantastic Four/The Mold Man’s Secret”) by Stan Lee (Scripter), Jack Kirby (artist),  Art Simek(letterer), and Mark Evanier says George Klein so that’s good enough for me (Inker). $.10, 25 pgs, FC, Marvel (Formerly Atlas, soon to be Marvel Pop-Art Productions.)

Bonus Link:  There’s some fun discussion of the cover in this  Comic Book Urban Legends Piece.

Now, pretty much all of us here in the nerdiest corner of a nerd web-site have read SOME Fantastic Four, right?

Let’s ignore that.  Wash it from our brains.  Never happened.

Let’s pretend we’re reading this for the first time.  It’s the summer  ’61.  We’re sticky-faced and dirt-besmeared moppets, who have just plunked down the princely sum of a dime for the above comic.

Presumably, we are fans of giant green monsters with huge mouths or incredibly prescient investors.

So.  What do we find?

Well, let’s start with the characters.

MEET THE FANTASTIC FOUR:


Okay, fifty year old spoilers for those of you reading this who don’t know how the story goes and probably don’t exist.

The Fantastic Four steal an experimental rocket, are blasted out into space, get zapped by “cosmic rays” which bless/curse them with nigh-magical shape-shifting powers.

Mister Fanstastic:

Real Name: Reed Richards.

Powers:  Plastic Man style Stretching.

Role in the Team:  Leader.  (And let’s gasp in awe at that particular factoid once we’ve finished this entry.

Major Characteristics: 1)  Greying Temples.  2)  Oddly flattened  head that resembles  the top part of an exclamation point.  3)  Constantly makes errors on a level that would make General Custer go “Damn dog…”,  in potentia or in actuality ruining the lives of everyone around him .

No. Really. Let’s take a look at what “Mister Fantastic” actually accomplishes  in Fantastic Four # 1:  He falls down a hole.  He Loses a stick fight with this  dude…..

despite the fact that M.F. is, like, six feet taller and has super powers.

And, oh yeah, he illegally steals a spaceship.  This spashesip presumably belongs to the US Government.  This spaceship is headed for God know where (the comic actually doesn’t say.)  If he’s got a good reason for doing so, the comic doesn’t let us in on it.   He continues with his illegal and doomed-to-failure plan after best friend  sensibly warns him that this is a truly bad idea.

Long story short, he ends up screaming “Ben was right!” as the ship is pelted with potentially deadly radiation and forced to crash.

It’s a miracle that nobody dies.

(It’s MORE of a miracle that they’re all mutated into superheroes, I suppose, but it ain’t like dude was planning on this.)

Which, in baseball terms, would give him an ERA somewhere around -.350.

“But he’s Mister Fantastic!,” you say.  “He must have done SOMETHING right?!”

Wll.

He does save the life of our next Fantastic Four member.  Twice.  But even that’s a bit of a mixed blessing…

Human Torch:

Real Name: Johnny Storm.

Powers: Flying.  Controlled spontaneous combustion.

Role in the Team: Teengage POV character, who combines the annoying-osity of the “kid sidekick” types throughout history with the oft-realized potential to send everything around him to fiery destruction.  In the course of one issue he manages to burn up his  car, several airplanes, and damn everybody else on the team while sparking up a major brush-fire.

Major Advantage:  STILL Manages to come off better than Mister Fantastic.

The Thing:

Real Name: Ben Grimm.

Powers: Super Strength and Stanima, Hella Uggggliness, dawg.

Role In the Team:   Lissen.  The Fantastic Four?  Pshaw.  There’s  only one of these yahoos with one iota of  damn sense,  and his name is Ben Grimm.  In a twist of cosmic irony, he’s the ONLY one of the foursome (sounds dirty) who’s power doesn’t come with an “on/off” switch, meaning that he’s stuck as a hideous monster forever.  Moral:   God punishes you for hanging out with idiots by ruining your life while they get off scot-free.

Personality:  Sensibly, his monster-transformation turns the Thing into a highly bitter  individual.  He also tries to kill the crap out of Mister Fantastic and the Human Torch.    Now, granted, on any OTHER superhero team this would make him a murderous traitor, but in the context of their characters in F.F. # 1,  this feels like basic common sense.  As with the Torch, he causes vast amounts of property damage, but UNLIKE Johnny he always has a good reason.


The damn doorways are too narrow!  Y’can’t blame a man for that!

Pooh Bear can relate.

The Invisible Girl:

Real Name: Susan Storm.

Powers: Guess.

Role in the team: Token pretty face.  Can identify a photo of Australia.

Also: Sue’s a chick and she’s not designated team secretary, which actually makes her a fairly progressive feminist role model amongst super-her0 and adventure-type characters of the day.

Personality: There’s really no way to say this delicately.  She’s an E-N-O-R-M-O-U-S bitch.

Now this contrasts wildly with her later  characterization, but the Sue Storm of FF # 1 is basically evil given human form with  Donna Reed ‘do and a  purple jumpsuit.

