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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

In Their Own Words: Who Created The Fantastic Four? Stan & Jack Speak!

A while back I posted the first in a series of oral histories, by the people who were there, compiled from various sources, which detailed who did, or didn’t, create the Amazing Spider-Man.  The reaction to the post was better than I expected, so I’ve decided to continue the concept as a series and cover as many of the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby creations as I possibly can.  To that end, here’s part two, the Fantastic Four.


The Fantastic Four were the flagship of the Marvel line and clearly both Stan and Jack had a fondness for the characters.  They were the first in a long line of super-heroes, and they marked the longest continuous collaboration that the two men had, as they worked on the title for 102 issues, plus a handful of annuals from its inception in 1961 through to 1970, creating a volume of work and characters that is still unmatched today.  The characters and concepts that were introduced make up the foundations of the Marvel Universe as we know it – the Silver Surfer, Galactus, The Black Panther, the Inhumans, Adam Warlock and countless others all had their introductions in the Lee/Kirby run.  Even so there is still conjecture as to who did what on the title.

In one corner are those who firmly believe that Stan Lee had a strong hand in the writing and editing of the book.  This would also mean that Lee had the controlling say over the direction of the title and Lee also took more than an active hand in the creation of the characters.  In the other corner are those who equally believe that Jack Kirby did it all.  This means that Kirby wrote, or, at the very least, plotted every issue, suggested dialogue, created all of the characters alone and controlled the direction of the title.  While it’s true that there are strong arguments to be had for both sides of the fence, such as the fact that Stan Lee never created characters as strong away from Kirby as he did with him, and Jack Kirby’s dialogue left a bit to be desired without Lee’s editing, the absolute truth may never be known as Kirby and Lee were certainly at odds when it came to giving the other man credit for their efforts, although Lee has been more charitable with it comes to giving Kirby his due than Kirby did for Lee.


Into the mix is a series of synopses that have come to light in recent times.  These synopses, written by Stan Lee, allegedly show plot directions and were given to Jack Kirby.  Kirby always said that he was never given any direction; however the documents came from the Kirby estate.  

 So, who did what and when?  Who knows, these days the bulk of the people claiming to be experts who claim that they do know what happened and who created what, beyond any doubt, simply were not there and are going on the memories of others and their own suppositions, which are, at times, clouded by their own personal preferences and prejudices .  As for the rest…well, we do have what Stan and Jack said, and it's well worth remembering that they were the only the two men who were there, so we can read what they two of them put on the record and decide for ourselves.
The Fantastic Four

JACK KIRBY:  I came in with presentations.  I'm not gonna wait around for conferences. I said, 'This is what you have to do.' I came in with The Fantastic Four. I didn't fool around. I said you've got to do super-heroes.[1]

I had to fight for the superheroes. In other words, I was at the stage now where I had to fight for those things and I did. I had to regenerate the entire line.[2]

STAN LEE:  Jack never pushed me to do superheroes. What happened was one day, Martin Goodman called me into the office - this is when Jack and I were doing all those monster stories “You know, Stan, I’ve just seen some sales figures for this DC (Justice League of America) magazine. It's doing pretty well. Maybe we ought to do some superheroes…Let’s do a team like the Justice League. And I said, “Fine.” I went home and wrote an outline a synopsis for The Fantastic Four.  I called Jack, handed him the outline, and said; “Read this. It is something I want to do. And you should draw a team.”  Jack, of course, contributed many, many ideas to it and I would venture to say Jack and I created The Fantastic Four, in a way, although the name was mine, the characters were mine and the concept was mine, originally. But he never pushed me to do superheroes. Jack was at home drawing these monster stories until the day I called him and said: "Let's do the Fantastic Four.[3]


JACK KIRBY:  My inspirations were the fact that I had to make sales and come up with characters that were no longer stereotypes. In other words, I couldn't depend on gangsters; I had to get something new.[4]

I had to do something different. The monster stories have their limitations - you can just do so many of them. And then it becomes a monster book month after month, so there had to be a switch because the times weren’t exactly conducive to good sales. So I felt the idea was to come up with new stuff all the time - in other words there had to be a blitz. And I came up with this blitz. I came up with The Fantastic Four, I came up with Thor (I knew the Thor legends very well), and the Hulk, the X-Men, and The Avengers. I revived what I could and came up with what I could. I tried to blitz the stands with new stuff. The new stuff seemed to gain momentum.[5] 

STAN LEE:  In the ‘60s, the ideas for the new characters originated with me because that was my responsibility. What would happen is the publisher, Martin Goodman, for example, with the Fantastic Four; he called me into his office one day and he said, "I understand that National Comics," which later changed its name to DC, "I understand that National Comics has a book called The Justice League. And it's selling very well. I want you to come up with a team of superheroes. Let's do something like that."  It was my responsibility to come up with such a team, so I went home and I thought about it.  

