Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Fantastic Four (1961) #1

Cover Date: November 1961
On-Sale Date: 8 August 1961
Cover Price: $0.10 US
Pages: 32 (25 story pages)

Cover Credits
Pencils: Jack Kirby. Inks: George Klein (see below, however).  Colours: Stan Goldberg.  Script: Stan Lee.  Letters: Artie Simek.
  The inker of this cover was originally believed to be Chris Rule or Dick Ayers.  Ayers has since denied that he was involved, and current fan theories point to George Klein as the likeliest inker.  Stan Goldberg's colourist credit was confirmed in Fantastic Four (2011) #600.  The Fantastic Four logo was designed by Sol Brodsky, and inked by Artie Simek.

Story Titles
The Fantastic Four! (13 pages)
The Fantastic Four Meet the Mole Man! (6 pages)
The Moleman's Secret! (6 pages)

Story Credits
Script: Stan Lee.  Pencils: Jack Kirby.  Inks: George Klein (again, see below).  Colours: Stan Goldberg.  Letters: Artie Simek.
  The inker of this issue has never been absolutely confirmed, but the current fan consensus is that it was inked by George Klein.  Dick Ayers was once believed to be the inker, but he has denied involvement.  It's also been speculated that Chris Rule and Sol Brodsky were involved with art corrections throughout the book.  Artie Simek was credited as the inker of the book in Fantastic Four (1961) #281, but that seems unlikely, as Simek doesn't have any other inking credits to his name.  The source for this theory was a Jack Kirby interview, but many believe that Kirby's memory was faulty in this case.

Plot Summary
The Mole Man destroys a bunch of atomic plants using his army of subterranean monsters, as part of a plan to - you guessed it - conquer the surface world.  The Fantastic Four enter his domain beneath Monster Isle to stop him, and as a result of the ensuing battle an atomic blast seals the Mole Man and his monsters underground... forever!  (Or, you know, until issue #22.)

Flashback 1
Reed Richards, Ben Grimm, Susan Storm, and Johnny Storm have gathered to plan their rocket fight into outer space.  Ben is reluctant to undertake the mission, as he fears the effects of cosmic rays, but Susan convinces him by calling him a coward.  With no time to wait for official clearance, Reed and company sneak onto the launch site and commandeer the rocket, becoming the first people to reach outer space.  Cosmic rays bombard the rocket and penetrate its shielding, and after the foursome crash land back on Earth they discover that they have all gained super powers: Susan can turn invisible, Reed can stretch his body like elastic, Johnny can burst into flame and fly, and Ben has become a super-strong monster.  They vow to use these powers to help mankind.

Flashback 2
The Mole Man suffers years of ridicule due to his appearance, and in a perfectly normal reaction to the situation he goes looking for the fabled land at the centre of the Earth.  He discovers a vast series of caverns beneath Monster Isle, but a fall leaves him blinded.  (It's not shown in the flashback, but the Mole Man goes on to describe how he mastered his horde of subterranean monsters and used them to carve out an underground empire.)



The Fantastic Four (1st appearance)
The Fantastic Four are formed an unspecified amount of time before their confrontation with the Mole Man.  It's not specifically stated that this is their first mission, but Reed does say that it's the first time that he's used the signal flare to summon the team.  The implication is that they haven't done any super-heroics before this, and to back this up nobody in Central City recognises them.
  The team is based at this point in Central City, which later comics will place in California.  Their headquarters seems to be nothing more than Reed's apartment, though they're obviously not short of money; Reed has a large, super-sensitive radarscope that takes up the better part of a wall, and the team has its own private jet.

The Human Torch aka Johnny Storm (1st appearance)
The only thing that Johnny loves more than tinkering with hot rods is being the Human Torch.
  Johnny only tags along on the fateful rocket trip because his sister is going (presumably his intention is to protect her).  When Sue first turns invisible he worries that she will never regain her visibility, and when Reed and Ben first display their powers he calls them monsters and blames the "terrible cosmic rays".  Nevertheless, when he displays his own powers, particularly the ability to fly, he is ecstatic.  He's the first member of the team to give himself a super-hero code-name.
  Johnny displays concern for human life, as he worries about the safety of the fighter pilots who fly too close to his flame.  He doesn't show much concern for his hot rod, though, carelessly melting it as he flies away.
  Background: Johnny is Sue Storm's younger brother.  It's implied that Sue is from a well-to-do background, which would mean that the same is true for Johnny.  He is repeatedly described as a boy, and appears to be a teenager.  He's well-known at the local service station, and a has an affinity for tinkering with hot rods.
  Powers: The Torch can cause his whole body to burst into flame that is shown here to be hot enough to melt a car and a jet fighter into slag, or blast a tunnel through soft earth.  While in this state his body is said to be "lighter than air", which enables him to fly.  He is fast in flight, though not fast enough to outrun a nuclear missile.  His flame dies out after trying to evade the missile, most probably due to over-exertion (though this is not explicitly stated).
  Johnny seemingly has little control over the heat of his flame at this stage, as he unwillingly melts several jet fighters that fly too close to him (not to mention his beloved hot rod).  His flame is seen to activate when he gets over-excited.

