In terms of what would later become the world of Marvel Comics, the “Fantastic Four” was where it all began.
While both Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were seasoned comics industry veterans by 1961, the start of “Fantastic Four” at the end of that year marked a distinct new era in the careers of both men. The company that would become Marvel Comics was largely on its last legs, having weathered years of mediocre or failing sales. However, a solid talent pool was in place. Later key figures, such as Kirby and Steve Ditko, were already working in-house on the art for various non-super hero anthology titles. Odd as it may seem now, those creators weren’t viewed as being the crème of the artistic crop. The ‘top’ artists were instead being employed at the time by rival DC Comics.
Lee and Kirby’s approach to “Fantastic Four” made it a more accessible, ‘real’ take on super heroics. The line-up of characters that resulted would still be familiar to modern readers, but many would take time to develop into the icons that they later became.
Reed Richards was cool under pressure and smart, featuring powers similar to Plastic Man. However, he didn’t start the series with the genius stature that he would later achieve. He was initially more insecure and distance than modern readers might expect, his experiments often being failures.
Ben Grimm – the Thing – was one of Marvel’s greatest creations. Besides being the team’s literal ‘heavy,’ the character’s inner conflict was incredibly compelling from the beginning. His rock form would change in appearance over the first several dozen issues, but the character was well defined from the beginning.
Johnny Storm, the party guy, clearly represented the cool teen. He was immature and always trying to have fun. He tended to be most interesting when somehow interacting with Spider-Man, as the characters would have a long-standing antagonistic relationship.
Sue Storm, originally referred to as the Invisible Girl, might have been the most confounding core character for modern readers to initially encounter. During the first few years of “Fantastic Four,” Sue was not married to Reed Richards. In fact, they weren’t even consistently dating.
Lee and Kirby often didn’t seem to know what to do with Sue, other than placing her in a familiar ‘damsel in distress’ role. Modern readers would likely cringe at how the rest of the team often interacted with her, making her a de facto second class citizen on the team. Given the perception that Marvel had often been progressive in its storytelling, it was strange to encounter character exchanges with Sue that were often sexist. Sue’s portrayal was supposedly more ‘liberated’ than the norm, leaving one had to wonder just how badly women were portrayed in other comic books of the time.
Despite frequent issues with Sue’s portrayal, she did have her moments in the early issues. Lee and Kirby continued to give her new abilities that related to her core power, allowing her to play more useful roles in the group’s adventures.
The first thirty issues of “Fantastic Four were essential from a foundational standpoint. Yet, as hinted above, they are not without their flaws. Most readers would point toward this period as being one of extraordinary innovation, but much of that inspiration was presented in a very raw manner. Lee and Kirby would collaborate for over 100 issues, but that run wouldn’t hit its legendary peak until issue #48 when the original “Galactus Trilogy” began.
As such, it should be stated with caution that those only familiar with modern comic books might find the storytelling approaches in these early issues to be stilted, with many forced moments in the stories. However, readers would also find an overwhelming number of ideas pouring out onto the pages, even if many were in very rough or early forms. As the series unfolded through its first two years, readers could literally see the creative team struggling to find their footing and to figure out the character dynamics. After issue #25, the series became much more consistent, following notable ebbs and flows leading up to that point.
Issues #1-6 – First Appearances & Setup
The origin of the Fantastic Four, covered in the first half of issue #1, crackled with energy. It was fast and fun, telling a story in only a few pages what would take Jim Lee’s 1996 ‘Heroes Reborn’ mini-series several issues to cover.
The second half of the first issue introduced the Mole Man. The resulting adventure was adequate, but the Mole Man wasn’t a villain destined to be as beloved as others in the Fantastic Four’s rogues’ gallery.
In comparison to the brisk first issue, issue #2 was a letdown in terms of pacing. However, it was an important issue due to the introduction of the alien Skrulls and their lasting impact in the Marvel Universe. In fact, the events in this particular issue would be referenced many times in Marvel history. The Avengers’ later “Kree-Skrull War” directly referenced the Skrulls-turned-cows at the end of this story, using them as a launching pad for that space epic.
The magician turned criminal Miracle Man – no relation to the Alan Moore re-named Marvelman character from the U.K. – was the Fantastic Four’s main foe in issue #3. He was defeated when his ploys were found to be simply illusions that he generated via hypnosis. Such a twist was not outside of the norm in Silver Age stories. More notable was the first appearance of the Fantastic Four’s Baxter Building headquarters, detailed by Kirby in an iconic cutaway diagram.
