Welcome to the Grand Experiment! My name is Paul Brian McCoy and I would like to invite you to come along with me on a strange and wondrous journey, as I explore the creation of the Marvel Universe, beginning with 1961’s Fantastic Four #1 and going all the way through everything published in December of 1969.
Here’s the plan: I will be reading each of Marvel’s superhero titles in chronological order, critiquing and commenting on how each successive issue worked to build and expand the Marvel Universe. I want to try to do so, however, without acknowledging what I already know about the development of the shared universe. I’m going to try to treat each issue as if I am reading and experiencing it for the first time, in order to get a real feel for how this world was put together.
I will be going by cover dates, which we all know aren’t representative of the actual publication date, but should provide an easy way to keep track of things like the timing of first appearances and reappearances, the orchestration of cross-overs, and the occasional testing of the waters for giving characters their own features or independent titles.
The good news is that pretty much every one of Marvel’s superhero titles from the Sixties are available in the very affordable Essentials collections, in case anyone would like to read along with me (or at least fact-check me as I go along).
The titles that aren’t readily, or cheaply, available (Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., from Strange Tales and his own series, and Sub-Mariner, from Tales to Astonish and his own series) didn’t begin publication until 1965. With any luck, by the time we get there, I’ll have found a reasonable alternative source for those books. We’ll see.
My goal is for this column to be a bi-weekly experience. I’d expect some slippage here and there along the way, but I’m shooting to keep that schedule. I plan on covering at least a couple of months per column in the beginning, until Marvel’s publishing output kicked up to their eight titles per month limitation (as imposed on them by a late 50s distribution “deal” with rival DC) at the beginning of 1963, but depending upon how much I end up writing, that could start as soon as the middle of 1962’s slate, when there was a steady diet of four books per month. I’ll probably stick to focusing on one month per column after that.
I also intend to give every book, and every story, at least a short mention. Clearly some stories will be more substantive than others (I’m looking at you, Human Torch solo stories), so my attention will be adjusted accordingly, but they all should be in there when everything’s said and done. And be sure to check the message boards to tell me what I’ve missed or forgotten, as well as your own spins on what happened each month in the classic MU!
Okay, ‘Nuff Said? Let’s get going, then. I apologize in advance for the amount of summary involved this first time out, but as this is the original source, I want to go through it thoroughly. A lot of those little details reflect some of the more ominous undertones of those early years’ stories.
Fantastic Four #1 – Stan Lee & Jack Kirby
One of the most intriguing aspects of the Marvel Universe in 1961 is that while there are no Superheroes in sight, there is a plethora of alien races and monsters to be found. In fact, the cover of Fantastic Four #1 could easily have been the cover of any number of other titles on sale this month, from Journey Into Mystery, Tales to Astonish, or Strange Tales, but for the fact that the human characters were displaying “fantastic” abilities themselves.
I also love that right out of the gate, the name of the team is written across the sky in smoke, and the citizens of New York are getting panicky about it. Stylistically, we are being presented with a story that isn’t placed in some fictional burg; the narrative conceit here is that this is happening in our world, albeit, our world with monsters. And right from the beginning there is a palpable sense of dread.
When Reed Richards says from the shadows, “It is the first time I have found it necessary to give the signal! I pray it will be the last!” we know even more profoundly that this isn’t your ordinary superhero title, as published by the Distinguished Competition. The Fantastic Four see the signal and, like sleeper agents awakening to their programming, reveal themselves to the world for the first time.
Susan Storm‘s introduction is fairly inane, bordering on silly, but when a bulky figure removes his hat and coat to reveal a massive rocky monster, it comes as a real shock. From the moment he bursts through the doorway, to when he rips up the manhole cover from the street, to when he explodes up through the concrete in front of an oncoming car, which proceeds to then smash into him, we can see we are dealing with a character with serious psychological issues.
He lives in “a world too small” for him, and people are called “fools” and “lilly-livered cowards.” Clearly, he’s intended to be one of our heroes, but he doesn’t seem heroic. He’s more of a frightening monster than a hero. For one of our protagonists, there is an awful lot of violence surrounding him from his first appearance.
And the moment when Johnny Storm erupts into flames is fairly horrifying as he destroys the car he’s in and frightens more New Yorkers by flying through the sky like a comet. Does anyone else find it strange to have our heroes’ first appearances be accompanied by fear, police gunfire, car crashes, and in Johnny’s case, at least two National Guard jets being destroyed after launching nuclear missiles at him? Luckily the pilots parachute to safety.
And I’m sorry, but Reed’s powers are kind of grotesque. Maybe more so than Grimm’s. I have to admit that against the backdrop of comics that were being published alongside this one in 1961, this book is a bit frightening. Over the first eight pages our protagonists are more monstrous than inspiring. Another unnerving element to this story is the level of casual violence and paranoia that exists in this “real” world, up to and including the casual use of nuclear warheads over downtown New York.
Next comes the origin, in which we discover that Ben Grimm was the original voice of reason and the whole quartet become transfigured and mutated thanks to Reed’s vanity and a general anxiety about “the Commies.” But even Grimm succumbs to the goading of Sue. She questions his bravery, for Christ’s sake, when without him, no one could have piloted the ship. If he hadn’t given in to her questioning of his masculinity, then the tragedy that creates them could have been averted. None of these characters are people you’d want to hang out with, much less rely on for help.
They slip past armed guards and essentially steal their spaceship, launching successfully into space. But, as Grimm warned, they are almost immediately bombarded by Cosmic Rays.
