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The Way It Began

In all of our talks in recent weeks about the Golden and Silver Ages and the early days of Marvel, we’ve been somewhat remiss in discussing the book that started it all, the book that was labeled “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine!” by Stan Lee as a tongue-in-cheek boast, but which history would later prove to be not far off the mark. Come with me now to 1961 and the birth of THE FANTASTIC FOUR.

In 1961, a moderately successful comics publisher called Timely (or Atlas, depending on what month it was and who you asked) was eking out a living by pretty much treading water and following the trends. If Westerns were in vogue, they’d crank out Westerns by the bushel. If romance seemed to be moving pretty well, then, it’d be love stories all around. At the time, the trend was monster comics, so Timely was turning out monster stories like you wouldn’t believe, mostly “Godzilla-type” knockoffs and the like. Timely’s managing editor and art director was a fellow named Stanley Martin Lieber, although you might be more familiar with his sobriquet: Stan Lee. Lieber had been working at the publisher since he was 17, having risen through the ranks from office boy, and although the monster comics were doing okay, Stan was bored, bored, bored, and about ready to leave comics for good.

Meanwhile, Timely’s publisher Martin Goodman was having a legendary golf game with National Comics publisher Jack Liebowitz, in which Liebowitz was telling Goodman what a big success they were having with their new JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA magazine. When Goodman left the links, he called Lee, and told him to get to work on a superhero team comic book, and fast.

According to Lee’s account, he was considering this new directive from his boss, when he heard from another important influence: his wife Joan. As Lee tells it in ORIGINS OF MARVEL COMICS, Joan set him on the right track by reminding him that since he was ready to quit anyway, why not do whatever he wanted with this new book instead of following the same comic-book clichés he’d been repeating for years, and if it doesn’t work, what’s the harm?

Inspired, Lee began to flesh out his new concept for the book. First to go were secret identities. As Lee reasoned, if he himself had superpowers, he’d never be able to keep it secret, so why should they? Next, out was the classic superhero love triangle in which Our Hero’s girlfriend would really fall for him if only she knew who he really was. Instead, not only would the girl know who the hero really was, they’d both be on the team, and treated as equals. Also, no costumes. Again, Lee couldn’t see himself wearing tights and a cape, so neither would his new characters. (Of course, this rule didn’t last too long; about two issues, as a matter of fact. Still, they kept to the spirit of the concept by wearing what felt more like utilitarian uniforms or coveralls, rather than gaudy costumes.) Finally, this new team wouldn’t always get along; they’d bicker, they’d squabble; in fact, sometimes it would seem that certain members outright hated each other.

Having decided the direction he wanted this new series to take, Lee typed up a synopsis for the series and the premiere issue and handed it off to his ace in the hole: artist Jack Kirby. Kirby had just returned from a stint at National Comics, and was currently keeping Timely/Atlas afloat with his work on the monster comics. As would become the pattern for the two, Kirby would take Lee’s synopsis, flesh it out, expand on it and embellish it, which would then inspire Lee to even further develop the concepts and characters when he would go back to write the dialogue based on Kirby’s finished art. In the next nine years, the Lee/ Kirby partnership would flourish, generating not only 102 consecutive issues of FANTASTIC FOUR (an amazing body of work), but also a sizable portion of what would become the Marvel Universe, and then wither away as Kirby left for DC over what most assumed were issues of credit and creative control. But all that, the good times and the bad, were yet to come. Neither man had any idea that the comic book they’d created would launch a publishing and merchandising empire.

Who are the Fantastic Four?

In their first appearance in THE FANTASTIC FOUR #1 in November 1961, readers were introduced to genius scientist Reed Richards, his fiancée Susan Storm, Sue’s kid brother Johnny, and test pilot Benjamin J. Grimm, Reed’s friend and college roommate, as well as a rival for Sue’s affections. In a bid to beat those dastardly Commies to outer space (this was ’61, after all) Reed and company hijack the rocket that he’s designed, with plans to take it into orbit pronto, despite Ben’s concerns about the rocket’s insufficient shielding from cosmic radiation. You’d think Reed “Super-Genius” Richards might listen to what seems a perfectly rational request for increased safety from a close friend and professional test pilot, right? Nope. After Sue questions Ben’s manhood, he’s totally on board – in retrospect, not one of Mr. Grimm’s best decisions.

