(Year One part #1)
The Lee/Kirby run on Fantastic Four, starting in 1961, was Marvel Comics’ crucible. And thus a key sequence in superhero comics history.
FF was a particularly successful and creative “let’s throw everything in” effort.
It was Kirby’s Challengers of the Unknown but with more space sci-fi, and also romance comics material, and teenage antics comics material, and DRAMA!, and family sitcom material, and cosmic exploration, and tragedy, and some horror, and the kitchen sink.
Unlike most of its predecessors (a line that starts with the Justice Society of America), the book also featured a colourful but fallible family. This both set it apart and limited its ultimate range, as there’s less space to mess with the roster.
(There were other comics with heroic families. Such as the contemporary Space Family Robinson from Gold Key. And Craig Robinson, early on, bears an amusing resemblance to Reed Richards. But the family dynamics it depicts are way more idealised – and it’s a nuclear family).
When it comes to team profiles, shorter is better.
Therefore, this first chapter only covers… the first seven issues. Which corresponds to their first year of activity, since early on the book was bimonthly.
But there’s a lot to discuss. So we’ll split it into two parts for the sake of those reading us on small devices :
- Fantastic Four (Year One) (part #1). This here entry.
- Fantastic Four (Year One) (part #2).
Our FF profiles use our “emergent history” methodology. So, in this case, we only use material from 1961 and 1962, without any flashbacks or retconsMaking changes to a character or story after the fact..
This is to show how the concept of the Fantastic Four evolves.
The Fantastic Four.
- To use their great power to help mankind. This chiefly means opposing major, non-conventional threats.
- To explore the unknown.
- To support the members in their endeavours, particularly in scientific research and experimental engineering.
The team prepares its projects, vehicles, gateways, etc. in their New York City headquarters.
They also respond to crises. Whether they detected these on their own (using unique arrays of sensors) or at the request of allies and/or the authorities.
Relationship to conventional authorities:
Good relationship with the Central City PD, the NYPD (Reed is on a first-name basis with the Commissioner) and the US Federal government and armed forces.
For unrevealed reasons, the FF have privileged access to classified US intelligence, counter-intelligence and/or military resources and networks.
The public is fascinated by the Fantastic Four, who are celebrities. But also somewhat scared, and unsure of what to make of them.
Extent of operations:
This universe, other universes, other time eras, conceptual dimensionsOther realms of existence that are not our universe., everything.
Bases of Operations:
During the first two issues the FF operate in Central City, CA.
They then move to the Baxter Building, in Midtown Manhattan.
They have access to a remote hunting lodge, presumably in the Californian Rockies.
The FF have a budget in the millions. *1960s* millions of dollars. The sort of millions of dollars you usually find in that military-industrial complex ol’ Dwight warned y’all about.
At this point, there’s no data about where the money comes from.
- Mole Man (Harvey Elder).
- Skrull Empire.
- Miracle Man (Joshua Ayers).
- Namor the Sub-Mariner.
- Doctor Doom (Victor von Doom).
- Kurrgo, Master of Planet X.
None at this point, beyond their privileged relationship with authorities.
The FF tend to follow Mister Fantastic’s lead.
The FF aren’t recruiting at this point.
Something to evoke 1961…
For some reason Roy Orbisson feels appropriate. I’m sure that Susie was a big fan, and it’s miles better than the crap Johnny likely loved. Like, Joe Dowell or something.
“Running scared” was one of his early big hits. Orbisson and his mates were creating a sort of highbrow, new-school style of country music. It drew from older “and his orchestra” styles – but more intense and sophisticated.
This tune is also famous for its vocal performance. It’s less impressive nowadays since we have incomparably more powerful sound engineering. But back then the la dièse (high A) at the end blew everyone’s socks off.
Equipment (part 1)
The FF have access to cutting-edge technology devised by Reed Richards, a superhuman genius.
However at this point this isn’t a large part of their M.O., with the notable exception of their Fantasti-Car.
Signature gear at that stage includes :
- Mid-sized flare guns. The flare forms a huge fiery “4” in the sky, warning the other three that they are needed. So it’s a dramatic and very public call to action, comparable to Batman’s bat-signal.
- Compact short-wave radios. These, with a built-in mike and speaker, fit in the palm of the hand. There seldom is a need for radios, however.
- Hidden emitter in their uniform’s belt buckle. Only this beam can unlock the special elevator that goes all the way to the private floors of their headquarters.
- Their uniforms.
In issue #6, Mr. Fantastic explains that the FF costumes are “woven from chemical fibres containing unstable molecules”, which is why his uniform stretches with him.
Yet in previous issues, normal-seeming clothes had no difficulties stretching, or not catching fire, or going invisible. So presumably, the FF also have a standard-looking wardrobe using the same tech as the blue uniforms.
The special composition of the uniforms allows them to act as vacuum suits, *if* the wearer is also equipped with a suitable helmet and reserve of air.
The helmets the FF use are the transparent, globular “fishbowl” type. There’s a small air tank along the back of the neck.
The earliest FF are extremely well-funded and connected.
- Access to recent aerial spy photographs, including shots of the Eastern Block.
