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

1963: Act 2: Of spaceships and nuclear bombs (the early 1960s)

timechart issue 1 issues 2-5 issues 6-24 issues 25-43 issues 45-60 issues 61-80 issues 81-102 issues 103-125 126-132 133-149 150-175 176-200 201-218 219-231 232-250 251-273 274-295 296-303 304-321 322-333 334-355 355-569 570 to present

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This page focuses on just three issues: the end of year 1 (the issues were bimonthly until issue 8). In their first year Ben wanted to kill Reed, and many of the public saw the FF as menaces to society. The stories were about space ships, planetary destruction and body snatchers. It reflected the era of hydrogen bombs and the space race, when the older generation could remember a time before motor cars, before moving pictures or telephones when even electricity was a luxury. So much change, so quickly! Anything was possible. The world was hurtling into the unknown and bad choices could mean the end of the human race.

Issue 6: Sue's methods: true empathy is stronger than false empathy

Fantastic Four 6

This is the issue where Sue's successful strategy (to build friendships) contrasts with the boys' unsuccessful strategy (aggression) and their enemies' cooperation based on mistrust.

We also have the major themes again:

How act 2 is different:

Act 2 is about Reed's rise to dominance, and begins with Doom's dominance over Namor: Doom is Reed's mirror, and Namor, like a composite of Sue, Ben and Johnny, is both stronger and more emotion-driven. But more importantly, FF6 is where the non-stop action of the introduction ends. From here on, characterization becomes the number one priority.

Science and technology

Other points to note:

Issue 7: Reed begins to dominate

Fantastic Four 7

Although Reed was nominally the leader before now, this is the issue where he really takes over: only he can solve the problem, and he treats the others as children. This theme will be repeated throughout act 2 and beyond. We also see his dark side at the end - he is happy to lie as long as he believes it has the desired outcome.

Here are the themes again. Eventually this review will take the themes for granted, but it is necessary to show what every issue is really about: duty (first to family, then country, then any noble need).

Three dimensional characters

Reed lies, yet he only does so to save a billion lives. His motives are pure, he achieves great things (he saved a whole planet!) and he works tirelessly for others. Reed is a three dimensional character, with great strengths as well as troubling weaknesses. He is not the usual comic book cut-out.

Planet X appears to be in a state of intellectual decay, probably caused by becoming a dictatorship. Hence they no longer have the ability to create new ships, or to make use of their existing technology. See the notes to FF 92 for how planet X technology is so far in advance of Skrull technology: Reed could only make limited use of the saucer afterwards, whereas Skrull technology was much easier to disassemble.

Political decay was the great fear of America: if they gave into communist dictators they would be like the people of planet X, a doomed civilization.

Criticisms of this issue

A lot of people don't like this issue. I am not one of them. This is one of my all time favorites stories, possibly helped by the fact that it was the first FF story I ever saw as a child, in beautiful giant size hardback form, in the sublimely perfect UK Marvel Annual 1972. Here are the criticisms from the "Fantastic Fans" blog, plus the review on the classic comics board, and elsewhere (e.g.. FFplaza). With my responses:

A personal favorite

On a personal note, this is one of my all time favorite issues. I first read it as a child in a large sized hard backed black and white reprint on substantial paper (the UK Marvel annual 1972?) and it introduced me to the FF. Some of the parts I loved then, and still love now:

I wonder if this issue suffers from the Star Wars problem? If you've never seen anything like it, and see it in the cinema, Star Wars was one of the greatest movies ever. But if you've seen a ton of sci fi movies and then rent Star Wars it on DVD, it can be disappointing. I was lucky to read FF7 in large format, black and white on thick paper, before I had seen any of the sci-fi movies it references. But of you come to it from hundreds of sci fi comics and B movies I suppose the experience is different. But in my view we should not blame an idea just because it's often copied. That generally means it's a good idea, not a bad one. For me, I will always remember my first Star Wars. And I will always remember the sense of awe when I closed this story and contemplated the vastness of the universe and how gravity rays might work. True, I was six years old at the time, but my admiration for this tale has only grown in the years since.

Other points to note

To illustrate the scale, here is a tiny section of sky as viewed through the Hubble space telescope. Even such a tiny square is full of vast, apparently endless galaxies and even vaster areas of empty space in between.

by Pablo Carlos Budassi

Issue 8: Alicia

Fantastic Four 8

As the long term story develops, each character's core conflict will eventually be embodied in a person:

  1. Reed's need for absolute control is embodied in his nemesis, Doom.
  2. Johnny's need to learn responsibility will be embodied in Crystal (he will lose her because of his immaturity)
  3. Sue's need to be noticed will be embodied in Franklin: will Reed notice his own son?
  4. And here in the landmark issue 8, Ben's self-doubt is embodied in Alicia: he can never be human because he fears that she won't love him.

This is the fourth issue in a row with the word "captives" or "prisoners" in the title. (Thanks to The Marvelous Zone for pointing this out, I think). And they were physically captives in issues 1 and 2. 


The first year is a very dark time (see the comments on alienation in the notes to issue 2). Each member of the team is defined by feeling trapped:
This issue of course has the core themes again:

Ben is becoming handsome

Ben is becoming a little more normal looking, but Reed keeps him feeling ugly. Ironically, Reed's constant attempts to change Ben carry the subliminal message "your ugliness is so horrific that the world's greatest scientist has to drop everything to fix you." He is not trying to cure Ben's strength, just his ugliness. true, Ben was ugly in Act 1, but he soon evolved into a lovable teddy bear look: yet Reed and Johnny make him think he is still ugly. Note that Johnny's insults and pranks decline as he grows up, and by Act 4 Johnny is an adult. (But Johnny de-ages in the Franklinverse.)


