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A Fantastic Chore

Allen Christian reads through every Fantastic Four comic book ever and has way too much to say about them.

A Fantastic Chore: The First Year, Part 1

Allen Christian

If you missed the introductory post, here's a quick recap, True Believer:

Allen Christian, host of the Four-Color Film Podcast, is an ardent fan of the Fantastic Four! He's a man on a lonely mission: reading every last issue of the Fantastic Four ever produced! Not only is it lonely, it's often terrible! So, to spare you pain, he's bringing you a blog condensing the entire history of the Fabulous FF!

Now that we're all caught up, let's get down to it.

In doing the Four-Color Film Podcast, I've grown accustomed to taking slivers of pop culture and dissecting them for laughs. This task may seem like it's right up that alley, and it kind of is, but it's pretty much the exact opposite approach. Maybe there will be laughs. I'm not promising anything. I can guarantee, however, that if you follow this blog, you'll definitely learn a lot about a lot of bad comics without having to read them, or trudge through dull wiki entries. (Side Note: Don't trudge through wiki entries on the Fantastic Four. There might be a few things worth catching up on, but the minutiae is definitely not worth your time.)

I need to be honest, though. This blog is really for me. Sure, it'll be nice to connect with some like-minded individuals, or to introduce some new readers to the FF. But at the end of the day, when all is said and done, in the despair of Gerry Conway, in the silent darkness of Marv Wolfman, in the aftermath of Tom DeFalco, in the depths of Matt Fraction, in the questionable future of Dan Slott, when all the things I loved and the bright star of Jack Kirby is but a twinkle in the distance, a final synapse in my withering brain firing its last, I want to be able to look back and feel like this journey was for something. Even if that "something" is just another dashed-off blog languishing on the internet for as long as that web hosting charge continues to hit my bank account once a year, it will at least be something.

I should also state upfront that this idea is not particularly unique. While I'm not certain how many blogs are out there cataloging entire runs of comics, I do subscribe and listen to two different podcasts that are readings and discussing issues of the Fantastic Four. The Fantasticast reads an issue or two an episode, with the somewhat unlikely goal cataloguing every appearance of the Fantastic Four. Also, the Wait, What? podcast has a sub-show on their feed entitled Baxter Building, with the goal (as of this writing, very nearly achieved) of reading through all 416 issues (plus annuals) of Fantastic Four vol. 1. To be perfectly honest, I'm not certain I'd have continued reading much past the Lee-Kirby run were it not for Baxter Building. If this blog interests you, I highly recommend checking out both.

Let's get right to it.

If you caught the last post, you might have noticed that I said we'd be going over issues 1-8. That's not going to be the case. In the past few days, I made the startling discovery that November of 1961 through November of 1962 is not what constitutes a year, since that's actually 13 months. Instead, the actual first year of The Fantastic Four constitutes seven paltry issues, since it wasn't until the end of that first year that the book became a monthly book, as opposed to bimonthly. I'll be breaking that into two posts, a couple days apart, considering the lead-up and background information is a sizable post unto itself.

(Side Note: The reasons for bimonthly publication are well accounted for in multiple places, but the short story is that Marvel founder Martin Goodman, through a swift series of unfortunate decisions, found himself without distribution. In a desperate attempt for a quick solution, he turned to National Periodicals, a distribution company owned by his chief rival, DC Comics. National then only allowed him to distribute eight titles a month. With far more magazines currently being published by the then unnamed Marvel, he rotated his publications on a bimonthly schedule. If this kind of minutiae interest you, I recommend reading Marvel Comics: The Untold Story by Sean Howe.)

ff1.jpg

Fantastic Four #1 (Nov. 1961)

Actual street dates on these early issues are nearly impossible to find. Distribution didn't used to be a unified thing in almost any industry. The rule of thumb in publishing is generally that an actual street date is about three months ahead of a cover date, so it's possible the first issue was seen at newsstands as early as August of 1961. These aren't really the kind of details I'm looking to get hung up on in this blog, however. It's the content that is of interest.

