Tuesday, 7 August 2018

How the Fantastic Four Saved Marvel Comics

Part One: A History of Marvel Comics

In the modern age of the superhero blockbuster, and the continuing success of franchises such as The Avengers, Batman, Spider-Man and the X-Men, it’d be safe to say that we’re truly living in a renaissance period of the superhero genre. We now live in a world where any character, regardless of how obscure, has a chance of receiving a big budget motion picture, we’ve seen faithful and enthralling adaptations of Deadpool, Ant Man, Doctor Strange and the Guardians of the Galaxy. 

And yet arguably one of the most important teams in the history of comic books have been left behind; stuck in a groundhog day of poorly made movie after poorly made movie by a studio who otherwise turns out mostly fantastic superhero films, but struggles to grasp the nature of the team who deserve that label more than anyone else… the Fantastic Four. 

The Fantastic Four are genre-defining characters, their success in the early days of Marvel Comics changed the entire comic book landscape, and helped to reinvent the nature of what we, as an audience, expect superheroes to be, and the DNA of what makes the team so iconic and so successful, is still a huge part of how Marvel tell their stories today. 

I want to talk about the history of the comic book industry in the years leading up to the team’s creation, and try to understand the significance of which this marvellous creation of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had on the entire genre. It’s no secret that when the Fantastic Four made their comic book debut in 1961, Marvel (and the comic book industry as a whole) wasn’t exactly in the greatest shape, still experiencing the hangover that came in the years following hugely successful period during the Second World War, but to truly understand just how much of an impact the series made, let’s go back to a few years prior, to when ‘Marvel Comics’ was just a fantasy cooked up in a small office on 42nd Street, New York City. 

While comics as a medium could be traced back as far back as 1837 (with the Swiss publication ‘Histoire de M. Vieux Bois’, translated into English in 1840 as ‘The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck’, which comic-book historian Scott McCloud described as the “father of the modern comic”), the industry only formed into what we today recognise a century later, with National Allied Publications ‘New Fun Comics #1’ in 1935. 

National (who we know today as DC Comics), formed by entrepreneur Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, were the first company to publish original stories in their comic books, while most other companies just reprinted stories from newspapers. With the New Fun Comics, National began to expand and create new original titles, and this is where everything changed as in June of 1938, Action Comics #1 was released, and the world was formally introduced to Superman, and the modern superhero was born. 

With Superman becoming a smash success, the superhero market in comics exploded, with every publisher trying to get a piece of the action; from Fawcett Comics (who created Captain Marvel), Fox Publications hiring Will Eisner and Dan Garrett to create The Flame and Blue Beetle, and most notably, Martin Goodman, who (after witnessing the explosion of the comic book market) decided to start his own comic book company, Timely Comics, in 1939. 

In October 1939,  Timely released it’s first title, Marvel Comics, introducing the world to The Human Torch and Namor The Submariner. This first issue proved to be a great success for Timely, with it and a second printing the following month selling a combined 900,000 copies. As a result, Marvel hired its first editor, Joe Simon, who alongside budding artist Jack Kirby, created one of the most genre defining characters in history, as Steve Rogers soared onto the page in Captain America Comics #1 in March 1941, which proved to be one of the most pivotal moments in the history of the entire industry.

With the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, comic books began to reflect and provide commentary on the ongoing conflict, and no greater encapsulation of this can be seen in Simon and Kirby’s Captain America, leaping onto the world stage in possibly the most dramatic way possible, dressed in the American flag, and punching Adolf Hitler square in the jaw. It’s clear the pair weren’t afraid to express their political views, and this consciousness and awareness of the struggles of the real world came to define much of Marvel’s signature storytelling throughout the next 80 years. 

Today, we’ve come to expect comics to tackle social issues, but it was the injection of this awareness in the war period which really came to define this. As Michael Uslan (who would later go on on to produce the Batman film series) stated in his 1977 work The Comic Book Revolution, “comic books have expressed the trends, conventions, and concerns of American life…Comics have been a showcase for national views, morals, traditions, and everything else that makes up our lifestyles.”

