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

1961: FF1: Beat the Russians! (The origin of the FF)

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

Reed Richards
1961 and space travel
Cosmic rays
The launch site
Why take Sue?
Awe and wonder
Other points
Philosophy of realism
Ben Grimm
Reed and The Bomb
The secret of FF1
Fantastic Four issue 1 was plotted in April 1961, when man entered space. That story inspired the Fantastic Four. It's a story about the future: within living memory mankind had gone from the horse and cart to atomic power and space flight, and anything seemed possible. But one mistake could mean the end of the world. The only constant value in that crazy world was family. But what would happen next?

NASA newspaper
Image: NASA

It was 1961, the height of the space race. Here's the context:

Date Significance Country Mission Name
August 21, 1957 Intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) Flag of the Soviet Union.svg USSR R-7 Semyorka SS-6 Sapwood
October 4, 1957 First artificial satellite Flag of the Soviet Union.svg USSR Sputnik 1
November 3, 1957 First animal in orbit (Dog) Flag of the Soviet Union.svg USSR Sputnik 2
January 31, 1958 First US satellite; detection of Van Allen belts Flag of the United
                    States.svg USA-ABMA Explorer 1
December 18, 1958 First communications satellite Flag of the United
                    States.svg USA-ABMA Project SCORE
January 4, 1959 Artificial satellite (Sun's) Flag of the Soviet
                    Union.svg USSR Luna 1
February 17, 1959 Weather satellite Flag of the United
                    States.svg USA-NASA (NRL)1 Vanguard 2
June 1959 Reconnaissance satellite Flag of the United
                    States.svg USA-Air Force Discover 4
August 7, 1959 Photo of Earth from space Flag of the United
                    States.svg USA-NASA Explorer 6
September 14, 1959 Probe to Moon Flag of the Soviet
                    Union.svg USSR Luna 2
October 7, 1959 Photo of the far side of the Moon Flag of the Soviet
                    Union.svg USSR Luna 3
April 12, 1961 Human in orbit Flag of the Soviet
                    Union.svg USSR Vostok 1

Note the different organizations involved: the ABMA, NRL, Air Force and NASA. This was not the monolithic NASA that later controlled the space program, it was the early days when anything could happen. Everything could rest on a single person or a single rocket idea. In this period it is highly plausible that a wealthy scientist like Reed Richards could make a difference.

1961 was the height of the cold war, the year that Kennedy was inaugurated as President. Communism seemed to be spreading over the globe. Americans had to show that freedom was best!


Were the Americans really first?

To beat the Russians into space, the origin must have taken place before April 1961. But the unexpected creation of super powers made this a matter of military secrecy, so the world at recorded Yuri Gagarin as being first. The issue was on sale in August 1961 with the next issue in October 1961 (the first issues were bi-monthly). This allows enough time (April to October 1961) for the team to become famous, as we see at the start of issue 2. The stories at this point generally take place in real time, so in total Act 1 takes around a year.

1961-1989: the story of the cold war

The Fantastic Four's golden age was the 1960s, up to 1969 when the first man set foot on the moon: and he was American.

The main Fantastic Four story, 1961-1989, parallels the cold war. Issue 1 went on sale in August 1961, the week that the Berlin Wall divided east and west.

The final issue (FF333), was dated December 1989, the month after the Berlin Wall opened to let people through.

This is the story of the cold war.

People like Reed Richards did exist

In the early days of the space race, everything could depend on a single man. In America it was Wernher Von Braun. In Russia it was Sergey Korolyov.
Korolyov     Von Braun
Note that the story only shows them reaching the edge of space, and no further: just as in the real world. The team did not wear space suits, and re-entry was not a huge problem. The focus of the story was just to get to the edge of space and possibly experience cosmic rays, that is all. Just as in the real world of 1961.

1961: space travel opened Pandora's box

What of the most popular member of the Fantastic Four, the orange skinned Thing?

FF 1 was plotted in April 1961, the month that mankind entered space. This was a huge leap into the unknown. Within living memory, mankind had leaped from the horse and cart era to nuclear bombs and space travel. What would be next?

Comics reflect the zeitgeist, and they were full of stories of scientific monsters and great danger. Nobody followed the zeitgeist of the time more closely than Stan Lee and his "Timely" comics. In the month that mankind entered space most of his comics featured orange dinosaur-skinned monsters with names like The Thing.

Journey into mystery 74

These April 1961 stories went on sale in August, and were cover dated November. That month's Journey into Mystery (issue 74) was also about "The Thing". The story used the same type font that would later be used for The Thing in the Fantastic Four. It told the story of Pandora's Box, how mankind's curiosity released all kinds of evils on the world. "Black" implies the unknown, and "black box" means a mystery. (In engineering, "black box" refers to a part that does something important but how it works is too complex to bother with: it simply does.).

In the same month, Amazing Adventures had another lumpy orange monster that grew ever larger, threatening to crush the world. Once again the metaphor is obvious: with nuclear power and space travel, and global superpowers poised to destroy the world, what next?
Amazing Adventures 6

The idea of a monster who keeps growing, threatening to crush the world, was revisited in Fantastic Four 271. In that issue, years after the paranoia of the cold war, it was revealed that the scientific monster does not in fact crush the world, but the larger it grows the less threatening it becomes. This reflects the essential optimism of the Fantastic Four.

