Three Ways Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four Laid the Blueprint for Our Superhero-Centric World

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The critical consensus is that the new rebooted Fantastic Four movie, well, sucks. I’m hoping the critics are wrong. On paper, it looks like a promising take on 2004’s young, sci-fi-infused Ultimate Universe version of the FF from Brian Michael Bendis, Mark Millar and Adam Kubert. It can’t be worse than previous movie versions, especially this one. Can it? Can it?

Even if this movie descends to Gigli-level disaster and terrible FF movies come out every 10 years till the sun blows up, respect must be paid to the source material. In the revolutionary first 102 issues of The Fantastic Four (1961-1970), writer Stan Lee and writer/artist Jack Kirby churned out new ideas and characters at an unprecedented clip, while reinventing superheroes, building the Marvel Universe, and setting the stage for our present superhero-saturated world. Empowered cosmonauts Ben Grimm, Reed Richards, Sue Richards and Johnny Storm may feel like third-tier heroes these days, but they’re called Marvel’s First Family for a reason. Without them, there would be no Spider-Man, Hulk, Avengers or X-Men, and superheroes might be as popular as cowboys today. (Also, Stephen Colbert would never have made a web video wearing Galactus antlers.)

Here are three distinct ways the FF created the blueprint for the Marvel Universe and beyond.

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Fantastic Four #27 Cover Art by Jack Kirby

The FF Were Down-to-Earth Heroes with Relatable Problems

This point has been beaten to death with Thor’s hammer over the years, but with good reason. The humanity of the FF was something completely different from the reigning heroes over at DC at the time, where godlike icons were accompanied by superpets, talking gorillas and general absurdity (not that there’s anything wrong with that). The DC pantheon was a lot of fun, but a little inhuman.

By contrast, the FF’s struggles were intimate and mortal, despite their otherworldly powers. Johnny Storm once let former villain and paramour Medusa escape, due to thinking with his little torch. Ben Grimm reacted to his fate as an organic rock monster as anyone would: with anger. Sue Storm had a long flirtation with the semi-deranged, scantily clad Namor the Sub-Mariner. While Galactus threatened to eat the planet, Reed Richards paused to shave. The whole bunch were almost evicted from the Baxter Building. All of it—particularly the family dynamic was relatable on a level not seen thus far in superhero comics, and that relatability became the Marvel trademark.

Without the success of the FF, Lee would likely not have rolled the dice with other vulnerable heroes such as Spider-Man, the X-Men and Daredevil. The terrific Netflix Daredevil series—which did such a great job of showing the layers of Matt Murdock as a lawyer, vigilante, blind man and Catholic—feels a long way from the 1961 space flight of the Richards clan. But such a vulnerable, multi-dimensional character would not exist without Lee and Kirby’s creations. Comics continued to be myths, but now the myths were far more human.
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Fantastic Four #26 Cover Art by Jack Kirby

The FF Lived in a Real City Full of Unreal Heroes

The FF series provided the Petri dish for the continuity and crossovers of the Marvel Universe. As the success of the FF led Lee and Kirby (or Lee and Steve Ditko) to create other superheroes, those heroes immediately established themselves in New York City rather than some fictional setting like Central City, Gotham or Metropolis. With so many capes in one place, it was natural for them to get together—usually after the superhero equivalent of a meet-cute, which was usually a brawl-cute.

It would be decades before line-wide crossovers events would become the norm at Marvel and DC, but the FF planted those seeds early. In Fantastic Four #12, a certain green rage monster made an appearance to help the struggling Hulk comic, foreshadowing struggling Hulk movies over 40 years later. In Fantastic Four #16, current Marvel movie lead Ant-Man got the crossover treatment. Soon, more complex team-ups popped up, with FF #25-6 forming a single story interwoven with Avengers #4-5. Dr. Doom wasn’t just an FF villain: he was a Marvel menace who could threaten anybody and everybody, including ol’ webhead in The Amazing Spider-Man #5. This cohesion, right there from the start, is a big reason why the Marvel Cinematic Universe works so well.
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Fantastic Four #82 Cover Art by Jack Kirby

Thanks to Marvel style writing, Jack Kirby’s Massive Creativity Reached its Full Potential

Two writing approaches exist in comics today: full script (where the writer meticulously describes what should appear, often on a panel-by-panel basis) and Marvel style. The latter—in which the writer provides a loose structure, with the artist making many plotting choices—is not nearly as common today, but it’s responsible for some of the most important comics ever, including the bulk of the FF run. The creation of Marvel style allowed Kirby to create stories that felt as big as the cosmos, providing a perfect complement to Lee’s talent for the everyday.

That creativity manifested itself in the characters Kirby co-created, such as Dr. Doom, Galactus, the Skrulls, the Watcher, the Inhumans and Black Panther. The Silver Surfer came entirely from the mind and pencil of Kirby with no initial input from Lee. The staying power of these characters has been remarkable. For example, Dr. Doom is the central figure of current mega-event Secret Wars. And even though Fox owns the film rights to the FF, Marvel Studios is reaping the benefits of the Lee/Kirby run with forthcoming movies such as Black Panther and The Inhumans.

Logistical issues definitely played a part in Kirby’s most successful streak on FF, as shown in the late Mark Alexander’s Stan Lee & Jack Kirby: The Wonder Years, a special issue of Jack Kirby Collector magazine. In this issue, Alexander offers a critical look at the rise, pinnacle and decline of the run, filling in plenty of pertinent backstory. For example, during what Alexander calls the Cosmic Era—which introduced the Inhumans, Galactus and the Silver Surfer—two logistical factors helped Kirby raise his game. One, he was joined by Joe Sinnott, one of the most celebrated inkers in comics history and a known workaholic, which benefited the comics if not Sinnott’s bank account. Two, Kirby was working less himself, thanks to a raise, allowing for greater attention to detail. This combination facilitated the peak issues of approximately #44-67. It’s a little scary to think what Kirby could accomplish today, when artist workloads are generally less oppressive. He’d probably create a new world religion.

Though Kirby co-created plenty of other great characters (from star-spangled Captain America to anti-life-obsessed Darkseid) he never had such a sustained run of brilliance as on FF. It was the crowning, cosmic jewel in the King’s crown.

Mark Peters (@wordlust, @cnnyourmom) is a columnist for McSweeney’s (about comedy) and Visual Thesaurus (about euphemisms). He’s the author of Bullshit: A Lexicon, out October 27 from Three Rivers Press.

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