To say that Jack Kirby changed the face of comics is a tad bit of an understatement. The man brought superheroes down to us from their lofty place in the sky they had previously stood. He proved that sweeping, epic narratives can sell and demand the kind of attention fun, light, one-issue romps could. And he defined what the superhero looked like through the eyes of the modern American. While Kirby was breaking trends all throughout the Golden Age of comics, it wasn’t until the Silver Age that we began to realize that, truly, this was a man who demanded the attention of not just comic fans, but the world at large.
It started with the Fantastic Four.
In the wake of World War II, superhero comics had fallen out of favor with the general comic-reading public. Romance, crime, and science fiction comics were taking up more and more real estate on the racks, and Kirby followed suit, crafting some of the best stories the genres had to offer. But, in 1954, DC proved that superheroes weren’t dead when they revitalized many of their Golden Age properties for the new, modern age of readers. The Flash raced onto the scene, followed by Green Lantern, the Atom, Hawkman, and the Justice League of America. During this time, Kirby was doing the odd story here and there for DC where he could, even creating a few properties that still persist to this day, including the Challengers of the Unknown, a comic about a group of adventurers that Kirby would continue to craft and hone for years to come (even if he wasn’t working on the book itself). Eventually, however, Kirby would find himself at Marvel Comics, creating science fiction monster stories in their many anthology titles. It was at this time that Stan Lee, a young, fresh editor, decided to cash in on the once-again popular superhero market and came to Kirby to make a new comic that would demand attention. Kirby, remembering his previous work on the Challengers, knew just what that comic would be.
Of course, there needed to be a few changes. These adventurers couldn’t just be explorers, they had to be fantastic. They had to have extreme personalities to match their extreme abilities. And they couldn’t just be the standard superheroes, either, they had to be something different, something new, something nobody had ever seen before. And, after bouncing ideas back and forth with Lee, the two artists launched the comic that would change the superhero genre forever: Fantastic Four #1.
Released in November of 1961, the Fantastic Four blasted onto the scene with a bang. Here were four friends who, after an accident experienced while exploring the cosmos, gained awesome new abilities that they would use for the betterment of mankind. Reed Richards, Mister Fantastic, was the genius leader of the team and could stretch his body into any shape imaginable. Sue Storm, the Invisible Woman, was the glue that held the quartet together and could turn herself invisible and project force fields. Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, was the hot-headed kid brother who could set himself ablaze and fly. Ben Grimm, the Thing, the heart of the team, was transformed into a rocky, hulking monster strong enough to shatter mountains. Together, these four redefined what the superhero could be.
Gone were the perfect do-gooders populating DC’s publications; these heroes got angry and fought amongst themselves. They had wants and desires that didn’t always coincide with protecting the world. They didn’t always fight world conqueror’s and bank robbers, most of the time simply exploring the universe and discovering dangers lurking in the shadows. They didn’t have secret identities to worry about, they set up shop in the middle of New York in the tallest building they could find. And they didn’t always enjoy their new abilities, especially the Thing, who was trapped in a monstrous body and scared everyone who looked at him. By all accounts, these weren’t even superheroes, they were damaged individuals who probably shouldn’t even have these world-shaking powers. And, yet, they were a hit.
Fans loved the Fantastic Four. They couldn’t get enough of the quirky quartet, who were more like a family than a superhero team like the Justice League. They enjoyed seeing the friendly squabbles between the Human Torch and the Thing, they rooted for Mister Fantastic and the Invisible Woman to get together, and they cheered every time they sent Doctor Doom back to Latveria in defeat. After years of seeing the same old superhero stories month after month, the Fantastic Four were a welcome addition to the comic book world.