The foursome sneak on board the rocket and launch, and are soon in Earth orbit, but not for long.

Almost immediately the ship is hammered by cosmic radiation, with immediate adverse effects on the crew, especially Ben, who manages to pilot the ship to a soft landing despite an almost unbearable heaviness in his limbs.

Back on Earth, as the quartet begins to bicker over the failed flight, the effects of the radiation become clear.

First Sue fades away, then just as mysteriously reappears. Then Ben begins to grow and mutate, becoming an orange rock-like creature. Enraged, Ben lashes out at Reed, who in attempting to defend himself begins to stretch and distort, his limbs and torso freakishly elongating.

Finally, emotionally upset at the conflict, Johnny suddenly bursts into flame, and then erupts into flight, soaring over the wreckage.

The four resolve to serve mankind with their new abilities (some more begrudgingly than others) and dub themselves the Fantastic Four: Mr. Fantastic, the Invisible Girl, the Human Torch and the Thing.

So was the book as revolutionary as Stan and Jack envisioned?

Well, there was nothing else out there like it, that’s for sure. Central to the book’s uniqueness early on was the very palpable antagonism between Reed and the Thing. Unlike the others, whose powers didn’t preclude them from leading relatively normal lives, Ben Grimm was cursed by his powers, forced to live in hiding, and often taking out his frustrations on his own teammates, especially Reed, who he (quite rightly) blamed for his misfortune. To make matters worse, Ben would from time to time revert back to his human form, but never for any significant length of time; just long enough to get his hopes up for a normal life, before being dashed once more.

Moreover, the series’ unprecedented emphasis on characterization and personal conflict struck a chord with readers, rocketing THE FANTASTIC FOUR up the sales charts. In addition, the fan mail began to pour in in record numbers, giving Lee a pipeline to his readers he never had before, and helping to build a kind of brand loyalty that would serve him well when he would repeat the new “characters first” formula on Marvel success after Marvel success.

The Fantastic Four’s adventures were unique as well. Rather than falling into the standard “answering a call for help” storylines, the Fantastic Four were always more of explorers and adventurers rather than crime-fighters, often finding themselves in peril as a result of one of Reed’s experiments. There was also a sense of realism about the series. The characters grew over time; Reed and Sue would eventually marry and have children. The FF lived in Manhattan, not an imaginary “Gotham City” or “Metropolis,” and they had real problems, be it angry neighbors or empty coffers. For example, when supposed genius Reed Richards puts all of the organization’s money in the stock market, which then goes belly-up, the repo men show up to start taking the team’s equipment. Stuff like that never happened to Batman.

But best of all were the villains. Lee and Kirby hit a period of sustained creativity, with one outstanding concept following the next. The creative term had started off strong in the premiere issue with the Mole Man, an unwanted soul who ruled a subterranean kingdom miles below the surface, allowing Kirby to bring some more of his trademark monsters to the forefront.

Later villains included the returning Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner, one of Timely’s original characters from the 1940s, who is cured of amnesia by Johnny Storm and develops quite the unhealthy fixation for Sue Storm, and one that seemed to be almost partly reciprocated, much to Reed Richards’ chagrin.

Also facing off against the FF were the alien shapechangers the Skrulls, who impersonated and framed the team in an early issue. Then there was the Puppet Master, the twisted sculptor who uses his radioactive clay to craft miniature duplicates that allow him to control the minds of others, and whose blind stepdaughter Alicia would soon become the sole joy in Ben Grimm’s life.

Reed’s discovery of the Negative Zone, a weird dimension accessible only through a portal in Reed’s lab, would set the team at odds with would-be conquerors Blastaar, who could generate massive destructive power through his fingertips, and Annihilus, a cosmic mass murderer obsessed with preserving his own life at all costs, with the help of the massively powerful Cosmic Control Rod. There was also the Inhumans, a heretofore undiscovered race of superhumans living in hiding in the Himalayan mountains of Tibet, one of whom, the elemental Crystal, fell in love with Johnny Storm.

Probably the most famous FF adventure is the legendary “Galactus Trilogy” from FF #48-50, but we’ll be going into that in more depth in our discussion of the Silver Surfer in a few weeks, so let’s just set that aside for now, save to mention that it’s probably the best continued story of Lee and Kirby’s entire FF run.

