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The cosmic truth

realistic space travel   ----    the source of their powers   ----   cosmically powerful beings   ---- alien technology

Image: NASA, via Wikimedia

The Fantastic Four is the most cosmic of all mainstream comics. They're always exploring. This page gives the details.

Realistic space travel

When did Man get to the moon?

In FF13, over a year after the test flight in FF1, the team still lacked a power source to get as far as the moon. Then Reed made a lucky discovery: an exotic meteor that packed a huge amount of chemical energy. He hoped to learn from it, to make better rocket fuels, but it was never mentioned again. It seems that the meteor was used up in a single flight.

The FF did not then have the power to reach the moon in issue 1. So when in FF2 Reed disparagingly calls it "our flight to Mars" he is using hyperbole. Mars was never suggested as a destination at any other time.

issue 2, talking about the space flight

Look at the context: he's exaggerating his failure, just as he exaggerates his culpability. In reality it was not a flight to Mars, and in reality he was not the sole cause of Ben's disfigurement. Nobody could have known what would happen, and anyway it was Sue, not Reed, who persuaded Ben to come. Reed is clearly exaggerating.

What about their flying saucer"

In issue 7 the team gained access to an alien saucer that was later used for rescuing Ben Grimm. Other than that, all their technology was strictly earth level, but augmented by whatever Reed could salvage from alien tech.

This is why the American moon landing in 1969 was still a giant leap for mankind: it was the first time mankind did it. When Reed did it he was simply using alien tech that he got by luck. He had no real control over it: and it looks like the flying saucer, like the meteor rocket fuel, was only good for one more flight. It may be that only super powered beings could survive using this equipment: it was not designed for humans.

So saying that Reed got to the moon first is like saying that a guy picked up in a whirlwind was the first man to fly. It wasn't man doing it, so it doesn't count.

What about FF 37, "behold a distant star?"

The "space craft" in FF37 barely travels in space at all, but travels in sub space. It has to begin its journey just outside Earth's atmosphere, but ends the journey (and starts the return trip) inside the Skrull atmosphere (see the photo montage in issue 37). Reed explains that the craft does not travel far in space: most of the journey takes place in a space-time warp. The craft has enough fuel to rise from the ground on the Skrull world, but needs a conventional Saturn booster rocket to leave Earth's atmosphere.

Note: the image of leaving Earth in issue 37 may look like the team have reached the moon, but this is standard Jack Kirby stylized art, where all planets are shown as being very close - note all the other planets hovering near Earth in both pictures.

This craft utilizes the Skrull transport ray seen in FF18 and FF32. How do we know? First, the ship is based on Reed's power ray device. Reed states that the power ray device gains its energy from "an unknown source from somewhere beyond the confines of our solar system." Clearly he does not know much about how it works, so he cannot have invented it. This power ray also doubles as a transport ray, just like the one that delivered and powers the Super-Skrull (FF18 and 32) and later brought Sue's father (FF32). The whole purpose of this journey is to find the people on the other end of that transport ray. How else could they be found, given the vast size of the universe, except by following the path of the original transport ray? It appears certain that Reed's "space craft" is a short range rocket that's designed for only one purpose: to use the Skrull transport ray.

The "experimental hyper drive"

Byrne said that the flight in issue 1 used an experimental hyper drive. But there is no evidence that it ever worked: FF1 barely escaped Earth's atmosphere, and FF13 needed a meteor to provide fuel for the moon shot. The only hyperspace trip I am aware of (FF32) seemed to be piggybacking on the Skrull power ray. In fact, for all the talk of the FF being about outer space, I can't recall a single example of them traveling faster than light under their own power before the end of continuity after FF 321: The trip to the Skrull gangster world used the planet X saucer (referred to as Skrull saucer - presumably it was captured from the Skrulls, which explains why the Skrulls didn't pay it any attention when it arrived). And finally, the trip in annual 19 used two borrowed Skrull ships. The nearest we have to Reed designing a hyperdrive is his re-purposing of the time machine to also travel in space (in the 150s) but that was only to get to a future world that was already beginning to overlap with this one, and the ability was never used again, so it was probably a very unusual specialized case.

