Cover-dated November 1961, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s The Fantastic Four hit newsstands 55 years ago and comic book superheroes were changed forever.
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 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 fans, professionals, and commentators reflect on Marvel’s First Family.
So join us, O Frantic One, as we speak to…
Podcaster Steve Lacey of the Fantastic Four podcast The Fantasticast. This weekly look at EVERY appearance by the FF recently celebrated its 200th episode and is still going strong. Each episode reviews at least one comic book issue featuring the FF team or one of its members and provides historical context for what was going on in the real world when the issue was published as well as the wider Marvel Universe. Filled with insight and humor, The Fantasticast is a pleasure to listen to. The show is recorded with co-host Andrew Leyland, and is based in the UK with Leyland living in the north of England and Lacey in the south.
Steve is a longtime podcaster who in the past produced the now-defunct 20 Minute Longbox, a solo show billed as the “Briefest and Most Random of Comic Book Podcasts” where as the name implied each episode looked at a random book from his comic collection within a brisk 20 minutes. He has also guest hosted on such shows as Amazing Spider-Man Classics and Views from the Longbox. This past month, Steve and the rest of the Fantasticast crew could be found tabling at the Thought Bubble comic convention in Leeds, England.
Mr. Lacey, together with Mr. Leyland, the two of you have produced a podcast entitled The Fantasticast which has so far chronicled 14 years of the Fantastic Four, their main series, spin-offs, crossovers, guest appearances, and cameos. As an “index show,” you’ve started with The Fantastic Four issue one and been moving month by month through the history of Marvel. After reviewing over 160 issues of Fantastic Four and innumerable other comics featuring FF characters, what has been your single biggest takeaway about the series and team regarding their place in the Marvel Universe and the hearts of fans?
It’s hard to focus this down to one single takeaway without turning to cliché. So, I’m not going to bother trying to avoid a cliché, and instead am going to run headlong into it. The Fantastic Four (both the book and the team) have a big claim to be the heart of the Marvel Universe. They are the only team with a (mostly) static membership. They can indulge in the warmth of their relationships with each other without resorting to jingoistic catchphrases. They are a literal family.
But trying to say ‘the book is about…’ is self-defeating – there are so many elements that contribute to the Fantastic Four being the Fantastic Four. There’s the theme of pushing humanity’s scientific and technological development. There’s the theme of exploration. There’s the idea of humanity taking its place amongst elder and more advanced civilizations. Starting with Franklin and then developing further with the Future Foundation, the idea of forging a legacy and inspiring the next generation is very important to the idea of the Fantastic Four. The book is glorious mélange of all of these elements, with differing ones coming to the forefront depending on the needs of the story. That doesn’t really answer the question, does it?
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 way, shape, or form. What reflections does that inspire in you?
Mostly, it’s the ongoing sadness at the fact that the Marvel Universe (and fandom in general) has changed to the point where the Fantastic Four isn’t seen as an integral element.
Would you say that creating The Fantasticast has taken on any kind of new significance for you since Fantastic Four was cancelled?
I don’t think we’ve consciously changed our approach. We’ve not taken on the burden of carrying the torch until such point as the Fantastic Four return, but at the same time, it’s hard to ignore the fact that what originally started as an open-ended project now has an endpoint. Before we reach that endpoint, we have an awful lot still to do, including the entirety of Marvel Two-in-One, The Thing, both volumes of FF, and even Fantastic Force…
Having read every issue of Fantastic Four and podcasted about quite a few of them, you (Steve) surely have a sense of the FF’s function and its evolution from the Marvel Universe’s origin when it served as creative genesis and then the cornerstone of the publishing line. What currently unfilled role do you think their absence has left and what how has it impacted Marvel’s comic line?
I think that for every theme that you could say is important to the Fantastic Four, you could find a complementary book from the current lineup. If scientific exploration and cosmic concepts are something you’ve enjoyed in the FF, then you’d be right at home with Al Ewing’s Ultimates, for example. The interactions between Captain Marvel and Kamala Khan in the excellent Ms. Marvel book can fill the legacy/generational need. Even Doctor Doom has decided that he doesn’t really need Reed Richards around to continue being a key part of the Marvel Universe.
I keep coming back to one idea that I struggle to find in other Marvel books, and that’s the idea of being ‘the first’. The Fantastic Four were out there when Tony Stark’s heart was still functioning, when Peter Parker’s biggest worry was avoiding Flash Thompson, and Captain America was floating around the Arctic in an oversized ice-cube. A lot of the time, it feels very difficult to relate the current iterations of characters with their early-1960s incarnations, and this is a strength that comes with the Fantastic Four.
Along with reading Fantastic Four for the purpose of review and analysis, you have read pretty much everything Marvel put out since the publication of FF issue 1, progressing chronologically with every month’s worth of FF-related comics you’ve covered. First, that’s astonishing. Second, what insight do you feel such a reading has given you about Marvel’s early output?
