By Kiel Phegley
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s groundbreaking run on Marvel’s FANTASTIC FOUR doesn’t just stand among the most innovative comics of its time, but it also marks one of the longest collaboration in comics. That’s why it’s no surprise that our celebration of the original comic of the Marvel Age—as guided by SVP of Publishing and Executive Editor, and record-setting FF Editor Tom Brevoort—runs extra-long as we kick into the most famed FF issues!
Once the Marvel Universe had been well established in the mid 1960’s, Lee and Kirby tasked themselves with expanding the world with new characters, concepts and locales.
“There is definitely a paradigm shift that happens around then,” says Brevoort. “In 1965, Lee and Kirby came up with a bunch of new stuff that could be books. They came up with the Inhumans, the Black Panther and almost accidentally with the Silver Surfer. These were all meant to be their own books at one point, but as it turns out [Publisher] Martin Goodman couldn't get their distributor to lift the restrictions—or lift them that much. They let them add Western books and comedy books and teen books, but they were very reticent to let them have anymore super hero space because at that point, they were a little afraid of the success Marvel was having.”
While it took years for some of their creations to finally land their own Marvel series, Lee and Kirby still delivered one jaw-dropping story after another. Read on as Brevoort explains the creative history of some of the biggest hits in comics history.
The high period of the FANTASTIC FOUR started with the introduction of the Inhumans, the secret race that lived on the edges of the Marvel Universe. But beyond introducing Black Bolt, Medusa and the rest of the royal family in the story that began in FANTASTIC FOUR #44, the issue stands as one of the most important for another key reason.
“The artwork takes a quantum leap as Kirby's able to spend more time on it, and he's got an inker in Joe Sinnott who's way better than the guys who had been there before,” Brevoort explains. “Look at [issue] #44, the first issue to introduce Gorgon of the Inhumans, and it's like they come from different planets; how different and more sophisticated the art suddenly looks. That's got everything to do with what Sinnott brought to the table.”
The hits kept coming as one titanic story arc gave way to another in FANTASTIC FOUR #48, the issue the introduced two of the most important characters in Marvel history.
“You start to see the guest appearances from other Marvel characters fall away and the book go more into the sort of big sci-fi ideas that Kirby was interested in; it really almost becomes a different book,” Brevoort says of the era where the Silver Surfer and Galactus were introduced.
“It’s the coming of Galactus,” Brevoort says of the issue’s main draw. “In seven pages, they wrap up the Inhuman story where Maximus fires off his Atmo-Gun which will destroy the atmosphere for normal human beings so only Inhumans can survive. It doesn't work and so he suddenly he reverses the polarity and traps them all inside the shell of the Negative Zone, and the Fantastic Four just barely make it out in time, but Crystal is trapped within the dome. The Torch's heart is broken, and he's on a quest to break her free. But on their way back, rocks appear in the sky and everything is aflame. People start to riot, and they have to get involved in that. Then the Watcher appears to declare 'Hey, big things are happening. Galactus is on his way here, and he's going to eat the Earth!' Everything builds up to the last page where the Silver Surfer shows up and Ben punches him across town. Then Galactus lands on the Baxter Building and is going to eat the earth.
“It's the same two guys doing the book, and it's just completely different. While it's kind of got the same surface sheen, the fun and excitement of it is still there, but the stakes are a million times bigger. The concepts are greater and grander. The artwork is slicker and more pristine. It is the cutting edge. It's at the forefront not just of super hero comics but of comics.”
Not to be outdone by their first major cosmic saga, Lee and Kirby followed Galactus with “This Man…This Monster,” perhaps their most personal exploration of Ben Grimm as a character.
“As a single issue that you can just pick up and read to get the sum and substance of what the series is about and how it works with both its scale and humanity, there's probably not another book that does the job as well as #51,” Brevoort contends.
“Even with that, we all make a lot of suppositions about what each guy brought to the table and what their interests were. I've heard tell from people who were there and talked to both Stan and Jack back in the day, and when they've looked at the evidence, they say you'd be surprised at the stuff you'd think were clearly Stan ideas that came from Kirby or you'd clearly think were Kirby ideas that came from Stan. The credits started reflecting this around that time; they stop being 'Stan Lee, Writer, and Jack Kirby, Artist' and turn into 'A Stan Lee/Jack Kirby Production.' And I think that's right. It's hard to tell at that point where one guy stops and the other guy starts, but those books certainly wouldn't be those books without both of them.”
While FANTASTIC FOUR around issue #50 fired on all cylinders, it would not be the only era of the book that brought brand new ideas to the table. Brevoort points to #62—the first appearance of Negative Zone heavy Blastaar—as a moment that kick started the second wave of innovation in the title.
“That run may not be as seminally remembered as Inhumans to Galactus to Surfer to 'This Man…' to Black Panther, but that's a pretty great run that people have generated a lot of stories on; Blastaar alone is a character that there are probably 50 Marvel comics about,” he says. “Certainly up through #67 or #69, they were still introducing a lot of stuff. Probably the last big new character was Adam Warlock—or 'Him'—in the two Beehive issues. But right before that was Ronan and right before that was the Kree Sentry, and right before that was Blastaar.”
The opening chapter of Lee and Kirby's last great Silver Surfer/Galactus epic proved indicative of the brilliance of their later run, Brevoort explains, even when most people forget how deep the creators were able to take their core characters:
“People tend to remember the years of maximum innovation more than they remember the days of expansion and evolution. It's not as exciting developing that stuff as it was creating it. But they do this big story with Galactus and the Silver Surfer that takes them into the Microverse and sets them up to be characters around the Marvel Universe. They do a story with Doctor Doom about what it's like to live in Latveria that's almost a riff on ‘The Prisoner’ television series where the Fantastic Four are trapped in a little city, but you also get to see things from Doom's perspective for a while in #84. The same thing happens when Ben Grimm is captured by the Skrulls and taken off to gladiatorial games on a planet that looks like a 1920’s gangster movies in #92 and #93. That was expansionist but not really a new thing.”
Of course, everyone who knows FANTASTIC FOUR knows that it’s a story of family first, and the crowning achievement in that line of storytelling came with FANTASTIC FOUR ANNUAL #6, the culmination of Sue Storm’s pregnancy with son Franklin Richards.
“The stuff that tended to keep pushing forward was the character interpersonal stuff like the pregnancy,” says Brevoort. “The birth of Franklin and the naming of Franklin was stuff that had been done in newspaper strips, and television had done that. ‘I Love Lucy’ kind of broke those barriers on TV. But while there had been weddings before the Fantastic Four in comics—one or two—there really hadn't been a child birth that was handled in this sort of manner. It underscored the notion that Lee and Kirby were treating the Fantastic Four as action adventure super heroes but also as a tight nit nuclear family who were moving forward in their lives. It was more about that than it was about the exciting new villain of the month, though you got some of those too.”
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