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Tag: Stan Lee

FF Re-read: The Fantastic Four #3 (March 1962)

“The Menace of the Miracle Man”
Script by Stan Lee 
Pencils by Jack Kirby 
Inks by Sol Brodsky 
Letters by Art Simek 

Something really amazing happens this issue, as the book and its characters take over the book in the last half and start to run away with it, leaving behind a pretty pedestrian plot.

But first, there is some interesting stuff to talk about early on in this issue, starting with the cover, which announces the arrival of both the Fantasti-Car and the superhero costumes. It also is the first issue to feature the famous slogan “The Greatest Comic Magazine in the World!!” And for some reason, I’ve always been aware of a major anatomical error in Jack Kirby’s drawing of the Human Torch that was mentioned in the Overstreet guide listing for this issue. Before I had a reprint or chance to look at a copy of this issue, I was always curious what it was and a bit unimpressed when it turned out to be that the Torch has two left hands. I’m sure this was just a mistake on Kirby’s part, not caught by him or Stan Lee due to the speed with which they were cranking out material at the time. 

It’s also interesting to note that this was not the original cover. The rejected one — reproduced in a lot of places, including the second Marvel Masterworks volume of Fantastic Four — was more in line with the monster-hunters, investigators of the unknown vibe of the first two issues. There also are original, inked pages that show Sue and Reed wearing masks as part of their costumes, which sported a different logo with a stylized “FF” instead of the numeral 4. (You can see those images here.) These images make it clear that there was a lot of back and forth going on about how far to take Fantastic Four into superhero territory.

I have to say, regardless of whose idea it was or how last minute it was made, that abandoning the traditional secret identity was the right way to go because it really set Marvel apart from the DC comics of the era. Looking back at DCs from the late 1950s and early 1960s, it’s amazing how many stories centered on the hero’s fear of losing his secret identity. Superman in particular was less scared of any alien threat or supervillain plot as he was of Lois possibly finding out he was and — choke! — maybe even tricking him into marrying her! The absurd lengths to which DC often took this gimmick seems to have inspired Stan Lee in particular to just chuck it out the window with not just the Fantastic Four. Given Lee’s “circus ringmaster” public persona, it should surprise no one that he frequently says that if he were a superhero he would want to tell everyone. Outside of a character like Spider-Man, who was the first young hero, and the X-Men, who as mutants face threats from a prejudiced public, the need for a secret identity is very dubious. Iron Man is a good example of a character who in many ways benefits in terms of reputation and interest in his businesses by being in the public eye as a superhero.

Of course, Stan also may have just realized that the team ran around their first two issues with no masks and their identities known to all and decided it was too hard or silly to try to ret-con that out.

On to the story itself, which immediately introduces The Miracle Man as the villain of the piece. Of all the early villains, Miracle Man made the worst impression. It took until Fantastic Four #138 for him to reappear, and he met his eventual end at the hands of Scourge, who killed a ton of deadweight villains in the mid-1980s.

What’s unusual in retrospect is how obviously bad a villain he is and how unimportant a role he ends up playing in this issue. He starts off by using his magic act to embarrass the Fantastic Four, especially Thing, as he shows the audience he can transform into a giant, a gas cloud and a wielder lightning. Even such acts, meant to terrify and astonish, mean nothing to the reader when compared to the interesting dynamic between the members of the Fantastic Four.

The Fantasti-Car gets a pretty low-key debut, as Kirby just integrates into a scene featuring the heroes returning home from the theater. In today’s comics, it would get not just a splash page but also some fancy display lettering.

Comparatively, the Baxter Building gets a huge introduction, complete with cutaway diagram that includes a great caption in which Lee urges fans to clip and save the panel “for future reference.”

The second chapter opens with more Miracle Man, but even on page 6 of this issue, he’s becoming irrelevant to the story. Where the developments with the heroes are convincing and real, the plot in which the Miracle Man threatens a televised movie premiere (did they ever really do that?) by bringing a display of a giant monster to life is pointless. What Miracle Man hopes to gain from this is never made really clear. You would think having a snazzy and impressive stage show would be enough. But no, he’s going to throw away his already successful show biz career in an ill-conceived criminal plot that has no chance of succeeding.

Anyway, the cool stuff is all happening back at the Baxter Building as Sue unveils the groups costumes, though they are better described as uniforms. I think this was another rebellion against the superhero status quo. Lee has recalled that fans really wanted the costumes and the secret headquarters, so he delivered. But giving the team uniforms rather than individual costumes just makes a bit more sense considering that these outfits are functional and practical for people with the Fantastic Four’s abilities as much as anything.

