Cover-dated November 1961, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s The Fantastic Four hit newsstands 55 years ago and the world of comic book superheroes was changed forever.
Prior to its release and subsequent success, Stan Lee had grown increasingly frustrated with the comic book medium and the recently dubbed “Marvel Comics” was limping along creatively. With Fantastic Four’s almost immediate embrace by an expanding readership, Lee’s enthusiasm for comics was reignited and Marvel was transformed from floundering publisher to power-packed purveyor of some of the most exciting and energetic comic book masterpieces to ever grace a spinner-rack. For his part, Kirby would make the comic medium sing in ways that had never even been dreamt of before.
Today, we see a landscape where no comic currently being published bears the title Fantastic Four, two of the team’s members (Reed “Mister Fantastic” Richards and Susan “Invisible Woman” Richards) are entirely absent from the Marvel Universe, Johnny “The Human Torch” Storm is palling around with the Inhumans, and Ben Grimm is about to be shuffled off the Guardians of the Galaxy.
It seems it’s up to the “Keepers of the Faith” outside of Marvel to celebrate this milestone. As such, this month of November will see a number of fans, professionals, and commentators reflect on Marvel’s First Family.
So join us, O Frantic One, as we speak to…
Richard Bensam began reading comic books in 1967, joined organized comics fandom in 1976, and worked at Marvel Comics from 1984 to 1989. Since then Richard has worked for a variety of publishers of comics and comics-related books as a writer, editor, and graphic designer, including a variety of projects and publications devoted to the life and career of Jack Kirby.
For the Sequart Research and Literacy Organization, Richard edited Minutes to Midnight: Twelve Essays on Watchmen and contributed to Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes. Having argued about the comics industry with people from all over the world since he was a teenager, the Internet came as no surprise to him.
Richard, you and I have known each other online for the last several years. From our early interactions, it was pretty clear that you were a fan of comic books, Marvel’s early output, the Fantastic Four, and Jack Kirby. It’s always been a pleasure to see your thoughts and reminiscences about the FF’s glory days. Can you describe a bit of your history with the FF and how you got into comics?
As it happens, the first comic book I ever read had the Fantastic Four in it. It was called America’s Best TV Comics, a promotional tie-in put together by Marvel in 1967 for ABC to publicize their new Saturday morning lineup, including their new Spider-Man and Fantastic Four cartoons. America’s Best TV Comics featured a condensed version of the Rama-Tut story from FF #19, edited down to about half the length of the original, along with a similarly trimmed version of Spider-Man #42 plus stories with Casper the Friendly Ghost and George of the Jungle, both of whom also had cartoons on ABC at the time. That was enough to get me hooked. Within a few months I was completely obsessed with comic books and couldn’t get enough of them. After that, the first issue of FF I remember getting new off the rack at my local newsstand was #77. Psycho-Man leaping from body to body, the Silver Surfer on a quest to save the world from Galactus, action jumping between the subatomic realm and distant planets rendered by Kirby at his most cosmic — it was a big leap to take all at once!
I also remained a devoted viewer of the Fantastic Four cartoon, and to this day the voices from that version are the ones I hear whenever I read an FF comic. As a trivia note, the voice of Ben Grimm was provided by Paul Frees, who performed the wildly inaccurate versions of John Lennon and George Harrison in the Beatles cartoon series also on ABC at the time. So Frees was a key member of two cartoon quartets from my childhood.
Being a fan of the FF who started picking up new issues during the latter third of the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby run, what was it like digging into the Lee/Kirby run and seeing its evolution after Kirby left Marvel for DC?
In the late Sixties, Marvel was already publishing reprint series called Marvel Tales and Collectors’ Item Classics, repackaging the earliest FF and Spider-Man stories even though those comics were just five or six years old at the time. When Kirby left the company nearly three years later, Marvel kept the vintage Kirby reprints coming under titles like Marvel Triple Action and Marvel’s Greatest Comics to blunt the impact of his departure and prevent DC from monopolizing the audience for Kirby. This meant there was a deluge of readily available vintage Lee/Kirby material for new fans to absorb even after he left the company. When you’re a little kid and all comics are new to you, you’re not thinking in terms of which stories were published before you were born, or who is or isn’t at the company anymore, you’re not even thinking in terms of individual creators — it’s just this tidal wave of stuff that’s all new to you. It took quite a few years of reading comics to develop a sense in retrospect of how Marvel itself was evolving during those years, let alone the development of individual creators. When other artists started drawing the Fantastic Four, I didn’t grasp that there was any significance to it; I continued reading the FF with art by John Romita and then John Buscema. In retrospect both of them did an impressive job of keeping it recognizably the same characters in the same world while still preserving their own individual art styles rather than having it look like a Kirby swipe. But it was obviously a very different mood. When the Fourth World comics started appearing at DC, it was immediately apparent what part of the classic FF had come from Kirby.
