Lee & Kirby: The Mystery of FANTASTIC FOUR #6

In an article printed in THE JACK KIRBY COLLECTOR #61, a writer by the name of Michael Breen makes the assertion that FANTASTIC FOUR #6 had not only been penciled and largely plotted by Jack Kirby, but the final lettered script was written by Jack as well. This was at a point before the Marvel books began running any sort of formalized credits. Rather, the splash page of each chapter had been signed by Lee and Kirby (or somebody writing in Kirby’s name). These same signatures had been appearing since FF #1, and ran on every issue until #9, when the credit box first appeared and became a regular thing.

Breen lays out his case in detail over three pages, noting places where the copy has a notably Kirbyesque cadence. He also points out that there are no occasions in the course of this story where the images and the copy are in conflict, as often happened in the stories that Lee dialogued. I had read FANTASTIC FOUR #6 many times since first encountering the story in the Pocket Books FF paperback in the 1970s, but this article sent me back to ground to scrutinize it a bit more closely–to see if I felt like Breen’s conclusions held water or whether I could detect the hand of Lee in the copy at any point.

And so, doing a close reading and review of the issue, I must agree that Breen appears to be correct. The language used throughout the issue has a very pronounced Kirby flavor to it. It sure sounds like Kirby, particularly in the narrative captions. What’s more, I could find no evidence of Lee’s signature style anywhere within the copy–the sort of gags and character playfulness that he had learned from writing teen humor comics is completely absent from this job. So if we conclude that for this one issue Jack Kirby provided the final script for the story, something which he was typically not permitted to do, then the question becomes: why did Kirby script this one issue, and why did it only happen this one time?

(An aside: as with FANTASTIC FOUR #5, Joe Sinnott was slated to ink this issue, and indeed, he had started work here on Page 2 before a better-paying assignment from his regular client TREASURE CHEST came in and he had to turn the job back in to Lee. You can see Sinnott’s hand especially in the Sue figures on the bottom half of this page. The rest of the story was inked by Dick Ayers, his first time working on FANTASTIC FOUR.)

Before getting deeper into that question, I do want to dispute one of Breen’s points–he feels that this script was lettered and released without any editorial oversight from Lee. From what I can tell, that doesn’t appear to be the case. There are a number of places within the issue where lettering corrections are in evidence. Here on Page 5, for example, in Panel 4 the last few words of Johnny’s balloon have been relettered. Given how tight that space is, whatever had been there before was likely shorter. In Panel 3, the end of the Thing’s balloon has been adjusted as well (it’s likely that CONGRATULATE had been misspelled.) And to my eye, Panel 5 looks weird and off-balance, as though there had been another balloon next to the existing one from one of the other shipgoers which had been whited out. The point being, this issue of FANTASTIC FOUR was clearly proofread and went through a corrections process no different from any other issue, and these adjustments would have been asked for by Lee in his role as editor.

It’s worth pointing out, I think, that the lettering for this issue is a bit odd as well. Rather than Art Simek or Sam Rosen who handled the bulk of Marvel’s output at the time and had worked on the previous issues of FANTASTIC FOUR, this story appears to have been lettered by Terry Szenics. If so, this would be the earliest Marvel-era story to have been lettered by her–her work would show up a month or two later in TALES TO ASTONISH and elsewhere. And here, her lettering is a bit weird (or at least off-model for the Marvel style). Her balloons have lots of unnecessary bevels in them, and often the lettering doesn’t sit properly centered within the balloons. And on captions where the copy doesn’t perfectly justify left and right, rater than creating a left widow in the manner of most letterers, here she instead centers the widowed copy at the bottom of the caption, creating a little ledge. You can see this in panel 3 of Page 7 above.

I don’t know that we’ll ever be able to be certain why Kirby might have scripted this issue himself, but I can at least point to a few things and offer some theories. To start with, Kirby always wanted the maximum amount of control over his work, so it’s possible that he simply asked to do it and his request was granted. It’s been documented elsewhere that Lee didn’t care for Kirby’s scripting, that he felt that it somehow lacked the snap that he was trying to get into the Marvel books. But where would that assessment have come from if not for an instance where Kirby did deliver the final copy? Did this story convince Lee that Kirby’s dialog wasn’t what was needed? At this time, as the Marvel super hero workload grew, Lee was about to try out a bevy of other writers, including Ernie Hart, Robert Bernstein,Don Rico, Jerry Siegel and others–all of whom ultimately washed out. Was this the first move towards that?

(In the page above, Page 12, it’s clear that the last line of Johnny’s balloon in Panel 3 has been added after the fact, I’m guessing to make it clear that Sue has turned herself invisible. That addition was certainly added by Lee, while everything else scans as Kirby’s work. And look at those weird balloon shapes in Panel 6.)

