The Great American
                Novel Act 1:
                the danger Act 2: rising action Act 3: the ball Act 4: crisis Act 5: triumph the Franklinverse part 2, act 1:
                the new danger

1962: Act 1: Susan versus Doom (America v. the old world)

timechart issue 1 issues 2-5 issues 6-24 issues 25-43 issues 45-60 issues 61-80 issues 81-102 issues 103-125 126-132 133-149 150-175 176-200 201-218 219-231 232-250 251-273 274-295 296-303 304-321 322-333 334-355 355-569 570 to present

previous FF2
generational conflict
the fourth Skrull
reality v illusion
love triangles
Baxter Building
the power struggle
the name 'Doom'
magic and science
Merlin's treasure
Doom's castle
crossing the moat

analysis of act 1
the 5 act structure
Cold War
4 types of people
Sue is the key
other characters
other symbolism
breaking clichés
Kirby trivia

Act 1 begins as a monster comic, a story of alienation, conflict and illusion, of overwhelming threats from all sides
  1. underground
  2. outer space
  3. mass psychology
  4. across the ocean
  5. monarchy and anti-science
Doctor Doom sums up all the other threats: the threat of the past. Here is a scientist who cheats (i.e uses sorcery) and wants to live in a castle and rule others. Doom becomes the main antagonist, and here the real story begins. It is the story of America, democracy and science versus the old world, monarchy and superstition. Doom is defeated by Susan Storm, the symbol of the greatest power of all: the power of family. While Doom will become the symbol of arrogant isolation, Susan will become the symbol of equality and networking.


Issue 2: alienation

Bodysnatchers etc

This issue

The Fantastic Four broke the mold of superhero comics. They were public enemies. They fought among themselves. The first act reflects the tensions of the time: the Skrulls are metaphors for communists hiding among us, wanting to undermine and conquer the nation. Like the shape changing aliens in the 1956 movie Invasion of The Body Snatchers, they look like us. They arrive in flying saucers, a metaphor for Russian technology: Russia almost caught up with the west in a single decade, the 1950s, and then its space program seemed to exceed America's. With such incredible progress, and nuclear weapons ready to launch at any times, and America forging ahead as well, it seemed like anything was possible.

By the end of this issue we find that the ordinary Skrulls hate their lives, and their race is simply shortsighted. As for the ones the authorities hated and feared (the FF) they turned out to be innocent. A commentary on McCarthyism perhaps?

Act 1: alienation

Other superheroes fought crime in the service of the authorities, and represented escapist fantasies of power, friendship and beauty. But the FF at the start represented alienation. Note that this is only true for the first year or so. But what a year!

The Greatest Generation versus Baby Boomers

Johnny was born in 1945, the year that World War II ended. He is therefore the archetypal Baby Boomer (defined as the post war generation). Meanwhile, Reed and Ben fought in the war: they are the archetypal "greatest generation". Ben has the burden of prejudice and personal struggle (born into poverty, a self made man), and Reed has the burden of trying to save the world: as one of America's top scientists, with a massive private fortune, he wants to be "mister fantastic", the man who single handedly can take America to the moon and beyond. The Fantastic Four is the burdened "greatest generation" and carefree "baby boomers" personified. They reflect this massive cultural change in America. The older ones worry and have trials, whereas Johnny's life is an endless burst of opportunity - at least at first.

We see in issue 1 that Johnny is the only one who loves his life, whereas the others see each other as weak: Ben blames Reed, Reed sees Ben as the problem, and both see Sue as vulnerable. In contrast Johnny exudes confidence: he traps the Skrulls and says "you thought that because that is what I wanted you to think!" In issue 3 he decides to quit the team because it cramps his style. 

Sue Storm may not seem to fit the Baby Boomer versus Greatest generation divide - officially she is stuck in the middle, a little older than Johnny, but not old enough to be an adult in the war. But is she? Issue 1 suggests that she is the most old fashioned of them all. The evidence suggests that she is older than she looks, and has her own secret burden to bear. See the notes to FF292 for details.

The zeitgeist: why act 1 matters

The early 1960s were a transition between the mainstream conservatism of the time and the increasing questioning in the later 1960s. The Great American Novel reflects that period of change.

"What had actually made the team so important [was] the light that they shone on the ultra-conservative era of the early Sixties. Without that link between the title and the social and political world of the moment, all that's left is yet another clichéd set of super-people." (source)

"In a world where children were warned daily of an impending nuclear holocaust, where children were taught about madmen who, quite recently, had murdered innocents by the millions because of their race; in that world we also told to remain young and innocent and to obey rules without question. Something was wrong. We all knew it, though we might not have had the words to transmit the knowledge. That's where Rock and Roll and the Fantastic Four came in. They allowed us to put words to our suspicions. They gave us a space where we could consider the contradictions of our parents' words; our parents world." Walter Mosley, from his afterword to 2005's Maximum FF, quoted by Colin Smith

Fantastic Four 2

The major secondary themes

Here the four themes are developed:

This second mission is a major milestone: the team has shown twice that they can defeat more powerful opponents, and they now have the trust of the authorities. It is time to go fully public!

Memories: why the FF was different

What was it like, as a child, to buy the Fantastic Four for the first time, when you'd only seen regular mainstream comics? User 'ghastly55' at the classic comics board mentioned that he saw issue 2 as a child, but was unable to find any other issues for a long time. I asked him what he remembered. (Post reprinted here permission. Emphasis added. [My edits in square brackets]):

I didn't really realize that this was a superhero book, since there were no secret identities, kid sidekicks, or nosy girl reporters involved. But I recognized "the monster artist" [Jack Kirby] from those other books, and then when the story ended with Reed showing the Skrull commander "pictures clipped out of Strange Tales and Journey Into Mystery", I was hooked. Except that I could never find any more issues in this line. It seemed that the store near our house didn't carry the title, and we never had cause to go near that hospital again. So I had to read and re-read that issue for more than four years, wondering if anything ever became of this odd little combo.

I remember noticing that unlike the DCs I was so used to reading, this was one full book-length story (albeit divided up into chapters).

I remember that so much of the story was told purely in the pictures rather than repeated in expository captions. Like when at the beginning of one of the chapters when the FF are captured by the army, The Thing has reverted to Ben Grimm, but no captions mentioned it and four panels went by before the army general asked "Who are you, mister???"

I remember that Reed looked slightly menacing in his first few panel appearances. [Reed's three dimensional psychology will often be discussed in these reviews.]

I remember that opening panel where an amorphous orange blob (which we're supposed to recognize, apparently) is swimming towards an oil rig. The opening panel was actually the beginning of the story, rather than a second cover shot as was common at DC.

I remember little blurbs at the bottom of some of the pages, saying things like "What is ... the Incredible Hulk" and "Look for Amazing Adult Fantasy"

I remember the closing panel being memorable because it was a long shot of four tiny figures walking across a field wondering if they did the right thing, as opposed to the DC standard of back-slapping reinforcement of some moral or other.

I remember noticing that the colors were very muddy and imprecise and yet that didn't distract me from being fascinated by the story itself. Over at the Distinguished Competition, for instance, Superman's 'S' symbol, as small and colorful as it was, was always very precisely delineated and colored with nothing going outside the lines, whereas in this book even a dark purple water tower was off-register. [The comics had no money: that's why they were allowed to take risks.]

I remember noticing that there were actual signatures on many of the splash panels, something unheard of in the DC comics I'd been mostly reading up until then.

I remember thinking that the dull yellow cover seemed odd, when compared to the primary color backgrounds throughout the Weisingerverse. [A reference to DC's famous editor Mort Weisinger]

I remember studying for hours that three-or-four-panel progression where Ben gradually reverts to The Thing. Had I been a Madison Avenue executive I'd market that progression with the catchphrase "You'll believe a monster can cry.">"

I mean, I still enjoyed reading about The Thought Beasts of Krypton and Proty and Gorilla Grodd. But THIS ... this was DIFFERENT.


Other points to note

The fourth Skrull

Before moving to discuss issue 3, remember what sets the Fantastic Four apart from others stories of the time: continuity.  Each story is caused by the one before. Issue 2 was a direct response to the team's appearance in issue 1. Issue 4 continues directly from issue 3. So we should expect issue 3 to be a result of issue 2. So let's consider the last panels of issue 2 that lead into the "worse trouble ahead" in issue 3. Notice anything?

