#2: The Fantastic Four Meet The Skrulls From Outer Space (****), #3: The Menace of the Miracle Man (***),
#4: The Coming Of… the Sub-Mariner! (****), #5: Prisoners of Doctor Doom! (***),
#6: Captives of the Deadly Duo! (****), #7: Prisoners of Kurrgo, Master of Planet X (****)
#8: Prisoners of the Puppet Master! (*****), #9: The End of the Fantastic Four! (****)
With Jack Kirby's pulpy illustrations and Stan Lee's corny, hyperbole-laden writing, the very first issues of The Fantastic Four are undeniably dated today. Yet while both improved, there's still a great deal of naïve charm contained within these pioneering works.
What's perhaps most important is not their entertainment value today, but their historical importance. While others made the series very much their own, Stan and Jack were creating these new worlds week in, week out. This does work against the initial run at times, as with single issue storylines (the first two-parter was in issues #25/#26 , though minor subplots were carried over issues) villains had to be introduced and dispatched within 22 pages, a technical limitation that could make some feel rushed and trite.
With the group being over fifty-five years old, it's also strange to see their appearance and characterisation develop. At times they're retrospectively out of character, and everyone's insensitive to Ben's plight, with them all calling him "Thing" and even Sue suggesting he looks glamorous with a mask over his face! The letters page to Issue #8 gives the explanation that Marvel feared new readers might get confused with him being called "Ben", but it was quickly phased out.
Issue #2 seems a little early to be introducing a race of shape-changing aliens from another galaxy, but it's a fun issue nevertheless, and even here it's clear that Kirby and Lee's gargantuan imaginations are working at full flight, pushing Reed's powers so that he can stretch through a rivet hole. This works in reverse, too, with Johnny's flame time limited, and the Thing frequently turning back into Ben Grimm during this run. Some of the format's best gags (such as members of the public reacting with shock to The Invisible Girl) may be overdone, and Johnny always seems to be being rescued by Reed's outstretched arm, but generally what seems old by repetition now was brand new and fresh then.
While Marvel is essentially an exercise in liberalism (I remember well a Lee editorial about bigotry), these groundbreaking issues also came with a very US-centric standpoint. The original mission to reach Mars was justified as "unless we want the Commies to beat us to it", while villains fit the role of the post-colonial "other", be it the scarred dictator of the fictitious Latveria, Doctor Doom, or the Oriental-looking Sub-Mariner. However, breaking up this sense of a homogenic environ, Ben Grimm is transformed into the most interesting character, the misshapen Thing.
This is the first full year of The Fantastic Four, a run of the comic book so pulpy that The Thing tackles a skyscraper-sized fish called "Giganto" with a nuclear bomb strapped to his back. #5 introduces the team's arch nemesis, Doctor Doom, as well as the first use of time travel, a surprisingly common SF device in the book. Also notable is #4, which gives us the first example of Marvel characters acknowledging that comics exist within their own lives, but are interpretations of real events. Johnny is aware of the Sub-Mariner (said to have the strength of just ten men in the issue) because he's read the old comic books. The following issue takes this up further as the Torch, seemingly mindful of product placement, reads an issue of The Incredible Hulk. This sort of thing would gradually be expanded upon more frequently within the Marvel universe, such as the first issue of 1963 which featured Stan and Jack actually as themselves within the narrative. Then there's Kuurgo, Master of Planet X, though his tale is at least enlivened by two nice twists.
Despite the creativity involved, one of the most recurring characters in these early days was second hand - Bill Everett created the Sub-Mariner back in the 1930s. The same period also inspired The Human Torch, while Reed is essentially DC's Plastic Man revisited, and The Invisible Girl is incredibly obvious in its source. Despite such archetypes, and The Fantastic Four being a plot rather than character driven book, they somehow managed to transcend such limitations and become much loved figures of popular culture.
The Sub-Mariner becomes involved in the book's most political storylines. While Issue #9's tale of him giving the FF a million dollars to appear in a film he's financing may be fundamentally silly, the subplot of the group becoming bankrupt is not. Having based their fortune on the share market, it's a testament of how quickly the creative team were working that Reed should be affected by the stock market decline that occured between December 1961-June 1962 (also known as the "Kennedy Slide", after the President whose first term saw the drop). The Sub-Mariner's anger at mankind is brought about due to nuclear testing that has damaged his ocean home... it wasn't until August 1963 that the "Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests in the Atmosphere, in Outer Space and Under Water" was signed.
