(This review may contain spoilers for the story content.)
Introduction: A great man has fallen. His legend lives on. Many of us comic fans have grieved over Stan Lee’s recent passing. Lee revolutionized the genre of superhero comics by shying away from a number of preexisting conventions and establishing new approaches that had a lasting impact on the medium. To honor him, I decided to review the instrument Lee used to these effects, Fantastic Four #1, as a tribute to the many wondrous characters and comics that have come from Marvel thanks to Lee’s works. This is my first Marvel review, and barring the circumstances, I am pleased that it can be on an issue of such importance as we remember this important comic creator.
Lee partnered with Jack Kirby (another comic legend) to create Fantastic Four, Marvel’s first team title. The issue introduced four spectacular heroes who have largely become households name today: Mister Fantastic, Invisible Girl, the Human Torch, and the Thing. These characters have gone on to appear in cartoon television series, live-action movies, and video games. I shall detail how Lee used these characters to offer a fresh take on superhero comics as I analyze each portion of the comic.
Plot Summary: The issue begins in medias res, a story mechanic of which I am fond, as Dr. Reed Richards uses a special flare gun to signal the individual members of the Fantastic Four and let them know they are needed. The other members spring into action, but given that this appearance marks their public debut, many onlookers are bewildered or frightened. Nevertheless, the heroes assemble in Richards’ apartment. The story then enters into a flashback, where the team’s origin is relayed. The four venture into space in a rocket to study a cosmic storm, but they are bombarded with cosmic rays and forced to return to Earth. Once they land, each begins to exhibit superhuman powers. Reed Richards convinces the others that they need to band together to use their powers for the benefit of mankind, solidifying them as a team. Returning to the present, the Fantastic Four fly to an island to stop the Mole Man’s attempt at world domination. Although they are met with resistance, the heroes work as a team to defeat their foe.
Plot Analysis: As early on as the cover, I recognize the effectiveness of this comic. Here we have a brand new comic, one unlike those Marvel had published before. Oftentimes, with new comics, readers can pick them up and have no inkling as to whom the character(s) displayed on the cover is/are. Lee and Kirby clue readers in on their original characters on the cover—the four characters are all shown exhibiting their powers while speech bubbles are used to describe who they are.
This compelling issue has action layered throughout its pages. While I may be a little concerned over the collateral damage to the city (and that poor car) that Thing and Human Torch respectively spawned, I must admit that these events kept my attention heightened as I eagerly consumed more of the subsequent pages. These characters were introduced with a bang, not a sizzle, and these creative decisions pull readers into the story. And I respect it. Lee is known for having had created superhero comics for older readers, and Fantastic Four is no “kiddie book,” although I believe it could be enjoyed by readers of all ages.
Something that personally draws me into this comic, though, is the amount of humor and realism implemented—and the realistic elements are often what lead to humorous panels! Lee is known for his sense of humor, which was often visible in his famous cameos present in recent Marvel movies. This comic exemplified that humor, like when he had a taxi driver panic when the Invisible Girl (while invisible) handed him fare for the ride. I understand, friend, I would have thought I was crazy, too, if I had seen floating money and did not know the cause.
Characterization: Lee is also known for focusing on his characters above all, and this issue #1 was appropriately filled with rich characterization. Lee effectively establishes personalities for each member of the team in a single issue. Dr. Reed Richards has a keen intellect, and his vernacular reflects that. He can be stubborn when it comes to science, but he has a soft spot for Susan. Susan is sensible and plays the role of mediator. Johnny is a little more reckless and impulsive, but he is also fairly free-spirited. Lastly, Ben is rash and has a temper, but he can put it aside for a greater cause.
Beyond simply having personalities, the Fantastic Four members are special in that they bicker with one another a number of times in this single issue. Lee is praised for this creative decision, as the heroes are made to feel more “real,” more “human,” despite their presently being more than human. Many superhero comics beforehand utilized idealized heroes with upbeat personalities. These heroes were and still are fine and loved by many. But Fantastic Four helped to introduce the ideas that superheroes do not have to be perfect people. They have flaws, including personality flaws. And this aspect of them is what makes them seem more human and more relatable as a result. I found their banter to be quite humorous, and I can understand how these characters came to be beloved by many fans. When it comes down to it, despite their differences, these heroes function as a unit, as a team. Lee takes the time to give each member an equal share in accomplishing the mission, and this teamwork is praiseworthy.
Even then, Lee’s characterization is not limited to the heroes. The villain, Mole Man, is given a fair share of characterization. He is a tragic villain, outcast by the world and effectively pushed into this rotten line of thinking as a result of being ostracized by society. After developing his own abilities, though, he gains confidence and pride in them, and he seemed far too eager to show off his abilities to the FF members—almost as if he was searching for their approval on some level, or at least recognition from them. I can respect that Lee avoided the temptation of a one-dimensional villain. Sure, Mole Man wanted to take over the world, but his villainy had a sympathetic cause.
Art: While this review may have been written to honor Stan Lee, I cannot ignore the incredible work of Jack Kirby, whose hand also dramatically helped change comic culture. Kirby is not shy when it comes to detail. He drew each member’s face to be distinct (even Ben Grimm’s human face pre-transformation was recognizably different from the other two male leads). He filled panels with various background images, and he even intricately drew the clothes of random civilians. Furthermore, even the three rock monsters that the Mole Man commanded were illustrated to be different—so that readers were not left feeling that the FF members were fighting the same monster over and over. Yet he still managed to draw them so that they were obviously related and hailed from the same place.
Final Remarks: After researching what Stan Lee was famous for, creatively, I am pleased to be able to note that almost all of these attributes were present in the inaugural issue of Fantastic Four, the first of many comic titles that implemented these new conventions for superhero comics. If not for Lee, I may not have been introduced to the comics that have made me Nerdy N8. I owe him more than I had originally thought, and while I may not be able to tell him directly now, I want to express my gratitude all the same. I know Lee and/or his work has influenced many of us comic fans. Whether we love Marvel or not, Lee is one of the reasons why all of us can embrace nerdom, and I hope this tribute appeals to you guys as well.
Closing: I know I have said a lot about this story, and I hope you have enjoyed what you have read. If you have any thoughts on the comic or on my review, feel free to comment below. Thank you for reading, and I hope you have an amazing day.