Ff 2-3

Yes, they are both about hypnotism. And not just hypnotism, but super-hypnotism, beyond anything a human could do.

Both the missing fourth Skrull and Miracle Man have hypnotism powers. This is the fourth skrull later when he copied Senator Craddock:


The Miracle Man, when alone,  referred to "the human race" as if they were a different race from him:

human race

Both the fourth Skrull and Miracle Man are shape changers.

 shape changers

Both the fourth Skrull and Miracle Man (and Craddock) have the same goal: to destroy the team's reputation, in order to make them useless.


The Miracle Man succeeded. When he was supposedly beaten Johnny suddenly changed his character and the team fell apart. The Miracle Man got what he wanted.

Johnny changes
The same thing happened the next time the Miracle Man appeared: the team thought they had defeated him, but his actions led to the break up of the team. (In FF 138-139 he kept the more functional members busy so that nobody noticed an impending disaster)

But wait, you say, there is no need for this theory: we already know what happened to the fourth Skrull, right?

the fourth Skrull

But that explanation makes no sense. How did the fourth Skrull get up there? There is no sign of a spare rocket. And if the fourth skrull returned he would have told the invasion fleet that the four "skrulls" were really the FF. And How did Reed learn that Skrulls could be hypnotized? How did Reed learn to be a hypnotist?

The answer is supposed to be "the Skrulls are stupid." But this is the empire that outsmarted the Kree Supreme Intelligence for thousands of years. While it is very plausible that most Skrulls are stupid, any invasion would need some very smart ones. Besides, the "stupid skrulls" theory makes no sense. They were fooled by cut out images from a comic book? They thought Earth had armies of giant monsters? But the Skrulls have been studying the planet very closely since the 1930s.They knew exactly what they were doing.
first Skrulls
And on the Skrull planet what do we find? That they routinely use hypnotism against outsiders.

So all the evidence points to Reed being the one who was hypnotized at the end of issue 2. The other three Skrulls seem to be just cannon fodder, so the fourth one probably hypnotized them as well.

But wait you say, if the Miracle Man was a skrull, why didn't he revert to Skrull form when he died in the 1980s?

Miracle Man death

Because there is no proof that he did die. He had plenty of warning, and the shot was not to his head. A shape changer could easily route around the injury, but fake death to maintain his cover. (And his later "resurrection" by Dormammu was at a time when continuity had been largely ignored for decades. But if we demand strict continuity we could draw parallels with the resurrection of Doom by the Beyonder, which created a whole mess of continuity, but the Beyonder and Dormammu don't care about such details: they want a character so "poof" the character appears.)

But you say that Skrulls were not routinely pretending to be humans back then? Oh no? Ever read a book called "Secret Invasion"?

In short, the "idiot skrulls" theory makes no sense. But if issue 3 was a continuation of issue 2 then suddenly everything makes sense.

Maybe the Skrulls always win

A good case could be made that every Skrull battle was won by the Skrulls, and the angry "losers" we see (e.g. the ruler in FF annual 19) are just minor players. In FF 91 we see that they model an entire planet on Earth. Presumably this is to better understand the humans. We see in AFF annual 17 that Skrull cells regenerate extremely quickly, so it is probably extremely easy to grow large numbers of Skrulls. So devoting an entire planet to defeating another planet would not be diffieult. This would go a long way to epxlaining their civilisation's success. Maybe they understand us better than we understand ourselves. With that in mind, let's look at every Skrull appearance:

At least, that's my current thinking on the topic.

Issue 3: the triumph of self belief

In issue 1 Reed created tension with the government by launching without permission. In issue 2 the team were national enemies. But by the end of issue 2 the authorities are on their side. To paraphrase the policeman at the end, "if only the public knew what we know!" Triumphant, Reed's ambition knows no bounds: he previously had a network of safe houses, but he now rents the top floors of a skyscraper in the heart of the financial district. We are now in 1962, the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The theme of confidence is palpable: enemies may appear to be unstoppable, but as with the Miracle Man, this belief is often an illusion.

Reality versus illusion: hypnotism as a metaphor
How does hypnotism work on TV viewers or to those out of sight? The simplest explanation is that nobody was hypnotized via TV at all: the entire thing took place in the minds of the FF, they were hypnotized at the theater. That is all. This is all about the media.

This is an example of the zeitgeist: the rise of the importance of the media in the Kennedy era. Kennedy was a master of the media. Whether the media was the theater or newspapers or rumors or TV, it was the same. This story is about beliefs, not reality. Starting with issue 3 the FF are public celebrities, so beliefs make reality.

"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself"
This story was written in 1961. The previous year Kennedy had given his famous "fear itself" speech. The way to beat miraculously powerful enemies was self belief. The Miracle Man can be seen as a metaphor for communism: his actual power was limited but his imagined power was infinite.

Brain washing is a closely related theme. In 1961 Americans could clearly remember the Korean War, with its rumors of brain washing. Brain washing was a topic in the zeitgeist, and a theme of several early FF stories, most notably the Puppet Master. But issue 3 was the first to use it.

Fantastic Four 3

Love triangles

The Fantastic Four is known (or should be known) for its love triangles:

These really deserve an essay all of their own. Maybe one day.

Tragedy: "I want be Ben Grimm again! I want Sue to look at me the way she looks at you!"

This issue continues Ben's frustration as Sue is slipping through his fingers. Above we see a reminder of issue 1: Ben and Reed were rivals for Sue's love. Ben was the handsome one... until Reed's space flight. No wonder he's angry.

It's the last twist of a terrible fate. Not only have Richards and Storm cursed Grimm with his irreversibly "ugly, gruesome" frame. As if that wasn't enough, he's now dependent on their comradeship and support even as he longs for his best friend's lover. It's a degree of passionate desire fused with understandable resentment that constantly festers to trigger Grimm's psychotic rages. When cornering the runaway Human Torch in The Coming Of The Sub-Mariner, he spits; "Don't worry, sonny boy ... I'm not gonna spoil your pretty features! I'll just rough you up a little ... Teach you who's boss, once and for all." It’s a scene that goes far beyond faux-sibling, rib-tickling rivalry. In truth, it’s still a frankly terrifying sequence, with the apparently unhinged Grimm holding a car above the Torch’s head and then bitterly, mockingly asking “Why aren’t you laughing now?”. In that, his portrayal can't help but touch upon issues of profound inadequacies, individual responsibility and, in a variety of fashions, abuse." (source)

Note how at the beginning it's Ben who is humiliated in front of an audience, not others. It's always Ben

And here are the themes again:
  1. Confidence: if you believe, you win!
  2. Reluctance: Johnny leaves
  3. Equality: The story begins with the team wanting to be part of the audience, just ordinary Americans, not celebrities. And there is sexual equality: later it's Sue who takes action while the others dither.
  4. The American dream: a new home, a penthouse suite with a flying car!

The fantasti-car

flying cars

The "flying bathtub" reflects the zeitgeist of the day: this was an era where vertical take off craft were first developed. Top: the "Avro" car built between 1959 and 1961 (it turned out to be too hot and unstable for full time use). Bottom: the "flying bedstead" (compare the "flying bathtub"), a successful test rig used by Rolls Royce. Note the Kirby technology. Below we have the "flying bathtub" from this issue and the later sky cycle, a variant on the Rolls Royce Flying Bedstead.

flying bathrub
        and sky cycle

Where is the Baxter Building?

The Baxter Building has been called the fifth member of the team. it symbolizes what they stand for: unlike other heroes who keep secret identities the stand as a beacon in the middle of New York, where everybody can see them and find them when needed. Unlike other heroes who look downward (toward the world of crime), the Fantastic Four reach upward toward a better tomorrow. The Baxter Building is a Statue of Liberty for science.

The comic never states the location of the Baxter Building, but from internal evidence we can be fairly confident that it is based on the Western Electric Building in the financial district, on Broadway and Fulton Street. But first let us first examine the common belief that it is on 42nd street and Madison Avenue.

