Monday, August 8, 2011

Fifty Fantastic Years

So today is, evidently, the 50th birthday of the Fantastic Four.

Well, really, that's just our best guess. August 8, 1961 is the most common cover-stamp date to be found on surviving copies of the first issue. Dealers would stamp the arrival date of new magazines on the cover, to better keep track of how long certain issues sat on the rack, and there are far more August 8th stamps than any other:

Thanks, Bleeding Cool!

But, hell! Any excuse to celebrate the Fantastic Four sounds good to me! FF is my favorite funnybook series of all time, bar none. I love the characters, I love the concepts, I love the villains... And I love the strip's early years best of all. So I thought I'd celebrate 50 years of the best damn funnybook ever by slapping up a few memorable covers, pin-ups, and oddities from the classic Stan Lee / Jack Kirby era that launched the book. Starting with, of course, the full cover to that first issue...

Kind of a piss-poor way to start off The World's Greatest Comic Magazine, huh? It looks a little rushed to me. The composition isn't Kirby's best, the backgrounds are kind of sketchy, the Thing's back is to the camera... I mean, the mole monster is pretty awesome, and I still wish they drew the Human Torch with that kind of flame detail now. But overall... Eh.

Of course, Lee and Kirby improved rapidly.

Thingbeard notwithstanding.

And by issue ten, we were getting treated to stuff like this:

I mean, just LOOK at that! The fighting figures in the background aren't that great (Doom, in fact, seems to be doing some kind of evil ballet back there), but that foreground shot of Evil Reed is freaking great! Toss in the tiny Lee and Kirby in the bottom corner, and you've got a classic funnybook cover on your hands.

There were missteps, sure. Like that time they fought the Grand Dragon of the PurpleKlan-- I mean... the Hate Monger...

Psst! I know Stan said not to tell, but... IT WAS HITLER!!
I figure 48 years is long enough to wait for spoilers.

And then there's this fashion faux pas...

But they more than made up for it with covers like this:

I always thought this one was a real unsung classic. Good composition, the shading is nice, and look at the detail on that rubble! It's like Kirby actually built one of his impossible sci fi machines and smashed it, just to see how its component parts would look in the aftermath of battle. But my favorite thing about this cover is that drawing of the Thing. Few people ever drew the big lug as well as his creator, and this might just be my favorite Jack Kirby Thing illustration ever. It's a good pose with great mood, but the thing that sells me on it is that it looks like some real thought went into how the rocks cover his body, and how they would move against each other when he wasn't standing upright. That's the kind of detail that the ever-busy King seldom had time to deal with on his monthly comics work, and it's much-appreciated.

And here I never thought anything would beat out my original favorite:

And as long as we're talking about favorite Kirby images, here's my favorite Kirby drawing of the entire team:

click to embiggen

Awesome. Great composition and camera angle, plus two nice sweeping arcs (Johnny's flame and Reed's arm) that counter-balance each other and draw the eye to the real "money" part of the picture: the Thing getting kinda wobbly on the cockamamie rocket sled boots that Reed's got him testing out. Brilliant.

Of course, Kirby was innovating non-stop by the middle of his run on the book. I remember seeing his weird photo-montage stuff in reprints as a kid and just having my mind blown by them:

With that kind of crap going on, it's no wonder that Lee felt confident enough to make claims like this on the cover:

"Possibly the most daringly dramatic development in the field of contemporary literature!"

Only possibly? Stan must not have been feeling well that day...

Post-Script One: Stepping beyond the Lee-Kirby era, here's where I came in:

Though I'd read earlier issues out of my brother's funnybook collection, this is the first FF comic I bought with my own money. Did it really have it all? Well... To be honest, I don't really remember that much about it. But for it to have begun a lifetime love of this book and these characters... There must have been something good in there.

Post-Script Two: I said "oddities" up above, so here you are...

That's right! From 1969, it's the Spanish-language edition! I only just discovered that this existed tonight, so I don't know much about it. That's the first issue above, and it really doesn't tell us much. I mean, somebody obviously thought that the chest symbols just didn't pop quite enough in blue. And I love their take on the characters: sexpot Sue, haughty Johnny, sad and lumpy Ben...

But I think these were reprints (or, possibly, adaptations) of the original Lee-Kirby FF comics. On later covers, for instance, they're obviously copying Kirby monsters, as with issue two...

...or doing stark and minimalistic variations on the originals, my favorite of which is this one for issue six:

I mean... Has the Impossible Man EVER looked that cool?

You can see a lot more of these over at the always-amazing Cover Browser site, from which many of the American FF covers were also taken for our 50th birthday celebration. The artwork becomes less interesting later in the run, but make with the clicky anyway. There's some insane stuff in there.


  1. Impossible Man has never looked so freaking scary either!

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