Issue #4 brought the return of Namor, the Sub-Mariner to what was then the ‘modern’ Marvel mythology. Namor had been a popular character for Marvel’s predecessor firm in the 1940s, into the mid-1950s. This appearance updated the character for a new time and a new audience.
Given how long Reed Richards and Sue Storm would go on to be married in the Marvel universe, it was jarring to read how Sue initially had a vocal sympathy toward Namor’s affections. At this point in time, Sue was barely dating Reed, so she was certainly free to play out her options. Unfortunately for readers, the later marriage between Reed and Sue would rob the series of some of this early love triangle tension, even if Namor never completely disappeared from Sue’s life.
A Marvel legend appeared for the first time in issue #5, as Doctor Doom would go on to become arguably Marvel’s most-significant villain. Doctor Doom’s first ploy involved an interesting time travel scheme that used a time machine of his own construction. Doom’s ‘time platform’ was a handy device that would show up numerous times in the Fantastic Four mythos, providing a means for stories set in either the past or possible future. In this particular case, the time travel was simply part of a larger plan by Doom to coerce the Fantastic Four into stealing Blackbeard’s treasure for him. That plan, like all that followed from him, failed.
Sharp-eyed readers with access to either the original issues or the omnibus edition reprint would note a letter from Roy Thomas regarding continuity within the title. Thomas was a mainstay of the letter column and would later succeed Stan Lee in writing several of Marvel’s books, even becoming Editor in Chief for a while in the 1970s.
The return of Doctor Doom came right away in issue #6. Having learned a lesson in the prior issue, Doom teamed up with the Namor to blast the Baxter Building into space. Eventually the Fantastic Four would manage to get the Namor back on their side. They again defeated Doom, while also restoring the Baxter Building to its proper location. As hokey as that plot might seem, John Byrne would revisit it ‘more realistically’ in Fantastic Four #278.
Issues #7-10 – Slow Down & Repeat
Many Silver Age fans considered issue #7 to be the beginning of a stylistic break from the first six issues. Dick Ayers took over inking Jack Kirby’s art and the stories happened to become less ‘daring.’ Besides several new, but less-interesting character introductions, the next set of issues also featured quick reappearances by both Namor and Doctor Doom.
The Fantastic Four made their first trip to another planet – that being “Planet X” – in issue #7. Kurrgo, the planet’s ruler secured the Fantastic Four’s help to save his planet’s people from an incoming meteor. Mr. Fantastic borrowed a shrinking formula from Marvel hero Ant-Man to miniaturize everyone on the planet so that they could fit into an escape rocket. In order to remain ruler, Kurrgo tried to stay full-sized, but his ploy failed when he was left behind on the doomed planet. Kurrgo’s greedy demise ended up giving the story a nice moralistic ending.
Fantastic Four mainstay Alicia Masters first appeared in issue #8 as the tragic blind daughter of the villainous Puppet Master. The Puppet Master, who could control people using voodoo doll-like clay representations of them, appeared to die at the end of the issue. Despite the Puppet Master’s abilities seeming ridiculous, the character would become a major figure in the Fantastic Four’s rotation of villains. A familiar series theme was introduced during Reed’s first attempt to revert Ben back to normal human form. As with Reed’s many future attempts to do so, this attempt failed.
Namor returned yet again in issue #9, under the guise of trying to help the Fantastic Four when they ran into financial issues. He hired the team to star in a movie, filming them facing various threats that turned out to be quite real. After they defeated the threats, he was honorable enough to agree to pay them and the movie of their real-life exploits ended up being a big hit. With cash in hand, the team was able to pay their bills.
The financial situation that the team faced felt rather forced within the context of the issue, but it brought to light some compelling points. As do-gooders in the ‘real world,’ they would have faced incredible expenditures and insurance liabilities while not having formal or predictable income.
The rotation of familiar characters continued in issue #10 with the return of Doctor Doom. The approach this time was creative and memorable from a historical point of view, but didn’t entirely work in execution. While crossing the fourth wall, or at least side-stepping it, Doom deduced that creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby would be able to lead him to the team. Lee and Kirby were portrayed as producing a Fantastic Four comic book series within the Marvel Universe that was based on the ‘real life’ adventures of the team. That ‘meta’ connection linking the character to their real life creators in a publishing context was similar to a trope used in several old EC Comics stories from the early 1950s.
