“A brilliant scientist—his best friend—the woman he loves—and her fiery-tempered kid brother! Together, they braved the unknown terrors of outer space, and were changed by cosmic rays into something more than merely human! MR. FANTASTIC! THE THING! THE INVISIBLE GIRL! THE HUMAN TORCH! Now they are the FANTASTIC FOUR—and the world will never be the same again!” Introduction to the Fantastic Four comic books during the 1970s,
Not much can be said about the Fantastic Four that hasn’t been said before. It’s widely regarded as one of Marvel Comics’ greatest teams and to this day, it deserves the title of the World’s Greatest Comic Magazine- as it was advertised proudly on the covers of the comic books. They were called “the First Family of Marvel”, and during the silver and bronze age the creative teams, which began with co-creators Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, spun tale after tale involving the main four characters with their supporting cast as they figured out how to solve their problems or win the battle against the bad guys.
As we celebrate the 60th anniversary the FF, their story has proven to be as timeless as it is popular. First, we got Dr. Reed Richards, who becomes the stretchable Mr. fantastic, we have Sue storm who marries Reed and she becomes the Invisible Girl (and later rightly renames herself the Invisible Woman), then we have her younger brother Johnny, a hot rod-riding hothead, who loves fast cars and is always dating pretty girls, and then we have the family’s trusted friend Ben Grimm, who becomes the ever lovin’ blue-eyed Thing.
Why these characters work together is because the creation is structured around a family dynamic. A family who is close and loyal, yet bicker and banter, but at the end of the day come together as a team to win the day.
Why the setting works is that this is no ordinary family. Each one has been imbued with super powers based on cosmic ray irradiation when they rocketed to space on a test flight. Reed can stretch his body, Sue becomes invisible, Johnny bursts into flames and fly, and Ben became a rocky layered bulk of a humanoid. In terms of personality, Reed is the level-headed leader, Sue with her invisible powers also has a force projection where she could solidify the air around her making her a telekinetic, and effectively the most powerful member of the team. Johnny usually flies when he is fully engulfed in flames and can project flame blasts from his hands. And the Thing is so strong he could almost beat the Hulk, if not hold his own against the green goliath.
Also, the creators skillfully mixed the situation of the mundane and juxtaposed it with the cosmic. While Johnny and Ben were bickering over a meal, there might be something going on in the universe, a catastrophic threat of some kind or a massive universal event so they had to suspend their meal and arguments until later.
Yet, another reason why the FF has succeeded was the introduction of so many lasting characters. For example, Dr. Doom; this creation was partially the inspiration for Darth Vader in Star Wars. He is a top level threat in the Marvel universe. This regal, brooding monarch from the Eastern European country of Latveria, plans to rule the world and especially defeat his most hated rival, Reed Richards. Then we have another top level Marvel threat — Galactus, the world eater. This classic tale by Lee and Kirby about Galactus arriving on Earth to consume it (Fantastic Four #48-50) had readers on the edge of their seats as it appeared that this was going to be the end of the world and only the Fantastic Four could save the day. In this first adventure against Galactus we are introduced to another major character in the Marvel universe, the Silver Surfer. There were many other threats that the Fantastic Four faced, like Ego living planet, Terrax, Kang, the Super Skrull, the Mole Man, Molecule Man, and so many creations from Lee/Kirby, who all became mainstay super villains for the Marvel universe.
The original creative duo had so many great catch phrases for the FF characters, for example when Johnny begins to have flames around him he screamed “flame on!” When the Thing was about to enter the fight he shouted “it’s clobberin’ time!” The Thing always had these references about him growing up poor in Yancy Street, and always mentioned his Aunt Petunia, which during the first years of the Fantastic Four publishing history we always heard him talk about her, but we never saw her.
The Fantastic Four’s personalities and motivations influenced how they talk. For example, when Reed needs to talk about the threat at hand, he uses scientific and collegiate-level words, and if Ben’s around, he asks “Stretcho” to remind him to please speak plain English so the rest of the world can get it, which is pretty funny. Sue is like the den mother of the group – not only is she the most powerful, but sometimes she has to break up the bickering fights between Ben and Johnny, or pry her husband away from the scientific dohickeys — the colossal Kirby machinery in which Reed would spend hours playing with their buttons and levers— but she needs him at the dinner table so they could all have dinner. Ben is usually grumpy but displays a heart of gold under that rough exterior. His blind girlfriend Alicia Masters does not see an intimidating walking set of rocks, she sees Ben for his character.
Fantastic Four also worked for so well because this was the very first Marvel comic as an ongoing series during the 60s and it clearly became apparent to the readers that this was a shared universe, as we saw guest stars like Spider-Man, Daredevil, the Avengers and other Lee/Kirby and Ditko creations, making guest appearances. The Inhumans were first introduced in issues of the FF (Fantastic Four #45). The Black Panther, comics’ first mainstream Black superhero, and the mythical city of Wakanda were first introduced in issues of Fantastic Four #52 and 53. So many creations from the pages of Fantastic Four have lasted during all these years of Marvel Comics published in history. The latest breakout star is the ancient witch Agatha Harkness, the popular villain from WandaVision, who made her debut in Fantastic Four #95.
And last, but not least, it was the artwork of the late, great Jack “king“ Kirby and his dynamic, energetic, spectacular art style that stood out from the rest of the competition. His art style became a visual language in itself, which helped define the Marvel style and has forever influenced comic books ever since. The Kirby dots, the colorful characters, the explosive battles, the dynamic angles, the squiggly lines, the dynamic poses are all Kirby, and Fantastic Four had all these Kirby visuals.
For a creation to still be popular after 60 years is amazing and the core reason for the success of the Fantastic Four are these four characters that formed a family who cared about each other. This essence is still reflected in the current issues of the Fantastic Four and hopefully will be captured in their upcoming film from Marvel Studios. That is the key of them winning the day.
Walter L. Stevenson