After crash landing, the radiation mutates them all into the monsters we’ve been introduced to already. Grimm, already shown to be easily provoked, loses control of his anger and tries to beat Richards, quite possibly to death, using a tree for a club. Luckily he is calmed down, and after Johnny sets fire to the countryside (which casually burns itself out as they watch), they naturally conclude that they should use their new powers to help mankind. Which they proceed to do by pretending they don’t have powers, or just hiding, in Grimm’s case.
With the first half of the book now finished, Lee and Kirby finally let us in on what the threat is that forced Richards to summon the “team.” Here we get a half-page splash that echoes the cover image, with the chapter title, “The Fantastic Four Meet the Mole Man!” across the top of the page. Seems like using that space for moving the story forward would be more appropriate.
Anyway, the threat is an interesting one. Atomic plants around the globe are being swallowed by the earth. Well, to be more accurate, by a giant monster. We are witness to the latest attack and the creature is gigantic, seemingly invulnerable, and under the control of, as the narration tells us, The Moleman. Richards is able to trace the source of the disturbances to the subtly-named Monster Isle (not to be confused with the Monster Island of Godzilla fame) and off they race to find out what’s going on.
They own their own “small, private jet” and arrive hours later. They are immediately attacked by a giant, flying, three-headed creature (also, not to be confused with King Ghidorah, of Godzilla fame) and then separated by a cave-in. The choice by Lee to break the team up like this achieves two goals: first, it allows the narrative to split and follow two paths before converging at the conclusion; and second, it forces some vague character interaction that might have been more difficult to stage otherwise.
Richards and Johnny find themselves captured by the Moleman, who shares his origin and his master plan, while Grimm and Sue remain above-ground, where Grimm ends up saving Sue from a sneaky Rock Monster before they rush to find the others. The Moleman’s story is a tragic one, recalling Shelley’s Frankenstein, but without the elements of transgression that trigger the hostilities. Here, the Moleman was simply, innocently, born ugly and is tormented, shunned, and insulted his whole life, to the point where he’d rather flee to the Center of the Earth to probably die alone than be around human beings any longer.
Of course, once he got there, he discovered creatures that would do his bidding, and thus a kingdom is born.
This is serious stuff. Lee seems to be saying pretty clearly that society is to blame for creating the Moleman, and by extension, bringing on possible annihilation. Because that’s the Moleman’s plan. He doesn’t want to rule us. He wants to kill us all. Of course, the Fantastic Four stop him, but only barely. In fact, they don’t seem to be able to do much against the Moleman’s monsters except flee. And in the process of running away, the Moleman escapes. Sort of. The Human Torch is the only one to actually accomplish anything during the escape, causing a landslide that shuts off the passage to the Moleman’s kingdom.
Then, as the FF are flying away, Monster Isle explodes in what looks to me like an atomic blast. And according to Richards, the Moleman did it himself, shutting himself off from the world. And then he goes so far as to hope that the Moleman finds peace down there? The end? What the hell?
The story ends there, and I find it pretty unsatisfying. I’m sure we’ll see the Moleman again, but that’s not my problem. The story just kind of runs out of pages, and our heroes don’t really accomplish anything beyond getting captured and then running away. When it comes to actually engaging with the Moleman’s creatures, Richards tosses one in the ocean and then later Grimm tosses in another. Johnny flies around one, but doesn’t do anything, although he does provide cover while the team escapes. And don’t get me started on Sue. She does nothing. Lee really needs to figure out a way to utilize her more. So far, her power only seems useful to protect herself from danger. She needs an offensive capability besides calling people cowards to goad them into doing dangerously stupid things.
With that said, I am impressed with the groundwork being laid here for what kind of world the Marvel Universe is going to be. It’s a dangerous, scary place. The first reaction of the citizens to something amazing happening is fear, anxiety, and violence. Vanity and paranoia created our team of heroes. The cruelty of people created the villain, whose giant monsters are tasked to destroy all of the planet’s atomic power before razing the world of all humanity. That’s an interesting point, too. This isn’t just a crazed villain threatening world domination. He wants everyone to pay for his torment and humiliation with death. He may look slightly ridiculous, but he’s a new type of villain, and he’s extraordinarily emotionally damaged. So who better to stop him than a group of emotionally damaged heroes?
Kirby’s art is effective, but doesn’t seem as polished as some of his other work at the time. None of the monsters are particularly memorable, although I do like the character design for the Moleman.
I’m not sure what to think about the look of Ben Grimm in this issue. He doesn’t look like rock so much as like a pile of soft dough. Or something not quite so tasty. The decision to keep our heroes in street clothes and jump suits is a daring one, given that this is supposed to be the birth of the Marvel Superheroes. I like it. It keeps everything grounded in the realism I noted at the beginning and gives the series a nice Lo-Fi feel. I’m tempted to call the visual style Retro, but it was done in 1961, so I guess it’s really just Modern.
I’m not sure how long the series can maintain the feel of this first issue, though. Lee and Kirby are really going to have to work at making the characters more likeable to really get a good hold on the audience, I think. But as far as first issues go, this is a very impressive start, if only for the dark qualities that are underlying everything that happens. It’s not often that we see a comic book world where paranoia and fear is the norm, and where our heroes have as many, if not more, psychological flaws and damage as the villains.
Okay, that’s about it for this installment. Next time I promise less summary and more excitement! Mondo Marvel #2 will feature looks at Fantastic Four issues #2 through #4 (with the introduction of the Skrulls, Superhero costumes and gadgets, and the “return” of Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner!), The Incredible Hulk #1 (with lots of Commie fear!), and maybe more, time willing, as we move forward into 1962!
Be sure to stop by the message boards to share your recollections of Fantastic Four #1.
Until next time, this is Paul Brian McCoy reminding everyone, Ben Was Right!