1962 cultural references

Other points to note:

The most important Marvel comic ever?

I have a theory that FF 8 might be the most important Marvel comic ever. Because, if my detective work is correct (a big "if"!), Fantastic Four issue 1 was not the first modern "Marvel Comic" as we know them today. The first modern Marvel was FF issue 8. This issue created Marvel Comics as we know them.

What defines Marvel Comics?
Modern Marvel, and its imitators, are defined by three elements:

  1. Superheroes.
  2. Everyday problems, like money problems or inability to get a girlfriend.
  3. Crossover continuity. Making a single, enormous story that expands forever.

Contrast this with previous comics

  1. Superheroes, yes.
  2. Wealthy and popular (Superman, Batman, etc)
  3. Stories that are over in eight pages. When two characters meet it is not remembered.

Note that none of this actually makes any sense:

  1. The powers defy the laws of physics or are far beyond current science.
  2. Real superheroes would be in demand from multiple employers and would have legions of fans. Their existence would also change the world beyond recognition.
  3. Real stories would have consequences (not over in eight pages). Real crossovers would remove the drama: whenever a danger threatens there are thousands of other superheroes who can take it on.

Contrast this with Kirby's solo work:

  1. Kirby's super beings are either humans at the limit of normal abilities (Captain America) or advanced races (with advanced understanding of physics) who are just visiting Earth (e.g. Thor). When Kirby is contractually required to write superpowers they do not interest him: the powers are not important to the outcome of the story (as illustrated by the first year of the Fantastic Four).
  2. Kirby's heroes did not worry about money problems, or girlfriends. They worried about the fate of the world!
  3. Kirby's stories were not connected to the rest of the Marvel or DC universe unless the editors insisted on it. But note that Kirbys stories had much greater continuity: characters changed forever, and events moved forwards. Stan lee's stories only had "the illusion of change".

Here I will argue that the first year of the FF was a Kirby book. Issues 1-8 were classic Kirby (plus Stan's dialog). Issue 8 is where Stan Lee told Kirby to do things the Stan Lee way instead. Issues 9-11 were a transition, and issue 12 (the Thing versus the Hulk) was full on modern Marvel.

Warning: this is a simplification!!!!!
In what follows I talk as if Stan and Jack were in some mighty conflict. In reality they cooperated most of the time. They both knew that they had to sell comics and business requires compromise. Even when Jack had the most freedom. those stories were filtered through Stan's dialog. And even when Stan changed the story beyond recognition (e.g. FF 67) you can still see Jack's intentions by removing the dialog and watching the flow of the art. Here I simplify, I focus on the differences, so we can see what each man was trying to do.

I also talk as if Jack had a clear plan. He did, in the sense that the comics he most cared about betray the same theme: asking "what's out there?" (in space, etc.) and finding it is very dangerous indeed. This is the same theme in Thor, New Gods, Eternals, Captain Victory, etc. Jack did not have a written plan of course: like any explorer, he had to adapt to where he found himself. He had to constantly adapt the stories to Stan's requirements, and to fit with Stan's dialog on previous issues. And on other comics he sometimes had to do a rush job just to pay the bills (Strange Tales for example)

Why issue 8 is different
Issue 8 is historically important for many reasons:

  1. It is the first monthly issue, indicating that it was a sales success. (Back in the day reliable sales figures could take months. They had hints of success before now, but by now they were certain.)
  2. It has the most obvious changes. Kirby wanted one thing, and Stan wanted something else.
  3. It is the only issue, apart from issue 1, where we know that Stan typed up instructions for Jack. This is consistent with Stan putting his foot down to change the direction of the series.
  4. it is the first issue with distinctive Stan Lee input. There are two elements to any Marvel comic that are distinctively Stan: the "weak woman" trope and the "emotional death at the end" trope. FF 8 has both, and is the first to have either. Remember that this is a simplification: Stan added his fingerprints to previous issues as well but not to this degree.
  5. It marks the last issue before the tone changed. For the first year the Fantastic Four was dark: Ben wanted to kill Reed, and most people considered the FF to be menaces to society. Then in issue 9 the team become beloved celebrities, a happy family that's closer to the old DC mode.
  6. It marks the last issue where the super powers are unnecessary. Issues 1-8 could easily be adapted for non-super powered beings, but from issue 9 their powers become central to the plot.

Now let's look at those changes, the evidence for Stan and Jack pulling in opposite directions.

Evidence of changes
The rest of this argument relies on the "who does what" page. Remember that Jack Kirby plotted the stories, and Stan then accepted or changed them. Here are some apparent changes to issue 8 (most are problems that I mentioned in the main review).

The dialog tries to explain some of these things. In my main review I try to thjink of satisfying answers to the rest. But if we remove Stan's dialog then the problems disappear. The story then makes more sense:

Note Alicia's similarity between Alicia and the Silver Surfer, another character Kirby intended to be a creation and not a regular human. Both saved the world by turning against their masters. Alicia softened the surfer's heart and when he later had problems he came to Alicia for help. Kirby returned to the idea of artificial life judging its creator with "Him". As for females created for nefarious purposes, note the parallels with the dolls in issue 1 of OMAC.

