(Year One part #2)
This chapter is part of a series about the Fantastic Four, to be read in order.
Said series starts there.
The FF famously had familial group dynamics, including some less-than-entirely-functional aspects.
It was one of the main hooks created by Stan Lee for the book. He would soon use a somewhat similar approach for the Avengers.
This contrasted with most previous super-teams. These tended to be goody-two-shoes blokes with identical goals and values.
During this era :
- Reed is on the smug side, and expects to be obeyed because he’s a pipe-smoking genius. This sort of from-on-high leadership was much more the norm back then, but in this specific case it creates friction due to Ben and Johnny’s tempers.
- Sue, being The Girl™, attempts to play peacemaker and ensmoothen things. However she is a proper, mild-mannered 1950s girly girl. She’s also barely out of her teens at that point – if that. So she doesn’t have a lot of personal presence, is too often ignored, feels insecure, and lacks the emotional endurance to tolerate the others’ pointless bickering.
- Johnny is a reckless hothead with a stupid temper. He embodies 1950s low-key moral panics about out-of-control teenagers. “Teenager” was a fairly recent category back then.
- Ben is a brash, assertive man with a two-fisted temper and the strength to back that up. At that point he’s also experiencing an angry depression about his monstrous metamorphosis. He’s bitter, gloomy, seething and with a perilously short fuse.
Therefore, Reed’s traditional pipe-smoking patriarchal authority often crashes on the twin reefs of Ben and Johnny.
- Johnny chafes under authority and orders, and wants to affirm his independence and preferences.
- Ben gets angry and wants to turn most situations into a brawl, orders be damned.
Thankfully, Ben is a mensch underneath. So if Reed physically restrains him he won’t peel him off (and risk harming his best friend). And he’ll always make sure that Susie isn’t hurt. Johnny, on the other hand… that loud, spoiled brat really gets on his nerves.
Yet, an important corollary is that, when the chips are down, they always do the right thing and support each other.
History (part 1)
The fateful rocket flight likely took place circa July, 1961. It can’t be *that* long between it and FF Vol. 1 #1, since Ben is still on a quest to find clothes that can fit him.
The sequence of events is well-known :
- Dr. Richards and his fiancée Susan Storm consider that an unauthorised, rushed manned flight has to take place ASAP.
- Reed’s best friend Ben doesn’t want to pilot the rocket since he knows that the radiation shielding isn’t well-tested. But Susie calls him chicken, so he takes the job.
- Somehow, Susan and Johnny Storm are part of the flight. One mostly-tongue-in-cheek hypothesis is that Reed had Sue accompany them so Ben would feel obligated to fly that rocket.
- The rocket runs into a radiation storm and crashes-land back on Earth.
- The foursome discover that they now have super-powers, and pledge to use them as a team to help mankind.
The mole the merrier
In August of 1961, the Mole Man (Harvey Elder) conducts test attacks against the surface world.
From his subterranean realm under Monster Isle, he has giant creatures dig tunnels to strategic sites worldwide. These then capture key resources, particularly nuclear power sites.
Richards determines the Mole Man’s location. The Fantastic Four invade the island, confront Elder, and force him to blow the island up for… unclear reasons.
Agents of F.A.N.T.A.S.T.I.C.
At this point (FF Vol. 1 #1) the team seems to be similar to the Silver Age Suicide Squad. Some kind of special governmental agency fielding a small team to deal with mega-threats.
But possessing incredible powers, which the narrative emphasises.
There also is an emphasis on the foursome still learning to use their powers.
- Their control isn’t the best yet.
- Anticipating the consequences of power use remains difficult.
- People are startled if not outright terrified of their abilities.
- Maintaining power effects still requires good focus.
- They are the first super-heroes of their generation. So the public, the authorities and themselves lack reference points.
This emphasis keeps receding during this era. At the end of their first year, the FF are in markedly better control of their powers (but there’s still a distance to go). And super-heroes are a bit better understood.