Mister Fantastic aka Dr. Reed Richards (1st appearance)
Reed is the leader of the Fantastic Four, and spends most of the issue being grimly serious.  He is perhaps a reluctant super-hero, as when he fires the signal flare to summon his team-mates, he prays that it will be for the last time.
  Reed is willing to fly a rocket into outer space without having done sufficient research into the effects of cosmic rays, and he is determined enough to make the flight without official clearance.  Though he is reluctant to take Sue and Johnny along, he doesn't protest a great deal when they insist on going.
  Immediately after the rocket crash, Reed realises that they may have been affected by the cosmic rays.  He admits that Ben was right, and that they should have gotten heavier shielding, but later snaps at Ben's constant insults and complaining.  After the four have all displayed their powers, Reed states that they now have more power than any human has ever possessed, but he's not the one who suggests using that power to help mankind.  He's the last of the four to give himself a super-hero code-name (albeit an egotistical one).
  After letting the Mole Man escape, Reed claims that he did so deliberately, believing that he will never trouble anyone again.  He says that sealing the Mole Man underground is for the best, and that he hopes the Mole Man finds peace.
  Oh, and he smokes a pipe.
  Background: The white streaks in Reed's hair indicate that he's at least middle-aged, and he's obviously gained a doctorate at some point.  He spent years of his life building a rocket to fly into outer space.
  Sue claims to be Reed's fiancée during their origin flashback.  (This claim is brought into doubt by later events.  Their relationship is barely addressed after this until Sue begins her fascination with the Sub-Mariner in Fantastic Four (1961) #6, where Reed says that he thought he and Sue had "an understanding".  They become officially engaged in Fantastic Four (1961) #35.  I suppose it's possible that they were engaged before the fateful rocket trip, and that said engagement was called off due to Sue's conflicted feelings over the Sub-Mariner, but I don't think it's ever been addressed.)
  Though he's aware of the existence of Monster Isle, and has even heard of its three-headed dragon guardian, he has no prior knowledge of the world that exists beneath the Earth's surface.
  Powers: Mister Fantastic has the power to stretch seemingly any part of his body.  In this story he's mostly seen stretching his arms and torso.  The limit of his stretching ability is unclear, with the furthest use of his power being when he reaches from his apartment window to catch a missile and hurl it out to sea.  It appears that he has some measure of super-strength when stretching, as not only is he able to catch and throw a nuclear missile, but he is also able to temporarily restrain the Thing, and use his arm as a lasso to throw a dragon into the ocean.  He is also seen to transform his body into an effective parachute that can hold the weight of Johnny Storm.
  Reed displays great intelligence.  Not only has he supervised the construction of the world's first successful outer space rocket, but he is able to pinpoint the Mole Man's lair using nothing more than the locations of his attacks on the surface world.  (His common sense might be in question, though, given how that rocket flight turned out.)  He is also able to pilot a jet-plane.

The Invisible Girl aka Susan Storm (1st appearance)
Of the four, Susan seems the most determined to beat “the Commies” into outer space. She goads Ben into piloting the rocket by calling him a coward. The reason she gives for wanting to go on the trip is that she is Reed’s fiancée, and will go where he goes.  After the crash, her first concern is that all of Reed’s hard work and dedication have been for nothing.
  Sue is visibly shaken by the shock of first manifesting her powers.  When Reed and Ben start fighting she is concerned for Reed’s safety.  She calls Ben a “thing” when he first transforms, and is distraught when Reed displays powers as well.  Oddly, she has no reaction to her own brother bursting into flames.
  She is quite prepared to push her way through a crowd while invisible, at least when rushing to an emergency call. She pays for a taxi ride, even though she was invisible the whole time, and could have easily left without paying.
  At one point during the mission on Monster Isle she appears to refer to Ben as “gruesome”.  (The panel in question is a long shot, and the figures are in silhouette, but the word balloon does seem to be pointing at Sue. The dialogue would probably fit Johnny better.) She wishes that Ben would stop hating Reed.
  After the Mole Man is defeated, she hopes that the team has seen the last of him.
  Background: Susan is seen having tea with a “society friend”, and is probably quite well-off. She is Reed’s fiancée (although see my notes about this in Reed's entry above), and Johnny's older sister.
  Powers: Susan can turn invisible, though she is not intangible while in this state.  Her clothing turns invisible with her, but she is never seen to turn any other objects that she is carrying invisible.  Even after having had these powers for some time, she displays uncertainty as to whether they really work.

The Thing aka Ben Grimm (1st appearance)
The Thing is odd in this story, in that his portrayal is split to the point that he is almost two distinct characters.  In the first part of the story when he is answering Reed's summons, he talks like a super-villain, and is at his most hateful and destructive.  He considers the people that flee from his appearance to be cowards, and displays a blatant disregard for public property.  During the origin flashback and the mission to Monster Isle, however, his speech patterns are more gruff and colloquial.  This version of the character is much more reconcilable with later portrayals of the Thing.
  Ben hides his appearance under a large hat and coat whenever possible, but he is relieved when he has the chance to remove these clothes.
  Ben is reluctant to fly into space without having done the necessary research into cosmic rays, but is easily goaded into doing so when Susan calls him a coward.  After the mission fails he is quick to say “I told you so”, and bitter about the whole mess even before he is transformed into a monster. He has had enough of Reed’s attitude, and is angry enough to start a fight.
  Despite all of this, and despite being the last to give his hand when the four pledge to become a team, he is the first of the group to suggest using their powers to help mankind. He forsakes the name Ben Grimm in favour of the name that Susan called him: The Thing.
  Ben is obviously jealous of Reed’s relationship with Susan, and is not shy about saying so.  He calls Reed a weakling and a “skinny loud-mouth”, and threatens him if the Monster Isle mission turns out to be a wild goose chase.  Even at the end of the story he criticises Reed for losing his grip on the Mole Man.
  He displays the barest glimpse of a sense of humour, when he suggests that Reed's photos of the stolen atomic plants are actually pin-ups.
  Background: Ben is probably a trained astronaut, and knows how to fly a rocket, but not much else is revealed of his background.
  Powers: Ben Grimm has mutated into a monstrous form with an orange, dinosaur-like hide, too large to fit into regular clothing.  In this form he is super-strong and resilient, able to smash through a shop doorway and a road, rip up a manhole cover and the surrounding pavement, and tear a tree out of the ground to use as a club. He is unharmed when hit by a car (though the car is severely damaged).  He defeats a giant monster made out of stone in hand-to-hand combat.  Even in his human form he is quite strong, able to splinter a tabletop with a single punch.  He appears to be a trained astronaut, as he is able to pilot a space rocket, and he knows at least a little bit about cosmic rays.


