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.SECRET ORIGINS OF
THE FANTASTIC FOUR


Part Two: HOW THE JUSTICE LEAGUE STARTED THE FF

Superheroes had ruled the Golden Age -- but when the Golden Age ended, once-mighty books such as Flash and Green Lantern were quietly put out to pasture, with little fanfare. Even All-Star Comics, starring the .Justice League’s predecessors, comicdom’s first superhero team, the legendary Justice Society of America, unceremoniously bit the dust in 1951 with All-Star #57 (pictured left), in a story ironically titled "Mystery of the Vanishing Detectives."

Cowboys and indians took over the title in the next issue, and the book survived as All-Star Western. Superheroes, at least the minor ones, just didn't seem to be selling comic books anymore.

But a few DC characters did manage to survive the downturn in superheroic stock. Superstars such as Superman, Batman (with Robin) and Wonder Woman still had their books. Lesser lights such as Aquaman and Green Arrow held on too, but only because they were lucky enough to appear as back-up features in books starring Superman or Batman (and Robin!).

Atlas Comics had survived the superhero depression by turning to horror, suspense and science fiction stories, such as the ones pictured below, produced by Atlas editor Stan Lee, with a handful of stories being drawn by artist Jack Kirby.

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JIM #13, 1953
ST #28, 1954
ST #58, 1957

These books, usually about normal humans battling fantastic creatures, were harbingers of things to come. When Jack Kirby later went to work for DC, he recalled the handful of human vs. monster books he had done earlier for Atlas. If ONE normal human could fight monsters, then why couldn't FOUR do it even better? .And thus was born ... not the FF, but a group called the Challengers of the Unknown. The Challengers represent a sort of interim between the monster books and the Fantastic Four. The Challs got their start in Showcase #6, 1957 (cover pictured left), a try-out book in which DC tested the popularity of new characters before awarding .them their own title.

The Challs' origin may sound alarmingly familiar to FF fans: Their story began with the crash of a small aircraft. Four people -- normal human beings -- walked away from this deadly accident: Test pilot /war hero Ace Morgan, circus daredevil Red Ryan, deep sea scientist Prof. Haley, and Olympic wrestling champ Rocky Davis, pictured right exclaiming, "Great scott! What a mess! Did we walk away from THAT?"

After deciding they are living on borrowed time anyway, the group decides to stick together to combat menaces of all kinds. They form the Challengers of the Unknown, and set off to, ummm ... challenge the unknown!

In the Challs' case, the unknown usually looked a lot like the big fugly monsters Challs writer/artist Jack Kirby was quite familiar with. In practice, challenging the unknown meant a team of four, with no powers or secret identities, versus the monster(s) of the month.

“A suicide squad!" That's how Jack Kirby described the four men in the Challengers. "They are the men who take the risks. These are the kind of guys who travel through time as casually as you or I would go to the corner .store. I wouldn’t want to travel through time like those guys. I’d be scared out of my underwear!”

The concept of the Challengers had been created by DC editor Jack Schiff, who once co-developed a Doc Savage adventure with another DC editor, Mort Weisinger, called "Dead Man's Club." Their treatment was used by Lester Dent to write "Birds of Death" in 1941 -- cover pictured right. (Thanks to DIAL B for BLOG reader Anthony Tollin for pointing that out!)

Jack Kirby didn't stay with the Challengers for very long. "I'd get into fights with editors and I'd get into .arguments with publishers," Kirby admitted. Sure enough, after doing just a dozen issues, Kirby got into a fight with Jack Schiff, and quit the book (which continued publication until 1971, changing little from the original concept).

Kirby returned to Atlas, which at this time was still publishing titles featuring bug-eyed monster stories written by Stan Lee, and illustrated by a variety of artists.

It was during this phase of his career that Lee and his artists gradually developed what came to be known as the "Marvel method" of creating a comic book. The method used by DC -- and every other comic company -- was straightforward: The writer wrote a full script, complete with captions and dialogue, then gave it to the penciler, who drew it. This put the writer firmly in control of the storytelling procedure. The "Marvel method" changed all that, making the artist the master of what was really a visual medium in the first place.

