Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Tales to Astonish (1959) #27


Cover Date January 1962
On-Sale Date 28 September 1961
Cover Price $0.10 US
Pages 32 (23 comic story pages, 2 text story pages)

Cover Credits
Pencils: Jack Kirby. Inks: Dick Ayers. Colours: Stan Goldberg. Script: Stan Lee. Letters: Artie Simek.

Story Title
The Man in the Ant Hill! (7 pages)

Story Credits
Plot: Stan Lee. Script: Larry Lieber. Pencils: Jack Kirby. Inks: Dick Ayers. Colours: Stan Goldberg. Letters: Artie Simek.

Plot Summary
Scientist Henry Pym, after being mocked by his peers for his outlandish ideas, invents a serum that can shrink objects and decides to test it on himself.  He shrinks faster than he had expected, and after a panicked flight he finds himself trapped inside an ant hill.  It is only with the help of a friendly ant that he is able to make it back to his lab and use the antidote to return to normal size.  He flushes his serums down the drain and vows to only pursue practical projects from now on.

Flashback 1
At a science convention several months before the main story, Henry Pym is mocked by his peers for his ridiculous, impractical theories.  He vows to become a greater scientist than any of them, and begins work on a shrinking serum.

Other Stories
Tales of Suspense is an anthology, and contains several other stories that have no bearing on the Marvel Universe (even though most of them could easily fit within Marvel continuity).
  • Mirror Mirror, On the Wall... (7 pages; Larry Lieber/Don Heck; a housewife falls under the sway of the necromancer inside her mirror)
  • The Talking Horse (5 pages; Larry Lieber/Bob Forgione; a crooked jockey gets into all sorts of trouble when he meets a talking racehorse)
  • Dead Planet! (5 pages; Stan Lee/Steve Ditko; an alien warrior dies of loneliness on a planet where he can find no-one to conquer, not realising that the planet is home to a race of sentient rocks)
  • Trouble Bubble (2 text pages; reprinted from Journey Into Unknown Worlds (1950) #49; writer unknown; a boy invents a formula for creating unbreakable bubbles, and traps his father's boss inside one by accident)

House Ads
The final page of "The Talking Horse" has ad copy running along the bottom, and reads as follows: "You've never read a comic like "The Fantastic Four"! Get your spine-tingling copy today!"  There's a similar ad for Amazing Adult Fantasy elsewhere in the issue.

CHARACTERS APPEARING

HEROES
 
Henry Pym (1st appearance)
From the outset, Henry Pym is a conflicted character.  He only wants to use his scientific abilities on projects that appeal to his imagination, despite the mockery of his peers.  He claims that he wants to use his shrinking serum for the good of mankind (although he probably means the USA given that he fantasizes about transporting shrunken armies), but he also openly declares that his motivation is to become a better scientist than those who ridiculed him.  He's never outright villainous, but there are a number of panels that depict him with in ways that Kirby would typically use for bad guys.
  Upon finishing the serum, Pym displays some prudence by first testing it on a chair.  Said prudence is cast aside when he tests it on himself immediately thereafter.  The experience of shrinking throws him into a panic, but he proves to be incredibly resourceful once he has gathered his wits.
  After regaining his normal size he destroys his serums, claiming that they're too dangerous to be used again.  He also returns to his fellow scientists to admit that they were right, and that he plans to stick to practical projects from now on.  Pym displays remarkable compassion towards the ants, vowing to never knowingly step on an ant-hill for the sake of the lone ant that saved his life.
  Background: Pym has studied science in the past (presumably involving some sort of chemistry), and has learned the martial art of judo.  He has established a reputation in his local scientific community for impractical theories that never work.
  Powers and Skills: Pym displays remarkable scientific skill, particularly in the field of chemistry.  His judo skills are sufficient that he is able to flip an ant that is larger than himself.


Friendly Ant (1st appearance)
This ant saves Henry Pym from a pool of honey, and also helps him climb the wall to reach his laboratory window.  The ant is intelligent enough to understand Pym's basic gestures, but it's motives for helping him are unknown and inscrutable.


VILLAINS

Hostile Ants (1st appearance)
These ants live in Henry Pym's backyard.  All but one of them are hostile to the tiny human invading the vicinity of their ant hill, and they pursue him relentlessly.  Their nest has an area that contains honey, which they store for food.  (Honey ants are a thing in the real world, but they store their honey in their abdomens rather than in large pools in their nest.  In a world where men can shrink down to ant-size, however, this is a difference that shouldn't be all that hard to accept.)  They are afraid of fire, and susceptible to judo.


