I came late to the Marvel Universe. I couldn’t help it – the whole phenomenon began eight years before I was born, when Stanley Martin Leiber, then writing under the pen name Stan Lee, turned around to his wife and said he was bored with writing hokey horror/monster stories for Atlas Comics and wanted to change career. She told him to try writing something he really wanted to, and the rest is history.
I was also held up by an embargo imposed by my parents, who told me that they didn’t want me reading Marvels. This, of course, only made me curious about why they would want to ban them.
Eventually I had my way, but I had to come to it by a devious route; like many kids of the time, I came to the Marvel Universe via Star Wars. In early 1978, unable to get into the local Odeon to see the film itself, I spotted a copy of “The Marvel Comics Illustrated Version” in, I think, Woolworths. This was a paperback published by Sphere Books, presenting all six issues of the Marvel adaptation. I read it in a single afternoon and LOVED it.
This led me to persuade my long-suffering folks that Marvel UK’s Star Wars Weekly was a good investment if they wanted to keep me quiet. For anyone not native to the UK or old enough to know, SWW was an anthology comic, so not only did it feature the movie adaptation (followed by the first-ever attempt to continue the story by Marvel writers and artists) but reprints of other science fiction-oriented comics that had been published by Marvel.
So my eight-and-nine-year-old mind was soon filled with Star-Lord by Chris Claremont and John Byrne, Guardians of the Galaxy, Warlock by Jim Starlin, Deathlok by Rich Buckler and Killraven by P. Craig Russell, among other offerings. This led me, in late 1978, to defy my folks and pick up a copy of Super Spider-Man, which was then printing stories of Marvel’s most famous hero alongside The Avengers, Thor and Captain America. I was hooked.
But as a latecomer to the party, I have never read the Marvel stories in chronological order. Now, with the Covid-19 lockdown leaving me with a little spare time, I thought I’d have a go. Admittedly, I’m coming to them with the perspective of a man in his 50s rather than a boy whose years could be counted in single figures. But hopefully I’ll be able to find something to say that hasn’t been mentioned before.
The first impression of any comic book is provided by its cover – and the cover of Fantastic Four #1 (dated November 1961 – but actually released in August of that year) suggests that despite Mrs Lee’s advice, Stan hedged his bets.
It shows a street scene in which members of the general public are running away while our eponymous heroes defend them against a giant green monster that’s rising from beneath the pavement. Barring the fact that the soon-to-be-nicknamed FF are all displaying their superheroic abilities, it could be the cover of an Atlas monster comic with an improbably title like “Nause! He was green and deadly!”
Still, it heralded the arrival of new superheroes under the banner “Marvel Comics”, after years in which the publisher had considered them to be commercial death.
But what about the story?
Flip the page and the first thing you learn about the Fantastic Four is that they have a penchant for criminal damage that makes them more of a danger to society than any villain or monster.
The splash image shows a flare being released from the upper floor of a skyscraper, spelling out “The Fantastic Four” somewhat improbably in the air.
It’s really dangerous to fire any kind of flare gun in a built-up area! The materials used become very hot and are likely to start fires where they land. One would expect that a doctor, as Reed Richards is billed, would have known that!
What happens next? Susan Storm, having tea with “a society friend” (ooh, how posh!) turns invisible and walks out, shocking her friend with her sudden disappearance. She rushes out to the street and pushes everybody in front of her onto the ground – that’s physical assault. Then she climbs into a taxi, unnoticed by the driver and takes a free ride to her destination – that’s fare-dodging.
The scene shifts to a men’s clothing store, where the shopkeeper is telling Ben Grimm, “I just don’t carry anything big enough to fit a man your size!” The reason becomes instantly apparent when the retailer sees the flare and Ben doffs his coat to reveal a thick orange carapace. Unfortunately – and contradictorily, considering he must have managed to get inside okay – Ben decides to leave through the wall, grumbling, “Why must they build doorways so narrow?” That’s criminal damage.
Nearby officers of
New York’s Central City’s finest, in what can’t be their finest hour, open fire on Ben at the sight of him – so he rips up the tarmac beneath him and drops into the sewer – more criminal damage. Then, after travelling some distance underground, he decides he has gone far enough – and, as there’s no manhole above to let him out, he rips another hole in the tarmac and bursts through, crumpling the front of a car that hurtles into him before it can stop. That’s even more criminal damage – and an echo of the cover. By this point, the FF have done more harm to public property than any monster!
Again the scene shifts, to teenager Johnny Storm, who has just completed work on the engine of his car. Then, at sight of the airborne flare (which has now magically transformed into “4”), he bursts into flame and melts the entire vehicle into slag as he bursts through its roof and takes to the air.
The authorities leap into action (perhaps alerted by the unauthorised flare?) and launch jet fighters to intercept this “flaming flying object” – but they fly too close and he accidentally melts all the planes. That’s the destruction of millions of dollars worth of government property (in today’s money).
