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The Untold Truth Of The Fantastic Four

They're Marvel's First Family, the Explorers of the Impossible, the stars of the World's Greatest Comic Magazine, the heroes who started the whole Marvel Comics Universe way back in 1961 — and as we learned at Disney's Investors' Day event, they're finally coming to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. 

We still don't know what shape the team's latest big screen incarnation will take, but there's no shortage of classic comic stories to draw from. Almost sixty years ago, Smilin' Stan Lee and Jolly Jack Kirby sent four astronauts into space, where a cosmic ray storm turned them into the first superheroes of the Marvel Age. Super genius Reed Richards became the rubbery Mr. Fantastic; Susan Storm became the Invisible Woman; her brother Johnny became the Human Torch; and Ben Grimm became the monstrous but super-strong Thing. It's only natural that a comic so devoted to stretching the limits of the imagination would be full of strange and unbelievable stories, both on the page and behind the scenes. Let's take a look at just a few of them.

It was supposed to be Stan Lee's last comic

We tend to think of the Marvel Universe as the late Stan Lee's life's work, so we might assume that the book that started it also launched his career. Instead, it was almost the end. In 1961, Lee was almost forty, and he'd spent the past decade-plus laboring anonymously on western and horror comics. He felt he was wasting his gifts, and he was bored of having to write the same simplistic stories and cardboard characters over and over. Every time he tried to introduce a little more nuance, his boss, Martin Goodman, shot him down. Lee recalls the conversation they kept having: "'How about some characterization? How about caring for the characters?' 'Gimme fight scenes.'"

When he got the assignment to create a new superhero team, Lee was all set to quit. His wife Joan talked him out of it. "Why don't you write one the way you want to write it?" she said. "You're going to quit anyway, so if he fires you, who cares?" That's exactly what Lee did. Instead of perfect paragons, Lee created the Fantastic Four, flawed human beings who fought each other as much as their enemies. It was totally new at the time, and fans loved reading it as much as Lee enjoyed writing it. Marvel had a hit on its hands.

Their co-creator put himself into the comics -- literally

If anyone had more to do with Fantastic Four's success than Stan Lee, it was their artist, Jack Kirby. In order to keep up with his massive workload as nearly the only writer for the whole Marvel line, Lee gave artists free reign to draw whole stories without a script, based on just a brief story conference with him. When the pages were finished, Lee would come back and fill in the dialogue — and sometimes, Kirby would even give him notes on how to do that!

You wouldn't think Kirby's breakneck schedule — hundreds of pages every year — would leave much room for the personal touch, but Kirby put a lot of himself into the book and especially into its most memorable character, the Thing. Ben Grimm liked to talk about his rough childhood growing up on New York's Yancy Street, which doesn't actually exist but bears more than a passing resemblance to Kirby's own childhood home on Delancey Street. Later writers continued to add more of Kirby to the Thing. Karl Kesel officially confirmed that the Thing, like Kirby, was Jewish after years of hints, and Ben married his longtime girlfriend Alicia Masters in a traditional Jewish ceremony in 2018.

Doctor Doom's mask debuted in two books at the same time

Every great hero needs a great villain, and the Fantastic Four had none better than Doctor Doom. A master of both magic and science, undying in his hatred for Reed, untouchable as the ruler of the sovereign nation of Latveria, full of over-the-top comic book bombast but grounded in a tragic past, Doctor Doom has everything you'd want in a bad guy — except maybe uniqueness.

Lee and Kirby's heavy workload meant they often had to repeat themselves to keep up. Years before the Thing or the Incredible Hulk, the monster comic books were full of all kinds of hulks and things. After all, comics were disposable — we doubt they ever imagined millions of fans would still be reading these stories over a half century later.

That said, they didn't often use the same idea twice at the same time. But that's exactly what Jack Kirby did when Doctor Doom debuted in July 1962, right alongside the Monster in the Iron Mask in Tales of Suspense. Both characters' masks are identical, from the rectangular eyes to the diamond nose to the rivets around the edges. Instead of a tragic villain hiding hideous scars, the Monster in the Iron Mask is an alien invader who claims his mask makes him immune to gas attacks.

The Fantastic Four fought Communist moon monkeys

Not everything in Fantastic Four is timeless. In the '60s, comics were all about two things: The Cold War and the space race. And also monkeys, for whatever reason — DC Comics editor Julius Schwartz noticed sales went up for every comic that had one on the cover, so he clogged the stands with primates of all shapes and sizes. All three trends came together in The Fantastic Four Versus the Red Ghost and His Indescribable Super-Apes! which pitted the team against Soviet super-apes in a race to the moon.

The Red Ghost is Ivan Kragoff, a Russian cosmonaut who flies into space, deliberately exposing himself and three test animals to the cosmic rays that gave the Fantastic Four their powers. It turns Kragoff into an intangible phantom and empowers his monkeys too. Mikhlo the gorilla becomes even stronger than the Thing; Peotr the orangutan can control magnetism; and Igor the baboon, who Kragoff somehow trained to fire a machine gun, can change shape.