Proof?

Within two pages of her introduction she takes palpable, malicious delight in scaring the crap out of the citizens of New York with her invisibility powers.  In her first chronological appearance, she threatens  Ben Grimm’s manhood in a fit of ill-begotten patriotism  “Ben, we’ve GOT to take that chance… unless we want the commies to beat us! I — I never thougt that YOU would be a coward!” and later is the only one tactless enough to point out to Mister Fantastic what a screw-up he is.   “But Reed..We failed!!! After all your work… your dedication… we failed!”

(“Damn those commies! I hope they get @#$%$%$^ by the #$%^*& in HELL! If you hadn’t been STUPID, #$%^- for brains, we could be drawing 100-foot tall charicatures of Lenin with a #$%^&*( #$%^ in his @#$% on the MOON right now” she continues, off panel.)

And the rest of the time she can be just a tad condescending.

Unfortunately,  “the hot chick who insults the ugly dude” is pretty much the sum total of her value to the team.    She doesn’t defeat the villain or save the world or get the treasure or get to do much of ANYTHING, really.  She scares a cabby.  The Thing saves her from a monster.  It kind of looks like she catches the Thing’s sweet-ass hat before it hits floor in one panel, and she correctly identifies Australia and the fact that I have to mention that TWICE really shows you the magnitude of her accomplishments.

On the upside: She doesn’t destroy anyone’s life.  Or livelihood.  And she doesn’t almost burn down greater New York State.

So  I’d say that on THIS team, being merely completely ineffective is  the equivalent of being the MVP on the All-Star team.

So.  In summary.  The Fantastic Four.  Not a buncha people you want to spend a lot of time with.

LOVE that panel.  LOVE THAT PANEL!!!

But.  But.  But.  As a story.  On a catching-my-interest-and-making-me-want-to-keep-reading level…  it works.

Our Fantastic Four may be surly.  Or bitchy.  Or crazy  dangerous to themselves, their friends and family and everyone and everything within the greater tri-state radius.

But they’re interesting!   Compared to the square-jawed and boringly forthright heroes from, say, DC’s Silver Age Justice League comics they’re downright fascinating.

Funny, then, how the folks at Marvel comics went out of their way to make these revolutionary characters seem like typical Marvel Product.

Here’s the cover again.

Compare to the  giant-monster centric stories that Marvel was pumpin’ out in mags like TALES TO ASTONISH or STRANGE TALES.

Big-asssed monster front and center, bunch of smaller human figures milling around.

If we’re judging the book by it’s cover, Fantastic Four # 1 is a Marvel Monster comic that looks more or less like every other Marvel Monster Comic.

In fact:   There’s nothing to establish that the Fantastic Four aren’t evil monsters  until page 13 of FF # 1.  The story STARTS with   the Torch, the Thing, and the Invisible Girl on a rampage through the city to accomplish some unknown, mysterious, and by all indications sinister task.

EVENTUALLY, when the curtain’s dropped on chapter one and the origin flashback is done, the Fantastic Four talk about helping mankind.

But we spend twelve pages not knowing that.

Now, let’s take a look at the flashbactakular Fantastic Four-gain-their-powers-because-radiation-could-do-ANYTHING-in-1961 sequence –

Freaking.  Freaky.

Look at what Jack Kirby’s doing here.   He’s whiplasheing back and forth between interior and exterior shots, close-ups and full figures.  End result:  Confusion and mounting horror.

What I’m trying to say is:  Fantastic Four # 1is not a superhero comic.   Giant monsters.  Unlikeable, flawed protagonists with questionable motives.

It’s 90% horror, with maybe 10% traditional superhero tossed on top.

Not Nightmare or Friday style horror.  Not EC 0r Geoff Johns guts-all-on-the-floor style horror.

But horror aimed at children, as was common in the movies of the ’50s and ’60s.  Giant monsters and mad scientists and strange invaders from the stars.

And that’s even MORE obvious in the second story.

Here, the Fantastic Four fight the Mole Man in a story that’s SO traditional of Marvel’s then-current giant monster output  that my buds over at the Classic Comics forum have theorized that it was originally written for one of the monster mags  – with the Mole Man as the protagonist – and then cut up and re-pasted into a Fantastic Four tale.

Possible evidence:

1)  The story contains a more than two pages of a giant monster versus the army sequence.   This sequence doesn’t reference our heroes or contain information vital to the rest of the story.

2)  Mister Fantastic and the Human Torch end up disquised in clumsy metal costumes that obscure their physical features for several pages.  The reason  given (They’re blinded by the suits to keep them from being blinded for real) makes no sense whatsoever.

3)  This Jack Kirby guy is generally a pretty good artist, coming in at # 1 on the CSBG favorite artist poll an’ all.

And while he might occasionally have a somewhat laid back attitude towards anatomy and perspective, his panel composition skills are generally really, really, REALLY goshdamn good.

So what’s up with panels like….

Gee.

