Fantastic Four

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(L to R) Chris Evans, loan Gruffudd, Jessica Alba, and Michael Chlklls as the Fantastic Four In the 2007 film Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. (20th Century-Fox/Marvel / The Kobal Collection.)
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Fantastic Four #82 © 1969 Marvel Comics. (Cover art by Jack Kirby and Joe Sinnott.)

Fantastic Four

(pop culture)

The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine!”—this immodest subtitle displayed above the logo of Fantastic Four since its fourth issue—is no mere hyperbole. Still going strong in its fifth decade of publication, Fantastic Four, the series that spearheaded the Marvel universe, has become its cornerstone.

Fantastic Four was the product of editorial decree and creative desperation. Beginning in the late 1950s, DC Comics had successfully resuscitated the superhero genre through its reintroduction of classic heroes like the Flash and Green Lantern. The Silver Age of comics (1956–1969) was underway. Martin Goodman, publisher of Marvel Comics, was informed, during a golf game with DC’s publisher Jack Liebowitz, that DC’s superhero books were selling exceptionally well, particularly their new Justice League of America series, which united Superman, Batman, and other popular characters. Marvel was known mainly for its monster comics, and Goodman realized that his line would benefit from a title starring a supergroup. He ordered his editor, Stan Lee, to create one. This directive came at an opportune time for Lee, who was tiring of writing and editing disposable pap for children and was on the brink of resigning from the company. Lee longed to script material with more profundity—stories featuring real people, with realistic foibles—and his wife encouraged him to make this mandated superteam the trial project for his aspirations.

Fantastic Four #1 (November 1961) introduced a quartet of new characters: Dr. Reed Richards, a pompous scientist and aerospace engineer; Susan (Sue) Storm, his lovely and somewhat reserved fiancée; Sue’s hotheaded teen-age brother Johnny Storm, a car-racing enthusiast; and Richards’ beefy and snappish longtime friend, pilot Ben Grimm. This group of four commandeers an untested spaceship of Richards’ own design from the U.S. military, in a frantic but unsanctioned effort to beat “the Commies” (as Sue calls them) in the Space Race. Grimm protests, concerned over inadequate research into the effects of space radiation, but is sweet-talked into participation by Sue, for whom he carries an unrequited passion. In orbit, the craft is flooded by cosmic rays (“I warned you about ‘em!” yells Grimm) that genetically alter its passengers. Once returning to Earth, the quartet discover that they have been forever changed: Sue can fade in and out of view (and before long, project force fields) as the Invisible Girl; Grimm mutates into a freakish, rock-skinned powerhouse dubbed the Thing; arrogant Richards elongates into a plastic man who calls himself Mr. Fantastic; and Johnny erupts into flame, blazing through the skies as the Human Torch. “Together we have more power than any humans have ever possessed,” submits Richards, who persuades this group to join forces as the Fantastic Four (FF).

Author Lee’s co-architect was artist Jack Kirby, an industry superstar who, like Lee, was looking for a chance to stretch beyond the monster comics he’d recently illustrated for Marvel. Kirby’s energetic and cinematic storytelling (“Nobody drew a strip like Jack Kirby,” beamed Lee in his 2002 autobiography, Excelsior! The Amazing Life of Stan Lee) earmarked Fantastic Four as something new, as did Lee’s bouncy dialogue, which often placed the series’ teammates in verbal conflict with each other—and physical conflict, too, via the playful ruckuses sparked by practical joker Torch and his target, the Thing. They were more than a team: They were a family, albeit a dysfunctional one.

Fantastic Four quickly became a triumph for Marvel, and Lee and Kirby’s imaginations burst into hyperdrive. An array of fearsome foes appeared and reappeared, including, but certainly not limited to, the oafish Mole Man, enslaver of a subterranean race; Golden Age (1938–1954) anti-hero Sub-Mariner, also known as Prince Namor of the undersea kingdom of Atlantis, whose hatred of “surface dwellers” was quelled only by his love of the Invisible Girl; the alien Super-Skrull, who possessed all of the FF’s awesome abilities; the manipulative Puppet Master, who could control the FF via miniature proxies; and the towering Galactus, who gained sustenance by absorbing the life forces of planets. Yet no menace was more insolent than Doctor Doom, whose hideously scarred face was hidden behind an ominous iron mask (it is rumored that Doom was the template for Darth Vader in George Lucas’ Star Wars movies). Originally Richards’ colleague Victor Von Doom, this despotic mastermind habitually returned to plague not only the FF but to engage Mr. Fantastic in intellectual battles, always with dire consequences.

Lee and Kirby ushered the FF—who operated from the Baxter Building, a skyscraper in midtown Manhattan—into a dizzying array of exciting adventures in exotic locales: the center of the Earth, the past, the subatomic Micro-World, and the treacherous void called the Negative Zone. Mr. Fantastic’s unending array of technological gadgets assisted the FF in their exploits, most notably the aerodynamic Fantasti-car (which in its earliest incarnation resembled a flying bathtub), and the FF’s own malleable uniforms, woven from “unstable molecules” that mimicked each hero’s power (for example, the fabric stretched with Mr. Fantastic). Despite his brilliance, Richards could never find a permanent reversal of the Thing’s tragic condition.

In Fantastic Four Annual #3 (1965), Reed and Sue were married (in a wedding crashed by a cadre of criminals), and a few years later their son Franklin was born. The Richards family was far from traditional, however: Franklin displayed dangerous superpowers, and Mr. Fantastic repeatedly ignored his wife and son by spending days holed up in his laboratory. A growing supporting cast was introduced: the Black Panther, Marvel’s first African-American superhero; the In-humans, a race of outcast superbeings; the Watcher, a chronicler of intergalactic events sworn to observe but not participate; and the Silver Surfer, the space-spanning herald of Galactus, who turned against his master at the urging of the Thing’s blind girlfriend, Alicia Masters. Alicia, the daughter of the Puppet Master, became part of the FF’s extended family, and helped soften the Thing’s morose demeanor by “seeing” what only she could: the kind inner soul of Grimm.

