Fantastic Four #1

"The Fantastic Four!"

Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Jack Kirby
Inker: unknown*
Letterer: Art Simek
Publisher: Marvel Comics

Cover date: November 1961
Cover price: 10 cents
Current value: Anywhere from $30,000 to $50,000. Only 1400 copies are estimated to still exist, and only about 65 of those are mint.

Face front, True Believers! This is it, the one that started it all, that changed they way superhero comics were created forever, the one that started a trend which turned millions of kids into hopeless fanboys.

It's not an exaggeration to say that this is one of the most important comics ever. After World War II, superheroes had almost died out, replaced with genres like horror, western, funny animal, and romance comics. In the late 50s and early 60s, superheroes were again taken out for a spin, and initial successes prompted publishers to bring out more of the same. Most of those successes were at DC Comics, and DC publisher Jack Leibowitz bragged about the success of one of those books during a round of golf with Marvel publisher Martin Goodman. So Goodman charged his nephew Stan Lee with creating a superhero book to compete with DC's Justice League of America.

They didn't look particularly new. The Human Torch (Johnny Storm) was a copy of the old Timely Comics (Marvel's name during WWII) hero, except he was a teenager not an android. Mister Fantastic (Reed Richards) was Plastic Man with a brain. The Invisible Girl (Susan Storm) was Scarlet O'Neil, a popular comic strip of the time with an invisible heroine. And the Thing (Ben Grimm) was yet another monster, just like all those monsters populating the Marvel's monster comics, the mainstay of the company before the return of superheroes and a genre Lee had grown to loathe writing.

What was new was how they acted. They had genuine personalities, and along with them personality conflicts. They fought with each other almost as much as they fought with the bad guys. And their private identities were their public identities; they were public figures without secret identities or costumes (which would come later). And Kirby's art (though he couldn't draw a face worth a damn) practically flew off the page in a burst of energy. Nobody had read anything like this, and it served as the template for the next four decades worth of superhero comics.

The now familiar cover image features the foursome fighting a giant monster bursting from beneath the pavement, grabbing the Invisible Girl in one hand while the others rush to the attack while proclaiming their identities. "Together for the first time in one mighty magazine!" bragged the cover. True enough, but since these heroes had not ever been seen separately, it's a bit of a puzzling boast.

"The Fantastic Four!"

in gigantic red letters in a cloud of smoke announcing to the world the existence of the superteam on the splash page. A nifty invention that Mister Fantastic has just whipped up, a signal flare that can spell words out legibly. And around Central City, California, the rest of the quartet bursts into action, confusing and scaring the populace. The Invisible Girl merely knocks over some pedestrians, but the Thing wrecks buildings and cars, and the Human Torch manages to destroy a couple of jets (whose pilots parachute safely to the ground, of course) and evades some missiles.

Before we can find out the reason for the urgent summons, we are treated to a flashback describing the origin of this quartet, one of the most familiar and most retold scenes in comics. Reed has planned a manned space flight, though concerns about the effects of cosmic rays delay the launch. A desire to beat the commies overrode such petty concerns however, and they decide to go ahead without authorization. Keep in mind that this was 1961, mere months after Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. The space race and the Cold War were in full swing, so this was somewhat plausible at the time. Less plausible was the composition of the mission. Reed was the scientist, Ben the pilot. Reed's fiancée Sue obstinately insists on going where her man goes, and Sue's brother Johnny decides to tag along with sis. Since they were stealing the ship anyway, no one with any sense could override the mission roster.

So the quartet sneaks past the worst security guard ever and manages to access and launch a rocket without being stopped. Their concerns turn out to be justified, as the ship's shielding is not enough to stop cosmic rays from penetrating the craft. Ben is incapacitated but the ship's autopilot brings it in for a soft landing back on Earth. They soon discover the cosmic rays have given them super powers and, of course, immediately begin fighting. After cooler heads prevail, they naturally decide to fight evil and help humanity. Yet Ben's humor undercuts the gravity and pontificating which had traditionally accompanied such scenes. "You don't have to make a speech, big shot! We understand! We've gotta use that power to help mankind, right?"

"The Fantastic Four Meet the Mole Man!"

Oh, yeah, the urgent summons. Seems Reed is concerned about a series of mysterious cave-ins beneath atomic plants around the world. And at that moment his "radar machine" (snicker) detects a cave-in taking place in "French Africa". Cut to Pierre in Africa: "Sacre bleu! The Earth is going mad!" As if the cave in isn't enough, a giant monster emerges from the hole, prompting the French troops to surrender.

Reed triangulates the source of the disturbances, and they all pile in the jet to the legendary Monster Isle, presumably not the same island Godzilla comes from. They make short work of a three headed flying monster (Holy Cerberus, Batman!) guarding the island, but a cave in separates Reed and Johnny from Sue and Ben. The former find themselves in "the valley of diamonds" and finally, on page nineteen, they meet the villain of the piece, the Moleman.

"The Moleman's Secret!"

The Moleman tells his story to Reed and Johnny. A profoundly ugly man, Moley was scorned by women, employers, random strangers, and presumably dogs and small children. So his logical response was to set out for the center of the Earth so he could be king of an underground realm. Though he doesn't look like much, he does know how to wield his staff (no jokes, pervert) and makes short work of Reed and Johnny. But Ben and Sue show up, and a stick doesn't do much good against a guy made of orange rock. So Moley summons that giant monster which had made short work of Pierre and his friends, not to mention a horde of his much smaller, but still fearsome, underground subjects.

The FF escape, but they leave Moley behind because "the entrance to the Moleman's empire is sealed forever". Since they are new to the hero business, I suppose we can forgive them this obvious mistake. The Moleman would become a classic FF villain and return again and again to plague the surface world, though he has traditionally been played as more misunderstood and angry than evil, which is what makes what might seem a ridiculous villain like Moleman quite interesting.

* The likeliest candidates are George Klein or Christopher Rule. See

As you might imagine, this is one of the most frequently reprinted comics. I particularly recommend the Marvel Masterworks series, which reprints FF # 1-10 in color in one volume for $12.95. (ISBN 0760737959)

"I---I can't turn invisible fast enough!! How can we stop this creature, Torch?"
"Just wait and see, sister! The Fantastic Four have only begun to fight!"
"The three of you can't do it alone! It's time for The Thing to take a hand!"
"It'll take more than ropes to keep Mister Fantastic out of action!"

Among its many other important accomplishments in comic books, Fantastic Four #1 had a distinctive cover, featuring the Mole Man's large, green creature, bursting out of the ground, holding Susan Storm in one hand while the other three members of the Fantastic Four fight it, all while loudly demonstrating or explaining their powers. Speech bubbles on comic book covers are usually not seen as a good aesthetic and marketing point, but these lines of exposition have become somewhat of a classic.

The cover is well-composed, especially seen through the mind of a 12 year old in 1961, deciding how to spend that precious dime. We have a monster, popping up out of the ground, and then once that immediate danger has been established, we have four figured radiating out from it, all with different powers. If someone was curious, the dialogue would cue them into what was happening, and even give hints about more drama developing: two of these people are siblings, for example.

For these reasons, and also because of Fantastic Four's obvious importance in general, the cover of Fantastic Four #1 is one of the most common covers to be the subject of homage, tribute and parody, with a good selection of these covers viewable here. Along with Action Comics #1 and Amazing Fantasy #15, the cover of Fantastic Four #1 is probably one of the most familiar, and referenced, comic book covers, to comic book fans, and perhaps to parts of the general public.

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