This is the first in an irregular series of posts looking at issues of FANTASTIC FOUR, “The World’s Greatest Comics Magazine”. There are several reasons I picked this title:

– It’s sometimes been very good and sometimes very bad over the course of its 45 years.

– It’s a barometer for approaches to mainstream comics. For a couple of periods in the early to mid 60s it was at the cutting edge of US comics, but mostly it has reflected trends not set them.

– It’s – mostly – starred the same characters throughout, so it’s also a good weathervane for characterisation in comics.

I won’t be attempting any kind of chronological critique of the FF’s mag: I’ll generally just hop around the comic’s history, posting when I feel like it. That said, this post is about FANTASTIC FOUR #1.

Published: 1961

Creative Team: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby

Summary: An origin story tells how the Fantastic Four got their powers, by exposure to cosmic rays on an unauthorised rocket flight. The four are then brought together to fight a number of monsters, who are under control of the villainous Mole Man.

Analysis: FF#1 is one of the most historically important comics ever – it launched the modern incarnation of industry leader Marvel Comics, it founded the shared “Marvel Universe” that’s home to some of comics’ most recognisable properties, and its heroes have gone on to cartoon series and films in their own right. Such is its importance that later this year Marvel are releasing FF#1 as a huge oversize hardback book with exhaustive annotations – a sure sign that these days this a comic to be appreciated more than enjoyed. The larger the print, and the more solemn and garlanded the add-ons, the less readers need to consider the actual story.

Which is…not bad, I guess. It’s a rather plodding monster story, at the tail-end of a long run of monster yarns that Marvel had been churning out. Goom, Googam, Gorgo, Xemu, Tim Boo Baa, Kragorr et al. have way more vim and zest to them than the generic specimens the Mole Man summons up. The comic was published at a time when superheroes had been bad box office for years, and so this isn’t strictly speaking a superhero comic. In fact the four protagonists are presented as somewhat eerie or uncanny, freakish even – though all but The Thing are well-adjusted and keen to fight evil. The inclusion of the Thing is the real masterstroke, though – set a generic monster to fight a generic monster! Stan, Jack and the publishers are having their monster cake and eating it.

The Thing’s predicament – he is trapped in monster form and hates the world because of it – is far more Gothic and dark than even the soon-come “angst-ridden” Marvel style would generally allow. The character in this issue is frightening – smothered in shades and a trenchcoat, genuinely ugly, lumpen and inexpressive, as likely to trash the world as save it. It’s been pointed out that this version of the Thing is a prototype for Marvel Comics’ second launch, The Hulk, and it is, but it’s also a throwback to the dank, hokey atmosphere of earlier monster comics, where terrible ruin in monster form would be visited on innocent mortals. Fantastic Four #1 doesn’t establish the idea of troubled or conflicted superheroes (Marvel’s great contribution to the formula) – its conflicts are older and grimmer (no pun int.) But I do wonder rather whether this much-vaunted Marvel Method wasn’t at least partly just a happy accident caused by Fantastic Four’s bet-hedging between monster and spandex storytelling.

The Thing is the most successful element: the other protagonists are either a bit colourless, or in Reed’s case just dickish. I’m sure that later retellings of the origin downplayed Reed’s cavalier approach to the cosmic ray bombardment – saying that he had made a calculation error, for instance. In the actual origin his attitude is more, “Well, cosmic rays, yeah, but sod that, got to beat the Commies”. The actual mission that’s so very urgent is a total failure, of course, and there’s no sign the four heroes try again, so presumably the Commies did get there, who knows?

The other problem with this issue is its villain, the Mole Man. HE IS RUBBISH. Again, the creators weren’t thinking in terms of establishing a ‘franchise villain’ for the team (although he’s proved tragically enduring) – they just wanted an excuse for monster action. But really, the Mole Man’s origin is deeply ridiculous – short, ugly man falls down hole, is buried and blinded, starves to death quickly adapts to the dark and tames all the ravenous monsters down there by means of…erm…yeah. Unsurprisingly once discovered this loser is dealt with in about three panels by our heroes, adding to a sense that the main story is a little rushed.