So not too long ago, I nabbed this from a local comic shop out of their clearance bin for practically nothing (it’s $50 there on Amazon, I got it for maybe five or six dollars). It’s an incredible deal, a collection of nearly every issue of Fantastic Four and The Silver Surfer up to just a few years ago.
It’s hard to argue against the Fantastic Four’s boast of being “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine.” It’s high concept science fiction that perfectly represents the attitudes of the ’60s, and the book revolutionized superhero books at the time. It’s likely the superhero would have faded out long before now if not for Reed Richards’s ill-conceived plan to take his girlfriend into space and get laid beat the Russians into space.
As I’m reading this first issue (November, 1961), a lot of things jump out at me, and I was having too much fun not to share. To the jump!
First off, if anyone ever doubts the power of The King, they just need to check out this book. The monster designs are incredible. I mean, just check out this guy on the cover.
Also, the entire page where our heroes venture into space, just to be assaulted by the cosmic rays that give them their powers, is iconic. Every version of this scene drawn since has paid homage to Kirby’s version somehow. None of the silliness I’m about to point out can be blamed on Kirby’s mad penciling skills.
If you’re not familiar with The Marvel Method, this book is a good example of it in full force. Back in the 1960s, one man wrote most (if not all) of Marvel’s comics: Stan Lee. He had a number of artists, including Kirby here. So Stan would write a brief synopsis of the story for the artist, who would draw it up however they wanted. Then Stan would go back in and fill in the dialog. For a small group of guys just trying to pump out a bunch of magazines every month, it must have been an extremely efficient system. But it shows in places like the page above. Sometimes the writer wasn’t trusting the art enough, which is why you get lines like Ben’s “–Can’t move!–Got to lie down!” when clearly we can see that he’s just done a face plant on the floor. (We still see this problem today – it’s a common rookie writer mistake.)
I like Johnny’s “My body feels hot–like it’s on fire!” though. Foreshadowing!
Some of my favorite moments take place in the first half of the book. There’s danger, so Reed has sent out the signal for the Fantastic Four to assemble. Let’s watch comics’ first family make their way across town, shall we?
First up is Sue Storm, the Invisible Girl.
This is exactly how I get around Manhattan when I’m there. I hop in a cab, don’t say anything, and hope that they eventually get to where I need to go. At this point I can conclude only that Sue is either an idiot or really doesn’t want to be in the FF at all, and was secretly hoping the danger would be gone by the time she got there.
To her credit, though, she hasn’t destroyed half the city in her journey, which is more than I can say about these next two knuckleheads.
Thing crashes his way through too-small doorways (which, really, he can’t be blamed too much for), has a little run-in with understandably freaked cops, and then rips up the street so he can travel via sewer. Naturally. Unfortunately there’s no manhole cover handy when he needs to exit. Ben’s solution?
Yes, what an idiot this driver is! Crazy New York driver! What is this, the first time a giant rock dude has crawled out of the middle of the street? (Again, though, great art – you can really feel that impact and hear the crunch of the car.)
My favorite is Johnny, though, who ups the ante on inadvertent near-catastrophe. We meet Johnny Storm at a garage, where he’s just now finished repairs on someone’s vehicle. If this person just knew the noble hero who just changed out their spark plugs, surely they’d ask for his autogr-
Well, fuck. If cars are his second favorite thing in the world after being the Torch, I’d hate to see how he treats his third favorite thing. Actually, we’ll probably see exactly how that goes when he starts dating in a couple issues.
Understandably panicked by the Torch’s appearance in the airspace over New York City, the military responds.
Yes, I can’t imagine why the pilots in sealed jet fighters traveling just below the speed of sound can’t hear you. By the way, you now owe the National Guard about half a million dollars for those F-86s. That’s a lot of oil changes.
The best though?
Clearly terrified of this flaming man doing loops over Fifth Avenue, one of these pilots has launched no less than a nuclear fraking missile at poor Johnny. Keep in mind, this is in the airspace directly over New York. Cold War America really didn’t screw around! Luckily, Reed stretches to intercept the missile and toss it out into the harbor, where it explodes “harmlessly.” Does this explain Long Island?
Once the team if finally assembled, Reed explains that a number of power plants are being destroyed across the world, demolished by monsters rising out of the Earth. He works his genius mojo and determines the point of origin as the mysterious Monster Island. Nice work, egghead.
On Monster Island (or under it, rather), they encounter Mole Man, and also this:
Holy shit! Seriously, Mole Man, I know you got this whole vendetta against the surface world and all but think about what you’ve got here. For five minutes. The Valley of Diamonds, which could potentially alter the world’s economy and save the lives of countless future African citizens from De Beers slave mines is never mentioned again. Why would it? We’ve got monsters to fight!
So our adventurers escape from the Mole Man’s army of subterranean terrors, dragging the runt along so he doesn’t get away. Now time for Mr. Fantastic to drag his power-grid-wrecking ass to jail, am I right?
Overall, character development is paper thin. Of the main characters, all we learn is that Reed is a scientist (supposedly smart, but all he does is screw up despite Ben’s perfectly reasonable warnings), Johnny likes cars, his sister Sue likes Reed for some reason, and Ben is a curmudgeon. Actually, I’m not sure if Ben is really that grumpy or if he just hates Reed on general principle because he has a crush on Sue. I don’t think Johnny and Ben say two words to each other the entire issue, which if funny given how their relationship goes on to define so much of what is fun about the FF later.
The rest of the book is spent showing off their powers. I have to be fair, though; Stan was writing for a young audience, and keeping the characters simple would be a bonus. Especially if you’re also writing ten other books that week. Who can remember all those details? At any rate, Stan would go on to start developing them properly in the next issue, which is when the tension between the characters begins to ramp up and their individual personalities start to shine through the gloss of their super-powers.
It’s funny, but the Mole Man is the most well developed character in this first issue. He gets a whole story about how everyone mocks him for being ugly. He travels the world in an epic search for a place where he can belong, and finds it at the center of the earth with the monsters. He’s been nearly blinded in the process, and his other senses have been heightened to compensate. Clearly a man of considerable willpower and intelligence, he’s dominated the creatures that live beneath the Earth’s crust and directed them to a fairly ingenious plot. It’s an impressive story of a talented man driven mad by the petty cruelties of so-called humanity.
And what do our noble heroes have to say about it?