Lee & Kirby: FANTASTIC FOUR #3

It’s time to take a look at FANTASTIC FOUR #3. While I won’t be posting every page, I will be going a bit more in-depth on this one, as it’s the earliest issue for which some of the original art still exists, and examining those original pages tells us a number of interesting things about just how this story was produced. And that evidence can be extrapolated backwards onto the previous two issues to help explain why some of the discrepancies we’ve seen and conjectured about may have been that way. Everything I’ve been talking about as regards the first two issues of FANTASTIC FOUR are based solely on what was printed in the actual final comic book. On this issue, we’ve got a bit more to work with.

As I’ve said earlier, my conclusion based on studying these three issues in depth (as well as the subsequent issues and contemporaneous Lee & Kirby collaborations) leads me to believe that there was a lot more back-and-forth between Lee and Kirby on these initial releases than there would be going forward. Beginning with issue #4, all of the oddities of composition and page breakdown vanish for the most part, indicating that virtually all of the overall storytelling was being worked out by Kirby. But for whatever reason or reasons, on these initial three releases, Lee involved himself in these decisions a lot more frequently.

A lot of work and revision went into this issue, as we’ll see. To start with, this cover was drawn last, after the rest of the issue was long completed, and it replaced the original intended cover for the issue. It represents just about the only place where Jack Kirby drew the Human Torch in his updated modern form in this issue. As initially penciled by Kirby, the Torch was still sporting the more formless look he’d evidenced in the first two issues. It was inker Sol Brodsky who made the adjustments to the Torch figures as he inked the book, which is why they look a bit different from Kirby’s depiction from here on out. (For one thing, Kirby typically allowed the Torch’s features to be somewhat visible through is flames, as he does here on this cover. Brodsky’s patched version was faceless throughout.

Here’s the original unused cover produced for FANTASTIC FOUR #3. This particular image and coloring is from a production proof generated when it was run on the back cover of THE OFFICIAL MARVEL INDEX TO THE FANTASTIC FOUR #1, so these colors do not represent how it might have seen print in 1962. Also, the mark-ups on it are indications of color corrections for that printing, so they should be ignored.

It’s a bit of a mess of a cover, to be honest–the central action is almost entirely crowded out by the boxes highlighting the different characters. Also, it looks to me as though it had been drawn with the Fantastic Four in the same sorts of regular clothes they had worn through their first two issues–the added-in-the-inks costume on Reed is a bit unconvincing. Here also, Sol Brodsky made changes to the Human Torch figure, though I assume that it was Kirby who made his whole head visible originally.

Clearly something had changed between when this cover was penciled and when the book went to print. Greg Theakston has theorized that, on the initial issues, publisher Martin Goodman was fearful of jeopardizing his relationship with Independent News, his distributor, which was owned by DC/National Comics, by stepping into their home territory and publishing an outright super hero title. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but certainly the first two issues of FANTASTIC FOUR seem to work awfully hard on their covers to conceal what sort of a magazine you’re going to be getting. With this third issue, either Goodman or Lee decided to throw caution to the wind–not only giving the FF full-on costumes but touting that fact in huge blurbs on the cover. The printed cover screams at the top of its lungs that this is a super hero comic book.

Here’s the original artwork to the opening splash page. A note in non-repro pencil at the bottom from letterer Artie Simek reads; WHEW!! VERY HEAVY PAGE OF LETTERING FOR A FIRST PAGE, STAN!

It’s worth noting for later that, at the top of the page, the indication of this being for #3 MARCH has been crossed out and seemingly replaced by an indication that it’s for NOV ’61. That may be relevant shortly. It’s also worth pointing out that at least as far as the printers were concerned, Marvel was still Timely at this point.

The job number for the issue, V-563, is also indicated outside of the live area at the top. it’s repeated small within the splash panel as well. Job numbers were a part of the accounting process. Every story had a job number and payments for the different parts of the production process were paid out and billed back against that particular job number. In this way, you could track costs against an individual issue or story. Because job numbers were assigned as the work was turned in, typically the pencils, they provide us with a loose framework for determining the order in which these formative Marvel stories were produced across all titles.