Official handbooks are just empty filler
A few years ago I helped to produce the official handbook for a certain well known comic (not the FF). I learned that these handbooks are mostly nonsense. This is why:

  1. As I have learned from creating this site, to genuinely research a handbook would require days or months of work for every page. Nobody would pay for that!
  2. The whole concept of a handbook is nonsense. We are given heights and weights and maximum strength for characters - facts that were never established in the comic!
  3. Handbooks routinely contradict the comics. For example, all the handbooks state that the Baxter Building has 30 regular floors plus 5 for the FF, making 35 in total. But F 148 clearly states, on the splash page, that the building has 35 + 5 = 40 floors. This is stated boldly on page one, specifically to clear up any confusion, but the handbooks ignore it.
  4. The writers genuinely do not care: they are concerned with making stories that are exciting. Good writers care for realism, so that allows nerds like me to fit everything together. But do not care about the details. If you create a handbook for them that looks fun they are happy to sign it off. They are paid to entertain, not to count the number of windows on every building!

What the handbooks say
The comic stories themselves (at least pre 1990, and probably not pre 2000) never tell us the address of the Baxter Building, and the handbooks contradict each other:

Finally, Fantastic Four volume 3 issue 39 (2001) has a new Baxter Building constructed in space. It then lands on 42nd street and Madison. So this is the new accepted address in most handbooks, on Wikipedia, etc. But this was in the Franklinverse period and tells us nothing about the original address. (There is also the possibility that when the building returns after FF 202 it comes to a different address: its return is not shown.)

The real Baxter Building is not hard to find

I recently watched a time lapse video of the New York Skyline, and saw the Baxter Building for the first time. This is the view from One World Trade Center as it would have been in 1951 and 1961. Spot the difference? That's the Western Electric Building in the middle, built in 1961. That was the first year when the Baxter Building first appeared (also the year it was built, according to FF 250).


When Kirby drew the new headquarters he naturally wanted the most modern looking skyscraper possible. The Western Electric building had only just opened. Being an electric company, the residents would not be disturbed if scientists with complicated equipment came and went. And - get this - Western Electric ran a major defense laboratory (Sandia National Labs) and trained people for the space program!

"In 1960, NASA awarded Western Electric a contract for over $33,000,000 for engineering and construction of a tracking system for the Project Mercury program. As part of this effort, Western Electric engineers trained remote-site flight controllers and Project Mercury control center and operations personnel." (Wikipedia)

The upper part looks a little taller than we are used to, but it's closer to the original picture when it first appeared in FF issue 3. Artists must mainly see it from the front, the section that can detach (see below), so they assume the building is square (when seen from the top). But these photos are well within the bounds of artistic license:

Baxter details

This solves the mystery of the number of floors: the official number is 40 (see FF 148) yet every early picture shows it as much shorter. This is now easy to explain. The Western Electric building has 31 floors. One of those would be for the lift mechanism or engineering, so it's basically 30 floors. Now imagine that the FF tell Marvel "the top part is our penthouse, divided into five floors." A quick glance at the building would make us think "30 storey building plus five floor penthouse equals 35 floors". A similar error later on made it seem like "35 floors plus 5" and that became canon. But in fact the base of the western section is only eighteen floors. The penthouse section is officially twelve floors, combined into five larger floors to allow for the aircraft hangar (the white area, about 5 normal floors high) and the laboratories (around three normal floors high).

Objections to the Western Electric Building:

So there you have it. Western Electric was involved in the space program, and built its high tech building in 1961, exactly as shown in the comics. It all fits.

After the Baxter Building
The end of the Baxter Building mirrors (or anticipates) the end of Western Electric. In 1982 Reed buys the building, and in 1986 it is destroyed , to be quickly replaced by a bigger skyscraper. In 1984 Western Electric was split up, with a new charter and called "AT&T Technologies" (reflecting how the FF was incorporated as part of "Integrated Technologies" in FF 160). In 1986 their telephone production ended in America, the work being sent overseas.

Reed replaced the Baxter Building with a much bigger building, called "Four Freedoms Plaza" (a nod to Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms" speech, and the subsequent "Four Freedoms Park"). The taller FF Plaza reflects the optimism and madness of the 1980s property bubble more than anything else. And like the 1980s boom it had little permanence. The FF part was soon destroyed (in the Infinity War, 1992), the team left it soon after, and soon after that the whole thing was destroyed (Heroes Reborn, 1996, and Thunderbolts).

Reed the capitalist

Why choose the financial district? And how could Reed Richards afford to buy half a building? And how did he afford a series of hideouts in issue 2? And how did he afford to help fund a rocket in issue 1? Clearly Reed is extraordinarily wealthy. Here I will argue that Reed is a capitalist, and this is his main power, more important than his stretching or his science, is his ability to control resources. This has obvious implications for the Great American Novel: while on the surface America is built on freedom and pioneering, its real power is its capitalism: its ability to take existing wealth (originally the land itself) and multiply it.

What is capitalism
Capitalism refers to using capital (whatever resources you can find) to make more resources. People with great skill in capitalism can amass great wealth. Capitalism contrasts with socialism, where the resources are shared, and is often criticized because the person who grabs the resources often does so in questionable ways. I think this all applies to Reed. His genius ability is in finding the best possible use for resources. That's capitalism at its purest.

Why Reed is a genius
Reed gets most of his technology from alien contact, especially the Gormuu ship, Skrull ship and planet X saucer, then he studies every alien artifact he can find. I don't see any evidence that he invents things from scratch, but plenty of evidence that he adapts existing work. That is what all great geniuses do: they stand on the shoulders of giants. This is not to disparage Reed: it takes a brilliant mind to understand how alien technology works. it just makes him realistic, IMO. But this is classic capitalism: take a resource and use it to make more wealth.

Reed's wealth
Let's look at FF issue 1. Reed invested a lot of his own money in the rocket ship, but it still needed a lot of investment from the government: probably the majority of the funds came from the government, as it costs a lot to build and run a spaceport. This is classic capitalist behavior: Reed uses his money to leverage other people (the government) to invest even more.

Now look at issue 2: the team have a series of secret hideouts. If Reed owns all that property it's very expensive. Then in issue 3, he buys the top five floors of a new building: all this indicates great wealth. As far as we know his wealth comes from his patents. Getting wealth from patents is classic capitalist activity. And those patents would rely mostly on Gormuu's technology: grabbing assets and claiming ownership is pretty much the core of capitalism.

In issue 9 we learn that Reed invests heavily on the stock market and takes enormous risks. Years later we learn that his father is a multi-billionaire. In issue 160 he incorporates the team for tax purposes, and sells it to a very shady businessman, against the wishes of the rest of the team.

When Terrax damaged the Baxter Building, Reed bought the whole thing for a price that made Mr Collins giddy with excitement. Yet just twenty issues earlier Reed was using the subway to save money (reminds me of many billionaires: they never waste anything). Then when the building was destroyed, the insurance money allowed Reed to build a far bigger building, and then the priceless contents of the Baxter Building mysteriously reappeared (in annual 23 I think). It all shrieks capitalism to me.

Then we have Reed's interest in secrecy in the early issues, and how he managed to get extraordinary planning permission: a rocket and deadly scientific equipment in the heart of New York? This suggests a closeness with people in high places. For me it all shrieks wealth and contacts. And the secrecy never stops: in issue 114 Reed pays a 20 thousand dollar fine from his personal funds and Ben says he didn't realize they had that kind of dough. You don't know the half of it, Ben. Even if you have the vital part from a Skrull ship, building your own subspace portal or flying car would still cost millions probably billions.

His main power
So why do I say that capitalism is his main power? Most people will agree that his scientific ability is more important than his stretching ability, but I argue that his scientific ability is secondary to his ability to use the resources he finds. Without his capitalist talent he would be like Hank Pym or the Mad Thinker or the Wizard: those three are at the very top of the scientific tree, but they lack resources. So they will always be C-listers. The scientists who become A-listers all do so via capitalism: think Tony Stark and his factories, or Dr Doom and his vast property portfolio. 

