In November of 1961, readers of Marvel Comics readers witnessed four intrepid explorers be bathed in mysterious cosmic rays and forever changed. On that day, they became known as the Fantastic Four, Marvel’s “First Family” of superheroes, and went on to be the first of many colourful superheroes for Marvel Comics as well as feature in numerous cartoons, videogames, and live-action movies. Accordingly, it’s only fitting that I dedicate a day to commemorate the debut of Marvel’s most famous dysfunctional family…and what better day for the alliterative nature of the team than a Friday!
Story Title: The Fantastic Four!
Published: November 1961
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Jack Kirby
The story of the creation of the Fantastic Four is a little…contested, to say the least. The popular notion is that Marvel Comics big cheese, Martin Goodman, wanted then-editor Stan Lee to create a team of superheroes in response to DC Comics’ Justice League of America. Creatively unsatisfied with the comics industry, Lee sought to use the opportunity to create stories and characters that were appealing to him and drafted a quick synopsis of his idea for a dysfunctional family of superheroes for the legendary Jack Kirby to provide the artwork for, thus creating the “Marvel Method” of writer/artist collaboration. Kirby, however, disputed this story and claimed to have come up with the idea, which was extremely similar to a similar concept he had developed for DC, the Challengers of the Unknown. Regardless, the two are credited as co-creators of Marvel’s First Family, a team that, even today, is unique in that it is comprised of a family dynamic that, for all their intelligence and abilities, is just as likely to come to blows with each other as with their enemies. This dynamic allowed the team (comprised of Doctor Reed Richards/Mister Fantastic, Susan Storm/The Invisible Girl, and her brother Johnny, the Human Torch (not to be confused with he android of the same name from the 1940s/1950s), and Ben Grimm/The Thing) to juxtapose their wacky adventures with a very real and relatable humanity. The team also stood out from other superheroes of that era since they didn’t hide their identities behind masks or from the public, were revered with a celebrity status, and didn’t even acquire their iconic outfits until the third issue of their series, which went on to introduce characters and concepts that would forever alter Marvel Comics in the decades that followed.
“The Fantastic Four!” beings in medias res with a dramatic flare shot into the skies of Central City (courtesy of a mysterious, shadowy figure, the leader of the Fantastic Four) call out for the titular team. Upon seeing the signal, Susan Storm responds immediately by turning herself invisible and preparing to introduce the world to the Invisible Girl, shocking pedestrians and a taxi driver with her transparent nature.
Elewhere in the city, a large, bulky man in a trenchcoat is attempting, unsuccessfully, to shop for clothing that will fit his broad dimensions. When the store attendant reacts to the signal for the Fantastic Four, the man discards his restrictive clothing, revealing himself to be a monstrous, rock-like man-monster! His appearance causing panic and fear, the creature escapes from police gunfire by ripping a manhole out of the street and fleeing through the sewers beneath the city, being mistaken for a Martian in the process. Finally, a young man named Johnny is busy getting his beloved car fixed up when, upon seeing the signal, he suddenly bursts into flames and blasts off into the sky in response! The presence of an unknown object flying through the city results in the Mayor alerting the National Guard and fighter jets being called into action. Despite the flaming Johnny’s pleas for the planes to pull back, he inadvertently reduces the jets to slag with his intense heat and is left at the mercy of a nuclear missile!
Luckily, a fourth individual steps in to dispose of the missile before it can explode and kill Johnny (…and the entire city); he then rescues Johnny who, exhausted from the physical exertion, has lost his flame and in free fall. This fourth individual is able to accomplish all of this by use of super stretchy, elastic limbs and is, of course, Reed, the very same man who summoned these fantastic individuals in the first place. With the team united, the comic then flashes back to tell us who these people are and how they can do the extraordinary things we see. It seems their leader, Reed, was once a scientist working for the government and researching “cosmic rays” and planned to fly a ship into space to further his studies. His friend and colleague, Ben, initially refuses to pilot the ship since he believes that Reed hasn’t properly prepared for the potentially fatal effects of the cosmic rays but Sue (Reed’s fiancée) convinces him (more like manipulates him) into joining the expedition after believing him to be a coward who would allow “the Commies” to beat them to the task. Although it’s made somewhat obvious that Reed is the brains behind the research and Ben is the pilot, it’s not entirely clear why they bring Sue and her brother along; Sue simply insists on coming since she’s betrothed to Reed and Johnny, similarly, insists on going simply because his sister is. The race to beat the Commies is apparently so close that the group cannot wait any longer, or for official clearance; they simply race to the launch site, sneak past the one guard, and are able to take off completely under their own power.
