Marvel's era-defining First Family
Fantastic Four #1
CGC 6.0 • COM-FF160
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That name captures the prominence of the team in canon, as celebrity superhumans and scientific patrons who provide leadership to governments and other superheroes alike. But it’s also true of their importance to comics history.
Fantastic Four was the first superhero comic to begin developing long-term stories for its heroes and villains across multiple issues. This continuity would grow to encompass the entire Marvel Universe, making the Four the literal “first family” of Marvel!
Their debut, Fantastic Four #1, was the first issue to utilize the creative process between writer and artist which became the famed “Marvel Method”. It would soon catapult Stan Lee and Jack Kirby to icon status and become standard across the industry.
But more than that, it was the first time a superhero comic was written with a more adult audience in mind. It was the shocking success of Fantastic Four #1 among college students that convinced the major publishers to revitalize superhero comics after 20 years in the doldrums and showed comics creators the way forward.
It is no exaggeration to say that without the publication of Fantastic Four #1, superheroes would not hold their current significant place in the cultural zeitgeist. It is Marvel’s First Family, and this era-defining first issue, which made the last 60 years of mythmaking, movies and merchandise possible.
The Fantastic Four might be Marvel’s First Family, but they were not its first superheroes. In fact, their debut came several decades after the advent of the genre; a period of popularity that came to be called “The Golden Age of Comics”.
Sparked by the creation of Superman in 1938, his unbelievable success kicked off a decade of rapid-fire imagination and imitation. The debuts of now-legendary figures such as Batman, Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel and The Flash were scattered between a sea of lesser heroes flooding the newsstands where comics were sold.
Comic books as a medium were flourishing, and publishers had little concern for genre in their search for sales. The exploits of early superheroes were often just one short story printed in a larger sci-fi/adventure anthology. This is why so many famous characters list their debut in generic-sounding issues like Tales of Suspense, Amazing Fantasy or Action Comics.
Their business model was cheap, disposable entertainment, so comics focused on stories that delivered novelty and emotion in six pages or less. That meant high-concept ideas and shocking, outlandish imagery, but none of the detailed continuity or complex plots we associate with comic books today.
Golden Age comics were also mostly targeted at young children, which seriously constrained the sorts of stories they could tell. They featured infallible heroes, happy endings, no hard decisions and no consequences.
After World War II, the culture eventually shifted, and superheroes faded from popularity. Most publishers followed the money, and apart from a handful of mainstay characters like Superman and Batman, this type of comic vanished from the newsstands.
The apparent demise of the superhero dismayed one Stanley Lieber, a writer and editor-in-chief at Marvel Comics. Lieber had worked in superhero comics for his entire adult life.
He started at Marvel as a 17-year-old during the Golden Age, thanks to a family connection with owner Martin Goodman. He quickly moved up the ranks of writers, creating stories for the company’s best-selling superheroes: the Sub-Mariner, the Human Torch, and the wartime smash-hit Captain America, created by Joe Simon and artist Jack Kirby.
Lieber made significant contributions to these characters - including inventing Captain America’s famous ricocheting shield - but he still looked at comics as a job of necessity until he could break out as a novelist. To save his future self from being associated with the low-brow subject of superheroes, he took a leaf out of their book and wrote under a secret identity: “Stan Lee”.
By 1961 a now-30-year-old Lieber had settled most of those insecurities about writing for comics. He had become the most powerful man on Marvel’s staff, managing the issue-to-issue production and reporting only to Goodman.
As the superhero genre slowly declined over his time at Marvel, Lieber had diversified his work, writing romance comics, humor, Westerns, horror, suspense, detective stories, and anything else his boss thought the market wanted at the moment. But he wasn’t happy about it. As he would later recall: “We were never leaders in the field - we always followed the trends.”
Stanley was growing disillusioned with his long-time employer and the decline of the superhero genre where he had made his biggest creative contributions. He considered leaving the comics industry entirely, and started taking on freelance jobs writing for radio, advertising and other areas. This prompted an intervention from his wife, Joan, who would be regarded as Lieber’s “Marvel Muse” and constant companion over their seventy years of marriage.
“Joan wanted me to bear down and make something of myself in the comic book field,” Lieber explained in interviews. “She wondered why I did not put as much effort and creativity into the comics as I seemed to be putting into my other freelance endeavors. The fact is, I had always thought of my comic book work as a temporary job - even after all those years - and her little dissertation made me suddenly realize that it was time to start concentrating on what I was doing - to carve a real career for myself in the nowhere world of comic books.”
To cement this new outlook on his comics career, Lieber legally changed his name to Stan Lee. Rejecting the ironic distance he had always kept from the industry he worked in, from that point on he would become synonymous with it.
Fortune was on Stan’s side. He would soon get another, unexpected chance to write for his favorite genre: superheroes.
