We tend to forget that, up until late 1961, Stan Lee’s professional career was a failure. Prior to the Fantastic Four, Lee has two things to his credit. For years, comic books had to have two pages of text to meet the requirements for cheap postage, so comic books usually had a story for these two pages. Stan Lee wrote one such story in which Captain America throws his shield and it ricochets from one target to another. This became a signature of the character.
He also created the fifth most popular character Timely had in the golden age: the Destroyer. But the Destroyer’s origin was merely Captain America’s. Instead of one Nazi amidst many good guys there was one good guy among many Nazis injecting the soon-to-be superhero. And, though it may have been Stan Lee’s most popular character, the Destroyer was well behind the Angel, a detective who put on a mask and costume and wore a cape that let him fly.
The Angel was far behind Timely’s big three of the Golden Age: the Human Torch, the Sub-Mariner, and Captain America.
Other than that, Stan Lee created Jack Frost. Think Iceman because they both have the same powers. If the X-Men’s Iceman was created as the opposite of the Fantastic Four’s Human Torch, it’s odd no one thinks his Jack Frost was created as the same-through-being-opposite of the original Human Torch.
After the Golden Age ended he spent his time with unsuccessful revivals of the big three, sporadic introductions of new heroes that never worked out, and any other genre that might sell. There was romance, teen humor, funny animals, westerns, and mostly monsters. Anything that would keep the business going.
That was the best he could do between 1939 and 1961. He was on the verge of quitting comics for good. He doesn’t tell us where he would have gone, but a good guess is he was talking to book publishers. But he was asked for one more title. Not caring what his boss said, not trying to preserve his job, with nothing left to lose, and with his wife’s urging to finally do what he really wanted, Stan Lee wrote what he would want to read.
The Fantastic Four start out as only two useful members. Reed Richards is a genius who designs a rocket which can take passengers into orbit without dropping off a first or second stage. That’s something real life hasn’t done, yet.
Reed designed it all by himself. Even Wernher von Braun didn’t manage that. The point is not the scientific impossibility of this, it’s the ego involved. Reed Richards is determined to show he’s better than the whole Soviet Union and the rest of the United States put together.
The other useful member is Ben Grimm. He is a pilot and an old college buddy of Reed’s.
The two of them are the only ones who do anything useful during the all-important mission. But Reed decides he will bring his girlfriend and her younger brother along for the ride. Obviously they couldn’t get a babysitter and secretly Reed thought the rocket would be a chick magnet.
That must be it, because there’s no other reason for her to be with him. He’s obnoxious, overbearing, and convinced of his own intellectual superiority. He is both drawn and described from the very first panel of Fantastic Four #1 as a brooding, dark personality. Heavy lines, shadow, and a furrowed brow. In other words, he’s a lot like another college buddy who would be introduced in the series in issue 5.
Or Sue really does hate the Commies that much. She manipulates Ben, and Ben is very easily manipulated. Call him a coward and Ben will fly the ship even though he knows there isn’t enough shielding against the mysterious cosmic radiation. Would Ben have jumped off a cliff because Sue told him he was a coward if he didn’t? Apparently.
So they take off in order to be the first people into space. This ignores the fact that the Soviets put Yuri Gagarin into orbit in April 1961 and Sputnik in orbit in 1957. Worse than that, the bloody Nazis put the first man-made object into space in a sub-orbital flight of a V-2 in October 1943. Yeah, it pisses me off, too.
But Reed’s private venture into space lacks the shielding it needs. The four are subjected to high doses cosmic radiation. In 1961 space was on everyone’s mind. The Soviets got there first and that put America into collective shock. Space was a goal, a prize, and the endpoint of a pilgrimage.
The Fantastic Four gain superpowers, but not like DC superheroes Superman, Green Lantern, or the Specter. They have very limited powers in comparison. More than that, they parallel the four ancient elements (actually there’s a fifth element, but we’ll get to that).
The Human Torch is fire, pretty obvious. He bursts into flames. He is often called a revival of the original Human Torch. In fact, he seems to be a revival of Toro. Johnny Storm is at best sixteen, he might even be fifteen but the chronology is not clear (in the early sixties you did not go into a bar while a teenager but he does that and finds Namor there). He is about the same age as Spider-Man, who is mentioned as a kid hero. Then by extension, the new Human Torch is another kid hero. And a hot-head, in fact.
Ben Grimm is earth. Not only does he have the strength and durability associated with this element, his skin is like the earth and will eventually become rock-like. In fact he seems to be drawn as a golem from Jewish literature. A golem is a human figure made of clay; the Hebrew word for life is carved into its forehead and certain prayers are said by a holy man. The earth comes to life.