With America formally entering the war in December 1941, the comic book market (which had been experiencing exponential growth through the success of characters such as Batman, Superman, Captain America and Captain Marvel) saw it’s most successful period, a period of time which later came to be known as the ‘Golden Age of Comics’. For example, when the war began in 1939, 15 million comic books were being published each month, two and a half years later, 25 million copies were sold a month. 

The biggest sellers during this period were DC’s Superman and Timely’s Captain America (which was now being written by a 19-year old Stanley Lieber, who had assumed the pen name of ‘Stan Lee’,), both of which sold upwards of 1 million copies a month. While many of the comics sold during this period were to members of the Armed Forces, (according to historian Mike Benton, 44% of soldiers in basic training were comic book readers), captivated by the stories of good triumphing over oppression and evil through the lenses of escapism, many children found solace in these comics, too. 

During the war period, comics largely became lighter in tone, focusing on storylines which would complement the war effort, such as stopping Nazi spies and delivering supplies to troops, aiming to illustrate the importance of togetherness and good nature. By the end of the war, superhero comic books had become a core part of American culture, and a phenomenon like nothing seen before; by 1947, up to 60 million comic book issues were being sold each month. Our favourite heroes were here to stay… or at least, that’s what we thought.

After the end of the war, superhero comics began to fall on hard time. The post-war comic book market saw superheroes dramatically fall out of fashion, in favour of new horror, pulp and crime books, with emerging companies such as EC Comics popularising these new genres. However, while DC continued to publish several of their core characters (primarily their trinity: Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman), Timely’s superheroes were put on ice (some more literally than others), and the company shifted its focus towards these newly popular genres. 

As Les Daniels describes, the company became almost entirely reactionary as to what style of comics they would focus on. He recalls a conversation between Stan Lee and Martin Goodman, where he latter would say "Stan, let's do a different kind of book," and it was usually based on how the competition was doing. When we found that EC's horror books were doing well, for instance, we published a lot of horror books.” Despite this, the company, now re-named ‘Atlas Comics’ failed to achieve any breakout hits, and as Stan Lee explained himself, only survived due to the fact that “it produced work quickly, cheaply, and at a passable quality.”

As hard it may seem to imagine, things would only get worse from here. In 1953, psychiatrist Fredric Wertham published his infamous book, Seduction of the Innocent; wherein he claimed that comic books were a major cause of juvenile delinquency among children, and exposed children to overt sexual themes. 

As a result of this, the ‘Comics Code Authority’ was created in 1954 to censor and govern over comic book publishers, in order to ensure their content was suitable for their young audiences. While the biggest casualties of the Code were the emerging crime and horror genres (with the code forbidding words such as ‘terror’ and ‘crime’, while also banning the use of zombies, vampires, werewolves and limited the amount of violence a comic could show), superhero comics were hardly exempt from the restrictions put in place by the Comics Code. 

Things were especially bad for Marvel. With sales down, and interest in superhero and pulp comics waning, Martin Goodman began to lose interest in his floundering company, and even considered shutting down Atlas Comics entirely. Meanwhile, Stan Lee, who had largely been serving as the sole writer for Marvel at the time, had grown disillusioned with the books he had been writing. 

As Sean Howe describes in ‘Marvel Comics: The Untold Story’: “Lee was pushing forty, watching the comic book industry, in which he’d toiled for over two decades, fade away… He’d once wanted to be a novelist, but it seemed unlikely that he’d be able to work big ideas into the monster, romance, and western comics that were still dribbling out from the vestiges of the company’s mouth.” 

However, while Lee was resigned to his displeasure at the stories he was creating, DC had begun to reintroduce several of their classic superheroes. As of 1956 with Showcase #4, DC brought back Golden Age hero ‘The Flash’, now reimagined for a new generation as Barry Allen, and followed suit by bringing back characters such as Green Lantern, Hawkman and The Atom. In March 1960, DC introduced a new team of heroes in the pages of Brave and the Bold #28, putting together their most popular heroes in one book, known as the ‘Justice League of America’. DC had just kick-started a renaissance period for superhero comics (which later became known as the ‘Silver Age’), and inadvertently kicked new life into their competitors.