Two renowned comics catch phrases were born early in Fantastic Four’s run: Johnny’s “Flame on!,” which he exclaimed when soaring into action as the Torch, and the Thing’s high-spirited battle charge, “It’s clobberin’ time!” The Human Torch was the initial breakout member, starring in solo adventures in Strange Tales and routinely appearing in The Amazing Spider-Man, but as the Thing’s personality changed from bitter outsider to lovable grouch, by the mid-1960s Grimm emerged as the FF’s most popular player.

In 1967, the FF’s acclaim extended beyond comic books. The Fantastic Four (1967–1970), an animated television series produced by Hanna-Barbera, borrowed heavily from the Lee/Kirby comics. The cartoon ignited a firestorm of merchandizing, including storybooks, flicker rings, coloring books, Halloween costumes, and puzzles.

In the 1970s, changes disrupted the status quo of Fantastic Four. A dispute involving story contributions divided the Lee/Kirby team, and before long both vacated the book. For years, a variety of creators ventured in and out of the title (artist John Buscema distinguished himself by his lengthy run on the series in the 1970s), some making minor contributions to the canon, others leaving a larger mark. The Thing headlined the long-running team-up title Marvel Two-in-One (1974–1983), Reed and Sue suffered marital problems, and members came and went from the team, being temporarily replaced by heroes like Power Man and Medusa.

By the late 1970s, several Marvel superheroes were starring on live-action television on CBS. The Human Torch was optioned for an unrealized live-action film, precluding his inclusion in the FF’s second animated series, The New Fantastic Four (1978), on rival network NBC. (A comics urban legend contends that the Torch wasn’t allowed on the ‘toon due to the network’s concerns that impressionable children would set themselves ablaze in emulation.) Johnny Storm was replaced in the show by a comical robot named Herbie. The following season, NBC aired Fred and Barney Meet the Thing, a Flintstones continuation that included shorts featuring a teenage version of “Benjy” Grimm who transformed into the ever-lovin’ Thing by uniting two separated pieces of a ring and shouting, “Thing Ring, do your thing!” Both cartoons strayed too far from the FF source material and died quickly.

Writer/artist John Byrne’s 1980s run on the Fantastic Four comic book (#232-#292, July 1981-July 1986) spanned half the decade and featured such memorable events as the induction of the She-Hulk as a temporary member, the evolution of the once-meek Invisible Girl into the forceful and liberated Invisible Woman, the shocking romance between the Torch and the Thing’s girlfriend Alicia, and the transformation of Sue into the villainess Malice. Grimm segued from Marvel-Two-in-One into his own monthly title, The Thing (1983–1986), which took him into the cosmos as a space explorer and into the sports arena as a professional wrestler.

The 1990s did not bode well for Fantastic Four. Convoluted story lines impeded the series continuity, and sales dropped. The “Heroes Reborn” rebooting of Fantastic Four in 1996 was undone in 1998, when the original continuity was restored. In the 2000s, the Human Torch was spun off into his own series, and Fantastic Four was restored to its former glory by fan-favorite writer Mark Waid and artist Mike Wieringo. A 2003 corporate decision to remove Waid and Wieringo from FF was met by such overwhelming backlash from readers that the move was soon reversed. An alternate-universe title featuring a younger version of the team, Ultimate Fantastic Four, premiered in early 2004, and a third ongoing FF series, 4 (a.k.a. Knights 4), a harder-edged interpretation produced by the creative team originally contracted to replace Waid and Wieringo, bowed in 2004. Another FF milestone: In continuous publication since 1961, the Invisible Girl/Woman has earned the distinction of being in print longer than every comics superheroine except for Wonder Woman.

Reed and Sue now have a daughter, Valeria, who first appeared in Fantastic Four Vol. 3 #15 (March 1999) and is a genius like her father. Her brother Franklin stars in Franklin Richards: Son of a Genius, a delightful series of specials drawn, and either written or co-written, by Chris Eliopoulos, which began in 2005. Not part of official continuity, this series pairs Franklin with H.E.R.B.I.E., the robot created for the 1978 Fantastic Four animated series.

This same year, a major live action Fantastic Four movie was finally released by Twentieth Century Fox. Directed by Tim Story, it starred Ioan Gruffudd as Mr. Fantastic, Jessica Alba as the Invisible Woman, Chris Evans as the Human Torch, Michael Chiklis as the Thing, and Julian McMahon as Doctor Doom. Stan Lee usually makes Hitchcock-like cameo appearances in films based on Marvel series he co-created, and in this movie he played one of his own characters, the Fantastic Four’s mailman Willie Lumpkin. A sequel, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, directed by Story, starring the same leading actors, followed in 2007. This time Stan Lee played himself, being ejected from the wedding of Reed Richards and Sue Storm, just as he had been in their wedding in the comic book Fantastic Four Annual #3 (1965)! A new animated TV series, Fantastic Four: World’s Greatest Heroes, premiered in 2006 on Cartoon Network. In 2009 and 2010 it was reported that Fox is developing a new Fantastic Four movie, rebooting the film franchise.

Amidst their popularity—in a controversial story published in 2011—Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, was apparently killed. The Fantastic Four renamed themselves the Future Foundation, and Spider-Man took Johnny’s place on the team. Although disagreements and personal quests have often separated the Fantastic Four, their mutual affection inevitably reunites them. It’s that bond between Mr. Fantastic, the Invisible Woman, the Thing, and the Human Torch that will always make their series “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine!” —ME & PS

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