Where did it all begin? HERE. It all began here. But before it began a quick bit of controversy-free backstory (though sometime I’ll probably write at length about that, just not now).
Jack Kirby and Stan Lee both worked at Marvel through the years with Stan’s first credited writing coming in Kirby’s Captain America (an all text piece of all things to have in a comic book).
In the 1950s Marvel wasn’t yet Marvel and the company chased whatever flavor of the month sold funny books. Among them, romance, westerns and monster books (remember monster books, that’ll be important later, well maybe not important, but worth remembering).
There are various legends as to how it happened, most famously the owners of National and Timely (aka DC and Marvel) were on a golf course. The Justice League had recently reassembled, to battle Starro I believe, basically a giant evil starfish and it sold pretty darn well. Martin Goodman, head of not-yet-Marvel, instructed Stan Lee to do a superhero book.
There is more in between (some moderately controversial) but long story short, Stan came up with the idea for the Fantastic Four. Stan took the idea to the main man at very-soon-to-be-Marvel, Jack “I just can’t wait to be King” Kirby. Now, without any more backstory, let’s take a look at the first issue of what Stan “the king of hyperbole” Lee called, “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine!” (though not quite yet).
Spoilers ahead, but hey, you’ve had since 1961 to read it.
The book opens with a great hook, there is a giant creature is attacking the city! Reed, although we don’t yet know who it is, shoots the Fantastic Four flair into the sky, because of course, what better way to assemble your team than a giant 4 in the sky? The opening is wonderful, with just a bit of mystery, it establishes each character quickly through action as they assemble.
With the team now assembled, we don’t fight the monster, no, we learn how they became The Fantastic Four. It’s really the proto-Marvel origin story, in that there is nonsense science involved and some element of tragedy. The science doesn’t really matter and is very much minimized here. You only need to know Reed is driven to go into space… for some reason (they do so to beat the Russians, yep, Russians always screwing with politics, I mean comics), which leads to the tragic aspect. When they encounter cosmic rays (what are those? Doesn’t matter!) they get extraordinary powers, however, with great powers comes great ugliness for Ben Grimm. In fact, he’s so ugly they call in The Thing. Ben and Reed are really at each other, both before and after the accident. Sue gets into it calling Ben a coward at one point.
The team sets aside their differences and agree to use their powers to help mankind. That wraps up act one and brings us into act two. It’s also important to note another novelty, comics with act breaks, and individual stories that fill the entire book and would eventually carry over to create an even greater mythology.
With act 2 we return to the present, the present being 1961 I guess (the fashion is a dead giveaway, as is Sue Storms hairstyles, no character in comics has done a better job of informing you of the decade via her haircut than Sue Storm). In short, they end up captured, but they don’t know who is truly behind it all. Sixteen pages in we finally meet our true villain, The Mole Man!
The reveal of Mole Man is brilliant in that we know as the audience, but the Fantastic Four haven’t a clue! It’s classic Hitchcockian suspense, you show the men at the table, cut to the bomb, you know that tables going to blow up, they don’t, true suspense (quick aside, find the interview between Hitchcock and Francois Truffaut, it’s a master course in storytelling).
So who is this Mole Man dude? He’s the proto-Marvel bad guy (there’s lots of “proto-Marvel” in this thing). He’s a villain, driven to villainy, not out of some innate evil desire, but as a result of people being jerks and rejecting him.
He’s right though, people are jerks (the FF are jerks to each other, it’s kind of their thing… even THE Thing is a jerk), people are particularly jerky when you’re an ugly ass Mole Man. Mole Man and his monster minions are where the old monster comics of just a few years before meets the new take on the superhero, and that formula would define much of early Marvel (that’s why you remembered it).
Returning to the story, the FF escape, using their powers to break out in super specific ways. Mole Man really needs to reevaluate his prison cells. When they leave him, they just reject him yet again saying he doesn’t belong to this world, hoping he’ll find peace with the monsters he used to try to overthrow the surface world and enslave mankind. I’m sure he will, totally won’t plot his revenge against not just the Fantastic Four, but all of humanity who rejected him! No, probably not. See you next issue.