It’s almost lke the FFs weren’t in the original version of this panel, and were magically inserted in pre-production via the 1961 version of photoshop. (Which I suspect invoved a ruler and scotch tape or glue.)

4)  The story is, narratively speaking, kind of a mess.  There’s the army flashback that doesn’t add anything, there are some downright clunky cuts between the two main narratives –

–  and the whole she-bang ends with an “Oh crap we’re out of room let’s wrap everything up in three panels” of an  ending.

Actually, never mind that last one.  That describes damn near every Silver Age Marvel Comic.  (I see this as much a feature as a bug, personally.)

But even if it was a copy-and-paste job (and I’m only about 50% convinced, myself) it’s still got at least got some major positives.

As Stan hisself points out in his ORIGINS OF MARVEL COMICS the Mole Man is a uniquely developed and sympathetic villain… (Possibly because he was the main character of the original piece)

And then there’s these…

KIRBYMONSTERS…


KIRBYMONSTERS…

How I love ‘em.

I’d put Kirby in the elite top two all-time comic illustrators in the “unearthly and bizarre” category.   And I’d rate him as absolutely the best monster designer to ever work in American comics, as well as the best designer of awesome looking future-tech.

The other member of my top two “drawing weird shit” pantheon?  Steve Ditko.

But we’ll get to HIM a couple posts down the road.

Speaking of which –  That’s all I have to say about THAT.  Next time I’m planning to hit up Fantastic Four # 2, 3, 4, and 5, a sequence which includes my favorite Fantastic Four story ever.  The third part will cover F.F. # 6 -10, and then we’ll move on to the Hulk, Thor or Spider-Man (whichever came first, I forget) and so on.

51 Comments

I like it!

More, more and more, please!

The theory of the FF as “monsters” or SF horror characters makes sense, considering also that originally Sue was going to be stuck in invisibility mode, like H. G. Well’s Invisible Man.

This blog entry was… fantastic! Really, I mean it. I enjoyed reading about a view of Fantastic Four #1 from a contemporary perspective, 50 years after its publication.

Yes, I said 50. The FF has been in continuous publication for HALF OF A CENTURY. For anyone who complained about the Human Torch’s recent death, saying “Oh, they’ve obviously run out of ideas,” well, it does get increasingly difficult to come up with something completely original when you have a monthly series that has been in continuous publication for five decades.

But I digress. As I said, great blog. Ben Grimm, the Thing, is my favorite member of the FF. It’s funny, the Human Torch was, as Mark said, probably supposed to be the character that young readers were intended to identify with. But over the years, to varying degrees (depending upon the particular writer), Johnny Storm has been written as such an arrogant, showboating, hotheaded, mean-spirited jerk… and he always gets to date all the sexy women! Given that, Ben grim becomes a much more identifiable figure, a blue-collar everyman with a gruff exterior hiding a kind spirit who has the misfortune to be transformed into a walking pile of orange bricks. Any kid who has ever felt like an outsider is probably going to find a lot to relate to in all that. I certainly did, and still do.

I look forward to future entries in this blog series.

Man, you knocked this one out of the park, man. I was only mildly interested before clicking (I say mildly simply because for years I’ve seen the first issue of FF reviewed, so I thought I read every take there was on it). However I was very pleasantly surprised, a lot of things I never even considered about the issue before. Now I’m really looking forward to the rest of the entries.

One thing that always jumped out at me when reading FF#1 was all the avoidable property damage the FF callously cause everywhere they go. Even Ben Grimm could have gotten out of the store without destroying it. After all, he found a way to get INSIDE without destroying the door, right?

What weird timing. I actually made very similar observations on Friday on Twitter regarding the FF more resembling Marvel’s monster books. I’m sure it’s not a new observation, but still.

Looking at the first two covers of FF, they are very much designed like the monster books. Then the third issue debuts their costumes and it’s suddenly brighter and cleaner, and leans more toward DC’s bright superhero books, design-wise.

In effect, I think you could argue that the Marvel Universe comes from horror and the DC Universe comes from pulp crime adventures.

Anyway, Hulk came next. Well, actually Ant-Man came next, but of your list, Hulk. And those two were also initially very much Marvel monster books.

In effect, I think you could argue that the Marvel Universe comes from horror and the DC Universe comes from pulp crime adventures.

I’m not well-versed in DC’s Golden Age, but DC’s Silver Age, which I think has more influence on modern DC than its Golden Age, came from Science-Fiction.

Thanks guys. I’m all smiley and happy.

(I thought I scheduled this to post at 11:00 PM, so I could do one more quick edit and think of a title that isn’t stupid.)

Rene – OH yeah! I’d forgotten that!

If I’m remembering right: Stan Lee’s original plot for Fantastic Four # 1 had an Invisible Girl that was PERMANENTLY invisible. And Kirby, possibly thinking that the sales advantages of having a comely woman on the team would be nullified if we never actually see her, gave her the ability to switch her “powers” on and off.

Corey – What’s your Twitter?