Evidence of changes in previous issues
Let's try the same approach with previous issues: find the problems, remove the dialog, and see if the art tells a different story.
  1. In FF 1,
    the Mole Man story was obviously intended for a non-super powered group, with the powers added later. Kirby's early FF stories do not rely on super powers at all: it is as though they are added. For details, see the discussion of the Justice League as inspiration for the Fantastic Four, and of Jack's version of events.
  2. In FF 2,
    many readers have mocked the idea of Reed tricking a more advanced race by using comic book clippings. And the whole idea that the Skrulls can build gigantic space ships and have advanced technology yet are stupid. The name Skrull suggests skull - mixing intelligence and death. But remove the dialog and we see a different story: Reed shows photos of the real monsters they encountered the previous issue, plus a warning that humans now have space travel and nuclear weapons (recall that Reed's listening device in FF 1 was the kind used for detecting nuclear tests: Reed has links with the nuclear program)
  3. In FF3,
    readers consider the hypnotist to be a weak character, and I agree. But remove the dialog and see what happens: issue 2 has 4 Skrulls, but only 3 are captured. The enemy in issue 3 can change shape and his other miracles can be explained using technology, with hypnotism just part of his arsenal. Reeds ability to persuade the Skrulls to be cows already implied hypnotism. And note how the spell is broken by a dazzling glare. Perhaps this is why the Mole Man uses anti-glare glasses, the opposite of what would be needed in the darkness under the ground.
  4. In FF4,
    somebody has hypnotized Namor to forget his past. The Miracle Man is the obvious candidate. What a threat! Skrulls can turn off your most powerful defender (Namor used to defend America, most of the time) and when he wakes up he is predisposed to attack! Even if we ignore that, we know this is continuous story because FF 4 follows immediately from FF 3. It also continues the theme of advanced beings ready to destroy us. Note that Atlantis was destroyed by the surface world (using bombs, as we learn in FF6). This links us with the explosion in FF1 and the threatened explosion in FF 2. This is all part of the same war against more advanced enemies.
  5. In FF 5
    we ramp up the danger: until now there was just the FF versus the non-humans. Now we have another human who is at least as smart and has more resources: if Earth has anything to offer in the fight against aliens, be it ancient knowledge or modern technology, this guy will get it. And worse, he can get it from across time. This also ramps up the theme of being controlled. In FF 1 the Mole Man controlled his monsters. In FF 2 the Skrulls controlled your reputation and in turn could be hypnotized. In FF 3 one of them controlled the FFs minds in return. In FF4 Namor was turned from greatest defender into greatest enemy. Now FF 5 begins with Doom holding models of the FF as pawns, and using them as his servants. By the way, note that Kirby's idea of control is sophisticated. At no time is anybody simply hypnotized and nothing else: the enemy either uses other methods (as here), or uses hypnotism as part of an arsenal of skills (FF 2, 3).
  6. In FF 6
    we finally get into space. Doom shows his mastery by getting Namor to serve his will.
  7. In FF 7
    we move further into space, we see a planet being destroyed, alien visitation, a battle of UFOs (ours versus theirs), a giant robot and of course mind control! The team get their own UFO, and we are starting to go Full Kirby. Critics have said the ending is problematic: it makes Reed into a jerk. But look at the amount of text crammed into a tiny space: he art clearly intended less text, and the serious look on Reed's face can only mean one thing: this was a warning about the next issue. He was probably saying something like "we will need this space ship for what is to come", or "Doom is still out there", or "how long before the Earth faces a threat like that, or worse?"
  8. And so we come to FF 8:
    an alien looking creature, using the alien technology from the previous issue (mind control, robot, flight) and ready to control not just the FF, but the world!

Why Stan made changes
Stan's changes make sense if your goal is selling this month's issue to this month's readers. And without that there is no business and nobody gets paid. Jack created epics that grow more impressive with time, but he had to put food on the table rent to pay. So Stan made simplified his epics for regular comic readers, who at the time probably averaged ten years old and wanted "good guy beats bad guy, says something funny, over in eight pages". For example:

Jack's plans were just too advanced. If Jack had complete control then the book would have been cancelled after a year or two, like New Gods, Eternals, or Captain Victory. The Marvel Universe, and Jack's part in it, would then never exist if not for Stan's changes.

Why issue 8 was the last straw
Issue 8 was too much for Stan:

  1. If the Puppet Master was alien, and alien/synthetic Alicia was becoming part of the story, this means the story was going cosmic, leaving the readers' world behind.
  2. The whole idea of strong women went against the culture of the time (though that culture was changing). Jack likes to create strong women, and (Stan preferred traditional role models). So the advanced alien, the "Alicia" ("noble one") was dialogued to be human, blind, and scared.
  3. If the Puppet Master had a robot and flying tech from the previous issue, this was a reminder that the FF had a UFO and advanced tech. It becomes a complicated sci-fi story, which could put off readers who wanted easy to understand superhero stories. The company was in a bad way, and Stan had to focus on sales.
Incidentally, a similar thing happened in FF 67: Jack had been building the cosmic themes again since issue 44. Kirby was going cosmic again but this time fans were ready for it. Until once again he introduced artificial life that would judge the Earth. That was too far, and so Stan rewrote the dialog to be simply good guys versus bad guys. That was the final straw for Jack, but that's another story.