You have a particular affection for Jack Kirby. While it’s unproductive to dig too deep into the Stan vs. Jack debate, a more interesting discussion than what Kirby did for the FF is what the FF did for Kirby. Looking over his run on the book, it’s apparent that his artistic style blossomed and evolved into what we think of when we use the term Kirbyesque over this period. Do you think the experience of working on Fantastic Four contributed anything definite to his development as an artist?
There’s no doubt of that. When the Fantastic Four began Kirby had already been through a few reversals in his career. He’d been half of the first superstar creator team in comics with Joe Simon; they started their own line of comics only to see it collapse due to a post-Wertham industry slump that ultimately broke up their partnership. Then Kirby’s dream of doing a syndicated newspaper comic strip ended in an acrimonious legal battle that also stopped him working at DC Comics for a decade. You couldn’t blame Kirby if he was hesitant or skeptical about Marvel’s prospects at first, especially working for a kid who basically used to be his errand boy. Kirby never did less than a professional job, but it takes a while on the FF before he really lets loose. You can see it happen issue by issue; Kirby seems to realize that this thing could actually work and he embraces it. It’s astonishing to look back at FF #1 and then jump ahead to The Battle of the Baxter Building, the wedding of Reed and Sue, the introduction of the Inhumans and Galactus and the Silver Surfer, and that transformation takes place in just four years. Four years! The Fantastic Four provided the ideal framework for all the science fiction and surreal imagery Kirby only let out in bits and pieces before, and gave it a commercial platform to bring that vision to a wider audience. Kirby himself said that he’d learned a lot from working with Stan. Fans today may be misled by hearing only things Jack said about Stan in the Eighties at the height of the battle with Marvel, when there other parties going out of their way to antagonize Jack and stir up resentment and ill will. The feelings between them were much more complicated and nuanced than you’d suppose just going by some interview twenty years later.
Are there any later FF runs, particularly post-Byrne or post-Simonson, that particularly appeal to you?
Most recently, I really enjoyed what Jonathan Hickman and later Matt Fraction did with the Future Foundation. That concept really felt like a logical evolution and outgrowth of the whole FF concept of the extended family. I was also impressed by James Robinson’s farewell to the team, after you recommended it and persuaded me to give it a chance. Moving to a slightly more obscure choice, Steve Englehart wrote a four issue miniseries called Big Town featuring an alternate history version of the FF in which they’re still very much the same people but their lives have taken a slightly different direction, giving us the chance to see them in a different light. Englehart himself wasn’t happy with the finished product, but to be honest I found it more emotionally compelling than his work on the regular FF book, and it has some really surprising and interesting choices.
You edited the collection of essays Minutes to Midnight: Twelve Essays on Watchmen which examined Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ classic from a number of different perspectives for the Sequart Research & Literacy Organization. Do you see any connection between Stan Lee’s avowed intention with the FF to create “the kind of characters [he] could personally relate to” who were “flesh and blood” with “feet of clay" to Moore’s own further complications and examinations of the superhero psyche?
That’s a good point! Come to think of it… remember the scene where Captain Metropolis calls a meeting of the new heroes of the Sixties in hopes of forming a team to combat what he sees as the social ills of the day, only to be met with disinterest and skepticism and bickering? That could represent how the upstanding, uncomplicated, sometimes stiff-necked heroes of the Golden Age were displaced by the arrival of this new breed of Silver Age characters with their doubts and neuroses and inner conflicts. And that meeting is brought to a halt by the Comedian, who can almost be seen as an evil mirror image of Nick Fury or even Ben Grimm if you squint a certain way — the cigar smoking, wisecracking tough guy ex-military character. Some years later Moore scripted a much more direct pastiche of the FF in the form of Mystery Incorporated for the 1963 series at Image. Those comics had a lot of clever touches but they don’t show much love for the originals, which reflects Moore’s own contentious history with Marvel.
Who is your favorite member of the Fantastic Four?
Well, let me start by saying Ben Grimm is easily one of the greatest characters in comics. Kirby fans make a big deal about jack relating to Ben and putting a lot of himself into the character… but the truth is, that’s also the case for Stan. Ben’s dialogue and personality in the Lee/Kirby issues is perfectly on target; funny, touching, heartbreaking, supremely human. Both Stan and Jack invested Ben with their own doubt and insecurity and wisecracking and kindness. But Ben’s not the one I’m going to pick!
