Lee & Kirby: Even More on FANTASTIC FOUR #1

This is a topic that never quite gets exhausted for me. Over this past weekend I had a need to revisit the pieces I had originally devoted to analyzing FANTASTIC FOUR #1 and the assorted art changes and adjustments that I detected therein. And in doing so, a number of new ideas struck me–including one that I’m astonished never occurred to me before, and which, if true, would make some sense out of the notion that the back half of FANTASTIC FOUR #1 was crafted as a stand-alone story for one of the many Monster books, most likely AMAZING ADVENTURES. And so, not wanting to lose these notions to my misty memory, I’ve decided to jot them down here as before. I’m also eager to hear other people’s thoughts on these matters.

First off, as we’ve covered in the earlier pieces, FANTASTIC FOUR #1 breaks down into three discrete pieces, not all of which were produced at the same time. There’s the opening 8 pages which bring the characters on stage in colorful fashion, there’s then the origin of the team on Pages 9-13, compressed tightly into a short span and with a lot of evidence of having been compressed, with bits discarded and added, and then there’s the adventure against the Mole Man which makes up the back portion of the issue. As this book gets discussed, the bit that made me stumble was the idea that if the second half of the story was produced first, as an introductory adventure, why is there no origin of the team? And the answer, I think, may be obvious when you think about it. I don’t think that story was produced as the first Fantastic Four adventure, I think maybe it was produced as the second.

Here’s what I’m thinking now. I believe that Lee and Kirby may have conceived the Fantastic Four as a series to run in AMAZING ADVENTURES, and even gotten through producing two installments before the decision was made to debut the strip in a book all its own. It makes sense–this was typically how the Marvel super hero series would debut in the future, and the decision to add another title to Marvel’s tightly-restricted publishing line was also out of the ordinary. I think the Origin of the Fantastic Four may have been a story told in real time, not as a flashback, and that when the move was made to combine all of this material into a single entry, the new introductory sequence was created in order to get the super hero stuff up front in as colorful a manner as possible–with the origin story chopped up and reduced down to 5 pages from what I am guessing at this point was possibly 8.

That first panel was definitely extended on the left side after the fact so it would fill that space, evidence of this page being cut up and reworked.

As I stare at the origin pages as well, I start to wonder if the original strip didn’t feature only three characters, rather than four. All throughout Page 9, the panel compositions all seem a little bit off-balance. And this sensation of being off-kilter goes away if you take out one of the figures, most often Johnny, throughout the page as I’ve done here. The same is true on Page 11–Panels 2, 3 & 7 sure look to my eye like they were initially put together without an added-in figure. So was what Kirby walked in with an origin story for a new team of three heroes in the mold of the Challengers of the Unknown, and the decision to add in the Human Torch was made thereafter? It seems possible–especially since the choice to include the Torch feels more like something that either Stan Lee or Martin Goodman would have requested, rather than an idea that Kirby, who had no connection to the 1940s character, would have pitched.

I’m also dead certain that Kirby originally drew Sue’s first expression of her powers on a single tier, which was cut apart as the pages were reworked. Just look at how nicely this sequence fits together on one line.

Along those same lines, it’s clear to me that Ben’s transformation into the Thing was meant to be another of Kirby’s patented triptych sequences, but that the first image in the sequence was discarded, presumably to save space. Additionally, there’s evidence even in the printed book that the remaining two panels had captions at the top of them at once point rather than word balloons, and that these were altered after the lettering had been done. On a more minor note, that hand of Reed’s in the final panel looks to me like it was added in by somebody other than Kirby. It’s also telling that there are only three characters throughout this sequence: Reed, Sue and Ben. No Johnny. Sure, he comes back on the next page–but was he meant to be there originally? I’m not sure he was in the first version of this origin story at all.

I also wonder if the idea was that Johnny was a stowaway on the ship rather than one of four would-be astronauts. Either way, if you were to cut off the top tier of Page 13, you could take out the other Johnny figures on the page and the compositions work just a little bit better. Additionally, I’m convinced that the sequence at the end where everybody puts their hands together was also originally a triptych–which makes a great deal more sense if there were only three characters to begin with. I’ve mocked up a rough comp here (as well as enlarging Panel 4, which seems to have clearly been reduced in the original book. Even without the Torch figure, it still works, even at this size.)