Back to the month of Fantastic Four 1, Tales of Suspense 23 had not one but two orange monsters. Note the dialog: this is about the scientific and political world of 1961, where anything might happen: communist infiltration, new worlds of the very tiny (quantum physics) and very large (space travel) - what next? As the comic title suggested, people felt a feeling of suspense at the unknown.
Tales of Suspense 23

And so it goes on. All of these lumpy orange Things from the same month.

more covers

Why the name "The Thing"? It means "the unknown or undefined." 

Why the lumpy, rocky hide? This is the skin of dinosaurs, the only real world monsters we know of.

Why the color orange? This is the color of the mud or earth under our feet (made brighter for fictional purposes). Dinosaurs are buried in the earth. The color of the earth suggests great age, weight and permanence. Contrast this with the usual colors for science fiction, green and purple, that suggests the ever changing (green for life) and human social structures (purple for royalty): the use of green and purple for enemies in comics (as opposed to red, yellow and blue for heroes) is a topic all of its own. But these orange monsters are different from the usual science fiction, they represent something bigger and more permanent.

Which brings us to the final and most famous Thing from this month that gave us space travel: Benjamin Grimm. Why is he remembered when the other Things are largely forgotten? Why did he become the most popular member of The Fantastic Four? Because this orange skinned Thing is different. He is one of us. He will help. He will save us from the green skinned monsters.

The Thing

As a test pilot, Ben Grimm is the one prepared for danger. He is the one who warns against the cosmic rays. He is the one with the courage and skill to pilot the space ship. While other comics were afraid of the future, the Fantastic Four embraces the monster, embraces change. Other comics of that month reflected 1950s paranoia, but the Fantastic Four was a message of hope, in keeping with the 1960s.

The journey into space was realistic

In April 1961 the first man entered space. Where did the Fantastic Four go? All the images show them going not much further than the upper atmosphere, just like Yuri Gagarin.

In FF1, Ben Grimm says "if you want to fly to the stars..." and that is true: Reed did want to. At the same time, America was planning to fly to the moon (and then to Mars and the stars), but for the first eight years all their flights were test flights. This was the first time the team experienced cosmic rays, so it must have been an early test flight. In The Thing, issue 2 (in the 1980s), Reed refers to his rocket as having a "star drive" but that is just a name. In FF13 they use a "Saturn rocket." But the Saturn rocket never went to Saturn. The Mercury project never got as far as Mercury, the Gemini project never got as far Gemini (the constellation), etc. The context of issue 1 is the US-Russian race to the moon. This is clarified in FF 126. the goal is not the stars, not Mars, the moon. And the flight in issue 1 was only a test flight. Just as with the Apollo program, there had to be several test flights before the big one.

Cosmic rays were in the news

Something like these rays had just been discovered:

From Wikipedia:

"Explorer 1 was launched on January 31, 1958.... It was the first spacecraft to detect the Van Allen radiation belt."
"Missions beyond low earth orbit leave the protection of the geomagnetic field, and transit the Van Allen belts. Thus they may need to be shielded against exposure to cosmic rays, Van Allen radiation, or solar flares."

Nobody knew exactly what to expect (this was all new), but all radiation was of great concern - this was the height of the cold war, when ever more dangerous atomic bombs were being tested, and the effects of radiation were being discovered.

This stuff often happened in secret

Russian missions were routinely launched in secret, and only announced if they were a success - that way they could keep any accidents quiet. American military satellites are routinely launched in secret (as far as secrecy is possible with a rocket!)

More than one rocket launch site

Reed's rocket base is described as "private" by a guard, yet it cost less than two billion dollars (the moon program cost 23 billion), and is guarded by the military.

private rocket?

Obviously the Pentagon would resent it when Reed used his money to gain influence. There seems to be some tension here, a feeling of "them and us."

Was it really a "private" launch site? There were several launch sites in the early days (source: Wikipedia):

Location Operational date
Wallops Flight Facility, Delmarva Peninsula, Virginia 1945–
White Sands Missile Range 1946–
Nevada Test and Training Range (formerly Nellis Air Force Range) 1950s–
Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida 1956–
Vandenberg Air Force Base, California 1958–
Kennedy Space Center, Florida 1963–
Pacific Missile Range Facility, Hawaii 1963–

The most likely conclusion is that Reed was able to negotiate his own rocket design at his own preferred location. The government is officially running the show, but relied heavily on Reed's expertise and his money.

Fantastic Four

The exact location would be a secret, so would be reported in the comic as either New York or California to throw people off the scent.

"Hijacking" the ship?

Reed designed the ship, so had clearance at every level. The rocket was fueled and ready to run. The only conflict was delays due to concern over cosmic rays. Top brass was cautious, and Ben Grimm (the pilot) agreed with them. Reed was tired of the delays, saw a launch window in the weather, and decided to launch right then. Is that really so unlikely? Is he the first military man to ignore red tape and take a risk to get things done?

A launch requires time, and a support team on the ground. Obviously Reed would have his own technicians for ground control: the men and women who have worked under him for years. The story is merely a red tape issue, nothing more.

Why take Sue and Johnny along?

The Apollo program was typically designed for three astronauts, and Reed's rocket was no different.

He obviously planned for later expansion, so added an extra seat in front.

