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Year One

A look back at the first year of the Marvel Comic called “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine!”

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It is 1961 and the comic book industry is about to get turned upside down. For years DC Comics has been dominating the field especially in the super-hero market. But what was soon to be known as Marvel Comics published Fantastic Four number one that year and ushered in what came to be called “The Marvel Age of Comics.”

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No one knew what was going to happen least of all the people at Marvel. Stan Lee simply set out to create a super-hero title. But he did it making the kind of super-hero comic he had always wanted to read. And apparently the rest of us felt the same way.

This article is a look back at the first year of the Fantastic Four. During its initial run it was a bi-monthly comic – meaning it was published every other month. That is why the first year only covers seven issues. So let’s take a look at the first seven issues of The Fantastic Four.

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In OFF THE RACK #2, I spoke about the debt Fantastic Four #1 owes to DC Comics. If you haven’t read it then go back and read it because it is freakin’ awesome – if I do say so myself.

In this first Stan Lee and Jack Kirby FF extravaganza we are treated to the origin of the Fantastic Four, an introduction and origin of the subterranean Mole Man, and we get to see the fabulous FF stop the super-villain’s plan to conquer the surface world. And all this for ten cents.

It is true the FF are not terribly innovative in terms of powers. Mister Fantastic is a copy of Plastic Man. The Thing is just another of the super-strong monsters that Marvel had been churning out for years. The Invisible Girl was simply the Invisible Man in drag, and the Human Torch was a rehash of one of Marvel own characters the original, Golden Age, android Human Torch. However, what they lacked in originality with their powers they more than made up for in personality.

For the first time we are treated to a group of super-heroes who act like real people. For one thing there were no secret identities – because who wants to hide who they are and what they can do? For another thing there were no costumes. Costumes are kind of silly. Mister Fantastic and Invisible Girl were engaged. Omigosh! A real couple! The Human Torch was a teenager but he was nobody’s sidekick. But the biggest thrill was the Thing. We are given the first ugly, monstrous super-hero. On top of that he doesn’t like being a super-hero. What? That’s right he’d rather be an ordinary guy. He is mad at Mister Fantastic for getting turned into a monster, and he fights and argues with the others! Gasp! Super-heroes arguing? All of this was new and exciting and elevated Fantastic Four #1 making it head and shoulders above the competition. If you don’t believe me check it out yourself.

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The Skrulls are alien invaders from another planet who have come to conquer Earth. Believing the Fantastic Four to be the only force that can stop them, four of the shape-changing aliens frame the FF for various crimes and get them locked up by the authorities. Our heroes escape, capture the imposters, use them to get onboard the Skrull mothership and run a humongous con that sends the aliens running home as fast as they can. 

What was wrong: The Invisible Girl doesn’t have much to do – yet again. Alien invaders that impersonate humans is beyond cliché. If you give them antennaes and color them orange the Skrulls would be the Durlans over at DC comics.

What was right: The Thing continues to look like he has dinosaur hide rather than rock skin – which is cool. It’s a better look. The Human Torch continues to look like a man made of fire rather than a man on fire – which is also cool. The group continues to argue and fight – way major cool!

All in all another great issue.

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The Fantastic Four fights the Miracle Man! He is a bad guy who seems mightier than the FF. He is stronger than the Thing, can grow to giant size, can shoot lighting out of his hands and basically can do anything he wants. The FF face a few bad moments when he brings a giant monster movie prop to life but they soon figure out his powers are all illusions not real. And another bad guy bites the dust.

What was wrong: The Miracle Man was a cool bad guy but apparently he didn’t stick very well in Stan Lee’s memory. Later on in the X-Men, when he creates the Brotherhood of Evil, Stan gives us Mastermind who not only has the same powers as Miracle Man but Jack Kirby gave him the same features. The guys ripped themselves off. That always bothered me. The Human Torch becomes more stylized in this issue and now looks like a man on fire instead of a man of fire. Also, for some strange reason he has two left hands on the cover. Go back and see for yourself. The Fantastic Four get their own means of aerial transportation called the Fantasti-car – which can split into four sections one for each of them. I like the idea of a Fantasti-car but I have to agree with everyone else. It looks like a flying bathtub.

What was right: The Thing still looks lumpy instead of rock-like. Yay! The Fantastic Four get uniforms. Apparently the fans were asking for costumes and Stan gave in only the compromise was to give them uniforms instead of individual costumes. I really liked the Thing’s uniform – which included a helmet – and I liked how he would take the helmet off and rip off his shirt before going into action. Then back home he would have the uniform back on. Too bad they stopped doing that with this issue. The FF also gets a snazzy new headquarters with a cut-away design so we can see how everything goes. Way cool!

But new uniforms and a new headquarters, not to mention a Fantasti-car, costs money. Starting with this issue the price went up from ten cents to twelve cents. It was still a small price to pay for “The Greatest Comic Magazine in the World!!” Don’t take my word for it look at the cover it says so right there.

