It’s kind of a weird feeling when a favourite cult writer/director of yours is suddenly the writer/director of a movie that holds 20ish box office records. (Not necessarily unpleasant.)
At the age of 8, I read my first non-Archie comic. It was Scott Lobdell’s Fantastic Four vol. 3, issue 1. I dug the idea of a superhero team that’s also just a family who love each other and bicker and etcetera. You know, all that Fantastic Four stuff.
After that, I was a committed Fantastic Four fan throughout Chris Claremont’s run. I later found out this run was much reviled, partially for feeling more like the X-Men than Fantastic Four. But I’d liked it, so then I got into X-Men and checked out the rest of the Marvel Universe from there.
It’s funny how in the beginning there was just Jack Kirby and Stan Lee (and sometimes Steve Ditko) in a room tossing ideas out, and now there’s a whole Marvel film studio. I’m super-excited about the upcoming Avengers movie (mostly since I think that when Joss Whedon is on his game he makes great stuff) and it’s lead me to go back and take a look at the super-early days of Marvel comics. Starting with the two comics that started it all…
Fantastic Four and X-Men
The neat thing about reading these two together is that you get to see Jack Kirby and Stan Lee* create two of the most successful comic book teams in the space of two years. And get this: the first issue of The Avengers came out the same month as the first issue of X-Men!
(And of course, sandwiched in between all this were the creations of The Hulk and Iron Man, and oh man, somewhere in there Ditko and Lee found time to create Spider-Man. So between JFK’s inauguration and assassination, half the superheroes who can still draw billion dollar crowds were created in one crazy big bang of comics creativity.)
The Fantastic Four have remained remarkably consistent from their creation til today. In those first twenty issues, Kirby and Lee flesh out all the character’s personalities, which remain more or less unchanged. The major exception to this is Sue Storm’s Invisible Girl/Woman, who is basically the Fantastic Four’s secretary in the early days. (There’s a lot of cringe-worthy misogyny in some of these comics, but it definitely comes more out of ignorance than malice.) By issue 10, they’ve already set up Doctor Doom, the banter between Thing and Human Torch, the Yancy Street Gang, and Ben Grimm’s relationship with Alicia Masters.
What’s sometimes most entertaining to watch is how they managed to fit so much into a single 20 page comic book. In modern comics, stories inevitably stretch out over 3-5 issues… if you’re lucky enough to get such a compact story. In the Kirby/Lee days, part of the deal with comics was that you got a full beginning-middle-end for your 12 cents. This sometimes meant that you got a villain’s origin story, evil plot, and ultimate defeat in the same twenty pages, alongside the exploits of the superheroes. By the time Kirby & Lee were doing X-Men, Stan Lee had gotten tired of making up origin stories, evidently, and so came up with the accidentally genius “mutant” concept. It works really well because by that point in comics’ history you’re sick of each issue needing some sort of origin story. (“He was a mad scientist caught in a lab accident!” “He’s a criminal mastermind who invented a weird weapon!” “He discovered some sort of… magical glove?”)
This kind of super-compact storytelling is great because each issue feels like a real event, but it sometimes comes at the cost of fleshed-out characters. In my opinion, the book that suffered from this least was Spider-Man because he was just a single superhero rather than a whole team of them. (I haven’t read the early Spider-Man comics in a while, but that’s how I remember it.)
In the first issues of X-Men, you see Lee struggling to make these characters different from the Fantastic Four. At first, it’s not working at all and Ice-Man is just Johnny Storm, The Beast is just Ben Grimm. But by around issue 3 it starts to gel. The Beast starts reading calculus books and using words like “colloquial”. Cyclops’ ongoing drama about his inability to look anybody in the eyes starts to come in.
Professor X erases a villain’s mind to defeat them, and it’s awesome. The ethical implications don’t get mentioned, but 20 pages left little room for navel-gazing.
A lot of these elements remain in the comics today, but X-Men eventually snowballed into a much bigger phenomenon than their humble origins could’ve predicted.
These early comics aren’t always entirely satisfying; sometimes you’d prefer they drew a story out a few issues in order to fit in some more character. But for what they were, these are testaments to some extremely fine imaginations working at the tops of their games, and I’m excited to read on.
* I’m aware there’s some enmity towards Stan Lee in the comics fandom, since he always seems to get all the credit for creating and scripting these early books when Jack Kirby actually did much of the character designing and story, with Stan Lee just filling in the speech bubbles later. For this reason, I’ve tried to always credit the artist in here, and credit them first as often as possible.