The Mole Man (also called the Moleman in this story) (1st appearance)
The self-proclaimed ruler of the land at the centre of the Earth.  He wants the entire surface world in his power as well.  When he speaks of his own power there is a note of madness in his voice. He prefers loneliness to the cruelty of other people.
  Like all great villains, the Mole Man feels the need to explain his plan to Reed and Johnny before killing them.  His plan is to use his monsters to destroy every atomic plant and source of power on Earth before sending them to invade in force and “destroy everything that lives above the surface”.  When the Fantastic Four attack, the Mole Man sets his monsters on them and tries to flee.  He apparently destroys his own island after the Fantastic Four have escaped, but this seems unlikely, unless he’s just sealing the entrance to his domain so that his enemies can’t return.
  Neither Reed nor Johnny has heard of the Mole Man before.
  Background: Spurned by pretty girls, refused employment, and mocked for his looks, the Mole Man (given no other name in this story) rejected society to search for the legendary land at the centre of the Earth.  His travels took him all over the globe, but eventually he found a cave on Monster Isle, and fell down a shaft that led him to his goal.  He was blinded in the fall, but eventually developed super-senses and became master of the creatures that dwelt in the subterranean caverns.  (The part about losing his sight in the fall is later retconned in Marvel Universe (1998) #7.  In that story the Mole Man loses his sight after gazing into the Valley of Diamonds, which makes much more sense than a fall and ties back to this story perfectly.  It also seems to match with the intent of Kirby's art, given the amount of glare in the relevant image, and gives a reason for those funky sunglasses the Mole Man is always wearing.)
  Powers: The Mole Man has a large number of subterranean monsters at his command.
  He has learned to sense things in the dark, like a mole.  He also claims to have developed a “natural radar sense” that enables him to evade danger, likening this ability to the senses of a bat.  He displays great agility, and outfights Reed Richards (or possibly Johnny, it's not entirely clear) with a staff.

Giganto (unnamed in this story) (1st appearance)

The largest of the monsters under the Mole Man's control is a gigantic green creature with claws “the like of which have never been seen on Earth, or any planet in the universe”.  It can dig tunnels through “countless tons” of solid rock, and can withstand artillery fire from close range. It is said to be brainless, but as with all of Stan Lee’s hyperbolic captions this should be taken with a hefty grain of salt.
  (The naming of Giganto is somewhat contentious.  He shares the name with the whale-like colossus summoned by Namor in Fantastic Four (1961) #4, but the two creatures are otherwise unrelated.  He went unnamed until his appearance in Avengers West Coast (1989) #54, some 28 year after his initial appearance.  One suspects that John Byrne just got his monsters confused (an uncharacteristic slip-up) and now we're stuck with two behemoths sharing the same name.)

Tricephalous (unnamed in this story) (1st appearance)

This three-headed dragon guards Monster Isle, and has been sighted enough times that Reed Richards has heard tales of it. It’s not as impressive as it looks; Sue’s invisibility fools it, and it is easily hurled out to sea by Richards.  Unlike most of the other monsters in this story, Tricephalous is not shown to be directly under the Mole Man's control.

Stone Monster (never named) (1st appearance)
The second guardian of Monster Isle is a rocky humanoid; it seems to be strong and resilient, but is quickly dispatched by the Thing, and to the best of my knowledge has never appeared since.

The Mole Man’s Monsters (also referred to as his “Mighty Mole Creatures”) (1st appearance)
Aside from Giganto, the Mole Man has many more subterranean monsters at his command.  The Mole Man summons his “underearth horde” by pulling on a signal cord.  Their exact number is unknown, but eight of them are briefly depicted.


Central City Police Chief (1st appearance)
The police chief of Central City arrives with the riot squad in response to the Thing's rampage.  After the appearance of the FF's signal flare in the sky, and reports of a monster in the streets, he is convinced that something weird is happening in Central City.
  (It's possible that this is the same police chief who appears in Fantastic Four (1961) #2.  The depictions of the two seem close enough, and I've presented the two side-by-side.  Judge for yourself.)

A side-by-side comparison of the police chief from Fantastic Four (1961) #1 (on the left) and #2 (on the right).

Others: Citizens of Central City; Central City police officers (one named Pete); Sue Storm's society friend; a taxi driver; a clothing store owner; members of the riot police; Johnny's Storm's friend; the mayor of Central City; some US fighter pilots; French African soldiers (one inevitably named Pierre); a spaceport guard (in Flashback 1); a woman who spurned the Moleman (in Flashback 2); an employer who wouldn't hire the Moleman (in Flashback 2); a man who mocked the Moleman's looks (in Flashback 2)


Central City (1st appearance)
The home of the Fantastic Four, at least for now.  It seems to be a sizable city, with a dense enough population for skyscrapers. Depicted are a hat shop, a men’s clothing store, and a service station, as well as various city streets (most of which are destroyed by the Thing).  Despite the name, Central City should be on either the east or west coast of the USA, as the ocean is nearby. It can’t be too important to American infrastructure, because the government is more than prepared to detonate a nuclear missile right on top of the city.
  (Later stories (most notably Fantastic Four (1961) #293-295) establish that Central City is located in California, east of San Francisco.  This placement contradicts the scene in this issue in which Reed hurls a missile so that it explodes "over the sea".  Perhaps it's an inland sea?  Those are a thing, right?)

Monster Isle  (1st appearance)
Predictably, this is a monster-infested island with a volcano in the shape of a grotesque face.  Its location is not specified, though Reed triangulates it using the sites of the destroyed atomic bases in Russia, Australia, South America and “French Equatorial Africa”.  The island is guarded by a three-headed dragon and a stone giant, and has tunnels that lead to the realm at the centre of the Earth.  It is blown up by an atomic bomb at the end of this story.
  (Despite its seeming destruction in this story, Monster Isle will return some 25 years later in Fantastic Four (1961) #296.  Later stories establish that the island is located near Japan (where else?))