Mr Fantastic is associated with air. He is pliable like air, but can still affect things like a wind. He is intelligent, and air is the element associated with thinking.
The interesting one is the Invisible Woman. Often derided as starting out with just having the power to stay out of trouble, if Sue Storm is water, then it was never intended she would have just the power to hide.
Water is emotions, and in the beginning Sue is the font of emotions in the team. After all, Reed loves her, Ben wants her to look at him like she looks at Reed (funny thing to tell your best friend: I have the hots for your girlfriend), and Johnny is her brother.
Water as invisibility? Obviously: a piece of glass in water is invisible, an argument that is used in The Invisible Man. When water freezes it is ice, which is solid and parallels her invisible force field. Water is also clouds which hide things behind them in the same way that Sue can turn other things invisible.
The elements would be used later as part of another meme common in the Fantastic Four. Galactus has a herald who can apparently do what advanced space probes cannot: find him lunch. His first was the Silver Surfer and he’s had a ton of them since. Several former heralds actually got into a fight with each other. There was Air-Walker (air), Fire-Lord (fire), Terrax (earth), Morg (water, remember he bathes in the Well of Life), and the Silver Surfer, who is the fifth element, spirit.
The elements are one of several repeating memes in the Fantastic Four. Another is meeting a series of doppelgangers: evil versions of themselves. Facing oneself is a frequent meme in some kinds of myths, particularly the New Age style.
The first doppelganger was the Red Ghost. He goes into space just like the Fantastic Four, but instead of inadequate shielding he deliberately has none at all. He also has three apes, like you do. They all get greater superpowers than the Fantastic Four got because they get a larger dose of Cosmic Radiation.
The powers the Red Ghost and his apes get are not exactly the same but they are in the same family as those of the Fantastic Four. The Thing’s strength and durability is matched by those of the gorilla. Instead of simply stretching, the baboon can change shape. Instead of controlling fire, the orangutang controls magnetism and/or gravity and is the furthest from his FF parallel. But the Red Ghost himself can turn intangible and (later) invisible, making him parallel to the Invisible Woman but ramped up. When there is a doppelganger the usual method is to have three close parallels and one somewhat different power in the mix.
Five months later, in September 1963, the Fantastic Four faced another foe with their powers but ramped up. That’s the Superskrull. He was designed to be a parallel to the Fantastic Four but for some reason the Skrulls didn’t make four of them. They did give him a little-used super hypnotic ability that matches the one non-parallel power.
Then came the Frightful Four in 1965. This is just some old-time enemies who get together and think if they have a female member they will be the polar opposite of the FF. Why they need to be a polar opposite is never explained: why not the Frightful Fivehundred and just beat the snot out of the good guys?
And the only requirements to be the female member is to be female, have a super power, and be evil; in that order of importance. So the Wizard, the Trapster (nee Paste Pot Pete), and the Sandman add Medusa to their number and become the Frightful Four.
In 1980 another foursome was created in the pages of the The Hulk on the same template. The U-Foes also went into space and once again they get super powers. And so on.
This story can be done over and over because they are all the story of someone who tries to be a god or like the gods. Think Icarus from Greek mythology, who made wings with feathers and wax and flew too close to the sun: the wax melted, the wings fell apart, he fell and died.
Again and again and several times after that, the Fantastic Four face their doppelgangers. They can do this because the Fantastic Four stand for something. Only one group succeeded to be another Fantastic Four, and that is the team put in as subs for the originals. The parallelism is obvious: three males and a female are replaced with three females and a male. As so often there are three very close parallels and one a little less similar.
In this case, Medusa parallels Reed Richards’s stretching, in that she can grasp things from a distance. She-Hulk parallels the Thing with super strength and durability. Ant Man parallels the Invisible Woman (the only male parallels the only female) because instead of turning invisible he becomes very small and is thus hard to see. The different one is Johnny Storm’s latest girlfriend who wears the exoskeleton Ben Grimm once wore.
In other words the Fantastic Four touched cosmic radiation and partook of the nature of the universe. Others try to imitate that but they all fail. Right at the center of the point itself, right inside the little black dot that’s in the middle of the yellow central circle of the target, is the fact that this is a myth, not about gods but about demigods. It’s not about gods coming down but heroes rising up.
And that mythical element was ramped up considerably when they went to the Moon. They were racing the Red Ghost, but that little problem was ejected instantly by the Watcher. The first cosmic entity in the Fantastic Four met was a beneficent being who was sworn not to interfere with the actions of others – unless they show up in his house. Apparently cosmic types don’t like burglars.