The team member I always kept my eye on was Reed Richards. He was the inventor so he always had the best gadgets! Forget about the stretching ability; being able to design and build Kirbytech should be considered a superpower in its own right. There’s a tendency by subsequent creators to depict Reed as cold, aloof, the “asshole scientist” character, but that’s not Reed at all. The great curse of Reed Richards is that he’s too smart; he sees not only the potential problems but all the ways the potential solutions could go wrong as well, and he’s all too aware of the responsibility that puts on his shoulders. Reed emerging from his lab after several days with stubble on his face, clutching some new gadget that might just save the day, needing his wife and best friends to remind him to eat and sleep — that’s not a guy who’s arrogant or self centered. He may be irritable when he’s exhausted but Reed is far from being cold and unfeeling. He’s the true lover in the team. Reed loves all humanity, and he works beyond the point of exhaustion trying to keep it safe. Neither Stan nor Jack knew a thing about how science really works or how real scientists act… but they both knew what it meant to be a man working his fingers to the bone to protect and provide for his family.
On top of that, any scene where Reed and Ben interact is the best day’s work Stan and Jack ever did as a team.
It’s often said that the Fantastic Four when they debuted were revolutionary in the comics world, that they were different than anything on the stands. Generally, it’s specifically cited that they were dramatically different from DC’s output at the time. With the FF, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby are generally credited with beginning the elevation of the medium and introducing more complex characters/stories. Do you think this is their most important legacy? Do you think it’s entirely deserved?
Starting with Fantastic Four, Marvel restored comics to being hip and cool and popular for the first time since folks like Gershon Legman and Frederic Wertham and Estes Kefauver nearly succeeded in smothering the whole medium in its crib. Lee and Kirby helped save American comics, so there’s that as a legacy. Beyond that… probably the most influential thing about the FF in particular wasn’t apparent at the start: they were at the center of a whole universe. Sub-Mariner becomes a regular supporting character, The Hulk makes guest appearances, Doctor Strange, Ant-Man, Nick Fury before he joins SHIELD, and the Avengers and X-Men all turn up. Meanwhile, the FF is spawning new characters who show up as guests in other series and even become stars in their own right. This one series couldn’t be taken in isolation, but was part of a larger interacting universe with a long history. The shared universe forming one giant continuous story is so much a part of comics now that we forget it was once something daring and unconventional. The Fantastic Four enlarged the scale on which superhero comics happened; they expanded the size of the canvas.
Looking ahead, what would be your greatest hope for the FF property in the future?
I’d love to see an FF movie made by people who love and understand the original comic books, instead of treating the comics as something to be ignored and tossed aside. The previous film version in 2005 and its sequel in 2007 had good intentions and a good cast but they missed having the warmth and chemistry among the lead characters, and without that it all falls apart. The 1994 Roger Corman version really understood the team as a family above all else, and saw that the whole thing has to be about the affection and support they give one another. Imagine what that cast might have accomplished with today’s budget and special effects! And there still hasn’t been a Marvel movie that really does justice to Kirby’s machinery or cosmic vistas. If we could visit Reed Richard’s lab or take a trip to the Negative Zone and see those things on screen the way Jack let us see them on the page, that would be a genuine cinematic achievement.
This November is the 55th Anniversary of the Fantastic Four’s first appearance by cover date. This is also the first fairly notable anniversary we’ve seen where they aren’t being featured in a Marvel Comic in any real way, shape, or form. What reflections does that inspire in you?
It’s strange that this series which used to be the very core and starting point of the Marvel Universe doesn’t occupy that position anymore. To an older fan, it’s like Marvel is missing its heart. But then the Hulk was a flop at first, and later the X-Men bombed and were cancelled for poor sales, so things change.
The FF turned out to be a very personal creation for Stan and Jack, and to me it seems like they put more of themselves into the book than any of their other collaborations. There have been many fine FF comics over the years trying to pay tribute to the originals, or emulate them, or comment on them. There’s an obvious comparison to be made with the Beatles: in both cases we’re still feeling the impact of a body of work created between 1961 and 1970, and all these decades later we’re still trying to recapture that energy and trying to duplicate that experience. Maybe at this point we’ve seen every variation that can be done? I’ve often thought that if Jack Kirby were alive today he’d be pleased to see the movies, but he’d also look at Marvel and say “Why are they still doing the same comics Stan and I did fifty years ago? They should do what we did — something new!”