Though the ship performs perfectly, Ben’s worst fears are quickly realised when the ship is bombarded by cosmic rays that easily penetrate the ship’s shielding. Initially, there is no physical pain as the rays are “simply” comically charged radioactive rays of light but, all too soon, the four begin to feel the full transformative effects of the radiation. Despite being debilitated by the pain and physical mutations they are undergoing, the team’s ship is able to return safely to Earth thanks to its automatic pilot. Upon emerging from the ship, the team are shaken…but alive, with Sue lamenting the loss of Reed’s years of research and Ben still bitter at Reed not taking the proper precautions and endangering them all. While Ben’s fears become reality as Sue suddenly, briefly fades from sight, they are realised all too horribly when he transforms into a super strong, rock skinned…thing! Furious with Reed’s attitude, the Thing rips up a tree and tries to make him pay for his actions but Reed shocks everyone by abruptly displaying his powers of elasticity, which easily allows him to avoid Ben’s wild swings and ties him up in a mess of rubbery limbs. Panicked at the events unfolding before his eyes, Johnny unexpectedly bursts into flame but, unlike the others, he is elated to find this not only doesn’t harm him but gives him the ability to fly through the air.
Taking stock of their predicament, Reed begins to make a speech about how the four must use their newfound powers fort he benefit of mankind but Ben, despite his grouchy demeanour, cuts him off and voices that conclusion as though it is the most natural recourse for powers such as theirs. The four then put their hands in, giving themselves their colorful code-names and dubbing themselves the Fantastic Four. The story returns to present day in the next part, “The Fantastic Four Meet the Mole Man!” where Reed reveals that he called the team together because of a series of gigantic holes that have swallowed up atomic plants across the world. At that very moment, Reed’s fancy radar machine picks up another cave-in happening right at that moment over in French Africa. The cause of the destruction is revealed to be a gigantic subterranean beast not too dissimilar to the Creature from the Black Lagoon, which might seem incredible but it’s nothing compared to the fact that Reed pin-points the source of the events to a land known as “Monster Isle” that, despite Ben’s claims of the island being a myth, they immediately fly to as though it’s a well-known tourist destination! Monster Isle, as you might be able to guess, is home to a wide variety of enormous monsters that, despite the powers and versatility of the Fantastic Four, cause the team to become separated.
The third part of the story, “The Moleman’s Secret!” sees Ben and Sue, still trapped on the surface, come face to face with an huge rock-like creature; being a man of rock himself, the Thing steps in to defeat the creature with ridiculous ease thanks to his superhuman strength. Johnny and Reed, however, find themselves captives of the Moleman (or “Mole Man”, the story freely alternates between the two names/spellings), the master of Monster Isle, in his enigmatic abode beneath the island’s surface. Like any good supervillain worthy of his salt, the Moleman regales his captives with his origin story: it seems he was once a very odd looking hunchback of a man who was routinely mocked and turned away by society despite his qualifications because of his grotesque appearance. Bitter and dejected, he head out into the icy wilderness in search of solitude and found himself on the mythical Monster Isle; however, whilst exploring a cavern, he was…somehow…blinded by a terrible fall towards the center of the Earth but, despite this handicap, he…somehow…was able to not only tame the wild beasts that roamed the island but also build a magnificent empire for himself deep underground.
Thanks to the strange “adhesive suits” the Moleman has forced Reed and Johnny into, the villain, clearly driven to insanity, easily beasts them in combat and reveals his mad plot to destroy every atomic plant in the world and then rise up alongside his monsters to destroy the surface world! Though Ben and Sue arrive (and Johnny and Reed are able to get out of their suits by simply burning through them or…taking them off, raising the question as to what the bloody point of them was in the first place), they are too late to keep the Moleman from summoning the most deadly of his creatures, the same one that we saw attacking the power plant in French Africa earlier in the story. Interestingly, despite the elaborate cover art, the Fantastic Four don’t even try to fight this gargantuan creature; instead, Johnny simply distracts it so that Reed can capture the Moleman and the team simply escape through the caverns beneath the island. Even a horde of underground gargoyles aren’t able to impede their progress as Johnny simply causes a rockslide to keep them at bay and the Fantastic Four escape the island safely…but without the Moleman! Yes, in the confusion, Reed decided to leave the villain behind since they had effectively sealed off his empire and, as they escape, the entire island explodes, apparently trapping the Moleman and his beasts underground forever. And…that’s kind of it as the issue ends in a pretty anti-climatic fashion.
