Fantastic Four #1: August, 1961 Pick of the Month

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Fantastic Four #1
"The Fantastic Four"
Written by Stan Lee, Art by Jack Kirby, Inks by George Klein, Christopher Rule, Colors by Stan Goldberg, Letters by Artie Simek
Cover Dated November, 1962

Recap: Reed Richards, his fiancé Susan Storm, her brother Johnny Storm, and test pilot Ben Grimm are tasked with beating America’s enemies to space. Reed is ready to commence this mission now, but Ben wants to delay due to the unknown factor of cosmic rays. Ben is eventually talked into the mission, and the foursome are on their way. Sure enough, their craft is bombarded by cosmic rays in space, and they crash back down to Earth. They emerge from the wreckage relatively unharmed, but with extraordinary new powers. The agree to come together as a superhero team, should the need ever arise. 

The need does indeed arise as the Mole Man has tasked his army of monsters with destroying the world’s atomic plants. The Fantastic Four go to Monster Isle to deal with this threat, where they learn of the Mole Man’s plan and tragic backstory. The FF seal the villain and his army within the Isle, which explodes behind them as they fly away.

Fantastic Four #1 may be the single comic book I’ve most reread in my life, making it an automatic pick for our first ever Pick of the Month.

I love the utter madness of this book’s opening pages as we are introduced to each member of the Fantastic Four in chaotic fashion. Reed Richards calls together his team for the first time by shooting a “Fantastic Four” flare into the sky above New York City (or Central City as it will only temporarily be known). The other three teammates respond by immediately using their powers to get across town. Susan turns invisible causing “ghost” panic among some passerby, Ben causes untold property damage, and Johnny has to deal with an Air Force missile.

It’s not the most “heroic” of entrances, and in fact speaks to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s then-current success with monster comics. It’s a brash and defining opening statement for their version of superhero storytelling. It immediately sets itself apart from the distinguished competition over at DC, and lets you know what to expect from Marvel’s age of heroes.

From there, we flash back to the team’s origin, which too finds its roots more in monsters than in capes and tights. Their origin even plays out like an episode of The Twilight Zone as the team gets something of a cosmic punishment for their over-eagerness.

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Jack Kirby shines in these moments of terror – from the look of horror on Ben’s face when he realizes that the cosmic rays are going to kill them, to the grotesque transformation of our heroes from humans into something ranging from freaks to monsters.

The Mole Man chapter that closes out the book is probably the least engrossing of the book’s three chapters, but is still enjoyable in itself. The theme of “not your average superheroes” continues with the decision not to give the team costumes on their first official adventure.

Kirby again gets to shine in this chapter, as the team takes on an island full of cleverly designed monsters. The goofy villain even gets his due, with a surprisingly and sweetly sympathetic portrayal of the pathetic Mole Man. Before he was mole, he was simply just man, though you wouldn’t know it from the way people treated him. He couldn’t get a single friend, girl, or job simply due to his ugly visage. It’s easy to see why someone could abandon humanity, when humanity has already abandoned them.

While Kirby shines right away, the same can’t entirely be said about Stan. I haven’t said a lot about Stan Lee so far, and that’s because he’s not quite as noticeable in this first issue as he will be in the issues to come.  A lot of what makes Stan, Stan isn’t immediately present. He is still writing his protagonists with a certain square-jawed, straight-faced style that is held over from his monster comics.

I don’t mean to denigrate his portion of this marvelous comic, simply to say that it isn’t at the level that it will be in even just a few issue’s time. He hasn’t quite found his universally-known Stan “The Man” Lee voice yet. But there is just enough of a hint of it here to whet your appetite for his stories to come. That famous Lee humor is just around the corner.

Fantastic Four #1 gets the hyperbolic distinction of being a roadmap to everything that would come after it. A blueprint on how to do comic books the Marvel way. While the expectation that's placed on it is unrealistic, it’s also not too horribly far from the truth. It’s a great individual comic book, a strong start to an all-time series, and is an important first step to what Marvel would eventually become.

- Levi Hunt