Comics Then: Fantastic Four #1
I’m a huge Batman fan, and I got into the Dark Knight—like many people of my age—through movies. I loved the Nolan films—still do, in fact—and my conception of Bruce Wayne was formed by the dramatic weight he bore in those films. When I began reading comics, I sought out familiar elements—realistic artwork, grounded stories—and shunned most of the more imaginative, stylized aspects for which the medium is largely known. Without question, the most ridiculous comic book property in my estimation was the Fantastic Four. They wore silly, dated costumes; their powers ranged from pretty neat (the Human Torch) to downright cartoonish (Mr. Fantastic); and they had a big, yellow-orange rock monster with the dopiest signature line ever: it’s clobberin’ time.
In time, I began reading a wider variety of DC’s titles and broadened my horizons. Then a friend handed me a copy of Jonathan Hickman’s first volume of Fantastic Four, and the horizons were made infinite. It was fun, and imaginative, and stretched my brain in ways that no other comics had up to that point. The characters were strange and ridiculous and wonderful, and nobody was apologizing for them. And amidst all of this, the weight that drew me into Batman’s world was still present. Sue, Reed, Johnny, and Ben were a family, and had real family strife; and, there was something about wrapping this most ordinary human dynamic inside such an extraordinary world that set my mind ablaze. The costumes still looked silly and dated, their powers had not changed, and that ever-lovin’, blue-eyed Thing still talked about clobberin’ things; but my up-close experience of these elements had turned sneering judgment into warm affection. Ben Grimm went from a joke to a treasure—one of my favorite characters in fiction, in fact—and his family found a permanent place in my heart.
And so it is with great joy that in this, our inaugural installment of Comics Then, we’re journeying back to 1961 to look at the issue that started it all. We’ll see the team’s origin, witness their debut mission, and lay eyes on the Moleman for the very first time. So join me, as I follow Marvel’s First Family back to the beginning in Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four #1.
The Fantastic Four
Our story is divided into three segments, and the first begins with Reed Richards summoning his teammates by way of a signal in the sky. Lee and Kirby use the next eight pages to showcase the team’s powers, as Sue, Ben, and Johnny work their way toward the appointed meeting place. The whole thing feels a bit contrived, but it’s still a lot of fun. Try to put yourself in the shoes of someone living in a world before modern movie effects—these fantastic abilities would have made your mouth gape just as wide as the citizens of Central City gape at the Fantastic Four in this story.
Kirby creatively renders Sue’s powers at a time in comics history in which coloring was far more limited and thus could not be used to suggest degrees of invisibility. He draws a Ben Grimm that is simultaneously rigid in complexion and fluid in movement. Johnny is a path of fire, painted across the sky with vaguely-human features. Reed’s stretched parts are not simply long, but also wavy, suggesting both motion and some amount of instability. Lee’s scenario may feel a bit forced while you’re reading, but he has provided an eight-page gallery for Kirby to show us just what the team can do, and I think it was ultimately a good call.
That momentous day
The story starts to pick up in the next section. If you’ve ever read a version of the Fantastic Four’s origin, then the basic components will feel familiar: the four fly off into space on a mission of discovery (with a Cold War-era jab at the Russians) and find themselves irrevocably transformed by cosmic radiation. What’s different, however, is the building blocks of the friction between Reed and Ben. Here, Ben is not just a collateral victim of Reed’s hubris; rather, he suspects the very danger that ultimately finds them, and it is only base, human pride that causes him to fly the mission. Every take on the team’s origin that I’ve read portrays Ben as more of a salt-of-the-earth stereotype: not a dimwit, per se, but certainly not the sort who would suspect the very phenomenon that they encounter on the mission. Perhaps later writers felt that more awareness for Ben undermined Reed’s status as the world’s preeminent intellect; but, I appreciate the way that it informs that occasional boiling over in Ben that causes he and Reed to clash.
Kirby continues to nail it in this section, though Lee’s script hurts the storytelling a bit. There’s too much elapsed time from panel-to-panel, and it feels jerky most of the way through. Things get better once the team lands back on earth, however, and Kirby’s awesome work on Reed and Ben gets to shine within some great sequential layouts.
This linear, less-jerky approach persists as we head into the final—and best—portion of the book: the Fantastic Four’s first encounter with their oldest enemy, the Moleman. Back in the present after the origin flashback, we now see Reed and the team investigating the sudden sinking of atomic power plants around the globe, cut with a scene of some hideous monster taking out the latest plant in “French Equatorial Africa.” Reed triangulates the centerpoint of these attacks, and the team is led to Monster Isle, a fabled place teeming with foul beasts. The Fantastic Four fly off, battle through the beasts, and ultimately confront the underground emperor.
Lee gives the Moleman a backstory with sympathetic elements, but he stops short of trying to completely win our sympathies for the villain. He had a hard life above the surface, but his desire to lay waste to everything up there quickly eliminates any chance of us identifying with his point of view. He has a fairly boring power set, too. But what makes the Moleman a truly formidable—and interesting—enemy is his ability to command the many and various “underground gargoyles” at his disposal. The generic concept of “monsters” may seem too simplistic to some readers, but to me, they’ve always felt like a good counter to the power set of the Fantastic Four (Fin Fang Foom, anyone?).
And of course, Kirby goes absolutely nuts, creating a bevy of imaginative beasts for the team to tear through. There’s no sign of the Moloids that would eventually become a regular part of the Moleman’s story, but there’s plenty here to excite the eyes without them. I only regret that Lee and Kirby don’t give Ben the chance to clobber the largest monster in the face. Instead, the team escapes into the skies above, leaving the Moleman and his army trapped—seemingly—forever underground.
So ends our trip through Lee and Kirby’s Fantastic Four #1. Sadly, Marvel’s First Family has been neglected in recent years, both by readers and Marvel itself. Perhaps the lack of film rights has made the House of Ideas hesitant to take a chance on a property that many consider old-fashioned and just too strange. But there’s new leadership at Marvel, and a pretty good shot at those film rights returning home, so maybe the time is not all that far off when we can once again follow the ongoing adventures of Reed, Sue, Johnny, Ben, and all of the fantastic characters that inhabit their corner of the Marvel universe. May it be so, True Believers.