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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Saturday, September 17, 2011


I’ve stated in Part 1 of this essay-series that I concede the *possibility* that the FANTASTIC FOUR may have come about, as fervent Kirby-supporters claim, as having been mostly conceived by Jack Kirby, aside from perhaps the addition of a new Human Torch to the mix (as Kirby would have been unlikely to have revived that particular character). However, I’ve been comparing the type of narratives found in the Lee-Kirby FANTASTIC FOUR against the prior Kirby work most often compared with the FF: the CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN, originated by Kirby and writer Dave Wood. Based on those comparisons, I think it’s more likely that Stan Lee gave Kirby much more substantial storytelling input than had Dave Wood. I don’t credit Lee’s courtroom claim to have originated nearly everything in the Lee-Kirby collaboration. But I also don’t believe a similar claim from Kirby, nor do I favor the opinions of fans who believe Stan’s greatest contribution was stepping back to let Kirby “do his thing.”

The twelve Kirby issues of COTU are perhaps close to equaling the first 12 issues of FANTASTIC FOUR in respect to the kinetic qualities of both: both are high-energy juvenile adventures with a lot of sensational action. Yet in my Jungian-influenced literary system I recognize three other aspects of literature beyond the kinetic: the thematic (dealing with discursive concepts), the dramatic (dealing with character interactions), and the mythopoeic (dealing with symbolic complexity). And in all of these, COTU is as night to the FF’s bright sunshiny day.

It is, again, possible that *if* Jack Kirby solely originated FANTASTIC FOUR in 1961, he simply experienced a quantum leap in creativity as he went from COTU and SKY MASTERS to FANTASTIC FOUR, INCREDIBLE HULK, et al. After all, many authors vacillate, for any number of reasons, in terms of their quality over the course of years. However, during the years between 1957 and 1961, during which Jack Kirby began getting most of his work from Stan Lee’s company, he collaborated most often with Lee, either directly or with the additional collaboration of Larry Lieber as dialogue-writer to the Lee-Kirby plots. I think it’s likely that as the two collaborators learned one another’s skills, they played off one another in creative ways that were not possible with earlier collaborators like Dave Wood, leading to a gestalt of complementary creativity.

We have few relics of the Lee-Kirby collaborative process, and fans tend to interpret what we have according to their respective prejudices. Therefore, critics can only compare the narrative themselves. And since FANTASTIC FOUR is most often compared to the CHALLENGERS because the two features have roughly similar origins, a comparison of those origin-sequences is necessary.

The COTU origin is two-and-a-half pages, not counting an unrelated first-page splash-panel. It begins as an announcer for a radio program called “Heroes” tells his listeners that next week the program will feature four men “famous in their own fields.” These four all have their own adventurous specialties: Ace Morgan is a pilot, Prof Haley a diver, Red Ryan a mountain-climber, and Rocky Davis a wrestler. At the same time the announcer is speaking, Ace Morgan is flying the other three to wherever the radio program is scheduled for broadcast (even though it’s not to take place until “next week.”) A storm hits the plane, and when Ace tries to steer the plane out of the storm, the plane’s controls jam. The plane crashes but all four men survive, though it seems like a miracle to them given the plane’s devastation. They decide that they are now living on “borrowed time” and that their destiny is to form a team of daredevils willing to “challenge the unknown.”

The FF origin is five pages, beginning as scientist Reed Richards, his fiancée Sue and her brother Johnny seek to persuade Ben Grimm to pilot a ship, constructed by Reed, into outer space. Ben objects that the cosmic rays surrounding Earth “might kill us all out in space.” Sue accuses Ben of cowardice, and he angrily takes her implicit dare. Later the foursome (none of whom seem to need astronaut training) blast off in Reed’s ship. Just as Ben predicts, cosmic rays strike the ship, affecting all those aboard and causing the ship to crash. The four would-be astronauts survive, but Ben becomes irate with Reed once they see that Sue has gained the power of invisibility. As Ben tries to attack Reed (his words suggesting a hidden desire for Reed’s girlfriend), both exhibit super-powers as they fight, as does Johnny. Reed persuades his companions to use their powers for the good of humanity as the Fantastic Four.

Since the purpose of both stories is to assemble a heroic team, neither can be judged on pure verisimilitude, on whether the characters are likely to become altruistic teams in response to their traumas. But in the case of COTU, everything in the brief origin is purely functional. The motive for bringing the heroes together is a mundane radio program, and there are no significant aspects to the plane the heroes fly in or the storm that causes them to crash. Even the metaphor of “borrowed time” isn’t particularly compelling. There are no discursive elements introduced, and the characters are too similar to generate any interpersonal drama. There is one mythopoeic element that may have some significance in the story as a whole—an element I’ll treat in a separate essay—but within the origin-sequence, it carries no plurisignative value.

In the FF origin-sequence, however, Lee and Kirby provide what I’ve called a “super-functional” narrative. Through the central character of Reed Richards, the creators channel the early sixties’ fascination with the wonder of space-flight in all its thematic, dramatic, and mythopoeic aspects. Richards is given just one dominant character-aspect—a devotion to exploring the frontier of space that borders on the fanatical (“We had to be first!” he cries as the ship leaves Earth). In most SF-movies of the time this would make Reed the over-reacher doomed to suffer the consequences of risk-taking. Here, Ben Grimm, who in an archaic Greek drama would be the warning-voice of the chorus, is the one to suffer the doom of the over-reacher, becoming a monster outside humanity. The bare suggestion of his concealed feelings for Sue would have rich implications for later stories, especially once the team developed into more of a quarreling family than a businesslike team. The seeds of all the thematic, dramatic and mythopoeic elements of the ensuing series are found in this five-page sequence, and even though Lee and Kirby often rewrote specifics of the origin, the FF origin-sequence established a super-functional mythos for the feature’s characters, whereas the origin of the Challengers is merely a set-up that has little if any future impact on stories.

There is no knowing which if any specific ideas Stan Lee contributed to the collaboration. But at the very least I think that Lee did more than simply “let Kirby loose.” I believe that on some level Lee “challenged the unknown” limits of what comic-book superheroes could do, and by example encouraged Kirby to do the same. And therefore, no matter how much work Stan Lee did in the collaboration, the work they produced was more than Jack Kirby ever could have done, unaided.


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