Subterranea (named here only as the centre of the Earth) (1st appearance)
This is probably not the actual centre of the Earth, although that’s not stated outright here.  Its existence was rumoured back when the Mole Man lived on the surface, and he found a path there from Monster Isle.  A subterranean realm of monster-infested caves, it is now ruled by the Mole Man.  It’s implied that he has used the digging power of his monster slaves to expand his realm.

The Valley of Diamonds (1st appearance)
The Valley of Diamonds lies in the area of Subterranea that lies directly below Monster Isle.  It’s a vast cavern filled with blinding diamonds that shine brightly enough to render people unconscious, unless they wear protective suits (or sunglasses, in the Mole Man’s case).
  (It will be revealed in Marvel Universe (1998) #7 that the Mole Man lost his sight due to the glare from the Valley of Diamonds.)

The FF Rocket Crash Site (1st appearance)
The FF crash their rocket in a grassy, wooded field.  The site is presumably remote enough that nobody was nearby when the rocket crashed.
  (It is later established in Fantastic Four (1961) #245 and Thing (1983) #10 that this crash site was north of Ithaca, New York.  This seems to be the agreed upon location, although it's been contradicted over the years: Fantastic Four (1961) #296 placed the site in Stockton, New York; Fantastic Four (1998) #13 showed the rocket crashing in an island; and Fantastic Four (1998) #60 placed the crash site near Central City.)


Cosmic Rays (seen in Flashback 1) (1st appearance)
Once out of Earth’s atmosphere, the Fantastic Four enter the “cosmic storm area” where cosmic rays easily penetrate their rocket. The crew are bathed in cosmic rays that give them their powers. The cosmic rays are said by Ben to be “rays of light”.  They seem to be visible to normal human perception, but there is no sensation when they pass through someone.  The rays are able to be registered by the rocket's geiger counter (unless the RAK TAC TAC sound effect is being made by the rays themselves; it's unclear).

The Fantasti-Flare (named here as the Signal Flare) (1st appearance)
The flare is used here for the first time ever (at least Reed says so, and the citizens of Central City don't recognise it).  It looks like a standard flare gun, and when it is fired in the air it spells out the words “The Fantastic Four!” complete with exclamation point.  After a short amount of time the words coalesce to form the number four.  (This is no doubt an awkward attempt by Stan Lee to explain Kirby's incorporation of the title of the story into the flare signal.  It should probably have been chalked up to poetic license, but instead it's acknowledged in the dialogue.  Later on the flare will simply appear as a "4" right away.)

Reed’s Test Rocket (seen in Flashback 1) (1st appearance)
Apparently Reed spent years of his life constructing this rocket, and it becomes the first manned rocket to reach outer space. Its shielding is inadequate to protect the crew from cosmic rays, but the autopilot works well enough to return them to Earth for a non-fatal crash-landing.  The rocket presumably does not survive the crash.

The FF’s Private Jet (1st appearance)
This jet is used to fly to Monster Isle, a trip which takes an unspecified number of hours.  It is later used to escape the island.


The battles in this issue are brief, and mostly inconclusive.  We see the Thing trounce the rocky guardian of Monster Isle, and Mister Fantastic make similarly short work of the three-headed dragon.  Reed and Ben scuffle briefly as their powers manifest, and although Reed is able to restrain the Thing it's far from conclusive.  The Mole Man trounces Reed (or possibly Johnny) in a battle with staves.


There is no time-frame given for the main story, but it is the first public appearance of the Fantastic Four.
  Flashback 1 isn't given a specific time-frame, although it probably happens some months before the main story.  In real-world terms, it has to occur before the USSR sent its first cosmonaut into outer space (this was Yuri Gagarin, who became the first man in space on April 12, 1961).
  Flashback 2 also has an unspecified time-frame, although judging by the fashions it could be any time in the mid-20th century.  Given the scope of the Mole Man's activities after reaching the centre of the Earth, this flashback should take place a number of years before the main story.  (The Mole Man's origin from Marvel Universe (1998) #7 was explicitly set in the 1950s, which fits.)


The origin story of the Fantastic Four has been retold in countless comics, including Strange Tales (1951) #101, Fantastic Four (1961) #2, 11, 126, 236 and Thing (1983) #10.  The purpose of their rocket flight has been tweaked and updated over the years, necessitated by the passage of time making the "beat the Commies" version in this issue somewhat obsolete.  The origin story in Fantastic Four (1961) #1 simply has the FF trying to become the first people to make it to outer space, while issue #2 states that they were trying to reach Mars.  Fantastic Four (1961) #236 makes some significant updates to the origin, with the goal being changed to reaching the edge of the solar system using an experimental Star Drive.
  The origin of the team's powers has also been subject to many retcons.  In the beginning, it was simply chalked up to the effects of "cosmic rays" that are present in outer space.  Fantastic Four (1961) #197 changes this to a unique combination of cosmic rays and solar flare activity, possibly as a means of explaining why other people have gone to outer space without gaining powers.  Finally, Fantastic Four (1961) #529-532 bring up the possibility that the cosmic rays were transmitted by a being known as the Entity.  It also shows Reed Richards travelling back to the dawn of time, where his own memories of his team imprint on the cosmic rays and define the powers they will gain.