As Lee recalls, “[Jack Kirby] and I had a uniquely successful method of working. I had only to give Jack an outline of a story and he would draw the entire strip, breaking down the outline into exactly the right number of .panels replete with action and drama. Then, it remained for me to take Jack’s artwork and add the captions and dialogue, which would, hopefully, add the dimension of reality through sharply delineated characterization.”

Using this method, or an early version of it, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and other artists turned out truckloads of stories featuring big, gigantic, freaky-looking monsters, from outer space, underground, or wherever -- monsters such as "Taboo, the Thing from the Murky Swamp" (Strange Tales # 75, cover pictured right. You'll be seeing more .of good old Taboo in future issues of Dial B for Blog!)

Even as DC successfully revived the Flash (February 1959), and later Green Lantern, the Atlas title "Amazing Adult Fantasy" was still featuring monsters -- but these particular monsters might seem awfully familiar to FF fans.

Amazing Adult Fantasy #7 (pictured left) was the title's first issue -- it had continued the numbering of Amazing Adventures #6. With issue #7, cover dated December 1961, the book became Amazing Adult Fantasy. Given the dates, this book must have been in production before the first issue of Fantastic Four saw print.

In retrospect, the issues pictured below, seem like a showcase of prototypes and early models for the FF. The letters in the logo, with their pointy serifs and bouncy baseline, are a dead ringer for the letters in the classic FF logo. Then there's the "Krills," forerunners of the Skrulls; a big orange dude with a rocky, thing-like body; and a story about creatures who change into human form!

These themes show how prevalent Lee's influence was, because Kirby had nothing to do with these covers -- they're all by Steve Ditko. And who but Shameless Smilin' Stan could put a blurb on the cover promising Amazing was "The magazine that respects your intelligence!" right under a blurb asking, "Do strange creatures walk among us in human form?" Obviously, this was highbrow stuff.

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AAF #8, JAN 1962
AAF #9, FEB 1962
AAF #11, APR 1962

Meanwhile, over at DC, the revived Flash and Green Lantern were selling well, so it was decided to gather together the current list of available superheroes and revive the superhero-team book as well. DC’s magnificent seven -- Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman and new character Martian Manhunter became charter members of the new group -- Green Arrow and a new version of the Atom would soon join too. The new team was called ... the Justice League of America!

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Mike Sekowsky penciled the stories, Bernard Sachs inked most of them, and Gardner Fox, who had previously written numerous stories for All-Star featuring the JSA, wrote the first 65 Justice League of America stories. An amazing record for longevity on a single title, but a record that Lee and Kirby would one day shatter, producing an unmatched 100 consecutive issues of the Fantastic Four.

During his years writing the old JSA team, as well as zillions of other stories, Gardner Fox hit upon a sure-fire, three-part formula for superhero-team books that still endures to the present day. Fox's .Formula:

(1) Individual member has initial confrontation with menace, summons team
(2) Team meets, separates into smaller groups to battle aspects of the menace
(3) Team reunites to tackle the menace as a group

This solid-gold formula has even been used in movies, such as "Star Trek: The One Where They Save The Whales." Remember? The Trek gang encountered the menace, then separated; one sub-group secured the whales, another got the special glass for the tank. Remember that great scene where Scotty talks into that early model Macintosh's mouse like it was a microphone? "Hello computer!" Then the Trek .gang all returned to the Enterprise, went back to their own time period, and saved Earth. Yay! One reason why this was one of the best Star Trek films: It followed Fox's time-tested formula.

Gardner Fox employed his formula to great success with the new League. The first-ever JLA story appeared in The Brave and the Bold #28, Feb. 1960 (cover pictured above left). The book sold better than many of DC’s other titles had been selling -- well enough to get the competition talking. It was publisher Martin Goodman, Stan Lee’s Cousin-in-law, who suggested to Lee that he do a supero-team comic book. The bust of Stan Lee below still remembers the fateful meeting.