Both Stan and Jack signed this original art board at the bottom years after producing it. Those signatures do not date back to when it was done.

PAGE 3 original artwork. Not much to say here, this is a vintage Kirby layout through and through. Note that Kirby again uses his signature triptych approach across the center tier as the Thing shatters the enormous log.

PAGE 4 original artwork. Again, not that much to say here, the layout and composition is pure Kirby. But studying the page closely, there are some minor things we can observe. In that first panel, for example, Brodsky neglected to ink the Thing’s lower jaw, a bit of which is still visible in pencil jutting out from his collar. In panel 3, Stan has a note in the margin indicating to Brodsky that Sue is meant to be visible here. Tat figure of Sue is so open and sparse with detail that it’s possible that Kirby drew her as an invisible dotted line here. And in Panel 4, Stan again gives Sol a note, indicating that the 4 should be added onto the front grill of the Fantasticar. (The car also had a windshield here for the only time.) There’s a bit of a final note or instruction from Stan still in evidence in the lower right corner of the page, but most of it is missing here, and there isn’t enough left to decipher.

Okay, from this point on, things begin to get interesting. Because on the backs of a number of the existing pages for FANTASTIC FOUR #3 there are rough page breakdowns drawn out of Stan Lee indicating how he wanted to see the action broken down. These pages are scattered throughout the job–not every page has one, but a bunch of them do, and the pages wit these indications are spread throughout the book. In each case, the final page appears to reflect at least the essence of the breakdown that Lee has scribbled out, even though Kirby will occasionally change some of the details slightly.

The question, of course, is when were these sketches done? From what we know, the typical working methodology of Lee and Kirby once the Marvel books got rolling was for Kirby to work at home drawing up whatever pages he was then working on (and doing most of the specific plotting as a part of that process) and then he would come into the offices once every week or two and go through the pages with Lee, describing the specifics of what he was thinking as he went. On pages for later issues, there are notes that Lee makes in the margins of such pages as reminders to himself as to what Kirby is telling him, for when he does the dialogue. Even later, when it became too onerous for Kirby to come into the office so regularly (if he wasn’t drawing, he wasn’t earning), Kirby began to write out extensive border notes for Lee, describing the story as he imagined it in detail . This practice appears to have begun at some point in 1964.

But here, these sketches are too precise and match the final pages too specifically. They aren’t notes as to what is happening, they are instructions for how to break down a sequence. So to my eye, these had to have been done before the pages associated with them had been penciled. This leads me to one of two conclusions: either Kirby penciled an entire story for FANTASTIC FOUR #3 and a whole lot of pages were discarded and redrawn (which isn’t impossible or even unlikely–Joe Orlando once told me that the reason he stopped working for Stan and Marvel was that he typically wound up drawing 30 pages for a 20 page story due to changes in the storytelling that Lee wanted.) Or else Lee and Kirby sat down together and worked out some of the specifics of this story in person, with Stan doing these crude sketches for Jack so that he would remember what they had discussed and in particular the pacing they had agreed upon. Either way, it’s a much closer set of interactions than would later be typical of the duo.

For those who cannot decipher Lee’s notes at this size, they read:

M.M. LOOKS OUT OF WINDOW–SEES MONSTER DISPLAY IN STREET

GETS AN IDEA–HE’LL USE ANIMATE

ONLY I KNOW HOW TO BRING IT TO LIFE

PLANE LANDS ON ROOF

SHOWING APT. (Apartment)

On the front of the page, Stan again notes to Brodsky that the 4 needs to be placed on the front of the Fantasticar in the center panel.