Alternately, FANTASTIC FOUR #6 is the point at which the series moves to a monthly schedule. Is it perhaps possible that the change in frequency was made relatively late in the game, causing everybody involved to have to scramble in order to get this issue completed and to press in time as well as the next one–and this provided an opening for Kirby to dialogue this story? One possible bit of evidence of this might be the cover to FANTASTIC FOUR #7, which Kirby apparently inked as well as penciled. As Kirby didn’t typically ink his work, it feels like there must have been a reason for him to do so on this occasion–and if that cover had to be completed in a rush because of an accelerated timetable, that would track.

This might also help to explain why the lettering for this story was handed to a newcomer, and why so many stylistic choices were allowed to stand–there may not have been time for any sort of wholesale overhaul of the lettering on this particular issue.

Unfortunately, one of the things that might help us to make sense of these questions has not surfaced: FANTASTIC FOUR #6 is one of the very few issues of the series for which I have never seen even a page of original art appear out in the marketplace. Assuming that the art still exists, whoever has it appears to have it all, and has for a very long time. Perhaps it will turn up at some point, though, and we might glean a few answers (or at least make some knowing guesses) based on what it revealed.

Another clue, at least as regards creating a timeline for the production of the issue, appears on the letters page. There, Lee notes that the page is being typeset on March 14, 1962, which would have been right at the end of the production cycle for the magazine.

With FANTASTIC FOUR #7, Lee is back to scripting the series–a look through that issue provides ample evidence of his voice on display in the dialog. So why did Kirby only script this one issue (especially since we know that, given his druthers, he would have preferred to do more)? I am guessing that this is simply a case of Lee not liking Kirby’s approach and feeling like his own cadence was a part of what was making FANTASTIC FOUR successful. It’s been reported by a number of people that Lee was never wild about Kirby’s scripting style, so it does make sense to me that he wouldn’t put Kirby into that position, especially on the line’s flagship title, without good reason. And really, until Lee found Roy Thomas in 1965, he was hard-pressed to come up with another writer whose scripting he was 100% happy with.

And why is this story still signed by both Stan Lee and Jack Kirby if Kirby scripted it as well as plotting and penciling it? Impossible to say for sure. It’s reasonable that Lee and Kirby would have had a conversation about the story for this issue as they did for the preceding five. Who can say what was discussed or in what detail? Or it could simply be ego–like on a newspaper strip of the time that employed ghosts, Lee may have felt that Stan Lee and J. Kirby was the “brand name” that had been running on the series, and he didn’t want to change that.

6 thoughts on “Lee & Kirby: The Mystery of FANTASTIC FOUR #6

  1. Through careful examination of the Job numbers, it appears that FF#6 was assigned Job Number V-835 sometime between March 15 and April 15, probably close to March 15. It would be released on June 12. The last confirmed Job Number for a June 12 release is V-864, which was probably assigned near April 15. The last confirmed Job Number for a May 8 release is V-826, which was probably assigned near March 15. It is possible that all the June 5 and 12 books weren’t sent to the printer at the same time. Still, it seems odd that the letter column for Fantastic Four #6 would be typeset on March 14.

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  2. I know that after ten years I am still the only one peddling this theory – but when I wrote my article bout Stan Lee’s writing style for Alter Ego, I came across the odd fact that Stan never in his career (from the earliest stories to his correspondence with his agent until the last thing he ever wrote) used the word ‘through’. Instead he always used ‘thru’. Now, Ihe wasn’t he only one. Hank Chapman used ‘thru’ as well, in signed stories. But ever since I have been using it as a disqualifier, or as in indicator that Stan may have rewritten something (in stories by Larry Lieberwhere there is both, bor instance). So here, when Namor meets the FF, he uses ‘thru’. Because ‘thru’ can’t be used as an indication Stan wrote this (a lot more would need to be going on) and since Kirby did not use ‘thru’, it could mean Stan did more rewriting than you even mention. I don’t know. I think you are right about the rest of it, so maybe there is another reason to explain this glitch. By the way: note that the mailman is not yet Willy Lumpkin. We still don’t know if Stan named him after Kirby decided to make the mailman more of a character or if he ordered him.

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  3. Kirby, I believe, was wont to use multiple exclamation points, question marks, ellipses with more than three dots, three dashes, etc. I see that happening here, especially in the first couple of pages. I wasn’t a fan of Kirby’s ’70s scripts for DC at all, but this seems like a pretty good effort on his part to match the general feel of Marvel in these early days. I believe the downfall of all of the early try-out scripters you list was their inability to simulate Lee’s easy humor; about the only writer who stuck without managing it was Lieber, and that was largely because he knew some people.

    Also, the difference between the two pages Sinnott inked and the rest of it by Ayers is pretty obvious. Imagine how great #7 through #44 would have looked had Stan been able to outbid Pflaum for Joe’s services.

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  4. It’s interesting to note that Jack DID offer characterization, if not humor, and did so beyond what just a plot synopsis would have directed. I agree that Sinnott’s work was certainly a cut well above Ayers’ lumpy inking!

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  5. The Thing’s comment on the last page “It’s like living with a live bomb!” reminds me of Medusa’s comment in the Inhumans story in Amazing Adventures #4, “It’s like you’re disarming a living bomb!”, also written and drawn by Jack Kirby.

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