I wanted to make these different than the average comic book heroes. I didn't want them to have a secret identity.  I figured I'm sick of stories of where the hero always wins and he's always one hundred percent good and the villain is one hundred percent bad and all that sort of thing. So I figured, this time I'm going to get a team of characters who don't hew to the mold. Fighting amongst themselves, and I wanted to make it as realistic as possible. Instead of them living in Gotham City or Metropolis I felt I will have them live in New York City.  Instead of the obligatory teenager Johnny Storm driving a whiz bang V8, he would drive a Chevy Corvette.  

JACK KIRBY:  It was my idea. It was my idea to do it the way it was; my idea to develop it the way it was. I'm not saying that Stan had nothing to do with it. Of course he did. We talked things out.[6]

STAN LEE:  I wanted everything real, and I wanted their relationship to be real. Instead of a girl who didn't know that the hero was really a superhero, not only did she know who he was, but they were engaged to be married, and she also had a superpower.  I thought I would try that.  They all got their superpowers by being in a spaceship that was hit by cosmic rays.  I wanted them to be a team, but I wanted them to act like real people. So they didn't always get along well.  We called one of them The Thing, a very powerful ugly guy who would be pathetic.  Mr. Fantastic got the ability to stretch his limbs. The girl, Sue Storm had the ability to become invisible and surround herself with the force field, and the boy Johnny Storm, her brother, was able to burst into flame and fly.  I took that from an old Marvel book, one of Timely Comics' first books called The Human Torch. I always loved that character that had been an android, a robot or something; I felt I'm going to give Johnny Storm that power. He can fly and burst into flame.  So we had a guy who can stretch, a girl who could be invisible, and a man who was an ugly monster.  And again, to go against type, I thought I'd make the ugly monster kind of a funny guy. He's pathetic, but he's also the comedy relief… And he was always arguing and fighting with The Human Torch, who was always trying to give him a hot foot… And he was always trying to grab him and throttle him. 

JACK KIRBY:  Super powers are a show gimmick.  Why does a comedian decide to drop his pants on stage? Or why does a dancer come out and do a certain type of dance? Why break-dancing? The answer is attention. You want the reader's attention. If you can't get it with ordinary people, you get it with extraordinary people.

At the time, the big topic was radiation. We had recently exploded the bomb and I was looking to create supermen. In all my work, you'll see the times are reflected. I don't contrive stories. I don't give you B.S., and I'm not giving you fairy tales. At the time, radiation was the big topic and The Fantastic Four came out of those times. Hiroshima was still fresh. All the bomb experiments were still fresh.

The Invisible Girl represents something that we're looking for. Invisibility is a very powerful military conception. I can assure you that if invisibility became an actuality, that there would be a war. The nation that had invisibility would be at war the day that it made it practical. So in her own way, even then, she wielded a variety of powers. Because we don't know the connotations of invisibility.

Reed Richards was scholarly, but he was caught in an extraordinary situation. Of course he would react in a very scholarly way. He would use his powers as a brainy guy would because Reed Richards is a brain - a very cool character. Ben Grimm couldn't be cool. He had to handle an extreme position. He had a face that was certainly extraordinary. People react to that. You may be a very nice guy but if you have a monstrous face you're going to make a very poor first impression.

Reed was a well-adjusted guy. He could take it in stride. Ben had a different problem. If Reed Richards had been the monster, he might have behaved differently. It's like, I can't share your feelings, I can only feel my own. I can only project my own and hope that other people accept me.

Reed would react differently than Ben Grimm because he had a different problem. He might have almost poked fun at himself, being able to stretch almost a quarter mile - he might have found that amusing while Ben Grimm might have found that annoying.

The Thing was just an ordinary guy. He went to college, became a flyer and had a conventional background like anybody else. But now he was a Thing. He was a well-adjusted Thing but still, he had the problem of looking and being like a monster and he had to live with that. At times, of course, that would irritate him. How'd you like to go into a bowling alley and have the ball crumble in your hands? That would be irritating.  If I were super-strong, it might not be all beneficial. So The Thing had that problem of looking like a monster and having this super-strength. Therefore you've got a good story problem. In that kind of atmosphere you can't fail because the person reading it will relate to it and understand immediately what the problem is. The problem sometimes isn't the super-villain; it's your own super-strength. It's your own irritability. The Thing would go berserk as much as the villain would. He'd smash everything up and I'd feel the same way.

It has to have time to grow.  As you take that time you begin to think about the connotations of what you're doing. You try to make your story sales-effective. You've got to think of sales, not only of good stories. You have a duty to your publisher and you have a duty to your own prestige and credibility. I had that duty, just as in any job.