The first thing I want to do is take a look at that cover. Unfortunately, I think we need to detour once again into the some comic book history. I'll make it fast. 

The big thing that (not yet) Marvel was publishing at this time was monster comics. DC was also regularly publishing similar stories in House of Mystery and House of Secrets. I suppose this followed on from the Godzilla craze in the 50s. I dunno, I wasn't there. But there were a bunch of giant monster movies then, so it stands to reason that comics picked up on the trend. Proto-Marvel was littered with them, and many of your favorite Marvel characters would go on to be introduced in later issues of magazines such as Journey Into Mystery (Thor), Tales to Astonish (Ant-Man & the Wasp), Tales of Suspense (Iron Man), Strange Tales (Doctor Strange), and Amazing Fantasy (Spider-Man). 

While many of these other characters had their trial runs in issues of existing magazines, the Fantastic Four saw their first appearance in their very own magazine. This was a rarity in comic books in general. Most often, characters would get small stories in other magazines to gauge public reaction. But allegedly, then-publisher and Timely/Atlas/Marvel founder Martin Goodman was playing a game of golf with some folks over at DC Comics and was told of the great success of the Justice League of America, and returned with the mandate to Stan Lee to steal the idea and create a team of superheroes. This led to Stan Lee allegedly creating the Fantastic Four.

Now, maybe we'll talk about the FF creation myth more in-depth in a later post, but suffice it to say that there was very little originality in the initial conception. A team of four adventurers that experience an accident that should have killed them, so they decide to use their new lease on life to help others and do the impossible sounds a lot like FF co-creator Jack Kirby's Challengers of the Unknown that he had done a few years prior for DC/National. The Human Torch? Timely (early Marvel) Comics already had a Human Torch in the late 30s, created by Carl Burgos. Mr. Fantastic, a man with the ability to stretch his limbs impossibly? Jack Cole created Plastic Man for Quality Comics in 1941 (later sold to DC), and John Broome and Carmine Infantino created the Elongated Man in the pages of The Flash more than a year prior to the publication of FF. The Invisible Girl? Do we even need to go over the H.G. Wells novel, The Invisible Man, or the film series that it spawned, with the third being 1940's The Invisible Woman? I didn't think so. The Thing? I mean, not even the name is very original, with 1951's THE THING From Another World (commonly known and subsequently remade as The Thing) predating the comic by more than a decade. A Charlton Comics publication from the early 50s also bore the title of The Thing. Forgetting the name, he's a fucking rock monster. A concept that predates genre fiction and finds roots in all forms of mythology (primarily the concept of a golem in Jewish mythology; relevant considering both Lee and Kirby were Jewish), a man made of rock isn't terribly original. And really, he's not even discernibly made of rock in his first few appearances. He's kind of an orange smoosh. An orange smoosh with super strength. And he's really just another monster, not much different than anything else you would see in any of the run-of-the-mill books by proto-Marvel or DC/National.

All of this brings us back to that ridiculous cover. What's front-and-center here? A giant monster. Absolutely no different than the monsters-of-the-week found in every other dull monster comic on the spinner racks. The Thing is just there looking like another orange smoosh of a monster. The Human Torch is in action, so you have a good idea of what he's all about. The Invisible Girl... can't turn invisible fast enough to... what, exactly? Not be seen by the monster who is already holding her? And Mr. Fantastic over in the corner there just looks like a 9 year-old with a bright future in cartooning but no concept of human anatomy and proportions doodled him. Most importantly, this brand new superhero team is just wearing street clothes. The street and buildings drop off into a white abyss in the background, making the cover look incomplete and strange. That logo is a classic now, but compared to its contemporaries, it looks amateurish and stupid. All of that is not to say that this doesn't look like an interesting book. There is an energy and verve to the cover that only Jack Kirby could bring. The gaping maw of the monster, the frantic action of the team as they attempt to handle the situation, the panic of the bystanders, and even that goofy logo all smash together to look far more exciting than your typical comic book of the early 60s. It's indescribable. By all accounts, it should be ugly, but instead it's amazing. Not an uncommon phenomenon in the work of Jack Kirby.