Not long after that came Galactus. Originally there was little explanation of him, and after numerous defeats he doesn’t inspire so much awe. But he is a central warning to those who would touch the cosmic forces too soon and let those forces influence them too much. He is the embodiment of the universe before ours and will become the new Eternity (which means this one isn’t eternal).
First time through, Galactus is only defeated because the Silver Surfer, his herald, breaks with him. Not only that, the Watcher breaks his oath and interferes, guiding the Human Torch to get the weapon Mr Fantastic will use to drive Galactus off. It should have ended then, but despite his promise not to, Galactus comes back again and again. And the Watcher breaks his oath again and again. It becomes boring and the stories become hackneyed and repetitive.
But then the cosmic entities start to multiply. Abraxas springs from Eternity kind of like Athena sprang from Zeus. Ego is a living planet and eventually a poor man’s Galactus. Ebon Seeker is an even poorer man’s Galactus (in fact, that man seems to be in debt). The FF meet several races who seem to have touched the cosmos, and this may be a prelude to what they themselves will become. There are the Celestials, the Eternals, and the gods of many ancient pantheons. In time the Watcher becomes a race of Watchers. They even meet Mephisto, the Devil, and Reed did not agree to make Sue forget they were ever married if only his aunt would come back to life.
Individually, the Fantastic Four have no hope against any of these creatures. When Ben Grimm fights the Silver Surfer the only way he survives is because the Surfer holds back. Toe to toe, the Thing would have no chance. But as a team they, together, make a representation of the cosmos and can thus win against other representations of the cosmos.
The Fantastic Four is more than the story of a family, it is the story of the parts forming the whole. When other attempts are made to do this it’s so hack-handed that nobody cares about the characters. But in the Fantastic Four every one of them has limitations, excesses they will go to, and things they won’t understand. Each is part of the whole.
But because they’re human, the Fantastic Four are outmatched for power. Where they have an advantage is a sense of humility. They know they have limitations while all their opponents believe themselves to be invincible. The Fantastic Four will take risks – like they did with Galactus. It served them well when they found another space to explore.
In 1961, DC introduced both the Phantom Zone and Earth 2. In 1966 Marvel hit back with the Negative Zone. With the Negative Zone, Marvel got a permanent foothold in the multiverse business. But where Earths 1 and 2 are very similar, the Negative Zone is entirely different from Earth 616. Like the Phantom Zone, things escape from there and they are dangerous. But the escapees are not criminals put there, they are their own kind of monster.
The Negative Zone is meant to be frightening. This is not to the extent of the sheer weirdness of Ditko’s realm of Dormammu. Ditko is in a class by himself – either that or he’s in detention: I’m never quite sure in his case. But the monitor for the Negative Zone covers a whole wall: by contrast observatories can put what their telescopes are looking at onto your laptop.
Blastaar came from the Negative Zone in 1967, a former monarch who sought to conquer the Earth. It was so good an idea that Annihilus came out in 1968, and he was a monarch who tried to conquer Earth. And then came Stygorr, who was pretty well the same story again. They avoided the Galactus over and over again problem, but basically they are three versions of the self-proclaimed conqueror who comes from the Negative Zone.
The Negative Zone is where they have to go when Sue Richards is pregnant. They need the magic wand – OK, cosmic control rod – of Annihilus to deal with the radiation in Sue’s body. Had the Negative Zone not been invented, they would have had to go into space to do (almost) the same thing.
Other superhero groups go through space. The JLA famously went through it in a boat – that they were rowing. The Legion never stops going into space. The Fantastic Four are the only ones who go to space or another dimension purely to explore. For them it’s part of their contact with the universe – it’s the Negative Zone, the polar opposite (literally) of the cosmos that gave them their powers. Myths need to be renewed.
Going into space and going into negative space: it’s the external journey representing the internal journey. Getting past doppelgangers and meeting the cosmic entities who are also what we may become: these are the mythical themes of the Fantastic Four. We’re just lucky that Stan Lee spent so many years frustrated by trying to write what he thought other people wanted him to write. I think it helped him keep the Fantastic Four a grounded family. So where other superhero groups go through space to fight the bad guy, the Fantastic Four go through space just to see what’s there. They are unique in that.
From that stage the FF go out and meet the universe to find out more because they know full well they have a small piece of the whole. Those who have more, like Galactus, the Watcher, Eternity, Abraxas, and Mephisto, are a very mixed bag. But they are the test.
Will the Fantastic Four take the next step? Maybe. Who knows what will happen after a long exploration with substitutes covering for them. But in a sense, they have already done so. Franklin and Valeria are the next generation: he reforms now and she reforms the time stream.
Siblings who between them control time and space? Sounds like a mythical story in its own right.