I used everything that was at hand. I would formulate the events of The Fantastic Four and I would formulate it in accordance with balance. In other words, if I had one type of story in one issue, I would see that it didn't remain static, that there was a change in the succeeding issues. So readers would always wait for the next issue and developments might not be what they expected. I think that was a sales value in the book[7]

STAN LEE:  They all loved each other, but they never got along well. The more they fought amongst themselves, the more the readers loved it.  The Torch wants to quit because he's not making enough money. The Thing wants to get out because he's not getting enough glory and he thinks Reed Richards is hogging all the headlines. Occasionally a crook gets away or beats them up. They're evicted from their skyscraper because they can't pay the rent because Reed Richards invests all their reward money in stocks and the market takes a nosedive.  

I tried to do everything I could to take these super-powered characters and in some way to make them realistic and human and have them react the way normal men might react if those normal men happened to have super-hero powers.  That was the way I envisioned them.  I wrote up a very brief synopsis about that, and naturally I called Jack, because he was our best artist, and I asked him if he would do it. He seemed to like the idea. Took the synopsis, and he drew the story and put in his own touches, which were brilliant, he did a wonderful job on it.  And it worked out beautifully. Books sold, and that was the start of the Marvel success, you might say.  

JACK KIRBY:  Stan didn’t know what a mutation was. I was studying that kind of stuff all the time. I would spot it in the newspapers and science magazines. I still buy magazines that are fanciful. I don’t read as much science fiction as I did at that time. I was a student of science fiction and I began to make up my own story patterns, my own type of people. Stan Lee doesn’t think the way I do. Stan Lee doesn’t think of people when he thinks of [characters]. I think of [characters] as real people. If I drew a war story it would be two guys caught in the war. The Fantastic Four to me are people who were in a jam - suddenly you find yourself invisible, suddenly you find yourself flexible.  

I felt I should do something new with Ben Grimm. If you’ll notice, the beginnings of Ben Grimm, he was kind of lumpy. I felt he had the power of a dinosaur, and I began to think along those lines. I wanted his flesh to look like dinosaur hide. He kind of looks like your outside patio, or a close-up of dinosaur hide.  People claim that The Thing is a lot like me, in terms of his personality, and as the series progressed, he became even more so. He was always at odds with the Yancy Street Gang, a bunch of tough kids from the Lower East Side. In fact, they’re a thinly-disguised version of the Delancy Street Gang guys I tumbled with on more than one occasion.  He was a tragedy. Can you imagine yourself as a mutation, never knowing when you were going to change, and what you’d look like to your folks or people that you love. Everybody seemed to associate me with the Thing because he acted like a regular guy. No matter what he looked like the Thing never changed his personality - he was always a human being despite his physical change. Ben Grimm always remained Ben Grimm. I think that’s why the reader liked him - that touch of reality. You can’t really change a guy unless you injure his brain, or if he sustains some sort of injury in a situation. [8]

The Fantastic Four – Heroes Villains

JACK KIRBY:  Doom is really a good looking guy, all he has is a little scratch on his cheek, but he’s such an egomaniac he can’t stand to look at the imperfection, so he wears a mask.  Doom is the kind of guy who’ll come over to your house for tea, shake your hand, be very friendly, and at the same time his henchmen are kidnapping your mother in the kitchen, while he chats with you in your living room.  He’s based on somebody I know, but I won’t say who.[9]


Doom is a very tragic figure. Doom has got a lot of class; I like Doom. Doom has got a lot of class; he’s got a lot of cool. But Doom has one fallacy; he thinks he’s ugly. He’s afraid to take that mask off. Doom is an extremist; he’s a paranoid.  He thinks in extremes. He can’t think, “Well, I’ve got a scar on me, but that doesn’t make me repellent….” Actually, Doom is a very handsome guy with a scar on him that he got from acid when he was a child. But Doom is an extremist, he’s a paranoid. To him, he’s extremely ugly. If Doom were to lose one hair, he’d put on a wig. And if Doom had an enemy, he’d have to wipe him out. And if Doom thought that anybody was smarter than himself, he’d kill ’em, because Doom would have to be the smartest man in the world. He’s an extremist; but, y’know, he has good manners.  We did an origin story where we related the episode where he became scarred.[10]

Dr. Doom was the Man in the Iron Mask, which I felt was a classic character. I feel that there are certain characters that will never die. We'll tell them in different versions for the rest of the centuries. Dracula will never die. Frankenstein. They live inside us, and Dr Doom will live inside us.

Dr. Doom was a perfectionist.  Actually Dr. Doom is a fine looking man, except that he's got a scratch on his chin because of the college accident in the laboratory. It's like, 'Why should I have a scratch on my chin and you don't?' If Dr. Doom took off his mask and you felt you were looking at a great looking guy, you'd be shocked because you would think he'd been hiding a monstrous face. You'd wonder why a guy would try to hide that. So he must have a mental aberration - he thinks he's ugly. What I did was a satire on a perfectionist. He felt that the tiny little scratch ruined the perfection of his face. And, of course, a mental aberration will give birth to evil of some kind, or conflict or jealousy. Dr. Doom is like that. That's the secret of Dr. Doom-he isn't ugly. He's handsome. But he's a perfectionist and perfectionists are their own devils.[11].