T – HA! I never noticed the “how did he get IN” thing before. There’s a lot of fridge logic in these books.

So Stan, at least, probably conceived Sue as more a “heroic monster” rather than a superhero.

Ben – Yeah, totally agreed. I really think the Thing is the key to the book’s long-term success, and that “three superheroes PLUS a monster” is just a great formula all-round.

T, I think you’re absolutely right that the ’50s DC superheroes was very sci-fi based but I think in design and marketing it was more humor (or comedy adventure) due to the success of Captain Marvel.

MarkAndrew, I’m @CoreyBlake. Looking forward to more!

Good stuff Mark. I will be looking forward to your reviews.

I wasn’t sure at first. Your premise is odds with your approach, imagining at the outset that you are a “young moppet” picking this comic up for the first time, but then quickly assuming the voice of your adult self, and so, quite understandably, cynically deconstructing the whole thing.

In the end we can’t go back again so we must revisit these comics with a fully contemporary perspective, and include in our approach the whole body of knowledge, perspective, nostalgia, irony, cynicism, and approval this entails. This will lead to a full bodied and mature appreciation of the brilliance of Lee and Kirby’s art and story.

Well done!

Regarding the whole ”Marvel made FF #1 look like a generic monster comic book cover”…

Somewhere in Brian’s urban legends is written that for a while DC practicaly dictated what Marvel can publish in the 60’s because they owned the distrbution chain or something, so Marvel basically tried to cover up FF as a monster book, so, DC wouldn’t see it as them intruding on their superhero books.

That last panel you show confuses me. No way that is the original coloring of a Marvel Comic from the early sixties. It looks like something from The Dark Knight Returns.

What’s up with that?

Benday – Mostly I just wanted to use the word “moppet.” (There was more, but it got erased.)

Zdenko – Huh. I don’t remember that factoid. Although FF # 1 WAS 90% a monster book. The only thing that really ties it to the DC superhero books is that the Human Torch is a Golden Age concept given a new identity – Ala the Barry Allen Flash.

Mutt – Ha! I knew SOMEONE was gonna say it. I’m using the first printing from the Marvel Masterworks reprint series, because that was what the library had. (I don’t have copies of Fantastic Four # 1 – 10 lying around. and I only have color reprints of ’bout half of them.)

Apparently the later printings of the Masterworks have closer-to-authentic coloring. I’d rather have those, but my current budget for this project is a buck thirty-seven, so it might not happen. Hopefully by the end of the series.

Zdenko, good recall. Here’s Brian’s entry on it:
http://goodcomics.comicbookresources.com/2007/02/22/comic-book-urban-legends-revealed-91/

But he didn’t uncover a reason why the first two covers of Fantastic Four look like their monster comics line. He theorizes that it could be Marvel trying to hide that they were doing superheroes from DC, which owned their distributor. But another reason he theorizes is that it could be that Marvel was just hedging their bets and using monster book elements in their new superhero book since their monster books were popular.

I actually tend to lean toward the second theory since the actual creation and design of the Fantastic Four as a book and concept has a lot of monster and horror elements.

Nice column and a great concept.

My one quibble is that the comparison of early Silver Age Marvels to contemporary DCs is not particularly instructive. The odds that a reader set down a copy of THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD #28 prior to clicking on this article are pretty long. Moreover, I would wager that those early Marvels are much more widely read than DC Comics of a similar vintage. That is not a context that is relevant for a for a modern reader.

Dean – HOPEFULLY I’ll tie it together next piece, at least a little bit. I’m kinda trying to build to something.

(It’s worth noting that I do really like most of the Scwartz-edited DC superhero titles. The characterization dig came out harsher than I intended.)

I disagree with Dean.

It was authorial intent; Stan Lee was consciously writing in response to the primary superhero model of his day (Silver Age DC). Many of Lee’s comments indicate this. I think it’s instructive to keep historical perspective when analyzing Marvel’s earlier comics.

The Marvel style more or less became the industry standard, so people sometimes downplay the fact that Stan Lee was doing superhero deconstruction, when they complain of more modern attempts at deconstruction (weirdly enough, this works both ways – people who like deconstruction and grim and gritty sometimes look down on Stan Lee’s “corny” comics).

Hey, you wrote a thing! Write more things.

Fantastic Four #1 did not take place in New York. It was Central City, which I think John Byrne later revealed to be in California somewhere. They didn’t move to New York until issue #3. (In #2, they were staying in a cabin in a forest for some reason.)

I can’t wait to read your next reviews!

Ben Herman– You really shouldn’t be giving away major surprises from the newest issues. There are still a lot of us who haven’t had a chance to read it yet. You should at least wait a few months.

@ MarkAndrew:

Fair enough.

@ Rene:

I think that the reality is more complex than you are acknowledging.

As T. rightly noted, Julius Schwartz and Mort Weisinger came from a Science Fiction background. They were working very deliberately in that tradition. Their protagonists were not have out of place in those stories. All the Julie Schwartz edited origins could have been the first act of an episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE. In that way, Marvel and DC began in very similar places.

