Each week in Late to the Party, someone posts about an older piece of media that they’ve just experienced for the first time. Our focus this week is the first 30 issues of Fantastic Four, the genre-defining introduction to the Marvel Age of Comics by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.
In 1961, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the Fantastic Four. Though the details of their collaboration have been debated endlessly, the impact of this superhero team and its creators cannot be overstated. Superhero comics were a dying breed by the time of its release, with the medium going in several other directions including romance, horror, western, and sci-fi to appeal to audiences’ shifting tastes. Noticing the recent success of the distinguished competition’s Justice League of America, Marvel Comics publisher Martin Goodman ordered his comics editor (and wife’s cousin) Stanley Lieber to create their own team of superheroes. Growing tired of the industry and wanting to save his real name for more legitimate works, he wrote under the pen name Stan Lee. According to Lee, he was looking to exit the industry and his wife Joan advised him to put his heart into this one last series and do whatever he always wanted. Co-plotting with penciler Jack Kirby, the two of them innovated the genre by introducing superheroes who bickered and faced personal conflict that better reflected the real world compared to what had come before. This proved to be a recipe for success that readers eagerly embraced, leading Lee with primary collaborators Kirby and Steve Ditko to launch other key properties such as Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, the Avengers, the X-Men, Daredevil, and Doctor Strange. The FF have since been known as Marvel’s First Family for their direct influence on revitalizing superheroes as we know them today.
I’ve been a lifelong fan and collector of comics who had the misfortune of entering the hobby during the 90’s. Although Spider-Man was always my favorite hero, Fantastic Four was the first comic I followed on a monthly basis. This was partly because it was easier to follow a property that only had a single monthly comic, but also had to do with the scattered quality of Spider-Man comics at the time. Even then, it was a weird time to be following the series, with writer Tom DeFalco and artist Paul Ryan in the middle of a run where Johnny Storm was a fugitive with a Skrull ex-wife, Reed Richards was temporarily dead, Ben Grimm wore a helmet to hide a scarred face, and Sue Richards was going through ill-advised fashion choices while possessed by Malice.
Although I abstained from following comics for a few years after that, I came back for the Mark Waid run and have been following the series consistently since then. Today, the Mark Waid and Jonathan Hickman runs are some of my favorite comics ever created and my affection for these characters remains very high. However, I’ve always had this nagging feeling that I should start from the beginning. When I was in college, I had a similar feeling that I was following many bands that were influenced by the Beatles and decided that I had to do some serious independent study on the Fab Four. The experience was very rewarding, so I figured I’d one day have to do the same for comics, with Lee/Kirby playing a similar role to Lennon/McCartney in terms of overall influence. Last year, I added the first omnibus of their run (collecting #1-30 and Annual #1) to my bookshelf and it was this Late to the Party column that gave me the excuse to finally read it.
The Marvel Age of Comics
These comics remain a fascinating artifact and time capsule of an industry going through transition. It’s frankly thrilling to read these early issues and witness how Lee and Kirby are taking elements from contemporary genre comics and transforming them into superhero comics as we know them today. These issues feature many hallmarks of the popular stories of the time. For the first 10 issues, almost all of them feature giant monsters or aliens from outer space. Each issue is broken down with chapter breaks that would be fitting in an anthology comic but don’t really make sense here. Occasionally, the Fantastic Four even face conventional antagonists like mobsters because Lee and Kirby haven’t nailed down the tone yet.
You would think that this is a complete mess to read, but for those early issues it’s nearly a complete delight. It really does read like Lee and Kirby were taking contemporary trends and doing whatever the hell they wanted with them, figuring that if it all failed then they’d soon be out of jobs anyway. Lee very quickly establishes his playful huckster voice with his jolly narration, character-based jokes, and snappy letters columns. Kirby, meanwhile, contributes not only to the creativity in design and plotting but also in the finer details to land those jokes harder. The two of them create a real sitcom energy that make this into a fine hangout series.
Speaking of that letters column, its inclusion here is very insightful, as you get to track the creation of the Marvel Bullpen and the expansion of the Marvel line as new titles are hyped up in each issue. Not only that, but you also get to see letters from early Marvel fans and future creators like Roy Thomas, Steve Gerber, and Mark Gruenwald (Plus George RR Martin?!).
The most fascinating thing about revisiting these early Marvel characters is seeing them in their earliest forms. I’ll run through our core cast, starting from most to least developed compared to how we know them today.
From a writing standpoint, Ben Grimm is just about perfect right off the bat. He’s grumpy and unpleasant at times, but legitimately so. He’s alternately played for comedy and pathos and it always manages to work. His fundamental relationships with Alicia and Johnny are established well early on too. Artistically, it takes a lot longer for them to get him right. The quality of his appearance seems to differ dramatically depending on who is inking Kirby’s pencils. His initial appearances resemble a muddy looking blob and eventually he starts to resemble the muffin-shaped head we all know and love.