MINOR CHARACTERS

Henry Pym's Scientific Peers

LOCATIONS

Henry Pym's House and Laboratory (1st appearance)
Henry Pym's house has a scientific laboratory with a window and door that open into a grassy backyard (populated by ants, of course).  The house appears to be made of bricks.

OBJECTS

Size-Changing Serums (1st appearance)
Henry Pym invents these two serums for the first time: one to shrink objects, and an antidote to return them to their normal size.  The serums work on a wooden chair, and on Pym himself.  Pym fantasizes about using them to shrink food, and an army.  Although the serums are only shown to affect organic matter in the story proper (unless Pym's clothes can be counted as inorganic), Pym seems to believe that they'll work on just about anything.  (They don't work on Pym's test tubes or his sink, though.)  A few drops of the shrinking serum are enough to reduce Pym to the size of an ant.  The antidote restores him to his regular size, but is not shown to be able to grow an object past that point.
  Both serums are destroyed at the end of the story, but Pym will recreate them between this story and Tales to Astonish (1959) #35.



Pym Particles (not yet named) (1st appearance)
These special particles are the key to Henry Pym's size-changing powers, and as such they make their first uncredited appearance here.

WHO'D WIN?

In a one-on-one contest, man vs. ant, Pym proves that his power of judo is enough to win out.  Against multiple ants, he runs away, recognizing that he would have little chance of survival.

CHRONOLOGY

The main story happens an unspecified amount of time before Pym becomes Ant-Man in Tales to Astonish (1959) #35, naturally.  Flashback 1 takes place months before the main story begins.

CONTINUITY

This story doesn't have any links to later stories, aside from being the first appearance of Henry Pym and his Pym Particles.

FIRSTS

It's the first appearance of Henry Pym, though as a mad scientist rather than a super-hero. Pym will later adopt a whole slew of super-heroic identities, the most significant of which are Ant-Man, Giant-Man and Yellowjacket.  (At the time of writing, he's had five different identities, having been Goliath and the Wasp in addition to the previously named three.  He also had a recent stint as Ultron, apparently)  Even though he never had much success as a solo star, as a founding member of the Avengers he's been an integral part of the Marvel Universe for decades.
  Pym Particles also make their debut here, although they're not named in this issue.  These are the particles that grant Pym his size-changing powers, and here they are represented by a shrinking serum and its antidote.  Pym will use them extensively in his super-hero career, as will his partner the Wasp, and a bunch of other heroes and villains.

THINGS THAT MAKE NO SENSE

Pym is  incredibly careless in testing the shrinking serum on himself, although this is more a flaw of the character than a flaw in the story.  His decision to hide from ants inside an ant-hill must also rank as one of the all-time dumbest decisions in comics history.
  It's not clear how a solitary match with no other flammable materials nearby could create as much flame as is seen here, but that can be chalked up to artistic license.
  As alluded to earlier, there's no explanation given for the ant that aids Pym's escape and saves his life.  The rich inner life of this solitary ant is understandably not the focus of this story, but as depicted it comes off as incredibly coincidental and fortuitous.

IS THIS ONE IMPORTANT?

It's the first appearance of Hank Pym, aka Ant-Man aka Giant-Man aka Goliath aka Yellowjacket aka the Wasp aka who the hell knows these days.  On the other hand, it really isn't.  There's nothing to distinguish this from any one of dozens of Marvel stories from this period in which a mad scientist's invention backfires on him. You could safely skip ahead to Pym's debut as Ant-Man in Tales to Astonish (1959) #35 without  missing anything of genuine importance.

IS IT ANY GOOD?

It's a standard Lee-Kirby mad scientist/giant monster story, of the sort they churned out by the cartload in the early 1960s.  They're very good at this sort of thing, but it's not going to set your world on fire.  It also has a rather dubious message, ending as it does with Pym renouncing scientific creativity in favour of practicality.  That said, it also has Pym judo-flipping an ant, which is pretty great.