Which leads me to conclude that, probably the experimental hyper drive referred to the drive removed from Gormuu's ship (before issue 1, see FF 172). It would appear that yes, Reed was experimenting with it, but no, the experiments never got anywhere. A hyper drive is clearly immensely complicated, and Reed was often busy with other things. It reminds me of how Einstein spent most of his life trying to unify gravity and quantum physics, yet failed. Come to think of it, Einstein's challenge was probably much the same as Reed's. I love how the FF story fits so neatly into the science of the time and how real technology develops - not always as quickly as we hope!

Incidentally, my favorite insight into Reed's original research is in annual 15, where he begins to duplicate just the tiniest part of the Skrull power ray, and he is so excited, talking about maybe getting a Nobel prize. I think it took that long to even begin to uncover the tiniest part of how these warp devices work. Ironically, entering another dimension turned out to be much simpler, while still technically amazing!

The source of the team's powers

A mystery that unfolds over 28 years

The mystery of what caused the Fantastic Four's mutations is a sub plot that runs the whole length of the original story, from 1961 to 1988. We are given a number of clues. in FF29 the Molecule Man receives even more amazing powers in a similar way (a freak accident). In the rest of the Marvel Universe this kind of thing happens many times. In the rest of the Marvel Universe we gradually learn how superpowers appear. This is summarized in the Fantastic Four magazine at the end of Act 5 (FF319), like a TV detective explaining how the pieces fit together. FF319 does not explicitly state that this this explains the Fantastic Four, but the same character (Kubik) gives that as his opinion in FF351:

no accident

FF319 explains everything.

everything is

A summary:

  1. The Beyonders exist.
    They are described in quasi-religious terms. They are above everything, and nobody has ever seen them (compare the Burning Bush and no graven images in Exodus). they are not part of the usual battles, they are simply benevolent: they want us to become like them. Note that FF319 explains this in terms of the Beyonders learning things, and a series of events, but it is emphasized that really "doing things" and "chronological order" do not apply. So it is reasonable to suppose that the Beyonder did not learn anything, but this was simply describing how things are.
  2. Humans have great potential.
    We normally develop that potential slowly, through evolution.
  3. The Beyonders provide cosmic cubes.
    When a species becomes sufficiently advanced they can access this power and be able to do almost anything it is a sign of having become an a adult in cosmic terms.
  4. Superheroes accidentally access a tiny part of this cube power.
    The Molecule Man accidentally accessed some of this power by mistake: the power was waiting in another dimension to be accessed properly, but instead he released a tiny part of it into himself. He later became part of the Kosmos (a cosmic cube being), and in FF351 Kubik (another cosmic cube being) theorizes that this is the same thing that happened to the Fantastic Four: they accidentally tapped into a different dimension and released a tiny part of a cosmic cube into themselves.
  5. This ability is helped by the nature of human DNA. Which advanced aliens influenced long ago. Note that this is the "stubborn atoms" theory of superscience: certain atoms have an internal structure that allows them to remember their normal state, and maintain it by accessing zero point energy. Obviously these atoms must be regulated on a larger scale, hence so-called superhero DNA. (NB: the image of superheroes bursting from one person is the iconic climax to the Kree Skrull wars in the pages of the Avengers, where this was revealed. The Kree and Skrulls were of course introduced in the Fantastic Four.)

The idea that these superpowers are a message from a higher power is expanded in FF529, where an alternate Reed says:

"For years, space agencies around the world have been sending probes and signals into space, looking for an answer from another civilization. The process requires someone to receive the signal, decode it, and respond appropriately. Otherwise there can't be any communication. The way the cosmic rays affected all of us in ways that reflect our personalities implies direction, and direction implies intelligence. All of which leads me to believe that the cosmic rays may have been an attempt to communicate with us, a signal which until now has gone unrecognized."

The ultimate purpose of that communication seems to be to create Franklin. The Celestials explain, in the first 2 issues of the Heroes Reborn: The Return:

"We conduct experiments, too. And one of them was on this world as life developed. But we have accomplished all we have set out to do. To make you, Franklin. Or someone like you."