Next up in the book is this pin-up page of the Human Torch. As I mentioned last time, JACK KIRBY COLLECTOR publisher John Morrow theorized in his new and excellent book STUF’ SAID that this page may have been Kirby’s design page for the Human Torch. I tend to agree with that assessment, even though the evidence here doesn’t overtly support that thesis. And here’s where that question of NOV ’61 comes into play again. When I first saw this page, I thought that indication may have meant that this pin-up was originally intended for FANTASTIC FOUR #1 (which carried a November 1961 cover date.) But having seen the same indication written onto the splash page for this issue in the same hand, I’m not so sure. The job number here is V-564, one number after the story, indicating that the page was at least paid for after the rest of FANTASTIC FOUR #3 had been drawn. But that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t drawn earlier and then placed against this issue when the decision was made to include it.

What is clear from what we see here is that, like in the rest of this issue, Sol Brodsky heavily reworked the Human Torch figure when he inked this page, to bring the design into line with the new version that was being rolled out. There are still enough indications in the final piece–the manner in which the Torch’s trail is done, the way his hands and legs disappear into flames, etc–that seem to indicate that, when Kirby drew this pin-up, he was drawing the version of the Human Torch that was seen in the first two issues. Whether the decision to change the Torch’s appearance came from Martin Goodman or Stan himself we may never know–to say nothing about whether this was all a part of the switch from concealing the super hero nature of the series to flaunting it.

While the original artwork for this page hasn’t turned up, it clearly evidences Stan’s hand in its design, as Kirby, left to his own devices, would never have produced an awkward L-shaped panel like Panel 2. That looks to me like somebody was trying to maintain some of what had originally been drawn, whether Stan or Jack, and making the best of the space. But it’s a poorly-composed page, consequently–that strip above Panel 3 is wasted space.

And here’s a key page in which changes are evidenced in the Fantastic Four costumes. Originally, Reed, Sue and Johnny were all going to be wearing domino masks, and their chest insignia was going to be an interlocking pair of F’s. This is the way Kirby penciled these pages, but the decision was changed before Sol Brodsky inked the book, so he eliminated the masks and changed the FFs to 4s throughout the job. When the original artwork to this story was sent back to Kirby in the late 1980s, Greg Theakston used a lightbox to find Kirby’s original pencil indications on the board (and the balloon that was removed from Panel 2) and he re-inked a few panels to show what was originally meant to be there. This certainly explains the otherwise-baffling close-up on Sue’s enormous face in Panel 2.

In that last panel, the Miracle Man’s right hand was added in by Brodsky, presumably at Stan’s instruction. There’s a portion of the movie house that’s visible half-erased on the original artwork where that hand is now. Stan may have felt that it was drawing too much attention away from the important portions of the panel.

ADDITION: After a few people asked me about it, I was able to get a scan of the back of this page from Heritage, which I’ve added to this post. All it shows is another scribble from Lee–one seemingly indicating how he wants the Miracle man’s monster to disappear on the following page.

Not much to say here, apart from the fact that the bottom tier of this original art page shows Stan’s notes to himself about what is happening in the sequence above. This was the methodology that Lee and Kirby used at the time, where Jack would bring in finished penciled pages to Stan and walk through them with Lee, who would scribble notes to himself in the margins as reminders for when he was scripting later. So this seems to be a page that Kirby drew on his own and brought in to Stan.

I can’t quite make out all of Stan’s border notes on the scan I have, but what I can decipher says:

MONSTER IS [indecipherable]

BEN: [indecipherable]

GIVE HIM A NAME

[ indecipherable ]

PANEL OF NOTE FROM M.M.

It seems that the balloon at the top of the last panel had been mistakenly lettered as a caption, and needed to be corrected.

On the back of PAGE 8, Stan has done a doodle indicating how he wants to depict the Fantasticar separating, though Kirby doesn’t get to this action until the top of PAGE 9.

Those silhouettes of the Miracle Man and the monster in the final panel were definitely added in by Brodsky at the inking stage. There’s evidence of a cut line even in the final printed book where either something was cut out of the board and replaced with these figures, or these figures were patched over the artwork that was originally there. Those after-image lines of Reed contracting looks as though they were innovated by Brodsky as well.

