As those who have been following this page for some time are aware, there are a bunch of mysteries wrapped up in FANTASTIC FOUR #1, the seminal publication that kicked off the Marvel revolution in the 1960s. There have been several theories as to how this book may have been put together–whether it was all done as a single release, or was cobbled together from assorted different stories. There is a decent amount of evidence present in the published book to support many of these ideas as theories. But as we’ve seen here firsthand in the case of STRANGE TALES #119, sometimes just because what you think is evidence paints a certain picture, that doesn’t mean it’s actually what happened.
Until and unless the original artwork for FANTASTIC FOUR #1 resurfaces somewhere and we can study it in detail, we’re not going to be able to know for sure–and even then, we may not be able to draw conclusions that are 100% bulletproof. But that original artwork has been missing since the 1970s at least–so while it’s possible that it’s still secretly out there somewhere (as the occasional rumor would suggest) it’s just as likely that those pages are gone, destroyed, discarded, lost to history.
But it occurred to me the other day, fool that I am, that I have access to the next best thing. So I asked Marvel’s collections team to pull me a set of copies of the Marvel proof roll for FANTASTIC FOUR #1. This is the archived version of the book that has been used for decades to create reprints and foreign editions of the story, and is the closest thing there is to the original artwork to FANTASTIC FOUR #1. And while it’s not going to show us everything–in particular, corrections will be much more difficult to spot than on the original boards simply by virtue of the fact that they were designed to be invisible in the final product. But we may be able to see at least one or two things that will either confirm some theories, discount some theories, and possibly create some new theories entirely. So here we go!
To begin with, some quick information for a layman. For all of the books produced by Marvel and other firms from the 1940s onwards, past publications were archived for any future use, including overseas reprinting, most often in the form of proof roles. These were photographic reproductions of the individual printer’s in-position page files. Each “flat” contained 8 printed pages. This included all of the ads–everything that appeared within the book. A stack of proofs for a given issue would be rolled up for storage. Marvel had so many of these things that they took up an entire warehouse, though much of it has been digitized now. So the above is, in essence, a photograph of the first page of FANTASTIC FOUR #1 as it was shot and ready for printing.
A couple of things immediately jump out to my eye, though none of them are especially revelatory. First off, we can see how the original board had been cut off for reproduction. The paper that Kirby in particular was working on was much larger a this point than the image area, and so portions of the board wouldn’t be reproduced here. There’s a bit of a circled something at the very top left that has been cut off, indicating that what we are seeing here is not the entire page as drawn but rather only the portion that was going to be reproduced. The second thing is that, like all of the pages for this issue, the board is labeled at the top as being FANTASTIC FOUR #1 NOV P1. The consistency of this labeling would appear to imply that the entire job was done and processed at once, but that isn’t necessarily the case. If portions of this story had been intended for other titles (such as AMAZING ADVENTURES), that labeling may have been on the riser portion of the page that is cut off here, and the FANTASTIC FOUR #1 labeling may have been added once the whole job was put together, so that everything could be kept straight at the printer.
Zooming way in, it’s clear to my eye that as originally drawn, that central panel with the big smoke cloud was bordered on both the left and right side, and either during the inking stage or afterwards, a decision was made to take those borders out and opening up the frame. It’s clear that the cloud was added to and finished off on the left side beyond where the border had been. But the bit of the smoke that overlaps the box at the top with the four vignettes had been done that way all along. It’s also pretty clear as you get up close that the two signatures at the right of that box, Stan Lee & Jack Kirby, are both in Lee’s handwriting and were added in by him.
Page 2 is similarly labeled at the top, but again in a relatively small hand and again quite close to the image area. And looking at the page up close, I feel even more certain that 6 was an art correction add-in and that as originally drawn, Panel 7 was larger and filled that space. If you blow up that cabbie to the size that he is in the final panel, the whole thing fits nicely (though Sue’s hand and the bill may have been slid right a bit.) And I would imagine that the reason Lee made this change is that, as otherwise drawn, Sue doesn’t actually go anywhere here. She enters the cab, offers the money and the spooked cabbie drives off without her. So it’s a fun bit of business (and in keeping with the earlier panel of her pushing her way pas pedestrians) but it doesn’t get her any closer to Reed’s apartment.