Can we be sure?
How do we be sure that issue 8 was such a worry to Stan? Because of the famous synopsis: Stan had to put his instructions in writing. He didn't normally do that, as we shall see, so jack's plans for this issue must have really bothered him. Even then, Jack still produced a story that Stan had to radically re-dialog (judging by the art). But Jack go t the message. Stan was the boss, and after that Jack had to tone it down. It is also worth noting that Stan's favorite FF issue (judging by how often he refers to it interviews) is the next one, FF 9. It is almost as if he can remember the sense of relief. Jack got the message. The exploding cosmic story was over, and the team were sent across America (and the world) to be penniless and then movie stars: just the kind of story Stan likes.

The famous "synopsis"
Each comic began with a meeting between Stan and Jack. For the first issue, Stan then wrote down minutes of what was discussed. Every good businessman keeps minutes of important meetings. It seems likely that minutes were not kept after that, except for issue 8. Here is the evidence:

  1. No reason for them
    Jack never read the minutes (according to both Jack and John Romita, who is very sympathetic to Stan's view). So there was no point in keeping them, unless Stan felt he might need to refer them himself later.

  2. Even less reason for having them
    These minutes or plans only covered the first third of a story. They should be seen as sales pitches or movie trailers, as general directions, not scripts. the general direction could be given over the phone if needed, so when there was agreement here was no need to write anything down.

  3. Stan could not find any others
    We only know of the issue 8 minutes because a fan asked for them years later. Yet Stan did not find a more recent example. A recent document should be easier to find: if Stan was providing typed instructions he should have one for every issue. One would be given to Jack, but since Stan did have issue 8, it suggests he kept carbon paper copies, as was common in business.

  4. Occam's razor
    We have plenty of examples of art pages from the Lee-Kirby FF, even from the early days. But only two synopses survive, despite their great interest to fans, even then.

To summarise so far: Jack wrote the stories, Stan changed them to be more commercial, and with issue 8 Jack had to be reigned in. And it worked:

After issue 8: a summary
Jack did as requested. he made the stories more like Stan wanted:

More details

What had Jack been planning?
Jack Kirby deliberately set out to make the FF a single continuous epic story. Here is the evidence:
  1. Continuity
    The FF differed from other comics by having continuity. Everyone agrees on that. The only question is, how much?
  2. Later work
    Kirby's later work (beginning just two years later) was all continuous epic stories. This began when Stan became too busy to micro-manage Kirbys work. This suggest that Kirby already wanted it that way.
  3. Earlier work
    Kirby had always been interested in epics and big themes. The very first issues of Captain America contained a backup story about Tuk, the ancient cave boy, and his quest for the island of the gods. Kirby's later heroes set off into space to find the gods, but it is the same story. Kirby was limited by the needs of his publisher, and had to create short stories, but it is clear where his heart lay.
  4. Sky Masters
    Kirby had a newspaper strip about space travel, Sky Masters. Like most such strips it was a continuous story, Newspaper strips were the gold standard for comics: every monthly artist dreamed of a syndicated strip where they could make big money and get real respect. (See the opening pages of American Comic Book Chronicles, 1961-1964 for details). This indicates his thinking at the time. The strip was cancelled (due to a legal dispute) in early 1961, and Jack immediately created the FF, a story about going into space. Indeed, sky mastery (becoming masters of space and of the beings you find there, or they will become masters of you) was a major theme of the first year of the FF.
  5. The art
    As noted earlier, Jack's art (without Stan's dialog) suggests that each issue built on the last. E.g. in FF 2 Reed showed photos of the Mole Man's monsters as a warning to the Skrulls; the shape changer in issue 3 was the fourth Skrull, etc.

Who really invented the FF?

We may as well bite the bullet and ask the final question: if Jack Kirby planned FF 1-8, who had the original idea for the comic?

Stan's version
Stan Lee's version of events is well known

"Martin [Goodman, the publisher, and Stan's uncle by marriage] mentioned that he had noticed one of the titles published by National Comics seemed to be selling better than most. It was a book called The [sic] Justice League of America and it was composed of a team of superheroes  . . . 'if the Justice League is selling', spoke he, 'why don't we put out a comic book that features a team of superheroes?'" Joan [Stan's wife] was commenting about the fact that after 20 years of producing comics I was still writing television material, advertising copy, and newspaper features in my spare time. She wondered why I didn't put as much effort and creativity into the comics as I seemed to be putting into my other freelance endeavors. . . . [her] little dissertation made me suddenly realize that it was time to start concentrating on what I was doing — to carve a real career for myself in the nowhere world of comic books."

"For just this once, I would do the type of story I myself would enjoy reading.... And the characters would be the kind of characters I could personally relate to: they'd be flesh and blood, they'd have their faults and foibles, they'd be fallible and feisty, and — most important of all — inside their colorful, costumed booties they'd still have feet of clay."

"After kicking it around with Martin and Jack for a while, I decided to call our quaint quartet The Fantastic Four.  I wrote a detailed first synopsis for Jack to follow, and the rest is history." (Stan Lee [1974], "Origins of Marvel Comics")

Stan often retold that story, with more details:

"It was now 1960. By now, I really wanted to leave, because one edict that my publisher had was that the stories had to be geared towards young readers; or unintelligent older readers. We weren't supposed to use words of more than two syllables, and we had to have simple plots; no continuing stories, because he felt our readers weren't smart enough to remember from month to month where they had left off. It was really boring.

"In either '60 or '61 I said to my wife, Joanie, "This time, I'm really going to leave." She said, "Well, if you're determined to leave, why don't you first do a book or two the way you wanted to, no matter what the publisher says? The worst that can happen is that he'll fire you. You won't care, because you want to leave, but at least you'll get it out of your system."