Four people was not too much weight.
The early test flight was only to enter space and go no further. The rockets are designed to carry many tons of fuel. By choosing a shorter flight the amount of fuel can be slightly reduced. With fewer tons to carry the test rocket could easily take an extra passenger.

Why take Ben?
Ben was a test pilot, and needed to fly the rocket. As 'Iron Maiden' noted, "Ben was a test pilot after the war (think Chuck Yeager type) and most of the early astronauts in the RW were Air Force or Navy pilots. In fact the president insisted all the Mercury 7 astronauts had to be test pilots. Jack Kirby or Stan probably would have been aware of that since the space program got quite a bit of press compared to today. In Sci Fi movies of the time, it was common to have civilians on board whatever vessel was dreamed up for the movie. But let's just say Stan and Jack were ahead of the curve their since civilians have been on trips on the various space shuttles before their retirement. Probably the only crew needed were Ben and Reed, who was part of the project."

Why take two more passengers?
This was a test flight, and had room for four people. More people meant more data to study.

Why take Sue?
Why would Reed try to impress his girlfriend? Men trying to impress women is the story of the human race. What could be more impressive than being the first man in space and taking your girl friend with you. Besides, a test flight is designed for gathering data. It would be very interesting to compare male and female reactions.

Why take Johnny?
For the fourth test subject Reed needed somebody he could trust. The fact that Johnny, being younger, weighed less, was a bonus. His youth made him more interesting to study: the more body types the better. As for leaving him home that might be impossible. Johnny was a teenager who loved engineering more than anything. He would kill to be aboard this machine. And whereas Reed was a designer and Ben was a pilot, Johnny was the only one with daily engineering experience. Early spaceflight was "flying by the seat of your pants" where the ability to tinker could save your life. And finally, young people have far better eyesight than adults. A fifteen year old's eyes might be a real asset in the darkness of space.

Cosmic rays can cause beneficial mutations

Evolution depends on random variation, caused by random changes to DNA, some of which is caused by... cosmic rays. As Wikipedia explains:

"Random mutations constantly occur in the genomes of organisms; these mutations create genetic variation. Mutations are changes in the DNA sequence of a cell's genome and are caused by radiation [and other causes]"

Traveling in space, or even in an airplane, increases your exposure to cosmic rays, and thus the mutations caused by comic rays. Some of these will be beneficial, more will be harmful, but most will have no noticeable effect. The question is not what happened (cosmic ray mutations are perfectly normal), but how it happened: how quickly, and so dramatically.

The only question with the Fantastic Four is one of scale: could such great changes happen that quickly, and if so, how likely is it to cause good rather than bad results?

What does the comic actually say?

The characters first assume that cosmic rays caused their superpowers. As they learn more, that conclusion changes: other phenomena were involved too.

not an accident

Was it an accident?

The Fantastic Four is based in realism, so they immediately saw something was wrong: Yes, cosmic rays can cause beneficial mutations, but the odds against such extraordinary mutations are impossibly high. "It's almost as if it were pre-ordained."

Fantastic Four

This was no accident. America is a religious nation, so the Great American Novel hints of a higher power behind this. For details see the page on the cosmic. This was the Americans' destiny.

Awe and wonder

Above all, the Fantastic Four is about the fantastic. Yet every concept is based in some way on the real world. Even the disappearance of buildings into huge holes, in issue 1. Ever heard of sink holes?


I can't resist showing this Photoshopped image by the "mbworld" moderator called "nola"


This is just one of many elements from the Fantastic Four that years later show up in Star Wars. The best known example is Dr Doom, foreshadowing Darth Vader. See the notes to FF17 for more details.

Often the comic is years ahead of the real world. Here for example is the underground valley of diamonds from issue 1, dated November 1961. Compare the real cave of Crystals discovered 40 years later


Note the people in the second picture: this cave is even bigger than the one in the comic.

Anything fantastic is fair game if it fits the world of science. In the next few months the Fantastic Four conquer every frontier: under the ground, the oceans, the far corners of the earth, and of course, outer space. All through scientific breakthroughs.

The science of underground empires

Some readers cannot get past the idea of an underground empire. but while exceedingly unlikely, it is possible, and in an alternate timeline could have happened, like this:

  1. Thousands of years ago caves were the ideal dwelling place
  2. As cities developed, outcasts would still live in caves
  3. Over thousands of years they would learn more about growing food where there is no light
  4. The shortage of resources would lead to more efficient forms of society: rather than encouraging land monopoly, the benefits of scarce land would have to be shared to allow survival.
  5. This is more efficient than our wasteful surface system of rent seeking: over the centuries it would lead to economic growth and the growth of science
  6. So the underground world's science would be thousands of years ahead of ours.
  7. These advances would be focused on moving rock and extracting resources. The would probably focus on biology, the most efficient technology of all: hence giant underground monsters. Naturally they would become expert at hiding from our more primitive surface technology.
  8. Eventually the technology would become far too advanced for any one person to understand. Humanity would evolve into a highly cooperative species where each individual's job is so specialized that their general intelligence (beyond their specialism) appears to be very low. These are the Moloids.
  9. Why don't they naturally come to the surface? Because once they contact other planets and learn the dangers out there they would know that living underground is the only safe place to be. Note that earth sciences would allow interplanetary communication more easily than earth sciences: the entire gravity of the earth would become a subject of study, allowing communication via gravitational waves. This would naturally lead to the science of teleportation, as seen underground in act 5.

