Monday, June 6, 2011

The Big Break-Out: November 1961

Fantastic Four #1

A mysterious message reading "The Fantastic Four" appears over the streets of New York, alarming the general public. As police officers point in awe at the cloudy billboard, three men and a woman, all blessed (or cursed) with super powers meet at the Baxter Building. We learn that the four are pilot Ben Grimm, his friend Dr. Reed Richards, Reed's romantic interest, Sue Storm, and her brother, Johnny. 

For no better reason than to beat the Russians into space, the four hijack a rocket and take a short but memorable trip. The ship is bombarded with cosmic rays (and lucky not to have been shot down by the Air Force) and soon returns to Earth. The passengers  immediately sense something is up when Sue turns invisible, Ben becomes a powerful orange monster (we'll refrain from calling him a Hulk), Reed's body becomes flexible, and Johnny is engulfed in flames (but lives to tell about it). The four naturally have a few differences to iron out before they put aside their quarrels and join hands to become The Fantastic Four.

In their first adventure, The Four investigate a rash of sinking atomic plants. Someone or something seems to have acquired a taste for energy on a large level. As they discuss the situation in their skyrise sanctum, they have no idea that yet another plant is being stolen,  this time in France, sucked into a huge hole like a cheap carpet. This time though there are witnesses to the event and also to the huge monster that rises from the gaping hole. 

Tipped off to the robbery by one of his fabulous computers, Reed deduces that dead center among the crimes is the aptly-christened Monster Isle. They quickly board their Fantastic Four jet and head for the mythical island. Once there, they are set upon by giant monsters and soon become the prisoners of The Moleman. The underground ruler of Monster Isle, The Moleman (we would later find out his name was actually Harvey Elder) tells the four of his sad existence above ground. Shunned by the rest of the world because of his homely appearance, the man sets off to find solitude at the end of the world but instead stumbles onto a shaft to the center of the Earth. Tumbling down into the hole via an avalanche, he loses his sight but is adopted and cared for by a race of subterranean creatures. The Moleman explains his mad plan to rid the world of all atomic power so that he and his beastly friends can rise above and rule the surface world. The Fantastic Four thwart his evil plan and seal off the Moleman's lair. As they fly away, the island explodes, ostensibly destroyed by The Moleman himself. (Spoiler alert: The explosion didn't actually kill The Mole. He would next appear in FF #22)

Peter Enfantino: The story goes (according to "The Man" himself in his introduction to Origins of Marvel Comics) that Stan Lee was tired of pumping out the same old stories about mad scientists and giant monsters with funny names so, with a little prodding from Mrs. Lee, the man most credited with changing the face of comic books did, a little different. He wrote a story about mad scientists and giant monsters.

John Scoleri: I don't mean to cause trouble right off the bat, but would a brilliant scientist like Reed Richards spend a lot of time and effort developing a flare gun that will generate text messages in clouds? I am normally a fan of starting with the action, and then telling the necessary backstory via flashback. But in this case, the pre-flashback sequences are all staged introductions of each character that bring them together. I think if I were a kid reading this, I would have wanted the splash page to pick up right in the heat of the action depicted on the cover.

PE: The most startling thing about Jack Kirby's art this issue is how rushed it looks. That probably has to do with the fact that Kirby was drawing a good portion of the dozen titles that Marvel was publishing at the time. Ben Grimm has no real distinct features, instead resembling nothing more than one of Kirby's "glop" creatures from a "Tale of Suspense." Grimm, in fact, wouldn't resemble the iconic Thing we all know and love until a few years into the series. The Torch's flame is orange (it would morph to its trademark red by the third issue). Reed Richards resembles a middle-aged butler. Only Sue Storm would be recognized from this bunch (although a dialogue balloon above her head reading "Ben, we've got to take that chance...unless we want the commies to beat us to it" may betray a softening on her part through the years).

JS: In one panel, The Thing looks like the blueprint used for the character as portrayed by Michael Chiklis in the film. In others, he's a neckless blob. Was the idea that he was an amorphous rock creature constantly changing form? It's hard to look at this objectively, knowing what it ultimately develops into. 
PE: Stan Lee lets the public know for the first time that he has a jones for alliteration: Sue Storm and Reed Richards would soon give way to Peter Parker, Betty Brant, Bruce Banner, Pepper Potts, Matt Murdock, and Stephen Strange.

JS: Don't forget J. Jonah Jameson...

PE: Our government was severely lacking in discipline and security fifty years ago. Not only do the Four steal a rocket right out from under the noses of NASA and effectively destroy it by crash-landing, but evidently there are no repercussions from their thievery. Seems some jail time might be in order.

JS: Fortunately, the only damage done appears to be the tree the ship crashed into. 

PE: The origin story, bookended by the Four's first world-saving adventure, is told quickly and simply. It would be elaborated on, changed, rebooted, and bastardized several times over the years. 

JS: Oddly enough, the Mole Man doesn't make an appearance until late in the tale, and is only around long enough to tell his (nonsensical) origin backstory. And I don't know if the idea was introduced here, but rather than being brought to justice for his crimes, he was left to return another day (as Peter unceremoniously spoiled above).