Page 3. For those wondering about the seemingly-haphazard positioning of the pages on the proof flat (the final story page was situated to the left of this one), the answer is that these pages were arranged on the flats in the positions where they would be printed. Comics were printed on large sheets of newsprint, large enough to hold 8 pages on each side. Those pages, when folded and trimmed, became the 32 interior pages of a comic book–two large sheets with 8 pages situated on both sides.
Anyway, It looks to my eye like Panel 2 here may have been penciled with borders on all sides, borders which were eliminated during the inking process. The same may be true for Panel 8, but there the linework of the borders appears to end naturally at those points–it doesn’t feel like a remainder had been whited out based on how each line ends. Also, the inking on these pages, while a bit crude next to much of what we’re used to today, has some real finesse to it when you look at up close. There was definitely an attempt to create greater depth and realism through the application of texture, which is nicely done.
Page 4. And again, that consistent labeling at the top of the board. Interesting to see just how inhuman and prototypic the Thing was at this point. Just look at how wide his legs are in Panel 3! Panel 2 is largely without borders and looks to my eye like it may have been penciled with them. That lead cop’s hand extends beyond where the border would have fallen and if you look at it up close, you can see where the fingers and the rest of the hand were added. This wasn’t a correction, it was a decision made by the inker (whom we presume to be George Klein, although nobody is 100% certain) as he was working on the page. We can also see more clearly that Kirby faked the perspective in that last panel, as the buildings on either side of the road aren’t telescoping to the same vanishing point plane.
Page 5. Not too much to see here. There are a few panels in this opening where it looks as though Kirby may have given the Thing ears, or earlike protrusions. Klein inks them just like the rest of the Thing’s skin, but you can see them vestigially in the first panel here. In Panel 3, I would guess that the shadow cop between the two guys on the left side was entirely an addition by Klein. Also, as we close out this page, the drawing of Johnny Storm in the final panel doesn’t really read as a teenager, for all that he’s working on a hot rod. He looks a bit older to my eye, more in the age range of a Red Ryan than a Peter Parker. Johnny gets more youthful on the page that follows. But for much of this scene, he could as easily be characterized as a mechanic as he can a kid.
Page 6, and this one is interesting in that the proofs show some weird blotches in Panel 4. There’s nothing like them in the original book, so my guess is that these aren’t evidence of corrections but rather shmutz on the proofs themselves from when they were shot. As Marvel has reprinted this story, they’ve consistently cleaned those bits (and some on a later page) out. There’s some similar discoloration that can be seen on the fragments of ad pages next to Page 1 and Page 2 on the flat above. Johnny’s looking considerably younger here in Panel 2.
Page 7, and it’s labeled here as Page 8, indicating that those indications at the top of these images were the work of the printer rather than anybody at Marvel, labeling the pages for their eventual in-position on the flat plan. But this is genuinely Page 7, there isn’t a missing page floating around anywhere. Those parachutists in Panel 5 still feel like an add-in to me, a way of appeasing the comics Code that the Torch didn’t just kill the pilots of those planes chasing him. And Panel 7 was almost certainly initially drawn with a border all around, which Klein chose to eliminate to good effect. It looks like he consistently made this choice any time Kirby would do one of his three-panel progressions of a static shot, as a way of livening things up.
Page 8, a page that seemingly has little to reveal. Johnny is still a bit youthful here but looks more like his earlier Red Ryan/mechanic self. There’s also something in the specific way Kirby draws Sue in this sequence and earlier that gives her a sense of high society and sophistication. This is only heightened by Klein’s inks. It looks like Klein decided to extend Johnny’s hand and arm in Panel 3 after eliminating the border–which didn’t prevent it from bumping into the border of Panel 2.
This seems like a good place to break for the moment, as it represents the transition point of one section of FANTASTIC FOUR #1 to another.