It’s hardly surprising that the authorities launch a Hunter missile, which locks on to Johnny’s heat. “It has a nuclear warhead,” he wails. A what? “If it explodes, I’m a goner!” Yes, along with the entire city beneath him! Talk about using a sledgehammer to swat a fly!
Luckily, Johnny has a friend in a low(er) place. Elongated arms stretch upwards and grab the missile. Wouldn’t it be too hot? Wouldn’t it be too fast? Wouldn’t it do all kinds of horrible things to his bare hands?
The strain turns out to have been too much for Johnny and his flame goes out. No longer lighter than air, Johnny plummets towards the ground – but Reed (for it is he) stops the plunge by stretching between two buildings as a makeshift safety net.
Returning through the window, Reed sees the other three have all assembled. Do they pass comment on the millions of dollars’ worth of damage they have caused in the crime spree recounted on the strip’s first eight pages?
Not a bit of it!
“You all heeded my summons!! Good!!” says Reed. “There is a task that awaits us… A fearful task!” Paying for the damage? Apparently not.
It is a great way to introduce the characters, though.
We’ve been thrust straight into the story with lead characters who already have their super powers and have demonstrated them. It’s a much more dynamic start than presenting the story of how they got those powers, which must logically start relatively slowly. It is to that story that we go now – and it shows that the members of the FF had a penchant for crime even before they became “super”.
It turns out that Reed had created a rocket capable of carrying people into space, and wanted Ben to pilot it. But he hadn’t carried out necessary safety checks regarding cosmic rays (hint, hint). Not only that, but he decided to take his girlfriend (Sue) and her brother (Johnny) along, purely for the ride. On top of all that, he couldn’t be bothered to wait for an official all-clear to launch, but broke into the “spaceport” and launched the rocket (I think it was later dubbed “Marvel 1” for ironic reasons) – dodging the guards.
These creeps are habitual. Who can stop their campaign of terror?
As it happens, at first it seems that nobody should have needed to. Remember those cosmic rays? They break through the craft’s weak shielding and affect each of the crew in turn, forcing a rough auto-pilot landing. I don’t know who owned the land, but one presumes they weren’t too happy to find it scarred by the arrival of several million dollars’ worth of (damaged) rocket.
The effects of the cosmic rays make themselves known immediately. Sue turns invisible, Ben turns orange, Reed turns stretchy and Johnny bursts into flame – which is odd, because cosmic rays aren’t actually believed to cause any change to human beings at all. They’re more likely to have harmed electronic circuitry on the rocket.
Despite their record so far – and the damage done to the landscape in learning of their new powers – Ben improbably suggests that Reed wants them to “use that power to help mankind, right?”
Well, it would make a refreshing change!
Coming back to the present, Reed shows the others a series of photos showing that atomic power plants across the world are being attacked, apparently leaving holes into the earth. An incident in “French Africa” shows that the attacks are being carried out by – gosh – a giant monster. But! it is being ordered around by a human figure. Villainy!
The FF turn to technology to find the source of the terror campaign, gazing “in astonishment at Dr Reed Richards’ super-sensitive radarscope”… his what? Get used to these wacky names because this is the first of many!
And to what location does this machine track the chaos? Monster Island! I kid you not! Wouldn’t you have thought that might be their first port of call in any event?
On arrival (they have a small, private jet, which indicates this group have a lot of cash behind them), the FF soon learn they’ve come to the right place in an encounter with another – different – giant monster. The clash forces them into a pit where they meet the villain of the piece: The Moleman.
Yup. Don’t laugh. The villain is a human being who has taken on the attributes of a burrowing earth mammal. His backstory reveals that he is a victim of the shallowness of human nature: people rejected him because he wasn’t pretty enough for them. Spurned by his peers, this guy set his sights high – by seeking a legendary land at the centre of the Earth that we’ve never heard of, where he could be king. Why would he be?
Well, it doesn’t matter because it turns out that he found it and, despite having been struck almost blind in the process, mastered the creatures living there, including the enormous monsters. It seems this ugly little guy had more to him than at first appeared!
And his plan? “As soon as I have wrecked every atomic plant, every source of earthly power, my mighty mole creatures will attack and destroy everything that lives above the surface!” Mad. Barking!
And that’s probably the reason the FF manage to polish him off within three pages.
And that’s it! So what have we discovered?
That great power comes with great irresponsibility: the members of the new super-team seem to do just whatever the hell they like.
That people who are unattractive are pushed to unusual lengths by the insensitivity of their peers. What, you thought I’d say they’re naturally predisposed to villainy?
And that superheroism makes you irritable. Yes it does! The FF get on each other’s nerves more than they antagonise the villain of the piece!
And this last is apparently the selling-point that made The Fantastic Four an instant hit. Before this, superheroes were seen to be paragons of virtue who would never, ever show any evidence that they were genuine human beings. Stan was trying to introduce an element of realistic relationships into comics.
This was a tentative step in the right direction but it led to all the storytelling developments that we see in comics – and comics-related films such as the smash-hit Marvel Cinematic Universe – that we see today.
From today’s perspective, it’s hilarious that anybody took it seriously.
But in perspective, it is also historic.