And so an underground empire is entirely rational, if we just think about it.


1. Contrasting heaven and the underworld

Issue 1 contains two stories: the origin, in space, and the battle under the ground. It symbolizes the fall of Reed's impossible goals, the overarching theme of the next 321 issues. it also shows how the team encompasses everything from the skies above to the earth beneath.

Both stories are about the space race

The Mole Man story may not seem to be connected, but look carefully: Reed learns of the Mole Man because he is monitoring two sources of information

  1. Photographs of foreign nuclear plants
  2. A sensitive radar station that is also capable of detecting seismic vibrations

The Mole Man is discovered by accident: the purpose of this equipment is plainly to assess a foreign power's technology. Nuclear power was cutting edge back then, and radar and seismology were the only way to detect rocket launches. Note that Monster Isle, while officially placed in the Pacific (FF296), is placed in the Bermuda Triangle in Walk Simonson's run (the famous "new Fantastic Four" issues). The simplest explanation is that during the cold war its location is a state secret. After the cold war its real location could be revealed. In April 1961 the Bermuda Triangle meant one thing: Cuba. April 1961 not only saw the first man in space but also the Bay of Pigs fiasco. In another year we would have the Cuban Missile Crisis. Monster Isle works as a metaphor: What monsters do the Americans fear? Where is their island? And how do they operate? Underground of course. The Cuban Missile crisis was about nuclear weapons (hence the interest in nuclear plants in the story) but this cannot be separated from the space race. In 1961 they both used the same rocket technology and they were both attempts for each side to intimidate the other.

So the overriding objective of the team in both stories is the cold war, and the development of rocket technology. This is the purpose of the team in issue 1. The space race was not decisively won until the first man on the moon, in 1969. This was recorded in FF98. In effect, the first 100 issues are about the space race.

2. Pressure symbolism

Imagine what that is like to be the Mole Man, hiding underground, being the most miserable and lonely of all men, believing that every single human was evil. His only friends are the simpler humanoids around him: they were loyal and (relatively speaking) loving. He would come to see them as the true humans, driven underground by the monsters above ground. When he then saw humans develop nuclear power and rocket ships he would see them as an existential threat. What was he to conclude? The story says he is driven mad - the pressure on his mind reflects the pressure of all those rocks above him - something had to give. I think that any of us would be the same under that immense pressure.

Immense pressure is a metaphor for the psychology of the 7 year story. All of the team were trapped in some way. Ben was trapped as a monster, Johnny was trapped by his loyalty to the team (he could not be independent or follow Crystal), Reed lacks social skills: nothing as bad as Moley, but he was still unable to get what he wanted, as he lamented in issue 9. And finally Sue never wanted to be a superhero, she just wants a quiet family life and polite society, yet finds herself in violent battle after battle.  They have the power to reach for the stars (literally and metaphorically) yet are weighed down by their own down-to-earth pressures.

3. Water symbolism

Issue 1 starts with Ben gong underground to hide, in the sewers: symbolizing how he feels dirty. The water also symbolizes uncertainty and instability: issue 2 again begins with be submerged in water. Then in issue 4 he takes a bomb to destroy the water monster (symbolism again!) and in issue 5 decides that living on the water is not such a bad idea, showing how he is working through his inner feelings. Underground river explicitly link to inner psychology in issue 248 (248-256 focus on Reed's mental state) and 314-15 (314-319 focus on ultimate resolution and answers: note how the water motif changes to an ice motif, suggesting the instability has been tamed and become timeless like the earth).

4. Rabbit hole symbolism

For the symbolism of plunging down a shaft (it happens at four key moments in the 28 year story) see the notes to FF127. The whole 28 year story can be seen as coming down to earth: they think their threats are from the skies (aliens, representing Russian missiles) but the real problems are within: if they are strong as a family then nothing can threaten them.


5. Moon symbolism

The whole point of the origin is the space race, which began at the start of the 1960s (first man in space) and ended at the end of the same decade with the first man in the moon. The Fantastic Four uses the moon to symbolize the future at key points

Objections: Realism turns weaknesses into strengths

These reviews will often have a section on "objections." Looking at apparent weaknesses is a good way to uncover the underlying strength of the novel.


Themes (and names)

The negative zone

The big Fantastic Four story is is all about the Negative Zone, and it starts here. The dimensional portal (i.e. the negative zone portal) is the background to the Mole Man story. It is also the source of the team's powers. Here is the proof:

In FF annual 6 we learn that Sue's body, and hence Franklin's body, can only be regulated using material from the Negative Zone. This suggests that their powers came from the negative zone, but how does that fit with issue 1? The powers are first explained in FF 197: they came from very specific cosmic rays caused by sunspots. These rays are almost certainly positrons. Positrons are the antimatter (i.e. negative zone) counterpart of electrons. These are present in cosmic rays, particularly from solar flares (i.e. they are associated with sun spots).