When the group jumps into action to stop the Miracle Man’s rampaging “monster,” it’s again the heroes that seize the imagination of the moment with the inventive splitting up of the Fantasti-Car into four smaller cars that can operate independently. The battle ends with Susan stowing away on the Monster Man’s getaway vehicle, prompting lots of anxiety and blame laying among the others.

In these early issues, Sue is actually a slightly stronger character and integrated into the action better and more convincingly than she is later on. It’s long been a problem with the character that she’s defined pretty much solely by her relationships with the others (Reed’s girlfriend-fiancee-wife, Johnny’s sister, crushing on Namor, etc.). Throw in that her power is to become invisible while the other members of the group are so flashy and she becomes a very easy character for creators and fans to ignore. But a lot of those relationships hadn’t yet been nailed down by this point, and Susan is put again to good effect her using her power for the obvious purpose of stealth.

Sue’s disappearance is a great plot point because it brings out and highlights the emotions of Reed, Johnny and Ben. It’s a lot like the original Star Trek episode “The Naked Time,” which was a key one in that series for exposing the inner conflicts of the series characters.

In the end, defeating the Miracle Man is pretty easy for the group. The final sequence in which the guys jump on an old racing car to chase after Miracle Man and a flat forces Reed to become a tire is padding and not very good padding at that. It seems as though Kirby hadn’t quite figured out yet how to set these characters apart.

The issue ends on a really strong note as the Human Torch gets fed up with all the squabbling and quits the group. In their 1985 book The Comic-Book Heroes, Gerard Jones and Will Jacobs write that this was unconvincing because Lee failed to set it up well enough with foreshadowing. I get the point, but don’t really agree. The Torch is already well established as a hothead and the constant squabbling establishes the tensions that make this point work. Sure, Lee and Kirby could have given it a little more space, but I still think it works.

This is an issue that looked at strictly from a modern critical standpoint comes up as something of a disappointment. But it also is clear that this issue is a major turning point in the series and that somehow the whole is really starting to add up to something much greater than the sum of its parts.

FF Re-read: The Fantastic Four #2 (Jan. 1962)

“The Fantastic Four
Meet the Skrulls From Outer Space!”

Script by Stan Lee 
Pencils by Jack Kirby 
Inks by George Klein (again, that’s the best guess from Mark Evanier, whose opinion in such matters is eminently trustworthy) 
Letters by John Duffy 

The second issue picks up pretty much where the first left off, developing and adding certain themes and motifs the series would repeat endlessly. It’s also a wildly uneven story, but one whose highs outweigh the lulls.

The Fantastic Four continue to be anti-superheroes in this issue — eschewing costumes and hanging out in everyday settings such as Reed’s apartment and a hunting lodge. Apparently, they are already quite famous by this point — the cops all know the FF on a first-name basis and, in an early scene, Sue is given high celebrity status by a jeweler who, frankly, should have known better than to let the Invisible Girl see his famous jewels. But at the same time, they’re also freaks that people are quick to turn against at the slightest provocation. (Apparently, the polarized opinions of 1960s Marvel Universe foreshadowed the current political discourse in the United States.) This dichotomy more than any other has come to define the Marvel style, from these early years through the present day.

This issue begins with the Fantastic Four having apparently gone bad. The Thing destroys an oil-drilling platform off the Texas shore; Sue steals a valuable gem; Johnny melts a marble statue; and Reed reaches into the power station and shuts off the city’s power. These latter two stretch plausibility. If Johnny could get hot enough to melt marble (more than 3,000 degrees), the crowd of onlookers would have been incinerated. And electric utilities are too complicated to just “turn off” with one switch. 

But the opening sequence does its job of making the reader wonder what’s going on. The reveal of the Skrulls is a bit clumsy, but it works and is actually quite creepy. And is it just me, or do I see a somewhat familiar face in the Skrull’s transformation?
It’s kind of easy to forget that these stories that are now so familiar to comics fans were meant to be contemporary entertainment for children in 1961. These days it’d be hard to imagine Reed and the gang wearing plaid, smoking pipes and hanging out in a hunting lodge, with Johnny checking out a rifle and Ben throwing a mounted bear’s head through the window in one of his tantrums. I’m glad the tantrum, the squabbling and the sudden make up are the precedent-setting part of this scene, because 500-plus issues of Reed and Johnny going hunting while Ben and Sue dressed the kill would not be much fun.

