The Great American
                Novel Act 1:
                the danger Act 2: rising action Act 3: the ball Act 4: crisis Act 5: triumph the Franklinverse part 2, act 1:
                the new danger





defined   |   Stan Lee   |   authorial intent   |   the American epic  |   criticisms  |   the zeitgeist   |   all the authors  |   influence  |   structure   |   themes

What is The Great American Novel?


The Great American Novel

"The "Great American Novel" is the concept of a novel that is distinguished in both craft and theme as being the most accurate representative of the zeitgeist in the United States at the time of its writing. ... the American response to the national epic." (Wikipedia, Great American Novel, retrieved March 21 2009)

John William De Forest invented the term in 1868 and said that such an epic could not be written until America had "agonized and conquered through centuries." This period arrived in the 1960s. De Forest dreamed of something uniquely and indisputably American, reflecting America's self image. Nothing fits that description more than the superhero. Pulitzer prize winning author Michael Chabon suggested that "the summed output of comic books is itself the elusive Great American Novel, a collective project, of and for the people, as vast and as egalitarian as the American ideal itself. It's just a simple matter of choosing the right books." (the conclusion to Jon Adam's "the Essay", broadcast on Fri, 20 Jan 2012, 22:45 on BBC Radio 3.) It's "a simple matter of choosing the right books." Which books are best? Well what if "the king of comics" (Jack Kirby) teamed up with the greatest comic writer/editor in history? What if they then produced the greatest ever comic (see below)? What if, for the first time, a superhero comic was grounded in realism? What if that spawned the most successful comics company and revitalized the industry? Maybe that would count?

Praise for the Fantastic Four

"Lee and Kirby's Fantastic Four run is the Mount Olympus of comic book storytelling. Nothing else can touch it in its innovation, sustained excitement, consequential events, and unprecedented character development." (Mark Engblom in Comic Coverage: March 21, 2009)

"Stan and Jack's Fantastic Four was, at its peak, almost unarguably the richest and most imaginative comic in the history of the medium." (Mark Waid's Fantastic Four Manifesto, in "Comics Creators on Fantastic Four" page 202.)

"Those fifty issues [FF25-75] were, simply put, the best super-hero comics ever done and nobody, let me repeat that, nobody, has done it better." Marv Wolfman

"For about twenty Issues, on either side of 50, it was possibly the best comic book ever done." Len Wein

"The general wisdom is that the Stan and Jack Fantastic Four is the greatest run of any comic book, ever." (Bob Reyer, comics expert on talkingcomicbooks podcast 89)

But... but... a comic????

Ninety percent of comics are rubbish. Ninety percent of every art form is rubbish. But comics have more potential than most art forms. Because the most efficient medium of communication is always a comic:

In religion:
If you're a living god, in the longest surviving superpower the world has ever known, how do you teach your people about the afterlife? With comics of course. This is from The Egyptian Book of The Dead, telling how you are led by Anubis to the judgment hall (frame 1), how your heart is judged (frame 2), and how you then meet Osiris (frame 3). Medieval churches and Mayan codices used the same methods.

hunefer
(Click for a larger version. Image from ComicAttack.net)

In fine art:
If you're a great artist, and you want to tell a bigger story than you can fit into one picture, what do you do? This is Hogarth's story of the Harlot's Progress (click for larger images):

HarlotsProgress1
HarlotsProgress2
HarlotsProgress3
HarlotsProgress4
HarlotsProgress5
HarlotsProgress6

In news:
If you publish a newspaper, and you want to get across a complex idea as powerfully as possible, what do you do? You use a comic of course. In Britain the master of the craft is currently Matt of the Daily Telegraph: his panels are frequently quoted on BBC Radio 4's Today program (the one the politicians listen to), as they sum up the day's news in the most efficient way possible.

770px-Lincoln_and_Johnsond

In entertainment:
If you plan to make a movie, or a 3D animation, you need a way to tell the same story to your production team, but in less time and with less money. What do you do? What medium can do the same job as a movie but faster and cheaper? A comic of course (they call them storyboards)

BalletStoryboard
blender storyboard640
Song_of_the_South_storyboards_Wikipedia
(Click for larger versions. Images from Wikipedia, the Blender Foundation, Wikipedia, and the Comics UK history pages)

In business:
If you're in a meeting and need to get a message across as efficiently as possible, what do you use? A comic of course. As Austin Kleon points out, PowerPoint presentations (and their accompanying storyboards) are sequential narratives using words and pictures: comics by another name.

