By Kiel Phegley
Looking back over the 75 years of Marvel Comics history, it’s hard to name exactly the greatest comic book the publisher ever put out, but Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s FANTASTIC FOUR has to be in the running.
The original book that kick-started the Marvel Age of the 1960’s, FF turned the monster comics of the Atlas Era towards a powerful, emotional kind of super hero story.
“FANTASTIC FOUR was the first, which is always a good barometer of innovation,” says Marvel’s SVP of Publishing and Executive Editor Tom Brevoort, also the man who edited the title longer than anybody else over more than 150 issues from 2000 to this year. “It pioneered the format and the approach. It was also a spawning ground for a lot of the rest of the Marvel Universe. More stuff—more characters, more concepts, more places, more ideas—came out of FANTASTIC FOUR than any other book in those formative years.”
Over 102 consecutive monthly issues and 10 oversized annuals, Lee and Kirby redefined comics with FANTASTIC FOUR. To celebrate, Brevoort took us on a guided tour of some of the milestone issues from this titanic run.
Early on, even Lee and Kirby didn’t know exactly the groundbreaking hit they had on their hands with FANTASTIC FOUR.
“The first couple of issues is clearly them finding their feet,” Brevoort says. “They're not even necessarily confident that they can even publish a super hero comic successfully, so for the first couple of issues, they kind of back into it. The team runs around in street clothes. While they're technically super hero comics, if you look just at the covers and erase your knowledge of all that, they look much more like the fantasy monster comics Marvel was publishing at the time. They all have monsters or aliens on them, and then around the edge there's a stretchy guy or a fire guy.
“Issue #1 is a very strange issue. It clearly wasn't put together the way you would normally put together an issue—starting at the beginning and going to the end. The conjecture is that the back half of the issue with the Fantastic Four fighting the Mole Man was done first. It would have run as a short feature in an anthology book rather than as its own book. Then for some reason they decided to expand it and added the chunk at the beginning. The structure of it and the clues in it aren't the kind of thing you'd do if you were telling the story straight through. So there was a lot of tinkering and trying things out even at the launch of FANTASTIC FOUR as its own comic. Most other Marvel heroes ended up debuting in the fantasy books that they'd eventually take over. Iron Man appeared in TALES OF SUSPENSE, and Thor was in JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY. So the early FF issues are very much them feeling their way out.”
“The first real super hero issue is #3,” Brevoort explains. “That's the point where they commit to doing a super hero book, and they give them costumes and the Fantasticar and the Baxter Building and all their accoutrements. It's also the point where Stan makes the transition from a fantasy city to a real city. The first two issues are set in the made up Central City, but by issue #3, they're in Manhattan. That's the first big step towards the Marvel approach of showing the world outside your window and the verisimilitude of these weird, crazy characters running around in the same place that you are. #3 is a fairly important issue for those reasons.
“It's also the point at which they streamline and redefine the Human Torch's look,” he adds. “At first, he was just kind of a blob of fire, but in #3 they went back to something more akin to the 1940’s Carl Burgos look for him. And by the end of that third issue, the Torch quits! He and the Thing have a fight at the end about how they've beat the Miracle Man and the part he's played in it, and he flies off. The last three panels of the book are Reed worrying, ‘What should happen if the Human Torch turned against mankind?’ So it's the first cliffhanger and the first sort of continuing story and it's all based around the character and soap opera of it.”
Just like Captain America returned from Marvel’s previous life as Timely Comics in the pages of AVENGERS, FANTASTIC FOUR had its own Golden Age revival with the original undersea ruler Prince Namor.
“#4 [was] the return of the Sub-Mariner [and] that was really cool,” Brevoort recalls. “He was a super popular and interesting cat in the early days of the Marvel Universe not just for his FANTASTIC FOUR appearances but his appearances across the line as this kind of anti-hero/villain. It led to the point where they gave him his own series and he settled in as a good guy. But that was a fascinating character for the era and a character you didn't see a lot in those days.”
Aside from competing for the love of Sue Storm and generally bringing a lot of righteous indignation to the table, Prince Namor also upped the level of action in a way that put Marvel on the map.