The next segment of this story sees the U.S. Army locate the hunting lodge and demand the FF surrender. And this is the first spot where the issue goes off the rails. Rather than a really cool scene of the FF resisting the Army’s attacks, repelling bullets, melting missiles, etc., the FF just go ahead and surrender. The Army sticks them in special cells designed to resist their powers, but it was all for naught as the FF escapes in the most obvious fashion possible in about five minutes. A scene like this makes me think that Lee and Kirby were avoiding a potential conflict with the Comics Code Authority, which required that “(p)olicemen, judges, Government officials and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority.” Either way, it’s the first sequence in the series that interrupts the build up of credibility and believability the series is really aiming for.

That the first scene after the escape sees the FF reconvening and picking up their argument where they lift off only confirms the filler nature of the escape. But it doesn’t necessarily get better as Johnny suggests they smoke out the imposters by attacking a rocket launch and hoping it’s confusing enough to allow the real FF to infiltrate the alien group. It only makes sense if the Skrulls are completely random in their attacks, i.e., they have no set plan whatsoever and don’t even know what they are doing.
Still, this being comics, it works – and Johnny infiltrates and exposes the alien group. The flare gun that creates the flaming “4” in the sky returns from issue #1.

And while I doubt Johnny Cash read Fantastic Four comics, I do like the idea that this panel might have influences the writing of his classic 1963 tune. Maybe in the Marvel Universe, Cash’s “Ring of Flame” was a major hit.

As we move into part three, the comic recreates the cover image inside the story again as the battle gets going. Sue and Thing obviously contribute less here than in the first issue. I do like the moody coloring in the panels of some of these early Marvels, such as this one, in which Reed and Sue look like Martin Landau and Barbara Bain from Mission: Impossible or Space: 1999.

The story goes a bit crazy again as the FF find the Skrull ship (in a water tower!) and go into space to bluff the aliens into not invading Earth. Reed does this by presenting comic book images as real, thereby proving that alien species can be dumb as rocks and still master interplanetary travel. It’s also one of the first signs of Stan Lee putting plugs for his other comics directly in the story — something that was common in some of the earliest Marvels before continuity, footnotes and Bullpen Bulletins pages kicked in and took line-wide promotion to the next level.

The poor Thing has had next to nothing to do in this story until the return to Earth causes him to revert to human form. This comes out of nowhere and is surprisingly touching — easily the best part of the book. Kirby does a great job of framing the transformation slightly off center and then of giving Ben a look of pure joy that turns to misery as he reverts in short order to the rocky Thing. This stuff is really good and the first sign that Lee, Kirby and Marvel were on to something substantial. Panel 7 on page 21 is particularly good, with the Thing’s head slumped in resignation as beautiful Sue and Johnny try to comfort him.
The story gets weird again as the Army trusts Reed enough to go back to his apartment and fight the three remaining Skrulls held there. It’s explained in the copy that one of the Skrulls went with the FF into space and is returning with the rest of the Skrulls, but none of this is actually seen. I suspect some much later issues found a way to explain this more fully. 
The issue again gets back on track just in time for a good twist ending in the EC tradition, as Reed hypnotizes the Skrulls into becoming cows and forgetting who they were. The word play, with the Skrulls asking for a “contented” existence should be lamer than it is. But somehow it works and gives the issue a good, upbeat finish

The issue wraps up with a pin-up of The Thing, who at this point had yet to develop his chiseled features and was more of a lumpy, scaly looking character.

I really like the pacing of these older issues and the breaking down of the story into chapters that run 5 or so pages each. Today, each chapter in this story would be an issue unto itself.

Again, there’s something very cool about the idea of doing the Fantastic Four less like superheroes and more like conventional adventurers. This was the last non-superhero story, as fans’ demands prompted Stan Lee to go in a more conventional and more commercial direction. I wonder if this was the first instance of superhero fans’ outcries altering the direction of a series. It certainly was not the last, but going for a more conventional superhero premise certainly was a major one for Marvel in particular and comic books in general.

FF Re-read: The Fantastic Four #1 (Nov. 1961)

“The Fantastic Four!”
Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Script by Stan Lee
Pencils by Jack Kirby
Inks by George Klein (at least that’s the best guess from Mark Evanier, whose opinion I trust in such matters)
Letters and logo execution by Artie Simek
Colors by Stan Goldberg
Production and logo design by Sol Brosky
Fantastic Four #1 is a fascinating comic, as much for the ways in which it doesn’t stand out as much as for the ways it does.
Let’s start with the cover. First, I love the logo. Every time Marvel decides to change the FF logo, it’s an unspoken strike against the current creative time. Which is not exactly fair, to be honest, but it inevitably reverts to this original version and to me it’s as much a part of the book as the Baxter Building, Willie Lumpkin and all the rest. The lettering style is very much of the times, but at the same time wholly suited to type of book this was to become and very different from the style in vogue at DC and other publishers. Plus, whoever decided to print it as large as possible and in that awesome red ink against the white background was a genius. It was one of the major drawbacks of the original Masterworks and the Marvel Milestone Edition to change the logo to black. The image of the monster is fairly typical for what Marvel was putting out at the time. There’s a weird bit of copy in the blurb about these characters being “together for the first time,” which is true. But it also implies that they’ve appeared separately before, which is impossible since three of them never appeared in any form before this very issue.
Public panic over superheroes would be a running theme through Silver Age Marvel, reaching its heights in J. Jonah Jameson’s diatribes against Spider-Man and the anti-mutant public sentiment in X-Men.