This is, of course, the first issue of Fantastic Four, and thus the first appearance of the eponymous team and its members: Mister Fantastic, the Invisible Girl, the Human Torch and the Thing. On the villainous side you can throw in the Mole Man and his subterranean monsters.  Hell, throw in every single thing I detailed above, because all of it's appearing here for the first time ever.
  This is not, however, the first appearance of the Marvel Universe; that fictional construct technically began with Marvel Comics (1939) #1. But for all intents and purposes it’s the beginning of modern Marvel continuity. While the stories of the Golden Age are theoretically in continuity, in practice they are barely referenced beyond a few key origin stories, and that time the Sub-Mariner hit New York with a tsunami.
  Nor, technically, is this the true first appearance of the Human Torch.  It is the first appearance of Johnny Storm, but the Human Torch was a pre-existing super-hero created in 1939, an android who could burst into flame.  Lee and Kirby appropriated the name and power and grafted them onto Johnny, who is very much human.
  While it’s far from the first Marvel super-hero comic, it is the first one since the mid-1950s, and also the first to be co-created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.
  Speaking of Lee and Kirby, this is the first issue of their legendary 102-issue run, a run which still stands as the longest writer/artist collaboration within the Marvel Universe proper.  (Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley had a longer run on Ultimate Spider-Man, but that was set in an alternate universe.)


Here’s the big one: why exactly does Reed take Sue and Johnny on the rocket flight? Reed’s a scientist and the person in charge of the whole project. Ben is the pilot.  Those two are vital to the mission.  Sue’s a socialite and Johnny’s a teenager; neither is qualified.  The only explanation given is that Sue insists on going because she is Reed’s fiancée, and Johnny tags along to protect his sister.  It’s not very convincing.
  At the end of the story, Monster Isle is destroyed in an atomic explosion, and Reed claims that the Mole Man has sealed himself below forever.  Yet the whole plot hinges on the Mole Man having his monsters dig holes under atomic bases all over the world.  He could easily dig his way to freedom, and there’s nothing to stop him from resuming his plan.
  Fun with nuclear warheads: the US government is more than prepared to hit the Human Torch with a nuclear missile, right over Central City. Luckily Reed Richards is there to hurl it out to sea, where it explodes with absolutely no ill-effects (as nukes tend to do).
  Throughout the story, the Fantastic Four wear clothes that seem to adapt to their powers. Reed’s clothes stretch with him; Sue’s clothes turn invisible when she does; Johnny’s clothes survive unscathed when he bursts into flame.  The Thing is the only exception, as his space suit tears when he first transforms.  (This will later be explained in Fantastic Four (1961) #6 as their clothing being composed of "unstable molecules", a substance invented by Reed.  That still doesn't explain why their space-suits adapt to their powers, but The Official Index to the Fantastic Four (1985) #1 suggests that the suits were altered by the cosmic rays as well.  Works for me.)
  Reed locates the Mole Man’s island by studying the cave-ins and pin-pointing an island located exactly between them. There’s nothing about the Mole Man’s plan that would require him to have a base in such a location, but nevertheless Reed’s plan works. You can't argue with results, I suppose.


Seriously? Not only is this the beginning of the Fantastic Four, it's also the starting point for the modern Marvel Universe.  Fantastic Four #1 birthed a legitimate pop-cultural icon, and if any comic in Marvel history is important, it's this one.  For Marvel fans, super-hero fans, and fans of pop-culture in general, this one is a must-read.


This story is told in three parts, and they vary wildly in quality.  The first part, which introduces the characters one-by-one as they cause havoc throughout the city, does a good job of conveying how striking and weird they are, but it goes for drama at the expense of logic.  The final part, in which the team faces off with the Mole Man, is a mess, albeit an action-packed one.  The villain’s plan makes little sense, and his defeat is riddled with plot holes.  Nestled between those problematic sections, however, is the origin sequence, and that’s where everything comes together.  Kirby's art, which is somewhat lacking elsewhere in the book, is powerful and iconic, and the whole sequence is intense, dramatic, and fraught with anxiety.


  • Legend has it that, at some point in early 1961, Marvel’s publisher Martin Goodman had been playing golf with a bigwig from rival publisher National Periodical Publications (later to be known as DC Comics).  Said bigwig (either Irwen Donenfeld or Jack Liebowitz) supposedly bragged about the sales of their Justice League of America comic, which prompted noted trend-follower Goodman to direct Stan Lee to create a super-hero team.  Lee wrote the following in Origins of Marvel Comics in 1974: "Martin mentioned that he had noticed one of the titles published by National Comics seemed to be selling better than most. It was a book called The Justice League of America and it was composed of a team of superheroes. ... 'If the Justice League is selling', spoke he, 'why don't we put out a comic book that features a team of superheroes?'"
      The golf story has been somewhat debunked by comics historian Michael Uslan, in a letter published in fanzine Alter Ego #43 from 2004: "Irwin Donenfeld said he never played golf with Goodman, so the story is untrue. I heard this story more than a couple of times while sitting in the lunchroom at DC's 909 Third Avenue and 75 Rockefeller Plaza office as Sol Harrison and [production chief] Jack Adler were schmoozing with some of us... who worked for DC during our college summers.... [T]he way I heard the story from Sol was that Goodman was playing with one of the heads of Independent News, not DC Comics (though DC owned Independent News). ... As the distributor of DC Comics, this man certainly knew all the sales figures and was in the best position to tell this tidbit to Goodman. ... Of course, Goodman would want to be playing golf with this fellow and be in his good graces. ... Sol worked closely with Independent News' top management over the decades and would have gotten this story straight from the horse's mouth."
  • Stan Lee has been quoted on numerous occasions as saying that he was on the verge of quitting comics before Fantastic Four was published.  Here is one account: “While I was working for Marvel, the first 20 years or so I was just doing regular comics. Then after a while I really wanted to quit, 'cause I felt while Martin Goodman was a great guy and a good publisher, I didn't like really what he wanted me to do. He kept… he… he felt comics were just for young kids or stupid adults, and he used to say to me: ‘Remember Stan, don't use words of more than two syllables, don't have too much dialogue. Get a lot of action and don't worry about characterization’. And that was fine. I was doing it and the books were doing well, and I had a steady job, but it wasn't satisfying, 'cause I really think of myself as a reasonably good writer. I like to write. So I really wanted to quit and to try something else, and I remember Joan said to me: ‘You know Stan, if you want to quit, before you do why don't you do one book the way you would like to do it. The worst that happens is Martin will fire you, and so what? You want to quit anyway’."
  • Stan Lee's original outline for this issue (shown below) has surfaced in later years.  The veracity of this document has been challenged on occasion, and some have accused Lee of writing it much later than the supposed date of 1961.  It's uncertain whether Lee came up with the synopsis on his own, as his own account has varied over the years.  Sometimes he has claimed to have written the synopsis on his own and then sent it to Kirby, and at other times he has said that he and Kirby worked out the plot together before he typed the synopsis.  Regardless, it does seem likely that the document was written in 1961.  Marvel artist John Byrne claims that it was found in Lee's old desk by editor Roger Stern in the early 1980s.  Stern has been asked about this, and he says that it was actually found by writer David Anthony Kraft, but the end result is the same: it was found by chance, not created as part of an ownership conspiracy.