“All the super hero comics of that period are well crafted—they're well put together and thoughtful—but the one thing they're not terribly great at is being exciting,” says Brevoort. “They're certainly not visceral. Most super hero stories of the period, by virtue of the fact that you wanted to see colorful characters with fantastic powers doing amazing things while also not doing anything terribly violent, meant that the stories tended to be puzzles. They were either somebody finding out the hero's secret identity or threatening to, or they'd have a mystery villain that you had to get to the heart of who it was. The Marvel books are all about emotion and energy and kineticism and action whereas most other comics of the era are about the interlinks or the puzzle; about figuring things out. They're sort of antiseptic. Even if the actual artwork was crude at places and the printing was kind of shoddy, the raw verve of these guys actually punching one another with actual action sequences where there were emotional highs and lows instead of a neutral middle ground was phenomenally exciting. You literally cannot imagine the difference if you started reading comics in the past couple of years.
“The Marvel books of that period starting with FANTASTIC FOUR went outside the mold for readers. That was the secret of their success. It wasn't like they were crafted in a certain way. They were just better on an emotional level. They were more engaging and more exciting, and it took a while for other publishers to catch up and figure out what Marvel was doing and how to approximate it.”
After five issues, Marvel’s First Family met their greatest foe, but FANTASTIC FOUR #5 has another reason for being one of the biggest milestones of the era, as Brevoort explains:
“I'd point to #5 as a big issue and not because of the obvious reason that it's where Doctor Doom first appears. Really, that one singular issue was inked by Joe Sinnott. His inking on FANTASTIC FOUR and over Kirby in general is pretty much the high watermark. He came on regularly with issue #44 and stayed through the end of Kirby's run, and then he did another 150 issues beyond that. But if you look at FANTASTIC FOUR #5 and compare it to the issues around it like #4 and #6 or #3 and 7, it looks so much better. It's cleaner and sharper and head and shoulders visually above the others.
“Comparing it to issue #1 is like night and day; issue #1 is a little crude,” he notes. “Instantly, the art jumps way the heck up in issue #5. It gets better after that, but the inking is much more scattershot thereafter. It gets better and then worse and varies issue-to-issue. But #5 as a watermark is just excellent. And also Doctor Doom debuts!”
“This is the first time we see an actual Marvel Universe crossover, and it's the Fantastic Four meeting and battling the Hulk for the first time,” says Brevoort. “And the Hulk book launched around the same time as FANTASTIC FOUR #5, and in fact in #5 there's a whole two-page sequence where the Human Torch is reading a copy of HULK #1. He gets in a big fight with the Thing about Thing being uglier than the monster in the comic. So it's a little ad for HULK #1 that's actually in the story of FANTASTIC FOUR rather than as an ad. So it's weird that seven issues later they meet the dude in Johnny's comic. But that was the reality of how the Marvel Universe existed in those days.
“Marvel didn't invent the super hero team-up or crossover as it used to be called. Other companies had done it going back to the 1940’s, so the idea of cross pollinating these things wasn't novel per se, but the way that Stan, Jack and the others at Marvel did it was a little bit more casually. First of all, it would happen at the drop of a hat. You'd get stories devoted to the crossover like in #12 where the Hulk's appearance is the story of the issue. But as time went on, you'd also get characters showing up in someone else's book for like three panels where there was a sense that they all lived in the same place. Anybody could drop by at any point in any series.
“And this really became a cliché after a while, but when two Marvel characters crossed paths, they'd beat the hell out of each other. That was either because of a misunderstanding or because the Marvel characters were more misanthropic. In FANTASTIC FOUR #12, the Hulk is being framed for sabotage by an evil commie saboteur called the Wrecker who is just a little bald dude. That withstanding, the Hulk was the Hulk. So the Fantastic Four coming out West to deal with him—almost regardless of the circumstances—meant there was going to be a fight. This was not a super hero comic where the two heroes got together for fun and solved a mystery. The Four were coming out to put the kibosh on the Hulk. It turns out the thing they were chasing was the Wrecker, and he had a giant robot for Thing to smash. But they dealt with that part of the story in like one, two, three [pages] because people were less interested in that. They wanted to see the Fantastic Four fight the Hulk! That's the start of the Marvel Universe as a universe.”
Stay tuned for part 2 of our 75th Anniversary exploration of Lee & Kirby’s FANTASTIC FOUR!
Visit marvel.com/75 for more 75th Anniversary celebration and share your thoughts on Twitter using the hash tag #Marvel75