This issue really is divided up into chunks — all of them quite good. The first chunk introduces the characters, starting with Susan Storm. Sue, often given short shrift in later issues, gets a lengthy intro here. She’s also pretty aggressive in testing her powers by making sure the cab driver really can’t see her at all.

The Thing’s intro is another pretty standard scenario for the early days of Marvel. But even in his first scene, in which he’s trying to find clothes that fit him, the pathos that defines the character comes through. The Thing also is pretty well defined at this point as a guy who’d rather be normal but who also gets more than a little kick out of being big, strong and indestructible. I particularly like the first panel on page 5 in which Thing pops up out of the sewers and is unhurt as a car smashes head-on into him.
The intro of Johnny Storm is a bit odd because of one line. Johnny says there’s only one thing that interests him more than cars, and it turns out not to be girls but playing superhero. So much for the typical teen-ager …  The most obvious scripting gaffe in this issue occurs in the scene where the U.S. Air Force goes after Johnny, launching a missile at him that Johnny describes as “nuclear.” “If it explodes, I’m a goner!” he says. Yeah, no kidding. Mr. Fantastic appears next and handles the missile, which explodes “harmlessly” over the sea. The obvious explanation for what could have been Marvel’s first No-Prize would be that Johnny was mistaken in saying the missile had a nuke.

Mr. Fantastic is the one member of the group who in this particular story is not as well developed as he would become. Here, he uses his power to save Johnny — no explanation is given for how his regular clothes stretch with his body, as we’re at least a few issues away from the idea of unstable molecules — and is otherwise a pretty generic scientist. He shows none of the potential to be the world-changing scientist he would become. In fact, he’s more of a screw up than anyone in this issue, as we find out in the second section of the story, which is the flashback to the origin events.

The origin sequence is told in a no-nonsense manner. I think Kirby draws a particularly pretty Sue in panel 2 on page 9, even as Lee has her accusing Ben of not loving America enough to beat the Commies into space. This sort of thing was pretty normal back in 1961, but out of date even at the time as Yuri Gagarin of the Soviet Union became the first man in orbit on April 12, 1961, a good four months before this comic came out.

The scene on page 10 in which the cosmic rays begin to penetrate the space ship is surprisingly well done. Kirby’s depiction of the rays as some kind of bolts combined with the “RAK TAC TAC TAC” sound effect similar to the noise a Geiger counter makes was a great start. But the coloring also was great, with pinks, yellows and blues – it just looks great. The crash on the next page? Not as great, but panel 3 on page 11 is again a really nice mix of image, copy and color.

Susan again gets to go first, turning invisible briefly before reverting to normal — and falling into Reed’s arms. That upsets Ben, whose anger and jealousy were extremely unusual traits for a comic book hero of the time. Those emotions also seem to trigger his transformation into the Thing, while Reed’s defensive reaction brings out his power. Johnny is the last to discover his new talent, setting the forest on fire accidentally.
This is the point where Reed first takes on the leadership mantel, urging the other to join him in using their power to help mankind. But there’s just a tiny hint of these characters being a bit more self-aware than superheroes had shown in comics before this point, when Ben says: “You don’t have to make a speech, big shot! We understand! We’ve gotta use that power to help mankind, right?”
And then comes the famous panel of the hands coming together, inspired most likely by the Three Musketeers’ motto “all for one and one for all,” which Ben joins reluctantly.

So after 13 pages, the story shifts yet again to the Mole Man story, starting with a splash panel that is a slightly different version of the cover.

The next couple of sequences show how Lee and Kirby tried to ground the story in reality as much as possible. I like the fact that the FF has assembled in a nondescript room that I always assumed was either Reed’s apartment or his office. Since he’s got a “radar machine” there, I guess it would be his office, though he could always have a lab at home being most likely unemployed after the rocket crash.