- Access to a worldwide earthquake early warning system. The WWNSS (World-Wide Network of Seismograph Stations) was just starting back then, so Richards may have had a terminal.
- A network of secret apartment hideouts. Implicitly, these all have resources such as a cash stash and at least one motorcar. It is unclear if this network was still in play after leaving Central City.
- Knowledge of the US Armed Forces’ classified arsenals. They could even obtain a small nuclear warhead if the need was obvious enough.
- Access to a long-range, water-landing-capable private jet with a big “4” on each side. This plane was only used whilst in Central City.
(For aviation enthusiasts, our two best guesses about this plane are (1) a decommissioned Douglas A-3 Skywarrior strategic bomber with added special pontoons, and an extended cockpit and (2) a modified Martin P6M Seamaster strategic bomber, with added “pontoons” that are actually fuel tanks).
This loosely suggests that Reed Richards, and perhaps Ben Grimm, retain deep contacts within DARPA and one or more military commands.
The lodge in FF #2
Likewise, the team hid for a short time in a remote hunting lodge, presumably in the Californian Rockies. But the Army found them PDQ.
This might suggest that the lodge was some sort of intelligence/military asset.
In this scenario Richards knew that the authorities knew he had access to this, but didn’t expect them to send in an airborne unit ASAP just to check.
The lodge seemed well-stocked, including .30-06 scoped bolt-action rifles.
The race for space
Famously enough, the Fantastic Four gained their powers during a rocket flight. The vessel’s radiation shielding wasn’t fully tested, and a fierce storm of cosmic rays irradiated and empowered them.
Let’s see what is known *at that point* about the FF origin sequence.
What’s the emergency ?
- The ship is stated to be aiming for “outer space”. This *might* mean Earth’s exosphere , so an altitude of about 700km (435 miles). But we don’t really know.
- There is a dire sense of emergency. The flight *must* take place ASAP, authorised or not, fully prepared or not, go go go.
- The flight is also conducted during a window with suitable (atmospheric ?) conditions that may not reoccur soon.
- Susan notes that “the commies” might beat the American crew to an historical first if they don’t rush the experimental flight.
FF Vol. 1 #1 was released in August, 1961. So it was written soon after the Vostok-1 mission , with Yuri Gagarin becoming the first person to achieve Earth orbit (a very low one – about 169km/91 miles).
This was part of a series of Soviet firsts. First sat (Sputnik-1) in ’57, first animal (the bitch Laika) in space in ’59, first robot (Luna-2) to hit the Moon, etc..
Stars and stripes… in space !
The US launched massive projects to prove they could do even better. This acquired a strong symbolic importance, starting the “race for space” of the Cold War.
FF Vol. 1 #1 was written not long after President Kennedy aimed for human exploration of the Moon within but years.
When FF Vol. 1 #1 launched, an American astronaut had already been in space three months prior. It was Alan Shepard – after whom Staff Commander Shepard in Mass Effect is named. But no American would reach orbit before John Glenn – in 1962.
So the FF likely beat Glenn to orbit. Especially since some time passes between the rocket flight and FF #1. But since there’s no mention of that, we can assume that their flight didn’t count.
(You could of course make up a whole storyline. Perhaps Richards and Grimm had a huge problem with NASA’s reliance on Werner von Braun, but lost the ensuing political crapfight. Which led to their project being defunded and soon-to-be-mothballed).
These were peculiar and unreasonable times for aerospace exploration. One famous portrayal of this is the classic 1983 movie The Right Stuff.
Just… don’t expect historical accuracy. The film is markedly more mythologised than the book that was its basis.
Oddities… in space !
Dr. Richards and Ben Grimm are established to have been part of this manned rocketry program for years. The launch pad, called a spaceport, is in California.
Security on the spaceport isn’t amazing. But that’s not too surprising – things could be messy back then. We do see a guard on site, clearly armed with a M1 Garand rifle and whose helmet markings evoke US Army MP.
The rocket is apparently kept fuelled and ready to launch, there’s no apparent need for ground controllers, etc.. But I wouldn’t read too much into the story expediting those details.
Plus, Dr. Richards is a genius. So we can reasonably assume high levels of launch automation, stable and non-corrosive rocket fuel (likely meaning solid fuel), etc.. For instance, his rocket could crash-land itself when unmanned (!).
The oddest part is that Susan Storm (back then an obscure young actress chasing her breakthrough role) and Johnny Storm (a teenage hot rods enthusiast) can just join the flight. As if sitting in the back of a station wagon for a road trip.
We can hypothesise that the two extra seats were meant for other people, who’d have played a specific role during the full mission. But this extra crew wasn’t necessary for a short reach-the-exosphere-and-damn-the-torpedoes flight.
Yet that doesn’t explain why the Storms have aerospace suits that fit them. Perhaps the other two flight members had to average 60 Kg. (132 lbs.) to keep total crew weight down and compensate for Grimm ?
The second half of this chapter has plenty of other considerations about the team, its early history, its gear, etc..
Source of Character: The first year of Fantastic Four issues.
Writeup completed on the 26th of December, 2022.