  • In later stories the Thing's hide is said to made of rock, but according to this quote from Jack Kirby this was not the original intention: “If you’ll notice, the beginnings of Ben, he was kind of lumpy.  I felt he had the power of a dinosaur, and I began to think along those lines. I wanted his flesh to look like dinosaur hide.”
  • Kirby's original pencilled cover was missing several background figures that appear in the published version (most notably the policeman just above the monster's head).  This alternate version of the cover was sometimes used in reprints.

  • There are two creators who worked on this comic that I have yet to write about.  The first of these is Christopher Rule.  Rule began his career in comics in the 1920s (after a stint driving ambulances in World War I).  He originally drew comic strips and fashion illustrations.  By 1943 he was a regular comic book inker, and in 1944 he became a staff member at Timely Comics (the forerunner to Marvel).  Rule inked many stories at Timely throughout the 40s and 50s, and he became Jack Kirby's first regular inker when Kirby returned to Marvel in the late 50s.  His status as a regular Kirby inker around this time is the most likely reason that he is considered a possible inker for Fantastic Four (1961) #1, but it should be noted that his last credited job was in Tales to Astonish (1959) #10, cover dated January 1960.  This is well over a year before the debut of the Fantastic Four, which makes Rule's involvement unlikely (though not impossible).  The Jack Kirby Museum gives Rule credit for the Mole Man sections of the issue, but it has no corroboration.  Rule's life after leaving Marvel is not well documented.  He died in 1983 at the age of 88.

The only picture of Christopher Rule that I could find.

  • The other creator I've yet to write about is George Klein.  He was born in either 1915 or 1920 (sources differ).  His most well-known work was for DC, where he inked a ton of Superman comics, but he may have had a significant if brief role in the earliest Marvel Universe comics.  As a young man Klein studied at the Kansas City Art Institute and New York's Cartoonists and Illustrators School.  He worked as a penciller and inker at Timely in the early 1940s, contributing to characters such as the Whizzer, Miss America and the Young Allies.  After the war he worked for a large number of publishers, and in 1950 he began his long association with Superman, and penciller Curt Swan.  Though he was working mostly for DC in the early 1960s, expert fans believe that Klein was the inker of Fantastic Four (1961) #1 and #2.  He will return to Marvel later in the 1960s.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

"First Family" - The Men Who Created Marvel

Although Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko are rightfully regarded as the primary creators of the Marvel Universe, they were far from the only important people who worked on the comics in those early days.  The following is a series of short biographies of the men who worked on Marvel's first superhero comics of the 1960s, detailing their lives up to that point. 

Martin Goodman: Moe Goodman was born in 1908, and it wasn't until later in life that he would adopt the name Martin.  His parents were both Russian migrants, and Goodman was the oldest of thirteen recorded children.  The family lived in a number of homes in Brooklyn while Goodman was growing up, and during the Great Depression he apparently travelled the country, living in hobo camps.  In late 1929 he was hired to work for the circulation manager of Eastern Distributing Corps, and eventually he rose to the position of manager himself.  Eastern went bankrupt in 1932, so Goodman partnered with a number of other investors to form Mutual Magazine Distributors, and was also made editor of another magazine publisher, Newsstand Publications.  He helped to churn out a number of pulp magazines, with titles such as Marvel Science Stories and All-Star Adventure Fiction.  In 1939, with the popularity of comic books on the rise, Goodman contracted studio Funnies Inc. to create material for a comic to be known as Marvel Comics #1, published by his newly formed Timely Publications.  The comic was a hit, and Goodman directed Timely as its publisher, riding the superhero craze until it died out, then following every other trend that came along.  The company, later popularly known as Atlas Comics, was mostly successful under his leadership (though it could be accused of favouring quantity over quality), until Goodman's disastrous distribution deal with American News Company.  American News, which had a virtual monopoly on newsstand distribution in the US, was found guilty of restraint of trade not long after Goodman signed with them.  The company was liquidated, leaving Goodman with no choice but to sign a deal with Independent News, a distribution company owned by chief rival National Comics (later known as DC).  Atlas was forced to reduce its output drastically.   Around the same time1, Goodman apparently opened a closet door in the Atlas offices and discovered pages and pages of unpublished inventory stories.  He ordered editor Stan Lee to stop paying for new stories until the backlog had been used, a process which took around a year.  Goodman was still the publisher of Atlas (soon to be renamed Marvel Comics) in the early 1960s, and his decision-making, for better or worse, would be pivotal in the formation and development of the Marvel Universe.