Also this month

Amazing Adventures #6
Gunsmoke Western #67
Journey Into Mystery #74
Kid Colt Outlaw #101
Linda Carter, Student Nurse #2
Love Romances #96
Millie the Model #105
Strange Tales #90
Tales to Astonish #25
Tales of Suspense #23


Wrongly accused of murder, Kid Colt lives the typical life of an outlaw: outwitting bounty hunters, giving away money to kindly widows, saving whole towns despite their fear and hatred of him, and being a generally nice feller. In “The Hunted” (Gunsmoke Western #67), he rides into the dirty town of Ragweed, only to find his wanted poster tacked on a wall. He outwits a mob into thinking he’s ridden out of town and beds down in a room at a saloon. But it’s not a bed of roses for The Kid as into town rides the infamous bounty hunter, Blackjack Night (my vote for stupidest western name in comics). But Night has more than The Kid on his mind. With the lawmen busy roaming the outskirts, Night decides robbing the bank would be a great idea and Colt would get the blame. The town sheriff walks in on Night as he’s looting the bank and Kid Colt comes to his rescue. A furious gun battle ensues but in classic Comics Code Authority tradition, no one is actually killed. That's because, as legend would have it, the two gunslingers’ bullets collide in mid-air, knocking both on their asses! The Kid bests Night in a fistfight and yet another sheriff turns his back as a wanted outlaw rides out of town. Artist Jack Keller (1922-2003) does a nice job with a clichéd story. His art resembles that of John Severin (a good thing) and was a staple in Marvel's westerns from the early 1950s through the late 60s. His first Kid Colt Outlaw was #25 (March 1953). 

Meanwhile over in the Outlaw’s self-titled comic, Colt has to dole out some tough love to a kid who idolizes him in “His Name Was Hank” (Kid Colt Outlaw #101, also drawn by Jack Keller). Hank wants to be partners with Kid, riding with him every step of the way. Colt tries to talk sense into him but when the youngster won’t listen, he’s shown what it’s really like to ride with outlaws. It's hard to imagine that at one time in history these westerns were the bread and butter for Atlas/Marvel (and other publishers) just as it was on television. By 1961, there were only three and those titles (Gunsmoke Western, Rawhide Kid, and Kid Colt Outlaw with Two-Gun Kid soon to reappear) were relegated to the ghetto of comics: bi-monthly status.

Embarrassed by continued failure to perfect a growth serum, a scientist throws a deadly cargo into the sea. One hundred years later, a very strange little marine creature discovers the vial and drinks its contents. Unbeknownst to the scientist, all that was needed was a mixing with water to produce his desired results. Born is “Sserpo! The Creature who Crushed the Earth!” (Amazing Adventures #6). Christened by the natives who’ve discovered the now-growing monster, Sserpo is literally outgrowing our planet at a rapid rate, rampaging on Australia and later Tokyo. Resembling a lizard-like Ben Grimm, Sserpo is finally taken off our hands by friendly Jupiterians, who perform an “Exit, Stage Left” on Sserpo with a massive hook (which has to be seen to be appreciated) and take the creature back to their planet where they can reverse his growth spurt. Kirby and Lee go to lengths to emphasize that no humans were harmed during the creation of this epic perhaps due to the Comics Code. There are panels of the gigantic beast stepping around “inhabited” buildings. Kirby’s panel of Sserpo rising from the sea at the beginning of Part 2 is the kind of iconic image the artist would become famous for a few years later.

In “The Thing in the Box” (Journey Into Mystery #74), a man unwittingly helps Pandora open her box and unleash a monster on mankind. Since Jack Kirby was pumping out dozens of pages of art a month for Marvel, some of his work can look rushed (for instance, his initial take on FF’s Ben Grimm) and “The Thing” falls into that category. The story isn’t engaging and the finale is lame (our hero surrounds Pandora with mirrors and forces the goddess to return her pet to his cage, leaving readers wondering why she didn’t simply have the monster destroy the mirrors instead), lacking the wonder that made more than a few of the Kirby/Lee monster comics so memorable.

Martha and John have closed down the book store and retired to Florida. One day, while sunning themselves on the beach, Martha asks John the eternal question: "Is this it?" Sighing, John nods his head and asks his wife if she wants to rent a boat and head to the Everglades. Martha finds this an exciting prospect until they stumble upon "The Creature from the Black Bog" (Tales of Suspense #23) sinking in the mire. The creature begs their help and, despite their trembling fear, they rescue the beast (the panel showing John handing over wire thin vines for the monster to haul itself out stretches credulity even in a story about a giant white-mustached lizard). Once out of the bog, the creature explains that he is from a far-distant galaxy and had to make a pit stop when his rocket ship encountered the obligatory "slight engine trouble." Before he jets off, he informs the couple that, because of their kindness, he's given them a gift. The last few panels show the couple, now in their twenties, with no memory of how they got into the Everglades nor, ostensibly of their previous lives. It's a nice tear-jerker with sharp Steve Ditko art but the realist in me just has to ask: "so when they get back to civilization, how do they prove who they are?"

