Wednesday, March 19, 2014

November 1961

FANTASTIC FOUR 1  /  cover by Jack Kirby & George Klein
In Central City, people panic when words appear in the sky, formed by a very unusual signal-flare gun being fired.  It continues when 3 people, all with strange, unearthly powers, race from one end of town to another to answer the signal.  An invisible woman bumps people in a crowd aside, then scare the wits out of a cab driver.  A man who appear made of living rock destroys part of a clothing store, gets shot at by cops, knocks holes in the street and wrecks a speeding car.  And finally, a teenager destroys a car he was working on by turning into living flames-- then is almost blown out of the sky by a fighter-jet's missile, until he's rescued by a man whose arms stretch like impossibly-strong rubber bands.  And then we find out-- wait a minute!! THESE are the GOOD GUYS???

In a flashback, we meet Dr. Reed Richards, who's spent years building a spaceship to reach the stars. His pilot, Ben Grimm, warns him of the potential dangers of cosmic rays.  Reed's fiancee, Susan, says, "We've GOT to take that chance... unless we want the Commies to beat us to it.  I-- I never thought YOU would be a coward!"  "A COWARD!! NOBODY calles ME a coward!  Get the ship! I'll fly her no matter WHAT happens!"  And so the four (including Sue's brother Johnny, who decides to "tag along"), without waiting for clearance, launch Reed's spaceship, and, sure enough, encounter cosmic rays in the upper atmosphere, which affects all of them.  Losing control, the ship's auto-pilot manages a rough but non-fatal landing.  On emerging from the ship, all four find themselves changed.  Reed says, "Together we have more power than any humans have ever possessed!"  Though initially angry at what's happened, Ben replies, "We've gotta USE that power to help mankind, right?"

Back in the present, Reed shows photos of atomic plants around the world which have been destroyed, with huge, gaping holes in the Earth where buildings once stood.  And at that moment, in Africa, it happens again-- as a GIANT MONSTER from under the Earth digs its way up and destroys the place-- until it's ordered to stop by a tiny human figure controlling it.  Reed uses his radarscope to detemine the epicenter of the varous attacks, a remote place known as Monster Isle.  Exploring, they're attacked by a giant 3-headed monster, which Reed dispactches with his stretching powers, before the ground suddenly collapses, sending he and Johnny down a vertical shaft.  On regaining their senses, they're confronted by glaring light from a valley made of diamonds, and a mysterious figure-- The Mole Man.

Back on the surface, Ben saves Susan from another monster, and the two race to find the others.  Below, the ruler of this strange realm tells of how he was shunned and ridiculed because of his looks, eventually leaving civilization behind to search for someplace he could live in peace.  Exploring a cavern on Monster Isle, he slipped and fell, the accident blinding him, but also having the unexpected side-effect of giving him a bat-like radar sense.  Learning he could somehow control the creatures that lived under the Earth, he decided to build an empire there-- and further, to strike back at all of mankind for the way he was treated.  "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!"  Talk about over-reacting!

However, Ben & Sue arrive, Johnny fends off another giant monster, and the foursome run to escape a horde of onrushing creatures.  The Mole Man escapes, but as they fly off in their jet, the entire island goes up in an atomic explosion.  "He's destroyed the entire isle!  He's sealed himself below-- forever!"  "It's best that way!  There was no place for him in our world ...perhaps he'll find peace down there... I hope so!"  "I just hope we HAVE seen the last of him!"  All things considered-- ARE THEY KIDDING???

Creator, writer, designer & artist JACK KIRBY had been in the comics biz since the late 30's, with a long stream of successful features behind him. Finding himself on the outs with a crooked editor at DC Comics, he was forced to return to Marvel, where he'd been ripped off once before.  Having recently witnessed DC's revival of the super-hero genre, and created his own team of science-fiction adventurers, the CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN, he immediately pushed the idea of doing the same at Marvel.  But publisher Martin Goodman, who almost closed down his comics division following a distribution fiasco involving a greedy accountant and a Federal racketeering investigation, and with a long track record of imitating other people's successes, was hesitant. As a result, Kirby spent 3 years doing sci-fi stories, giant monsters, and westerns, until he was frankly getting sick of it.  At last Goodman gave the go-ahead, and Kirby came up with a variation of his earlier CHALLENGERS series, right down to the similar origin story, only with this foursome having super-powers.

The one thing Kirby was not allowed to do at Marvel was write his own dialogue.  His "Editor", who'd seen his staff and output decimated and his page rates cut by the near-shut-down, hit on the idea of writing dialogue for other people's stories, then taking the credit and pay for the full writing job.  Desperate circumstances forced Kirby to comply.  There was no choice.

There's some strange things about this first issue.   The disjointed structure of the story-- a prologue, followed by an origin flashback, followed by 2 chapters of the team fighting monsters-- is rather similar to the 1978 SUPERMAN movie.  It's also been suggested that the 2 chapters with the giant monsters MAY have been done first, intended for one of the already-existing anthology books-- TALES OF SUSPENSE, TALES TO ASTONISH, STRANGE TALES or JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY-- all 4 of which had been doing giant monster stories for some time by then.

Perhaps the most awkward chapter of the story is the one where the team races thru the city following the signal-flare.  What point is served having the "heroes" cause such fear, panic, chaos & even destruction?  Comic relief?  Perhaps, but what's also notable is that the characters in that one chapter all speak in a very stiff, unnatural fashion, as if English wasn't their first language.  "It is the first time I have found it necessary to give the signal!"  ...and...  "Why must they build doorways so NARROW?"  One might also wonder, how did "The Thing" get into the clothing store without causing damage, but find it impossible to leave the same way?  I've actually heard it suggested that the 1st chapter was originally intended for the 2nd issue-- the one involving shape-shifting alien invaders who steal the identities of the heroes in order to discredit them.  Makes you wonder, doesn't it?

I've always enjoyed this story-- well, at least, the 2nd half with The Mole Man and the giant monsters.  One thing I've never been able to figure is why, in 1967, when Hanna-Barbera did their FANTASTIC FOUR cartoon series, they skipped this story (apart from the origin) and went straight to the sequel from 21 issues later?

At any rate, the decision was made to replace the lowest-selling book on the schedule with a new series, and it proved a good one.  FANTASTIC FOUR, in one form of another, has been running non-stop ever since!

One long-standing mystery about this comic was who did the inks.  No doubt finding the truth was made harder by anyone looking at the fuzzy, out-of-focus reprints Marvel was notorious for.  It finally came out that the inker was George Klein-- and as soon I read the name, I KNEW it was right.  Shortly after this issue, longtime SUPERMAN inker Stan Kaye retired, which provided an opening for Klein, who switched companies for double the page rates.  In the 60's, Klein was THE inker for Curt Swan, first on SUPERMAN, later on LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES.  DC's gain was certainly Marvel's loss.  I sometimes wonder how things might have gone if Kirby had wound up doing the LEGION for DC.  With a mix of science-fiction and super-heroes, he would have been a natural.

(Continued in December 1961)

All Text (C) Henry R. Kujawa
Artwork (C) Marvel Comics
Restorations by Henry R. Kujawa

For more:
see more FANTASTIC FOUR covers at my Wayback Machine blog! 

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