"It happened that; at that time; my publisher had been playing golf with Jack Liebowitz, who was one of the bosses at DC comics; which in those days was called National Comics. Jack Liebowitz had told him that he had a magazine called The Justice League, which was selling very well, and it was a group of super-heroes. So Martin came to me and he said, "Hey Stan... Why don't you do a group of super-heroes?" Again, this business of following the trend.

"I figured, "All right, but this time I'm going to do it my way." Instead of the typical heroes that have secret identities and nobody knows who they are, I did The Fantastic Four; where everybody knew who they were. And instead of the girlfriend who doesn't know that the hero is so-and-so, I had the girl in the series actually be engaged to the hero, and she was a heroine; she was part of the team. Instead of the typical junior sidekick, I had a teenager who was also the brother of the heroine; and the hero would soon marry the heroine, so they would be brothers-in-law. The fourth member of the team was a monstrous-looking guy, called The Thing, which was not a typical super-hero type in those days. I also tried to give them fairly realistic dialogue, and I didn't have them wear colorful costumes. I always felt that if I had super-power, I wouldn't immediately run out to the store and buy a costume.

"Somehow or other, the book caught on." (Stan Lee [2000], interview with Kenneth Plume)

It's an attractive story
This story is repeated everywhere. It's popular to read. Stan writes enjoyable prose: I love reading it! It's easy to read and full of memorable images. I love the lines "quote he", and "colorful costumed booties", and the references to "Joanie" and golf. The story, that Stan was a TV writer who was too good for comics and wanted to quit, was itself like something from a comic! Stan as comic book hero. Stan's greatest creation is himself.

... but is the story real? Readers with good memories will recall a similar claim by Stan, written back in 1947, called "Secrets behind the comics". In it, Stan claimed that Captain America was the result of Martin Goodman's foresight and genius. Even though Goodman simply bought a book that was already created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Readers may also recall Stan's claim (in the famous 1966 newspaper interview) that he won the Herald Tribune competition three times. That claim has been thoroughly investigated and found to be false. (See "Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book" p.6). Perhaps we should look again at Stan's claims:

Stan wanted to quit
This part is supported by the surrounding evidence, but not quite the way Stan tells it. Rather than Stan being a TV and newspaper writer who could choose other jobs, Stan was a desperate man. Stan had run his uncle's comics since he left school, with a business model of copying other people's ideas. When the comics business slumped in the 1950s (largely due to Fredric Wertham) his uncle's comics lost their distributor and almost collapsed. Dick Ayers recalls: "Things started to get really bad in 1958. One day when I went in Stan looked at me and said, “Gee whiz, my uncle goes by and he doesn’t even say hello to me.” He meant Martin Goodman. And he proceeds to tell me, “You know, it’s like a sinking ship and we’re the rats, and we’ve got to get off.” When I told Stan I was going to work for the post office, he said, “Before you do that let me send you something that you’ll ink.” (source) Stan was a nice guy. He wanted to help those around him who were losing their jobs. But he was in a very weak position himself.

"I was writing television material television material, advertising copy, and newspaper features"
This quote implies that Stan was a successful writer. But when you look closer it tells the opposite story. . In danger of losing his job, Stan tried creating a newspaper strip, called Willie Lumpkin. That was for "Publishers Syndicate", "a relatively small outfit" and "1960 was the only year the syndicate advertised it to potential buyers".  (source) A few newspapers carried it for a while, but the last one stopped after 18 months. I can't find any other evidence of Stan Lee writing either "television material", "advertising copy", or "newspaper features". He probably sent off scripts, and no doubt did the odd job for his uncle's publications. But when in the 1970s he tried selling scripts he was generally unsuccessful, despite his fame from Marvel.

The golf game with Jack Liebowitz?
Comics historian Michael Uslan has researched this and it simply did not happen. Jack Liebowitz did not play golf. It was suggested that maybe Stan meant  Irwin Donenfeld, but that didn't happen either. Could it be somebody else? Maybe, but why would you play golf with your direct competitor, and then give him your most valuable trade secrets, your sales figures? Goodman relied on copying trends, so he would have inside information from somewhere, but probably not golf.

The Justice League as motivation?
If the motivation was "create a superhero team" why didn't they do it? The powers are not important to the early plots:
  1. FF 1: the Mole Man story was apparently not a superhero story, and only had super powers added later: they could easily be removed and the story still works.
  2. FF 2: the Skrull crisis is solved by Reed showing photos from FF 1 (see below)
  3. FF 3: the Miracle Man crisis is solved by dazzling the enemy. A bright flash light would have done
  4. FF 4: the Namor crisis is solved by explosives. A hundred kilos of TNT would have done the job, if placed correctly (a single kilo, carefully placed, is enough to destroy a car). As an ex-Army man, Kirby would know that a single soldier could carry that: the oversized bomb was just so The Thing had something to do.
  5. FF 5: the Dr Doom crisis is solved by sneaking up on Doom when he was busy and looking the other way. So invisibility was not needed. (At this time Sue could not make other objects invisible, so Doom would have seen the ropes anyway.)
  6. FF 6: the space crisis was solved by Namor's presence: the FF were bystanders.
  7. FF 7: the alien crisis was solved by Reed's intelligence, not his stretching.
  8. FF 8: the Puppet Master crisis is solved by Alicia, not the team.