When he lost his main power
In this light we can look again at Reed i the 1970s. He lost his stretching power and used tat as a reason to give up, But as Sue pointed out, his stretching power was never his most important asset. So why did Reed focus on stretching?
rubber band
Stretching was just a symptom, and an excuse. The real loss was of his self confidence. First when Sue left, and soon after that when he incorporated the team (in FF160) and it went disastrously wrong. Reed's real power was to be "Mister Fantastic": to be a "Master of the universe", to take big risks and achieve world-saving results. But when he started to make mistakes he lost all confidence. His scientific ability was unimportant in comparison: without his confidence the team could not go on.

Wealth or genius: which creates the best science?
Wealth gives you access to science even if you're not a top scientist. The skrulls have low intelligence, but their empire gives them access to high technology. Namor is no scientist, but his position gives him access to the very best. Gregory Gideon can hire all the scientific help he needs. With science, the biggest power is not the size of your brain but the size of your wallet. Every real world scientist knows this: you can be the smartest guy in the world and save the word in your lab, but go home poor and in debt, while your idiot boss takes all the money. Love it or hate it, capitalism is the power in this world, and that is the real basis of Reed's power, IMO.

Objections to the capitalist theory


The story goes that comic fans demanded secret identities and costumes. So in issue 3 the team was given masks, but masks are simply not realistic, so they were erased before the comic was published.

The team were never given costumes as such: not the brightly colored capes and masks that other heroes had. But as a team they did get a uniform, a simple, functional jumpsuit in a single dull color such as astronauts wear. Compare this with the flashy costumes worn by every other superhero: the Fantastic Four are fundamentally different.

Not like superheroes
When regular superheroes get costumes they show them off. But when the team get their costumes (uniforms) we don't get a  clear view, and Ben refers to his as a "monkey suit" before tearing it off. These are not godlike icons parading to be admired, they are people who just wear clothes.

Not because of fans
It is said that the FF gained costumes as a result of fan demand. But the comics were written several months ahead of publication, so this is too early. Some of the letters printed in FF3 are made up by staff members, suggesting that very few had arrived when the letters page was made up. The story itself would have been written a month or so before that (to allow time for art), before even those few letters arrived. A more likely explanation is that the absence of costumes was always the plan to sneak a superhero book past the distributor (they used DC comics to distribute, and DC did not want direct competition). For the same reason the first three issues had monsters on the cover, to look like an ordinary monster comic. Issue 3's monster cover was changed at the last minute to the cover that was eventually published.

unused cover

So it was always the plan to start by looking like a monster comic, and then sneakily reveal itself to be a superhero comic. However, the story was evolving in a direction that made Stan Lee decide not to have bright costumes (with masks), but to have functional uniforms instead. This is an early example of how the story writes itself, and goes beyond what the writer intended. For more about the uniforms and the unstable molecules from which they are made, see the notes to issue 15.


The Baxter building headquarters were first described as secret. While the team were well known from a distance, the public did not know their personal identities. This is important for the context of alienation: the team were not yet comfortable with the public. This secrecy also helps us to date the stories (particularly the Torch's solo tales). How secret were they?

Stan Lee and authority figures
Why was Stan Lee writing such negative authority figures in these early issues? it could be because just three years earlier the national campaign against comics and senate hearings had almost destroyed his career: the authorities were about to ban comics and Timely (Marvel) almost ceased to exist. That has to affect how you see people in power. (But as time went on and Marvel became powerful itself Stan soon began building bridges.)

In summary, the FF were well known to everyone by issue 7, but mostly unknown before issue 3. Between those dates depends on how well you were paying attention.

Dating the first three issues

Why was Johnny so angry at the end of FF3? He may have been influenced by the Miracle Man, but his actions had to seem natural to the others or they would suspect. Miracle Man had to be pushing at an open door, finding the weak point to exploit.


Clearly there's a major disagreement over the direction of the team. We can learn more form "Strange Tales", where Johnny wanting to be a solo hero. When seen in the context of early secrecy this enables us to date the early stories.

In Strange Tales 102, the Torch's second solo story, the Wizard did not know the Torch's identity, and staged an elaborate stunt to find him
Strange Tales

the end of the story is even more clear: the Wizard does not consider the possibility that The Invisible Girl could be present. Was he just flustered? No, this is a guy who's an escape artist, exactly the kind of guy who knows not to get flustered. The implication is clear: at that time Johnny's identity was not well known, and Sue Storm had a much lower profile. So that dates the first Wizard story to before FF6, and probably before FF3. Meanwhile, the Wizard uses the flame suit from issue 2 (see the discussion of Reed's technology). So we can date the Wizard story to between 2 and 3. Given the time needed to build the Baxter Building, the time between the events of FF2 and FF3 is probably much more than the two months between the issues.

The case against an early date
Johnny is wearing his uniform at the start of Strange Tales 101, and Sue has her uniform at the end of 102. So this might place the story after issue 3, i.e. between 4 and 5 (since 3 moves directly into 4). But it could still be before issue 3.

If this was a 1961 story, updated to 1962, then it would be standard practice to draw characters as they are, not as they were. See for example the flashback in FF 126. Or see FF207 (Spidey and the Torch) or FF222 (the Coca-Cola issue): these were inventory issues, that sat around for months or years before being used. When finally published the stories were tweaked to make them appear up to date. But with Strange Tales 102 the secrecy was essential to the story that they could not tweak it out, it had to stay in, even though it had become anachronistic.

All of this assumes of course that the stories are real, and are reported to Stan and Jack. This is what the stories themselves say, and the only way we can see the stories are realistic, so it is an iron rule. Everything else follows from that.

Johnny's career and issue dates
This all fits the internal evidence of the early FF issues. In FF1 we see that Johnny loves being the Torch whereas the others don't. In FF2 we see how they feel very uncomfortable being recognized in public (I suspect that this may be the only time Johnny was seen not flamed on?), and they have numerous hideouts. It also seems very likely that several months passed between FF1 and FF2, and between FF2 and FF3. At the end of FF3, Johnny is so frustrated with the team that he leaves. Based on this I think we can reconstruct Johnny's early adventures with confidence:

FF1: Johnny wants to immediately spend all his time being the Torch, whereas the others want to hide. This creates tension. Johnny and Sue already live in Glendale, so Johnny swears his friends to secrecy and starts having fun. His first solo tale probably comes from this time. The early Human Torch stories have lame villains simply because this is all so new - Johnny is completely inexperienced and so are they. At this point relationships with the authorities are very strained, due to the whole spaceship thing. (It was a collaborative effort between Reed and the government, and of course they wanted to say when the ship left.) So Johnny wants a separate career away from all the politics and stress. The date must be before the Russians put the first man in space, so before late April 1961 (the story was plotted in April or May). We can't put the rocket ship much before this, because the space race was very tight: America was not that far ahead, and issue 1 makes clear that every day counted. The Mole Man story was obviously a little later, to allow for Reed to have his own base and to have patched up his relationship with the military. The latest possible date is late April, because Stan and Jack were writing up the story then.

FF2 and FF3: the big story here is that the team finally become friendly with the authorities. This allows them next issue to help build the Baxter Building: first a secret project, but it very quickly becomes public. It's hard to hide when the Fantasti-car lands on its roof in the middle of New York! Several lines of evidence let us date the construction of the Baxter Building:

This all points to the Baxter building being built in 1961, and the major finalizing work (including the rocket exhaust channel to the underground) in at most three or four months between the events of issues 2 and 3. This is also the time when Johnny had his "secret identity" adventures. FF3 should be dated as late as possible to allow as much time for construction as possible. FF3 was plotted around August-September based on information given by the team, so I'd date it to the start of September. We have to push issue 2 back as early as possible to allow for the building work and Johnny's career, so I'd guess May for FF2, or perhaps even earlier. The team are already celebrities at the start of FF2, and have gained the attention of nearby Skrulls. But people can become celebrities very quickly, and the skrulls would be monitoring news broadcasts for anybody who might defend the planet, so this does not imply a very long time. So I'd place the rocket ship of FF1 in perhaps March of 1961, and .