The FF that we know and love took a few issues to become themselves. The Marvel style itself took a bit longer than that. It evolved substantially over time in response to the feedback that Lee and Kirby were getting. However, there are shockingly few hints of it in the text of FANTASTIC FOUR #1. Lee-Kirby went very different directions with most of the characters. The tone shifted dramatically. The setting moved from a fictional setting to a real one. The core theme of family is entirely absent.

If you really, truly divorce yourself from the knowledge of what comes later, then I am not sure how different FF #1 is from a contemporary DC Comic.

Mary – Oh yeah. I forgot that.

On the other hand – Central City is an analog of New York from two guys who”d lived in the New York area at least all their adult lives. It doesn’t feel any different than the issues actually set in New York.

Dean – FF # 1 Iis a LOT darker in tone than any of the DC “horror” stuff that I’ve read. Kirby’s art is less slick-lookin’ than pretty much anyone in the DC stable. The DC books had a lot of verbal humor and sight gags

http://www.comics.org/issue/16486/cover/4/

Which the early Marvel books lacked. (Stan’s later stuff was often very, very funny.)

And the DC books were – in the case of the Julie Schwartz and Kannigher ‘specially – quite a bit tighter and, well, better plotted.

Basically, I think that the Julie Scwartz superhero books were more intellectual, and the attraction was in the cool concepts and, often, in figuring out the central mystery of the plot along with the heroes. The Marvel books were more about setting a specific mood – Which evolved into a greater emphasis on characterization.

I agree that the tone shifted dramatically, by the by. I think it just moved from one thing that was completely different from what everyone else in the industry was doing to ANOTHER thing that was completely different from what everyone in the industry was doing.

(Note for those of you more modern and less nerdy fans: It’s worth pointing out that DC had a bunch of different editors who didn’t always (or ever) talk to each other about their books – And that comics from different editors could be completely dissimilar in plot and construction – Mort Weisinger’s Superman books had a lot more blatant, sit-com style humor and a greater emphasis on the emotional lives of the main characters than Scwartz’ books did. Kanigher’s war comics were often darker and more adult when they didn’t have G.I.s fighting dinosaurs. Jack Schiff’s stuff tended to be…

Okay, I haven’t read that much of it, but what I have strikes me, quite often, as derivative and inferior to what the other guys were doin’.)

It should be pointed out that back then DC *did* have a lot of stories with monsters in them, and on many covers — but they were usually the magic trio of dinosaurs, giant apes and ugly aliens. You’ll find everyone from Batman to Tomahawk to the Blackhawks fighting all three types.

Another explanation for the monster-mag type appearance of FF#1 and other early Marvel super hero comics might also be purely commercial: not wanting to alienate and lose the readers they already had from their current offerings when introducing the new heroes.

As pointed out, the Hulk at first was almost purely a horror/monster concept: a werewolf-like curse that started at sunset, and a gentle Dr. Jekyll vs. a monstrous Mr. Hyde personality. And as I recall, Henry Pym actually *did* start as a one-shot character in a monster story, “The Man in the Ant-Hill.”

One thing that always struck me about the cover was that the blurb about the four teaming up for the first time, rather than hiding a superhero book in monster comic clothing, made it sound *exactly* like a would-be competitor to the Justice League.

(By the way, has anyone alerted you to your titling the stories in #1 as “The Fantastic Four/The Mold Man’s Secret”? Though the “Mold Man” sounds kind of cool.)

“Which, in baseball terms, would give him an ERA somewhere around -.350.”

No offense, but you’re either not a baseball fan or you made a huge typo there.

First off, I *think* you meant batting average (which does get measured by three digits after a decimal) or possibly slugging percentage which is basically the same but bigger. Now, in that case, sure, the negative number could just be an extra joke; I wouldn’t bother correcting that.

But ERA? No way. First off, ERA is a number, then a decimal, then two more numbers (three if they’re tie-breaking). It never goes negative either, but this time that’s actually a correction worth making — because ERA is like golf score; lower is better. An ERA of -.350 would be the best ERA ever recorded by a pitcher by a significant factor. Even taking out the negative number, an ERA of .350 would be quite an acheivement, about five or six times better than the best ever recorded.

Also, as a final nitpicky point, errors do not result in “earned” runs, even if the error is by the pitcher. Therefore, it’s arguable that Reed’s errors and mistakes wouldn’t actually count towards an ERA.

I’d buy a copy of that comic. Hopefully the series will last. Who knows? It might even launch an era of superhero comics!

The monster book nature of the early Marvel has been noted before, but indeed it is interesting to notice how much of it was in the first books, ignoring what would come later.
Hulk and Ant-Man indeed share the 50s horror monster element, and one could argue that Spider-Man was the logical conclusion of the “sympathetic monster” type, where most of the outer trappings of monsterness has been removed, yet there are spiders, and mixed public reaction, and gothic anxiety about a normal-looking, even handsome man hiding terrible secrets.
Yeah, the assertion that DC picked its cues more from pulp adventures and scifi and Marvel from horror does make sense.
But indeed I don’t think the gradual change was done in order to fool DC, but was more organic, starting from monster books and then adding increasing amounts of superhero ingredients to see what happens.