As legend has it, Martin Goodman was playing golf with the head of DC Comics, Jack Liebowitz, who was recalling to Goodman about the success of the ‘Justice League’. And almost like something out of a comic itself, a lightbulb went off in Goodman’s head: he marched into the office soon after with a mandate for Lee; create our own team of superheroes! Lee wasn’t sure. He went home and told his wife, Joanie, that he planned to quit the company entirely. She managed to talk Lee out of it, telling him “work your ideas into the comic book. What are they going to do, fire you?” Lee agreed, and began brainstorming ideas for Marvel’s own superhero team, the groundwork was laid for what became possibly Marvel’s most important creation… The Fantastic Four.

Watch Part One here:

Part Two: How Stan Lee and Jack Kirby Created the Fantastic Four

Lee set out for one last hurrah in the medium he had slaved over for two decades, and did so with an ultimatum: create Marvel’s own superhero team, or face watching the company he had poured blood, sweat and tears into since he was 19 go out of business. 

He recounted that “it took a few days of jotting down a million notes[...] crossing them out and jotting down a million more until I finally came up with four characters that I thought would work well together as a team. I wrote an outline containing the basic description of the new characters and the somewhat-offbeat storyline and gave it to my most trusted and dependable artist, the incredibly talented Jack Kirby.” 

Jack Kirby is a man who needs little introduction when discussing influential figures in the comic book industry, and at this point had recently quit DC Comics following a contractual dispute with editor Jack Schiff, and soon after returned home to the company where he made his name as co-creator of Captain America. The ensuing collaboration between Lee and Kirby is near-mythical at this point, with the pair going on to create many of Marvel’s most popular heroes (such as the X-Men, Iron Man, Hulk and the Avengers), however their relationship was often heated at best. 

Kirby recalled the moment he returned to Marvel Comics, describing how “Marvel was on its ass, and when I came around, they were practically hauling out the furniture…I told them to hold up everything, I pledged that I would give them the kind of books that would up their sales and keep them in business.” While the pair may not have always seen eye to eye, their talents and abilities complimented each other tremendously, and the pair set about creating an iconic team of heroes to not only save the day, but save their beloved company, also. 

Despite the nucleus idea on behalf of Martin Goodman was to make a superhero team book to rival the Justice League, Lee and Kirby actively tried to avoid using the title as an inspiration, and instead looked at classic science-fiction, pulp and monster comics. 

As mentioned prior, Marvel’s predecessor, Atlas Comics, had largely given up on publishing superheroes in the 1950’s, and instead choosing to publish books in the pulp, crime and horror genres, many of these featured grotesque and horrifying monsters (many of which could be found in the early issues of Tales to Astonish’ and ‘Tales of Suspense’), with many of these written by Stan Lee. Lee’s experience with monster comics became incredibly useful in designing the Fantastic Four, as in the first handful of issues the title resembles one of these books more so than a superhero comic. 

For example, compare the cover of Fantastic Four #1 to that of the Justice League’s first issue, and you’ll notice exactly what I mean. One immediately jumps out to you as a superhero comic: the larger than life figures, the vibrant colours and the heroic poses, while the other… the first thing you notice is the giant monster, with dull and fairly uninspiring characters surrounding it. 

This may sound counterintuitive when attempting to create a popular book of superheroes, but there was a method to Lee and Kirby’s madness. While it’s true that the early depiction of the Fantastic Four is remarkably unlike that of traditional superheroes, it allowed for the team to be painted as ordinary, ordinary despite their extraordinary powers. The likes of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman are larger-than-life heroes, and therefore drawn as such, Stan and Jack’s idea behind the Fantastic Four was to make them appear to be ordinary people, scientists who use their newfound powers to understand the fantastical universe around them. As Lee himself explains: 

While the lack of traditional costume and secret identities was a huge part of this (with the iconic blue jumpsuits not being introduced until Fantastic Four #3, released March 1962, and even then being a decision made more by popular demand than creative direction), there also an ulterior motive behind the comic’s presentation. Marvel were particularly concerned about attempting to rival DC in the superhero market, considering their distributor at the time, a company named Independent News, were a subsidiary of National Periodical Publications, the parent company of DC Comics. 