There’s also mention of the Monster Island’s position that references Australia, South America and French Africa, setting the story in a wider world than DC’s were. Yes, the FF are based in this issue and next in “Central City,” but that quickly becomes Manhattan. A lot of Silver Age DC stories often tried to set themselves in the kinds of normal, suburban settings most kids of the times would be familiar with. (Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of other dimensions and alien planets in Silver Age DC stuff, but when they did Earth, they usually did Earth-Bland. Is that one of the 52 Earths in the new multiverse? If not, it really should be … )

The opening of the Mole Man bit, with the monster rising out of the Sahara to attack the French Legionnaires is exactly the sort of thing Lee and Kirby had been doing in the monster books Atlas had been doing at the time. That might be one reason why this sequence works well; another would be that it was drawn well and the coloring was excellent.
It’s not clear at all where the FF got the jet plane that delivers them to Monster Isle. I guess Reed had some money stashed away. Again, the characters go into battle here without much more than their newfound powers and without the costumes and gadgets theylater put to such good use.
When the monsters attack, we finally get to see some of Reed’s potential as a superhero. Of course, none of this was new, given that his powers are pretty much identical to those of Plastic Man and DC’s Elongated Man. But Plastic Man was a largely comedic series and Elongated Man was only a bit more serious, whereas Reed is at this point starting to show some potential as the kind of “serious” hero Marvel fans would soon gravitate to.

One of my favorite bits is the throwaway concept of the Valley of the Diamonds, which just shows up for a few panels and, aside from looking and sounding cool, plays no real role in the story.

The last chapter, The Moleman’s Secret!, finally unleashes The Thing, and it’s a bit underwhelming to see him dispatch his monster foe in three small panels on page 21. But his time to shine would come later.
The Mole Man’s origin, told in a single page, is full of themes that Marvel would later exploit to much better effect. Mole Man is told he’s ugly, he can’t get the girl, he’s laughed at and ostracized by society until he finds his own kingdom to rule and is condemned to never leave it due to a strange accident.
Page 23 is an odd one because Mole Man fights either Reed or Johnny with a pole, but since Reed and Johnny were both wearing identical suits that obscured their faces and neither is mentioned by name or has any dialog, it’s unclear which of them is in this sequence. I always assumed it was Reed, but there’s nothing there to back it up.
The final two pages see the arrival of the monster from the cover, who’s dispatched rather easily by the FF. The group flees, initially with Mole Man, but he’s explained away as having been left behind in the dialog – a sign that thing may have been a bit rushed by this point and Lee had no other way to work it out with the artwork Kirby turned in.

The end sees the FF returning home, and a caption promising more in the next great issue.

Looking at the issue as a whole, it really is a terrific story. I can’t help but wonder what might have happened with this series and Marvel had Lee and Kirby resisted the demands to turn the group into more obvious superheroes. As it is, this concept could fly as a TV series (an expensive one sure, but sticking to a kind of X-Files or Fringe style approach would have made this possible long before CG VFX were around.)

The art also is an excellent example of what made Kirby so great, even before he took his style to the unrestrained extremes that would define his work from the 1960s onward.
The last thing I want to mention is a quick revisit of the unique presentation this issue received in the Maximum FF book, a book I previously raved about that takes the book and blows it up panel by panel and turns it into a very cool coffee table book. This comic stands up to that kind of examination, and it’s a very, very good first issue.

Fantastic Four re-read: Introduction

Being a busy adult means that it is much harder to find the time or willpower to re-read long runs of favorite comic books. In my mid-teens, I often would pick about 10 or 12 comics to read each night before going to sleep and could easily power through a year’s worth of the old Marvel Star Wars or The New Mutants or Alpha Flight in a couple hours before turning out the lights. Most of the runs of comics I know by heart are still ones from those days, in large part because I was reading and re-reading them. I also used to devour new comics as soon as I got them home each week. These days, they often sit around in stacks waiting for me to carve out some time on the weekend or the occasional evening to get to them. Rarely do I find time to go back and re-read much. Because of that, there are some classic runs of comics I have accumulated slowly in recent years that never got a complete run through, and that’s what I’m going to rectify. I fully admit to lifting the idea from other blogs (Tor.com in particular, where they’ve been re-watching Star Trek and re-reading The Lord of the Rings).

I’m starting with The Fantastic Four by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. The reasons why should be obvious: this was the superhero comic book that launched what came to be known as the Marvel Universe. It was the backbone of Marvel’s rise to prominence in the Silver Age. It also was one of the best lengthy series that Lee or Kirby ever contributed to. And it remains essential and very good comic-book reading to this day.

