Fantastic Four #1: The Odd Genesis Of The Marvel Universe

This post is part of Fantastic Adventure, How to Love Comics’ celebration of the Fantastic Four’s 60th anniversary. Find out more and read other posts in this series.

The Fantastic Four turns 60 this year, something that HTLC will be exploring and celebrating all year. In the first of what will be many pieces about the team, we’ll go back to where it all began – 1961’s Fantastic Four #1. There’s plenty to discuss and dissect, and by doing so, we will see what the team were like in their first outing but how Stan Lee and Jack Kirby sparked something bigger.

Fantastic Four #1 cover by Jack Kirby.
Fantastic Four #1 cover by Jack Kirby.

I should discuss the cover before we start with the story. Throughout the decades it has become an iconic image, being homaged and parodied countless times, but it’s an odd piece if you stop to think about it. It feels like one of the giant monster books that Marvel was putting out at the time rather than a superhero one. The focus is on the giant creature bursting out of the ground, while the Fantastic Four are minuscule in comparison. Additionally, each character has dialogue that’s used as a shortcut to introducing themselves on the cover. The problem with this is that it comes off reading clumsy and stilted.

It’s the inverse of the usual superhero cover where the heroes are the focal point. Marvel doing superhero comics again (the popularity of superheroes had waned by the end of the 40s) was a gamble, especially with unknown characters. Perhaps Kirby decided to play it safe by leaning into the giant monster element, something that readers were more familiar with. Subsequent issues would remedy this as the Fantastic Four’s popularity grew, the covers become more bombastic and what you would expect from a superhero comic.

Moving past the cover, let’s dive into the contents of it. The comic itself is broken up into three different stories:

  1. The introduction of the characters
  2. The Fantastic Four’s origin
  3. The confrontation with The Moleman
Fantastic Four art by Jack Kirby.
Fantastic Four art by Jack Kirby.

It opens with a mysterious figure, who we learn later is Mister Fantastic, firing a flare into the air. The words “The Fantastic Four!” appear and linger in Central City’s (they would soon relocate to New York City) skyline and alert the other members. On seeing it, Susan Storm (Invisible Girl), Ben Grimm (The Thing), and Johnny Storm (The Human Torch) would know this is a summons and make their way through the city to the meeting point.

This sequence is used to show off the character’s abilities. While it’s a common trope to see heroes showing off their powers before kicking into the story proper, again, this feels more like a story out Journey Into Mystery (pre-Thor) or House to Astonish. For instance, Invisible Girl uses her invisibility to hitch a ride in a taxi, spooking the people around her as objects float around. Both The Thing and Human Torch cause enough of a panic that the police and the air force are called out. The Thing’s pages almost feel like something you would see in a Hulk story, a character who would be created roughly 9 months later.

Now that we have seen their powers in action, it’s time to see how they got them. This sequence moves incredibly fast, packing a lot in just five pages. It opens with the cast debating if it’s wise to launch off into outer space in a rocket that Reed Richards has developed. There is concern about cosmic rays, but Richards is too impatient and wants to risk it for scientific discovery. Convincing everyone else to join him, even though most have no astronaut training, they take a rocket and blast-off into outer space. They are inundated by cosmic rays and steer the rocket back to Earth for safety. This is where they find out they now have the fantastic powers that you saw earlier in the comic and after short conflict decide that they need to use them for good.

Fantastic Four #1 page 9 by Jack Kirby.
Fantastic Four #1 page 9 by Jack Kirby.

With this sequence, Lee and Kirby strike the zeitgeist of the early 60s. People were enthralled by the Space race, which, at this point, had only just begun manned-missions into space. It was a brand-new frontier, and readers thought anything was thought possible, even if it was fanciful.

Back in the present day, the Fantastic Four haven’t gotten together to reminisce about their origin. There’s a mystery to solve! Atomic power plants around the world are going missing and left with a big hole in the ground. After some deductive reasoning, they track the source of the issue to the ominous Monster Isle. There, they encounter “underground gargoyles” and their leader Moleman.

Moleman by Jack Kirby.
Moleman by Jack Kirby.

Again, this feels a bit like one of Marvel’s monster comics, but with a superhero spin. It’s the first time we see their powers used heroically, fighting monsters.

While he’s involvement in Fantastic Four #1 is brief, Moleman is an interesting character. Presents him as sympathetic, with villainous motivations that have multiple dimensions. Most villains of the time either wanted to take over the world or rob banks, but with Moleman, it’s all due to bitterness of a world that has treated him poorly.

Based on the above, you would assume that Fantastic Four was double or triple length story. Nope, this is packed into 25 pages of the story. It’s constantly moving from one thing to the next and rarely takes a break to slow down. The advantage of this is that you get plenty of bang for your buck. Although, at the same time, it doesn’t take the time to dwell on any event. It feels all go, go, go. If you’ve read plenty of comics of the era then you’d be used to the cadence, but if you’re not then it can feel a bit exhausting.

Let’s take a look at Jack Kirby’s art. It’s through his work on Fantastic Four that his high-energy and bombastic style became legendary, but with this issue, he hasn’t reached this stage yet. It’s more akin to the work he did in the 1950s. It’s a bit more subdued, with narrow lines and forms when it comes to character design. That’s not to say that it’s bad, it’s just something that readers might be used to if they’re more familiar with peak Kirby.

Fantastic Four #1 art by Jack Kirby.
Fantastic Four #1 art by Jack Kirby.

That’s not to say we don’t get to see some flashes of the Kirby readers know and love. The best example of this is the origin sequence in space. There’s a boldness to his lines that’s not seen in other parts, which aided by spot-blacks and his signature expressions. This sequence also includes gripping use of colour, with reds, pinks and yellows washed over the character, ramping up the danger and urgency.

As the Fantastic Four series continues, Kirby will find the comic’s visual identity and with it his classic style. Characters will have more distinct features. For example, The Thing will have a more defined shape and facial features and will benefit a lot from visual flourishes that future Kirby will offer.

Something that’s introduced in Fantastic Four #1 that was fresh for superhero comics of the time was inter-team conflict. Like any given family, they don’t always get along. There are disagreements, arguments, and tension. It was a stark difference to the Justice League, who mostly agreed with one another. It also made these larger than life characters more relatable and less robotic.

You’ll see that Lee and Kirby didn’t have everything planned from the start. A lot of what we see is familiar to fans, but at the same time, a lot of what we know about the team is not quite there yet. But what we know of the FF, would not be far away, with the pair refining the ideas in this issue as they went along.

It’s also worth noting that issue is not just the genesis of the Fantastic Four, but the whole Marvel Universe as we know it. Fantastic Four was the first comic in what would end up being an expansive superhero universe, with Lee and Kirby’s 100+ issues together on the title being a foundational backbone.

While it might sound like I have been ragging on Fantastic Four #1, truth be told, it’s a fascinating read. Beyond the curiosity of it being the first Fantastic Four comic or the genesis of the Marvel Universe, it’s interesting to see the creative choices. While some of these make the comic feel like its contemporaries, it also has plenty of fresh ideas and interpretations of superheroes that were unseen at the time. It’s a seed of what’s possible, and we all know how exciting that ended up being.

Fantastic Four #1 is collected in Marvel Masterworks: Fantastic Four Volume 1 or Fantastic Four Epic Collection: The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine. You can find these at all good comic book stores, book stores, online stores, eBay, and digitally on Comixology.

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  • Hey this is a great read and I’m excited about your focus on the FF! My first foray into the Marvel universe was a little later in life with Hickman’s FF run! I just picked up all of the Lee/Kirby FF Epic’s released so far so I’m excited to read them and follow your writings.