Stan Lee: Born Stanley Martin Lieber in 1922, the man who would go on to be the face of Marvel Comics spent most of his youth aspiring to write "The Great American Novel".  He grew up in various houses in Manhattan, but his family was far from rich: his father worked as a dress-cutter, but was rarely employed during the Great Depression, and during his teen years Lieber shared a room with his brother while their parents slept on a fold-out couch.  Lieber graduated high school at age 16, and held down all manner of jobs as a teenager: obituary writer, sandwich deliveryman, office boy for a trouser manufacturer, and theatre usher.  His big break came in 1939, when at age 17 his uncle Robbie Solomon landed him a job as an assistant at Timely (Solomon was the brother-in-law of Martin Goodman).  Lieber's work at first consisted of odd jobs such as refilling inkwells, proofreading and fetching lunches, but he still had ambitions to be a writer.  His chance came in 1941, with a prose story in Captain America Comics #3 entitled "Captain America Foils the Traitor's Revenge".  Wanting to save his real name for more literary work, he signed the story with a pseudonym: Stan Lee.  Lee soon graduated to scripting actual comics, and later in 1941, when Timely editor Joe Simon was fired over disputes with Martin Goodman, he was installed as the interim editor.  He showed a natural aptitude for the job, and remained in that position for decades to come; his only break was during World War 2, when he enlisted and served in the military as a "playwright", creating training manuals and propaganda.  His most famous work during this time was a poster warning the troops about the dangers of venereal disease, with the slogan "VD? Not me!"  Upon his return Lee resumed his duties as Timely's editor and art director, and gradually he also became the head writer.  By the early 1960s he was still in that role, though perhaps less enthusiastically now that he was approaching forty, and had yet to begin his "Great American Novel".
Jack Kirby:  Even by the early 1960s, Jack Kirby was regarded as one of the finest creative minds in the industry.  Born Jacob Kurtzberg, Kirby grew up in a poor family on the Lower East Side.  His rough-and-tumble childhood involved being a member of a street gang, but it didn't stop him from learning to draw.  Kirby taught himself by tracing the comic strips from newspapers, and he was a fan of such artists as Milton Caniff, Hal Foster and Alex Raymond.  He left school to pursue his artistic ambitions at age 14, but was rejected by the Educational Alliance (an institution that offered classes to Jewish Americans on a variety of subjects), reportedly for drawing too fast with charcoal.  Later he enrolled at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, but left when it became apparent that he was expected to spend a great deal of time on each single project.  As Kirby put it, he didn't want to work on any one project forever, and instead he "intended to get things done".  In the mid-1930s he spent a brief time working on comic strips with the Lincoln Newspaper Syndicate, and an even briefer time in animation with Fleischer Studios.  Later in that decade he produced work for various comics and magazines under a number of pseudonyms, but it wasn't until he met Joe Simon in 1940 that his career took off.  They spent most of that year working for Fox Feature Syndicate, before jumping over to Timely Comics.  There they co-created Captain America, and became two of the most popular and prolific creators in comics.  Kirby became Timely's art director, but soon there were pay disputes between the pair and Martin Goodman.  Simon and Kirby began doing work for National (later known as DC Comics) while still working for Timely.  Stan Lee was among those who knew that this was going on.  When Martin Goodman found out he fired Simon and Kirby, the latter of whom was convinced that Stan Lee had ratted them out.  Simon and Kirby had a fruitful career at National, where they created the Boy Commandos and Manhunter, and revamped the Sandman.  Kirby enlisted and fought in World War 2, where he almost lost his legs to frostbite.  Upon returning home he resumed his partnership with Simon, and the two went on to create the first ever romance comics, a genre that would be very popular throughout the 1950s.  Flush with success, Kirby and Simon launched their own comics company, Mainline Publications.  Mainline only lasted a year, and by the end of it Simon and Kirby's relationship was strained; Simon went to work in advertising while Kirby continued in comics, freelancing for National and Atlas (the former Timely) and also illustrating a newspaper strip, Sky Masters of the Space Force.  In the late 1950s, after Atlas was forced to cut back its line, Kirby became one of its primary artists, producing from 8 to 10 pages a day.  Most of his work was on sci-fi and monster stories, which were fun, if a little formulaic.  It would have been reasonable at the time to believe that Kirby's best work was behind him, that he was a spent creative force.  The next decade, however, would see some of the greatest creative achievements of his career.

Steve Ditko: Born in 1927 in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, Ditko became a fan of comics at a young age.  Influenced by the works of Will Eisner, as well as Jerry Robinson's work on Batman, his talent for illustration blossomed during junior high.  Upon graduation he immediately enlisted in the military, and served in postwar Germany, but he did not allow his artistic skills to fade.  Not only did he spend time drawing cartoons to send back to his family, but he also drew comics for an army newspaper.  After he was discharged Ditko moved to New York, where he studied at the Cartoonists and Illustrators School under his idol Jerry Robinson.  Robinson often invited industry professionals to speak to his class, and one of those professionals was Stan Lee.  This was almost certainly the first time that Lee ever saw Ditko's work.  Ditko didn't begin his career at Atlas, though.  Instead he found work as an inker at the studio of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, followed by a lengthy stint working for Charlton Comics (where he co-created the super-hero Captain Atom).  His career was put on hold for a year when he came down with tuberculosis, but upon his recovery he began drawing for Atlas, and freelanced with them up through the early 1960s.  His output was mostly twist-ending sci-fi and suspense stories, in titles such as Strange Tales and Amazing Adventures, often in collaboration with Stan Lee.  By late 1961 his work had become popular enough that Amazing Adventures was renamed Amazing Adult Fantasy, and dedicated exclusively to Ditko's stories alone.

Larry Lieber: Stan Lee's younger brother may be the most unsung pioneer of the Marvel Universe.  Born in 1931, about eight years after Stan, Larry Lieber spent most of his childhood moving back and forth between Manhattan and the Bronx.  He attended George Washington High School, where he showed a great interest in art and drawing.  Larry was only 15 (or 16, accounts vary) when his mother died, and he went to live with Stan and his wife, Joan, but for unknown reasons the arrangement was an unsatisfactory one.  Larry soon left to make his own way, working as a messenger for the New York Times, and in the studio of comic letterer Sam Furber.  Eventually he went to work for Timely as an art assistant on the magazine side, while also spending his nights studying at the Pratt Institute Art School.  His first credited comics work as an artist was in All True Crime #44, published in early 1951.  Later that year he began a four-year stint in the Air Force, serving during the Korean War, but when he returned he went right back to Timely (now Atlas), mostly pencilling and writing romance comics.  After the distribution disaster of 1957, and the downsizing of the Atlas line that followed, Lieber was brought in by Stan Lee to help him with the writing load.  In the early 1950s and late 1960s, Larry Lieber was Stan's right-hand man, and if an Atlas book published during that time wasn't written by Stan, it was probably written by Larry.