But none of Lee and Kirby’s FF creations can measure up to what is most likely the single best comic-book villain ever created: Doctor Doom.

What’s so great about Doctor Doom?

Unlike most previous comic-book villains, who were just evil for evil’s sake, Doctor Doom was as much a fully realized character as any of the heroes, with motivations you could sympathize with and faults you could identify with.

Although Doom first appeared in FANTASTIC FOUR #5 (which featured a hilarious adventure of Reed, Johnny and Ben posing as pirates in the 17th century, and which unveiled the stunning revelation that the legendary pirate Blackbeard was actually none other than Ben Grimm himself), the character’s true defining moment came in 1964’s FANTASTIC FOUR ANNUAL #2, in which we learn “The Fantastic Origin of Doctor Doom!”

Victor Von Doom was born the child of gypsies in the eastern European country of Latveria, his father a gypsy healer who was marked for death by a local baron. His father died trying to save Victor from the Baron’s wrath, and after his death Victor discovered that his late mother had been a sorceress, and quickly embraced the black arts, combining them with his own scientific genius to fleece riches from the upper-class aristocrats, and giving all the money to the poor. Eventually, word of the unstoppable young gypsy genius spread to the West, and Von Doom is offered a scientific scholarship to an American university. Von Doom accepts, in order to have access to the latest equipment and resources. There he meets fellow scholarship student Reed Richards, and rebuffs Richards’ friendly offer to room together. With Von Doom’s refusal, Richards then meets his new roommate, “Touchdown King” Ben Grimm.

Obsessed with his work, Von Doom builds a massive device designed to breach the netherworld and allow him to contact the spirit of his mother. Wandering past Von Doom’s room, Richards eyeballs his plans for the device and notices that some of his calculations are off by a few decimals. Richards tries to warn him, but Von Doom will have none of it, and haughtily shows Richards the door.

When Von Doom throws the switch, the device explodes, disfiguring his face.

Von Doom leaves the university and wanders Tibet, seeking “forbidden secrets of black magic and sorcery.” There Von Doom is taken in by a mysterious order of monks who teach him “ancient secrets and lore,” and help him create his infamous armored suit and mask, behind which he hides his disfigured face from the world.

From there, Doctor Doom set off to conquer, first seizing control of his home nation of Latveria, and then making plans for the rest of the world as well.

Doom, both here and in later stories, has real motivations and foibles. He wants to rule the world, but his reign over Latveria is shown as a benevolent dictatorship, with his subjects devoted to his rule, and Doom in turn devoted to their care.

He wants to retrieve his mother’s soul from torment, and he’s bitterly jealous of Richards’s genius, exemplified in the single moment when Richards was right and Doom was wrong, with his scarred face as a perpetual reminder.

I was lucky enough to meet Jack Kirby before he passed away, and got the chance to listen to him talk about some of his characters at length. His conception of Doom was that the explosion at the university had only left Doom with a single, minute scar across his left cheek, but that this single imperfection of his handsome face was intolerable, and Doom would rather hide his features behind the stifling iron mask than show his imperfection to the world. A brilliant take on Doom’s character, and one I’d never before considered.

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One Response to The Way It Began

  1. Jeff Nettleton September 5, 2012 at 3:31 pm #

    Lee’s oft-told tale of the FF origin tends to ignore a big elephant in the room, as far as the conception of the team: Challengers of the Unknown. Kirby’s previous work obviously has sone definite influence on what the FF would be: a team of scientists and adventurers who survive an accident and investigate weird goings-on. Where it departs from its predecessor is in the family dynamic and personalities. Looking at both their work over the years, I would give a little more weight to Kirby into developing a team that was more a group of adventurers than costumed heroes, with Lee adding the personalities and family dynamic. Each man complimented the other: Kirby is generally acknowledged as the powerful imaginative side of the partnership, while Stan would add more of the emotional element. Really, I doubt either one would have come up with the same result working alone or with another partner. Once they got going, it’s obvious that they were feeding off each other, even though both had a tendency to see the story differently (according to various interviews with other Marvel staffers) and acted according to their own perceptions. The sum total of these seperate approaches ended up creating a truly unique end product, one which neither ever truly equalled, for shear imagination (though Kirby came close with the 4th World, but it lacked much of the human element that Stan brought to the FF).

Welcoming the Future, Treasuring the Past.