| SECRET ORIGINS OF
THE FANTASTIC FOUR
Part 3 of 4: CASE of the STOLEN SUPER-POWERS
Amalgamating various aspects of the Challengers of the Unknown and the old Doc Savage pulps, Stan Lee developed a set of four characters for his new superhero team, the Fantastic Four. But superheroes generally needed super POWERS. Where would the fabulous FF get their powers? And what would those powers be?
DC's recently-revived superheroes, Flash and Green lantern, got their powers from accidents. A lightning bolt hitting a rack of chemicals had splashed Flash, giving him super speed; Green Lantern's ring was passed on to him after his predecessor died in a spaceship crash landing. The JLA, whose high-selling debut in Brave and Bold had spurred rival Atlas Comics to do their own team book, was formed after an alien invasion accidentally brought Superman and friends together.
Fine -- the FF would get their powers from an accident too. Now -- what kind of accident? In one of Jack Kirby's previous books, four survivors of a plane crash had banded together as "Challengers of the Unknown." With two minor adjustments, this scenario would work to perfection for the FF.
First, instead of a mere plane, the FF would ride a rocketship to the stars. Perfect for the early sixties, an era when the American/ Russian "space race" was in full force!
Second, an event would be added that would confer different fantastic super powers on the team members. This event was exposure to a fictional outer-space phenomena called "Cosmic Rays."
Where did the term "Cosmic Rays" come from? Was it just one of the 1,001 fantastic ideas Stan Lee dreamed up every day? Perhaps -- or perhaps Lee dreamed it up one NIGHT, after reading Doc Savage #77, featuring Doc and company in an adventure titled The South Pole Terror.
The blurb for this 1936 adventure reads: What was the fabulous treasure Velma Crale had discovered in the South Pole? The Man of Bronze and his five aides give chase all the way to the bottom of the world ... and are nearly sunburned to death!
In the story, the rays that nearly sunburn Doc and the Fabulous Five to death are identified by name as ... Cosmic Rays! As Doc Savage explains, It has long been known that the atmosphere layer around the earth stops a great many rays from the sun. Some of these rays are harmless, and others are believed to be capable of producing death or serious injury to the human body. There is a theory that these Cosmic Rays are stopped to some extent by the presence of an electromagnetic condition in the stratosphere. In other words, a strata of electrificat
ion. This heat we feel is actually a bombardment of Cosmic Rays.
The term "Cosmic Rays" is mentioned dozens of times in this story, and in the end Doc and company realize that effects of the Cosmic Rays can takes weeks to show themselves.
As the text of the story says, [Doc and the Fab Five] learned one thing about the radiation device -- it was dangerous in a sneaking, unexpected way. Or rather, the cosmic rays were. But it was not until weeks later that they realized this, when they began to suffer from burns which were painful, but fortunately, not incurable.
So, perhaps drawing once again on what may have been his original source material of Doc Savage pulps, Lee settled on "Cosmic Rays" as the source of his heroes new super-powers. But that was only half the challenge. The other half was equally difficult: Exactly what would those super-powers BE?
It's long been assumed that Lee simply used a power his company already owned (flames), and got some more-or-less generic powers from a few other heroes (stretching, invisibility, strength). It's also been assumed that everyone involved was fine with Lee's decisions. But these are just assumptions which no one has ever thought very much about -- assumptions that I, Robby Reed, am about to shatter forever -- because the real truth is a far, far different story. Let's start with the Human Torch.
KEEPER OF THE FLAME
Stan Lees original outline of the first FF story survives to this day. Hey look -- there it is, over on the right! (If you want to read the whole thing, click the pic for a bigger version.) This synopsis describes the effect of the Cosmic Rays on Johnny Storm: He becomes a Human Torch and can fly. The Comics Code told me he may never burn anyone with flame ... and he cannot toss fireballs as the old Human Torch could.
Wait a minute! "Old" Torch? What "old" Torch? Lee is referring to the original -- the Golden Age Human Torch character, which had been created by writer/artist Carl Burgos. The Torch's ability would seem to be the "easy" power for Lee to utilize. After all, his company owned the character, even though it had been created by Carl Burgos.
Burgos had spent the late 1930s writing and drawing features like Iron Skull for the Centaur group, then he moved to Timely Comics, where he created the flaming, flying android known as the Human Torch. The popular Torch had his own title by Autumn 1940 (pictured left), but in 1942, Carl Burgos left the book and the comics industry. Except for an occasional reappearance in comic books, Burgos spent the next 25 years working in advertising.
And how did Burgos feel about Stan Lee appropriating his creation's name, powers and likeness for the new Human Torch? Not good. VERY not good. SO not good that in 1966, Burgos launched a lawsuit to reclaim ownership of the Human Torch -- and when he lost the suit, he did not take it well. He gathered together all the Torch pages he had saved, and tossed the entire pile in the trash!
Burgos daughter recently recounted the episode to Alter Ego magazine. The day my father threw out that comic material," Burgos daughter recalls, "he mumbled comments about Stan Lee under his breath. Burgos daughter describes her fathers state of mind at the time as an Im going to get rid of everything and no ones going to make money off my back again" kind of attitude. Despite the fact that it was all perfectly legal, Burgos never forgave Lee for taking his Torch away.
FROM PLASTIC TO FANTASTIC
In his FF synopsis, Stan's original description of Mr. Fantastic's power was very brief and to the point: [Reed] can twist and bend his body into almost any shape. First of all, let's get one thing straight: The ability to stretch one's body into almost any shape is NOT a "generic" superpower. It did not fall out of the sky one day. It was the creation of one man, for his own totally original superhero: Plastic Man. All other stretchable superheroes -- Mr. Fantastic, Elastic Lad, Elongated Man, etc. -- are simply copies of Plastic Man, end of story. Who was Plastic Man's creator? His name is Jack Cole.