Mark, please write more. I like your brain a lot.

I still don’t see the DC as pulp-inspired thing, but that may be because I’m using too narrow a definition of pulp-inspired. I admit I don’t know that much about pulp outside of what I’ve learned from Greg Hatcher’s columns. Can someone elaborate for me?

@ MarkAndrew:

Let me be clear. I am not saying that the two styles are exactly the same, but it seems as though they are too similar for FANTASTIC FOUR #1 to be called “revolutionary”. I know that I am arguing against an article of faith here, so let me offer a bit of support.

First, the basic cast would be very familiar to readers of Julie Schwartz and/or Mort Weisinger edited titles. There is the scientist hero. Reed Richards could have gone to college with Barry Allen or Ray Palmer or (especially) Walter Haley. There is the love interest. Sue Storm is actually a step backwards from career-minded love interests, like Jean Loring or Carol Ferris or their spiritual big sister: Lois Lane. She essentially a socialite that goes along her boyfriend’s adventures, like Sue Dibny. There is the kid sidekick. Just like Wally West, Johnny Storm is in the group because of his connection to the love interest. Ben Grimm is the most original creation, but he is not yet radically new. Monster-hero J’onn J’onzz had been around for six years and was a founding member of the JLA. Working class sidekicks were a staple of the Golden Age (Woozy Winks, Doiby Dickles). Bizzaro was a sympathetic monster that had been around for over three years. Combining those types was innovative, but not a total break with the existing superhero tradition.

Second, having the antagonist flashback to a sympathetic back-story was not a totally new device. Having a seeming menace turn out to simply misunderstood turned up in several DC comics that pre-dated FF #1.

Third, Stan Lee used a lot of humor later, but none of it is in evidence in that first issue. Even if it were, character-based humor was the major staple of the Weisinger edited Superman titles. Lee had a hipper sense of humor by the standards of the time, but neither was really ahead of the coming revolution in comedy.

Fourth, the contempt that the superheroes show to the lives and property of normal people was a staple of the genre from the cover of ACTION COMICS #1. Superman broke down the door of a Governor’s bedroom in his first appearance and recklessly tossed a soldier into the woods in his second. Batman was dropping people into chemicals from the beginning. Wonder Woman showed more than a little contempt for the men that she gleefully tied up. All of them had settled into prosperous and sedate middle-age by 1961, but their earliest adventures were every bit as wild and reckless as earliest adventures of the Fantastic Four. By the early ’80s, the FF would be just as square and established as the Big Three at DC were when they came along. That FF seemed wilder and more anti-establishment to a bunch of Baby Boomer kids that had little-to-no exposure to Golden Age comics. With the wide availability of re-prints, there is little reason to just repeat that very old line.

That is not to say that FF #1 was not different. It clearly was. Lee-Kirby were immediately working with a deeper cast than contemporary DC books were. The whole cast was involved in the scientific accident and, therefore, were part of a team. Mole Man wasn’t misunderstood. His sympathetic experiences had made him an utter bastard. Kirby was working in a more fluid and cinematic style that stood in contrast with the slicker (and sexier) DC house style. In time, Lee would promote who was drawing a given comic.

All those were fairly small deviations in that first issue that would slowly accrue with other deviations (continuity! cross-overs!) to create something that was truly revolutionary.

My problem with Weisinger’s humor is that to me, with the exception of the Bizarro stuff, I wasn’t always sure how much of it was intentional and how much of it was just things being played straight that seem like humor because we are looking at it with modern sensibilities. I think more of the things we find funny in Weisinger was totally being played straight than we realize. Which to me is a major reason why it’s so awesome.

Sean – Yeah. Crap. I meant batting average.

Dean – Okay, yeah, I see what you’re saying. I agree. I’d add that it was a lor more like other Lee/Kirby projects (either together or individually) than it was anything else, but I wouldn’t consider it revolutionary either.

I do disagree on your “showing the lives and property of normal people” point. Or at least I think Stan approached it in a different way, starting right around FF # 1. Stan would give each of the characters in his world an *individual* personality – The greater attention to characterization didn’t just apply to the main characters, but to the supporting characters and walk-on characters, too. I don’t know if this was more “realistic” but it meant that Marvel had a more immersive and FUN setting for their stories than anyone else.

I want to battle space gods like common people do.

I too love that melting car panel with the Human Torch and the guy yelling “Exclamation point!”

Interesting discussion about just how revolutionary the first issue was on its own, and what influences were heaviest. I can see the points he’s making but I still think that the heavier association is the monster books. Maybe that’s one of the things that make it so unique. They took various DC superhero elements and inserted them into a monster book.