Carl Sagan and Arthur C Clarke

The Cosmic Cube theory of superpowers is a variation of a well known idea. It's also seen in Carl Sagan's "First Contact," Arthur C Clarke's "Childhood's End" and "2001: a Space Odyssey" and in many other places:

Aliens exist, and once we become sufficiently advanced to contact them they will offer us great power.

This concept is also the basis of religion and magic. Don't scoff, it is based on a simple idea that is the basis for schools, and all forms of organization: other people know more than we do, and they will help us if we pass their tests.

Yes, it is possible, but is it realistic? Is it probable?

About aliens...

Carl Sagan is not a person given to wild magical stories. It seemed likely to him, and to perhaps most cosmologists, that alien life must exist. Life evolved on Earth almost as soon as it was possible to evolve, which indicates it cannot have been that difficult: if you roll a hundred dice and get a hundred sixes with your first attempt, this strongly suggests that the dice are loaded in your favor.

Is alien life advanced? If alien life is relatively common, then the size the universe indicates that a large number of alien species must be advanced: there are billions of galaxies, each with billions of stars.

How advanced is it? If any aliens reach our level of technology and continue just a few thousand years they will be vastly, vastly superior. A few thousand years is nothing on a cosmic scale. And this assumes they all use our methods: perhaps the aliens are giant gas clouds or subatomic, and perform quantum calculations automatically.

Could they contact us?The big problem seems to be the speed of light, but intelligence always finds a way round obstacles eventually. Perhaps one of the faster than light theories is correct. Or perhaps multiple dimensions overlap. Or perhaps life can evolve in one of the sub-atomic dimensions (String theory posits many tiny dimensions). So advanced aliens are probably common.

Then where are they? The "SETI paradox" is, "if the universe is full of aliens then where are they?" But advanced aliens are probably fabulously more advanced than us, so we would not recognize them.

Would they be interested in us? Yes. Development is based on information and resources: we advance by becoming able to handle information more efficiently so that we can use resources more efficiently. Planets are a resource. And advanced race would know about them all, and would be interested in them all.

Would they be benevolent? Yes. Even if just by controlling our minds without us realizing. Fighting is a waste of resources. If advanced aliens wanted what we have then they would change our minds without us realizing. So they want is what we want.

Incidentally, another variation on this argument is the matrix hypothesis. For a fuller description click here, but in brief the argument goes like this:

  1. All reality is made of information
  2. Intelligent beings model reality in computer simulations (mostly in games, but sometimes for science)
  3. A sufficiently complex simulation is indistinguishable from "reality."
  4. There are more simulations than "real" worlds - e.g. our one "real" world has millions of simulated computer worlds, and they become more complex every year.
  5. We cannot tell if our own world is "real" or simulation, so statistically it is most likely to be a simulation.
  6. By the same logic, the beings who run the simulation are probably in a higher simulation, and so on forever.

You may of course disagree with any of these points, but the point is that these are all arguments based on probabilities: it is an argument that each conclusion is the most realistic possibility.


Arthur C Clarke's 2001 is not such a crazy idea. We could make contact with aliens (who would boost our evolution) at any point. We probably won't any time soon, but it's like throwing all sixes with dice: it can happen at any time.

Yet the fact remains that these particular sixes have not yet been rolled. We don't see Fantastic Four style superpowers in the real world... yet. But given the advances in exoskeletons and nanotechnology they are only a few decades or centuries away.

A guide to cosmic beings

At the end of the Marvel universe, in 1990, the FF annual explained everything.

The main story explained the Franklinverse, and the backup story explained cosmic beings.

cosmic beings

At first all these beings may seem very complicated. But they are really very simple. At least in principle.

First, the theoretical background

To understand higher beings we need to understand higher dimensions. The simplest way is to imagine what our three dimensional world looks like to lower dimensions. This is explored in the famous book "flatland." Imagine a world that only existed on a flat surface: as a three dimensional being you could see everything inside it and they could not see you. Unless you touched it. If you touched it with five fingers they would see five circles, and not know those circles were connected.


