Friday, October 27, 2006

Fantastic Four: Co-incidence Or Not

About two years ago I ran an article on my site (this was pre-blog days) about the possible involvement of Jack Kirby in the creation of the Amazing Spider-Man. Written by Stan Taylor, the article was, and still is, well written, well researched and raises a lot of questions about if Kirby did indeed have a hand in Spidey's genesis. That article recently prompted an email from Paul Saether, who lives in the UK. His article focuses on the comparisons of the Fantastic Four and the film Journey To The Centre Of The Earth, and like Taylor's article, it makes some compelling arguments. Have a read, and by all means, fire down some comments and let me, and Paul, know what you're thinking with this one.
by Paul Saether (copyright 2006 Paul Saether)

Consider the following:
• A team of four people,
• Three men and one woman
• Make a pioneering journey into the unknown.
• They are attempting to be the first to make the trip and live to tell about it.
• They sneak into their starting point secretly in the hope of beating the competition to their goal.

The oldest (& team leader) is a scientist.
His companions are:
• The girl who he eventually marries (she has to demand the right to accompany the others against the leader’s wishes)
• An enthusiastic younger man
• A big strong fighting man.

In their adventure the team travel to a remote island. The island is volcanic
• They then journey deep underground via the crater.
• The floor caves in and…
• …the team is split up…
• …and part of the team is captured by a villain
• They find fantastic, big, natural jewels in great profusion
• And find that the world underground is not in darkness but lit by a naturally occurring luminescence.
• In this place they fight huge monsters which were thought long extinct.
• And they discover a legendary land (Atlantis) at the Earth’s centre.
• Eventually the team regroups and defeats their enemy.

And that enemy is…
• …a lone human who says of this underground world: ‘You’re in my world now’ and ‘I am the owner of this domain’ and further describes it as: ‘This realm of mine’

What’s more:
• The villain is rather stocky.
• The villain is blinded whilst deep underground.
• He has a distinctive short hairstyle.
• At one point he is seen wearing a cloak-like garment.
• At one point he is seen with a large backpack.
• At one point he is seen carrying a staff.

And finally:
• There’s a (actually more than one) huge falling boulder
• At the end of the story the route to the underground world is destroyed by a massive eruption/explosion.

All 30+ points above [30+!] fit almost exactly the events in Fantastic Four #1 – which recounts the origin of the Fantastic Four and then their defeat of the Mole Man deep in his subterranean abode in their first adventure.

This was published in Nov. 1961.

But in fact…the 30 odd points above are all describing something else entirely !!!

I was an seven year old boy in 1959 and my 14 year old sister (like all 14 year old U.K./U.S. girls of the time) was crazy about Pat Boone. Boone was a hugely popular singer at the time - so popular that he had his own DC title during 1959 - 1960 and appeared in, and on the cover of ‘Lois Lane’ #9 in mid 1959.

A great number of times that year (six, or maybe more) my big sister dragged me to see him in the popular film: ‘Journey To The Centre Of The Earth’ (I’ve watched it a few times since on the telly too. The film stands the test of time very well and is an excellent kids’ adventure film)

All the characters and events described above are from this film, which was released in the U.S. in 1959. I’m not suggesting that Stan and/or Jack copied this film’s storylines - but I wouldn’t mind betting that when they created this first F.F. story one or both of them had seen the film and it was fresh in their minds. The Mole Man origin flashback even has the words: “…to search for a new world …the legendary land at the centre of the earth ! ” and in the film, that is exactly what Pat Boone and co find at the Earth’s core - Atlantis.

Add the above to the already successful ‘Challengers Of The Unknown’ origin story (or its prototype ‘3 Rocketeers’ story) and you’ve almost got the full storyline for both of the stories in F.F. #1.

That Challengers origin has the following in common with the Fantastic Four origin:
• There were four in the team.
• The team included a scientist and a test pilot.
• They wore identical purple outfits.
• They survived a crash-landing in wilderness.
• None of them suffered from anything worse than cuts and bruises.
• They made their team pact on the spot as they stood amidst the wreckage.
• They flew to their first mission in a private plane which they somehow owned/acquired.
• And in issue 3 of their magazine, one of the Challengers develops all the F.F.s individual powers!!!