Around this time his boss, Martin Goodman, went out golfing with the head of a DC Comics subsidiary. This talkative executive boasted to Goodman that DC, which had always been Marvel’s main rival in comics, was seeing significant sales for the superhero teamup Justice League of America. Ever the trend-chaser, Goodman rushed back to his editor-in-chief and ordered Lee to put together a new title, featuring a team of fresh superheroes.
Lee knew that with renewed interest from Goodman and the creative freedom of working with brand-new characters, this would be by far his best chance to make good on his renewed commitment to comics. He also knew that after decades at Marvel, he was no longer satisfied writing stories he took no pride in. If he couldn’t succeed now, on his own terms, he would walk away.
Stan knew he’d need to find an artistic collaborator for this new superteam. He began discussing some of his ideas for the new title with Jack Kirby, whose distinctive pencil had illustrated a teenaged Lee’s very first published story some 20 years prior!
Kirby was already a famous creator responsible for Captain America and other hits, and had worked in nearly every major publisher’s bullpen across the industry, churning out dynamic, trend-setting art and innovative new characters for their brands. He was also growing tired of the cynical, near-sighted approach to comics which prevailed in these companies, and had his own theories about how superhero stories should be done, especially when it came to their art direction.
Kirby agreed to help on Lee’s new book, and together they sat down to craft a superteam which were unlike any superheroes before them, and who would allow them to build stories of a kind never before seen in comics. These characters were recognizably human - with flaws and complex relationships to each other despite their amazing powers and heroic mission. Their origin story relied on science, incorporating ideas which loomed large in the public mind in 1961: a team of astronauts in the space race are bombarded by cell-warping radiation, and become Fantastic.
While not pushing beyond child-friendly content as would later comics like Deadpool, these were stories that adults could also enjoy on a deeper level, sympathizing with their problems and relationships. They were not alien orphans, robots, amazons or even billionaires - they were people. Friends, a team, a family. The idea of heroes who felt doubt, guilt, and fear - as well as hope and determination - fit better in the progressive, rebellious youth culture of the burgeoning 60’s.
Both men were determined to risk their careers if it meant making something they could be proud of. Said Lee:
“For just this once, I would do the type of story I myself would enjoy reading… and the characters would be the kind of characters I could personally relate to: they’d be flesh and blood, they’d have their faults and foibles, they’d be fallible and feisty, and - most important of all - inside their colorful, costumed booties they’d still have feet of clay.”
While Lee brought some nascent ideas for the Four to their partnership, Kirby drew on his experience to craft their visual identity. We can thank Kirby for The Thing’s orange brick-like skin, as well as the group’s distinctive costumes - skin-tight minimalist masterpieces which they still don close variations of to this day. But Jack “The King” didn’t even introduce those iconic bodysuits until issue #3. In their critical introduction story, and even on the cover of Fantastic Four #1, Marvel’s First Family are shown battling evil in their street clothes!
The success of Fantastic Four #1 was immediate, obvious, and much celebrated. Sales skyrocketed, especially with teens and college-aged adults. Fan mail poured into the Marvel offices, addressed not with “dear sir” or “to the editor”, but “to Stan and Jack”. Stan Lee demonstrated the first hints of the showman and brand figurehead he would become by transforming this genuine fanmail into an editorial “letters to” column, which would continue to build on this newfound closeness between creator and audience.
While Kirby’s amazing artwork and Goodman’s eye for trends must receive their share of the credit, it was Stan Lee’s decision to deconstruct the Golden Age’s flawless superhero ideal and write nuanced, sympathetic super-people for the modern day which was the difference-maker.
Creatively, Mr. Fantastic’s abilities and look were lifted from a rival comic - Plastic Man of Police Comics - and Johnny Storm’s appearance and powers as the Human Torch are virtually identical to Marvel’s own Golden Age best seller of the same name. And yet the Fantastic Four versions stand far taller in comics history, thanks simply to their superior personality and storylines which stood out even in this very first issue.
Kirby and Lee would continue to work together on Fantastic Four until issue #102 in 1970, by which time the comics business had completely reshaped itself in their image. Artists entering Marvel’s employ would have to practice re-creating Kirby’s drawings. The duo’s distinctive process for collaboration between writer and artist would become known as “the Marvel Method” and be adopted industry-wide.
By the time Kirby finally quit Marvel over contractual and creative disputes, their legacy was already assured many times over. The family of relatable, wonderfully human superheroes he and Lee created - the Fantastic Four - remain the original and foremost success from this legendary creative period. And there is no greater symbol of that success, and the immortal talent behind it, than Fantastic Four #1.
We purchased the book in June 2020, from a private client of Heritage Auctions who acquired it at auction in February 2013.
The authenticity and quality of this asset were verified by Certified Guaranty Company (CGC), the comics industry standard for third-party grading. This asset’s grading is in the top 13.9% of all CGC-graded Fantastic Four #1 books.