Opening the book up, we're immediately greeted with a bar introducing our titular four, with an ugly Reed Richards, a dopey-looking human Ben Grimm, and Sue & Johnny Storm looking about how they'll look for the next 20 years, signed by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby. Then we're hit in the face with a signal flare that spells out the entire name of "The Fantastic Four." We can assume that this is artistic license used to give us the book's title and not what the actual flare says, considering that the flare sticks around for the rest of the book's run as a simple "4." Some cops freak out like cops always do, then we see a silhouetted man in a window holding the flare gun. The next seven pages show the team assembling. Susan Storm literally disappears on her friend, turning invisible and not even saying goodbye. Inexplicably and unhelpfully, she remains invisible, pushing people down like an absolute dick, then getting into a cab, still invisible, and letting the cabbie "cruise around" aimlessly, hoping he brings her near about where she needs to go. Which would have been understandable if she was broke and didn't want to pay a fare. But she does pay the fare. A fare for a meter that wasn't running, for an aimless drive that apparently worked out in her favor. I hope it took her all day. The befuddled cabbie freaks out and races off instead of taking the cash. This ridiculous and worthless abuse of her invisibility powers is going to be the status quo for Susan Storm for a couple of years, so get used to it. The Thing, disguised in a trench coat, fedora, and glasses, is shopping for clothes in a store for babies when the clerk alerts him to the sky-writing. The clerk actually says that the writing says "The Fantastic Four," so maybe scratch that thing I said earlier. Ben Grimm immediately throws off his clothes and takes off. He barrels through the city, scaring even more cops before dropping into the drainage tunnels and hoping he drifts close to the headquarters. He emerges out of the street, creating his own manhole, and a car wrecks into him. This whole team consists of absolute dickheads. Speaking of, Johnny Storm is up next. He's in a garage, talking to his mechanic about his car. Johnny's car is apparently purring like a lamb. I'm not sure if it's me or Stan Lee that doesn't know anything about lambs right now. Sitting behind the wheel, Johnny is alerted to the signal flare by the mechanic. This time, it is actually just a "4." Now they're just fucking with me. Johnny doesn't bother to step out of his own car before flaming on and melts the whole damn thing. Must have a lot of money. As he tears off through the sky, more people freak out. The mayor of "Central City," as previous dialogue has suggested we are in, demands that the governor be called to alert the National Guard. The National Guard scrambles jets (do National Guards have jets?) to pursue. The pilots incredulously search for a flaming man. When they find him, Johnny yells at them to stop, and is in disbelief when men in air-tight cockpits flanked by jet-engines who are wearing radio headsets and helmets can't hear him, so he just burns through the aircraft, making sure the men are able to parachute to safety. But not before one manages to fire a hunter missile with A FUCKING NUCLEAR WARHEAD. Mr. Fantastic reaches out and just plucks it out of the fucking air and throws it in in the ocean. Whatever.

After all of this, the team arrives at, I dunno, the apartment of Reed Richards, I guess. The Thing inexplicably has his disguise back on. For a comic destined to change the industry, they sure didn't give a shit. For the next five pages, we take a detour into the origins of the team. If you know the story, there's not much to tell here, but these are certainly the five best pages of the book. Fantastic art and storytelling, the revelation of the team's individual powers is met with horror and discomfort, before eventual acceptance and the formation of the team. The space jumpsuits present when the team joins hands are the prototype for the eventual uniform, not seen until a few issues from now. 

(The origin is that they want to get to space before the Russians, so Reed talks Ben Grimm into piloting the ship, while Reed inexplicably brings his fiancee and her little brother. Don't overthink it. We're here already. They go on an unauthorized flight on a shuttle that isn't properly shielded yet. They're bombarded with cosmic rays, then start to transform. They crash land, and all of their powers are revealed.) 