BEHIND THE SCENES
  • Interviews about the creation of Ant-Man are scarce, but here are Stan Lee's customarily vague recollections from 2008: "I did one comic book called 'The Man in the Ant Hill' about a guy who shrunk down and there were ants or bees chasing him. That sold so well that I thought making him into a superhero might be fun."
  • Stan's brother Larry Lieber (who scripted the story) has a much better memory, as evidenced by this excerpt from his deposition in the 2011 Kirby Family vs. Marvel lawsuit (go here for some lengthy highlights):

    Q: Let's talk about Ant-Man.
    LARRY LIEBER: That was another one I wrote, and I came up with his name too.
    Q: What was Ant-Man’s name?
    LARRY LIEBER: Henry Pym, P-Y-M.
    Q: And how did you come up with his name?
    LARRY LIEBER: I think I probably — in the back of Miriam Webster somewhere there was somebody Pym. And I thought “Henry” sounded like a scientist and “Pym” made it catching and different and exotic. So I came up with that.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

The Fantastic Four (1961) #2


Cover Date: January 1962
On-Sale Date: 28 September 1961
Cover Price: $0.10 US
Pages: 32 (24 story pages, 1 pin-up)

Cover Credits
Pencils: Jack Kirby. Inks: George Klein. Colours: Stan Goldberg. Script: Unknown (but almost certainly Stan Lee). Letters: Artie Simek.
  It was originally believed that Dick Ayers inked this cover, but current fan consensus attributes the work to George Klein.

Story Titles
The Fantastic Four Meet the Skrulls from Outer Space! (6 pages)
Prisoner of the Skrulls (8 pages)
The Fantastic Four Fight Back! (5 pages)
The Fantastic Four... Captured! (5 pages)

Story Credits
Script: Stan Lee. Pencils: Jack Kirby. Inks: George Klein. Colours: Stan Goldberg. Letters: John Duffy.
  Previous speculation credited the inks to Dick Ayers or Art Simek, but George Klein is now the current fan consensus. See Fantastic Four (1961) #1 for further discussion of the source behind crediting Artie Simek as the inker.

Plot Summary
A race of shape-shifting aliens known as the Skrulls are planning an invasion of Earth.  Four Skrull agents are sent to impersonate the Fantastic Four, to frame them for crimes and turn mankind against them. The FF infiltrate their ranks by pretending to be Skrulls in disguise, and Mister Fantastic tricks the Skrull commander into ordering a retreat by showing him clippings from the comics Strange Tales and Journey Into Mystery. After the remaining Skrull agents are defeated and captured, Mister Fantastic hypnotises them into believing that they are cows.

Flashback 1
The Fantastic Four reminisce about their origin story for half a page. The final panel shows Reed catching the attention of a passing plane with his stretchy arms, a scene not shown in Fantastic Four (1961) #1.  The original version of the flashback had the FF trying to beat the USSR into outer space, but here Reed claims that they were attempting to make a trip to Mars.

Pin-Up
This issue contains a pin-up of the Thing in his original lumpy form (with an inset of Ben Grimm before the transformation). He’s shown mangling a lamppost, and described as “the strongest man-like creature on the face of the Earth!” This pin-up was pencilled by Jack Kirby, inked by George Klein, lettered by John Duffy, coloured by Stan Goldberg and scripted by Stan Lee.


CHARACTERS APPEARING

HEROES:

The Fantastic Four
The team is now famous. People all over the USA recognise them on sight, and are familiar with their powers. Even the Skrulls have heard of them, and fear them enough to want them out of the way before launching an invasion of Earth. The team seems to be well respected, but it doesn’t take much for the government to declare them as public enemies.  Indeed, between their first appearance in Central City and the beginning of this story, the US government has constructed special cells designed to hold them captive. When the story begins the team is hiding out in a hunting lodge (possibly as a means of escaping the publicity of their new-found fame). They apparently have many secret apartment hideouts. By the end of the story the team has proved its innocence, and is back to being respected by the authorities.
 Last Appeared In: Fantastic Four (1961) #1