And of course then there’s the Challengers of the Unknown which just complicates things further.

In the end, I think it comes down to distilling and executing pre-existing concepts in a way that inexplicably clicked with the right people in the right way at the right moment.

@ T.

The Weisinger Superman titles were so weird and so personal that it is amazing. It is like reading a dream journal, or something. We will never see anything like them again.

@MarkAndrew:

I am sorry if I wasn’t clear. Stan Lee worked with an extremely deep cast, which was a marked contrast to the laser-like focus that Julie Schwartz (in particular) put on his stars. Lee was always happy to a random shop keeper a panel to react to whatever was going on.

What I meant to say was that the manner in which the super-people behaved was not new. Both Siegel-Shuster and Lee-Kirby would show their heroes tossing people into the air, but only Lee-Kirby cared about showing them coming down.

Still disagree with you, Dean.

Let’s look deeper. There is a huge difference between Reed Richards and DC scientists like Barry Allen. Reed Richards is a man that lets his arrogance and hubris cause Ben Grimm to become a monster. Bruce Banner designs a bomb for the government and causes his own tragedy, Stephen Strange is a asshole doctor at first, Peter Parker at first lets his success get to his head and Uncle Ben dies…

Many Marvel heroes are tainted by this “original sin” and their heroism is an attempt at redemption. DC Heroes, on the other hand, have nothing to feel guilty about. I know that Superman and Batman both have survival guilt, but realistically, it’s not their fault that they lost their parents.

I don’t think Johnny Storm was comparable to your typical DC sidekick either. He was a full member of the team, arguably the most powerful one. There is nothing juvenile about his powers, costume, or name. He is not Fire Boy or Kid Flame, he doesn’t wear short shorts, and the powers he replicate are from a long-lost hero. He is Sue’s kid brother, but he is not defined by her in any way. Johnny is how own man, sometimes annoyingly so.

I concede the point on Sue. There is no denying Stan Lee’s sexism. But even here I wouldn’t say she is really comparable to DC’s female characters. In trying to give each character a distinctive personality, Sue is the girly girl taken to a extreme.

Continuing…

I agree that the Martian Manhunter was a a fairly original concept on his own, still I can’t imagine J’onn in the 1960s striking at a teammate in anger, like Ben does in this very first issue. J’onn is alienated, but there is still the serenity that is characteristic of the DC hero at the time.

There is raw tragedy to Ben Grimm. And, particularly in the first year of the FF or so, also the constant threat that the Thing could turn against mankind. The Thing is a lot more of a monster and an anti-hero in those first issues than he would ever be.

Yeah, Rene said it better than I did.

@ Rene:

I speaking very narrowly about FANTASTIC FOUR #1 and only FANTASTIC FOUR #1. Over time, Marvel developed a style that was distinct from DC. However, it took a few issues for Lee and Kirby to figure out what they were doing. It took a bit longer for Lee to really frame the competition that he wanted to engage in.

I mean, the JLA fought each other in their second appearance (BRAVE AND THE BOLD #29). Superheroes punching one another was hardly novel even then. Snapper Carr was driving around in jalopies and was even more his own man than Johnny Storm.

Look, I am not saying that FF #1 is not a wonderful comic, nor am I saying that it wasn’t a milestone. I just believe that Lee-Kirby went to the trouble of establishing themselves within the existing superhero tradition before they started bending it. Pretending that FF #1 was some radical break with the past does a disservice to the level of craft both men were bringing to the table.

Moreover, it reinforces the narrative that Lee and Kirby made comics better by making them darker. I don’t think that Ben swinging a tree at Reed was a big part of what made the FF interesting.

Dean, are you familiar with the Marvel monster books of the time? I can see FF #1 being viewed as a merging of both the monster books and super-hero books of the time, but I think just calling it a straight superhero book is not accurate and a narrow look of the context of the industry around the book at the time.

You know who else was a giant monster? Starro the Conqueror.

Good point, definitely valid. The significant difference I think is that JLA looks and feels like a superhero book of the time with a big sci-fi alien. Fantastic Four looks and feels like a monster book of the time with superheroes as the main cast.

I’ll buy that. In general I love how naturally Marvel’s monster comics fed directly into its superhero line–most obviously with the Hulk, but also FF, Ant-Man, etc. Mostly I love that the big Kirby monsters are still stomping around, though.

I was just a boy at the time but I remember the first appearance of th FF as if it were yesterday.

I recall thinking just how absolutely fantastic their various powers were. They were well named then.

As an Aussie science fiction writer: http://www.goldenvisionsmagazine.biz/AlienHunter.html
I’ve been a Marvel fan since that time – though may favorite was Thor’s first appearance in the Journey into Mystery of August 1962.