The Human Torch used fire in some very improbable ways

One of Stan Lee's trademarks was finding new and creative, but sometimes questionable, ways for his characters to use their superpowers. Sometimes this led to exciting ways to improve his stories. But other attempts didn't work out so well. The Human Torch's ability to create flames has all number of useful applications, but Stan Lee found some that defy all logic. 

In Lee's run, Johnny would make all kinds of objects out of flames, including a lasso that somehow gathers up bad guys instead of burning them to a crisp. But nothing quite tops Defeated by Doctor Doom! In that story, the superteam's nemesis believes he's banished them to another dimension until he finds them alive and well and on Earth. Johnny explains that he's used his flames to make full-color, three-dimensional images out of flames that were somehow good enough to fool the smartest man in the world!

One of its most iconic villains was based on the business news

When fans talk about their favorite Fantastic Four stories, there's one you can count on them to mention first — The Galactus Trilogy. At a time when most comic book stories came and went in one issue, this epic battle sprawled across three and introduced two of Marvel's most enduring characters: the pure-hearted Silver Surfer and the world-devouring Galactus.

A cosmic being who claims to be above all concerns of good and evil and drains whole planets of their life force seems like it could have come from the pages of the headiest contemporary sci-fi novels. But Jack Kirby's friend and biographer Mark Evanier says it came to him from a much more mundane source. In Kirby: King of Comics, Evanier writes, "In the stock market section of the paper, Kirby was reading tales of corporate raiders who'd acquire a small company, drain it of its assets, and move on, leaving a hollow, inert shell." 

It introduced a whole new dimension for artistic experiments

Jack Kirby was always looking for new ideas, and sometimes that meant the traditional medium of comics was too small for his imagination. Mark Evanier writes that in the mid-Sixties, Kirby became fascinated with collage, and on top of making his own in his spare time, he found ways to work them into his comics. Kirby and his scissors turned ordinary ads into cosmic wonderlands, and Lee used his natural hype man style to promote them as actual photos from the far-off places they portrayed. 

After The Galactus Trilogy wrapped, Kirby created a whole dimension to play with. In the classic This Man ... This Monster, Reed Richards builds a portal to the otherworldly Negative Zone, which Kirby intended to portray using nothing but collage. That turned out to be too time-consuming to justify for the minuscule pay he was getting for his efforts. But drawn or cut-out, this new world proved a showcase for Kirby and other artists' wildest dreams.

The Four introduced Wakanda -- but not as we know it

Lee and Kirby rarely stopped to catch their breath on Fantastic Four, but 1966 was an incredibly busy time even for them. Every issue introduced some new concept that would become central to the Marvel Universe in a back-to-back run of some of the creators' finest stories. Along with Galactus, the Silver Surfer, and the Negative Zone, this run introduced the Inhumans, the Black Panther, and his kingdom of Wakanda.

Only it wasn't a kingdom in 1966. In their first encounter with the Black Panther, the Fantastic Four receive a mysterious invitation from "the chieftain of the Wakanda Tribe." T'Challa would eventually get upgraded to king, and later writers would ignore the whole idea of a "Wakanda tribe" — the movie even shows T'Challa mediating a council of representatives from several tribes that exist within Wakanda. The country's legacy as a technologically advanced superpower for generations also came later; this story features all kinds of incredible gadgets, but they're apparently all due solely to T'Challa's genius.

Even the credits were must-reads

The mid-Sixties peak of Lee and Kirby's run is worth reading not just for the stories themselves, but also for the sly little jokes packed into the margins. Before this, comics rarely had credits — in fact, some publishers prohibited artists from signing their work. Marvel did something totally different, not just printing credits but filling them with the trademark combination of self-deprecation and self-aggrandizement that made Stan Lee so beloved.

The creative team all got grandiose titles, with one notable exception. See if you can spot it in these credits... "Story by: Stan Lee, who has never been more dramatic! Illustrations by Jack Kirby, who has never been more thrilling! Inking by Chic Stone, who has never been more realistic! Lettering by S. Rosen, who has never been more than an hour late!" "Story by our leader! Illustrations by our idol! Inking by our star! Lettering by our letterer!" The poor letterer rarely got any accolades for his or her thankless work. 

Stan and Jack returned to the series one last time — with themselves as the heroes!

Jack Kirby left Marvel for DC Comics at the beginning of the '70s. There, he continued to create iconic characters like Darkseid and the New Gods. But DC didn't have much faith in him, cancelling his books and shuffling him around to new ones. So he returned to Marvel, this time with a more equitable profit-sharing detail and the freedom to write and edit his own stories.