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Early Marvel Comics had a thing for issue number four. In the fourth issue of the Fantastic Four we are re-introduced to the Golden Age hero Sub-Mariner – who happens to be Marvel’s very first super-hero. Later in issue number four of The Avengers we are re-introduced to the Golden Age hero Captain America. In issue number four of the X-Men we get . . . nobody. Oh well, somebody blew it.

In this issue the Human Torch helps an amnesiac Sub-Mariner regain his memories only to have the guy turn on him. It seems that after he plunges into the sea looking for his people he finds radioactive ruins (what is Stan Lee’s fascination with radioactivity?) and surmises that his people were scattered by underwater atomic tests. Blaming the surface world he goes back intending to make the world pay! Marvel’s first super-hero was now a villain. The Sub-Mariner calls a giant undersea monster to wreck the city but the Thing does a Fantastic Voyage-number and blows up the monster from within with a bomb. The FF then send the Sub-Mariner packing.

What is wrong: For the fourth issue in a row we get monsters. I can only surmise that Marvel had for years been churning out monster comics and they were reluctant to give up on them figuring that if they put monsters in the FF then they will at least get their monster fans to buy the book. Thankfully this is the last issue they do that. The Thing is still looking lumpy but he is beginning to get more rock-like. Also he is no longer wearing his uniform and just has the trunks and the boots. By next issue he loses the boots.

What is right: The Sub-Mariner is back! Enough said. The Invisible Girl has a bit more to do this issue although it is more in the damsel in distress mode. A love triangle is sit up between the Invisible Girl, Sub-Mariner and Mister Fantastic. Wow! Over at the Distinguished Competition you can’t get an honest relationship while at Marvel we get love triangles.

All in all this is another hit brought to use by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and worthy of “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine!” How do I know it’s the world’s greatest? It says so right at the top of the cover. Starting with this issue that blurb appeared at the top of every cover.

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Doctor Doom appears! Soon to be Marvel’s number one super-villain he is a weird kind of combination Iron Man and Doctor Strange. Kidnaping the Invisible Girl he forces the rest of the Fantastic Four to go on a time travel trip for him. It seems that Blackbeard’s treasure is enchanted and Doom wants it. To save the Invisible Girl they go back in time only to discover that the Thing is the one who started the legend of Blackbeard. Watta revoltin’ development! Instead of giving Doom what he wants they dump the treasure and take back chains. Doom gets mad and locks them in a chamber that is resistant to their powers and where the air is rapidly getting sucked out. But the Invisible Girl – who was not in the chamber – sabotages Doom’s machinery. It blows up in his face and she frees her partners. They go after Doom but he gets away.

What is wrong: The Thing is definitely rock-like by now. Too bad, I liked him lumpy. He is also reduced to running around just in his trunks – which never made sense to me. Here is a guy who hates his appearance. He hates how he looks so bad that when he goes out he covers himself in trench coat, slouch hat, and scarf over his mouth and dark glasses. Why would a guy like that then go into action looking like an over-sized baby in a diaper with a bad diaper rash? Especially when two issues before he was given an alternative. Makes no sense whatsoever.

What is right: Finally, Invisible Girl gets to save the day. It only took five issues but we finally get to see why she is part of the team. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Invisible Girl and feel she is important. In a way she is the most stable member of the team. Mister Fantastic is an absent-minded professor. The Thing is a bomb waiting to explode. And as for the Human Torch – he is all speed. He runs off at the mouth, runs headlong into trouble, and never knows when to run away. Whatever stability the team has comes entirely from the Invisible Girl. That alone makes her needed. But it was nice to see her save the team for once.

We meet Doctor Doom. It was a nice first meeting and only hints at what is to come but it was nice to welcome him aboard.

I have to admit I really like this issue and if you check it out I bet you will too.   

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In issue number four the Fantastic Four fought the Sub-Mariner and he got away. In issue number five the FF fought Doctor Doom and he escaped. In this issue Doctor Doom and the Sub-Mariner team-up. That is what happens when you don’t finish what you started.

Doctor Doom contacts Sub-Mariner and suggests an alliance against their mutual foes the Fantastic Four. He agrees and they set a trap involving kidnaping the Baxter Building (I kid you not!) and taking it into space. Doctor Doom double-crosses the Sub-Mariner and Mister Fantastic is injured by Doctor Doom. Sub-Mariner goes after Doom, they fight, Doom tries to get away and winds up on a meteor heading for parts unknown. Sub-Mariner takes the Baxter Building back to where it belongs and rides off into the sunset.