I’ve never found a scan of the original artwork to this page, but Greg Theakston saw it when it was returned to Kirby, and again he lightboxed the first two panels, restoring Reed’s domino mask and the opriginal Fantastic Four uniform emblem.

All of the Torch figures here have been modified and adapted by Sol Brodsky, which is one of the reasons why the size relationship between the Torch and the monster seems to change constantly throughout the issue. That figure in the last panel is especially awkward and stiff.

Here again on PAGE 11 there’s a layout on the back done by Stan which mimics the final page as Kirby drew it. Stan’s notes in that final layout panel read:

GET ME OUTTA THIS SUIT

YOU WAIT…

There are a couple of notes and corrections on the actual page as well. Apparently, the Thing was still wearing shorts here with his legs exposed, and Stan had Brodsky give him long pants–he’d do that throughout the rest of the issue. Stan’s border note here simply says TIGHTS. Additionally, Lee had Sol add the 4 insignia to the Thing’s uniform in the final two panels, and also had him draw in the Torch’s hovering Fantasticar section in the first panel.

And here’s Stan’s layout for PAGE 12 along with the finished page. Greg Theakston already translated all of Lee’s notes within the layout on the image above. You can see that Kirby wasn’t following Lee’s layouts precisely, though he did duplicate the tier structure and any place where a particular number of panels is called for.

Brodsky’s still having to rework the Torch figures, and his depiction in Panel 5 is a bit painful, too large and a bit stiff and awkward. In the final panel, Stan has Sol give the Thing long pants and also remove the gloves that Kirby has drawn him with here for some reason.

Lots of interesting tweaking on this page. In the first panel, Stan indicates to Sol to give the Thing his tights and to give him gloves–that last directive is crossed out here, apparently Stan thought the better of it. There are indications from Stan in Panels 3 and 4 to take out the Thing’s mask here, which is interesting. Was this page originally drawn with the Thing in his full costume and then, as they talked through the story, Lee and Kirby decided to change things, adding the bit on the previous page that Stan has sketched out where the Thing rips off his costume? (This might help to explain why Ben is wearing the full suit sans helmet in a few short pages.)

Also in Panel 4, the Torch figure has been patched in for whatever had been drawn there originally. This was done by Kirby, and was accomplished by physically cutting out a portion of the board and then replacing it with new paper and a newly-drawn Torch figure. It’s possible that there wasn’t a second figure in this panel originally, just the full body of the Thing struggling against the quicksand.

Stan’s border note to himself on Panel 3 reads in part: MIRACLE MAN SAYS AGAIN I’VE BEATEN YOU! Almost the complete text for Sue’s balloon in Panel 5 is written at the bottom, indicating tat it was changed from something else. Stan also notes to give her a RADIO CALLER in her hand–she was likely not speaking to the Thing in the earlier version. Also, Kirby had penciled the same tree behind Sue that we see in Panel 6, but ere it wasn’t inked, And in the last panel, Lee has Brodsky add in the line for Sue’s briefs over her leggings.

As I mentioned previously, here the Thing is wearing his full costume again, despite having torn it to shreds at the top of the previous chapter. So something strange is going on, perhaps involving extensive redraws. The origin flashback panels here feel to me like Lee’s suggestion, possibly replacing a panel that had been there originally since they equal the width of Panel 2. That tiny Thing head in the caption of Panel 3 is completely by Brodsky.

Here, Kirby does a full three-panel transformation sequence from Ben Grimm into the Thing, something he didn’t do in issue #1. That Torch figure in Panel 8 by Brodsky is again stiff and unconvincing in the shot. And it looks like the Thing is bare-chested in that final panel. though the shadows hide a lot of that fact. Was this page a drop-in at Lee’s insistence to once again recap the group’s origin for new readers? Those wavy flashback panel borders smack of Stan.

Brodsky’s revision to the Human Torch in Panel 4 of this page is perhaps the most unconvincing and awkward in the book–the part to the left of the Thing is what Kirby drew, the part to the right is too large proportionately.