PowerPoint
(Image from Austin Kleon's blog)

In science:
If you're sending the Voyager spacecraft into deep space, and you want a message for any aliens out there, what do you do? You use a comic of course. Now obviously we don't know what language an alien would use, or if they read from left to right (or from the middle), but we use words and symbols that tell a story: the characters say hello, the ship is from Earth, taking this route... it's a comic! Of course, spacecraft also take up videos and disks and stuff, but first you have to tell the aliens how to work the thing. So you create a story in images and symbols: comics always come first.(Image from DamnInteresting.com)

In politics:
If you're a major historical figure, and you want to tell the world about your triumphs, what do you do? You could write a book and just hope people read it... or you make a comic. Take the Bayeux Tapestry, or Trajan's column, or the thousands of other tapestries and bas reliefs around the world.

bayeux
Trajans_Column
(Trajan image from the Comics UK history pages)

The bottom line is that pictures are good, and writing is good, but pictures and writing are better.

 

Stan Lee and the Great American Novel

Stan Lee was the greatest ever editor of comic books (according to "Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book"). back in the 1940s, as he learned his trade, he used the pseudonym "Stan Lee" instead of his real name (Stanley Lieber). Why? Because he had bigger dreams:

"I felt someday I'd write 'The Great American Novel' and I didn't want to use my real name on these silly little comics." (see Origins of Marvel Comics, chapter 1)

By 1961 he was tired of "silly little comics" and planned to leave. His wife suggested that instead of leaving he create just one comic he could be proud of. So he broke all the cliches, and focused on realism. He also gave great freedom to the greatest comic book creator in history, Jack Kirby. Together they created "The World's Greatest Comic Magazine." Hundreds of fan clubs emerged up and down the land to discuss the realism of the stories. Newspaper and radio stations and students on college campuses debated this new phenomenon that captured the spirit of the age. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had created something that touched the heart of America.

Looking back, fifty years later:

Interviewer: "Well, one thing you had always said that struck me as funny was that you were saving your real name, Stanley Lieber, for when you were going to write the so-called Great American Novel. Technically, you never got around to writing a piece of prose that stood for that -- but back in those early days, did you have anything in mind for what you wanted to write about?"

Stan Lee: "Nothing at all."

Interviewer: "Nothing at all?"

Stan Lee: "In fact, even today I never know what I'm going to write about until I sit down to write it. (Laughter.) You see, the reason was, I wanted to do something good, something memorable."

This is the key to Stan's success. He did not try to understand the world. He simply wrote whatever seemed interesting at the time: he channeled the zeitgeist.

Interviewer: "Well, one of the important elements of a great novel -- or any piece of literature that stands the test of time -- is characterizations that readers can learn something from, and perhaps identify with and adapt into their own life. When you boil it down, it seems that you did, in essence, write at least that part of the Great American Novel with Amazing Spider-Man. The story of Peter Parker -- how he went from a nobody to a hero of great power using his arachnid-like abilities responsibly to help others -- fits in with this idea. It seems to me that Amazing Spider-Man #1-100 is like one big novel of sorts. Fantastic Four #1-100 is a novel..."

Stan Lee: "I never thought of that."

(Source: Marvel's recent "75 Years" anniversary magazine. Thanks to Rand Hall for pointing this out.)

"Accidentally" creating  a seamless epic

Stan and Jack did not plan a thirty year story. They just wrote what seemed interesting at the time. The only rules were to make it exciting yet realistic. This approach created the most natural, organic story of all: The Fantastic Four is like Shakespeare in this as in other ways. Critics can see The Tempest as an allegory of European Colonialism, and Hamlet as a reflection on the human condition. It is doubtful that Shakespeare planned it as such, but he reflected the zeitgeist with great skill and the bigger story was naturally there.

Authorial intent: "But Stan didn't mean that..."

The Fantastic Four contains ideas that the writers did not intend. That is very common for great novels. I recommend listening to the Oxford University podcast on why we study Shakespeare. We study because we can get so much out of it! We certainly see things that Shakespeare never intended, and that's what makes him so great: he produced something bigger than himself. For more parallels with Shakespeare, click here. The topic of authorial intent is a big one, but here is a summary from Wikipedia:

"New Criticism, as espoused by Cleanth Brooks, W. K. Wimsatt, T. S. Eliot, and others, argued that authorial intent is irrelevant to understanding a work of literature. W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley wrote in their essay The Intentional Fallacy: 'the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art.' The author, they argue, cannot be reconstructed from a writing - the text is the only source of meaning, and any details of the author's desires or life are purely extraneous. Such thinking essentially states that the author's intended meaning and purpose for the exposition are fundamentally unnecessary to the reader’s interpretation."