The Human Torch (aka Johnny Storm)
The Torch is his customary hot-headed self throughout this issue, though he does show some genuine resourcefulness and intelligence.  He's seemingly not concerned about thinking of a solution to deal with the Skrull impersonators, as he's convinced that Reed will think of something.  Once the plan has been formulated however, he's the quickest to volunteer.
  Johnny displays his intelligence by quickly discovering an escape route from the military holding cell, and he also figures out Reed's plan to infiltrate the Skrulls without needing it explained.  Despite this, he also shows some remarkable ineptitude when it comes to undercover work: "If I didn't know better, I'd swear you were Susan Storm and Reed Richards, two of the Fantastic Four!" he exclaims upon meeting the Skrull impersonators, which is hardly the best way to allay their suspicions.
  His animosity towards the Thing is on full display in this issue.  When the Thing loses his temper upon learning of the Skrulls, Johnny says that they will soon “have to do something about him” (although he quickly drops the idea on Reed's say-so). He later dismisses the Thing’s opinion, telling him to "shut up and let us think". When the Thing reacts angrily Johnny flames on, but once things have calmed down he claims that he doesn’t hold a grudge. He doesn't hesitate when it comes to stopping the Thing from murdering a Skrull prisoner.
  Powers and Skills: Johnny claims that his flame can't burn walls made of asbestos, but he has no trouble melting through walls made of other substances. He also melts a rocket launch platform into slag, and can fly fast and low enough to evade gunfire. After a collision with the Skrull that is emulating his powers there is an explosion, and Johnny’s powers are temporarily negated for a few minutes. The Skrulls are unable to withstand the heat of Johnny's flame, even when in a monstrous bullet-proof form. He looks very comfortable handling a hunting rifle, though he’s not seen firing it.
  Last Appeared In: Fantastic Four (1961) #1


The Invisible Girl  (aka Susan "Sue" Storm)
Sue is known and respected enough that a store owner lets her handle a diamond worth ten million dollars (it's really her Skrull impostor, but the shop owner doesn't know that). The public know that she is both Sue Storm and the Invisible Girl.
  Sue believes that eventually the Thing will run amok, and that none of the team will be able to stop him.  She's horrified when he tries to kill a captive Skrull.  Even so, she has an obvious empathy with him, and is able to calm him down. She is genuinely happy for Ben when he reverts to his human form, and tries to keep his spirits up when he changes back into the Thing.
  She carries a mirror with her, even into battle (because she’s a girl, you see).
  Powers and Skills: Sue tricks the US military prison guards by simply walking out through the door of her cell while invisible, and later uses her invisibility to help trip a Skrull.
  Last Appeared In: Fantastic Four (1961) #1


Mister Fantastic (aka Dr. Reed Richards)
Reed is famous enough that a workman is able to identify him simply from the sight of his stretching arm (again, it's really a Skrull's arm, but the point stands).
  Reed displays a calm intelligence and resourcefulness throughout this story.  He immediately deduces that the FF are being impersonated after hearing the radio reports of their crimes, and starts formulating a plan. He advises patience in dealing with the Skrulls, and also when asked what should be done about the embittered Thing. He surrenders without a fuss rather than fight the US army. It’s Reed’s plan to impersonate the Skrulls, but he doesn’t object when Johnny volunteers to carry it out. It only takes him minutes at most to cook up the scheme to fool the Skrulls with comic book clippings, and he pulls it off flawlessly. He’s calm and collected during the whole thing, but obviously relieved when it works.
  Reed is now blaming himself for the rocket crash that created the team, and specifically for the Thing’s condition.
  He threatens captive Skrulls at gunpoint to get information out of them (most probably a bluff), but stops the Thing from killing them. He’s willing to take responsibility for the captured Skrulls from the police, and the Skrulls believe that he might kill them. Instead, he chooses a merciful and ironic fate.
  Powers and Skills: Again, Reed’s stretchy arms are strong enough to restrain the Thing. He is able to squeeze his entire body through the tiny hole left by a loose rivet. He can stretch fast enough to catch a fleeing vulture (actually a shape-shifted Skrull). He’s also able to hypnotise three Skrulls into believing that they are cows, and believes that this conditioning will hold for the rest of their lives.
  Last Appeared In: Fantastic Four (1961) #1