    The powers only become important from issue 9, when Jack changed to doing things Stan's way:

  9. FF 9: each member uses their powers to escape a danger designed to stop them. Jack is deliberately making the powers important to the plot for the first time.
  10. FF 10: Sue defeats the pseudo-Doom with her powers, then the Torch tricks him with his powers, then the Thing stops him getting away by using his strength.
  11. FF 11: stories designed to show off their powers.
  12. FF 12: The Thing versus The Hulk! Nuff said.
  13. FF 13: fighting another super powered team. And so on.

The early stories was about a team of adventurers, with super powers as un unnecessary afterthought.

Stan discussed it with Jack first
Stan wrote: "After kicking it around with Martin and Jack for a while, i decided to call our quaint quartet The Fantastic Four.  I wrote a detailed first synopsis for Jack to follow, and the rest is history." This is the one part that agrees with all the evidence: Stan Lee discussed the possibilities with Jack Kirby "for a while" before deciding anything. This "Marvel method" is discussed in detail on the "did what what" page. Kicking it around for a while is the key. Then Stan wrote down his understanding of what they decided. Then Jack went away and created the story.

Sue was engaged?
Stan said, "I had the girl in the series actually be engaged to the hero". It is true that in FF 1 Stan's dialog calls her Reed's fiancée. But that is contradicted by both the art and the later story. The art shows her to be an active part of the planning team, and so joins the crew on her own merits: rather than Stan raising the profile of women he reduces her to going into space just because she is Reed's girlfriend, a story point that is justifiably mocked. Three issues later she has Namor's photo, not Reeds, and does not geg engaged to Reed until issue 35. Rather than creating te FF, it looks like Stan is dialoging somebody else's story and changing it but not paying attention.

Stan disliked simple plots?
Stan said, "I really wanted to leave, because one edict that my publisher had was that the stories had to be geared towards young readers; or unintelligent older readers. We weren't supposed to use words of more than two syllables, and we had to have simple plots; no continuing stories, because he felt our readers weren't smart enough to remember from month to month where they had left off. It was really boring." But compare Stan's dialog with Jack's art. Or if you don't find that convincing, compare Stan's then current newspaper strip (Willie Lumpkin) with Jack's much better selling Sky masters. Stan had complete freedom with Willie Lumpkin, yet provided one of the simplest. least demanding strips out there. Or compare Stan and Jack's work once they parted in 1970. Who had the simpler plots and easy to read dialog? Who had been editing Jack's work to make it simpler? Maybe Stan was right. Maybe he did want more complex work, but just not as complex as Jack was supplying. but the evidence always shows him choosing to simplify stuff.

Stan disliked secret identities?
Stan said, "Instead of the typical heroes that have secret identities and nobody knows who they are, I did The Fantastic Four; where everybody knew who they were." but Stan's dialog says otherwise. Issue 2 refers to "one of the Fantastic Four's many secret apartment hideouts". Perhaps this is due to that particular story? No, the cover to the next issue refers to their skyscraper "hide-out" and inside it is called "their secret headquarters". It quickly become obvious to Stan that a "secret skyscraper" was an oxymoron, especially when the art shows the team travelling there undisguised, in a flying car with bright searchlights, so Stan stopped referring to it as secret. But as late as issue 7, Stan's dialog said that Johnny Storm had a secret identity (in Strange Tales 101, published the same month). Again this contradicted the art and the idea was soon dropped.

Stan disliked costumes?
Stan said, "I didn't have them wear colorful costumes. I always felt that if I had super-power, I wouldn't immediately run out to the store and buy a costume." Yet by issue 3 they had costumes.The pencils show the costumes originally had masks to hide the identity, but these masks were later erased. Why would Jack Kirby draw masks? He had to draw the team in everyday life, including being singled out at the theater in FF 2. He drew the Thing, and knew full well that a secret identity would be impossible for him. He drew the Invisible Girl, and knew that she did not need one either, as she could just turn invisible if she wanted privacy. nd he drew the Human Torch, who often hid his face by staying flamed on. So Jack knew that secret identities were absurd. The only person who could have demanded them was Stan, and this indicates that he only had a rough idea of what was going on. The usual explanation for costumes is that fans demanded them. But this was too early for much fan feedback, due to the time lag in writing and printing comics. Yes, issue 3 had the first letters page, but one letter was from "S. Brodsky" (Sol Brodsky the production manager, who managed to list all the company's products in his letter) and another was  "unsigned"  and sounding suspiciously like something Stan Lee would write. Perhaps the other letters were genuine? But the letters page is added last of all, after the comic is plotted, pencilled, inked, etc. So there would be even fewer letters when the costume decision was made. For somebody who hates costumes Stan seemed to be in a great hurry to add them.

Stan did it his way?
The core of the matter is that Stan decided to suddenly write great stories. Which is something he had never done before or since. He spent his life copying whatever kind of comic was already popular, so he was very good at writing quickly and creating passable stories. He was good at easy to read dialog and over-selling. But he had zero track record of creating anything successful, either before or since. Stan's list of original creations before 1961 includes... well, Willie Lumpkin. A gentle humour that didn't sell particularly well or for very long. And that's about it.  Meanwhile Jack Kirby had created or co-created Captain America, the entire romance genre, original titles about dreams, war, space, westerns, pretty much anything you can imagine.