This is illustrated by common anecdotes about famous authors who do not see their work the way their readers see it. For example, "Writer Ian McEwan describes the odd experience of helping his son with an A-level essay about one of his novels, Enduring Love, and finding his son's teacher disagreed with his interpretation of the novel." (source) Here are more examples from a recent Reddit thread:

"Well, a few years back, on our Matura exam (a very important exam you need to finish high school in Poland, and later go to a university) [a] few authors who's texts were on the test were invited to try it out. They were supposed to write 'what the author meant/felt when he wrote this part'.
They barely got any points. Apparently, the people making the exam (based on what teachers taught the kids) had completely different ideas about the meaning of those poems/books than the authors themselves." (user Abedeus)

"Back in High School, the teacher was silly enough to get the author of a book we were studying in to talk to the class. The teacher got several rude surprises about how certain themes didn't mean what the teacher thought they obviously meant. Best to wait until the author is dead before deeming fanciful meanings and then nobody can disprove them or laugh with real insight." (user myztry)

When asked what "American Pie" meant, McLean jokingly replied, "It means I don't ever have to work again if I don't want to." Later, he stated, "You will find many interpretations of my lyrics but none of them by me ... Sorry to leave you all on your own like this but long ago I realized that songwriters should make their statements and move on, maintaining a dignified silence." (user SnakeX50)


In "Origins of Marvel Comics" Stan Lee writes about how fans would see things in the stories that he never intended, and he took it as a compliment. If they asked "how did you know that X"? He would reply "I must have read it somewhere then forgotten" which is true. A writer just writes what feels right, they do not stop and analyze their sources. A good writer will have far more sources than they can consciously remember, so a reader can see things the writer was not aware of.

This "Great American Novel" web site is all about teasing out the influences that informed the ideas, even though each writer was not consciously aware of them at the time.


The American epic

As a civilization reaches its zenith it creates its epic. These are usually stories that define a culture and can be understood by children, but also have depths for adults. Hence the Iliad, the Aeneid, Beowulf, the 1001 Arabian Nights or European Fairy Tales. These are usually collective works spanning many years, featuring god-like heroes.

The epic often draws on sources popular at the time, and retells them in a way that fits a certain point in history. As Philip Pullman has observed, Grimm's fairy tales are about princes and castles and children's suffering after the Thirty Years war and Napoleonic wars, which led to the unifying of Germany. The 1001 Nights reflect the new cities of the Islamic civilization in Arabia and the problems that arise for a previously nomadic culture. Likewise, the superhero reflects America becoming a global superpower and moving into space. The Fantastic Four specifically reflects the triumph over the soviets, 1961-1989. This is explicit in the first issue: private enterprise, science and family beat the communists.

The FF represented the zeitgeist of the day. As Darcy Sullivan observes, the Fantastic Four is "an allegory, a secret history of the 1960s":

"Take Galactus and the Silver Surfer. On the one hand they represent the father and the rebellious son, but to us they symbolized all the terrible dread hovering over us in the 1960s, and the strange mixture of idealism and power needed to stand up to the Establishment. For kids with only an inkling of the Vietnam War and the resistance to it, Galactus' tale seemed pregnant with hidden meaning. What was that mind-blowing trip the Human Torch undertook to save Earth but a consciousness-altering psychedelic experience?"

The allegory goes far beyond the individual characters and stories:

"Fantastic Four's general sense of discovery fit right into the zeitgeist of the '60s. Many comics before and since have emphasized conflict, but few if any have conveyed the same spirit of exploration. What blew us away back then wasn't the size of the fights but the constant uncovering of vast realms: Hidden Lands, Negative Zones, micro-worlds and the like. No perspective was absolute - another dimension was always whirling above us, beneath us, within us. Fantastic Four embraced the era's inclinations toward introspection, cultural anthropology, and internationalism." -Sullivan

A national epic is a work of mythology, a collective work spanning many years without breaks, featuring larger than life characters representing national hopes and dreams. What modern work comes close to the Fantastic Four in these regards? 28 years, six thousand pages, god-like heroes representing the great themes of the American nation.

Criticisms of the Great American Novel Hypothesis



The Zeitgeist

The Great American Novel is "the most accurate representative of the zeitgeist in the United States at the time of its writing."

The zeitgeist is the spirit of the age:

Stan Lee learned his trade by slavishly following trends. Whatever was popular that month, he made a comic book on it. Fear of communism became alien invasions, faith in science became heroic scientists. He was like a radio antenna for the national mood. He did not interpret, he just represented. "We hear about [Stan's] embrace of topical subject matter and hot-button issues, but not about how equivocal it always was, how infrequently it seemed to stem from any real conviction aside from generic humanism and the belief that zeitgeist-chasing was smart business." - grantland.com The article condemns this uncritical following of trends, yet it created a book that recorded the zeitgeist like no other book ever has.