For those who are interested in such things, I don’t have the originals of all — or even many – of these comics, but I do have the full run in Marvel Masterworks. These are the versions I will be using, with a few exceptions that I’ll note when the relevant post comes along. (And for those of you who like “shelf porn,” below is a picture of the Masterworks and DC Archives shelf in my office. Click to embiggen.)
What will these posts be like? I don’t know. I expect they’ll change significantly as I go through the series. My plan to start is to read each issue at least a few times and then see what I think it most interesting about it. I am going to avoid summaries because it’s tedious and there’s plenty of sites that serve that info far better than I can. 
By way of introduction, I’ll tell my history with The Fantastic Four. I first read Fantastic Four toward the end of John Byrne’s run. I think it may have been the last one or two issues he wrote, but didn’t draw, as he was on his way out the door at Marvel to do Superman for DC. I remember getting the 25th anniversary jam issue, #296, in 1986, and then stuck with the book for a couple of runs that featured plenty of solid but unspectacular work from artist John Buscema art and writer Roger Stern. Steve Englehart soon took over the writing and came up with some cool stories. It was an offbeat time for the team, as Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman — better known to most fans as Reed and Sue Richards — left the team and joined the Avengers. That left The Thing in charge of a quartet rounded out by the Human Torch, his girlfriend Crystal of the Inhumans, and the She-Thing.
Things picked up when Walter Simonson took over the book (as they usually do), and his take on the series was on a par with what I had read of Byrne’s. There was a popular story drawn by the excellent Arthur Adams in which Wolverine, Spider-Man, Hulk and Ghost Rider briefly became the new FF. But the best issue by Simonson was #350, in which Reed and Dr. Doom battled through time, popping in out of scenes throughout the comic that you could piece together in chronological order to get an entirely different take on the story.

Sometime in the mid-1990s, I completed my run of Byrne’s FF and really came to admire it. It was a prime example of one of the right ways to do a superhero comic, with each issue well written, well-drawn, easy to get into. It also captured something of the times, a nice mix of craft, nostalgia and just enough innovation to keep things interesting.

I don’t remember exactly when I first read any of the Stan Lee-Jack Kirby stories. I know I first learned of them in edited form in the pages of Marvel Saga, a short-lived series that retold the major “events” of the Marvel Universe in chronological order. It was a good primer on Silver Age Marvel, but not a substitute for reading the full stories.

So aside from a possible reprint or two, my first real chance to read these stories came from a copy of the first FF volume of Marvel Masterworks. That first copy is a third printing, which according to the excellent Marvel Masterworks Resource Page, was released in September 1989. I had several other original FF Masterworks volumes that I sold during the days when the series was out of print and the collector demand was high enough for me to get a really good price for them. I kept the first volume because I had it signed by Stan Lee at San Diego Comic-Con in the mid-1990s and didn’t want to give that one up. (I also have the first X-Men and Spider-Man Masterworks signed by Stan, and when we get to the Galactus trilogy, I’ll tell the story of another Stan Lee autograph.) When the re-mastered versions began coming out in the early 2000s, I began to pick them up and now have the first ten volumes. Some of these I haven’t read at all, so some of the stories in this run, which comprises 102 regular issues and six annuals, will be first-reads for me.

Before I get into the first issue, I think it’s worth taking a moment and put it in the context of the times in which it came out.

The story of how the Fantastic Four came to be is well-worn territory. In the early 1960s, comics were still recovering from the Frederic Wertham-lead witch-hunt and Senate hearings that prompted the creation of the Comics Code Authority. That put the crime, horror and other comics out of business and the comics field drifted into a period of strange, innocuous tales. Marvel, then called Atlas, followed the trends from Western comics to science fiction to romance comics to monster comics. They almost went out of business at one point when they lost their distributor, and were saved by a deal with Independent News that was a double-edged sword. Affiliated in some complicated way with DC Comics, Independent limited the number of titles Marvel could put out and, for at least a while, Marvel seemed to intentionally avoid putting out titles directly competed with those at DC.

DC was far and away the king of the hill at the time, having found new success in its superhero comics starting in 1956 with its new version of The Flash. That was followed by more revitalizations, including a deeper mythos for Superman, new sci-fi heroes like Adam Strange and the Atomic Knights, a new Green Lantern and the crowning success of the Justice League of America.

During this period, Jack Kirby had decided to stick with comics after his longtime partner, Joe Simon, concluded advertising was a better field. Kirby worked at DC for a while and created the series Challengers of the Unknown, a concept not too different from the Fantastic Four, before heading over to Atlas.

The way he tells it, Stan Lee was pretty discouraged about comics. He was thinking of quitting, when his wife, Joan, told him he should give it one more chance and do a comic that he liked. When Marvel owner Martin Goodman asked for a team of superheroes to compete with JLA, Stan says he saw this as his chance, and got together with Kirby to come up with The Fantastic Four #1.