It takes a couple issues, but Johnny’s hotheaded personality and his rivalry with Ben are nailed down relatively early. He’s more of a straitlaced hero for the first few issues. The only strange thing is that he gets caught up in a couple odd recurring writing tics. One is that there always seems to be some conveniently placed asbestos traps nearby for villains to take him down, which has only become more incongruous and eyebrow-raising in hindsight. The other is that he falls victim to Lee’s tendency to introduce new powers in one issue and forget about them in the next.
Reed is already a super-genius, but he has a much more unpleasant personality in a different way than we’re used to seeing. Lesser writers would often later play him as cold and uncaring, but Lee frequently takes him in another direction by making him just as petty and childish as Johnny and Ben. He’s much more ready to get into the mix with the other boys and is often unsympathetic as he condescendingly shouts at Ben for demonstrating self-pitying behavior.
Sue has the longest way to go as she has the misfortune of being the lone female character on a team depicted by two white men in the 60’s. Her personality is just “The Girl.” She’s often distracted by glamorous things and is easily seduced by fame. For the majority of these issues, she is rarely effective in any of the battles, often hiding until she can sneak up to her opponent at the last second and then easily get overpowered in spite of being invisible.
The later issues in the volume would finally get around this by introducing her to new invisible force field powers that make her more useful in a fight. Nonetheless, she spends most of her time being simple-minded and pining away after Namor while giving Reed the Nice Guy treatment.
Speaking of Namor, it is surprising that the most recurring plotline in these issues is the love triangle between him, Reed, and Sue. Lee and Kirby return to this well so many times that it could be argued as the main plot of this early run. Namor’s presence hangs so heavy over these issues that he is the first non-family character to get his own pin-up in the backup pages – even before Mr. Fantastic himself!
The FF’s most famous antagonist, Doctor Doom, is only the secondary villain behind Namor during this part of the run. His schemes manage to push the creativity of Lee/Kirby with time travel, shrinking rays, and body swapping all added to the mix, but the character is far from fully formed. At this point, he’s just established as an old college acquaintance of Reed and Ben’s who also dabbled in mystic arts. None of the specifics about his vendetta against Reed have been added yet.
Besides Doom and Namor, a few other villains like Mole Man, the Red Ghost, the Thinker, and Puppet Master recur only a couple of times while there are a few interesting one-offs like Molecule Man and the Super-Skrull. To be honest, the later parts of this omnibus start to lose steam as Lee/Kirby just repeat many of their earlier threats and the individual stories get less unique. The only standout issues towards the end are the first notable crossovers with other superheroes such as the Avengers and the X-Men.
These issues are entertaining as they cash in on the early promise of a shared universe with all these superheroes coexisting in New York City, but they also serve as a great contrast between the Marvel books that worked well right out the gate and the ones that needed more time to cook. The X-Men are pretty weird in their devotion to their professor, but they’re otherwise regular superheroes without any signs of the mutant metaphor yet. The Hulk issues that establish the Hulk/Thing rivalry do a great job of demonstrating how the big green guy didn’t work as a solo hero yet, but he was an excellent foil and supporting character in other books.
As an artifact, these issues remain fascinating in the way that they were some of the first superhero comics to present the idea that they take place in the “real” world. This only goes as far as to extend to the more conflict-driven personalities and the use of a non-fictional city, but it does set the precedent of trying to present a more realistic setting before it all goes to hell with ludicrous ideas (see also: New Universe, Kick-Ass). It does feel revolutionary as a comic set in a 1960’s New York, with the fads and trends of the era reflected within its contents.
My enthusiasm started to wane as I got towards the end of this omnibus, but overall I found it to be a very fulfilling experience. It only covers the first stretch of the Lee/Kirby run and I do plan to pick up the 2nd omnibus when it goes back into print. I had always heard that the 2nd one was the book at its peak with the Galactus three-parter, which once made me less enthused to start at the beginning. These issues were worthwhile on their own nonetheless. If I had to choose from the Silver Age comics I’ve read, I’d say that Amazing Spider-Man by Lee, Ditko, and Romita still stands at the top of the heap for its consistency.
At this point, I’d still consider the Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo run to be my favorite for this particular series. The two of them just managed to nail down everything I love about the franchise in a way that felt both modern and classic. At the same time, I have a better understanding why John Byrne’s classic run didn’t fully connect with me the same way it did with others. I’ve admittedly only read the first half of Byrne’s stuff, but reading these early Lee/Kirby stories demonstrated that humor was always an ingrained part of the FF franchise that Byrne didn’t seem to understand. As a downside, I’d say that seeing this early Silver Age comedy has also made me recognize the intent and merits of those terrible Tim Story movies as well. Either way, the Fantastic Four remains an excellent franchise that has had plenty of ups and downs in its life span.
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