Strange and Astonishing Humans: The Anniversary Of ‘Fantastic Four’ #1
On August 8, 1961, Fantastic Four #1 changed superhero comics forever, and yet it's barely a superhero comic at all.
Legend has it the book was inspired by the success of rival DC's Justice League of America. That book is a superhero comic through and through, and apparently its team of heroes inspired Marvel publisher Martin Goodman to ask his top creators, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, to create a superhero team of their own. But while DC gathered its Justice League from their other superhero titles, Marvel was publishing no superhero books at that time.
So Lee and Kirby created a team from scratch. But springing from the minds of Lee, who was by all accounts terribly burnt out on comics at the time, and Kirby, who had done everything in comics, but was then the master of monsters, Fantastic Four #1 was a weird, dark superhero book, about a weird, dark team.
There are no costumes in Fantastic Four #1. There are no secret identities. There are just four people whose humanity has been compromised by cosmic rays that have given them each rather troubling powers.
We're introduced to Sue Storm, Ben Grimm, and Johnny Storm as they're trying to live their previous normal lives. Sue is having tea with a friend. Ben is attempting to buy a suit, but finds that his size can't be accommodated. And Johnny is in a garage, getting his car souped-up.
Reed Richards is but a shadowy figure in a skyscraper, who fires a signal gun into the sky to call the other three. Sue vanishes, to her friend's horror; Ben throws off his overcoat and reveals his monstrous form; and Johnny melts his own car as he bursts into flame and flies off.
Without knowing what's to come, it would be hard to see these people as heroes at first. They seem entirely comfortable terrifying civilians. Ben even gets shot at by police, and Johnny is fired on by airborne national guard.
Reed Richards, Mr. Fantastic, is a scientist and the leader of the team, and as we see in flashback, he built an experimental spaceship and led the four of them on a test flight, despite the known danger of cosmic rays. This recklessness with human lives in the face of scientific advancement is probably his defining feature. That and the way he can stretch his body thanks to the cosmic rays' effect.
Ben Grimm, the Thing, is Reed's college buddy and an expert pilot. Even before the cosmic rays turned him into a monster, he was a gruff, rough-and-tumble guy. Now he seems like a volatile mass of self-loathing due to his monstrousness. In time, that aspect of the character will soften, and in fact he'll become one of the most widely beloved characters in comics. But in his first appearance, there's not much hint of that.
Sue Storm, the Invisible Girl and Reed's fiancee, displays about as much personality as most women in Silver Age comics, which is to say, not very much. Her most memorable moments are also her most questionable. For example she tries to get a cab while invisible, and when the driver freaks out and drives away, she reacts as though it was just a test of her powers all along. And then there's the moment in the flashback --- the most dated panel in the issue --- where she calls Ben a coward and and invokes the looming threat of "the Commies."
Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, is Sue's little brother and the kid of the team. His powers and codename are borrowed from a Golden Age hero. This is actually the closest the book gets to what DC was doing with its heroes at the time. The Flash and Green Lantern appearing in the much-envied Justice League of America were also new characters with the names and powers of popular heroes of the 1940s, and the Human Torch was Marvel's only attempt at that.
Once we've seen their origin, the quartet fights the Mole Man and his monsters, but that's almost an afterthought. The real point of this issue is just to get to know the team. Mole Man's a good first adversary though. The Fantastic Four gained their powers when they descended from Outer Space to the Earth, while the Mole Man gained power by descending from the Earth into the Underground, and his army of monsters gives Kirby some great creatures to draw, including the one on the unforgettable and often-imitated cover.
In the month and years to come, the Fantastic Four would become so much more than what they first appeared to be. They got matching blue superheroic uniforms in Fantastic Four #3. In #5 they met their greatest enemy, and perhaps the greatest supervillain of all time, Doctor Doom. By Fantastic Four #48 Lee and Kirby were in the midst of a truly legendary comics run, when they introduced the Eater of Worlds, Galactus. The Inhumans, the Black Panther, the Negative Zone --- Fantastic Four would go to so many amazing places. But they never would have made it there without this first weird, memorable introduction.