The Thing (aka Ben Grimm)
The Thing is bitter and angry about his condition throughout this story, as he was last issue.  He becomes enraged at the news of the Skrull impersonators, and takes out his frustration by throwing a stuffed bear's head through the nearest window. He says that he's more than willing to fight back when the US military come for the team, and he doesn’t want to wait to find out who’s behind the impersonations, preferring to smash things. For all his talk, however, he surrenders quietly when the army comes, even taking the time to put on a coat before they arrive in order to hide his body. After escaping from the military he says that he’d rather stay and fight, but instead he flees with his teammates.  He threatens to fight the police, and claims “There ain’t anybody on Earth doesn’t know the Thing when they see ‘im!”  He seems more than willing to kill the captive Skrulls, making as if to strike them with a large chest of drawers held over his head; only the intervention of his teammates stops him.
  Ben is scornful when Johnny volunteers to draw out the Skrulls, dismissing him as a kid, and the two of them almost come to blows. When Sue shows sympathy for him, he lapses into self-pity, saying that maybe the world would be better off without him.
  He has a panic attack when returning to Earth through the “radiation belt”, and is initially unaware that he has reverted to Ben Grimm. He’s overjoyed at becoming human again, but despondent upon turning back into the Thing.
  Powers and Skills: He’s able to batter his way through walls made of thick battleship steel, though it takes him some time repeatedly punching the same wall to break through. He claims that he never gets tired. He’s staggered by the sudden heat of Johnny flaming on. Returning to Earth through the radiation belt reverts him to his human form, though he turns back into the Thing after a few minutes. (Why didn’t he transform when heading towards the Skrull mothership, though?)  He also wrestles a Skrull in the form of a giant snake.
  Last Appeared In: Fantastic Four (1961) #1


VILLAINS

The Skrulls (1st appearance)
Skrulls are small green humanoid aliens with tall pointed ears and wrinkled chins. Their goal is to conquer Earth, and their invasion fleet is contained within the Skrull mothership that is hovering in Earth's orbit. Before they can invade, the Skrulls believe that they need to get rid of the Fantastic Four, and to achieve this end they dispatch four advance agents to impersonate and discredit the team.
  The Skrulls are more than ready to kill Johnny once his disguise is penetrated. They seem to be more frightened of the Thing than they are of the other members of the FF.
  The Skrull commander is absurdly gullible, believing that some clippings from comic books represent Earth's defenses.
  When captured by the FF, the Skrull impersonators promise to live in peace rather than be killed. They claim to hate being Skrulls, and want nothing more than a peaceful, contented existence.  Despite these displays of cowardice, the Skrulls must value courage, as they have a medal for bravery that is unknowingly awarded to the FF.
  Background: When the Skrull commander calls a retreat, he says that the Skrulls must "leave this galaxy", implying that they come from a different galaxy to Earth.  Other than this, the origins of the Skrulls aren't given any detail at all.
  Powers and Skills: All Skrulls have the ability to change their form. They can use this power to grow and shrink, to disguise themselves, and even to take a form capable of flight. The forms they are seen to take include: all four members of the Fantastic Four; a giant snake; a vulture; and a spike-covered, bullet-proof monster.  The Skrulls seemingly can't take a form that is immune to Johnny's flame.
  Skrull Johnny doesn’t know how the other Skrulls replicated the powers of the FF (which seems unlikely, but I guess that exposition had to get in there somehow), but the others are quick to tell him. Skrull Thing destroyed an oil rig with a concealed electronic detonator (even though one panel depicts him tearing it apart with his bare hands; though it seems they can increase their strength when shapeshifting, they may not be able to do so to the Thing's level). Skrull Sue made herself "invisible" by shrinking to a few inches in height, an ability that seems to be a part of natural Skrull shapeshifting. Skrull Johnny simulated the Torch’s flame and flight with an anti-gravity harness powered by a chemical cylinder, and a low velocity thermal bomb. Skrull Reed’s natural shape-shifting ability allowed him to simulate Mister Fantastic’s stretching powers.
  As odd as it seems, the Skrulls don't automatically recognise that Johnny is an impostor when he tries to infiltrate them. Likewise, the Skrull commander doesn't realise that the FF are not Skrulls.
  Equipment: In addition to the technology described above that is used to impersonate the FF, the four Skrull impersonators wear blue uniforms with skullcaps, and they each carry a pistol. (These pistols are never seen to be fired, so their effect is unknown.) The guards on the Skrull mothership seem to be dressed similarly to the impersonators (the art and colouring are unclear), and are armed with rifles. The Skrull commander wears a red crested skullcap, a blue cloak and yellow gloves.