Jack Kirby was equally in touch with the zeitgeist. He worked with both the radio and TV constantly on, with the TV sound turned down. His mind was like a sponge for current ideas (see volume 1 of the Comics Journal collected interviews). Between them, Kirby (the greatest ever comic artist) and Lee (the greatest ever comic editor) were the greatest ever pipeline for the zeitgeist to the printed page.

Pop art: "The state, culture, and perspective of the common American citizen."

Perhaps the purest example of the zeitgeist in art is "pop art." Pop art brings together the ordinary and familiar to represent the spirit of the age. The Fantastic Four is pop art, and was re-branded as such at the start of its golden age  (issues 42-46). 

"Marvel Pop
        Art Productions"

Examples of the zeitgeist

In General, the FF is about American optimism, America's family values in tension with individualism, and the nation's rise to being the sole superpower. The characters have superpowers because America is a superpower. The story begins when the space race hots up (1961, the first man in space) and ends when the cold war ends (1988-89). Each decade is reflected in the stories. It goes without saying that the clothing, hairstyles, cars and attitudes all reflect the contemporary fashions. For the zeitgeist of each year and each month, see commentary on individual issues.

The 1960s:
This decade is about the cold war and space race, and endless American optimism. The FF is led by a scientist with 1950s patriarchal values, who uses giant machines: a symbol of early America's 1960s faith in science and technology to solve all the world's problems.

But at first there is a strong undercurrent of alienation as conservative ideas from the 1950s are questions and found wanting. Civil rights is also there: the underlying theme of the FF is equality; the FF featured stories on hate at the time of JFK's assassination; they had the first black superhero, and his title (the Black Panther) predates the revolutionary organization.

Mass culture:
Individual issues are almost a checklist of popular mass culture of the time. Cultural homages include:

...and many more.

The 1970s:
This decade is about self doubt and disharmony. The optimism ends: overstretched, Reed is sick for most of the decade (reflecting Vietnam, Watergate, and national self doubt. etc.) Reed collapses through over work, Reed and Sue separate, both are worried and miserable for the early 1970s, they are reconciled, but the old naivety is lost. Reed loses his powers and the team disbands. The theme of feminism is particularly clear, with the once most powerful male on Earth reduced in the public mind to to a second rater, a teddy bear, after being humbled in a public ally staged fight with a warrior from an all-female planet. A warrior who then recognizes him as the only male she can admire and respect: a new status quo is achieved.

The 1980s: money and property, women in charge, etc.
Examples of real world themes from the 1980s are the rise of right wing family values as a political wedge issue, the rise of Wall Street, and women in positions of real power. These are of course reflected in the FF. Property ownership is everywhere:

1980s style Conservatism is reflected in John Byrne's run, an attempt to get "Back To The Basics." Sue becoming thinner (with a bigger bust of course), and more violent, and loses a baby. The change to a dominant, cropped haired Alicia is also notable.

These are only a few examples of cultural references. Any ongoing series, created to a deadline, competing for readers, will naturally reflect the mood of the time. Unlike other attempts at the Great American Novel, the FF cultural references are more authentic, because they were actually created at the exact time they describe, month by month, with very little time for editing. This is culture in the raw.



The authors

The Great American Novel must be written by "An American author who is knowledgeable about the state, culture, and perspective of the common American citizen" (Wikipedia).

Everyone who creates the FF openly states that they are following the vision of just two men, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.

authors timeline


Lee was a likable huckster who dreamed of Hollywood. Kirby was a tough street kid from a poor neighborhood, an avid consumer of pop culture. Both men were Jews, New Yorkers, and WWII veterans. Lee and Kirby were America personified. That understanding was guaranteed: Stan and Jack's company was facing closure in 1961, so they had to connect with readers, whatever it took.

The Fantastic Four had a third author: the readers. The comic listened and gave them what they wanted. This author is "knowledgeable about the state, culture, and perspective of the common American citizen" because he and she is the American citizen!

The language of the common people

What was the average American reading? Not Melville, not Hemingway, not even Twain. They were reading comic books, because comic books spoke their language.



Influence

Influence on other literature

But generally the qualities of the FF have not yet been recognized. Even fans treat the comics superficially, mocking issues they do not understand (such bas FF 80, Tomazooma). This web site exists to persuade people to take a closer look.