In a two dimensional world you would only exist as a flat cross section (or a curled up version or hologram, but that makes things even more complicated - just ask Stephen Hawking about "Brane Theory"). Here for example are two flat versions of the human face. They look like completely different things. As a three dimensional being you exist in an infinite variety of two dimensional versions, yet you know you are really just one being.
nose cross sectionface cross section
So when we see higher dimensional beings we may be seeing just many aspects of the same being. This is also true regarding personalities. As a human it is possible to see you as a good person and as a bad person, simply collecting only the good you do or only the bad you do. The lower dimensional or simpler being only gets a very limited version of you, and could easily see you as many people, all different in every possible way. These parts even fight against themselves. For example, your muscles pull against each other in pairs. At a simple level they seem to be enemies. But you see the bigger picture and know better.

There are several reasons to conclude that higher dimensional beings really are fewer than they appear.
  1. Occam's razor: choose the fewest possible entities that explain anything.
  2. Intelligence. The higher the intelligence the more benefit there is from cooperating.
  3. Higher beings can often only be understood as abstract concepts. Ben calls them "one name conceptual guys" - such as Eternity, or Death, or the Tribunal. They each embody a concept. All concepts are linked so they are probably linked, but in ways that are too advanced for us to appreciate.

because these beings are abstract concepts they can never actually be destroyed, they simply reflect how we see things. For example, if we are evil then the concept that embodies evil will return.


Incidentally, this is the purpose of fiction: to represent (personify) the complex world around us. This is why comics have the greatest potential in all fiction: they can present information in its simplest possible form. Sadly that potential is very rarely appreciated or used.

Same being, different appearances

Now let us consider the best known higher being in comics: Galactus.


As we see, he appears to be an infinite variety of beings, but is really just one.

In FF annual 23 we have a guide to all the major beings, and learn that they are definitely not what they appear. For example, when we seem to fight and defeat them that is only because they want us to believe that.

This is not to say that they cannot be beaten: for example every time the a human being stands up she defeats the greatest power in the universe, gravity. Except she do not really beat it, she works with it. Beating gravity is just how she experiences it from her point of view.

There are infinite ways to experience concepts. There can be many true answers. We choose the one that makes sense to us. If it works then it works.
no single answer

Scale is an illusion

The conclusion to annual 23 is that scale is an illusion.


Again the example of gravity is useful. We can defeat gravity quite easily, so it is not really so powerful. And yet we cannot defeat it, and it is as large as the entire universe. 

Once again the point is that we only see parts of the bigger story, and only experience them from our point of view.


FF319 is the other key text for understanding higher beings. We see two fragments of one cosmic cube: together it is a cube. But separately it is two beings: the molecule man and the Beyonder.


Later the combined cube chooses to take on a female form. It is still the Beyonder. But we see a different fragment, a different point of view.


Only two top beings

Now we are ready to go back to basics. The expert on all things is the Watcher. When Galactus first appeared he revealed the simple truth: there are only two known beings at his power level: Galactus and the Watchers. Just two.

only two
Of course, we might argue that "known universe" does not include everything else. But at this point humans had never met Galactus, so the Watcher is referring to what is known to him. The Watcher knows more about the universe than just about anyone, that is his whole reason for existing.

Only one above all

Later the Watcher refers to an even higher being or principle: one that works on love.


This does not contradict his previous statement. At the highest power levels beings are personifications of the abstract. The Watcher is how we personify knowledge. Galactus is how we personify opposition. Together they can be personified as purpose. Another word for purpose is what we desire: in other words, love.


In conclusion, whenever we see a higher being who represents destruction, including the blind terror of destruction for its own sake, we see a fragment of Galactus. An example of this is the Master of Doom from the issues leading up to FF569. Similarly, whenever we see a being who represents knowledge we see a fragment of the Watcher. Whenever we see any higher being we see fragments of something much larger and linked, and because it is abstract it is also much smaller than us. When we see these as different beings, beings that may fight each other and may be confused or defeated, that is only from our point of view.

The Great American Novel