Only one story deals directly with solar flares or anything like them: FF 297, exactly 100 issues after the sun spot revelation. It is also first story of act 5 (after the anniversary issue), the act where everything is explained. In FF 297 a dimensional portal is siphoning power from the sun, and the only way to counter it is to produce an opposite siphon. when this positive and negative flow meets it creates an "infinity vortex" with the power to combine two people into one. This ability to combine people explains the teams powers:

So we see that the powers probably came via positrons via a sub-space portal created by the sun's gravitational field. The negative zone portal is of course another name for the sub-space portal. For how two people from different times can mix their abilities, see the discussion of time travel by FF 187, and in the notes to FF annual 16 (about how Ral Dorn mixed with Aron). Thanks to Nathan of "how would you fix" for first suggesting positrons. And note how positronic brains are the key to the most famous science fiction story about human progress: Isaac Asimov's "I, Robot".


The names tell us everything we need to know:

"Reed and Sue" from "Ralph and Sue"?
"My DC-loving friend likes to point out that a lot of Marvel characters are just copies of DC predecessors (his favorite go-to argument being that Peter Parker is essentially just Clark Kent - working at a newspaper, wore glasses, masquerading as a weakling, etc.).
Recently he pointed out that our Reed and Sue made their first appearance about a year after Ralph and Sue Dibny were already created in the pages of Flash. To the ear, Reed and Sue sounds a lot like Ralph and Sue, and of course, both Reed and Ralph are stretchers (although both were introduced a couple decades after Plastic Man)." ("Unstable Molecule", on the FF message board)
For many more examples of Marvel copying DC, see FF 36 and the discussion of Medusa and Spider Girl and other examples

The themes are introduced:

All the themes of the 28 year history are introduced in issue 1.
The obvious themes are

Then there is the act by act themes: each is present in every act, but in each act one dominates:

  1. Alienation (act 1)
  2. Triumph (act 2)
  3. Pride (act 3)
  4. Disillusionment (act 4)
  5. Rebirth (act 5).

These major themes should be obvious in every issue, so they won't be discussed much on this web site. Instead we'll concentrate on secondary themes.

The themes form conflicts, and these will all be resolved (or close to resolution) by issue 321:

As this is the Great American Novel, these are also America's themes:

The zeitgeist

The story is straight from the zeitgeist of 1961: the first American in space, the rise of nuclear power stations, the height of the cold war, and the height of the fear of enemies undermining the nation and the world. Issue 1 is basically the American zeitgeist come to life. The characters represent American ideals of the time: the serious determined scientist, the simple fighter, the pretty socialite, the kid playing with hot rods. The Bay of Pigs invasion is reflected in the Fantastic Four invading Monster Isle, the base from which an underground empire could threaten any nation on earth, just as the communist island on America's doorstep caused the same fear. The Fantastic Four appeared to succeed, but like Castro, the Mole Man did not go away, he later came back and blamed the FF for the damage to his island.

Foreshadowing the final issue

The story begins with a race for the moon (as a step to the stars), and the story will finally end (e.g. in Stan Lee's "The Last Fantastic Four Story") with the same image, this time in triumph, with the team probably leaving to collect Crystal and begin a new era.


All this detail was unplanned!

The story parallels the real world only because the
ideas came out of whatever was in the air at the time.

The story evolved a long term structure only because
characters were treated as real at every moment.

The story is rich and complex only because
it was made so quickly!

The Mole Man and the philosophy of realism

Super powers are a McGuffin

The super powered stuff is not the heart of the story. There are no stories about stretching or flaming. Powers are merely a McGuffin, a convenient way to tell other stories.

Three dimensional characters

The real story is the characters. At first glance they may seem shallow, but look closer. Take the Mole Man for example. It's not about monsters. It's about loneliness. The monsters are how he sees his fellow man.

On a shallow reading, he is a villain who wants to destroy all mankind. But why? Because of his pain. His lifelong isolation. Only the truly lonely can understand.

Imagine what that is like, being hated and insulted all your life because of your looks. Working hard to get qualified, doing everything right, and for what? He wanted all the things any other person wants, and being shunned and hated. How would that affect his thinking? What would he conclude about other human beings? He could never develop social skills. He would sink deeper and deeper into his own despair. His hatred is the hatred of a child who just wants to hurt the people who have hurt him. Then he spent years underground, hiding. Caves are an old metaphor for psychology and madness, just as the hidden diamonds and a metaphor for his hidden potential. 

Imagine what that is like, hiding underground, being the most miserable and lonely of all men, believing that every single human was evil. His only friends are the simpler humanoids around him: they were loyal and (relatively speaking) loving. He would come to see them as the true humans, driven underground by the monsters above ground. When he then saw humans develop nuclear power and rocket ships he would see them as an existential threat. What was he to conclude? Year after year, as his fear festers and grows.

What would America do if it believed its existence was threatened like that by overwhelming force? That's right. it would fight. Hit them first, kill them all, do it first before they kill us.

A serious threat?
He said that his plan was for his monsters to destroy all living things. That was obviously insane. At the end of the issue we see that his "entire army" chases the FF and it isn't that many. At the end, just sealing off that one exit was enough to stop him, despite his empire of tunnels: even Reed could tell he was not the threat he claimed. Sure, he had some impressive technology, but a tiny setback was enough to stop him. The guy was clearly depressed in the worst, saddest way. I can only feel sorry for him,

Hatred versus understanding
But what were the FF to do? I think it's interesting that Reed and Johnny are the ones to initially face him, He invited them to fight him and they do so! I think it would have been very different if Sue or Ben had been there first. I like to think that Sue would have got him talking. That's all he needs: some sympathy. (It was all the Impossible Man wanted a few issues later.) Ben is more of an unknown quantity - at this stage he was so angry - but there's a good chance that he could have talked as well: the Mole Man would be sympathetic to him, and Ben would be sympathetic to the "all humans are jerks" belief. On the other hand, when Ben burst in that Moley panicked and the time for talk was past.