Wow…so, once again, another debut issue just kind of falls of a cliff right at the end. It pains me to say it as I have a real soft spot for the Fantastic Four but, outside of the team’s origin story and diverse powers, The Fantastic Four #1 is a pretty terrible comic. I thought it was quite unique to introduce the team individually and already possessing their powers and to flash back to their origin as it’s not often you see that in comics but the comic wastes so much time showing what the team can do that it rushes through other equally important things, such as what motivated them to go into space in the first place and, of course, the ending. These introductory sequences provide the absolute bare minimum of exposition into the character of each team member: Sue is first seen having tea with a “society friend” and is both polite towards others and support of her fiancée…perhaps blindly so. Ben has legitimate concerns regarding the trip ones that Reed fails to heed and Sue dismisses; the way she manipulates Ben into joining the expedition seems really out of character and, even worse, when Ben turns out to be right Reed doesn’t even offer an apology! Instead, he takes offense to Ben’s “insults and complaining”, as though Ben were simply mocking Reed and moaning about a long car journey! The poor bastard almost died and now he’s a rock monster but all Reed cares about is that Ben has been a grouch the entire time! Johnny is basically a shell of his former self; sure, we see he likes cars and enjoys the power and freedom of being the Human Torch but that’s pretty much all we know about him.
The story kind of makes up for this by having him be one of the two most useful members of the team (the other being the Thing, whose strength gets them out of a bind numerous times), which puts him in a little higher standing than Reed or Sue. Reed basically spends most of his time rescuing the others, which is fine, or making decisions for the team’s actions; I’m not entirely sure, or convinced, of what makes him qualified to be their leader since the last time he lead them anywhere he almost got them killed! Sadly, there’s no sense of grief or guilt on Reed’s part or of the genius intellect that would come to define his character; he’s simply the older, pipe smoking man so he’s the leader by default. Still, the so-called Mr. Fantastic still gets more to do than the Invisible Girl; although she is spared the condescending, sexist attitudes that were prevalent towards women in comics at that time (for this issue, at least), Sue is still basically useless. She uses her invisibility to get through some crowded streets simply to test them out and that’s pretty much it as they (and she) really don’t factor into the finale at all. I’m sure that the intention was to have her be the “heart” of the team but…she really isn’t. She’s supportive of Reed, yes, but if hadn’t have been then maybe they would have been spared their fate and, beyond that, she’s just kind of…there to say stuff now and then. The only plus side is that she doesn’t get captured and need to be rescued but, honestly, I think I would have preferred that!
The biggest let down, really, is that the cover promises a big battle between the team with the giant creature in the middle of the city but this never happens! The creature hardly appears and, when it does, they don’t even fight it; they just…get away as easily as you could like. What is the point of having a team of superpowered individuals if you’re not even going to show them using their abilities in battle? Sure, they do showcase a lot of the diverse nature of their abilities when on the surface of Monster Isle but we don’t really get to see them working together as a team, which is one of the Fantastic Four’s biggest unique aspects. Similarly, the Moleman is a pretty poor villain; his motivations are paper thin and the ease with which he and his monstrous creatures are defeated is pretty pathetic, with Reed not even bothering to keep the villain captive when they escape. He could have easily had his monsters rampage across the globe using those emergence holes but, instead, he chose to target atomic power plants rather than military bases or major cities because, as we all know, when you plan to conquer the world with a bunch of horrific monsters, it’s the power plants that are the greatest cause for concern!
Were you a fan of The Fantastic Four #1? Do you feel I have committed the ultimate sacrilege by being unimpressed with the team’s debut story or do you agree that the Fantastic Four greatly benefitted from the input of other writers and artists over the years? Which of the four team members is your favourite and why? What did you think to the Moleman and who is your favourite Fantastic Four villain? Who would you like to see form a new version of the Fantastic Four and what are some of your favourite stories involving the team? How are you celebrating the debut of Marvel’s First Family this month? Whatever you think about the Fantastic Four, go ahead and leave a comment down below and let me know your opinions.
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