What is wrong: I have to give fair warning I am not too crazy about this issue. Let’s start with the members of the Fantastic Four. (1) Mister Fantastic needs to grow a pair. He started out engaged to the Invisible Girl. Now she is keeping hidden pictures of the Sub-Mariner and mooning over him and he doesn’t put up a fight. Apparently his spine is as rubbery as the rest of him. When Invisible Girl sides with the Sub-Mariner he should have bounced her on her ass. Instead he lets himself get hurt by Doctor Doom. Mister Fantastic proved to be less than fantastic this issue. (2) Invisible Girl is a two-faced tart! Now I know I sang her praises last issue but that was last issue. This issue she has gone too far. It is one thing to be torn between her boyfriend and a guy with pointy ears, a pointy chin, and God knows what else he has pointy. But when this guy, a proven enemy, breaks into your headquarters and you side with him and put yourself between him and your team you have gone too far. Invisible Girl acted like a traitor and she should have been kicked off the team. (3) I realize that the Human Torch is the youngest member of the team but if you can’t act like an adult then stay in your room and play with your G.I. Joes while the adults act like heroes. All the Torch did this issue was jump the gun, act on impulse and ultimately accomplish nothing. Hey Johnny, Science 101 – there is no oxygen in space so fire can’t burn. What a putz! (4) The Thing needs a leash. If he is going to act like a mad dog and attack everything in sight, and moan about all he wants is to hit and smash then he should stop complaining about looking like a monster. He is a monster – and a useless monster at that because like the rest of his team he accomplished nothing. For this issue the name of the comic should have been changed to The Sub-Mariner because he is the only one who accomplished anything – and he was supposed to be one of the bad guys. The FF, whose book this is supposed to be about, were as useful as a carnivore at a vegan convention. Meanwhile, the Sub-Mariner – who was supposed to be one of the two villains – is the one who saved the day (after putting everyone in danger in the first place), defeats Doctor Doom (instead of the heroes whose book this is supposed to be about), and makes everything alright (he helped make the mess in the first place and he is supposed to get the cheers?). I’m not even going to get into the absurd idea that you can magnetically grab a skyscraper, pull it into space, and then set it back in place as if nothing happened. What about the non-ferrous (and therefore non-magnetic) materials that made up the building? What about the other people inside the building? What about the building’s structural integrity? What about plain old common sense? Never mind answering just thinking about it made me vomit a little in my mouth.

What is right: The artwork is nice.

The less said about this issue the better.

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Kurrgo is the alien ruler of Planet X and he needs help. Specifically he needs the Fantastic Four’s help. Why? Because Mister Fantastic is the smartest guy on Earth and on Planet X as well apparently. An asteroid, a planet killer, is headed towards Planet X and there aren’t enough spaceships to get everyone off the planet or enough time to build more. So Kurrgo sends his big robot to Earth not to ask the FF for help but to make everyone on the planet hate the Fantastic Four to force them to help Planet X. I guess that is how they do things over there. When the FF find out what it is that Kurrgo wants they get into a fight with his robot. Why? I’m not sure – I guess it was easier than trying to save the planet. The robot kicks their collective arses so then they stop wasting time and get back to saving the planet. Mister Fantastic comes up with a plan – as usual – and they get to work making a shrinking gas. The idea is to shrink the population down so they can all fit in the existing ships, hightail it to another planet, where then they can use Mister Fantastic’s expanding gas to go back to normal size. They give the two gas canisters to Kurrgo who lets them leave. The population gets shrunk and they all board the ships except Kurrgo. He is the last one and he is lugging the expanding gas with him. He intends to double-cross his own people and only use the expanding gas on himself and then as a giant compared to the rest of his people he will be like a god to them. Except he is having trouble getting to the last ship because of the heavy gas canister and unwilling to give up his chance for godhood his people leave without him and he dies with his world. On the spaceship heading back to Earth, Mister Fantastic reveals he lied and there wasn’t enough time to make the expanding gas. The canister was empty. The natives of Planet X will remain miniature but that is okay since they will all be the same and size is relative anyway. The irony being Kurrgo died for nothing.

What is wrong: We have now been treated to another ho-hum issue of the Fantastic Four. This issue feels like a filler stuck in here until someone could think of a better story. The Invisible Girl yells. She doesn’t accomplish anything else. The Thing smashes stuff and gets beat up by a robot. Mister Fantastic saves the day by inventing something – a pattern of behavior he will follow after this ad nauseum. And the Human Torch was the Human Torch – hotheaded, impulsive, and basically useless.

By this time the Human Torch had his own continuing comic strip in Strange Tales starting with issue # 101. In the FF he continues feuding with the Thing and his personality remains the same but there is little attempt to expand on his back-story. The love triangle between Mister Fantastic, Invisible Girl, and Sub-Mariner continues. Next issue the Thing gets a girlfriend Alicia Masters, but nothing is done to flesh out the Human Torch and I believe that is because having his own solo adventures the expanding of his back story takes place over in Strange Tales. If the Human Torch is your favorite then it is worth checking out his run in Strange Tales.

What is right: I have to admit I did like the twist ending of this one. Not much else to like. Oh . . . the art was nice.

After a spectacular start I have to say the Fantastic Four ended their first year on a sour note with two lame issues back to back. Oh well things got better in year two.

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So there you have it the first year of “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine.” I hope you enjoyed this little trip down memory lane as much as I enjoyed being your tour guide. Let me know if there are any other comics you would like me to take a look at their first year. Until then be wonderful and remember the words of the wise man who said, “If you can’t be a poet then be the poem.”

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