Don Heck: Though Heck's work is not as well known as that of Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby, he was one of Marvel's most important artists of the early 1960s.  He was born in Queens in 1929, and as a teenager he learned to draw through correspondence courses and art classes at Woodrow Wilson High Vocational School, as well as a community college in Brooklyn.  In 1949 he found work at Harvey Comics, repurposing newspaper strips into comic form (Joe Palooka and Terry and the Pirates being the most notable of those that Harvey published).  In 1952 his colleague Allen Hardy broke off to form his own comic publishing company, Comic Media, and Heck was invited to work for him as an artist.  During that time he met Stan Lee, although that meeting was almost purely by chance.  A colleague of Heck's named Pete Morisi took his own portfolio to the Atlas offices, looking to find work.  Some of Heck's pages were in Morisi's folder, and Lee kept going back to them.  Morisi called Heck over, and Heck was hired as a staffer by Stan Lee in September of 1954.  He spent a few years on staff at Atlas, mostly working on war and western comics, but he was let go when the company purged its staff after the distribution debacle of 1957.  Heck spent a year drawing model airplane views for Berkeley Models, but in late 1958 he was rehired when Lee began restructuring Atlas.  Most of his work in the late 1950s and early 60s was on suspense, western, and some romance comics, and he was one of the mainstay artists at Atlas.

Dick Ayers: Ayers, born in Ossining, New York in 1924, was probably Marvel's most important inker of the early 1960s.  His first published work came while he was serving in the Army Air Corps in 1942, a comic strip called Radio Ray that appeared in a military newspaper.  After the war he did some work with Dell Comics that went unpublished.  Following this he studied under Burne Hogarth (famous for his work on the Tarzan newspaper strip).  Joe Shuster (co-creator of Superman) would occasionally visit Hogarth's school, and Ayers soon found pencilling work in Joe's studio.  From the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s Ayers worked with a number of publishers, including Magazine Enterprises, Prize Comics, and Charlton.  He started freelancing with Atlas in 1952, and in the late 1950s he began his association with Jack Kirby, with whom he would become a frequent collaborator.

Stan Goldberg: Goldberg is rarely mentioned when talking about Silver Age Marvel, and as such it's difficult to find details about his early life.  He was born in the Bronx in 1932, and graduated from the Manhattan School of Industrial High Art.  In 1949 he began working as a colourist for Timely, and was promoted to manager of the colour department two years later (where he coloured not just interiors, but also the covers of every comic Timely/Atlas produced.  He worked in the Atlas bullpen until 1957 (when most of the staff were unceremoniously fired), and went freelance in 1958 while also studying storyboarding.  He started doing freelance work for Atlas again in the early 1960s, and went on to become their primary colourist for most of that decade.

Paul Reinman: Reinman was born in Germany in 1910.  His Wikipedia entry says that he started drawing at age three, which hardly seems like a banner achievement, but by his early twenties he was creating pen-and-ink drawings of buildings such as the Rashi Synagogue.  He emigrated to New York in 1934, and his first job was as assistant to a designer of neon signs.  Later on he designed matchbox covers, posters, fashion drawings, and package designs.  Eventually he got some work doing art for pulp mags, then comic book work with MLJ (later known as Archie Comics).  His first confirmed work was for Timely in 1940, in Human Torch #2, cover-dated Fall.  Most of his work in the 1940s was done with MLJ, where he co-created the superhero called "The Fireball".  After that he moved over to All-American (a company that later merged with National to form DC), where he became the primary artist for the original Green Lantern, and also worked on such characters as the Atom, Starman, Wildcat and Wonder Woman.  He worked sporadically for Atlas in the 1950s, and later in the decade became a frequent inker of Kirby's work in Marvel's sci-fi and monster anthologies.
Artie Simek: Artie Simek was born in 1916, but it's difficult to determine exactly when he started working in comics due to the lack of credits at the time.  He was on staff at Timely in the 1940s as a letterer, but his first credited work didn't come until 1957, in a National book: World's Finest #91.  His first Atlas credit came two years later in 1959, in Kid Colt #83.  Despite rarely receiving any credit, he was Marvel's primary letterer in the late 1950s and early 1960s, working on almost every book they produced.  Interestingly, though perhaps irrelevantly, he was noted for his ability to play the spoons.

Sol Brodsky: Born in 1923 in Brooklyn, Sol Brodsky determined at an early age that he wanted to be a cartoonist.  He started by sweeping floors at MLJ, and by 1942 he had his first confirmed comics work with Holyoke Publishing.  In the same year he began his long association with Timely/Marvel, pencilling a few short humour strips.  Brodsky served in the Army Signal Corps in World War II, and afterwards returned to freelancing.  He began inking regularly for Atlas in the early 1950s.  When Martin Goodman in 1954 sacked Marvel's entire comics staff except for Stan Lee (the first time, and not the last), Lee contacted Brodsky with an offer to be his production assistant.  Brodsky held this position until 1957, when once again Goodman sacked his comics staff.  After this Brodsky tried to start his own publishing company, but failed to find an investor.  He went on to become the editor of Cracked magazine (a Mad knock-off) in the early 1960s, and while working on that publication continued to do freelance inking for Marvel.

1. I had some trouble sorting these events out, as there are varying accounts. The distribution deal with American News definitely happened in 1957, but the story about Goodman finding inventory stories in the closet is harder to pin down. Many accounts have it taking place in 1954, but I have seen it lumped in with the distribution debacle of 1957. I'm more inclined to believe the former, and to write off the latter mix-up to faulty memories and the passage of time.