Influence on language

Before the 1960s, the word "fantastic" had the primary meaning of "impossible" and sometimes "grotesque." It was occasionally used to mean "wonderful" but that sense was rare, even trivial. However, "In popular usage, the word 'fantastic' has become a casual term of approval, a synonym for 'great' or 'brilliant', and this has to a great extent supplanted the original meaning of the word." We see this in one of the earliest ads for the Fantastic Four, from early 1962: the greatest "Fantasy Magazines" include "The Fantastic Four" with "America's greatest "fantasy characters".

early house ad

When did the change from "impossible" to "good" occur? The "impossible" meaning was still dominant until the 1960s in academic texts. But by the late 1960s "good" was the common meaning, hence in Britain we had a comic imprint called "Power comics" with the titles "Pow," "Fantastic" and "Terrific": by the late 1960s the terms were interchangeable and commonplace among the young. As for the older generation in 1973 structuralist critic Tzvetan Todorov was the first academic to reflect the new meaning. In his work "The Fantastic", the "impossible" meaning was shifted to mean not impossible, but instead the uncertain area between the impossible and the possible. That is, something exciting, something that attracts our interest.

So something happened in the 1960s to change the word meaning in the minds of the young. What was it? The movie "Fantastic Voyage" released in August 1966 is one candidate, but this was only a few months before Britain's Fantastic comic (February 1967) so by then the "good" meaning was already common. Besides, the movie only appeared briefly (this was long before video) and was intended for all ages: the change we are looking for took place earlier, mainly among the young, and was around for long enough to make a difference. What were young people reading month after month? Comic books. What were most influential comic books at the time? Marvel comics. What was the flagship title, the first and biggest seller? The Fantastic Four.

In 1961 the name "fantastic" was chosen because it suggested the impossible. By 1966, the highpoint of the comic (see Galactus, etc.) it had redefined the word to mean wonderful. For more details, see Todorov's "The Fantastic", or chapter 1 of Robert Papetti's "Fantastic Four In The Silver Age Sixties: A Tribute".

Influence on culture

When modern critics think of forward thinking cultural influences in the 1960s they think of shows like Star Trek. But in the 1960s the Fantastic Four (and its universe) probably had a greater influence.
In the 1980s the Fantastic Four was first mainstream comic to mention homosexuality, and it did so in a positive way. But long before that It was the first mainstream comic to show that a loving family could be other than mother, father and children. Dr. Ramzi Fawaz (of George Washington and Georgetown Universities) went further in his March 2013 lecture 'Flame On!: Nuclear Families, Unstable Molecules, and the Queer History of The Fantastic Four'. "Fawaz sees this mutated family unit as a symbol of the differently-adapted individual, the nucleus of a chain-reaction of counterculture that would overtake the real-universe America by the end of the same decade. [...] Fawaz detailed the wardrobe of masculinity among the FF's three leading men - pliant, effete intellectual Reed Richards, hard bodied but insecure Ben Grimm, literally flaming, unruly yet envied Johnny Storm, and the assertive femininity of Sue Storm, in control of what males can see through her invisibility and able to literally repel them with her force fields. " (source) Ben Grimm in particular, though not gay, is a classic example of queer culture.

In addition, the Fantastic Four expanded the horizons of literature by making the most extreme form of fantasy (the comic book) believable. It was the first mainstream comic to feature a black hero (who unlike other black characters then got his own title). "New York Times editorialist and race-relations historian Brent Staples, [remarked on] how archetypal loners, literally caught between worlds, like the Silver Surfer, resonated with his experience as a Black reader in a racially divided country more than did the handful of 'minority' characters introduced in those times ostensibly for readers of color to identify with." (ibid)

The book also snuck underground rebellion and the drug culture past the then-rigid Comics Code Authority, through stories like the Inhumans (a secret race of enhanced beings hiding underground in New York, with their roots in a great refuge hidden in the Tibetan mountains) and the metaphorical drug trips of FF76-79.

Influence on other comics
Marvel became the biggest selling American comics publisher by far, and all other publishers (that share the same markets) are heavily influenced by the Marvel style. And all modern Marvel comics are tributes to the Fantastic Four. This was stated by Tom Brevoort, in response to a question on why the Avengers and X-Men have so many spin-off books but the FF apparently do not:

"Every book in the Marvel line is a franchise expansion of FANTASTIC FOUR. It’s just that, in the 1960s, they tended to do this stuff differently than we do it today. But X-MEN was created specifically in response to publisher Martin Goodman’s desire for 'Another FANTASTIC FOUR.'” (source)

Cultural influence in the 1960s: the Fantastic Four v. Star Trek

Many people have commented on how Star Trek pushed the boundaries of popular culture, but the Fantastic Four usually did it first, and to a wider audience. TV shows had much higher initial audiences, but comics reached more people and in a more intense way.