The next twelve pages contain the actual story. It's a run of the mill monster story. It would have been the worst Challengers of the Unknown story, and isn't much more remarkable than any of the other monster mags. We get half a splash page, really in the time before splash pages were even much of a thing (Kirby would go on to popularize the concept later in this very magazine), where we finally see the cover monster looking much different than he did on the cover. Reed says that he has called the team together to show them some pictures. The Thing wryly asks if the pictures are pin-ups, as we slowly see the development of Ben Grimm's wisecracking character.  The pictures are of atomic sites with giant holes in them, presumably caused by the giant monster. Reed Richards has apparently pin-pointed a central location between all of these sites, and it's Monster Isle! Ben states that the place is a fairy tale, but Sue let's him know that there is only one way to find out. Reed puts on a stupid hat and they take off in a sea plane.

As this description goes, I'm fairly certain it contains more words than the actual book itself, so let's race to the finish, since the only things worth pointing out for the rest of the book involve it being really stupid. On Monster Isle the team meets, what else, a bunch of monsters. They fight the monsters, until Reed and Johnny fall through the ground stumble across a valley of diamonds. I'd be lying if I said I remembered the importance of these diamonds, but I'll be damned if I'm actually going to read this comic again. The long and short is that here they meet the Mole Man, their first (and arguably worst) supervillain. Mole Man came to Monster Isle and ruled these monsters because no one wanted to date him. He's basically the first incel supervillain. Anyway, there are monsters, Reed inexplicably gets in a stick fight with the Mole Man, Thing continues to beat up some more monsters on the surface, until they streak out of there, (after having captured the Mole Man, yet leaving him behind, his plan completely unthwarted) while Johnny causes a huge cave-in on the island, burying all of the monster beneath it. You can view this tale as Stan and Jack finally putting to rest the monster comics of the last several years, but I think a more accurate reading is that Jack was just really used to coming up with shitty monsters so he just threw a bunch in before going back to drawing another issue of Rawhide Kid. If it sounds like I wrapped up the story really quickly, so did they. Even though this is a twenty-five page book, it just kind of abruptly ends on the last page. The island caves in and they take off on their sea plane within two or three panels.

This isn't really a very good book. It's actually kind of stupid. Probably not much more stupid than any other silver age comic book, but definitely lazily thrown together and not very compelling. It's incredible that such a bad comic could ultimately lead to the creation of a multi-billion dollar empire, but there it is. Stay tuned, though. It gets better. And these descriptions will certainly get shorter.

Fantastic Four #2 (Jan. 1962)

With the success of issue #1, issue #2 followed two months later. The first few pages detail what appears to be the Fantastic Four being a bunch of assholes. The Thing destroys an offshore oil rig, the Human Torch melts some boring statues in the Midwest, the Invisible Girl steals a giant diamond, and Mr. Fantastic turns of the power to the entire city with a single switch, because that's how electricity works. I'm not sure if we were supposed to immediately think this was out of character for the foursome, but if you were reading these as they came out, you'd have absolutely no reason to believe so, given the wanton destruction involved with the group simply assembling.

Quickly, on page four we learn that these were all imposters. Strange, green little men with the remarkable ability to shapeshift, and each with special gadgets or gimmicks that allow them to mimic the abilities of the Fantastic Four. If you have any knowledge of the Marvel Universe, or if you simply read the very yellow cover, you'd know that these are the Skrulls. News of these developments reach the Four via radio, as we find them inexplicably in an isolated hunting lodge, I guess getting in touch with the great outdoors. Sue worries, as she has no idea how any human could imitate their powers, but Johnny, wielding a rifle, assures her that whatever happened, Reed Richards will figure it out. Thing gets all upset, because he's a monster and he throws a bear head out the window. He throws a fit for the next page or so, and Reed rightfully takes the blame for turning Ben into a monster. The real Four are confronted by the U.S. Army and taken into custody. They're taken to cells specially built for them, but each escapes using their powers anyway. They hatch a plan where Johnny attacks a missile test in hopes that the imposters mistake him for one of their own, but not without a back and forth between Thing and Torch about who is better suited for the job. The plan works and the Skrulls take Johnny back to their hideout. It should be noted that the name of this chapter is "Prisoner of the Skrulls," yet no one is actually a prisoner of the Skrulls. Johnny, maybe? But he's there willingly, and he kinda just buzzes around and pisses them off. He manages to shoot off a 4 flare and alert the rest of the team.

