Fantastic Four #1

[UPDATE – I wrote this a few years ago for fun and I’ve always wanted to revisit this. I still have this CD and I’d love to get around to continue reading. So I’m re-posting this, with a few updates (and I had to re-grab the images after a couple of server moves). My original evaluation was a little harsher than it needed to be, I think, and I added a little more history and analysis to it. I think I’m going to continue this, maybe one a week, unless people just hate it. I think it’ll be fun! Enjoy!]

A while back, I nabbed this from a local comic shop out of a clearance bin for practically nothing (it’s $50 holy shit now it’s like $130 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’s ill-conceived plan to take his girlfriend into space and get laid beat the Russians into space.

I personally have been reading FF pretty regularly since the Waid/Wieringo run, around 2002, and the foursome has become some of my favorite in comics. 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 look at this guy on the cover.

Fantastic Four #1 Cover
I enjoy the “Together for the first time” that implies that these characters all have hit books of their own already.

I love the Mole Man’s design, too.

I'm not gonna lie, I think I might copy that collar.
I’m not gonna lie, I think I might copy that collar.

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.

origin

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. Subtle 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 doubles as Revered Jim's origin story.
This doubles as Revered Jim’s origin story.

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?

Ben1

Ben2

Yes, what a fool 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-

We’ll just tell them we spilled coffee on it.

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.

The F-86 was the coolest Cold War-era jet and is pretty much the epitome of that 1950s spirit of science and rocketry. At first I was thinking they’d been largely retired by the time this book was published, but they had indeed been relegated to National Guard use at that time.

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?

Selfless Johnny, only thinking of the countless millions who wait what.

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:

Mostly it just prompted a moment of awkward silence between Reed and Sue.

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 be? We’ve got monsters to fight!

[EDIT: I just remembered, the Valley of Diamonds actually did make a pretty recent appearance, in an issue of Daredevil of all things. Daredevil, of course, was not bothered by the brightness.]

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?

You had one job, Reed.
The tunnel is sealed! He definitely doesn’t have an army of monsters who are really good at digging!

Goddammit, Reed. Who knew Ben was the brains behind this operation?

Full disclosure: Reed has never met a baby.

Overall, character development is thin but actually does a pretty good job setting up a lot of the personalities as they’ll develop in the future. We learn is that Reed is a scientist – supposedly smart, but all he does is screw up despite Ben’s perfectly reasonable warnings – that he’s engaged to marry Sue, and that he is willing to forgo safety in his quest for knowledge and science.  Of Johnny, we know that likes cars and is clearly and adrenaline junky/ thrill seeker. His sister, Sue, is evidently not that into being a hero – she expresses some anxiety at the beginning when Reed sends out the FF signal flare. We’re not even sure why she or Johnny are on the space flight other than a vague desire to beat the commies into space.

Ben is a curmudgeon, and harbors some deep resentment toward Reed because he has a crush on Sue. This is only touched on in one panel – nobody mentions again as they become caught up in their new powers, and it doesn’t prevent them from forming the team and working together with no hint of tension. We’ll see if the sort-of love triangle gets touched on later, but even if it doesn’t it makes a pretty interesting cornerstone for the Ben and Reed relationship.

I don’t think Johnny and Ben say two words to each other the entire issue, which is funny given how their relationship goes on to define so much of what is fun about the FF later.

These are characters who are flawed, who don’t always get along. Totally new concept for comics at the time and let Marvel really stand out from the Distinguished Competition. A lot has been said about all that in other places, though, so I won’t rehash all that again.

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?

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 heroes have to say about it?

That kid everyone bullied? What an asshole.

Nice one, Sue. Time to schedule some sensitivity seminars.

One of the things that’s always interested me about the FF is their power distribution – I’ve always hypothesized that they’re meant to be the four classic elements – Johnny is fire, Ben is rock, and Sue air (transparent like air generally is, anyway), which leaves Reed as water. But we ended up with a Reed who more stretched like rubber than flowed like water. Perhaps Kirby felt that effect wouldn’t come across too well on a static comic page and settled on something more like Plastic Man (who’d been around for some time when this was published), or perhaps there was a breakdown in communication. Or perhaps it’s just a coincidence and I’m talking out of my ass. The creative process regarding the creation of the Fantastic Four, like the team itself, is shrouded in bitter feuds and murky memory, so who knows?

Overall, it’s a fun issue despite the dumb stuff and lays some nice groundwork. Next time: dirty Skrulls!

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