I felt that Sub-Mariner was a powerful character and should be used. It had originally been done by Bill Everett. But those old characters, like the Human Torch, could be used. I used everything that was at hand, that Marvel had which could be used as a superhero.[12]


STAN LEE:  That (Ego – The Living Planet) was Jack's idea too. I remember I said, "You've got to be kidding." He said, "No, let's get a living planet, a bioverse."  Well, I didn't want him to think I was chicken. I said, "All right, you draw it, write it." And, yeah, I think it turned out pretty good.[13]


JACK KIRBY:  I came up with the Black Panther because I realized I had no blacks in my strips. I’d never drawn a black. I needed a black. I suddenly discovered that I had a lot of black readers. My first friend was a black! And here I was ignoring them because I was associating with everybody else. It suddenly dawned on me–believe me, it was for human reasons–I suddenly discovered nobody was doing blacks.  And here I am, a leading cartoonist and I wasn’t doing a black. I was the first one to do an Asian. Then I began to realize that there was a whole range of human differences. Remember, in my day, drawing an Asian was drawing Fu-Manchu that’s the only Asian they knew. [14]


STAN LEE:  I loved the way we did the Black Panther. I wanted him to be the king of his own country in Africa but not the typical kind of African king. I figured why not under the ground... a secret kingdom nobody knew about. And there, under the ground where it wouldn't show, would be the most highly industrialized, scientific country in the world…its leader a master scientist…but nobody would know except the people in Wakanda.

I loved the concept and as usual Jack did a totally magnificent job. When he became the Black Panther, Jack would draw him like a human being but with poses that were always a little bit catlike, especially when he went into action or when he ran.

Jack had such a great facility with just a few lines to capture the absolute essence of what a character was supposed to be.[15]


JACK KIRBY:  I created the Inhumans because the competition was coming up in the field so I thought we’d try a new concept, the family concept.  When someone came up with one super hero we should slap them with five.  As simple as that.[16]



[1] Comics File Magazine #2 (Psi Fi Movie Press 1986)
[2] Will Eisner’s Shop Talk (Dark Horse Pubs 2001)
[3] Comics Interview #5 (1983)
[4] Jack Kirby Collector #7 (TwoMorrows October 1995)
[5] The Comics Journal #134 (February 1990)
[6] Rockets Blast Comic Collector #81 (1970)
[7] Comics File Magazine #2 (Psi Fi Movie Press 1986)
[8] Jack Magic, Vol II (Greg Theakston, Pure Imagination, 2011)
[9] Jack Magic, Vol II (Greg Theakston, Pure Imagination, 2011)
[10] San Diego Golden State Comic-Con (August 13, 1970)
[11] Comics Feature #44 (May 1986)
[12] Comics Feature #44 (May 1986)
[13] WBAI Radio NY (August 12th, 1968)
[14] The Comics Journal #134 (February 1990)
[15] Comic Book Marketplace #61 (July 1998)
[16] The Nostalgia Journal #31 (December 1976)

5 comments:

Kyle Garret said...

I think part of the reason Stan gave more credit to Jack than vice versa is because he wasn't the one getting hosed. Kirby really had to fight to get recognition, let alone money. I think over the years he probably took it further than the truth because he had little choice.

That said, as entertaining as the 4th World stuff his, Kirby's DC work never compared to his Marvel work in my opinion. The fact that Stan's work without Jack does hold up seems to sum it up, at least in my eyes.

Jack still go royally screwed, though.

Kid said...

Well, if Dr Doom was a handsome guy under the mask with only a small scar on his cheek or chin, then why did Jack draw him with clearly visible scars around his eyes in close-ups of his masked face?

Jack was clearly a 'revisionist' when it came to certain aspects of Marvel history.

Steven Thompson said...

People always forget, too, that no matter WHAT Victor's face looked like under the bandages, by the time he put the still steaming hot metal mask on it straight out of the forge, it was going to be pretty much of a mess!

Jack Bertram said...

Back in 1970 Jack Kirby said that it was his concept that Dr. Doom had a handsome face with just a scar. That was his own personal vision, but not the way it was carried out in the Marvel Universe. That was at the 1970 San Diego Comic Con.

Kid said...

But that was in 1970. Doom first appeared in the early '60s, where his origin depicted him with heavily bandaged head after the lab explosion. Not something he'd have needed for only a small scar. And Jack's close-ups of Doom's masked face always showed heavy scarring around the eyes.

Doom only having a small scar was clearly a later development in Jack's 'vision' of the character, not as he (and Stan) had originally envisaged.