MINOR CHARACTERS

Central City Police Chief
(The police chief in this story may or may not be the same character from Fantastic Four (1961) #1, but he seems to be a visual match.  It's close enough that I consider them to be one and the same.  See the post on that issue for a visual comparison.)
  The police chief of Central City is waiting to arrest the FF when they return from the Skrull Mothership: he has a job to do and he's more than prepared to do it.  He's skeptical when Reed tries to explain about the Skrulls, but he is nevertheless willing to accompany the FF to their apartment to see the proof.  Upon seeing (and fighting against) the Skrulls, he readily believes Reed's story, and claims that he would trust the FF with anything.  He doesn't recognise the Thing in his human form.
  Last Appeared In: Fantastic Four (1961) #1


Others: Oil rig workers, a jewellery store owner, jewellery store security guards, presenters and crowd at a memorial unveiling, a workman at a power plant, soldiers in the US military, military policemen, personnel at a rocket launch site, some policemen

LOCATIONS

Central City
The city is never named during this story. In lieu of other evidence, and taking into account the likelihood that the police chief seen in this issue and the last are probably the same character, it will be assumed that this story takes place in Central City.
  Last Appeared In: Fantastic Four (1961) #1

The FF's Secret Apartment Hideout
This hideout is apparently one of many. Little of the interior décor is shown, aside from some curtains, a lamp and a small table. From the outside it appears to be a small penthouse. It's not stated, but the apartment is most probably in Central City, and could very well be the same one shown in Fantastic Four (1961) #1.
  Last Appeared In: Fantastic Four (1961) #1 (assuming it's the same apartment)


OBJECTS

Asbestos (1st appearance)
The walls of the cell that the US military designed to hold Johnny are made of asbestos. (It may seem odd to note the use of asbestos in this issue, but we're going to be seeing a lot of it.  And while the use of it here is quite practical, as we progress into the 1960s there are going to be some increasingly absurd applications.)


Comic Book Clippings (1st appearance)
The clippings that Reed uses to fool the Skrulls are taken from issues of Strange Tales and Journey Into Mystery.  (As far as I can tell, the images used are new, and not taken from any specific issues of those comics.)


Cosmic Rays
The FF once again pass through a field of cosmic rays, here referred to as the "radiation belt" and the "cosmic belt". The rays are not seen, but they temporarily return the Thing to his human form. Why they have no effect on the rest of the team is a mystery (although one that could be explained by the later revelation in Fantastic Four (1961) #245 that Ben is trapped in his monstrous form due to a mental block.)
  Last Appeared In: Fantastic Four (1961) #1

Fantasti-Flare (not yet named as such)
Johnny uses the flare to signal the rest of the team. This time it shows the number 4 straight away, not the words ‘The Fantastic Four’ as it did in issue #1.
  Last Appeared In: Fantastic Four (1961) #1


Reed’s Test Rocket
The rocket is shown exploding in Flashback 1.
  Last Appeared In: Fantastic Four (1961) #1


Skrull Mothership (1st appearance)
The mothership is hovering above the atmosphere, unseen by the people of Earth. It is the size of an Earth city, and must be capable of intergalactic travel. A Skrull invasion fleet is also repeatedly mentioned, though only the mothership is ever depicted.  Perhaps the fleet is housed within the mothership? It’s probably big enough.


Skrull Space Ship (1st appearance)
This ship is disguised as a water tower, and was presumably used by the Skrull impostors to fly back and forth to the mothership.


Skrull Bravery Medal (1st appearance)
The medal given to Reed by the Skrull commander is their highest award for bravery. It's shaped like a starburst and stamped with the image of a ringed planet (not the Skrull Throneworld of Tarnax IV, which was never shown to be ringed as far as I'm aware). The medal appears to be blue, but given the limitations of comic book colouring at the time it may be meant to be silver.


Daily Bugle (1st appearance)
The Daily Bugle appears as one of a number of newspapers showing headlines about the fugitive status of the FF.  The Bugle's headline reads: "Dragnet Out For Fantastic Four!"  (Do newspaper really do headlines with exclamation points?)

Daily Globe (1st appearance)
A copy of the Daily Globe appears in the same montage as the Bugle, with the headline "Fantastic Four Declared Public Enemies".  The Globe makes another appearance later, when Johnny reads a story in it about a new rocket test.


WHO'D WIN?