Knowing that DC could ergo refuse to distribute any Marvel comics they considered a threat to their corner of the market, the science-fiction/monster presentation of the Fantastic Four essentially enabled them to fly under the radar, undetected by DC as actual competition. And only once the title had found its audience and success by issue #3, did their superhero identity become for all to see. 

And whilst Lee’s background in monster comics played a crucial role in designing the Fantastic Four, inspiration wasn’t solely found in the pages of other comics, but also outside of their office window, and into the current affairs of early 1960’s America. One thing that’s important to note is that when the Fantastic Four debuted on August 8th 1961, the world was in a turbulent situation. The Cold War between the United States and the USSR had began to escalate (only a year away from the Cuban Missile Crisis), construction of the Berlin Wall in Germany had the very same week as the team’s debut issue, and only four months prior, Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had became the first man to enter space, kicking the ‘space race’ into hyper-drive. 

The resulting impact of this was the usage of these real world fears within the pages of Fantastic Four; the teams’ reasoning behind launching an untested rocket ship into space was that “we’ve got to take that chance… unless we want the commies to beat us!”. And when you take into consideration America’s envy at the thought of the USSR successfully sending Gagarin to space earlier that year, the significance this had in relating the readers to the characters on the page is obvious. 

Not only were the stories socially relevant to readers at the time, but it allowed Lee and Kirby to explore the notion of good vs. evil in a unique way, and manifest the real life concerns, hopes and fears of a nation into drawings and dialogue, creating a team of superheroes who not only represented those same emotions, but championed them into the great unknown. And the Fantastic Four did just that, they were explorers who used their extraordinary abilities to challenge and uncover the unknown mysteries of the universe. The problem with this though, is that they weren’t the first team to do it…

One thing you must keep in mind is the troubled relationship between Lee and Kirby. Resultantly, the pair often had quite different accounts on how their partnership actually worked, and who created what. For instance, Lee insists that he came up with the idea for the Fantastic Four, bringing Kirby in to provide artwork before adding in dialogue himself, Jack often claimed that he created the Fantastic Four, and often Lee’s sole contribution to an issue was merely added dialogue after the story had been pencilled. One of the major arguments supporters of Kirby’s claim cite is the similarities between the Fantastic Four and another of Jack’s prior creations, a team he had created for DC titled The Challengers of the Unknown. 

The Challengers first appeared in the pages of Showcase #6 (from February 1957), with Kirby created as the sole creator. The team was comprised of four unlikely adventurers (Kyle "Ace" Morgan, Matthew "Red" Ryan, Leslie "Rocky" Davis and Walter Mark "Prof" Haley), who after surviving a plane crash, dedicated their lives to exploring and uncovering the ‘unknown challenges’ of the world. Notwithstanding the core premise of the team is eerily reminiscent of the Fantastic Four’s origin (save for the Cold War-infused Cosmic Rays), the further you explore the Challengers’ lore, the deeper the similarities run. 

For instance, look at the first issues of Kirby’s Challengers to the first issues of Fantastic Four: both teams (after suffering their respective plane crashes) are drawn in similar purple jumpsuits, their base of operations were both metropolitan skyscrapers in the heart of their respective cities, and  fought similar villains. 

Notably, the Challengers’ first villain was a sorcerer named Morelian, who offered the Challengers to come to his castle and open Pandora’s Box, allowing him to obtain the power of immortality. This story itself is incredibly similar to Fantastic Four #5 (entitled ‘Prisoners of Doctor Doom’), where the heroes are approached by Doctor Doom to retrieve Blackbeard’s treasure chest and bring it to his Latverian castle so he could gain immense power.

Regarding the similarities between the two teams, Kirby made several comments. On the subject of the costumes, he stated that ‘if you notice the uniforms, they're the same[...] I always give them a skintight uniform with a belt. The Challengers and the FF have a minimum of decoration.’ Likewise, in a legal disposition written by Jack’s son, Neal Kirby, he states that ‘in discussions with my father The Fantastic Four basically was a derivative of the, from what he told me, basically he came up with the idea just as a derivative from the Challengers of the Unknown that he had done several years earlier.’ 

