Fantastic Four #1
Written by Stan Lee
Pencils by Jack Kirby
Inks by George Klein (probably) I say probably because it’s still not 100% settled that it was Klein who inked FF #1, but he’s now the odds on favorite and it’s pretty well accepted.
It’s a little intimidating to start out with what is probably one of the five most important comics ever, but here we go. My intention is to look at these books from both a historic perspective and as an adult reading the books (usually for at least the second time). I first read FF #1 in a Marvel Pocket Book that reprinted the first five issues when I was probably 10 - 12 years old.
This could pretty easily have been a cover from one of the Atlas monster comics that Lee & Kirby had been producing for a few years. The monster in the center is great. The team introduces themselves on the cover. I have absolutely no idea how the Hell Mr. Fantastic ended up tied up in ropes. The monster certainly didn’t do it. And there is no other nemesis. Fetish perchance? Ben appears to have four finger and no thumb on his left hand and three fingers and a thumb on his right.
The book opens with a 2/3 splash that shows a smoke “flare” with the name Fantastic Four panicking the crowd. We also see the team in their civilian ID’s at the top. So between the splash and the cover we know who we’re dealing with. The first eight pages bring the crew together to meet the cryptic threat that the mysterious firer of the flare hints too. Lee & Kirby take the opportunity to really introduce us to the FF.
Sue Storm is having tea with a friend when the call goes out. For some unknown reason she feels the need to become invisible in order to go to their headquarters. This leaves her friend wondering where she’s gone, makes the folks on the street, who she shoves aside, confused and scares the poo out of the poor cabbie who wonders why money is floating around his cab and talking to him. Nope…Superman isn’t the only one who is a dick.
Poor Ben Grimm, dressed like a cut-rate P.I., can’t find clothes to fit him. But that doesn’t matter when the clarion call is sounded. He must answer so quickly that he doesn’t have time to go through the door to the store he’d just entered, but must break it apart showing his Thing-strength. This, of course, perturbs the cops who are serendipitously outside the door causing them to take a shot at Ben. (Personally I feel for the guy in the purple suit who is showered with glass as Ben breaks through the door). Ben then decides to tear up the street, travel the sewers and then tear up the street again when he gets near his destination. Which isn’t such a good idea because there’s a car coming…though we now know that The Thing is stronger than a speeding car.
Speaking of cars, young Johnny Storm loves them. Only one other thing interests him more. That one thing is bursting in to flame and melting the car he was just working on with his buddy. For want of getting out of the driver’s seat, the car will no longer be “purring like a kitten.” Johnny flies toward his destination which garners the attention of the crowd…and of the Air Guard. I think we have to assume that at this point Stan had no thoughts about tying the FF in with the older Timely books, because one would think that people might have remembered the original human torch from less than a decade before. Johnny is apparently so dangerous (he melts at least two jets that get too close) that they fire a missile with a nuclear warhead on it at him. A NUCLEAR WARHEAD. While he’s flying over a city. Luckily for Johnny (and the hundreds of thousands of people below) Johnny is saved by Reed (Mr. Fantastic Richards) who throws the missile in to the nearby sea (poor fish) and grabs Johnny as his flame fizzles out.
Obviously Reed has already been hard at work on unstable molecules as Johnny is not nekkid and Reed’s clothing stretches with him. And Sue’s clothes got invisible…which was probably warmer than her running about in the buff.
Before we find out what the danger is, we need to find out the origin of our fantastic foursome. I’m going to gloss over this as it’s so well known. I love that Cold War paranoia though. And really…we’re going to take along our girlfriend and her kid brother on a dangerous trip in to space in an experimental spaceship? Alrighty. The final panel on page nine feels like it could have been lifted from Challengers of the Unknown. As we know “those terrible cosmic rays” did a number on our heroes. Sue turns invisible. Johnny starts on fire. Reed becomes an India Rubber Man. And Ben just gets hosed, looking like something straight out of the second story of Journey in to Mystery. He tries to take it out on Reed, but eventually joins in the fun of helping the world. Johnny does start a forest fire and he‘s somehow not nekkid when his flame goes out. So we have that going for us.
Page 14 starts with a 2/3 splash that reintroduces our monster friend from the cover. The important issue that necessitated the destructive charge to HQ is that atomic facilities around the globe have been disappearing in to the ground. Yep…that’s right. Pictures of stuff that has happened. No present danger. A phone call and a leisurely cab ride would have been fine. Sorry about all the destruction, townsfolk.
We do find out that our buddy from the cover is controlled by The Moleman and that they are responsible for the disappearances. Reed uses math and science to discover that the center of the carnage is Monster Island., which Ben is convinced is a “fairy tale.” It’s not. And our heroes are attacked by a pretty funky three-headed monster.
Johnny and Reed fall down a crevice and in to the abode of The Moleman. One of its features is a “valley of diamonds” that is blindingly bright. Which is pretty cool…as long as you don’t wonder what the Hell the light source is. Moleman advises our twosome of his origin…cast out by society because he was ugly, he found the center of the Earth, lost most of his sight, tamed the underworld monsters and is going to destroy the upper world, using his minions. Not enslave…not pay back. Nope destroy. But then he’s going to carve out an underground empire…which he kind of already has. And there won’t be any people left. The guy is a bit nuts. He’s good with a quarterstaff though…or at least better than Johnny…or Reed.. Because of his mole/bat senses.
Outside Ben defeats a monster that is threatening Sue. Then Johnny defeats a monster as they escape the lair of the Moleman. And his flame collapses the entrance to his lair. Reed, who had captured the Moleman lets him loose because his empire has been sealed off and he will never trouble anyone again. Except his monsters were striking all over the world. From underground. Maybe they’ll be able to just tunnel up again…like they did before.
I’m not really an “art” guy. I’ve never taken an art class. I know diddly about inking. Mostly I just know what I like. This is clearly not Kirby’s best work, even for this time period. I’ve read that his backgrounds in The Rawhide Kid that was running contemporaneously are much better. I can’t confirm that, but don’t disbelieve it. I will say that overall this was not nearly as strong as his work on Challengers of the Unknown a few years earlier. But it was dynamic and the design of the monsters was cool.
Stan was starting to do some things that were different, while still fitting firmly in the “monster books” that had been selling for some time. We see the tip of the tortured soul that Ben Grimm would become. He and Reed fight and probably rightly so given what Ben looks like. And this isn’t a team-up of separate heroes like we see in JLA. These people are family and friends and that makes a clear difference. At the same time we have a lot of the same silliness that we’d see in older comics. And Sue…well it’s pretty clear that they have no idea what to do with her besides have her be saved by Ben.
The toll: One doorway, two gaping holes in the street, two automobiles, two military jets, one nuclear missile, one spaceship (damaged at least), one forest fire, one monster island.
Grade for historic importance: A+
Grade for enjoyment: B-
I want to note that I remember loving these early FF issues when I was about 10 - 12. At the same time what would be considered the "peak" of the run was being reprinted in Marvel's Greatest Comics and I didn't like them nearly as well. So the book did what it was supposed to do at the time. That I find fault with it at 44, can in no way ever change that.