In summary, these are my preferred dates:

Johnny's influence on the Baxter Building
It is likely that part of Reed's motivation for building his high tech building, complete with rocket, was Johnny's love of vehicles. Johnny was enjoying a separate highly public career around his home in Glendale while the others were trying to live in secret. The Baxter Building helped to keep Johnny on board, where they could control him. The emphasis on vehicles no doubt helped his final decision to stay: the building was designed around the needs of a Fantasti-car and a pogo plane! The plan worked. Johnny stayed, and in issue 12 we learn that he spent a lot of his time working on the Fantasticar, remodeling it.

I love how everything fits together so neatly.


Other points to note

Issue 4: divided we fall

Fantastic Four -
      American Dream

"I don’t think it’s overstating it too much to say that this is nearly a Shakespearean reversal of character expectations. To take a previously known hero and recast him in the form of a villain with completely sympathetic motivations" -

The American dream is represented in this issue by a montage of American scenes.

The Zeitgeist: The great threat, like the threat from Cuba, is off the coast. It is caused by Nuclear weapons testing (Namor's home was destroyed by bomb tests). Just as Cuba could summon the might of Russia, so little Namor (once he has lost his Castro-like beard) can summon the gigantic monster from the deep. The solution of course is a nuclear bomb.

Equality is once again an issue when we see the arguments within the team, and by having a sympathetic "villain:" Namor is only an enemy because of what our side did to his people: can we really blame him? Sue understand this, and does not see him as an enemy at all, but the boys lack that insight. This is an example of why Sue is the most powerful member of the team, regardless of invisible power: her ability to make alliances is more effective than any physical power. The simple act of befriending the Sub-Mariner means she has found mankind an ally who represents three quarters of the surface area of the planet and advanced technology, plus one of Earth's mightiest and bravest beings himself. That alliance alone dwarfs the majority of victories or defeats in future years.

In this issue it's Johnny's turn to express his self confidence while also showing his reluctance to be a hero (and Ben is reluctant to get him back). Sue appeared hesitant in issue 1, Reed blamed himself in issue 2, they all doubted themselves in issue 3, and now it's Johnny's turn for some soul searching. In issue 5 it's Ben who wants to leave. Act 1 is where each person must decide to accept the challenge and wholeheartedly be part of the team.

Fantastic Four 4

Here Reed begins to undermine the Thing's confidence, a process that will increase in Act 2. It's probably not conscious, but it works. Meanwhile, Namor's tragedy mirrors Ben: both have lost everything due to scientists playing God, and both will ultimately fail to win Sue's heart.

The power struggle

The ending has been called too sudden and too silly. As if it suddenly builds up and is over the top: Ben destroying the monster with a gigantic bomb, then Johnny creating a tornado. But Ben is the one we remember.

But see it in the context of the bigger story: the first arc is where the boys fight over who is most important, and Reed does not win. The first issues all have Ben angry: he's a hero, not a monster! The strongest guy in the group (in his eyes), not some second fiddle to the nerd! Here he proves his worth in a dramatic way. And Johnny wants to top that. Last issue, Johnny left because he was not appreciated. This foreshadows the 28 year story where Johnny's abilities are never appreciated. Just look at Strange Tales for what he can do. In this issue, after spending time away from the team he comes back to pull out all the stops: he creates the most dramatic feat of his career. Ben and Johnny make Reed look irrelevant. Next issue Reed will meet Doom, a mirror to himself, and in Act 2 he will follow Doom's lead and dominate the others.

The ending to FF 4 (appropriately the fourth issue of the team of four) is all about power. And of course Sue quietly is the most powerful of all. Why did Namor propose to her within three panels of meeting her? Like many women, Sue no doubt works hard on being attractive: his attraction is no accident. While the boys focus on conflict and get only the most temporary successes, Sue's gentle methods will soon turn Namor, ruler of three quarters of the planet, into their most powerful ally.

Ben's character development
At the start Ben is angry and violent (e.g. against Johnny) but by the end we see his softer side.
"I've always felt that the presence of Namor [a real he-man who threatens to take away the woman Ben loves, making him feel vulnerable] was directly responsible for the Thing evolving out of that role and into one that would make him one of Marvel's most beloved and noble heroes." ("Trebor the Unconquered")

In this issue Ben is established as the common man. Reed's attempts to find Johnny are farcical, and Sue isn't very observant. Only Ben has the common sense to know where Johnny would be.

The original Sue: spunky!
In this issue we see the original independent, free spirit Sue: drinking somebody else's drink (how did she pay for it if nobody knew she was there?), kicking somebody over. She defies others ("maybe, maybe not" in issue 3; defying Doom in issue 5). She had spunk. But Reed's control turned her into the quiet housewife. She tried it his way for the first few years (acts 2 and 3). And his way did not work (act 4) so she will finally take effective control (see notes to FF159).


Was it just luck?
Was it an unrealistic coincidence that Johnny found the Sub-Mariner? No, Johnny was already interested in him, and would have known this was his best chance:

So we have a studious young man (not like the idiot Johnny of the Franklinverse), with a special interest in the Sub-Mariner. He finds himself in the location where the Sub-mariner was last seen, and talks to the kind of people he moved among. So for Johnny to then find Namor was not a complete surprise.

Sue's great secret
For Sue's probable past history with Namor, see the notes to FF 291. This is incredibly important, but the reasons may not be obvious until the end of the 28 year story. The Great American Novel is ultimately about Susan Storm, and this issue is where we get a hint of her great secret.

Why is Sue attracted to Namor?
Sue is attracted to Namor's nobility. But wait, isn't Namor now a villain? No. He only attacks New York because America has, unprovoked, destroyed his nation! Americans would do the same thing if the tables were turned: imagine if Afghanistan wiped out the whole of the United States, American survivors would not sit back and say "oh dear, never mind." Namor is acting like a good American. Then the Fantastic Four enter this war as America's defenders. According to the rules of war they are then legitimate targets (in FF6). Remember that to Namor, the FF are terrorists: their organization (America) bombed the innocent Atlanteans, and then the FF kill the greatest animal who ever lived... with a bomb. 

Namor's nobility compared with Reed's
Despite having justice on his side, despite losing everything, Namor forgives the nation and is happy to simply humble the terrorists without hurting them (FF9). How many Americans would have forgiven so quickly if the tables were turned? Sue is attracted by his nobility. Unlike Reed (see issue 7 where Reed lies, and controls and belittles his friends), Namor's motives and actions are always pure.

Atlantis as a metaphor for Cuba


Other points to note


Issue 5: their nemesis

Fantastic Four 5


Reluctance: Ben finally leaves the team and finds somewhere he belongs: somewhere that his natural manliness is valued. But eventually his loyalty forces him back, even though he is going back to a life where Reed will treat him like child and his only outlet is to play along. This short sequence is a powerful tragedy that could be expanded into a moving full length play, if treated with sufficient gravitas.

Confidence: Ben's turning point:
choosing to return is Ben's turning point. his spirit is finally broken.

Ben's turning point

After this he still answers back, but the fire has gone. Before this he was surly, violent, not always likable. But from here on he is more humble. The reader is drawn to sympathize. (And as a side note, see the wonderful coloring: the highlights on Ben, the dramatic eerie light over Reed.)

Here, at the end of Act 1, Ben is a beaten man. Reed will continue to whittle away at Ben's self confidence through Act 2, until Ben is treated as one of the children. And the tragedy is that he will accept that role because his spirit has gone. He will not regain his spirit until he has to undergo the hero's mental journey at the end of Act 4, exploring his psyche and slaying he demons on Battle world. Appropriately, Reed's own dark journey will be just as deep and painful, until Ben ends up as leader and Reed is the one who is humbled. But we're getting ahead of ourselves! We should just note that Ben leader a team in issue 4 foreshadows his role in Act 5.

Just as Ben loses his confidence, so Johnny gains his. From now on, Johnny will tend to be the one who starts their fights. Soon after this, at the same time that Act 2 starts, Johnny begins his own adventures in Strange Tales, and eventually Ben will join him as a guest-star: the adult, the war hero and test pilot, as comedy co-star to the teenager.

Equality: Sue is at first glance a weak hostage, but defeats Doom and saves the team when the others fail (see below).

The American Dream: note the scene with the hard working Americans in their office block... and at the top, in the penthouse suite, is the Fantastic Four.

Doctor Doom

For an overview of Doom's twenty appearances see his own page.

