There is a well known, yet apocryphal, legend about the Fantastic Four’s origin. The story goes that Timely Comics publisher Martin Goodman was playing a round of golf with Jack Liebowitz. Liebowitz, a top executive at National Comics, was bragging about their newest book. It was sure to be a success because it featured a team of big heroes: The Justice League of America. According to the story, Goodman was so shaken by the thought of the competitions team book that he ordered his comics editor to create a new team for Timely. The editor, Stan Lee, created The Fantastic Four.
According to Lee, he decided to write the kind of book he would want to read. “For just this once, I would do the type of story I myself would enjoy reading…. And the characters would be the kind of characters I could personally relate to: they’d be flesh and blood, they’d have their faults and foibles, they’d be fallible and feisty, and — most important of all — inside their colorful, costumed booties they’d still have feet of clay.” Lee says he typed up his idea for the story and gave it to his partner, Jack Kirby, who sketched out Lee’s vision. Then Lee added the dialogue.
That’s the story according to Lee. But according to Jack Kirby, the artist on the original Fantastic Four books, that story was a lie. Kirby says that he was the one who created the team and drew the books. In his version of events, all Lee did was add in words. Because neither man could have known the magnitude of what they were creating, no reliable record exists to set the record straight.
No matter who had the original idea for the story, the two men created two of the most essential things in comic book history. The first, Marvel Method, a style of creating comics where the artist and writer collaborate on the story. Neither one is in charge. This innovation would come to define an era of comics and help Marvel establish themselves as a comic book powerhouse. The second, obviously, was The Fantastic Four.
Reading the first six issues of Fantastic Four, it is impossible not to think about the book’s origins. This version of their backgrounds would be rewritten by storytellers for years to come. No version of the story, not even this one, is more authentic or better than any other. And there’s no way of saying which is most valid or best. However, this iteration of the story allowed Marvel to create an entire universe of characters.
And Kirby and Lee get to work creating that universe in these first six issues. The pair revive the long-forgotten character Namor the Submariner in issue number four. In Fantastic Four #5, they introduce Doctor Doom. And the two villains team up to take on the Fantastic Four in issue six. This first set of books is the last 59 years of Marvel comics in microcosm. A team of heroes, some villains, a cross over event. And the promise of more, in the form of a shape-shifting race of aliens: Skrulls.
In the wake of Avengers: Endgame, the first six issues of Fantastic Four can seem quaint. They argue, then they find danger until finally, they beat the threat. Rinse and repeat. But the drama and excitement come from the context. The world had never seen heroes who argue with each other. And they had no idea what to expect from the mysterious Skrulls or the mystic Doctor Doom. Fantastic Four opened up the door to a world of potential. It was the first chapter in a story that no one will ever forget.