Given the Mole Man's loneliness, flattery would have been the best form of attack. As it was, they just confirmed what he believed about humans wanting to hurt him: at the end Reed says he's better off underground. As we see in his next appearance in FF22 the FF may have caused the destruction at the end. See it from his point of view.

The Mole Man: America's underground
The Mole Man makes ten appearances in the Great American Novel. He can be seen as a symbol for all the downtrodden, the hidden, the underground:
Mole Man history
  1. In issue 11 he is just pitiful: angry, potentially disruptive, but his handful of monsters are no serious threat
  2. In his next appearance he has rallied others. This reflects the awakening of civil rights in the early 1960s.
  3. Next he attempts to kidnap Sue, representing the angry, radical phase
  4. His attempts to defeat the mainstream continue, but he fails: ultimately he is weaker than they are. Despite his anger he inspires pity.
  5. He cannot win due to divisions and betrayal within his own side: the frustrations of the 1970s.
  6. Eventually, through art, he begins to be accepted by the surface world: reflecting the free mixing of culture from all sources in the 1970s.
  7. He has great plans, but these are crushed by the mainstream. This reflects the remaining prejudice.
  8. He tries to rejoin the surface (the mainstream), but is prevented. This reflects the glass ceiling that keeps minorities from progressing.
  9. He is accepted as an equal, being an enemy is all in the past. This reflects the mainstreaming of minorities throughout life.
  10. But finally all the good is undone:he is treated as an enemy again. This reflects the new racism, where blacks are now imprisoned rather than enslaved, but the result is the same: they are treated as The Enemy

How science fiction allows greater realism

Science fiction is always about us. It lets us examine our own interests by painting them in brighter colors: wild stories can contain more reality than mundane stories. They allow a wider range of real world issues, more locations, more emotions, a wider range of people, and more possibilities.

I love the moral dilemmas faced by, say, Franklin Storm or the original Gremlin. I love seeing how Sue reached people (like Dragon Man) that more violent people cannot. I love reading about micro worlds, ancient worlds, and exotic places like New York (I live in a small Scottish village). The FF introduced me to Prester John, antimatter, disabilities, alien points of view, and so much more!

The situations are soaked in realism. Take Galactus for example. We may never face Galactus but we will face problems of a similar magnitude, and that's what makes it real. The comics described how ordinary people react (some blamed the heroes, some denied it happened, others just didn't know what to think), how advanced beings saw it (who has a right to exist, and at what cost?), how the heroes felt ("we are just ants"), and so on. The McGuffin of a fifty foot giant and a spaceship were almost irrelevant to the story, except that the space race was real and belief in gods was real. Whenever I re-read those stories the realism knocks me over.

The need for dragons

As Neil Gaiman said (after G.K.Chesterton), "Fairy tales are more than true — not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten."

The dragon is not the point: it is almost irrelevant. it is simply the fastest way to summarize all the very real dangers that exist. And if it then turns out that other kinds of dragons are real (Komodo Dragons, Dinosaurs, the possibility of future genetic engineering, legends based on an actual serpents, etc), and at the time it seemed still possible that maybe that kind of dragon was real as well, then the dragon becomes an additional link to the real world, a window on new possibilities, a path worth exploring in order to open up the real world. The dragon therefore adds to the realism.

The Fantastic Four as morality plays

What is real? What matters? Without going into philosophy, questions of correct behavior are real. They are the basis of society and friendship, without which we could not survive. The Fantastic Four provides this reality through comics as morality plays.

The original medieval morality plays were very much like superhero stories: larger than life characters who personified moral attributes. The earliest Marvels are full of such characters. I'm not saying that they were designed as morality plays, but a good moral is just a natural part of a larger than life feel good story, and these were very much larger than life and very feel good. Just about every issue had some bad guy representing some moral failing and we see how that failing leads to their destruction, whereas the good guys extol friendship and overcoming their differences and triumph. Some of the bad guys could have come straight off a medieval stage: the hate Monger, Psycho-Man with his tablets with the words "hate, fear, doubt" in big bold letters; Doom's foolish arrogance, the Red Ghost's mis-placed patriotism, etc. At the time of writing (August 2011) this month is FF issue 8 (now the "Future Foundation"), and I was re-reading the original FF issue 8 ("Fantastic Four"), so let's start there:

FF8: the Puppet Master tries to control people for his own benefit, and ends up apparently killed by his own greed. A very moralistic last panel shows the broken doll on the ground.

The previous month, FF7, was the first FF issue I ever read as a child, and shaped my view of comics. Here the sin is lust for power: Kurggo, master of planet X, is left clinging to his previous gas canister that would make him master of the world. Because of his love of power he ends up missing the ship that takes his people to safety and we see him lying amid the rubble, a victim of his own greed. It was powerful stuff - well I thought so anyway.

