Anyone with a mild appreciation of superhero history knows the origins of Marvel Comics as a pop culture phenomenon lie primarily in the seeds planted by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in The Fantastic Four. Issue 1 ushered in an age of superhero comics featuring characters like the Hulk, Spider-Man, the Avengers, the X-Men and more. Marvel comics have also grown into a multimedia franchise in the twenty-first century. No ongoing Fantastic Four comic is being published at present, probably due to the film rights being out of Marvel’s control, although Disney’s acquisition of 20th Century Fox may alter this in the future. This erasure of Marvel’s ‘First Family’ seems the norm today, with the most recent film incarnation missing much of the fundamental nature of the Fantastic Four (FF) team in comics. Plus the FF don’t seem to have the ‘cool’ quotient that attracts the kids these days; the dark tone that marks many current superhero films show that lighter characters like the FF may not fit current audience expectations.
However, the early issues of The Fantastic Four from 1961 and 1962 are often dark in tone and in reading the first six issues, I was struck by how they made me reassess my preconception of the team as family-friendly superhero explorers. It shows Lee and Kirby finding their feet with the characters, and is quite different from their classic run as it evolves later in the decade. The team are really odd and creepy. They are not the heroic figures in the mould of DC’s Superman or the Flash, or later Marvel heroes like Thor.
The FF are victims of an accident where they encountered cosmic rays through an aborted space flight. They gained their powers through physical changes that make them seems monstrous in comparison to the more traditional type of superhero. While Superman and the Flash are physically unaffected by their powers, which are often extensions of their humanity – the ability to see / hear / run better than normal – the bodies of the FF reflect a loss of their humanity: Reed Richards’ entire physical body loses its definitions and shape through expanding, stretching and contracting; Sue Storm’s body visually disappears; Johnny Storm becomes engulfed in flame; Ben Grimm is transformed into an ugly, rocky monstrosity. They have, in effect, become monsters; in this, they are a natural extension of the monster comics being produced by Lee and Kirby at Marvel before their superheroes began to dominate their output. The FF must try to cope with the results of their accident.
They do this by trying to harness their tragedy for the greater good, but their early progress is not straightforward. Issue #1 begins with Reed shooting a flare gun in the sky to alert the team. His face is heavily cast in shadow and his facial features are indiscernible, which sets an ominous tone that continues with the introduction of the other members of the team. Sue is having tea with a friend, but turns invisible without warning her, and after seeing the signal, pushes past people in the street and scares a cab driver. Ben smashes through a shop door, is shot at by the police ,and destroys a manhole cover. Johnny destroys a car and some aeroplanes with his flames. Rather than superheroes who are looked up to and respected, the FF are more feared than loved in their early days.
The FF’s monstrous status is reflected in the villains opposing them in these early issues. Like the FF, the Mole Man has experienced fear and negativity from the public, although this has affected the majority of his life, rather than the relatively new experience on the FF’s part. The Mole Man has been mocked and shunned for his deformity, so he retreated underground, becoming the master of the monsters who occupy the underground and now plans to wreck all power sources on Earth and destroy everything that lives on the surface. Both the Sub-Mariner and Dr. Doom are victims – Sub-Mariner has suffered amnesia for years and Dr. Doom was disfigured in an accident – and rule kingdoms of their own. These villains reflect the nature of the FF as victims with burgeoning monstrosity and emphasise the dark potential of what the FF could so easily become.
This potential to turn against society seems to be fulfilled in the opening pages of #2. All four members of the FF are depicted committing criminal acts. Ben topples a ‘Texas Tower’, an offshore radar facility the US Air Force used for surveillance purposes, an act that would have particular resonance in 1961 following the tragedy at Texas Tower 4. Sue steals a gem worth $10 Million, while Johnny melts marble statue only completed recently after five years. Finally, Reed plunges the city into darkness by switching off generators in a power plant. Based on the limited knowledge of the team we have from #1, these acts are probable and would fit with the monster trope the FF evolves out of. However, this group are imposters who are looking to discredit the FF in the eyes of the public, who they hope will hunt down and destroy them. These imposters are also monsters, this time of alien origin: the Skrulls, masters of shape-shifting. Here, the potential moral evolution of the FF is dramatized: will they begin to veer toward criminal acts like the Skrulls?
The FF are in hiding in a remote hunting lodge. Ben, conforming most closely to the monster character, is lashing out angrily by smashing a window. They are captured and imprisoned by the US Army, but escape to one of their many secret hideouts. These are people who have become used to hiding, living in secrecy, hiding their abilities through fear of being caught and captured. Despite this, they persuade the Skrulls that Earth is dominated by ‘monster’ warriors, and convince the Police Chief that imposters were responsible for the crimes committed. The police are now showing signs of beginning to trust the FF.
This trust evolves into a public awareness and growing acceptance of the FF in #3. This is suggested when they attend a theatre performance by the Miracle Man, who singles them out as celebrities to the wider audience. The Miracle Man seemingly brings to life a monster statue from a film promotion event (it’s actually mass hypnosis), further showing the indebtedness of these early issues to the Lee-Kirby monster comics. Ultimately, the Miracle Man is a celebrity that becomes a villain, and he is defeated by the FF.
In a neat twist, the FF now attain the kind of celebrity that he loses. They no longer have to hide their identities or their existence. Their adoption of costumes in this issue shows a desire to project their image as a team and, in this, they have been successful. Their secret headquarters is revealed to be the Baxter Building in #6, and they now even receive letters from the public there, which shows that they have become public figures, heroes and celebrities. This is a complete reversal of their status as hidden monsters at the start of the series and paves the way for The Fantastic Four to evolve into the classic Lee-Kirby run that lasted until #102 and formed the foundation of the modern Marvel universe.