At this point of Marvel history, there’s still a gap in costumed heroes activity between World War Two and the Age of Marvels. So it’s been 16 years since there was significant capes stuff.
Furthermore, large chunks of 1940s Marvel super-heroes do not seem integrated yet. While Kirby and Lee will soon bring back the likes of Captain America and Namor, nobody stops to ask the Torch what’s his relation to the 1940s Human Torch.
Scary monsters (and super-creeps)
There’s a clear element of horror in the earliest days of the FF.
The narration doesn’t quite emphasise it – which is notable given Lee’s bombastic style. But it stands out since it’s unusual for a super-hero book.
Sue is much like the Invisible Man, Ben is a sort of combination golem/Frankenstein’s monster, Reed deforms himself into inhuman shapes, and Johnny’s presence can easily become a lethal disaster.
Early on, they are also monsters in that their bodies scare others, defy understanding, and do not fit at all within society.
All four have difficulties coming to terms with this monstrous nature (though Reed adapts the quickest) and how they should behave to make their monstrousness acceptable.
Over time, this theme will concentrate on the Thing, leaving the others more easily accepted by society. But in the first issue the power they wield is something strange, terrible and awkward. It’s not a power fantasy.
History (part 2)
The Fantastic Four’s fearsome foray on Monster Isle alarms Skrulls scouts. These space aliens have been reconnoitring Earth for invasion, and the FF clearly have the power to derail that.
Using gadgets and their shape-shifting power, four Skrulls impersonated the FF to commit crimes.
The military reacts immediately and locates the real team, who has been planning its next move in a remote hunting lodge.
The Skrulls from outer space !
The FF are thrown into a special prison. But they easily escape, steal a helicopter, and lure the Skrulls into a trap.
Once the Skrulls are captured they impersonate *them*. And convince the waiting Skrull task force to call off the invasion.
Interestingly, part of the latter is accomplished by showing the Skrulls photos of giant monsters and other threats from the late 1950s. These explicitly refer to cases chronicled in pre-Marvel-Age Atlas Comics such as Strange Tales or Journey into Mystery.
Three Skrull prisoners remain – and they can’t realistically be held in a prison. But they agree to permanently turn into cows to live a peaceful life, then have Richards hypnotically erase their memories of being Skrulls.
New York, New York
Between the second and third issue, the FF have rebased in New York City. Though it’s not confirmed that it’s indeed NYC until the fourth issue.
They have already established a secret base in Manhattan, though no name is given for this building yet. Since it is fully equipped, it is likely that moving to NYC has been in the works since the beginning.
The Baxter Building laughs heartily at your puny zoning restrictions, FAA regulations, etc.. There again, the FF seem to have enormous pull with authorities.
Once in the Baxter Building, Ms. Storm designs and crafts uniforms. These are tight jumpsuits in vivid cerulean with navy blue belt, boots, collar and gloves – plus a “4” logo on the chest. This basic design stuck like white on rice.
Equipment (part 2)
The FF occupy the recently-built top five floors of the Baxter Building.
Underneath is some sort of three-floor-high patio or technical space, and underneath that is the older, main body of the Baxter Building.
They own the entire building. The lower, older 33 floors are leased as office space.
These tenants aren’t aware of the FF’s activities, and the top floors look ordinary from the outside. Well, unless you wonder how one could possibly operate an observatory in the middle of Manhattan .
Parts of the topmost floors were shown in a diagram in the third issue :
The roof operates much like an aircraft carrier’s deck. The air vehicles land on specific platforms which are then lowered. Then their hangar’s roof rolls in.
The sixth issue has an extended version of this diagram :
However, this version is erroneously missing one floor and the patio/entresol thingie.
(The mark number is arbitrary, and added for clarity).
This four-person aircraft came to be nicknamed the “flying bathtub” due to its shape.
There are four fans underneath. These are the sole apparent means of lift and propulsion, which doesn’t seem physically possible.
The fantasti-car is quiet enough to fly over the Manhattan streets without causing a disturbance.