The month before, FF 6, showed how bad guys never look after their friends: Namor teams up with Doom, Doom betrays him, and Namor realizes who his real friends are. Yes it's a simple and familiar message, but that's what morality plays are for.

The positive messages go well beyond simply using super powers: they defeat Dragon Man by becoming his friend; they defeat the Impossible Man by ignoring his foolishness; they defeat the Miracle Man by choosing to not believe in him; they defeat the unnamed Thing impostor by their good example, and so on. At their peak, the late sixties, they were always saying slushy things about love and faith and hope, and if it wasn't clear enough the Silver Surfer would preach at every opportunity. I could go on and on. Ditko's Spider-Man was the same: he had a message. Not as over the top as the later anti drug issues, but Ditko made no secret of his beliefs and how his stories spoke for him. They didn't always hit you over the head with the message, and they were seldom planned, but the message was always there.

Fantastic Four 1 as a morality play

FF 1 contains numerous moral messages, including:

  1. Do not judge. The story begins with ordinary people who turn out to have extraordinary powers, to the great surprise of their peers.
  2. Be brave. The story continues with the team deciding to do something dangerous, despite the dangers.
  3. Be patriotic. The reason for the flight.
  4. Have vision. The world is full of infinite possibilities - who knows what may be around the next corner if you take a chance?
  5. Power brings responsibility. The team dedicate their powers to do good.
  6. Do not judge (again): If people had not judged the Mole Man he would not have hated mankind.
  7. Help each other: The team only win by helping each other.
  8. And more. I don't have a copy at hand - all this is from memory.

Much of this is standard superhero stuff, but they did it with added realism: they fight and argue and do sensible things lie forgoing any secret identity.

But how can they be MORE real than everyday reality?

But does this increased reality balance the loss in reality from having giant monsters and space ships? Yes, it does, because the giant monsters and spaceships, while highly unlikely, are perfectly possible. An example of this heightened realism is in his realistic character, discussed elsewhere. Here we will just look at the science.

Claim 1: people can live at the center of the Earth.

Reality: the comics use this as hyperbole. If you read the stories they seldom go more than a mile or two down, so the actual claim is that people can live in caves. That is based on reality.

Claim 2: a human could live for much of his life in caves.

Reality: this was common for our ancestors, when caves are available they make ideal homes. We know that fungi can grow without light, so it is realistic to speculate that perhaps a person might live for extended periods underground, only emerging occasionally to gain whatever supplies are not available.

Claim 3: surprising and unexpected things can exist.

Reality: surprising and unexplained things are discovered all the time, and this as especially true in the period leading up the 1960s. Obviously we don't know what the surprises will be. For example, it was not until the 1920s that most people accepted other galaxies existed. Around the same time, people were learning that time and space were far more amazing than anybody ever expected. The idea of giant monsters living underground was no stranger than that. The job of speculative fiction is to explore the possibilities: books speculated that the universe might be vast, time travel may be possible,monsters may live in caves under the ground, etc., etc. and some of these things are proven right and some are not. The only unrealistic fiction is that where nothing amazing and surprising ever happens.

Claim 4: giant monsters, giant machines, and all the rest.

The existence of advanced aliens is what matters. Once that is established then everything else follows in a very mundane fashion. Any civilization that is merely a few thousand years more advanced than ours would be able to perform endless miracles, fill every space, and make use of resources (like underground rocks) in ways that seem crazy to us. And if they left behind a space ship then obviously our best scientists would work out as much as they can about how it works, and use it. So all the other stuff becomes very ordinary once the alien part is sorted.

Other points to note

"There used to be a very popular Sci Fi sub genre/trope called (by TV Tropes at least) The Lost World trope. In it, some motley crew of explorers of some sort stumble onto an island of monsters or lost civilizations or some other sort of uncharted territory full of danger, like monsters and lost tribes or weird mutated races. [The Lost World movie was released in 1960, and FF1 came out in 1961.- Chris]

"Sometimes the motley crew are explorers whose job it is to discover new things. Other times it’s just a group of people traveling together who get forced into the role of explorers accidentally by crashing onto an island or something. There was usually a handsome, dashing heartthrob scientist type (back before modern fiction decided that all scientists had to be borderline autistic nerds), the big galoot muscle, the Gal Friday/Love Interest and the kid sidekick, who usually pals around the most with the big galoot. Sometimes there are a few more characters but you usually have that core four. Another way to look at it is THE 4 archetypes: Father, Mother, Clown Child, Gifted Child. Mark Andrew did a great piece here posing the theory of how Fantastic Four #1 reads like a Lost Worlds type monster story re purposed as a superhero story at the last minute.

"You can see this structure to some degree in other books that were part of that Explorers of Lost Worlds trope, like Challengers of the Unknown. Metal Men had some of the same dynamics. Reed Richards and Gilligan’s Professor (along with Metal Men’s Will Magnus for example) are perfect examples of the Dashing Heartthrob Scientist and the Father archetypes, which is why I think so many people subconsciously associate the two characters with each other. Also, the Lost World Explorer genre is pretty much dead, so two of the only examples of it that still remain prominent in the minds of modern audiences are Gilligan’s Island and Fantastic Four (and arguably the TV show Lost). Since Gilligan’s Island and Fantastic Four are the only two Lost Worlds properties that most modern audiences are well acquainted with, it’s easier for them to believe that there is some significant connection to them and to think their similarities are more significant than they actually are, but at the time when Lost Worlds was a really popular genre there were countless interchangeable Reed Richards/Professor types." [Alex Ross used the Gilligan Professor, actor Russell Johnson, as the model for Reed in "Marvels."]