The unlikely hero of “I Was Captured by the Creature from Krogarr,” (Tales To Astonish #25) happy-go-lucky (read that as lazy slob) Joe Hanson drives his wife nuts with his lackadaisical ways, jobless and a bump on his couch. One day while switching channels on his TV, Joe happens across a beastly visage, a creature that convinces Joe to rearrange the wiring on his television set, converting it to a matter transmitter! The monster emerges from the tube, grabs Joe and teleports the both of them to the planet Krogarr, where beasts fight in gladiator-style events. The alien’s plan for the conquest of Earth is put on hold indefinitely, however, when Joe fades away to nothingness because, we learn in the reveal, he forgot to pay his electricity bill. Moral: laziness is a virtue that sometimes pays off. Curiously, the monster is never actually named. He’s not Kkrogatzz, the Creature from Krogarr. He’s just an orange Hulk.

A kitsch klassic, “Germ Warfare” (Strange Tales #90) involves another mishandled growth serum , this one doused on a microbe. When super-scientist John Marshall decides to blow off a little steam and go sailing with friends, he does what any good microbiologist would do: he brings his research with him and ignores his buddies. While out at sea, he devises a way to make microbes larger and easier to experiment on. Unfortunately, those pesky science fiction side effects, high intelligence, speech, and limbs (lithe enough to bend a rifle), rear their ugly heads and the giant microbe hatches a plan for world domination. Mankind is saved though when the germ commands his crew to leave him on a deserted island with his microbe serum and “Conquering the World” blueprints. Unfazed as he and his friends sail away, Marshall confides that he knew all along that the deserted island was earmarked for atomic testing. The five sailors smile and joke as a huge mushroom cloud rises in the sky only a few miles away! Ah how naïve we were back then. The previous issue of Strange Tales (#89) featured perhaps the most famous of all the Kirby/Lee giant monsters, Fin Fang Foom, who would have a career at Marvel long after the sf comics died out.


  1. It's hard to believe FF #1 would start the Marvel craze! It's a knock-off of the Justice League, which over at DC was up to issue 7 by this time. Human Torch is a retread of the Golden Age android, Mr. Fantastic is a blatant copy of Elongated Man, who was a ripoff of Plastic Man, etc. Kirby's art is nothing special, certainly in comparison to what Infantino, Kane & Swan were doing at DC at the same time. And yet...there was something...I think Ben Grimm/The Thing was more than just another Marvel monster, as subsequent issues would demonstrate!

    1. More than just a copy of the Justice League, the FF also bore a strong resemblance to DC's Challengers of the Unknown, which had been co-created several years earlier by ... Jack Kirby! Kirby had also previously drawn a short story for DC about an average schmuck who is magically transformed into ... Thor! Also, contrary to what Lee wrote in Origins of Marvel Comics, the real reason Kirby's version of Spider-Man was rejected was not that his Spidey looked "too heroic" but that, as Ditko pointed out to Lee after perusing Kirby's first few pages, it too closely resembled The Fly, a character co-created by Kirby and his previous partner, Joe Simon (and the Fly was originally the Silver Spider).

  2. Jack-

    Good points you made about the FF appearing to be not so 'fantastic,' at least initially. I'm willing to bet that if the Thing or some other type of unique monster wasn't involved with the quartet then the comic would not have become a success.

    The Thing has been given his own solo series from time to time over the years which were apparently successful (at least Marvel Two-In-One had a long run). During the early to mid 1980's the Thing was replaced by She-Hulk in the FF while he had his own solo series. Now, I have no sales figures to back me up, but I'm pretty sure that experiment came to a halt after a couple of years when The Fantastic Four series probably started tanking on the market. My point is, even though the folks at Marvel would never do it, you could get rid of the FF comic and have a Thing series all by his lonesome and sales would probably be roughly the same. Anybody disagree?

  3. Ben Grimm, aka the Thing, was definately the best character, Tom, I agree (look at issues like F.F. #51), but I don't think the comic would have had the widespread appeal it did without all the characters. Johnny for the teenage crew, Sue for the ladies (and us guys), and Reed, to control all these crazy people!

  4. Jim-

    You have a good point. Especially regarding the Human Torch. he might have brought out that younger reader fan base similar to Spider-Man.

  5. A couple points missed:
    They "stole" their own ship (panel 6 pg p 9 tells us its "the mighty ship which Reed Richards had spent years constructing..."), so while the authorities might have been miffed, you don't jail your own brilliant scientist.
    The fact that the FF existed in a world more "real" then the Justice League and are feared by the public: a cop shoots at the Thing, the Torch has a bystander thing he's going mad on so on.. No safe DC style heroes in the Marvel U.
    So while the debut ish only hinted at the marvels to come, Lee and Kirby were already ripping up the ho-hum superhero playbook in this first offering.

    Mark Barsotti