If you get a chance check out some of my Marvel (mainly Odin and Thor) fan fiction. Just scroll down below my author profile and you will see over 40 fan fiction stories here:

http://www.fanfiction.net/u/1276881/David_Scholes

Dean,

Let’s be fair. The JLA fought each other in Brave and the Bold because they were affected by illusions cast by a supervillain. If some hero in a DC book ever raised his hand against another hero at the time, you knew it was magic or mind control or they were tricked into it or it was the only way to save the day. That is fundamentally different from a superteam like the Fantastic Four in the first year, where Ben was simply pissed off and a threat. You know what I mean.

Snapper Carr had his own appeal, but you can’t really say he was a full member of the team. He is a textbook example of the non-powered helper guy cum comic relief cum identification figure. Johnny Storm is a very different kind of animal.

I don’t think dark is automatically good (nor do I think it’s automatically bad), but to deny how revolutionary Fantastic Four was just because it may or may not reinforce this narrative? I do think my main point isn’t that Lee/Kirby/Ditko made superheroes better because they became darker. I think they made superheroes more relatable and complex. I hesitate to say the word “realistic” to refer to a universe where people get bitten by radioactive spiders, but…

And I think the revolution was present even in the first issues. Sometimes particularly so. Like I’ve said, Ben Grimm and the rest were a lot more anti-heroic in the first issues than they’d ever be later. Now, this isn’t just because Stan Lee set out to deconstruct the superhero from day one (though there were elements of that) but because those first issues were also in the horror genre, with less likable protagonists, self-inflicted tragedy at the center of their origin, no costumes, etc.

Great piece! I’m looking forward to more. Keep ‘em coming!

@ Rene:

Again, I am making a narrower point than you are refuting, so I feel like we are talking past each other a little bit. I am not saying that the Lee-Kirby run on the Fantastic Four was not revolutionary. It was. However, the contents of that first issue (and only that issue) would have been very familiar to a comic reader of the time.

Yes, trying to hit a team-mate out of anger is different than fighting them while under some spell. It is just not a revolutionary change. Mort Weisinger had Superman and Batman occasionally arguing in WORLD’S FINEST, so it the next logical step to have team-mates feuding. What Lee-Kirby did that was innovative was set up the fight in an earlier scene.

Crediting them with being revolutionary (“They invented hero-on-hero conflict!”) ignores what they actually did well (setting up a conflict that pays off later in the same issue).

Snapper Carr and Johnny Storm is much the same. Snapper may not have been a full member of the JLA, but he was in every single issue. Other young identification characters had been given powers. So, having Johnny be a full member of the team of the team was a next logical step. Lee-Kirby were simply staying on top of industry trends.

Again, what gets missed in the claim of revolutionary change is a more subtle use of craft. By making Johnny a member of the team, Lee-Kirby turned the proverbial man on the street into the reader identification character. They eschewed the laser-like focus that Julie Schwartz had on his protagonists and worked with a deep, deep cast. Only the vaguest hint of that approach was on display in FF#1.

Did some of that come from the Monster Comics that they had been working on previously? Probably, but I am not an expert in that area. But again, fifties-style horror and sci-fi were a huge influence on Silver Age superhero comics generally. Watch THEM, or INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, or FORBIDDEN PLANET or any almost episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE. Read the first issue of any of the Julie Schwatz re-boots (THE FLASH, GREEN LANTERN, THE ATOM, etc.). Then, read FF#1 in that context.

Within that context, it is very clear that they are all on the same family tree. Calling one a revolutionary change from the group strikes me as peculiar.

I’d say too, that just as Marvel’s monster comics fed into its superhero line, and DC’s ’50s sci-fi stories set the pace for its Silver Age superhero revival, a fair amount of Marvel’s “real-world” Silver Age angst came directly out of its romance comics, which are often overlooked because they were, you know, for girls.

Dean,

Maybe, maybe it’s difficult for me to consider FF #1 alone and ignore what would come later. But even considering that many of the innovations in the first issue were developments from earlier superhero stories, I think that all of those innovations in a single comic story was a signal that Lee/Kirby were aiming to change the rules of the game.

Buttler,

One clear sign of the romance comics heritage was the fact that every Marvel superhero comic in the 1960s had at least one love triangle. Hank Pym and the Wasp were pretty unique in Tales of Astonish, because there was no love triangle there (even though Jan flirted with other male heroes).

@ Rene

“The Marvel style more or less became the industry standard, ”

Just to clarify Rene… I take it you are referring in this comment to that culture of deconstruction that spread out from Marvel to other areas of the industry that you cite above, and not that Marvel specific phrase which has come to characterize that special dynamic by which Stan Lee and his artists came to create their comics. I only mention this because that freestyle approach of artist as storytellers based on loose plot rather than full script was not an industry standard. DC in particular had a distaste for it.

buttler, I love the idea of Marvel’s romance book also heavily informing their superhero comics. Great observation and I think absolutely true! Marvel is probably responsible for adding a soap opera element to superhero comics and that would definitely have come from romance comics.

This column is excellent. I wish to encourage this sort of behavior, and so throw my comment upon the pile in the hopes that this positive reinforcement will spur MarkAndrew to carry on with these.

Fantastic.

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