Note also that:
• The origin stories were published within five years of each other. (and there were only three years between Challs #3 and F.F. #1)
• Both stories were drawn by Jack Kirby (who may therefore have only borrowed ideas off himself!)

It is also interesting to note that the quartet introduced in Showcase #20 (June 1959) is also strikingly similar to the fantastic four. Here’s mike Conway’s description of the main characters (from his book ‘500 Great Comicbook Action Heroes’): ‘…[Rip] Hunter and his companions - his girlfriend Bonnie Baxter, her young brother, Corky and Jeff Smith, his assistant…’ Bear in mind that Hunter was a scientist and you have here a team that very closely resembles and pre-dates the F.F. I’ve read comparisons between the Challengers Of The Unknown and the F.F. Many times - but I’d forgotten that Rip Hunter was just one of a team of four. I’ve never heard of anyone suggesting the strong character similarities between the F.F. and Rip Hunter’s gang…but to illustrate just how common such quartets once were, here’s Frank Plowright’s description of DC’s Sea Devils in the second ‘Slings & Arrows Comic Guide’: “…we have four Sea Devils, the cerebral leader, his blonde girlfriend, her kid brother and a loveable hunk of meat, surely the prototypes of the Fantastic Four.”

And in Mike Conway’s ‘500 Great Comicbook Action Heroes’ is a description of Cave Carson and co. According to this, in addition to Cave Carson (a scientist/inventor) there was: “…strongman and tunnel expert Bulldozer Smith: renowned geologist Christine Madison and devil-may-care adventurer…Johnny Blake,” So - yet another quartet consisting of a scientist, strong man, female and young man (this one even called Johnny).

To summarise, with dates:
All these teams with a possible claim to being the inspiration for the Fantastic Four:
• The 3 Rocketeers (intended date of first appearance) 1956 (Not a quartet, I know, but they’re included as a possible Challengers prototype. They didn’t appear in print until 1965 but Kirby was familiar with it in 1956 of course - he drew it).
• Challengers in Showcase #6 (date of first appearance) Feb. 1957
• Challengers Of The Unknown #3 (date of first appearance) Sep. 1958
• Pat Boone and co. (from the film - date of first appearance) 1959
• Rip Hunter and co. (date of first appearance) Jun. 1959
• Dell Four Color 1060 (adapts ‘journey to the centre…’ film - date of first appearance) mid? 1960
• Sea Devils (date of first appearance) Aug. 1960
• Cave Carson (date of first appearance) Sept. 1960
• Fantastic Four (date of first appearance) Nov. 1961

So - there were many such quartets on which to base the team make-up and the film was neither the first nor the most recent prior to the publication of F.F. #1. But the fact that so many other features from the film appear in F.F. #1 leads me to suspect it could have been influential in Stan/Jack’s choice of team membership too.

Also on the subject of ‘outside influences’

A year before ‘Journey To The Centre Of The Earth’ came out there was another clever special effects film that was very successful: ‘Tom Thumb’. In this film the 6-inch high hero used rulers as spring boards and the upward momentum of a Jack-in-a-box to give him lift, was attacked by a cat and a bird, eventually, being the only person small enough to enter, he was lowered on the end of a line into a circular grill above a money vault. This is more likely to be pure coincidence than all those F.F. similarities, but anyone familiar with the early Silver Age Atom stories [first appearing the month before F.F.#1 in Oct 1961] might recognise many or all of these events as also appearing in his early stories. The line being used on more than one occasion to lower the atom into the (circular) time pool which only he was small enough to enter.

Were Marvel and DC paying close attention to popular box-office films & TV hits at this time?

Other (possible) examples of comics following the themes of popular films/TV series are:
• Sea Devils (1st Aug. 1960) when ‘Sea Hunt’ was a very popular TV programme, and ‘20,000 Leagues Under The Sea’ was a fairly recent box-office hit.
• Silent Knight (1955 in ‘Brave & The Bold’) when ‘Ivanhoe’ was popular.
• Robin Hood (about 1957 in ‘Brave & Bold’) when the Richard Greene version of the ‘Robin Hood’
• TV show was extremely popular.
• Tomahawk (late 1950) could possibly have been inspired by the Fess Parker ‘Davy Crockett’ TV show (if that show was broadcast that early, that is. Feature films made up of pieced-together episodes of this TV show were released in 1955).