Who was first?

Who came first matters. Each change establishes a precedent and encourages others to go further. An early subtle change may then be more significant than a later more blatant change. So it matters that the Fantastic Four (1961-) came before Star Trek (1966-69).

How did they pushing the cultural boundaries? Let us take the most famous Star Trek example: the interracial kiss, in 1968. In this, Kirk was mind controlled, and had little choice. What message does that send? "I will only kiss another race if I have no choice"? In contrast, between 1962 and 1964 Sue Storm had a genuine romance with a member of another race: Prince Namor. Since 1965, Johnny Storm has been in love with Asian Crystal and frequently kissed. Crystal is actually a member of another race that includes a man with hooves and another man with green scales and fins! Nothing says interracial more than the Inhumans - if you want to discuss prejudice, just look at their name, they were Inhuman, he found them living underground in the run down inner city area of New York, yet Johnny loved her. Or if you want a positive black role model, how about their close friend the scientifically and culturally advanced Black Panther? Or if you really want to focus on a different skin color and romance, this was a dominant theme for The Thing since 1961. The message of tolerance in the Fantastic Four is not as blatant as a token female and single kiss, but it runs much deeper, it's not an intentional attempt to be liberal, it's just a natural growth from the story. Race relations is about more than skin color. "New York Times editorialist and race-relations historian Brent Staples, [remarked] on how archetypal loners, literally caught between worlds, like the Silver Surfer, resonated with his experience as a Black reader in a racially divided country more than did the handful of 'minority' characters introduced in those times ostensibly for readers of color to identify with." (source)

Which reached more people?

What were Star Trek viewing figures? "The first season was 15 million, second season was 14 million, third season was 10 million. (Making of Star Trek V, p. 42, Harve Bennett.) He also added that a shot needed to have 20 million to be a success." (source) Star Trek figures declined and it was canceled. In contrast, a typical issue of the Fantastic Four in the mid 1960s sold one third of a million copies, and every year sold more than the year before (until 1968). At first that seems like a slam dunk for Star Trek. But early Fantastic Four stories were simplified into TV cartoons at the time, so that raises their profile. And that's just the start.

The flagship for an interconnected universe: what started in the Fantastic Four was then expanded elsewhere. For example, the idea of heroes being hated was expanded in Spider-Man. The cosmic elements were expanded in the pages of Thor. The Silver Surfer and Black Panther got their own comics. It was all part of a single story. Taking that story as a whole, Marvel comics sold around 8 million issues a month. This continued month after month, year after year, whereas Star Trek was only on TV for three seasons. In the 1960s there were no domestic video players, so each Star Trek episode was seen only once, or twice if you were lucky to catch a rare repeat. But a comic book could be read again and again, passed around friends, and sold on. It is safe to say that in the 1960s the Fantastic Four universe reached more people than the Star Trek universe ever did.

Which reached more young people?

Star Trek's modest viewing figures are often defended on the grounds of demographics: these were all young people, right? Actually, no. "According to Television Magazine, the four episodes broadcast between October 27th and November 17th, 1966 averaged 8,630,000 viewers in the 18-to-49 age group, making up 43% of the show's total audience [51]. By comparison, during the same period ABC's Bewitched (which aired opposite Star Trek from 9:30-10PM) averaged 10,210,000 young adult viewers or 37% of the total audience." (source) Note that "young" back then was anything up to age 49! In contrast, the vast majority of Marvel readers were under 20, and many were under 10 years old. The younger a person is, the more a story is likely to influence them. In demographics, the Fantastic Four wins hands down.

Which was read more intently?

Reading a comic is likely to have a greater effect than watching a TV show, for these reasons:

Modern bias

Star Trek fans have done a much better job of getting their material in front of critics. This is due to:

  1. Popularity: Star Trek became a huge franchise after the 1960s, whereas superhero comics have been in long decline.
  2. Continuity: Star Trek has a clear continuity: so it's simple. But Fantastic Four continuity died in 1991, making the whole mess very confusing.
  3. Brevity: There are only 79 episodes of Star Trek: the Original Series, plus the pilot. So it's easy to become familiar with them all. But the hundred of Fantastic Four issues (or tens of thousands of connected Marvel issues) can be daunting.
  4. Accessibility: Most of the 79 Star Trek episodes are easily available on DVD or repeated on free to air TV, with small clips on YouTube. The classic Fantastic Four is much harder for a non-fan to find.
  5. Simplicity: The Fantastic Four contains a 28 year story with complex subplots. Star Trek stories are usually over in a single episode, or two at the most.
So it's much easier for modern critics to think of Star Trek than the Fantastic Four, regardless of how they were seen in the 1960s.