Joe LouisLittle Joe Cartwright

On the subject of Doc Savage...

Doc Savage

The parallels between Doctor Clarke Savage and Doctor Reed Richards are many, and extend to his team. For details, and this graphic, see the world's best comics blog, Dial B For Blog.
Doc Savage

Destination Moon
"Four American astronauts blast off from the New Mexico desert and fly to the Moon. They land after difficulties that cause more fuel to be used than anticipated. Consequently, the crew must race against time to lighten the ship for a successful return to Earth. [...] The film features the premise that US private industry will finance and manufacture the first spacecraft to reach the moon, given the Soviet threat at the time, and then the US government will bring itself to buy or lease the technology. Visionary industrialists are shown cooperating to support the venture. [...T]he movie clearly spells out a rationale for the space race: unnamed enemies (clearly understood at the time to be the Soviets) are sabotaging the American space program, and unless the West beats them to the moon, they will establish a strategic advantage to conquer the world."
Ben by John Aslarona

But in the first issue his body reflected his broken life. He essentially had a lumpy, misshapen skin condition. We see a hint of this this in the cosplay costume:

Note the collar. In the costume it has to be separate to fit on the head, but it the stories it also has to be separate: Ben's skin has brittle scales that, while bullet proof, can be chipped off by high caliber weapons. Brittle is the opposite of flexible. So for Ben's limbs to move the scales must slide over each other. In other words, the plates exist in overlapping layers. Imagine what this looked like in the early days when the plates were lumpy rather than smooth. Basically it's a terrifying skin condition. Think of John Merrick, the Elephant Man, but with rocky skin. No wonder Ben swung between extreme anger and extreme despair in the first few years.
the Elephant Man

as published

Coincidence? No. "Right before the Fantastic Four, Kirby was doing romance comics with Joe Simon through the 1950s.  Simon went onto advertising, but you can tell that he was an influence on how Kirby approached women on the page.  His version of Sue was Kirby doing his riff on his old fashion and romance comics, while also being around New York at the height of fashion advertising where every block had extravagant mannequin displays.  Kirby, if anything, was cutting edge in his design because he took in everything he saw\and relayed it to the page." (from "little kon-el" on the FF message board)

Reed and the atom bomb

We tend to think of Reed as either a "do anything" scientist (not true), or a man who designs rockets. But the comics reveal that his real expertise is in high energy sources: see FF 13, 37, 38, 51, etc. While the origin story is about his involvement in a rocket ship, the Mole Man story shows that he also involved in the atomic bomb program. Look carefully at the machine and how it works, and note that Reed already knows a little about Monster Isle


Machines like that existed in 1961:

"The Soviets, who had been calling for a test ban since the mid-1950s, took a major initiative in early 1958 when they called for an American-British-Soviet test moratorium. [...] The experts concluded that a network of 170 control posts in and around Eurasia and North America would be able to detect atmospheric tests down to one kiloton and 90 percent of underground tests down to five kilotons." ( emphasis added: source)

So Reed had access to those control posts, with their machines for detecting and triangulating tremors around the world. So Reed represents both of the great and powerful discoveries of the cold war: space travel and the atomic bomb.

The Mole Man's goal
Note that the Mole Man only targeted nuclear plants. In 1961 they supplied very little electricity. Note that soldiers guard the atomic plant: the "power" that the Mole Man refers to must be the atomic bomb. The pressure to keep testing secret meant that most tests were underground: we were exploding bombs in the Mole Man's home! This explains why the Mole Man began attacking plants in the year 1961. The increasing number of tests (mainly underground) led to a ban in 1958. But in 1961 the nuclear powers were planning to break the test ban (as they did later in the year), with even more tests than before. In 1958-1960 only one nation broke the ban: France. Hence the reference to "French Equatorial Africa".

No wonder the Mole Man was acting irrationally. He must have been terrified! He plan to defeat billions of humans (and all their bombs) with a handful of monsters was clearly absurd, as was his need to prove that he could fight with a stick. The Fantastic Four caught him off guard and he was panicking. His real goal was not to control the world, but to disable the nuclear capability that was destroying his home.But he could not admit that, because that would show the limits of his ability: now that the surface world knew they would be able to stop him (as they did). His only hope was to persuade them he was more powerful than he really was.

In short, scientists like Reed caused the Mole Man problem without realizing it. The Mole Man was never dangerous, only tragic.

The secret: How FF 1 was created

Mark Andrew makes an argument that I find compelling: FF issue 1 was two new stories added to an existing (unused) monster comic story. 

Here is his evidence, plus some of my own:

the original FF1?

The conclusion is obvious: when they designed FF1, Lee saved some time: the intro is new, the origin is new, and he got Jack to adapt an existing 8 page monster story into a 12 page first adventure.

Add up the pages: 8 pages for the intro, 5 pages for the origin plus 4 pages added to the monster story, and the original 8 page monster story: Stan got a 3 story book by taking 1 old story and adding 2 more.

This isn't proof, but I find it compelling.

Next: Act 1, the story really begins

The Great American Novel