With the impending cinematic release of Fantastic 4 less than a fortnight away a worryingly large section of the audience seems to have already formed an opinion of the film.
Nonetheless for those unfamiliar with Marvel’s First Family I’d like to delve into the groups history…
In the late 1950s Marvel Comics distinguished competition (DC Comics) had begun a revival of old superhero properties of the ’30s & ’40s. After Frederick Wertham’s notorious book “Seduction Of The Innocent” had all but destroyed the industry during the McCarthy era by linking comic books with juvenile delinquency, the brand aimed to create a new wave of wholesome, family friendly and socially responsible comic books. In doing this, DC revitalised flagging Golden Age characters like The Flash & Green Lantern by giving them new back stories and fresh identities.
As these new and improved incarnations of these characters gained popularity at the time, the publishers decided to stick them all in one book called Justice League Of America…
But what has this got to do with Fantastic Four you ask?? Well hold on to your hats true believers!!!
The story goes that Martin Goodman, the publisher of Marvel Comics in the early ’60s, approached jobbing writer Stan Lee after seeing the success of JLA. Goodman wanted his own super hero team to do battle with DC’s super team them on the news stands.
One time journalist Lee had been in the comic book industry since the late ’30s and written every form of comic under the sun from romance, funny books, westerns and even monster stories. Sadly Stan had become weary of having his stories and characters consistently crushed by the comics code (much like Stan, l Iove alliteration). The Comics Code had become an oppressive dictator, ruling over the hard working and underpaid writers and artists with an iron fist that would rival Dr Doom’s gauntlet, squeezing the life out of the artists’ creativity and whitewashing their output into a bland pulp (pun semi-intended).
Lee balked at the idea of creating a super team to rival the JLA only to have their adventures mauled beyond recognition by the brutal censorship of the Comics Code.
Stan’s dream was to write the great American novel and he told his wife Joan he was going quit comics to pursue this. Now Joan could be considered the third co-creator of the Marvel Universe as we know it. She said to Stan that if he was going to quit anyway, he should write his last forray into the realms of superheroism exactly as he wanted to.
Galvanised, he brought in frequent collaborator Jack Kirby as his artist, a slightly more reserved man in comparison to Stan but no less talented. With his bombastic style and unique character designs it was a match made in heaven…
As Sigel & Shuster’s Superman announced The Golden Age Of Comic Books. Lee & Kirby’s Fantastic Four heralded in The Silver Age.
It was an unparalleled success.
In issue one we see four astronauts bombarded by cosmic rays and develop strange powers which they solemnly swear to use for betterment of all mankind.
By writing in the conceit that the cosmic rays affected each of our four protagonists differently Lee and Kirby were able to match eachj character’s power to their personality, thereby enhancing their characterisation and creating enduring archetypes that would capture the hearts and imaginations of fans for decades to come…
Reed Richards: Genius level scientist with the ability stretch and shape his malleable body.
Ben Grimm: Top pilot with the misshapen rock-like body and a heart of gold.
Sue Storm: The most powerful member of the four (she once knocked out The Hulk.) with the ability to create force fields and turn invisible.
Johnny Storm: A teen aged hothead with the ability to engulf his body in flame at will and the power of flight to go with it… Because COMICS!
The characterisation was key to the book’s success.
In comics prior, the heroes were always universally chiselled and handsome images of perfection. Pretty to look at but no more easy to relate to than Samson or Hercules.
All of that changed with the Fantastic Four. These heroes were freaks and monsters, they struggled with money and their love lives. Maintaining the family unity of the group was almost as important as bringing the bad guy to justice!
And oh! the bickering… So much bickering!
This wasn’t how superheroes behaved, it was how people behaved and that’s what was (and remains) most important.
It’s easy to take for granted in this day and age when we have such a deconstructivist attitude to superheroes but those early FF issues were among the first comics to bring flaws and realism to their characters and this was the key to their popularity.
This has since become The Marvel Way, seamlessly linking the ordinary with the extraordinary. The Fantastic Four became Marvel’s answer to the nuclear, 2.4 children type of family. They were Marvel’s First Family, unconventional and unique and most of what we have come to accept as Marvel’s brand grew from the pages of the then ‘The World’s Greatest Comics Magazine’.
Classic villains like The Skrulls, Galactus or Doctor Doom (My personal favourite) and locales like The Negative Zone, The Microverse and Atlantis all owe their existence to the Fantastic Four. Not to mention the heroes! They introduced The Silver Surfer, The Inhumans and The Black Panther. If not for the success of the Fantastic Four there would be no Spider-Man, no X-Men, no Avengers, no Guardians of the Galaxy, no Daredevil & no Ant-Man.
No Marvel Universe.
Sadly, in recent years due to perhaps to changing tastes and the success of other superhero properties this important building block of the Marvel Universe has been treated less kindly than befits comic book royalty. Not to mention the at best mediocre cinematic interpretations of the FF themselves.
There has been steep decline in popularity for the four heroes which has led to their monthly comic being cancelled by Marvel.
Not to worry though! The characters are still operating in the MU (In fact The Thing is about join The Guardians Of The Galaxy) but they are just no longer in regular in publication for the first time in my life, which saddens me. This once great comic, which has not been out of print for over 50 years has now gone the way of the dinosaurs…
But I have a sneaking feeling that they will be back one day perhaps when Marvel get the film rights back.
And as for Josh Trank’s upcoming film… I will be going in with no expectations. The auteur has taken some liberties with the characters and their world but who knows? Maybe that’s exactly what the franchise needs right now.
No matter what the outcome, it will nice see those old friends again…