One of the strangest of those stories saw Kirby return to the Fantastic Four one last time — but with a twist. The What If? series showed what would have happened if classic Marvel stories had gone differently, and Kirby turned in a doozy with What If the Original Marvel Bullpen Had Become the Fantastic Four? This story starred Stan Lee as Mr. Fantastic and Kirby as the Thing, along with Lee's vice president Sol Brodsky as the Human Torch and secretary "Fabulous" Flo Steinberg as the Invisible Woman. Kirby would leave Marvel again the next year, but it's hard to imagine a better swan song than this return to one of his greatest creations.

They met God

Fantastic Four writer Mark Waid has always prided himself on finding the unique "hook" for any comic he works on, and he saw the Fantastic Four less as traditional superheroes and more as, in his words, "adventurers, explorers, and imaginauts." This meant sending them to the farthest limits of his imagination, and that included what Shakespeare called "the undiscovered country."

A battle with Dr. Doom sends the Fantastic Four to hell, and when Doom escapes the prison Reed had built for him in the aftermath and kills Ben, Reed locks himself in his lab for days trying to find a solution. Eventually, he realizes that Doom himself had built a machine to reach heaven when they were in college together, before it malfunctioned, giving Doom the facial scars that pushed him towards supervillainy.

The Fantastic Four find heaven is as full of danger and adventures as any of the other exotic locales they've traveled to. God Himself invites them up for a visit and appears to them not as an awe-inspiring cosmic being, but as a little old man at a desk who looks an awful lot like Jack Kirby. ("Reed?" Sue asks, "Why am I taller than the Almighty?")

Ultimate Reed is made of bacteria

At the turn of the millennium, Marvel updated its old characters for the new era with the creation of the Ultimate Universe. In Ultimate Fantastic Four, Brian Michael Bendis, Mark Millar, and Adam Kubert reimagined the team as teen prodigies who build a portal to another dimension for the Baxter Building think tank. They come back changed, none of them more than Reed Richards. When writer Warren Ellis and artist Stuart Immonen took over the book, they had Susan Storm run biometrics tests on the team to figure out just what had happened. Reed's results were the strangest: After the interdimensional trip, he no longer had any internal organs, just a "pliable bacterial stack." Later creators would run with the body horror this explanation implies, especially when Reed switched sides to become the villainous Maker. Sometimes, he'd even split into multiple interconnected Reeds to get more work done at once.

Doctor Doom went through all kinds of hell...and lived

Doctor Doom has always been the Fantastic Four's greatest enemy, so writer Mark Millar and artist Bryan Hitch decided to pit the team against the man who taught Doom everything he knew. The Marquis of Death spent his impossibly long life traveling across the multiverse and destroying every world in his path. He finally returned to the Marvel Universe with his new apprentice in tow to check up on Doom's process, and was disappointed, to say the least. He burned Doom alive, then transformed his heart into solid rock and his blood into acid. After that, the Marquis traveled back in time to dump Doom's corpse in the Pliocene, where it got torn up by megalodons.

Even in comics, that seems like about as final a death as you can get. But not only did Doom survive, he went on living for millions of years, eventually catching up with the Marquis and posing as his new apprentice. You'd think there'd have to be a pretty good explanation for how Doom survived all that, but Millar never gave us one. The closest we got was "Hate kept me alive." Who knew hate was a miracle cure?

They did the Council of Ricks before Rick and Morty

When Rick and Morty debuted on Adult Swim in 2013, it gained a huge fan base not just for the wickedly dark sense of humor you'd expect from an Adult Swim joint, but also for its rich supply of imaginative sci-fi ideas. One of the most popular was the revelation that the Ricks of thousands of parallel universes, each with his own Morty, had formed a giant brain trust in the Citadel of Ricks. That sounds like a pretty original idea, but Fantastic Four beat them to it by a couple of years.

Writer Jonathan Hickman, currently working his magic on the X-Men, took his first stab at Marvel's First Family in the Dark Reign miniseries, where Reed builds a bridge between dimensions and finds six shadowy figures waiting for him. This got Hickman a gig on the main series, where he revealed the figures' identities: They represented a council of other Reeds from other worlds pooling their talents to "solve everything," and they offered him membership. But the Council demanded Reed abandon his family in order to join them, and he refused.

They disappeared for years

If the Fantastic Four are so central to the Marvel Comics Universe, why has it taken them so long to enter the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Since Marvel didn't have its own studio when their movies started taking off at the turn of the millennium, the rights to most of their best characters ended up spread out between different companies. That included the Fantastic Four, who Marvel sold to Fox for the 2005 adaptation starring Chris Evans, Jessica Alba and Michael Chiklis.

When Marvel Studios launched with 2008's Iron Man, the comics became an essential part of promoting their movies, and the Avengers-related characters Marvel owned got the spotlight, sometimes at the expense of their other heroes. The Fantastic Four were hit hardest. Rumor is CEO Ike Perlmutter didn't want to give another studio free publicity with the release of Fox's 2015 reboot, so the book was cancelled ahead of the movie's release. But possibly because the Fox/Disney merger made Perlmutter's pettiness moot, the Fantastic Four reunited after a three-year absence for Dan Slott's new volume of the title.