It’s a glib response to say that the Marvel Universe was made up as it went along, but if you read through the first few years (1961-1963) in release order, you really get to understand just how much of it succeeded through circumstance rather than through any sort of plan. Watching Stan and Jack work out how to plot and pace superhero stories is fascinating, even when they fail and stories come crashing to halt on the last page. You can see them start to flex their narrative muscles, testing the waters and seeing if readers will accept ongoing plotlines from issue to issue, if subplots have a place in the nascent Marvel Universe.
Perhaps most interesting of all is reading the early superhero stuff that doesn’t involve a combination of Lee, Kirby and Ditko. With so much creative emphasis placed on the artist, merely being able to draw an idea isn’t enough – the artist has to be able to develop, choreograph, and pace the story to allow someone to come in and pep it up with dialogue. Not everyone was up to that – Dick Ayers and Don Heck struggled to create compelling visual narrative on their anthology books, and Larry Lieber always felt like his scripting was a pale imitation of Stan’s, rather than a successful emulation. It’s really notable how books like Thor (in Journey Into Mystery) increased in quality when Kirby returned after a couple of years.
I find the failures as interesting as the successes. The astonishing inconsistency of the first six issues of Hulk, and the attempts to launch multiple Fantastic Four spinoff titles (The Human Torch, Doctor Doom, and The Inhumans in various Marvel anthology titles) all speak to the idea that, despite their significant successes, Marvel were just a capable of mishandling what should have been a surefire hit.
Who is your favorite Fantastic Four-related character? This doesn’t necessarily have to be a member of the core team; it could be a supporting character or even a villain.
I find Ben Grimm to be one of the most recognizable and compelling characters in comics. His voice is unique, his experiences define him in a way that isn’t common to most Marvel characters. Captain America and Spider-Man use their powers to externalize their personalities – they aren’t changed by their empowerment, but they use their powers as an extension of who they are. In Ben Grimm’s case, he’s gone from being a college football star and USAF flying ace to someone who exhibits major and contradictory self-identity issues. For all of his moping about being stuck as the Thing, Ben is often very unhappy when he returns to human form, and is quite quick to fall on his sword to save the team and return to being the Thing. His voice is one of the most recognizable, and his design is open to many interpretations whist still remaining recognizable. Well, apart from his mid-1990s vanity mask.
If The Fantasticast was to end tomorrow, what sort of a podcast would be your first choice to start up in its place, either independently or with Andrew Leyland?
I’ve had two podcast ideas bubbling away in the background for quite some time – one comics-related, and one not. I’ll share the comics-related one with you – I’d love to do something with my huge stack of early progs of 2000AD. I’m fascinated by the history of 2000AD - my regular SF group meets in a pub just down the road from the original offices of 2000AD, and much like the early days of Marvel, there’s a great sense of the creators succeeding more by luck than by intent. There are some great collections of the individual strips from across the history of 2000AD, but I’d love to look at how the comic evolved from week to week.
What would you say makes for a more enjoyable episode of The Fantasticast, a remarkably good comic book or a remarkably horrible one?
I’m not an advocate of hate-reading at all. I don’t see the point of going into something known that you’re going to dislike it, and closing your mind to the possibility of something standing out to you. Even when reading some of the worst comics covered on the show, we’ve preferred to laugh at the ridiculous nature of things rather than get angry at the poor storytelling, inconsistent characterization, and ugly artwork. For me, our best episodes aren’t so much about the quality of the material being covered, but by the amount of fun the two of us can have whilst sitting down at our microphones.
Talking of fun, I’m always excited to bring a guest host onto the show. We tend not to repeat our guest hosts a huge amount, which allows us to constantly bring new voices and viewpoints. We’ve been very lucky in that almost everyone we’ve asked to join us has said ‘yes,’ and I’m proud of the mix of podcasters, critics and fans that we’ve had join us over the years. Every single guest we’ve had has brought something unique, whether it’s a defense of the original Guardians of the Galaxy, or a well-timed Daria reference, and the joy of being personally surprised and entertained whilst recording is one that I hope translates to our listeners.
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?
If you read the 1960s Fantastic Four comics in tandem with almost any other Marvel Comics title from the same era, the difference between the two is very noticeable. Other Lee/Kirby collaborations occasionally get close to the highs of the FF (as, arguably, does Lee/Ditko and Lee/Romita Amazing Spider-Man). But the sheer volume of concepts introduced in Fantastic Four, coupled with the artistic innovation, makes it the most important of their collaborations.
Looking ahead, what would be your greatest hope for the FF property in the future?
Like many people, I want it to come back, and to have the ability to tell an extended run of stories without editorial mandates and crossovers coming along and interrupting the flow. Controversially, I don’t want it to come back yet. I feel the book needs to rest some more, much like Thor did in the wake of Avengers: Disassembled. I want its return to be a big thing, helmed by the best possible writer, artist, colorist and letterer team. But, most of all, when it does return, I want it to capture the imagination of comics readers in the way that the best runs have done so over the past 55 years.