The only fighting in this comic involves the Fantastic Four against their Skrull impersonators, and it's a thrashing in favour of the heroes.  There's surprisingly little of the Skrulls using their fake powers against the FF, just one moment where the two Torches collide and snuff each other out.  Otherwise the Skrulls use their natural shape-shifting abilities, and prove to be no match for the real FF.

CHRONOLOGY

Rather obviously, this takes place between Fantastic Four (1961) #1 and #3. It must be at least a couple of months since the team tackled the Mole Man, as there has been time for them to become national celebrities, and for the US government to prepare cells specially designed to contain them. (Although now that I think of it, there's no reason that the government couldn't have been aware of the team before they faced the Mole Man.)

CONTINUITY

Those Skrull cows, you guys.  They just keep on coming back.  Their first reappearance is in Avengers (1962) #92, where they impersonate Captain America, Iron Man and Thor in the opening stages of the Kree-Skrull War.  In Fantastic Four Annual (1963) #17, milk from the Skrull cows infects an entire town with Skrull DNA.  In Skrull Kill Krew (1995) #1, the poor old Skrull cows are slaughtered for beef, and the resultant hamburgers gift several people with shape-shifting powers (and a hatred of Skrulls).  Finally, a second Skrull Kill Krew miniseries in 2009 revealed that the Skrull cows mated with regular cows, and produced hybrid offspring.
  (I thought I was done with this, but apparently at some point Reed Richards also hypnotised a Skrull into believing that it was a duck.  Said duck was eaten by a girl called Tara Tam, who gained shape-shifting powers and became Howard the Duck's girlfriend.  I've no idea if this connects to the Skrull cows in any way, but it happened in Howard the Duck (2015) #5 if anyone is interested in finding out.)

FIRSTS

The major debut here is that of the Skrulls, who are the first alien race to appear in the modern Marvel Universe.  Despite their depiction here as generic shape-shifting baddies they will be major players in the future, not just as enemies of the Fantastic Four but for Marvel as a whole.  They're central to a number of important later storylines, most notably the Kree/Skrull War (from Avengers (1963) #89-97) and Secret Invasion (the central story of which was told in Secret Invasion (2008) #1-8).
  The Daily Bugle and the Daily Globe are both seen for the first time. The Bugle is, of course, best known as the newspaper that will employ Peter Parker as a freelance photographer. The Globe crops up in several stories down the line, the most notable probably being the origin of Eddie Brock (aka Venom).  It's generally used as the chief rival to the Bugle.
  This issue has the first instance of the Thing reverting to human form, albeit temporarily.  Given that the Thing's loss of humanity is one of the book's most important ongoing stories, this is something that we're going to see a whole lot of.
  The Human Torch utters his immortal catchphrase "Flame on!" for the first time, just before tackling a Skrull in the form of a bulletproof monster. The rather less well-known phrase of "flame off" is also said by Mr Fantastic.
  The Invisible Girl is first named here as "Sue Storm".  In the first issue, she was always called "Susan".
  This issue features the first evidence of the existence of the Marvel Comics company within the Marvel Universe, in the form of clippings from Strange Tales and Journey Into Mystery. It will eventually be established (in Fantastic Four (1961) #10) that the Fantastic Four licenses their adventures to the fictional Marvel.

THINGS THAT MAKE NO SENSE

If the Skrull impersonating Sue Storm simulates her invisibility by rapidly shrinking, what happens to the diamond it’s attempting to steal? It’s not apparent that Skrulls can alter the shape of objects they are carrying, so it’s most likely that said tiny Skrull would have been running out of the store carrying the full sized diamond over its head. I suppose nobody noticed the priceless diamond scooting across the shop floor and out the front door.
  Johnny claims that his flame can’t burn through the asbestos walls of his cell, but after he finds the air vent and flames on he does exactly that. Unless, perhaps, he burned his way out through the floor? Or maybe the air vent itself?
  The scene where Reed Richards fools the Skrull commander with clippings from comic books is either thunderingly stupid or utter comedy genius. Either way, it makes little sense that anyone would be fooled by a bunch of illustrations. It’s possible that Reed treated the clippings to make them appear as photographs, but it’s still an implausible scenario.
  Reed's plan to draw out the Skrull impersonators relies on the Skrulls not all being together when Johnny attacks the launch platform.  If all four Skrulls had been in contact with each other, they never would have fallen for it.
  There are (naturally) four Skrulls in the group sent to impersonate the Fantastic Four. All of them are captured and tied up, but when the FF return from the Skrull ship only three Skrulls are present. Reed claims that the fourth is leaving Earth with the invasion fleet. It’s a highly unlikely story. Not only is there very little opportunity for said Skrull to make it back to the fleet, but if he did he would blow Reed’s deception right out of the water. There’s no reason that he wouldn’t tell all to his commanding officer, and then the fleet would be getting ready to invade within days. As this isn’t the case, that Skrull must be hiding out on Earth somewhere.  (Indeed he is, and he will resurface posing as politician H. Warren Craddock in Avengers (1963) #92.