Conclusion

In the 1960s, the Fantastic Four probably had a greater cultural influence than Star Trek. But that is not obvious unless we look at the numbers at the time.


Structure


Plot structure

The story follows the classic five act structure: danger, rising action, the ball, crisis and triumph:

Act 1: danger:
The story begins with the crucible that forces the heroes together: the space flight. The grand quest is then laid out: Reed wants to save the world, and Sue wants them to be a family. The four major themes are introduced (reluctant heroes, personal confidence, the American Dream, and equality), along with the principle opponents (Doom, Namor, Skrulls) and motifs (would-be monarchs, hidden races, dangerous frontiers, health, mind control, doppelgangers and home).

Act 2: rising action:
Here the themes and motifs are expanded and threats multiply. At the start of this act, threats appeared only at intervals. By the end of the act, each drama merges with the next.

Act 3: the ball:
All the characters get together (the wedding), and everything looks bright. This act crystallizes the major themes in the person of Franklin and hence the need to put family first.

Act 4: crisis:
Everything goes wrong. Reed can no longer cope. There is a false triumph and false dawn half way through (FF200) then things get even worse.

Act 5: triumph:
The crises are finally solved through family values: Reed accepts what Sue was telling him all along and all their problems are neatly resolved, leaving to the start of the next epic.

Multiple layers

The FF is probably the most layered book ever written. At least twelve layers of story are told simultaneously, and each layer can include multiple characters. Why is it so complex? Because it evolved organically through multiple people. The result is far richer than any individual could consciously achieve. Layers include, from smallest to largest:

  1. The frame: at its best, each frame tells a story. Imagine each frame on this page, blown up to Roy Lichtenstein scale.
  2. The page: a well crafted page is rewarding even if you can't read: amazing people are doing amazing things.
  3. The issue: even multi-issue stories had a unique story of some kind per issue
  4. The arc: three or five issue stories ere common.
  5. Minor Subplots that weave in and out of the main story, often over many months.
  6. Links to the wider Marvel Universe (the other connected comic titles).
  7. Major subplots: multi-year stories (e.g. exploring ever further, and romances)
  8. Major "villains" (Namor, the Skrulls, Doom, and the Mole Man) have their own 28 year story
  9. The main characters develop consciously over the years (e.g. Ben goes from angry to depressed to resolved to happy)
  10. They also develop unconsciously (e.g. Reed becomes suicidal, but never admits it to himself)
  11. Themes: these build to their climax over the full multi-year length.
  12. The big overarching 28 year story (choosing priorities)
  13. The endless story: the 28 year story, the Franklinverse, the next team, and other major epics (Spider-man, the X-Men, etc.)

Most of these layers are hidden at first glance. People often pretend all is well when they are hurting inside, or they may not see the importance of an event until years later. But look for the depth and it's there.

Subplots that cover the five acts:

Each issue typically introduces a new short subplot, but some subplots extend over all or most of the entire 28 year story. Each has its own beginning, middle and end.

Individuals:

Races, empires, and others:

Themes

The most obvious themes are right there on the cover to issue 1:

  1. Family
  2. Dangers that are bigger than themselves: danger is a concept repeated on almost every page of issue 1, and constantly throughout the series. Issue 1 is particularly about monsters: there's a monster on the cover, page 1 refers to fears of an alien invasion, on on page 5 they think Ben is Martian, Ben becomes a monster (as he sees it) and they end up fighting monsters on "monster Isle".

These themes are so obvious that they won't be discussed in depth on this site. Instead we shall focus on the secondary themes: concerning teamwork.

Themes about teamwork

If The Fantastic Four is summed up in a word, that word is implied by the name, Fantastic Four: it's about teamwork. Specifically, being a hero even when reluctant, personal confidence, equality, and achieving the American Dream.

In many ways this is the story of Susan Storm, and a metaphor for every mother who feels the heavy burden of duty while seeming to be invisible. Susan never had a proper childhood (her mother was dead and her father in jail), and had to raise her younger brother while barely more than a child herself. All she ever wanted was a normal family life, but fate had other plans. Instead, she had to save the world, as a superhero with almost no power (at first) and no respect. The Fantastic Four is the story of how she persuades her husband to notice her, and through her to notice his family, and finally put them first.

The first issue introduces the four themes (reluctant heroes, personal confidence, equality and the American Dream) and these are developed through the story and are resolved in act 5. As we would expect in The Great American Novel, these themes also apply to the United States in this period.

1: reluctant heroes

We must be heroes even though we don't want to be.