Dr Doom

The real Doctor Doom worked on the atomic bomb

"Lewis G. Doom worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1944 as part of the Manhattan Project: an effort that culminated in two nuclear detonations over Japan and the end of World War II. We first learned about Mr. Doom thanks to a tweet from nuclear historian Alex Wellerstein, who found a document signed by 'L.G. Doom,' and concluded that Doctor Doom helped the U.S. become a nuclear power. [...] I was able to find Mr. Doom's phone number, and gave him a call. [...] A fresh graduate of Princeton in 1944, he put his name on two atomic studies that have since been unclassified and released to the public: 'Thermal analysis of plutonium,' and 'Development of gamma-phase hot-pressing of uranium.'"

That's right: the real Doctor Doom worked on the gamma bomb. (More or less.) And he worked with the people who piloted the planes:

"I loved flying, we had wonderful pilots there."

I wonder he he met a particular young test pilot, a high school football star?  Technically he was not a doctor, but he would have been if it wasn't war time, he certainly knew enough.

"So are you actually Doctor Doom?"
"At that time, people did not have the luxury of going on to higher degrees, we had to either join the Navy, Army, or Air Force, or work in a defense industry."
"Did you ever get any Dr. Doom jokes while you were working on the bomb?"
"(Laughs.) Many. There were so many of them that I can’t remember half of them. And in fact, early in life, I thought I would become a doctor."

Note how these jokes about "doctor Doom" predate the Fantastic Four: clearly the name was in the zeitgeist.

The name "Doctor Doom": revenge for humiliation

The real Doom's name was Dutch: Doom was an americanized version of "Dume", a name from Germany's Rhein Valley, originally a nickname meaning "naive". There are other possibilities. Victor was a Romany (a Gypsy - see annual 2) and in the Romany language "dumo" means back, or the rear part of a person's body. Like "Dume", "Von dumo" could have been a humiliating name, either an insult or a reflection of the family's lowly status. Another possibility was the German-Jewish nickname "Daum" meaning "short person", similar to the German Daumen "thumb". Victor may have embraced the similar English word "doom" as poetic revenge on the world for how his family was always humiliated, even by their name. Victor's life is dominated by the need to never be humiliated.

Or "From the homeland"

There is also another possibility, suggested by "von" meaning "from the estate of":

"In German, von is a preposition which approximately means of or from. When it is used as a part of a German family name, it is usually a nobiliary particle, like the French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese de. At certain times and places, it has been illegal for anyone who was not a member of the nobility to use von before the family name. ...thus, "Hans von Duisburg" meant Hans from [the city of] Duisburg." -Wikipedia, "von"

"Doom" is not a common Germanic word, but is probably a contraction of "Domäne," the equivalent of the English "domain" or estate or sphere of influence. So his proper name is "Victor from the estate." Growing up with a name like that, while being persecuted as a traveler, would have planted the idea of ruling a permanent home in his mind. Given his tendency to violence it is natural for those around him to interpret "von Doom" (from the estate) as the English "doom" or death.

As for the title "doctor" this just meant educated man, as in the doctors of the church such as Augustine and Jerome. It does not imply medicine: there are doctors of medicine, but there are also doctors of divinity, or physics (PhD is "philosophy doctor").

Science and magic

As a cold war novel, the Fantastic Four reflects the fear that our enemies have secret powers. By exaggerating an enemy's power, rulers can persuade their own people to make greater sacrifices. So much for the symbolism: now let's look at how Doom's magic works.

What is magic?
Doom's specialty is mixing science and magic. This is made clear time and again, from the first time we see him in issue 5. Doom's origin in FF annual 2 shows his methods more clearly: he uses magic to change mundane things into much higher quality versions, but at great cost. So a man who cannot play the violin finds he can play perfectly, a man with a headache finds it is gone, and a lead case becomes gold. All but a few of Doom's achievements follow this pattern. So his first "invention" is a net that becomes far larger and stronger than seems feasible, and in FF6 he creates a grabber that magnifies "magnetic" force far beyond what should be possible.

A little thought shows how magic must work:

  1. Gain great power from somewhere
  2. Control that power in complex ways
  3. Pay the price. E.g. years of study, or for short cuts, appeal to a demon or sorcerer and then pay them what is needed (what they do is extremely difficult, so their help generally does not last long).

Science is of course the same. Any great discovery involves:

  1. Some useful feature or material or power source
  2. Great sophistication in how it is used
  3. Hard work or reliance on the work of others

So we see that magic is simply more advanced science. As the saying goes, any sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic.

Doom's unique brand of magic
Doom is different from other sorcerers because he uses science that we recognize: he is intermediate between great scientists such as Reed Richards and sorcerers such as Dr Strange. Doom's first appearance shows why: he has access to a time machine. This would allow him access to advanced science that is still recognizably mechanical: that is, from the year 3,000 rather than, say, the year 30,000.

Magic and time travel
Normally time travel is of limited use because you cannot bring back anything you could not have anyway (see comments by FF 272). But the whole point of magic is to apparently bend rules. Doom's unique insight was to use  magic to do what on the surface appears impossible. For how Doom obtained his time machine, see the notes to FF271.

Merlin's treasure

The long term structure

Note how the major elements in the future of Doom - including the role of Merlin - are all contained within his first appearance: the Great American Novel has a long term structure that was not obvious at first.

Doom's castle

It seems to me that Dark Island Castle (now called Singer Castle) fulfills the requirements of Doom's castle in FF 5. There are several closer castles, and the point is that a castle in New York is reality, not fiction. How could Doom resist a name like Dark Island castle? It's within a rocket-assisted helicopter ride of New York City (275 miles). The journey was probably 50 minutes or so, a surprise to the FF who thought Doom was based in Eastern Europe. The castle's extra turrets could be artistic license. The inside of the castle is suitably grand for Doom's tastes, and it's conveniently on the Canadian border for legal purposes (it was used for smuggling).

The castle is on an island, which explains the odd escape: Reed could stretch over some water to some rocks, so why not just stretch across the moat and let Sue walk across him? Ben would not fear alligators, and Johnny could fly. Yet for some reason, getting across the water was a problem. The water around Dark Island is wide yet shallow, so Johnny's causeway would have worked.

The legend of Oak Island, Nova Scotia, links the north east coast to Black beard, so it's no stretch of the imagination to think he may have sailed a little further north and down that waterway. As a route inland to the north of the colonies, with its many islands for hiding, this would be irresistible. So that explains how the time machine took them to Black beard, without having to travel any great distance.

This was before Doom had a major revenue stream (the Latverian tax base), so the castle was almost certainly rented. The animals were of course a sign of his ego, like Hearst's animal filled Xanadu. I don't know if the water was warm enough for alligators even in the summer, but he could easily have tethered them by a warm water outlet: they are obviously mainly for show.

Crossing the moat

The final event of act one carried great meaning: the team leave the castle, symbol of the old world, and symbolically walk on water, asserting their strength. In the classic stages of the hero's journey, this point matters. They have passed the test of act 1, they are entering act 2.
glass pathway
Consider the following "problems":

I like the power plays in these early stories, the underlying competition. It's not about "how do we defeat X" it's about who is in charge. Each man tries to look like the responsible male, and each pretends they only have the good of the team at heart. I love it!

Other points to note

Next: Act 2, Spaceships and bombs

Analysis of Act 1

The five act structure begins

The five act structure arises naturally and is never stated. However, the major divisions are clear to long time readers:

Act 1 contains all the elements of the first act of a classic five act structure:

All long term themes are introduced

The "theme" of any book is its message, what it is trying to say. As the "Great American Novel" page notes, the obvious themes are (1) Family and (2) Danger.  The person usually most concerned about family and danger is the mother, hence Sue is the natural star of the book. But part of this story is that the star, the most powerful member, is the one most often overlooked. She is literally and symbolically invisible. Invisibility a theme throughout the long term story: the real story is not the obvious one. The real dangers are hidden. This is made plain in Act 1:

  1. Issue 1's danger is hidden underground: underground is the classic metaphor for being hidden.
  2. Issue 2's danger is hidden in disguise among us, pretending to be us.
  3. Issue 3's danger is hidden in our friends: they seem normal but are in fact brainwashed.
  4. Issue 4's danger is hidden underwater (another common metaphor of the subconscious, especially in Freud).
  5. Issue 5's danger is hidden in worlds within worlds: the team disappear into worlds of the past are accessed through a hidden castle.

