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.
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!