Issues #11-16 – First Crossovers
The next group of issues included some of the Marvel Universe’s first crossovers between titles. While that innovation would become a key component in building out Marvel’s readership, the particular stories in question didn’t end up being the classics that fans might have wished for. Those reading the Masterworks complications of these issues would begin here in volume #2.
The light-hearted Impossible Man first appeared in issue #11. This character would frequently be a footnote in Fantastic Four lore, showing up either to the chagrin or amusement of both the Fantastic Four and their readers. In his introduction, the Impossible Man was defeated when Reed realized that the creature simply wanted attention. If ignored, the Impossible Man grew bored and would leave. A backup story to this issue gave readers additional team origin information, with their mailman Willie Lumpkin responding to fan letter requests for further details.
Issue #12 should have been one for the ages. The cover teased of a confrontation between the Hulk and the Thing, but the actual fight didn’t deliver. General Ross, the longtime Hulk antagonist, recruited the Fantastic Four to help him trap the Hulk. The team did so, but the Hulk ultimately escaped. This story was known as the first Marvel ‘crossover,’ having come out just as the Hulk’s first series was wrapping up with issue #6. Readers would have to wait for another year before there was a more-proper battle of the Fantastic Four against the Hulk.
The 1960s-centric United States vs. Soviet Union ‘space race’ factored into issue #13. The Fantastic Four ended up facing the villainous Red Ghost and his simian henchmen in the mysterious Blue Area of the Moon. This issue was notable for introducing the Watcher, a powerful alien character who was charged by his race with observing events on Earth from its moon. Over the years, the Watcher would become involved with many major events in some fashion.
Despite no explanation given as to how the Puppet Master returned from an apparent death in issue #8, he indeed returned in issue #14. This time, he wasn’t alone though, having used a puppet to manipulate Namor into kidnapping Sue – not that he would usually need to be coerced into doing so. When Namor did regain control of himself, he was quite upset at having been used as a puppet and an undersea battle ensued to stop the Puppet Master. Interestingly, at the end of the issue Sue was left to consider if she wanted to join Namor as his queen. She decided to stick with Reed, at least for the time being.
The Mad Thinker thought up what he deemed to be the perfect crime against the Fantastic Four in issue #15. His plan involved using the Baxter Building defenses against them. That strategy came undone when the Fantastic Four’s mailman arrived to deliver the day’s mail and temporarily disabled the building’s defenses. What might have otherwise been an interesting problem for the Fantastic Four ended up being undermined with a weak resolution.
Ant-Man had been referenced in issue #7, but formally appeared in what ended up being a two-part story across issues #16 and #17. By this point, the character had his own title and would factor into the Avengers series.
After Mr. Fantastic worked with Ant-Man on a new shrinking formula, the Fantastic Four happened to find themselves visiting a microverse that had been conquered by Doctor Doom. Ant-Man ended up having to rescue the team, whereby the combined forces for good helped to free the kingdom that Doom had temporarily ruled.
Doom wasn’t done with his latest hijinks though. After everyone was restored to normal size, he used an airship to scare people around Earth with hallucinations. The Fantastic Four managed to track down the airship, rescue a kidnapped Alicia Masters, and defeat Doom.
As much fun as it was to yet-again have Doom as the story’s villain, his plans were becoming increasingly outrageous. By this point, he had been appearing with too much frequency to stay ‘fresh.’
Issues #18-20, Annual #1 – Going Epic
Issue #18 contained the first reference back to the Skrull threat that had been introduced in issue #2. The Skrulls sought revenge for their foiled invasion and sent the Super Skrull to face the Fantastic Four. The Super Skrull had the combined powers of the Fantastic Four’s members, so he seemed like a reasonable challenge for the team. However, his powers were supplied by a link back to the Skrull home world. This meant that he could be easily defeated when that link was blocked.
After a number of issues that hadn’t lived up to their full potential, the story in annual #1 was truly epic. Namor, having found his lost people of Atlantis and took control of that kingdom. This action was much to the annoyance of the Atlantean warlord Krang.
Predictably, Namor used his new army to attack New York and kidnap Sue. Unfortunately, Namor’s plan failed to account for the jealousy of his his new Atlantean love Dorma, who naturally felt threatened. When Sue almost died at the hands of Krang and Dorma, Namor called off his attack on New York. This twist-packed story helped to further broaden Namor’s role as one of the most interesting characters in the series.