Other notable hidden worlds include the negative zone and the microverse, literally worlds inside worlds.

The themes of family and danger are very obvious, so won't be labored in these reviews. The less obvious themes are also introduced in act 1:

  1. Reluctant heroes: people should act out of duty, not self-interest.
  2. Self confidence: success depends on self confidence. This finds its greatest expression in Act 5 when they finally tension is resolved in
  3. Equality: everyone matters, even those we consider inferior.
  4. The American Dream: working hard and doing the right thing leads to a good life that the lazy or fearful can only dream of.

Each of these themes is also a conflict. All of these conflicts increase through the novel and are finally resolved in Act 5, when each person finally gets what they want (or is on the way to getting it). The remainder of Act 1 introduces all the main motifs and core characters, and conforms to the classic first act structure..

All core motifs are introduced

Act 1 introduces the major motifs of the novel: would-be monarchs (Mole Man, Skrulls, Namor, Doom), hidden races (Skrulls, Subterraneans, Atlanteans), dangerous frontiers (space, underground, oceans), Reed's health (from old academic to action hero), mind control (the Miracle Man), doppelgangers (the Skrull impersonators) and home (moving to the Baxter Building).

The high concept is introduced

The high concept is realism, not science fiction

Q: Why do you think the Fantastic Four have endured for so many years?

A: The readers could almost think of the characters as real live people.acting

Q: Do you see the Fantastic Four as a science fiction series?

A. In a way, but science fiction is sometimes limited because it usually involves aliens and other worlds and stuff like that. I wanted to keep the Fantastic Four very human. I loved the idea that their headquarters was in the Baxter Building, and I think I mentioned it was on the Lower East Side. People would tell me years later that they flew to New York and looked for the Baxter Building, which always made me feel great. When I was a kid, I read the Sherlock Holmes stories and I walked around Baker Street when I was in London many years later. When I told Jack to give them a headquarters, he did such a superb job."
- Stan Lee, "Comics Creators on Fantastic Four" pages 18-19.

More about how Stan and Jack created great stories

Cold war themes

For more about cold war themes, see "The Fantastic Four: A Mirror of Cold War America" by Rafiel York. Some of the themes covered in these early issues include

The four types

The four members are often compared to four...

Family members

  1. Mother (Sue)
  2. Father (Reed)
  3. Uncle (Ben)
  4. Child (Johnny)

Types of person

  1. Women (Sue: women were largely invisible in positions of power)
  2. The elite (Reed)
  3. The common man (Ben) - see FF 168
  4. Youth (Johnny)

Four elements

There are obvious parallels between the team and the four elements:

  1. Earth (Ben Grimm, who looks like he's made of rocks),
  2. Air (the Invisible girl, who is as invisible as air),
  3. Fire (Johnny storm, obviously)
  4. Water (Reed Richards, who's body can adopt any shape, like water).

The team occasionally battles elemental creatures representing these forces (e.g. in FF232). In the next generation the team will include an elemental who combines power over all four. See the commentary to FF61-62 for why she was the natural replacement for both sue and Reed.

The Fantastic Four is often compared to Jack Kirby's earlier creation "Challengers of the Unknown" because of the similar origin, uniform and purpose, and even in some stories similar powers. Thom pointed out that the four Challengers also reflected the four elements in their origin story (DC's Showcase, issue 6).

  1. "Professor Haley is associated with water in that he is a master skin diver. He is also the fluid thinker who originally seemed to be the leader of the group."
  2. "Rocky Davis is associated with earth by virtue of his first name, and his ability as an Olympic wrestling champion makes him the most physical (earthy) of the four."
  3. "Ace Morgan is associated with air in that he is a former Air Force fighter pilot and current test pilot of Air Force equipment who works for a defense contractor."
  4. "Red Ryan is associated with fire in that he has fiery red hair and is a circus daredevil–who was depicted in the expository introductions as jumping his motorcycle through flaming rings."

Four temperaments/humors

The Fantastic Four also parallel the four medieval humors or four temperaments (source)

  1. "Choleric: this is the soldier or warrior type. All about action. Shoot first and ask questions later. Start building the bookshelf without reading the directions. My way or the highway. Fantastic Four mnemonic: Johnny Storm, the Human Torch."
  2. "Sanguine: the scholar or scribe type. The record-keeper, the analyst. Approaches everything from a purely mental standpoint. [...]Reed Richards, the scientific genius of the quartet."
  3. "Melancholic: the farmer or contemplative type. Hangs on with both hands to what it’s got. The strong, silent type. Tradition! Finders, keepers. Fantastic Four mnemonic: Ben Grimm."
  4. "Phlegmatic: the slave, ruled by desires. Goes with the flow. Like water, conforms to the shape of the vessel its in; wears down its path by pure habit and persistence. Sure, I could exert myself… if I have to… I guess. Fantastic Four mnemonic: Sue Storm, The Invisible Woman, who blends effortlessly into the background.

This implies that, unlike the usual order (Sue is air, Reed is water), Sue is more like water (the path of non-resistance) and Reed is more like air (he expands to fit any space).

Jung's four archetypes

Jung identified four primary archetypes that make up the self:
  1. Persona: the mask worn by actors. Ben literally physically rejects wearing a mask.
  2. Anima and Animus: the male and female identities. These are often a married couple, or male and female twins, or in Star Wars it's Luke and Leia. In this case it's Sue (demure, sensitive) and Johnny (fiery, likes action and car racing)
  3. Shadow: the instinctual, animal side of human nature. This is physically powerful but morally weak and unhealthy: Doom is a classic example.
  4. Self or ego, or unifying force, the process of self realization. This is Reed, who dominates the team for the first four acts.

Another way to look at the mind is:

  1. Ego: this is Reed, the confident visible force at the center.
  2. Id: this is the unconscious: Sue, the quiet power?
  3. Superego: the self reflective part. Ben?
  4. Interjection: this is where external restraint (such as parents) become internalized. Everything points to Johnny being the natural leader, he is the one with the most potential, the natural ego, but he is always kept down by the presence of Reed and Sue.

This is an edited version of comments by Jonathan Nolan, which were still work in progress. He writes "play with this [these ideas] - Stan Lee and Jack Kirby did! They were both WELL aware of this stuff. Kirby overtly used it, almost too clumsily. Stan was actually subtle about this stuff. But they both knew it well. Unlike the hacks of today..."

Sue is the key

Sue Storm drives the action
Sue is the invisible power behind the team. The closer you look the more important she becomes. But on the surface she doesn't seem to do anything. She is an example of the depth and unity of the 28 year Fantastic Four story.

by Tony Fleecs
Image: Tony Fleecs

There are many who think that Sue is weak at this point in the story. So it's worth reviewing her role in each issue. Sue is independent, she drives the action, and ultimately she saves the team. This is all the more remarkable when we remember that reed is the world's smartest man, Ben (at this point) is the world's strongest man, Johnny can fly and shoot vast quantities of energy, and the boys are all bulletproof when in action. Meanwhile Sue is effectively powerless: all her major foes can detect her when invisible. Yet it is Sue who creates the team, Sue who keeps the team together, and Sue who defeats Doom. Measured by her impact, Sue is the strongest one of all. (Incidentally, when Sue puts her hand to her head in issue 1 she is not fainting, she's shading her eyes from the bright sun so she can look down the dark hole where her less careful companions have fallen.)

Fantastic Four 1-5

Secondary characters

Act 1 introduces the most important secondary characters:

These represent the full range of experience:

Four key characters may appear to be missing from Act 1: Franklin, Crystal, Galactus and the Surfer. But these embody the four themes that are already introduced:

Other symbolism

Color symbolism: Green and purple are the old world

Purple is the color of royalty, representing the class system, and green is the color of agriculture (and of sickness). Both represent the worlds that the space age FF are leaving behind.