“Martin mentioned," Lee recalls, "that he had noticed one of the titles published by DC seemed to be selling better than most. It was a book called the Justice League of America [actually Brave and Bold] and was composed of a team of superheroes. Well, we didn't need a house to fall on us. ‘If the .Justice League [Brave and Bold] is selling,’ spake he, ‘Why don’t we put out a comic book that features a team of superheroes?”

Lee accepted the assignment -- but he was going to do the book his way. It would NOT be a JLA-clone. According to Lee, “There were many, many superheroes merrily cavorting in their colorful little long johns long before the FF made the scene. But virtually none of them had personal problems; none had to worry about earning a living, none ever .argued or lost his temper with other super heroes. Not until our captivating little quartet came along!”

“It’s like any group of friends," Jack Kirby adds. "One guy is like this, another is like that, and they all compliment each other. Groups have no need for duplicates, and God forbid if you had two hotheads.”

Like Kirby's old book, the Challengers, the new team would feature just four superheroes, each distinctive and unique, with little or no overlapping personality traits in common. Per Kirby, this new group would have just ONE hothead, etc.

Would the new team wear flashy, colorful uniforms, like the Justice League members did? NO! According to Stan Lee, “I was utterly determined to have a superhero series without any secret identities. I knew for a fact that if I possessed a super power I’d never keep it secret. I'm too much of a show off. So why should our fictional friends be any different? Accepting this premise, it was also natural to forego the use of costumes. If our heroes were to live in the real world, let them dress like real people.”

Totally unlike the Justice League -- supposed inspiration for the FF -- but just like Doc Savage and his crew, Lee might have a dded. So ... how did the Justice League start the FF? Simple: By selling well! That's the ONLY part the JLA can claim in inspiring the FF.

When developing personality traits for their new team of characters, Lee and Kirby may have had "Johnny" Littlejohn's favorite exclamation in mind: "I'll be Superamalgamated!" The members of the Fantastic Four bear more than a passing resemblance to members of Doc's crew, and the FF's personality traits seem to be a super-amalgamation of the different characteristics of Doc's gang -- with, as Kirby noted -- all duplicates removed.

Here's visual proof: The top row below was Photoshopped by me, Robby Reed, using faces from old Doc Savage pulp covers. The bottom row of artwork was scanned unaltered from Fantastic Four #1, page 1, making it among the very first drawings Kirby ever did of the FF. Compare!

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DR. REED RICHARDS is based on DR. CLARK SAVAGE aka Doc Savage. Reed is a brilliant inventor and scientist just like Doc. Reed's habit of constantly using big words comes from Johnny Littlejohn.

BEN GRIMM is based on MONK MAYFAIR. Ben is a "Thing"; Monk resembles a gorilla. Ben's running feud with Johnny is based on Monk's squabble with Ham. Like Renny, who was described as "thin and GRIM," Ben also loves to slam his huge fists through doors -- or anything else.

SUSAN STORM is based on PAT SAVAGE, the unofficial sixth member of Doc's team. The beautiful and glamorous Pat is Doc's cousin; Susan is Johnny Storm's sister.

JOHNNY STORM is based on JOHNNY LITTLEJOHN. Johnny gets his name from Littlejohn. Moreover, it was said that "underneath Littlejohn's gaunt appearance burns a strength and fire unbelievable."

The Justice League and FF have absolutely nothing in common, except perhaps high sales figures. This graphic and the character descriptions below prove once and for all that the REAL basis for the Fantastic Four was not the JLA ... it was the cast of a decades-old pulp magazine titled DOC SAVAGE.


NEXT: They've got the names, they've got the personalities ... but there's still one thing missing: the SUPER POWERS! Where did the FF's powers come from? And how did they GET them? Hint: Stan Lee did NOT invent "Cosmic Rays!" Who did? Reader, we're just getting started!

Click here for "Secret Origins of the FF" - PART THREE!