So to sum up, I now think that there were two stories that were cobbled together to make FANTASTIC FOUR #1, not just one story that was thereafter expanded. I believe there was an origin tale (possibly without the Human Torch as a character) which was done first and thereafter expanded to include the Torch as a character. And then the second story, the Mole man adventure, which would have appeared in the following issue of AMAZING ADVENTURES or whichever Monster title the series was intended for. This would account for the fact that, in the Mole Man story, the reveal of each character’s powers is treated as a reveal, like it would if these were new characters–if this was intended as installment two, you very well might approach the story that way, without feeling the need to rehash an origin tale that had been released a month earlier.

So am I right here? No idea. There are still some lingering questions in all of this, some pieces that don’t yet fit together quite right. One of which is that synopsis of Stan’s. Could that have been prepared after Kirby brought in the origin story in its original form with three characters and was done up by Lee after their conversations to help instruct him on how to revise the existing pages to incorporate the Johnny Storm character? I don’t know. One thing is for certain, though: until and unless we can someday see teh original art for FANTASTIC FOUR #1, there’s really going to be no way to definitively unravel all of these mysteries. But they sure do fascinate me!

14 thoughts on “Lee & Kirby: Even More on FANTASTIC FOUR #1

  1. Fascinating, indeed. The idea that the team was originally only going to be 3 instead of 4 is very intriguing— and would have made a lot of sense if it was only going to be *part* of a book. Of course, they wouldn’t have been called the Fantastic Four then, would they? Which makes my mind start wondering what they would have been called. Assuming the strip was intended for Amazing Adventures, as you postulate, I could easily see Kirby calling them the Amazing Adventurers! Challengers at DC, Adventurers at Marvel. it makes sense— at least to me!

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  2. Amazing Adventures had just discontinued the Dr. Droom recurring feature around the time FF was conceived. Kirby’s last Dr. Droom was in AA #4 (cover date Sept 1961)–though there was a Reinman-drawn (inventory?) story that appeared two months later in #6 (Nov. 1961). So if the FF was intended to replace the Dr. Droom feature, the timing works out nearly perfectly.

    The only downside to this theory is that Dr. Droom was a 5-page backup, whereas it seems that FF would have run as a 13-page lead feature. Still, it’s an intriguing idea.

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  3. Interestingly, the Fantastic Four synopsis itself indicates that the origin is to be told in flashback, not real-time. https://kirbymuseum.org/blogs/dynamics/2011/03/14/ff-1-synopsis/
    “As the meeting starts, caption tells reader that we will go back a few weeks to see how it all began …”

    If Johnny was a later addition, why is Ben the “extra” character at the page 11 bottom second panel? Wouldn’t it have “originally” been Reed and Ben, with Johnny later shoehorned-in behind them? Also, then the third silhouette of the third panel should be Ben, with Johnny being added later on the far right of that panel.

    The first few pages of FF#1 strike me as if they were done *before* the origin. On page 1, Reed is introduced saying “It is the first time I have found it necessary to give the signal! I pray it will be the LAST!”. That doesn’t match well with idea at the conclusion of the origin of using their powers to help mankind, which implies an ongoing series. All those pages getting the group together feel to me as if it originally ended on page 8 with a caption like “See their amazing adventure in the next issue”.

    Also, if those pages were a “new introductory sequence”, isn’t it likely that Reed Richards would have been played up more as an inventor scientist, as he is on the first page of the origin sequence (page 9)? He’s called out by name three times on page 9, and we learn he’s built a space ship. That’s an exciting hook. But in pages 1 and 8, he’s just a “strange man” and similar.

    I’m thoroughly convinced the Mole Man portion was a repurposed standard “monster” story where the Fantastic Four aspect was grafted onto pre-existing art. This doesn’t contradict the idea that it was then slated to be a second FF story. But the FF power reveal panels there could just be part of the way of making that nonpowered monster story into an FF story.

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    1. As you look at this stuff, you must first disregard anything in the copy. Stan dialogues this book after all of the changes were made and reworked by Kirby, so things like Reed’s opening line are not relevant to the sequence in which the story pieces may have been done. In terms of Johnny and Ben, that’s a solid question when it comes to Page 11. But the silhouette shots would be easy to alter even at the inking stage.