A lot of that had to do with Lee and Kirby having a creative flow that hasn’t been matched since their final issue together in 1970. Every month ushered in hit after hit after hit, classic characters appearing in almost every issue. In the nine years they were steering the book, they introduced the world to not only the Fantastic Four themselves, but the Mole Man, Doctor Doom, the Impossible Man, the Red Ghost, Uatu the Watcher, the Mad Thinker, the Super Skrull, the Molecule Man, the Hate Monger, Diablo, Dragon Man, the Inhumans, the Silver Surfer, Galactus, Black Panther, Klaw, Blastarr, Ronan the Accuser, Adam Warlock, Franklin Richards, and even reintroduced the world to Namor, the Sub-Mariner, after a long hiatus from the Golden Age. For one hundred and eight issues they never rested, barely letting the reader rest themselves before giving them brand-new adventures starring brand-new, exciting characters just because they could.
The success from the Fantastic Four allowed Lee and Kirby to take more chances and launch more superhero books, creating the likes of Ant-Man and the Wasp, Thor, Iron Man, the Avengers, and the X-Men, all tied together at the center by the Fantastic Four. The Fantastic Four gave birth to the Marvel Universe we know and love, and, while reading that classic Lee/Kirby run, it all looks so effortless.
You can see a passion for creating in those pages, especially on Kirby’s part. He was introducing mixed-media images to the page, creating a cosmos that felt too vast for the normal mind to comprehend. The now-infamous Kirby Krackle became a staple whenever cosmic forces were at work. And the reluctant superhero was born from his almost auto-biographical portrayal of Ben Grimm, the Thing. It’s hard to not see Kirby in that rocky-faced hero, the cigar-chomping brawler who had a grudge with the Yancy Street Gang and was quick to defend his friends no matter who he was up against. He felt like a real person; we cheered when he won and cried when he lost. We yearned for Reed to find a cure that would change Ben back to normal and were just as disappointed as Ben when it inevitably failed.
Unfortunately, the unbridled energy felt within those fantastic pages didn’t last. Thanks to the success of Lee and Kirby, Marvel was a serious contender in the comics market. Because of this, the relationship between the two superstars eventually soured, as Kirby felt he wasn’t getting the credit he deserved for the popularity of the book, much less the rest of the universe he had a hand in. Because of this, near the end of his time at Marvel, Kirby wasn’t willing to create anything new to be utilized by the company, insisting instead to continue to reuse older characters and antagonists like Doctor Doom and Namor over and over again. Kirby would eventually leave Marvel all together to work for DC Comics, taking much of the passion and energy in those early Marvel books with him. His final issue of the Fantastic Four was #102, an issue featuring the antagonistic staple Namor, perhaps a final sign that the magic was gone. Lee would continue to write the book until #125, with varying levels of success, until he eventually took on a more hands-off position as the Editor in Chief of the company. With that, the classic era of the Fantastic Four was over. But the team itself was far from finished, continuing to be a best seller well into the 1980s.
Kirby’s contributions to the Fantastic Four can’t be overstated. In one fell swoop, he, along with Lee, changed not just superheroes but comics forever. The years they spent together honing their craft and tearing down the boundaries at the edge of known space bled through their work on the book, reflected perhaps no better than in the team itself. Bombastic, unbridled fun poured out of those pages and demanded the reader’s attention, daring them to come back next month for more. It’s a run that still holds up today and is required reading for not just Kirby fans, but anyone interested in the medium of comic books.
You can pick up this seminal run a number of ways, including the Essential Fantastic Four volumes 1-5, a black and white reprint series recommended for anyone wanting it on the cheap and not minding the lack of color. For anyone needing color, there’s always the Marvel Masterworks Fantastic Four volumes 1-10, though, be warned, these are harder to find due to low print runs. My personal recommendation would be to grab the Fantastic Four Omnibus volumes 1-3, which collect the majority of the run up to issue #93. Volume 4 shouldn’t be too far behind and with large, beautiful pages, reprinted letters and house ads, these are an easy choice for those aching to read the definitive Silver Age superhero story. So, do yourself a favor and celebrate Jack Kirby this month with perhaps his definitive creation.
Trust me, it’s definitely fantastic.