Early house ad for Fantastic Four that appeared in Hulk #1.
(Scanned from The Collected Jack Kirby Collector, Vol. 1) 

At the time, the comic book market was small and tame, but diverse. For example, these are the comic books DC Comics published either with the same November 1961 cover date as Fantastic Four #1 (or an October-November or November-December cover date), according to comicbookdb.com:

Action Comics #282
Adventure Comics #290
The Adventures of Bob Hope #71
Batman #143
Blackhawk #166
The Brave and the Bold #38
Challengers of the Unknown #22
Detective Comics #297
The Flash #124
The Fox and the Crow #70
G.I. Combat #90
Girls’ Love Stories #82
Girls’ Romances #80
House of Mystery #116
House of Secrets #50
Justice League of America #7
Many Loves of Dobie Gillis #10
Men of War #52
My Greatest Adventure #61
Mystery In Space #71
Our Army at War #112
Our Fighting Forces #64
Rip Hunter … Time Master #5
Sea Devils #2
Showcase #35
Strange Adventures #134
Star Spangled War Stories #99
Sugar & Spike #37
Superman #149
Superman’s Girl Friend, Lois Lane #29
Tales of the Unexpected #67
Tomahawk #77
Wonder Woman #126
World’s Finest Comics #121

It’s a really interesting mix of superheroes, anthologies, romance comics, war comics and humor books. But not a lot of classics in there.

Thanks to DC’s excellent Showcase Presents volumes, I took a look at a couple of those stories: Justice League of America #7 and Adventure Comics #290. In the JLA story, Snapper Carr visits a funhouse and stumbles through a portal to an alien planet. After he’s rescued, the JLA members infiltrate and expose the funhouse as an alien operation. The biggest worry any of the heroes seem to have is whether they’ll expose their secret identities — a common theme in Silver Age DC stories. Adventure #290 is, amazingly, even weirder as Superboy heads off to all corners of the Earth to retrieve the elements of a super-powerful weapon the Legion hid in the past. Meanwhile, a reform school escapee who looks exactly like Clark Kent stumbles into Smallville and pretends to be Clark to enjoy the sweet, cushy life of Middle America. Lots of weirdness follows before memories are erased and everything reverts to normal. Both stories are fun, but pretty mild.

Superman #149 also happens to be a particularly famous issue, featuring a three-part imaginary story that culminates with the death of Superman that was written by Jerry Siegel, co-creator of the Man of Steel. This was one of Jerry’s best stories from the period and was reprinted in The Greatest Superman Stories Ever Told and featured by me in my first professional article about superhero comics, which was about — what else? — the “Death of Superman” story in 1993.

And here’s what the same site lists for the November 1961 cover dates at Atlas:

Amazing Adventures #6
Fantastic Four #1
Gunsmoke Western #67
Journey Into Mystery #74
Kid Colt Outlaw #101
Linda Carter, Student Nurse #2
Love Romances #96
Millie the Model #105
Strange Tales #90
Tales of Suspense #23
Tales to Astonish #25

And just for kicks, here are the other publishers’ titles for the same month, again from comicbookdb.com:

American Comics Group
Unknown Worlds #11

Archie Comics
Adventures of the Fly #16
Adventures of the Jaguar #3
Archie #123
Archie’s Girls Betty and Veronica #71
Archie’s Pal Jughead #78
Life with Archie #11
Pep Comics #151

Atomic Mouse #45
Billy The Kid #31

Beep Beep #11
Combat #1
Donald Duck #80
Four Color Comics #1209
Four Color Comics #1267
The Lone Ranger #142
Tarzan #127
Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories #254
Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse #80
Walter Lantz New Funnies #286

George A. Pflaum

Treasure Chest of Fun and Fact, Vol. 17, #5
Treasure Chest of Fun and Fact, Vol. 17, #6

Prize Publications
Young Romance #114

It’s easy to see why Fantastic Four stood out and was such a sensation in this market when it hit the nation’s newsstands on Tuesday, Aug. 8, 1961.

Kirby Heirs’ Claim a Tougher Row to Hoe

As if the news from comic book land couldn’t get any more sensational, the heirs of Jack Kirby have notified Marvel and the movie studios making Marvel movies of their intent to reclaim Kirby’s rights to the likes of Fantastic Four, Hulk and X-Men.