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      1. I’m sure the answet to this is, “Of course,” but has anyone checked in with Larry Leiber on any of this. Or did a long sit down with him on those days?He was there at the time and it’s possible Stan told him what he was doing. Also, a for the ide o three members, I almost believe Stan came up with the name Fantastic Four before he knew what they were. The man loved his alliterations. Anyway, as I said, I’m sure Larry’s been asked, but as I don’t always follow these history pieces I may never have seen it.

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  4. If only anybody involved had had ANY idea that these properties would still be around and so valuable 58 years later. No one could have imagined that the Marvel Heroes would have lasted longer than the first Heroic Age of comics.

    Except maybe Dr Jerry Bails.

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  5. It’s often been noted that the FF’s powers reflect the four ancient elements. Kirby’s Challengers of the Unknown, a group very similar to the FF, also reflect that “four ancient elements” theme. If only three characters were intended, then you’re left with three ancient elements. Right there, something would seem to be missing.

    Mind you, your observations on the art do make sense. I’m just not completely sure what to make of it all.

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  6. Here’s another art anomaly I just noticed: How tall is The Thing? On page 13, it’s pretty clear he’s slightly shorter than Reed. The last panel on page 8 is similar. Reed and The Thing are in motion on page 12, but they seem to be roughly similar in height. However, on pages 3 and 4, The Thing is much taller than an ordinary human. If the first pages were created later after the origin pages, why is The Thing so much taller there? On the other hand, it does make sense if those pages were done first, before The Thing was downsized to human average height. He’s human average height for many issues. He’s bulky and lumpy, but past the first few pages of FF#1, for a long time it looks like he wouldn’t have any trouble getting out of ordinary doorways.

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  7. Like many others, I suspect the monster story was originally intended as a stand-alone. It was clearly modelled off the ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’ movie that came out not too long before – a movie that featured four adventurers who a similar visual look to the FF (corresponding in age and gender – check out some of the photos on line). The movie also has a villain with a similar body shape to the Mole Man and a sequence that could easily have inspired the ‘cavern of jewels’ segment (which seemed to have little real purpose in the FF version).

    This also clearly aligns with the fact that the surviving FF script for the first issue (presumably written after a discussion by Lee/Kirby) only covers the sequence prior to the monster isle segment. It seems entirely possible that Lee (and Kirby?) simply chose to repurpose the original tale as a superhero book after Goodman asked for a superhero title.

    Of course it doesn’t quite match Kirby’s recollection, I.e. that Lee originally wanted to use Cap, Human Torch, Sub-mariner again. Having said that, Kirby’s recollection of the origin of Spidey was also a bit off…it is only when you put together the recollections of Lee, Kirby and Ditko that you realise what probably happened with that character. Perhaps Larry Lieberman can provide the missing parts as someone suggested above…

    On a final note, Martin Goodman apparently told the story that Lee wanted to call the FF the ‘Fabulous Four’ untitled Goodman convinced him to change it.

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    1. The dialogue on page 19 (valley of diamonds) is absolutely bonkers. Intense light doesn’t cause people to pass out, they can shut their eyes and cover them. And the thought of the Mole Man carefully dressing unconscious intruders, and then waiting right there for who knows how long until they wake up, is utterly ridiculous. It’s obviously trying to cover extensive cutting of the original “monster” story. The characters are clearly wearing radiation suits, to protect against stolen fuel from the atomic plants. I suspect in the original story the segment sets up that all the fuel is what causes the big explosion at the end (maybe deliberately set off by one of the characters).

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      1. I’ve seen the argument that the Mole Man story started out as an unaffiliated monster story that was reworked to feature super heroes, but I honestly don’t believe that to be the case. While there is certainly evidence of editorial tampering in the back half of the issue, nothing stands out to my eye to the level that I expect that it would had this piece been reworked so thoroughly. So I agree with some of what you’re conjecture that here, but not all of it. But that’s part of what makes these conversations fun!

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  8. A final thought…it would be ironic if the first issue of the FF was a repurposed composite tale…as the same thing happened with Kirby’s ‘last’ issue (i.e. FF 108)

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  9. I Am Dragoom! The Flaming Intruder!, the cover story of Strange Tales 76 (August 1960), featured a giant flaming creature who looked a lot like the early drawings of the FF’s Human Torch. I wonder if that’s who Jack (and/or Stan) was thinking of when creating the new Human Torch?

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