IS THIS ONE IMPORTANT?

The Skrulls are kind of a big deal as far as Marvel alien races go. Not only that, but the whole thing with the hypnotised Skrull cows comes back, over and over and over again.  For all of its silliness, this is a foundational story of the Marvel Universe.

IS IT ANY GOOD?

The answer to that depends upon the reader’s threshold for Silver Age absurdity. There's a deep vein of silliness that runs through this story, to the point where it almost crosses the line into self-parody. If that's not your thing, you'll have a hard time with this story. For the rest of us, it's great.
  There's a a lot to be said for creators sticking with what they know. In the FF's debut issue Lee and Kirby did a story about giant monsters. For the second installment, it's shape-shifting aliens. It's all in keeping with the types of stories they were already telling in books like Journey Into Mystery and Tales of Suspense. Kirby and Lee are good at this sort of thing, and they produce an enjoyable yarn.
  That's not to say that they're just regurgitating old material, however. The familiar alien/monster tropes are used as the base on which they quietly reinterpret the super-hero genre. The bickering and drama of the FF are brought forward from last issue, as is the notion that they might be at odds with the establishment. There's a darkness and a sense of danger lurking behind the silliness, and a groundedness that other superhero titles at the time were lacking.
  Not that this story is without its flaws. Most notable of these is the disappearance of the fourth Skrull at the end (possibly due to an artistic error, though there's no way to know for sure). Reed's assertion that the fourth Skrull fled to the mothership can't be right, as that would have foiled his plan to stop the Skrull invasion. (This is a mistake that was fixed by later stories and different creators, but it's a problem when reading this issue in isolation.) Thankfully, there's enough charm in this story to overcome the flaws. Reed's use of comic clippings to trick the Skrull commander is undoubtedly hokey, but it's also funny, as is him being awarded a Skrull bravery medal right after. The crowning moment, when Reed hypnotises the Skrull impostors into believing that they are cows, is deservedly legendary. There's a good reason that it keeps being referenced in stories, even to the present day.

BEHIND THE SCENES

  • It's difficult to find interviews with Stan Lee or Jack Kirby about the creation of the Skrulls. Lee did a podcast interview in the run-up to the Skrull-centric 2008 event Secret Invasion, but he talks about their creation in a frustratingly broad sense, and denies that they had any real-world inspiration. You can listen to it here; Lee may have nothing to say, but at least he says it entertainingly.
  • The letterer of this issue, John Duffy, is something of a mystery.  It's difficult to figure out exactly what he worked on without extensive research, as he's often mixed up with contemporary letterer Jon D'Agostino, who went by the pseudonym Johnny Dee (and who also worked for Marvel).  This is further complicated by the fact that both men worked on the first few issues of Amazing Spider-Man.  From what I can gather, Duffy's career started circa 1951, and he worked for a large variety of publishers throughout the next decade.  In the early 1960s he was primarily working for Dell Publishing.  Fantastic Four (1961) #2 seems as though it was his first work for Marvel.  He did some sporadic Marvel work from 1961 to 1963, then again from 1968 through to the mid-70s.  While Duffy never had a solid run as a letterer at Marvel, and the bulk of his work was done for other publishers, he contributed to some hugely significant comics.  It's odd that there are no details of his personal life that can be easily found.

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.)

CHARACTERS APPEARING

HEROES:

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.


VILLAINS:

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.


MINOR CHARACTERS

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)

LOCATIONS

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.)

OBJECTS

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.


WHO'D WIN?

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.

CHRONOLOGY

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.)

CONTINUITY

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.

FIRSTS

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.)


THINGS THAT MAKE NO SENSE

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.

IS THIS ONE IMPORTANT?

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.

IS IT ANY GOOD?

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.

BEHIND THE SCENES

  • 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.