Like the news of the similar, successful attempt by the heirs of Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel against DC Comics, this news raises questions among fans about the future of these iconic comic book characters. Adding to the interest is the involvement of attorney Marc Toberoff, who is representing the Siegels in a court proceding that will determine how much DC owes them for the use of Superman since 1999.
Toberoff has had a lot of success with this sort of case, both in the courtroom and in making headlines. In this case, sending out 45 notices of intent to terminate the transfer of copyright to Marvel, Sony, Fox, Universal and more, just weeks after Disney agreed to buy Marvel and its catalog — a large portion of which Kirby had a hand in creating — for $4 billion.
But there are some pretty major differences between Kirby’s case and the Superman case. Namely, that Siegel and his partner Joe Shuster had clearly created the character of Superman prior to working for DC Comics and selling all rights to that company, while Kirby was had been working for Marvel as a freelance artist for several years before he and Stan Lee collaborated to create the characters that become the backbone of the Marvel Universe.
When the copyright laws in the United States were revised in 1976 to include provisions for original rights owners to cancel the transfer of rights, it also made clear that the same right does not exist for material created as work made for hire. That law clearly defined work made for hire and what kind of relationship qualified as WFH.

At the time Kirby co-created the Marvel characters, the specifics of the law were less clear. The 1909 Copyright Act does include the concept of work made for hire, but doesn’t clearly define it. According to this article, courts interpreted work made for hire as requiring a traditional employer-employee relationship, though around the mid 1960s they began to expand the definition to include freelancers who contributed to collective works like Kirby, Steve Ditko and everyone else who worked on those early Marvels, except for Stan Lee.
I expect this will be the crux of this case, with Marvel arguing Kirby was creating work made for hire and Toberoff arguing Kirby — who claimed in interviews he never signed any document during those years ceding his rights to the work — created copyrighted material on his own that he sold to Marvel and that his heirs now have the right to cancel.
Lee’s situation is completely different. As the editor of Marvel Comics, he had that traditional relationship with the company and I don’t think any reasonable person would consider his contributions to those comics as anything but a textbook case of work made for hire. Of course, a lot of this is going to reopen the old argument of who was contributing what to the finished work. It’s an argument that will never be settled, but what is clear is that Kirby drew the comics, while Lee wrote the dialog and served as editor. Who was most responsible for the actual content of those stories — creating characters, coming up with and pacing out the plots — is the area of dispute. Lee surely contributed some of those elements, especially in the early days, but it’s also obvious that Kirby had the greater impact in plot and character design. It’s long been fashionable to denigrate Lee’s contributions, but the personality he projected in the dialog and the copy he wrote for Kirby’s stories was essential in developing and defining the Marvel style for decades to come.
Even though Kirby was not a traditional employee, I think it’s going to be tough for the Kirby heirs to make a convincing legal argument that he was not doing work made for hire. Unless there’s some smoking gun, the issue of Kirby and Lee’s relationship has been the most scrutinized in comics history. If there were smoking gun documents still in the hands of the Kirby estate, or even Marvel documents that dated back to the time, they likely would have surfaced by now.
And a lot of this has been disputed before, back when Jack Kirby was trying to get Marvel to return his original artwork in the 1980s. (It says on Mark Evanier’s website here that Kirby never actually sued Marvel.) There was a long dispute over a release form that Marvel asked Kirby to sign that clarified Marvel’s ownership of the copyright, but also contained many measure Kirby objected to. A long, public standoff occurred, the details of which have been recorded in detail elsewhere. One such account, Michael Dean’s overview in The Comics Journal Library: Jack Kirby, states that in the end Kirby signed a a shorter form of the release that addressed his concerns and got his art back. How that, and any other documents or agreements Marvel had with Kirby over the years, would affect the copyright termination attempt will have to wait.
And that’s the other element — this is a long-term deal that won’t really have any effect for years. Consider that in the Siegel case, they successfully terminated the copyright transfer for Action Comics #1 in 1999 and are still in court determining the details and litigating exactly how much that share of the rights is worth. With the Kirby work, the copyrights aren’t even eligible to be terminated until 56 years after first publication, which is 2017 for Fantastic Four #1, 2018 for The Incredible Hulk #1 and Thor’s first appearance in Journey into Mystery #83, and 2019 for X-Men #1. The window is five years, so it could be even longer before any kind of legal heat results.
And there’s also the issue of Disney’s legal acumen, especially in defending its copyrights and trademarks. Take for example this Los Angeles Times article from last year that makes the case that, due to a faulty copyright notice, Disney’s famous “Steamboat Willie” cartoon has long been in the public domain but remains de facto protected by Disney’s immense legal muscle.

As with the Siegel and Shuster case, it’s clear that Kirby deserved better treatment — money and credit for his contributions — from Marvel. Unfortunately, I think this will be a much tougher argument to win. Perhaps Disney/Marvel will see the benefit in settling this without going to court. But history seems to indicate a years-long legal battle before any of this is settled for good.

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