Let me set the scene for you. The year is 1961. The cold war is raging and it’s unclear who is going to get to space first, the United States, or The Soviet Union. At this time, Americans are obsessed with the idea of space, what might be out there, if we can get there, and what might happen if communists get there first. There is more than a hint of paranoia in the air and the ideal value at the time is the nuclear family. Some groups are constrained by society to an unacceptable degree including people of color, women, and the LGBTQ+ community.
In comic books, there are heroes and certainly teams of heroes. Some heroes have all of the same types of powers that the Fantastic Four have but none of them will enjoy the enormous success that Reed Richards, Ben Grimm, Johnny Storm, and Sue Storm will.
On the eighth day of November, a comic book that will change the entire entertainment industry forever is released. Most people will read this issue and throw it away after. There will be some mothers and fathers who will throw away their kids’ comic books after they have been sitting on the living room floor for too long. Some of those stacks will include the first issue of The Fantastic Four. This will turn out to be an unfortunate decision for the people who lost this issue because it is a majorly significant event in comic books. This issue is the birth of the Marvel 616 universe. This is where superheroes begin to grow up.
Now imagine, not knowing any of this, and reading the issue. What is in it? Why is it important? I have some answers for you.
Stan Lee, the writer, Jack Kirby, the artist, and Christopher Rule, the inker come together to create what will become known as “the first family of superheroes”. Technically this nickname is incorrect. There had been families of superheroes before. Superman and Supergirl are related. There is the Marvel family in DC comics that includes Billy Batson as Captain Marvel (no not that one and we’ll get into this in a later review) and his family. The nickname will mean something closer to “The First Lady” or “The First Gentleman” as it relates to the American presidency. And this first family has something that no other family in comic-dom has at the time. Arguments. That’s right. They don’t all get along and they don’t all revel in the enormous power they come to wield and that is what makes them different and appealing. Their power to disagree makes this comic book more appealing and more successful than Stan, Jack, and Christopher could have expected.
Another thing that sets this book apart is the dynamic and appealing artwork of Jack Kirby. The action virtually leaps off the page at you in a way that no other comic book at the time could achieve. From the monster like appearance of The Thing to the frenetic energy and boyish exuberance in The Human Torch’s flight, Kirby incredibly engaged the reader.
As far as what happens in the issue the story itself isn’t anything we hadn’t seen in comics before. There were threats in other comics dealing with atomic energy. There had even been strange villains who had chosen to make their lairs underground before. But the way the story is executed is revolutionary in the world of comics.
We start with the citizens of Central City (later to be Manhattan) seeing a mysterious message in the sky that simply read “The Fantastic Four”. This is a message sent out by none other than Reed Richards. He is signaling Susan Storm, Benjamin Grimm and Johnny Storm. One by one we see each of them using their marvelous powers. Susan can turn invisible. Ben is massively strong and does some property damage on his way out of a clothing store and in the street heading towards Reed. Johnny lights on fire, melts a car, and streaks into the air. He has to defend himself from the military and accidentally melts a couple of government planes. He does make sure the pilots are safe before leaving the area though. A missile is launched at Johnny and just when it looks like there is no escape, the fantastically stretchy arms of Reed Richards wrap around the nuclear warhead to stop it. Reed now has the team together and tells them they must stop a threat to the world.
All this might be standard fare in other comic books. With a different creative team, that might have been the entire story, other than to deal with the bad guy. But Stan Lee makes the smart decision to tell us the origin of the Fantastic Four in flashback form. And here is where a lot of the Marvel 616 universe begins. Reed wants to fly a spaceship to outer space. Ben Grimm is against the idea because there are cosmic rays in the atmosphere that no one has studied or understands. Sue Storm, who also happens to be Reed’s fiance, comes to Reed’s defense and immediately tells Ben they have to go through with the flight “unless we want the commies to beat us to it!” and calls Ben a coward. Ben is of course no coward and changes his mind. Sue is along for the ride because she is Reed’s fiance and Johnny comes to protect his sister.
This little scene sets up a lot of the family dynamic. For years, Sue will demure to Reed. For years, Ben will be seen as stubborn and will on occasion blame Reed for his troubles. Johnny is always impulsive and hot-headed. And Reed will consider himself the leader of the group due to his superior intellect.
As you might expect, the cosmic rays do affect the group. Their ship crashes and they are all transformed. Susan sees Ben turn into a rock-like creature that she calls a “Thing”. Johnny gets hot under the collar, and then all over and declares himself, “The Human Torch”. This is not the first character in comics to be called by that name but Johnny Storm will be the most memorable. Susan suddenly disappears. She dubs herself “The Invisible Girl”. It’s a sign of the sexist times that although she is a full-grown adult woman, the name Invisible Girl instead of Invisible Woman was given to her. The only name that doesn’t make a lot of sense is that of Reed Richards. He dubs himself the egotistical moniker of “Mister Fantastic.” This does not describe his powers or appearance in any way. This kind of arrogance does define Reed as a character in years to come. He is the smartest man in the world and is well aware of that fact which can at times lead to a rather inflated ego and some poor decision making.
No one on this team asked for their powers. Ben wishes it had never happened. Johnny is thrilled he can fly and at his new powers. Sue doesn’t seem to say a lot about her powers one way or another. Reed doesn’t seem too troubled by his newfound ability to stretch in incredible ways.
Someone or something is threatening the entire world. The FF go to an island to investigate. A fight with a monster separates the party. Johnny and Reed fall into a tunnel after a cave-in. They have been imprisoned in a land filled with blindingly bright diamonds by a man who calls himself The Moleman.
The name is silly and his powers are that of a mole, more or less. He also controls and releases the monsters that have been fighting on the surface world. We learn that he is evil because humanity hated him for his appearance and he wants his revenge. Moleman will become a repeat villain who harasses the surface world more than once. Also, this starts a trend in 616 in which a large number of individuals have powers relating to or caused by animals. Spider-man will be the most famous of these but there is a large catalog of this type of character in the Marvel comics.
Of course, using their fantastic powers, the Fantastic Four defeat Moleman. He is buried underground thanks to Johnny’s causing a rock slide. The team hopes they have seen the last of him, thereby ensuring that he will return.
This first issue does a lot of heavy lifting to establish things in Marvel going forward. Some things change and are wrong. For example, the city is called Central City instead of just placing the team in New York City like they will become known for. All in all, though, it’s an incredibly compelling and dynamic issue and if you read it, it’s obvious why it is seen as the birth of the Marvel universe.
Next on the reading list is Fantastic Four #2