One notable element of the series is both how normal and fantasy-based the series was when it began. The foursome originally dressed in regular clothes, which strangely seemed to have unstable molecules built in. Although during the year they began to get the familiar SF tropes of costumes, a flying car, et al, they still notably never had secret identities. However, the first two issues take place in "Central City", a fictitious residence, the like of which would exist in DC Comics. (Indeed, a Central City is the home of The Flash). It's not until Issue #3 that they move into a skyscraper in the middle of New York... although the Baxter Building is still strangely named as their "secret headquarters", and the location of New York isn't revealed until Issue #4. In fact, the name "The Baxter Building" isn't given away until Issue #6, by which time crowds in the streets below have figured out that the FF live in their "secret" HQ. Such things could be introduced to readers with no real urgency, and it took the anal retentiveness of later creators to rationalise "Central City" (John Byrne returned to the town in #293, while James Robinson revealed its location of California in volume 5, Issue #5).
What really makes the difference is the growing characterisations of the team. They're still not quite there yet, but Sue is more proactive than memory may attest for the period, and Issue #3 not only gives us the revelation that Ben desires her, but also gives us the first of many "member quits the group in a fit of pique" instances as the Torch takes off after many arguments throughout. This is a group who can barely stand one another, the Thing openly condemning Reed in #5, and having the serious intent to give Johnny a beating in #4. One unfortunate element is that while all the male members of the group eventually get their own lives outside of the FF, Sue began the first issue at a society dinner, only for this side of her private life to be completely phased out of the book.
It's also pleasant as an admirer of the group to see them so regarded in these earliest issues. Villains will refer to them as being the only thing standing between them and world conquest, with only Ant-Man (Jan 1962), Hulk (May 1962) and Spider-Man/Thor (August 1962) sharing the planet with them at this stage. The Avengers emerged in September 1963, and, somewhat appropriately, their first appearance in a Fantastic Four comic took place under the ominous title "The Avengers Take Over!" With the Fantastic Four being the first heroes of the Marvel Universe, many new superheroes were introduced by direct comparison, forcing readers to realise how much newer and more exciting the new characters were by having the FF fare badly against them. Each "strong" hero would show their strength by even being able to beat The Thing, a downward spiral that lead to a present day where the FF are virtually ineffectual even in their own title, and their movies struggle to break even while Avengers movies make billions. 1963 saw Spider-Man turn the entire group on their head single-handedly, while 1964 saw Ben beaten for the first time against the Hulk...
It's not just the Fantastic Four that took a couple of years to really be developed. Although Doctor Doom became the group's arch-nemesis, receiving a full origin story in the second Annual, in his opening two tales only magic and honour are alluded to, the rest yet to be sketched in. Not only is the Latverian diplomat nature of his character not referenced, but his opening gambit seems to suggest he has a fortress in America.
In terms of trivia, then look out for Ben accidentally calling Reed "Torch" in Issue #3, and the same issue's cover giving Johnny two left hands. Issue #7 has Johnny attempting to use super nova flame for the very last time, and, somewhat crudely, the final page has the L and the I slightly too close together in Kuurgo's speech, making his threat of "I'll destroy you with a flick of my finger" read far more graphic than was intended. More significantly, same issue saw the book enter a monthly schedule for the first time, having been produced as a bi-monthly for the first few issues, while Issue #9 is the first to give full credits, rather than Stan and Jack signatures. Lastly, unstable molecules are named for the first time in Issue #6.
The best issue of this run? The superbly macabre "Prisoners of the Puppet Master". Quite a chilling tale, with a memorable cover, it also acts as one of the cornerstones of the series by introducing the Puppet Master's blind stepdaughter, Alicia. Far more cold than he would later become, the Puppet Master even scolds Alicia when she calls him "father", and regards her as a hindrance at best. While the Thing temporarily changing back into Ben Grimm wasn't unique (this is one of four times it happens in the first nine issues) here it becomes locked into a subconscious belief that Alicia prefers him in that form.
While not essential to understanding the comics here, readers may care to read through the Sub-Mariner's appearances in the pre-Marvel publications. His debut was in 1939's Motion Picture Funnies Weekly #1. Then between 1939-1949, the character appeared in 89 issues of the anthology title Marvel Mystery Comics, published by Timely. Between 1940-1954, Namor was a guest in 36 issues of The Human Torch, also published by Timely. (The character was an android that could burst into flames, not the character from The Fantastic Four). Perhaps most notably of all, between 1942-1949 he got his own 32-issue title, Sub-Mariner Comics. Then, finally, between 1941-1946 he appeared in 20 issues of All Winners Comics. As this last title was the most war-orientated of all, then issues could be found with such jarring titles as "The Terror Of The Slimy Japs!"
In later years, the "Required Reading" feature becomes more vital to understanding the issues, as Marvel becomes more interconnected and reliant on sales. Issues cited will be rated out of five as and when they are read, with the ratings in brackets behind the issue numbers. The Sub-Mariner appearances mentioned here have yet to be read for research on this site....