The team comes in and cleans up. The next plan involves the FF taking off in the Skrull's rocket to meet with the mothership, masquerading as their Skrull doppelgängers. Reed Richards, Genius, has the brilliant idea that showing the Skrull overlords pictures of monsters "clipped from 'Strange Tales' and 'Journey Into Mystery,'" passing them off as real photographs from earth, in hopes of scaring off a Skrull invasion. I'm not certain if, within the Marvel Universe, comic books are made up of live action photos of practical effects, or if Skrulls are too stupid to tell the difference between a photograph and a drawing. Either way, the plan works, the Skrulls are sacred away, the FF say they'll stay behind to eliminate any trace of their presence. For this, they are awarded a medal for bravery. The FF return to earth, hitting cosmic rays on the way. These temporarily change Ben Grimm back, only to disappoint him in a couple pages. The FF are captured, but explain the whole thing. They go after the Skrulls they left, fight and defeat them. After threats are made to their lives, the Skrulls ask to be allowed to live out their lives as anything but Skrulls, since they "hate being Skrulls." Whatever. I hate being human too, buddy. They transform into cows, and Reed hypnotizes them so that they don't want to change back. The End.

We then get a pin-up page of The Thing. Charming. I'm not certain if this is the issue the letter page starts in, since I'm working from the Marvel Unlimited version of the comics, which typically exclude the letters pages.

I've gotta say, if not for the promise of what's to come in a couple years on this book, I'd have immediately stopped reading after this issue. It's interesting to see where the book evolves from here, because, oof, this is a rough start. What happens next?!

ff3.jpg

Fantastic Four #3 (March 1962)

Holy Dang! Here we are! Super Suits! And Johnny Storm looks like the Human Torch we've all come to love over the years, instead of just human-shaped fire! And is that the Fantasti-Car?! Sure, it's the old bathtub model, but at least it's not made by Dodge, amirite? So what's this issue about?!

Ugh. It's the Miracle Man. Look, the Miracle Man is a shit villain. I don't know what else to say about this. Unlike the other two issues, there isn't much of a breakdown to give here that wouldn't just be tedious and repetitive. Also unlike the other two, this issue is great! First, let's quickly synopsize this plot.

The Miracle Man is a magician with a ridiculous act that the Four go and see. Ultimately, he ends up creating a bunch of illusions of monsters, because he's a really good hypnotist. He does so in the service of stealing jewels of some such shit. Sue goes after him and gets hypnotized, drawing in the rest of the Four for a final battle. Whatever. 

The actual story here is pretty run-of-the-mill garbage. What really counts is that this is the real start of the team dynamic that the Fantastic Four becomes known for. Sure, the seeds were there in the first couple of issues, but this is where the team really becomes recognizable as the FF, and it's not just because of the suits. Reed Richards is a know-it-all dickhead, Sue is given agency, but only to prove Stan Lee's point that women are useless without men, and Ben and Johnny squabble constantly. In fact, the issue ends with the Torch getting fed up and running off, leaving the team; a thread picked up in the next issue.

Not only are the dynamics finally, the suits, the character models, and the Fantasti-Car finally present, we're also introduced to the FF's new headquarters atop the Baxter Building! And that cover blurb about being the greatest comic magazine in the world? The merits of the statement are definitely up for debate, but that slogan is more or less here to stay for many, many years to come. And you even get a single page recap about how the FF get their powers, so if you're not much of a completionist, feel free to skip the first couple issues and start your FF run right here. Don't get me wrong, the book hasn't gotten good yet, and we've got some bombs to go over in part 2 of our look at the first year, but the book has become recognizably FF.

Join me back here this Monday, May 21st, as we finish out issues 4-7, completing our coverage of FF's first year.