Wednesday, October 15, 2008

History of Marvel Comics--November 1961

The story so far…

In the 1940s, Marvel Comics wasn’t Marvel Comics yet. They were known as Timely Comics. Like most Golden Age comic book publishers, Timely jumped aboard the superhero bandwagon after the phenomenal success of Superman (published by rival DC Comics).

Timely did some fun superhero stuff, with their costumed do-gooders going up against the Nazis even before the U.S. entered World War II. Their most successful characters (both commercially and artistically) were Captain America and Bucky, the Human Torch and Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner.

But by the late 1940s, superheroes were on their way out. Comic books themselves, though, remained enormously popular. Through the 1950s, Timely (well, actually, they were now called Atlas Comics) made a go of it with comics featuring Westerns, romance stories, science fiction, detective stories and so on. There was a short-lived attempt to revive Captain America, the Torch and Namor in 1953, but this didn’t catch on.

By the time 1961 rolled around, Atlas Comics’ publisher Martin Goodman noticed that superheroes were coming back into vogue. DC Comics had reintroduced new versions of many of their 1940s heroes—most notably Green Lantern and Flash. All these new heroes, as well as their old stalwarts Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, were being featured in a comic book called The Justice League of America. And kids by the hundreds of thousands were eagerly spending their dimes for copies of the JLA.

Well, by golly, if DC had a successful superhero group, then Atlas (well, actually, they were now called Marvel Comics) should have such a group as well. If I remember the story correctly, Goodman brought up this idea with writer Stan Lee on the golf course. Before you could yell “Fore!” Marvel was putting out its first superhero comic book in nearly a decade. The Fantastic Four were born.

I have no idea whether Stan Lee or anyone else initially intended to tie their new superhero stuff into their 1940s continuity—whether they meant from the start for it all to be part of the same universe. But this would eventually happen—before long, both Captain America and the Sub-Mariner would be reintroduced into the more modern continuity. Those old characters were quite simply too cool to leave behind. By the end of the 1960s, the WWII-era stories would be considered an established part of the new and ever-growing Marvel Universe. Keep that in mind. It’ll be important later on.

FANTASTIC FOUR #1 (November 1961)

First of all, I will state right off that I’m not getting into the debate about who deserves the most credit for the existence of the Fantastic Four—Stan Lee or artist Jack Kirby. I know there was some bitterness in later years about who contributed what to those early comics (and I do believe that Kirby was later treated poorly by Marvel Comics), but I have enormous respect for both Lee and Kirby as storytellers. All I’m gonna do is talk about the end product—the first book in what would represent the birth of a vibrant and entertaining alternate reality.

The Fantastic Four consists of brilliant scientist Reed Richards, gruff test-pilot Ben Grimm, Reed’s gal Sue Storm and Sue’s teenage brother Johnny. Reed took his three friends on a test flight of a new rocket, but things go awry when the ship is pelted with “cosmic rays.” They crash-land, then soon discover each of them has gained a unique superpower. Reed can stretch his body like rubber. Sue can turn invisible. Johnny becomes a new version of the Human Torch. Ben Grimm gets the rotten end of the stick—he becomes the super-strong but ugly and rock-like Thing.

It’s an interesting origin, especially when you remember that the FF is created because Reed, smart as he is, screwed up when he ignores Ben’s warnings about the danger of cosmic rays. It’s an important point—because Ben is the one who gets turned into something monstrous-looking as a result. Ben’s bitterness over this is the strongest emotional linchpin of this first issue and, though he and Reed gradually morph into best friends in later issues, Reed’s search for a cure for Ben will be a reoccurring plot-point for years.

In this first issue, the FF doesn’t have costumes—though that will soon change. We learn in the next issue that they don’t have secret identities either--another point deliberately made to get them to stand out from DC’s characters.

The FF’s first mission is taking on the Mole Man, a guy who lives on a remote island called Monster Isle and sends his subterranean creatures around the world to steal nuclear reactors. Our heroes confront the villain, beat up a few cool-looking monsters (Jack Kirby was incapable of designing a monster that didn’t look cool) and foil the Mole Man’s plans to destroy the surface world.

Kirby’s strong artwork and character design carry the plot along quickly and effectively, while the personality conflicts between the characters really did succeed in making the comic stand out from the crowd. It’s an auspicious start for the new comic. Perhaps the only drawback is that poor Sue isn’t given a lot to do. In fact, until Lee and Kirby eventually opt to amp up her powers a few years down the line, this will be a reoccurring problem with the character.

But would the Fantastic Four have to stand alone against supervillains, monsters and invading aliens? Of course not. In fact, concurrent with FF #2, we would also get our first glance of a character who would eventually join the ranks of the superheroes. But that’s a story for our next entry in this series.

[Interesting side fact: In this issue, the FF are based in “Central City,” copying DC habit of creating fictional cities to house their superheroes. By issue #3, though, their hometown morphs in plain ol’ New York City.]

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