OK, fine. But Stan admitted that he had not really tried until then. Perhaps he suddenly got good? Then where is Stan's track record after he left Marvel? We have Stripperella, and... that's about the only memorable one. But Jack Kirby continued creating original characters that still sell today: Darkseid, OMAC, Mr Miracle, Kamandi, Eternals, and many many more. How likely is it that Stan Lee had a sudden and once-only flash of inspiration when he was around Jack Kirby (or Steve Ditko) and not at any other time?

In summary, Stan seems to be looking back at what Jack Kirby brought to the Fantastic Four, and taking credit for it. Stan's explanation does not make sense. But there is an alternative explanation, and it is arises from the documents themselves:


Jack's version of events
According to Neal Kirby (Jack's son) Jack intended the FF to be a continuation of his Challengers of the Unknown series. This is from Neal's legal statement in the battles with Marvel:

Q What information, if any, do you have concerning the creation of The Fantastic Four?

A In discussions with my father The Fantastic Four basically was a derivative of the, from what he told me, basically he came up with the idea just as a derivative from the Challengers of the Unknown that he had done several years earlier. (source)

This explains so much:

  1. Why, in the Mole Man story, there are four people wearing Challengers type costumes and doing Challengers type things.
  2. How Jack could produce a new comic when he needed Goodman's approval. Jack was producing numerous monster stories each month, so he just made this as one of them. It was later adapted for the superheroes that Goodman wanted.
  3. Why the Mole Man story seems to have had the super powers added later.
  4. Why the synopsis to issue 1 contains no reference to the Mole Man. Kirby would have presented the Mole Man story first, then Stan would have said to add super powers.
  5. Why the powers in the first year seem to be an afterthought (see the discussion of whether the Justice League was the real inspiration or something Kirby was told to add).
  6. Why, in Jack Kirby's interviews, he says as much or more about the Challengers than the Fantastic Four, even thought the FF lasted much longer and was a much bigger hit. As a fan of the FF I found this frustrating: but now I see that in Jack's mind the FF were the Challengers.

Marvel superheroes really began in 1962, not 1961
This is Jack's answer when asked about the Fantastic Four:

PITTS: "I’d like to get your version of the famous tale of the creation of the Fantastic Four.

KIRBY: "My version is simple: I saved Marvel’s ass. When I came up to Marvel, it was closing that same afternoon, Stan Lee had his head on the desk and was crying. It all looked very dramatic to me, but I needed the job. I was a guy with a wife and three kids and a house, and I wanted to keep it. And so, having no rapport with Martin Goodman, who was the publisher– Stan Lee was his cousin– I told Stan Lee that we could keep the place going. And I told him to try to tell Martin to keep it going, because we could possibly revive it.

"It was a bad time. It was a time when major publishers were folding and comics in general suffered bad press. It was a time when the public itself was being anti-comics-ized by people like Frederic Wertham and the movies. It was an unregulated industry. Finally, we did get a board to regulate the industry and put down rules; we formulated an atmosphere of legitimacy, but that had to take time and meanwhile, the comics were folding right and left.

"Of course, Marvel had magazines and didn’t need comics, so they were ready to fold. They had other things to rely on. I began with doing monster stories and westerns; I did my best on the Rawhide Kid, and I did my best on the monster stories. This was in ’59. Joe and I had our own publishing company which we dissolved; Joe went to work for one of the Rockefellers and I went back to Marvel. Comics was the only thing I knew, really, and could do well.

"They had nothing for me at that time except those particular strips, which were just going on momentum. So, I began to galvanize those strips and they began to sell a little better, but it wasn’t enough to keep the company going. And it suddenly struck me that the thing that hadn’t been done since the days I returned from the service was the superheroes. And so, I came up with Spider-Man. I got it from a strip called the Silver Spider. And I presented Spider-Man to Stan Lee and I presented the Hulk to Stanley. I did a story called “The Hulk”– a small feature, and it was quite different from the Hulk that we know. But I felt that the Hulk had possibilities, and I took this little character from the small feature and I transformed it into the Hulk that we know today." (source)

This is fascinating, and absolutely crucial. Most people think Jack was getting confused: he is asked about the Fantastic Four, then starts talking about Spider-Man and the Hulk. But he is not confused. Jack sees clearly. When people ask about the Fantastic Four they are really asking about the origin of the Marvel Universe, and they mean the origin of Marvel superheroes. The early Fantastic Four were not conceived or written as superheroes. That was just an awkward and unnecessary add on. The superhero era did not start until 1962. The Hulk came first, contemporary with FF 5, six months before the FF embraced their super powers. Spider-man came next, but was such a big hit that Kirby mentions him first. The Fantastic Four was never a superhero comic, and espcially not in the first year. it was a monster-sci-fi comic.

The superhero universe was not embraced until 1962, witht the Hulk and Spider-Man. Take away the Hulk's power and he is not the Hulk. Take away Spider-man's power and he is no longer Spider-Man, But take away the Fantastic Four's power and still the Fantastic Four. The Fantastic Four are not primarily a family of adventurers, not superheroes.