It’s likely that Kirby took inspiration from his previous work, and retrofitted his most favourite parts into Fantastic Four, either in a conscious decision or being unaware of it. Either way, this does suggest something concrete: that Kirby played a more crucial role in the creation and design of the Fantastic Four than Lee would likely to claim, doing far more than simply drawing the scripts verbatim as Lee had written them. 

But regardless of whose accounts you choose to believe, the Fantastic Four was the brainchild of Lee and Kirby together, and in the first draft of their new series, dated July 1961, we see this great idea slowly take shape. Reed Richards, Sue Storm, Johnny Storm and Ben Grimm were all presented virtually as you know them from the beginning, albeit some minor differences in powers (for instance, Lee had envisaged that Sue Storm would be permanently turned invisible by the cosmic rays, and that Reed’s stretching abilities would cause the hero immense pain). 

While details were fine tuned between July and the first issue’s release that November, the core characteristics of the team remained largely the same; a family of explores bound by incredible abilities and a desire to do good and explore the unknown elements of the universe. 

And despite these fantastical elements, one of the most striking elements of the team’s characterisation was that despite their powers, the Fantastic Four maintained a sense of relatability and humanity. This, which became a true staple of Marvel’s superheroes, separated them from the larger-than-life godlike heroes over at DC Comics; Marvel’s heroes are people you could be, not just wish you could be. The Fantastic Four differed from the archetypical comic book heroes that had came before them, in that they didn’t act or feel like superheroes. In their earliest incarnations, the team didn’t wear costumes or have secret identities,  they don’t change as characters in the same way most other heroes do. 

While Batman and Spider-Man have one ‘inciting incident’ that sends them down the path of fighting injustice, the Fantastic Four work a little differently. Sure, they have an origin story (they’re hit by cosmic rays and their lives changed forever, but the crux of their stories is always about the people underneath the costumes, their comics centered around the idea of them as a real family attempting to balance being both superheroes and real people. As Lee explains, the Fantastic Four were designed to be relatable to the everyman, “they'd be flesh and blood, they'd have their faults and foibles, they'd be fallible and feisty, and, most important of all, inside their colourful, costumed booties, they'd still have feet of clay.” 

No better encapsulation of this can be found than in the character of Ben Grimm/The Thing, whose superhuman abilities proved to be just as much a curse as a gift. Many of the early Thing-centric stories demonstrated how the negative impact his powers had on his personal life, and showed a more brutally real side to a superhero that readers were used to. And it could be said that this decision allowed Marvel to enfranchise a slightly older group of readers, by focusing on social issues that would be relevant to them, at a time when most comic books were still largely marketed towards children. 

As a result of this, the Fantastic Four proved to be more than just a cash grab to leech of the success of Justice League, they set the precedent for what became the staple of Marvel Comics, a formula which writers and artists would try to mimic for decades. This is best described by Randy Roberts and James Olsen, who explained that “Marvel Comics employed a realism in both characterisation and setting in its superhero titles that was unequaled in the comic book industry.”

And if not for the success of the Fantastic Four, it’s likely that Marvel wouldn’t have survived the decade, and definitely wouldn’t have become the huge commercial juggernaut we know them as today. Not only did the title’s success bring about newfound success and confidence for Marvel to publish more superhero stories, but Fantastic Four also became the birthing place for many of these new characters, such as Black Panther, the Inhumans, and even using the team to promote Spider-Man in his first solo issue. 

Most importantly though, the success of Fantastic Four kept Stan Lee in the industry, and allowed for future collaborations with Kirby, and other amazing artists such as the late-great Steve Ditko, to create an abundance of beloved characters, pushing both Marvel and the comic book industry into a whole new age of success and prosperity. 

And while the Fantastic Four may not sit atop Marvel’s best selling or most popular series anymore, nor do they set box office records the way other characters do, their legacy is still felt today within the bones of the Marvel Universe today, both in the many heroes which followed them, and the core values and ideals which Lee, Kirby, and the many visionaries at Marvel installed within them. Even without their physical presence, the mark left by the Fantastic Four is visible over all over Marvel, be it in the comics or their Cinematic Universe, and I think it’s important to commemorate that; the team which saved Marvel Comics at their darkest hour, and made whole generations collectively say "make mine Marvel." 

Watch Part Two here:

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