Reed, Sue and Ben never wanted to be superheroes. Johnny is the only one who loves the lifestyle, and he is in the shadow of the others. By the end Reed and Sue finally get the life they want, and Ben and Johnny are well on their way.

This reluctance mirrors the United States' Founding fathers who wanted to avoid European wars, but their nation finds itself involved in almost every conflict on the planet.

2: confidence

Success depends on confidence.
Reed's tragic flaw is his belief that only he can solve everything (a flaw taken to its extreme with his mirror, Dr Doom): this confidence is gradually undermined through the story (reflected in his health), until he gains respect for others. Ben's story is one of regaining his confidence, Johnny loses his, and Sue becomes more assertive on the surface while losing confidence under the surface. At the end, all find their true selves.

This all reflects America's initial pride in the 1960s (faith in science, expanding business, moon landing, etc.), loss of confidence in the 1970s (Watergate, oil crisis, Vietnam, etc.), and finally winning the cold war in 1989, when the 28 year Fantastic Four story ends.

3: equality

All men (and women!) are created equal.
The whole story can be seen as one of sexual equality: Sue's apparent weakness (she prefers listening and caution to fighting) is more effective than Reed's hard power (conflict), which increasingly fails. Those who appear to be enemies are sympathetic and can become friends (the Mole man, Namor,etc.). Sue's softer role is crystallized in Franklin: he appears to be a liability, a baby in need of saving, but is in reality the most powerful one of all. Both Reed and Doom, the proudest of all, are finally defeated by their children. Meanwhile, Ben learns to stop ignoring Alicia's needs and abilities (for example, Alicia is the only one who can stop Galactus), Johnny learns the hard way not to be sexist, and Doom learns that his success depends entirely on the respect he gives to Latverian peasants.

This reflects America both internally (civil rights, women's liberation) and externally: America's soft power through trade and entertainment, which treats other nations as equals, is far more successful than its hard power through forced regime change, which tries to treat other nations as naughty children.

4: the American Dream

Anyone can make it, and have it all.
The American Dream is the national ethos of the United States, in which freedom includes the opportunity for prosperity and success for everyone, through hard work and decency. Reed achieves everything through his genius; Ben was an ordinary kid from a tough neighborhood who became a war hero and star test pilot through his hard work; and. Johnny and Sue are orphans who, through Sue's hard work and their courage (joining the dangerous space flight) became celebrities. The team is shown as having a penthouse suite, global fame, a flying car, and everything people dream of. Several early stories praise office work and celebrity culture.

Historically the Dream originated in the ever expanding frontier, a central motif of the Fantastic Four. It was particularly marked among 19th century Jewish refugees: both Stan Lee (Stanley Lieber) and Jack Kirby (Jacob Kurtzman) were Jewish, as is Ben Grimm in the story. Most of the team's early foes are old world style monarchs or attempted monarchs: Doom, Namor, the Mole Man, Kurrgo, Puppet Master, etc.

The story also reflects criticism of the Dream: the team also reinforces class inequality: Reed had a genius was a millionaire whose father was an equal genius, Sue and Johnny's father was a star surgeon, and Sue benefited from movie star looks: the only completely self made member was Ben, and he gets the ugly treatment and is treated like an idiot by Reed and Johnny. Reed, the highest achiever of all, realizes that no amount of effort will guarantee success (in act 4). But this is simply a reflection of the true American dream: a happy family based on good values. Their happiness and ability to solve problems ultimately does not depend on their wealth but on whether they treat each other with respect (see the major theme of equality).

Motifs

The story features recurring motifs including:



Why study the Fantastic Four?

The Fantastic Four is the Great American Novel. It is therefore the modern Shakespeare.

The Fantastic Four is an allegory of the most powerful nation in the history of the world, during its triumphant phase: from its first man in space (1961) to the end of the cold war (1988-9). A nation is understood through its art, and the superhero comic is America's unique contribution to art. (Western movies  are also unique contributions, but no movie spans so many years or topics.)

The Fantastic Four is the only realistic mass market superhero comic (no flashy costumes or secret identities), and the most literary (they form a single coherent story).

Above all, the Fantastic Four is great story: the story of optimism. It packs in more ideas than any other comic: Every issue takes us somewhere new and amazing: outer space, under ground, foreign lands, deep in the ocean, other species hiding among us, the microscopic world, time travel, the antimatter universe, and beyond! They are forever expanding horizons, discovering new worlds, challenging old ideas, and expanding the mind. The message is inspiring and uplifting: family values plus science can so anything! It's the story of America at its most optimistic. .

next: FF 1






The Great American Novel