And all through this page, I look at those Thing heads and I can’t help but wonder if he might not have been drawn initially wearing his helmet in this sequence as well. Certainly, it looks as though he has it on in Panel 4, from what little of his head we see. There are some border notes by Lee underneath the final panel, but they’ve been erased too thoroughly for me to be able to make any of it out.

On the back of PAGE 16, Lee messes around to try to come up with a better insignia for the Fantastic Four, eventually settling on the three-dimensional 4 we all know. The version diagonally to the lower right of the circled one, two away, is what Kirby had done initially.

You can still see where Sue’s mask was supposed to go in Panel 2, and the center seam down the front of her uniform in Panel 3.

And here, all of a sudden, the Thing is back to being bare-chested again. Also, Brodsky’s Torch fix in that final panel is a bit ill-fitting.

The first FANTASTIC FOUR FAN PAGE falls in here. While a number of the letters are genuine, such as the leadoff one from future Marvel artist Alan Weiss, the final one, credited to S. Brodsky, was written by Stan as an excuse to plug his other titles. That small figure of the Human Torch was likewise drawn entirely by Sol.

Stan continues to art correct the Thing’s legs to pants for the rest of the issue, even though he really doesn’t have to.

Pants added to the Thing again. Also, it looks like Kirby drew him with gloves in Panel 3.

Nothing much to say here (except, man, no backgrounds!) Kirby storytelling through and through.

Here, at the end, Stan asks for a revision to the final tier of panels, and the board is again cut to replace the bottom row of panels with what Stan is after. Stan’s sketch for this sequence is also shown, from the back of an earlier page. I’m guessing that this story originally simply wrapped up, and either Lee or Kirby hit on the notion of making it a cliffhanger conclusion, thus necessitating the change.

It seems likely that the Torch figure in Panel 5 was penciled by Kirby, matching the style of Brodsky’s earlier ones. The thing’s shorts were again extended to full pants in panel 4. And Reed’s second balloon in the final panel was added after the fact, with the text in his third balloon also modified for cadence.

So what does this all add up to? Well, if nothing else, it would seem to indicate that a decent amount of attention was being paid to these early FANTASTIC FOUR issues, far more than one might think from just reading them. From this point forward, it seems as though largely Lee and Kirby worked out a methodology of production that didn’t require quite this much futzing around on a page-by-page basis. And, of course, nobody would ever have dreamed that people would still be studying these stories more than half a century later.

3 thoughts on “Lee & Kirby: FANTASTIC FOUR #3

  1. Your research on this murky period the early Marvel creation process is enlightening, meticulous and interesting. Thanks so much for sharing!

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  2. Hi Tom, I just wanted to take a second to thank you for doing this blog. Your personal comic reading history is about to intersect with part of my own, and your takes on historically important issues like FF3 are always fascinating to fans like me with little knowledge of what went on behind the scenes.
    Also, given I probably never register as ‘viewing’ your posts given that I read most of them on my email, I wanted to let you know that without fail I look forward to your weekend posts.

    Can’t wait till you hit some classics a la ‘Watchmen.’

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  3. On the old Yahoo Timely/Atlas group Doc Vassallo postulated (and we followed) that the job numbers were assigned to a story when the script was bought. Which has always turned out to be the best method to look at them. For instance, that is why even after the implosion of 1957 stories turned up with O, M and P numbers by artists who didn’t start working for Stan until 1958/59. Scripts bought before the implosion, but drawn after. I also used that method of determination to find that the first two stories Jak Kirby did for Stan in 1956 probably were brought in finished (after Harvey suspended it’s horror titles for a year). They have adjacent job numbers and Kirby’s first job number is a war story that would have come from the stack and therefore have a lower job number (having already been assigned a number before being pu ton the stack). I wrote about this in an article for The Jack Kirby Collector called ‘When Jacob met Stanley’. Of course, in the case of Kirby working from a sory conference rather than a script, the job number could have been assigned when the story was delivered (and had a title). In an odd way, this would be a way that the company acknowledged that `Kirby ‘wrote’ the stories: the job numbers weren’t assigned until he delivered.

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