In hindsight, issue #19 perhaps read best if one kept in mind later retro retroactive continuity that would be put in place. The story opened when Reed noticed a tale of restored blindness in old Egyptian hieroglyphics. Hoping to cure Alicia Masters’ blindness, the team used Doctor Doom’s time platform to investigate.
Although the Fantastic Four were not able to bring home such a cure during their ensuing adventure, they did encounter the time travelling villain Rama-Tut. Rama Tut would later turn into one of Marvel’s more complicated characters, having ties to the time traveling villain Kang (not to be confused with the Atlantean Krang from Annual #1). He would even have convoluted ties to Reed’s father, Nathaniel Richards. As usual, an element of the story involved the villain kidnapping Sue.
The Watcher broke his non-interference vow in issue #20 when he came to warn the Fantastic Four about a man whose involvement in a nuclear accident had left him with the ability to alter reality. That man – the Molecule Man – was one of the series’ more inspired and heady concepts for a villain. The threat from the Molecule Man seemed insurmountable until Reed realized that the villain’s powers could not affect organic materials. That revelation allowed the team to distract the Molecule Man just long enough for the Watcher to reappear and take him away.
Issues #21-24 – Another Dip
Although the prior several issues had served as a rebound in terms of storytelling quality, the series stumbled again during the next set of issues. It would, however, have a marked improvement with issue #25. The third Masterworks volume began at this point.
Issue #21, featuring “The Hate Monger” was ridiculous, even by super-hero story standards. The titular villain was causing trouble by giving hate speeches. After being defeated, the Hate Monger turned out to be Adolf Hitler, having hidden since the end of World War II.
Nick Fury, whose solo adventures were ongoing at that time over in “Strange Tales” made a brief appearance in this issue, a fact that gave this issue more longevity in reprints than otherwise might have been the case. Further complicating the ending surprise was later continuity that would suggest that the Hate Monger Hitler was actually a double, created by Nazi mad scientist Arnim Zola.
The Mole Man reappeared in issue #22, an encounter that was not nearly as memorable as his first appearance back in issue #1. The Fantastic Four purchased an island as a location to store some of their equipment. The transaction turned out to be a hoax though, with the Mole Man using it as an opportunity to capture the Fantastic Four. Of course, the team members eventually freed themselves and defeated the Mole Man’s forces.
Dr. Doom returned yet again in issue #23. This time, he intended to execute his ‘master plan,’ a very convoluted ploy to destroy the Fantastic Four. This plan first involved using various henchmen who captures the team. Then, Doom trapped the team members in a room to be inundated by a solar wave that would transport them all into space.
This complicated series of dependencies left an opening for the Fantastic Four to regain control of the situation and Doom’s ‘master plan’ ultimately failed. As had been the case in the past, Doom failed in part by not simply killing his adversaries when he had the chance. He always did have to be grandiose about such things and that need frequently undermined his brief successes.
Issue #24 was another stinker, with a gang of crooks using an alien infant – the story’s namesake ‘the infant terrible’ – to commit crimes. The alien had reality-alternating powers that were reminiscent of the Molecule Man. Reed stopped the alien and the crooks when he contacted the infant’s parents with a request that they retrieve it. Obviously the resolution raised more questions than it answered.
Issues #25-30 – Finding Consistency
In contrast to the prior set of issues, the big two-parter fight between the Thing and the Hulk that spanned issues #25-26 was a classic. On a personal note, these issues might have very well been the first “Fantastic Four” issues that I ever encountered, back in sixth grade via a I read a friend’s dad’s reprint copy of them in “Fantastic Four” Annual #4. This arc guest-starred the Avengers soon after their series had begun. The story held up very well upon re-reading, making these easily the best issues amongst the first thirty.
With the Avengers showing up to help and the Hulk on a rampage in New York City, one could really feel the Marvel universe coming together. In some ways, the fight struck me as being a distant precursor to Mark Millar’s later Hulk rampage in “The Ultimates.”
An innovative moment occurred in the early portion of the story when the Fantastic Four (minus Reed) found themselves having to save the day in front of a large crowd. It might have become common in later comics to have epic battle scenes set in New York before its crowded populous, but this was the first time I noticed such scale in “Fantastic Four.”
Despite the team’s success in the prior story arc, issue #27 centered on a strain in the relationship between Reed and Sue. That strain, of course, involved Namor, who had returned again to ask that Sue be his queen. While Sue refused and was kidnapped, she still wavered in her opinion of Namor even after she was rescued by her teammates.