This aircar comes with front lights, vertical landing and take-off capabilities, and an automated landing computer. The latter is switched on when nearing the Baxter Building, and handles everything from there on.
There’s also some sort of auto-pilot that can be set to “hover then find a safer spot nearby to land”.
Within the seats are hidden harnesses and fastenings, so the Fantasti-Car can perform aerobatics without losing its pilot and passengers.
The Mk1 Fantasti-Car can break into four separate vehicles. Each one-person flying platform has its own controls, and can be likened to a sort of flying motor scooter.
A guesstimate for the top speed would be 100mph (160 km/h) or so, perhaps a bit lower when the four modules are disconnected. The maximum altitude likely is under 3,000 metres (10K feet).
We see the Fantasti-Car used to fly from Manhattan to Washington, D.C.. That’s about 230 miles, so 100 mph works okay. Presumably, the team didn’t take their helicopter since the Fantasti-Car can land and park anywhere.
(While the Fantasti-Car sure looks like something you’d add to a children’s cartoon to sell toys, smaller plastic action figures didn’t appear until the mid-1970s).
This helo seems to be a four-sitter.
- The landing gear evokes older Sikorsky helicopters.
- The “jet engines” atop the body might be an exaggerated version of twin turboshaft engines, which had recently debuted with the SH-3 Sea King naval helicopter .
- The bubble cockpit evokes early Bell helicopters. But it’s likely based on older Sikorsky helos, which tended to be Jack Kirby’s mental reference when drawing helicopters.
There’s no sense of performance for the Fantasti-copter. From usage it seems faster than the Fantasti-Car, so by analogy with a Sea King I’d guess 170 mph (275 km/h) or so.
The pogo plane (or “orbit plane”) isn’t used during this span – except to procure EVAExtra-Vehicular Activity – floating in space outside of a spaceship. equipment from its stocks.
But it was an early design by Richards, and doesn’t seem to have evolved much. Since it does the job fine.
So we can guesstimate that it can do mach 2 or so, with a 1.8K miles (2900 km) range. Based on the performance of the early 1980s model.
Oddly, said early 1980s model is stated to have a ceiling of 130K feet (a bit under 40km). This is far too little for the orbit plane to achieve orbit. Yet the fact that it carries EVA helmets (not merely high-altitude rebreathers) implies that it *can* leave the atmosphere.
A murky compromise would be that it can go past the Kármán line (100 km) a bit. At which point additional, hypothetical spaceworthy boosters could take over the now-useless ram-charged turbine of the pogo plane to reach low Earth orbit.
Incidentally, it’s nicknamed the “pogo plane” since it can do vertical take-off and landings standing up on its tail. Which resembles the Convair XFY “Pogo” experimental fighter .
History (part 3)
The first chronicled case in New York pits the FF against the Miracle Man. This stage magician seems to have an unending arsenal of mighty super-powers.
At first, the Miracle Man outguns the FF. But Reed eventually deduces that he has but one ability. He creates illusions in the minds of onlookers, and his impossible feats are but hallucinations.
The team thus stops him, and recovers the “atomic tank” he stole from the Army during his rampage.
However, Johnny then leaves the team in a fit of pique.
Johnny hides for a short while among the homeless men of the Bowery neighbourhood. There he stumbles upon an amnesiac strongman, who has lived on the streets for years.
Mr. Storm soon discovers that this is actually Namor the Sub-Mariner. He then correctly deduces that dropping him into the Atlantic Ocean will restore the man – and allow him to recover his memories.
This works. Unfortunately, Namor soon discovers that his native Atlantis lies deserted and in ruins. Leaping to the conclusion that surface men did this, Namor swears revenge.
Johnny hurriedly rejoins the FF so they can prepare.
The giganto crisis
Meanwhile, Namor awakens a giganto — a mountainous maritime monster — and sends the immense creature to raid New York City.