And DC’s ‘Cave Carson’ first appeared in September 1960 (just 2 months before F.F. #1) and its subterranean theme could also have been inspired by that ‘Journey To The Centre Of The Earth’ film. Rip Hunter’s first appearance (Showcase #20 June 59) was four years before ‘Dr Who’ of course, and even the popular film of Wells’s ‘The Time Machine’ came out later, in 1960 - but that film will have been in production in 1959 and DC writers might have been aware of this fact. And in the ‘Justice League of America’ I mention the possibility that Snapper Carr was based on ‘Kookie’ - a hip young finger-snapping character from the then-popular ‘77 Sunset Strip’ TV series.

The only thing that goes against this general theory that Marvel (and DC in particular) followed film and TV trends at this time is that the TV channels were dominated by many massively popular western series during the 50s/early 60s. But this theme was not even touched upon by DC comics.

However many of these western series had highly specialised sub-themes such as:
• Vulnerable homesteaders settling the wild west in ‘Wagon Train’ (’Wagon Train’ was so hugely popular that the only way that Gene Roddenberry finally managed to persuade the reluctant TV studios to give ‘Star Trek’ a pilot show was to sell them the show as: “Wagon Train in space”
• Gambling in ‘Maverick’,
• Cattle trails in ‘Rawhide’,
• Bounty hunting in ‘Have Gun, Will Travel’ etc.

And Dell seems to have had the sole licence to produce comic versions of each of these shows. Note, however that Atlas (later Marvel) generally ignored superheroes until 1961. Instead they mainly followed the fashions of the cinema and TV - publishing western comics from the late 40s to the mid 60s and monster titles throughout the 50s and early 60s.

C-incidence or influence? You decide.


Dusty said...

......Interesting ideas Paul, although it's ironic that that this piece was inspired by Stan Taylor's Spider-Man piece, as it is similarly, well written and researched but flawed with misconceptions and factual errors.

(Sorry Paul, that last bit was an "in" joke to Stan T. Hey Danny, when are you going to post my reply to Stan:
"Spider-Man: the case for the defense"?)
Seriously Paul, its good reading, the only thing I would disagree with is the C.O.T.U. comparisons. They perpetuate some urban myths.

* "The team included a scientist and a test pilot."

Nowhere in FF#1 does it say Ben Grim was a test pilot.
Showcase #6 says Prof. Haley is a "master skin diver" Although I guess the "Prof" bit does indicate some kind of
University education, it's a long bow to link rocket science and marine biology together.

* "They wore identical purple outfits."

Definitely *NOT* this urban myth seems to have risen from Marvel re-colouring its reprints. The FF space suits are blue, the same colour the uniforms would end up. When the fight the Mole Man, Reed is dressed in blue, Sue is in red, Johnny is in two shades of brown and Ben wears a yellow trench coat.

* "They survived a crash-landing in wilderness."

Again not true. FF #1 page 11 panel #1 reads, "At that moment, the powerful ships auto-pilot took over, and managed to return the sleek rocket ***safely*** to earth, in a rough, but non fatal landing!" (My emphasis)

* None of them suffered from anything worse than cuts and bruises.

See the previous answer.

* They made their team pact on the spot as they stood amidst the wreckage.

Again, there was NO wreckage in FF #1. The team make their "pact on a rock in a field, the (The, intact, rocket is nowhere in sight.)

* "And in issue 3 of their magazine, one of the Challengers develops all the F.F.s individual powers!!!"

Rocky doesn't stretch or turn into a rock covered monster.
The Human Torch's powers are indisputably derived from Carl Burgos's creation Torch!

These are only the only nit picks in (and pet peeves of mine) in an, otherwise, very enjoyable piece.

Well done, I'd love to see some more.


Anonymous said...

I have no doubt that movies influenced Jack and likely Stan as well. Kirby was a moviegoer and more than likely would have seen Journey to the Center of the Earth. What is even more odd is that Kirby's Thing may have inspired a low budget monster movie entitled :"The Hands of Death", the monster looks like Kirby's early Thing, down to wearing a hat and trenchcoat! The movie, however came out some time after FF 1, sometime in 1962, so its very possible the makeup and look was copied from the comic book, not visa versa!

Nick Caputo