By the way, the Spider-Man claim is controversial. The evidence is here. But Jack is very clear: he only came up with the idea. Steve Ditko deserves all the credit for SPider-Man's subsequent success:

"The credit for developing Spider-Man goes to Steve Ditko; he wrote it and he drew it and he refined it. Steve Ditko is a thorough professional. And he an intellect. Personality wise, he’s a bit withdrawn, but there are lots of people like that. But Steve Ditko, despite the fact that he doesn’t disco – although he may now; I haven’t seen him for a long time– Steve developed Spider-Man and made a salable item out of it. There are many others who take credit for it, but Steve Ditko, it was entirely in his hands." (ibid)

Year one versus later years
Back to the Fantastic Four. The same interviewer pushes Jack to talk about the origin of the Fantastic Four. It's not about power, it's not about characterisation, it's about alienation. But by the second year Kirby was adjusting the series due to meet reader feedack:

KIRBY: "The idea for the F.F. was my idea. My own anger against radiation. Radiation was the big subject at that time, because we still don’t know what radiation can do to people. It can be beneficial, it can be very harmful. In the case of Ben Grimm, Ben Grimm was a college man, he was a World War II flyer. He was everything that was good in America. And radiation made a monster out of him – made an angry monster out of him, because of his own frustration.

"If you had to see yourself in the mirror, and the Thing looked back at you, you’d feel frustrated. Let’s say you’d feel alienated from the rest of the species. Of course, radiation had the effect on all of the F.F.– the girl became invisible, Reed became very plastic. And of course, the Human Torch, which was created by Carl Burgos, was thrown in for good measure, to help the entertainment value.

"I began to evolve the F.F. I made the Thing a little pimply at first, and I felt that the pimples were a little ugly, so I changed him to a different pattern and that pattern became more popular, so I kept it that way and the Thing has been that way ever since. The element of truth in the Fantastic Four is the radiation – not the characters. And that’s what people relate to, and that’s what we all fight about today.

PITTS: "You think people relate more to the radiation aspect than to the characters?

KIRBY: "No… Now, they relate to the characters because time has passed and the characters are important." (ibid)

So in Kirby's mind the only significance in the origin story is radiation, This is hardly surprising, as without the radiation this is basically the Challengers of the Unknown origin. Kirby then talks about how the story was about alienation, but later adapted to suit reader tastes. And that is just what I have been trying to say on this page and the discussion of acts 1 and 2

The probable timeline
We do not have to rely on Kirby's recollection, the timeline of events speaks for itself. There is no need to invoke golf games or sudden flashes of inspiration. the fantastic FOur is just Kirby continuing to do what he was always doing.

1958, April: Challengers
Kirby creates "Challengers of the Unknown" for DC: a team of four daredevils who explore the dangerous and unknown.

1958: Sky Masters
Kirby creates "Sky Masters of the Space Force",  a newspaper strip about conquering space. It becomes successful, but Jack was helped by his DC editor Jack Schiff, who wanted a cut of the money. Jack thought they had only agreed to a one off payment.

1958, Dec: Timely
Bad feeling with Schiff at DC led to Kirby taking freelance work with Timely, who were thn in dire trouble.

1959, June: fired from Challengers
Kirby is sacked from Challengers, as part of the dispute with Schiff. Schiff gives the reason that "ideas from the Challengers story conferences were finding their way into Kirby's Sky Masters work." (see Ronin, "Tales To Astonish").

1959-60: suggests superheroes
Now Jack is in urgent need of well paying work. But Timely is doing poorly and paying poorly. So Kirby comes up with as many ideas as he can. He helped invent Captain America, so he naturally suggests superheroes. But Timely relies on its bigger competitor, National (i.e. DC) for distribution, Goodman does not want to annoy DC by competing directly with DC superheroes.

1961, early: Sky Masters ends
Kirby stops Sky Masters, due to the cost of the legal dispute

1961, early: Mole Man Challengers type story
As one of his many monster stories, Kirby creates the Mole Man story, featuring a team like the Challengers

1961, April: first man in space
Suddenly space is a hot topic, just at the time when Kirby has stopped his space comic and has ideas to spare.

1961, April: Justice League
The first sales figures for Justice League make superheroes seem viable again

1961, April: Challengers with super powers tacked on
Goodman approves a comic that mixes scifi and superheroes. It uses Kirby's Mole Man story, and adds a version of Kirby's "Challengers of the Unknown" origin with added super powers. It looks like a monster comic from the outside, so DC does not see it as competition for the Justice League.

1961-1962: Challengers/Sky Masters FF
Kirby continues his Sky Masters theme of space travel (issues 1,2,6,7). DC does not complain about the super powers.

1962: superheroes
Sales of the try out book are excellent. Goodman now feels superheroes are a safe bet. Kirby creates the Hulk and others. Stan Lee pushes the FF to be a conventional superhero book. And so the Marvel Universe is born.

And that, oh exhausted true believer, is my theory that Fantastic Four 8 is the real beginning of the Marvel Universe. The Marvel Universe did not explode onto the scene with FF 1. FF 1 was Jack finally doing his Challengers story, and putting his whole heart into it. Martin Goodman approved it because he wanted to try out superheroes. But super powers were not taken seriously until 1962, and that is when the Marvel Universe began.


Post script: we have not lost Jack's story
We can still see Jack's original stories. We can reconstruct them in four steps:

  1. Remove Stan's writing and see what the images show.
  2. Find as many marginal notes as we can in surviving pencils.
  3. Refer to Jack's interviews to see how his mind worked.
  4. Become familiar with all his work, especially his solo work, to see what he wants to do.

We did not "lose" Jack's work when Stan rewrote it. Yes, Stan pulled the stories in different directions and Jack had to react, but that kind of pulling is normal for artists. No creative process can exist in a vacuum. Rather than destroying Kirby's creativity, Stan helped him reach more people. What we have from Stan and Jack, then, if not the best of all possible worlds, is probably as close as we are ever likely to get.

Next: Reed (and Stan) triumphant

The Great American Novel