An evacuation order is given and the National Guard assembles. But they can’t harm the whale-like kaijuJapanese term for a rampaging giant monster, like Godzilla., who towers over Manhattan’s skyline.
As the other FF try to delay the giganto, the Thing rushes from military depot to military depot until he finds a van-sized nuclear bomb. His plan is to enter the giganto through its mouth, leave the bomb within the stomach, and evacuate before the detonation.
(There too Ben clearly knows where to find nuclear explosives and their characteristics, the soldiers are actively helping him, etc.. So the sense that the FF are an equivalent of the Silver Age Task Force X is still there. With the important exception that they don’t seem to have a handler).
Ben’s plan works. Namor then returns, confronting the FF and piggishly demanding Ms. Storm as the price of peace.
Furious, Johnny catches Namor and the giganto corpse in an enormous tornado, then flushes them far into the ocean.
The dreaded Doctor Doom !
Dr. Doom (Victor von Doom), an old rival of Reed Richards, captures the FF. He then forces the men to go into the past, using his time machine, to steal the pirate Blackbeard’s treasure for him.
Pirates try to press-gang the trio, but the FF soon take over their ship. They then board and conquer a treasure-laden ship, oddly assuming it to be Blackbeard’s.
The enthusiastic crew acclaims the Thing for leading them into battle. They rename him “Blackbeard”, since his disguise to blend in includes a thick, long black beard.
Reed and Johnny thus realise that the treasure they’re to bring doesn’t belong to Blackbeard (Edward Teach) but to Blackbeard (Benjamin Grimm). And Ben decided he’d rather stay in the past as a pirate.
Ben eventually comes to his senses. The trio returns to the present with the treasure chest (albeit filled with mere steel chains).
They and Sue eventually escape from Dr. Doom’s American fortress after destroying a doombot.
Doctor Doom locates Namor, rekindles his hatred against the surface men who destroyed his kin, and arms him with magnetic circuits. Smugly strutting in his speedos, the Sub-Mariner then walks into the Baxter Building.
The magnetic circuits allow Doom to lift the entire skyscraper into the upper atmosphere. With Namor trapped inside with the rest (since he too has the power to oppose Doom), but no civilians since that was after office hours.
In his magenta rocketship, Doom tows the building into space and sets it on a collision course with the Sun. However, Namor proves mighty enough to reach Doom’s rocketship and overcome its security.
Dr. Doom is forced to flee, and Namor uses the rocketship to safely return the FF’s skyscraper in place.
Master of Planet X !
The distant Planet X will soon be destroyed by a stray planetoid. Its ruler, Kurrgo, sends a robot to Earth to fetch the FF.
The robot uses a hate ray to make everyone abhor the FF. The team therefore agrees to travel with it to Planet X. There, Kurrgo orders them to save the population – or else.
Reed devises a shrinking gas, reducing the humanoids on Planet X to the size of ants. This way, they can all fit into one of their two spaceships and escape in time.
Which they promptly do, leaving the tyrannical Kurrgo behind to die.
Meanwhile, the FF are flying back to Earth in the other Planet X spaceship.
(This story is close to what you’d find in a late 1950s Atlas Comics sci-fi anthology title. But with the FF, and full-issue-sized).
(One also suspects that the gas Reed could quickly whip up simply is the Pym formula).
DC Universe Adaptation
(This section proposes ways of using this team in DC Universe stories).
We once created two different timelines where Superman and the FF live in the same world. As a creative exercise, back when the nights were young, when we could do no wrong .
DC Heroes RPG
Tell me more about the game stats
At this point, the team seems to have a Wealth of 16 or so APs.
The Mk1 Fantasti-Car is about [STR 04 BODY 06, Flash (Stdy illum. only): 05, Flight: 06, Split (does not lower APs): 04, Vehicles (Self): 03, Limitations: Vehicles is limited to specifically programmed routines, such as landing atop the Baxter Building].
Source of Character: The first year of Fantastic Four issues.
Writeup completed on the 26th of December, 2022.