Fantastic Four #1 (1961) and the Birth of the Marvel Universe

Fantastic Four #1 (1961) is universally recognized as a landmark comic and, in many ways, the start of the Marvel Universe.

By Theron Couch — The Fantastic Four returned to comics this week for the first time in years, following the 2015 event Secret Wars, which essentially ended with Reed and Sue Richards, as well as their children, wandering off the rebuild the multiverse. Without an ongoing title staring Marvel’s First Family, comics just haven’t felt the same. One could even argue there would be no Marvel Universe without The Fantastic Four, the first of many memorable characters created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.  

With all that in mind, it’s worth checking out the original Fantastic Four #1 from 1961, taking a closer look at how Lee and Kirby did it the first time.

Fantastic Four #1 (1961): The Story

Fantastic Four #1 opens with a call to action: Mr. Fantastic has sent the signal for the Fantastic Four to assemble. Sue, Ben, and Johnny each abandon what they’re doing and race back to headquarters. As the team arrives, the story flashes back to their origin, wherein an ambitious Reed Richards wants to initiate a mission to space. To do so, the foursome sneak aboard a rocket and launch. This trip has unintended consequences, with cosmic rays granting different powers to each of them. Realizing that they are more effective as a team than they are apart, they return to Earth and become The Fantastic Four, using their powers in tandem to benefit mankind.

Once the flashback has ended, the team is off to Monster Isle, where they believe someone is causing cave-ins across the world. This someone is revealed to be the Mole Man, who intends to launch his monsters all over the planet. Fortunately, The Fantastic Four are able to seal the Mole Man away forever, ending his threat.

Fantastic Four #1 (1961): The Art

Kirby’s art in Fantastic Four #1 deserves much praise, which is unsurprising given that this is The King, Jack Kirby. His work here delivers a dynamic opening sequence that showcases the powers of all four main characters. He packs a great deal of visual information on every page with layouts that often exceed six panels. What always strikes me about Kirby’s art—and which is on display in full here—is his ability to convey characters’ emotions through facial expressions. Doing so continues to elude many comic artists even today, and Kirby—whether it is images of the main characters or random soldiers never to be seen again—knocks this trick business out of the park in every panel.

Fantastic Four #1 (1961): The Writing

Writing wise, Fantastic Four #1 is every bit a story from a bygone era. Lee pens an origin for a four-person team as well as an adventure that begins and concludes in the space of one issue, rather than standing as the first part of an arc designed to fill a trade paperback. Fantastic Four #1 has much in common with other Marvel comics of its time, wherein Stan Lee created memorable characters starring in plots that are almost afterthoughts. Indeed, the final battle with the Mole Man is handled in one page and conveyed almost entirely through narration, rather than stunning visuals or complex dialogue. This is a comic book that definitely tells rather than shows. Despite these quaint characteristics, however, Lee displays surprising sophistication in how he tells the story.

The pages in Fantastic Four (1961) all feature more than 9 panels, a stark contrast to today's often less-dense superhero comics.

Fantastic Four #1 begins, as I noted at the start, in media res with Mr. Fantastic sending out a call for the whole Fantastic Four to assemble. Brief vignettes show each character making their way to headquarters; en route they are put in positions to showcase their powers for the reader. Once the team has assembled, but before the crisis is revealed, the story flashes back to the team’s origin, which cements the relationships between characters and reveals their motives while simultaneously building suspense for whatever threat forced the team to be called together. Following the origin story, the team goes on its mission to Monster Isle only to be split up, which allows for the story to be intercut, preserving the suspense for as long as possible before revealing the Mole Man’s origin and, finally, taking readers through the final battle.

Overall, Fantastic Four #1 is undoubtedly a product of its time. It’s almost hard to take seriously a comic book that features Ben Grimm wearing a rain slicker to a place called Monster Isle, subsequently taking the rain slicker off before fighting a monster, and then putting it back on until he comes upon the next monster. Yet, the way its plot unfolds is also without question an influence on later comics that routinely use time—including flashbacks and intercuts—to tell stories, a technique that was novel back when this issue was first published. The five pages devoted to the team’s origin could almost have been left out, given the action-packed opening Lee and Kirby delivered. In spite of all that, this is just a well-designed comic book, easily one of the best I’ve read from the period, and one that I’d put up against many modern origin issues.

Theron Couch is a writer, blogger, and comic book reviewer. His first novel, The Loyalty of Pawns, is available on Amazon. You can also follow him on Twitter at @theroncouch.