"In the 1960s, comic book super villains were green and purple. It was an unwritten rule but almost certain policy: heroes wore primary colors of red, blue and yellow, while second-rate reprobates got stuck with secondary shades. In just the Fantastic Four alone, every infamous foe wore a costume or had the skin color of green or purple. Doctor Doom, Mole Man, Sub-Mariner, Psycho-Man, Molecule Man and even the Red Ghost wore green. The Skrulls had green skin and purple togs. So did the Incredible Hulk, Impossible Man, Infant Terrible and Annihilus. The Puppet Master, Mad Thinker and Sandman changed back and forth between the two hues. Diablo, Rama Tut and Kurrgo wore both together. Ronan sported green armor and swung a purple club. The Frightful Four flaunted purple uniforms and the Hate-Monger hid under a purple Klan hood. Galactus, the all-time purple perpetrator, actually wore green shoulder pads and helmet in his debut on the last panel of FF #48 (looking like he just came from an interstellar lacrosse tournament; he switched to all purple dinner wear in time for the splash page of #49). Even non-super powered creeps shopped in the same department. The schemer that impersonated the Thing in “This Man, This Monster” wore green pants (justifying his actions as the Changeling). Scientists in green outfits were compelled to create Him, a golden persona of ensemble perfection. Trendy tycoon Gregory Gideon and his unfortunate son strutted in green and purple suits. Wiseguys on the Skrull gangster world named Boss Barker and Lippy Louie also donned dapper digs in such garish combos. [...] In the Fantastic Four, green was mean. In the first two years of the title’s existence, verdant villains appeared in every mag except one – FF #3, featuring the aptly named Miracle Man (whose black suit and red cloak somehow got by the fashion criminals). He was one of only three true felons in the entire 108-issue Lee-Kirby run that didn’t wear green or purple. The others were Klaw, whose offensive sounds made bystanders see red, and the blue-suited Monocle, who was obviously colorblind."
(Robert Papetti, "Fantastic Four In The Silver Age Sixties: A Tribute")

Note that Johnny felt separated from the team while Reed and Sue were separated, so changed his costume to red, to remember his childhood hero. Then at their lowest point of act 4, when Reed attempted suicide, the uniforms changed to black.

Identity symbolism: "good" and "bad" tropes

The first year of the FF is about alienation from the world (see the notes to issue 2). In this light, Jonathan Nolan made the following observations:

A Question Of Identity (with apologies to Sherlock Holmes)

A fan of LOST did a comprehensive list of roles, and identified them as either "good" or "bad"- when someone acted in a "good" role they advanced along their positive destiny path, when someone was in a "bad" role they risked injury, death or loss of something precious to them. He identified that ALL fathers in the show were "bad" - father was a "bad" role; ALL fast food workers in the show were good - fast food worker was a good role- and so on. It's a spin on the idea of karma and destiny- fulfill the role that is your best destiny or risk disaster. I've started doing this with Fantastic Four, and the results... Well, they're kind of astounding.

Something else from the LOST analysis that also works for Fantastic Four- when you are in a good role it is BAD to doubt the role- to feel you shouldn't be doing it. First you get warnings- then you lose your powers- finally you die! To doubt yourself when you are in a bad role is GOOD. But the tragedy is that when someone is in a bad role they DON'T usually doubt themselves- they double down on stupid."

Breaking comic book clichés

The Fantastic Four was designed to break all the superhero clichés.

"I tried to violate all the comic book clichés when I did the Fantastic Four. I decided not to give them costumes or secret identities, and so forth."
- Stan Lee, "Comics Creators on Fantastic Four" page 9.

To this day, the Fantastic Four is the only major superhero comic with any claim to realism, because they are the only major characters who never had a secret identity. They are also the only major characters with no costume, just a simple functional single color uniform. Secret identities were tried twice and shown to be a bad idea: first in Strange Tales Johnny Storm thought his identity was secret, but this became a joke: in the real world a superhero could not keep his identity secret, and neither did Johnny. Second, when Reed and Sue hit their lowest point, toward the end of Act 4, they had the crazy idea of maintaining secret identities in order to raise Franklin "normally." It was of course a complete disaster of the worst possible kind: far from protecting Franklin he ended up unconscious, bleeding from the head, and in hell!

Secret identities for superheroes make realism impossible.

More about realism in early Marvel comics

Realism in Fantastic Four issue 1

Superhero powers: a plausible scenario

Superhero technology

A sign of the decline in the comic (after 321) was the creeping return of the costume. DeFalco and Ryan gave The Invisible Woman an impractical revealing uniform, and at the time of writing (2012) the team has a series of complicated costumes: though they appear minimalist (e.g. one set of costumes is mostly white) they have subtle designs and contain highly advanced gadgets.

Similarly, secret identities are sign that realism is abandoned. As soon as Englehart released Reed and Sue from daily membership, somebody else immediately gave them secret identities. When the Marvel Knights series tried to make the teams "more realistic" they gave Reed, Sue and Franklin secret identities. Secret identities for superheroes are not compatible with long term realism.

On continuity

How many other superheroes date, then marry, then have children, and fundamentally change their core characteristics? The deep continuity and character development in the Fantastic Four is kind of the point of this web site.

This is not escapist literature

The desire for secret identities and flashy costumes can probably be traced to the concept of comics as escapist literature. Fans like costumes and secret identities because they fantasize about that being themselves doing bizarre things when nobody is looking. This is the opposite of the literary approach to fantasy: as Tolkien explains in his classic "On Fairy Tales," fantasy exists to tell us about our own world (by exaggerating aspects of it). Literary fantasy exists to exaggerate reality, not to escape from it. This is why these worlds must make sense in their own terms: we must know how they work so we can take them seriously.

In short, the Fantastic Four is not like other comics.

Trivia: Jack Kirby drew himself as Reed Richards?

For most of his life, Jack Kirby was compared to Ben Grimm, the Thing. But for the couple of years when he invented the FF, he was more like Mr Fantastic. Jack Kirby saw himself as the ideas man who would conquer the world, while Stan Lee was the one who feared and doubted. This of course was only Kirby's opinion, but here we are only looking at Kirby's art.

In the typed script to issue 1 (which probably reflected Stan's understanding of the story conference with Jack) Reed was described as "young." But Kirby made him the first ever superhero to have graying hair, much like Kirby at the time. The only clear image we have of Reed that is inked by Kirby himself is on the cover to FF7. As Will Murray observed, this Reed is a self portrait of Jack Kirby.

Kirby as Reed

This period of optimism only lasted two or three years. By the mid 1960s, when Reed had achieved dominance over the team, and when Stan Lee was claiming he created everything, Kirby was more like Ben Grimm (most famously in the "What If" issue 11). But it did not start that way: Kirby later accepted this comparison, and remarked, "People often comment that the Thing is a lot like me, smoking cigars, kind of rough around the edges. I didn’t plan it that way, but I guess it’s true.” (quoted by Mark Alexander, in "Lee & Kirby: The Wonder Years")

Reed and Ben in FF11:

I admit that seeing Stan's round face in Ben's early face is maybe my imagination. But I am always struck by how different Stan looked before the hairpiece and mustache. And in 1960 Stan admits he wanted out of comics, and his wife persuaded him to give it one last shot. So at first Stan was like Ben in the origin story, with his wife as Sue. If we believe Kirby's account then Kirby was the one with the confidence and the plans, like Reed.

To stretch the analogy even further, Kirby should have used more legal shielding (e.g. he should have got Stan to sign a paper at the start saying Jack created the stuff) because from Kirby's point of view the cosmic rays (the bright light of stardom) turned Stan into a monster. :)

In later years, Ben's history was expanded to look more like Jack Kirby's. For example, Ben was not only bugged by the Yancy Street gang, but it was later stated that he was once one of them, just as Kirby grew up in a tough New York neighborhood. But if we only look at the early issues we see a slightly different story. In the early days all we knew about their past was from issue 11, "A Visit with the Fantastic Four." While reading it, consider these parallels:

This of course only refers to the first few issues. By FF14 Reed was clearly top dog and Ben had lost. As Kirby says, as time went on they became more and more similar. "People claim that The Thing is a lot like me, in terms of his personality, and as the series progressed, he became even more so."

Next: Act 2, Spaceships and bombs

The Great American Novel