From Winkpedia Encyclopedia: "Jack Cole became a professional cartoonist in 1936, in the early days of the comic book industry, after taking a mail-order illustration course. Graphically inventive and prone to wild flights of surreal visual hilarity, Cole was instrumental in creating the irresistibly lurid crime and horror comic books that would one day provoke anti-comics hysteria.
Cole's Plastic Man was characterized by relentless sight gags. Plas is usually doing two or three things at once, his elongated arms and legs snaking after weird criminals. In 1958, without warning and at the height of his popularity, Jack Cole shot himself. No one seems to know the reason why."
Quality Comics had ceased operations two years before Cole's suicide, and most of the company's characters, including Plas, languished. They were later purchased by DC. (Trivia Fun-fact: I, Robby Reed, once used my H-dial to actually become Plastic Man! But that's another story. So is the Plastic Man Hero Clix seen here.)
NVISIBLE GIRL IS A COMMIE?
Everyone knows that the Invisible Girl's power originated with the book "The Invisible Man," by Englishman H.G. Wells. But did you know that Herbert George Wells was a Socialist? And that this line of thought infused his writings?
In "The Invisible Man," the invisibility of the book's main character is meant as a metaphor for society's "invisible" lower classes. This is why he cannot control his invisibility -- it's a permanent condition, and one that leads eventually to madness.
From Amazon.com: "Wells was very much a social writer and his novels are inevitably commentaries on various social evils. It is very much a parable of class structure. ... Wells suggests that his madness have arisen from the fact of invisibility itself, again twisting the context back into the social criticism on which the novel seems based."
But the Invisible Girl can control her invisibility! Can't she? Not according to Stan Lee's synopsis, in which Susan Storm originally could NOT control her power! Stan describes the Cosmic Rays' effect on Sue like this: She has become invisible. She can not become visible again. Later, she will buy a mask with a face like the one she had and she will wear that mask in order to be seen ... Her clothes of course can be seen, so it is only her flesh that is invisible. I hope this wont seem too corny ... maybe well change this gimmick somewhat.
Thankfully, this gimmick WAS changed, and more than just "somewhat." It was dropped completely before the first issue. Not only was Sue Storm given complete control over her powers, later she even acquired the ability to project force fields as well. But had Lee's original plan been utilized, Susan Storm would be far more similar to the character in H.G. Wells' novel.
Another source of inspiration for Susan Storm was known as "Invisible Scarlet O'Neil," aka America's Miracle Girl. Scarlet, a beautiful redhead, was the daughter of a scientist experimenting with creating various weapons. She accidentally stuck her finger in front of a "weird-looking ray, " and this gave her the ability to make herself invisible at will by pressing a nerve on her left wrist. Scarlet decided to use her new power to help America and do good. Just like Susan Storm -- except Scarlet came WAY earlier. Scarlet got HER start in a newspaper strip and Big Little Books, which were later reprinted in Famous Funnies. That's the cover of FF #81 (1942) pictured above.
THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME
Stans synopsis says that the Cosmic Rays made Ben Grimm Brutish ... sort of shapeless ... a THING -- and that's the ONLY physical description of the character offered in the entire synopsis. The rest came from the FF's artist, Jack Kirby.
The Thing's power is super-strength -- but in reality, his "power" is in his appearance. There were dozens of handsome strongmen in comics at this time. There is only one grotesque Thing -- a shambling monster about as far from the perfection of Superman as one could possibly get. But where did the Thing's startling appearance come from? The Doc Savage character Monk Mayfair was described as a "human gorilla," but that only took care of Ben Grimm. What would Grimm look like AFTER his monstrous transformation?
The Thing's rocky orange look did not spring full-blown from the mind of Jack Kirby. Instead it evolved gradually, over the course of time, beginning long before the FF -- in the old monster books! Just look at the covers below, all by Kirby, and you'll see how, like a camera lens gradually focusing on a subject, Kirby slowly developed the Thing's "thing-like" appearance.
Like Burgos, Kirby's relationship with Lee eventually soured. In fact, it got so bad that when Kirby was at DC doing "Mister Miracle," he created a character who was a scathing parody of Stan Lee called "Funky Flashman," and an equally-scathing caricature of Roy Thomas he called "Houseroy." As you can see from the panels pictured below, Funky Flashman was depicted as a cold-hearted huckster who projected a smiling image to the world, but actually existed by shamelessly and ruthlessly exploiting others.
THE REAL BAXTER BUILDING
With his team's names, personalities and powers decided, all Stan Lee needed was a place to locate the FF's headquarters -- the team's home and nerve center, where they'd live, and where Reed would create and store his fantastic inventions. Would Lee choose a mountain cave, like the JLA used? An island retreat, like Wonder Woman? Or perhaps an arctic fortress, like Superman? Answer: None of the above!
No, there would be no imaginary cities such as Metropolis or Gotham for Lee's heroes. Remember, they were going to live in the REAL world! Accordingly, Lee decided to locate his new team's headquarters smack dab in the middle of downtown Manhattan. The FF would make the upper floors of a mid-town skyscraper called the Baxter Building their home.
What a blazingly original concept! Unique! No team had ever had a HQ like this one before! Errr... except for (you guessed it) Doc Savage and his team!
That's right, returning to his original source material, Lee may have again borrowed a page from Doc Savage, whose main headquarters was located on 86th floor of the Empire State Building, in Manhattan.
But wait a minute! Who's that mysterious green-hooded man in armor, attacking the FF in the Baxter Building? Surely HE can't have anything to do with Doc Savage, right? Right?? RIGHT?!?!? Reader, if you can't answer that question by now, you just haven't been paying attention. Concluded next issue!