The X-Men met the Fantastic Four in issue #28 when the Puppet Master and the Mad Thinker teamed up to manipulate the X-Men leader Professor X. The villains’ plan wasn’t a bad one, as they were able to force the Professor to use the X-Men as their pawns. When the villainous duo eventually lost control of the X-Men, the Fantastic Four and X-Men teamed up to defeat them.
This story followed the classic formula of first having a fight between the good guys and then team up to defeat the real bad guy. The cross-over would have been good exposure for the X-Men, who were relatively new at the time, having only had a few issues of their title released.
Issue #29’s “It Started on Yancy Street!” featured a very memorable cover, but the story was somewhat less memorable. The Thing was constantly being aggravated by the Yancy Street Gang, although in this instance it turned out to actually be a ruse with the Red Ghost, who had returned from the moon with his simians. In what was essentially a sequel to issue #13, the Fantastic Four made use of the Watcher’s technology while he was ‘away.’ The Watcher did return late in the story to offer his help in defeating the Red Ghost, again becoming an active participant in events.
Who goes on vacation to Transylvania? Well, the Fantastic Four did in issue #30. While visiting an ancient castle in Transylvania, the team inadvertently freed the master alchemist Diablo. He then created potions that caused various miraculous effects, but that would let him control a global army if distributed around the world. The Fantastic Four became wise to Diablo’s plan and stopped him before it was too late.
While not one of the title’s great stories, the execution was more interesting than it might sound.
As stated in the introduction, one would likely find that the first thirty issues of “Fantastic Four” were inconsistent. Despite many stories that were either sloppy or rough around the edges though, there were many fun issues that modern readers would still enjoy. Lee and Kirby continued to refine their approach to the title and it improved with time. The series became more consistent when it reached the big Hulk/Avengers crossover in issues #25-26, a story that redeemed an earlier dud from issue #12.
Besides the obvious charm of discovering how many classic Marvel characters were first introduced in these early issues, there were also many small touches for sharp-eyed readers would appreciate making the effort. So many little quirks seemed to be forgotten as Lee and Kirby refined the characters over time. Regardless of a child-centric writing style featuring an over-explanation of powers and abilities, Lee’s writing had enough spirit to make it apparent how readers could remain engaged.
I would encourage people who love Marvel history to read these early issues, as it did seem as though every single issue offered some gem that Marvel later built upon. Those discoveries made even the mediocre material worth reading.
Appendix: Marvel Omnibus Editions
As of this writing, there are a couple of different editions of the omnibus book that reprinted the first thirty issues. This collection was the first book in the omnibus line and happened to have a slightly different spine design than the later volumes. As such, the first printing could be easily identified by its red text on a white background at the top of the spine. The second printing matched the more-traditional, white text on red background that was later used in the upper portion of most other omnibus volumes.
The content inside the book was identical between printings, but another major difference existed in the binding of the books. The first printing had a cheaper glued binding, while the second printing had a sewn binding. Most people would consider the sewn binding to be more durable over the long-term, but most would likely argue that the glued binding in the first printing won’t fall apart unless heavily abused.
At one time, I owned both the first printing of volume 1 as well as volume 2, so I can directly comment on both of those particular editions.
The glued binding in the first printing of volume 1 had one of the nicest glued bindings that I had ever handled. It felt durable and opened easily, lying nearly as nicely as a sewn binding. The inconsistent spine design was similar enough to the standard omnibus spine that it didn’t look entirely out of place on a bookshelf, particularly if placed in the first position with one’s other omnibus volumes.
With volume 2, I hated the glued binding. The paper quality was a little better than with volume 1 and was reflective of the thicker paper that the omnibus line went to for a while. The problem was that the glued binding was of the ‘mousetrap’ variety, meaning that it was really hard to open and read. It was not unreadable, but it bugged me when handling it.
I ended up selling both omnibus volumes because I wanted the entire Lee/Kirby run in hardcover and didn’t want to wait for future omnibus volumes to appear. As such, the Marvel Masterworks reprint volumes ended up filling that desire for me, both to have the complete content right away and also to have increased reading portability due to the books’ smaller volume size.
Lee, Stan, and Jack Kirby. Fantastic Four Masterworks, Vol. 1. First ed. Marvel, 2009. Print.
—. Fantastic Four Masterworks, Vol. 2. First ed. Marvel, 2009. Print.
—. Fantastic Four Masterworks, Vol. 3. First ed. Marvel, 2010. Print.
—. Fantastic Four Omnibus, Vol. 1. Marvel, 2007. Print.