Monday, August 8, 2011

50 Years - Fantastic Four and Marvel

Fantastic Four by FrankVenice
Fifty years ago today- Fantastic Four issue number 1 was published. Here's a look at how that one book started it all.

Company's success was truly a Marvel

A SMALL moment in pop-culture history occurred 50 years ago Monday: the publication of the inaugural issue of a new comic book, the "Fantastic Four." 

The FF, as it's colloquially known, is the first superhero comic from Marvel Comics, the one that led to Spider-Man, Thor, Captain America, the X-Men, Iron Man, the Incredible Hulk and other Marvel characters who have become household names thanks to Hollywood.
I'd hate to let such a significant milestone pass unmarked, especially when, as a Marvel fan of almost four decades standing, I've spent most of my life boning up on the subject.

(Comics fans of a certain age will fall into a hushed silence at hearing that yours truly, in the Hallowed Ranks of Marveldom, long ago achieved the status of Permanent Marvelite Maximus.)
So prepare for a few surprises as I relate the humble prehistory of all these movies clogging the multiplexes. 

To begin with, Marvel Comics, in 1961, wasn't a leader in men-in-capes comic books and a subsidiary of Disney, as it is now. Heck, the company was so small, it didn't even have a name. 

Stan Lee had a tiny office in a New York publishing concern named Magazine Management. As editor, art director and writer of its unnamed comics line, Lee was responsible for putting together eight titles per month, a mix of Westerns, romance and monster comics.

Lee was 38 years old had worked for the company (owned by a relative) for 20 years and was anxious
to get out of his dead-end job in a dying field. 

Then the publisher gave him an assignment: "Maybe we ought to do some superheroes."
Say, that's an idea. 

National, later known as DC, had introduced costumed superheroes in the 1930s with Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern and others. Other companies had jumped on the bandwagon.
Superheroes had fallen from favor after World War II but were slowly being reintroduced by National, comics' leading publisher. 

Lee and his top artist, Jack Kirby, put their heads together on a superhero comic. Lee was spurred by a comment by his wife, who wondered why he never put as much effort into his comics work as he did with his freelance writing in other fields. 

"For just this once," Lee later reflected, "I would do the type of story I myself would enjoy reading."
"Fantastic Four" No. 1 was published Aug. 8, 1961, and it's an unlikely masterpiece. 

The super-team's origin is standard stuff. A pilot, a scientist, his fiancee and her kid brother fly an experimental rocket into space, are bombarded by "cosmic rays," return to Earth with strange powers - strength, pliability, invisibility and flame - and decide to aid humanity. 

One of them now looks like orange oatmeal and is nicknamed The Thing. (The accident, alas, did not increase his teammates' powers of sensitivity.) 

Classic Fantastic Four by Fallenson75
Soon, they're on Monster Isle, fighting a giant lizard-like creature that is commanded by the Mole Man, an unsightly human with dreams of world conquest. 

Like I said, the plot isn't revolutionary. Kirby's art was crude. The playfulness Lee later perfected was absent.
(Except in one panel. When the team's leader gravely says, "I called you together because I have some pictures to show you," another deadpans, "What are") 

It's the story's unconventional elements that set it apart.
The heroes didn't wear costumes or have a headquarters. Their identities weren't secret.
The characters each had a distinct way of speaking. They bickered. The two men had a romantic rivalry over the woman. 

The public was slightly scared of the FF and the FF was slightly scared of themselves.
Also, the villain had pathos. People had shunned him because of his misshapen appearance. He ostracized himself from humanity, musing: "Even this loneliness is better than the cruelty of my fellow men!" 

In comics, where all heroes were virtuous and villains evil, and everyone talked pretty much alike, Lee and Kirby's approach was radical.
Fan mail began arriving on Lee's desk. Fan mail? This was unheard of. 

Lee could still publish only eight comics per month - other titles the same month as FF No. 1 included "Kid Colt Outlaw," "Journey into Mystery" and "Linda Carter Student Nurse" - but Lee and Kirby set to work on a Jekyll and Hyde monster. 

When "The Incredible Hulk" debuted in March 1962, Lee canceled "Teen-Age Romance" to make way for it. 

Marvel Super heroes by imapuniverse
Thor, Spider-Man, Iron Man, The Avengers, Captain America, X-Men, Dr. Strange, Daredevil, Ant-Man, the Sub-Mariner and Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD followed, dialogued and sometimes plotted by Lee, drawn and sometimes plotted by Kirby, Steve Ditko and others. 

It was an unlikely success story. The company's printing was garish (many covers were purple, gray or both), its paper brittle, its comics poorly distributed. 

But the product was unique. Kirby's art was blunt, angry and seething with power. Ditko's was low-key and quirky. The characters were idiosyncratic and the stories mixed monsters, heroes, romance and humor in fresh ways. 

Marvel, as the comics line was named, became popular among college students who liked its ambivalent, ironic heroes. Lee's flippant writing, sharp dialogue and asides to readers became a sensation. 

Because Marvel's line was small, Lee could oversee everything and function almost as an auteur. By the early 1970s, Marvel became the No. 1 company in sales. 

By then, Lee was publisher and no longer writing. Kirby had defected to DC and Ditko was long gone. I started reading in the 1970s, when Marvel was expanding and experimenting. 

These days, Marvel mostly publishes iterations of the same heroes Lee and his artists created in the 1960s, only to lesser effect. Other than continuing to buy Captain America, I've given up. 

Kirby died in 1994; Ditko is semiretired. Lee is an elder statesman in the field and makes cameos in most of the Marvel movies, including this summer's Captain America and Thor. 

Lee, Kirby, Ditko and the rest have benefited only marginally from the movies. They don't own the characters - Marvel does. 

But in the movie credits, Lee and other Marvel creators always get a "based on the Marvel comic by" credit. Fans look for them and applaud. 

Next time, look for their names yourself and join in.

SJvMarvel by Vitor-Aizen

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