While Captain America was introduced to comic book readers two decades earlier, Marvel’s introduction of super team the Fantastic Four in 1961 was an even more significant turning point for the publisher. While Captain America was very much in line with other super heroes of the time, the Fantastic Four was something new, and it ended up establishing the style that would eventually help Marvel stand out and become the most popular comic book company.
Marvel’s first superhero team consisted of scientific genius and group leader Reed Richards, Reed’s girlfriend and eventual wife Sue Storm, Sue’s hotshot younger brother Johnny Storm and Reed’s grouchy friend from college and skilled pilot Ben Grimm. The quadrio started out as a team of scientists who in the first issue of their comic The Fantastic Four get exposed to cosmic rays during a research mission in outer space and mysteriously gain super powers. Reed Richards gains the ability to stretch his body to great lengths and becomes known as Mr. Fantastic, Sue Storm gains the ability to turn invisible and eventually create force fields and becomes known as Invisible Girl (later Invisible Woman), Johnny Storm gains the ability to generate flames around his body and fly through the air and becomes known as Human Torch, and Ben Grimm gains stone-like flesh and tremendous strength and becomes known as The Thing.
The four friends make a pact to use their superpowers to help mankind and they call their team the Fantastic Four.
The rogues gallery of supervillains the team faces throughout the comic’s run includes some characters who have become just as legendary among comic fans as the team themselves, including the metal-faced monarch of Latveria called Doctor Doom, the evil scientist Mole Man, the extraterrestrial shapeshifting Skrulls, the tyrannical Ronan the Accuser of the Kree Empire, aquatic antihero Namor the Sub-Mariner (Marvel hero of old making a modern-day comeback), Annihilus the ruler of the Negative Zone and the planet-eating Galactus.
Other popular characters who were first introduced in the pages of Fantastic Four include the Inhumans, the Silver Surfer, Black Panther, Adam Warlock and the witch Agatha Harkness.
The origin of the comic book itself comes from Marvel founder Martin Goodman who noticed that rival DC Comics was having huge success with Justice League and as a response, Goodman tasked Marvel editor Stan Lee (who had previously been a writer on Captain America as well as Marvel’s anthology comics Strange Tales, Tales to Astonish and Tales of Suspense), with creating Marvel’s own superhero team, which Lee co-created with Marvel’s greatest artist Jack Kirby, who illustrated the dynamic action while Lee provided the dynamic dialogue in addition to his trademark enthusiastic narration.
Stan Lee turned out to be the perfect choice for writing the series since he saw the comic book medium to be too creatively restrictive and was dying to write something that he would actually enjoy reading instead of doing what most comic book publishers were doing at the time, which was talking down to kids with formulaic and bland stories. As a result, Fantastic Four had foregone many superhero conventions in truly groundbreaking ways, such as making the characters Reed, Sue, Johnny and Ben act not like perfect heroes but like real human beings who would occasionally crack jokes, argue over petty things, be short-tempered, annoy their teammates, hold resentments, feel guilt and basically be a family. These were behaviors you never saw characters like Superman and Batman partake in, but kids in the sixties loved how the dialogue seemed much more natural than in other superhero comics.
Other touches conceived by Stan Lee included setting the story in a real city (New York City) instead of a fictional city like Metropolis (which made writing the comic more fun for Lee who was an actual New Yorker) and having the characters ditch the idea of having secret identities and fully embracing their celebrity status as superheroes.
The first issue cover-dated November 1961 but published August 8, 1961 was a huge success for Marvel and it encouraged Stan Lee to stay with the company longer at a time when he was planning to leave. The fan mail the comic received even inspired Lee to introduce a letter column in the issues themselves as well as a regular correspondence with Marvel fans (aka “true believers”) who included not only school-age readers but college-age readers who appreciated the sophistication of the writing and more importantly found the characters relatable. That last point is the key to much of Marvel’s success in the sixties, which went on to grow due to characters like Hulk, Spider-Man, Dr. Strange, the Avengers and the X-Men.
The initial series would run for 416 issues in its first volume from 1961 to 1996 with various writers and artists taking over from Stan Lee and Jack Kirby through the decades including such writers as Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway, Marv Wolfman, John Byrne, Steve Englehart, Walt Simonson and Tom DeFalco and such artists as John Romita Sr., John Buscema, Rich Buckler, George Pérez, Keith Pollard and John Byrne). Volume 1 would pick up again from 2003 to 2011 and sporadically in 2012 and 2015 with brilliant writers like Mark Waid, J. Michael Straczynski and Mark Millar and artists like Mike Wieringo and Mike McKone taking over as well.
A short-lived second volume by Jim Lee ran in 1996 and ended in 1997, and a more successful third volume ran from 1998 to 2003 and featured the writing talents of people like Chris Claremont, Jeph Loeb and Mark Waid and the artistic talent of people like Salvador Larroca, Carlos Pacheco and Mike Wieringo. In addition, Volume 4 ran from 2013 to 2014 and featured writing by Matt Fraction and art by Mark Bagley, Volume 5 ran from 2014 to 2015 and featured writing by James Robinson and art by Leonard Kirk, and Volume 6 which was introduced in 2018 and continues to this day features writing by Dan Slott and the art of such talent as Sara Pichelli, Aaron Kuder, Paco Medina and Sean Izaakse.
The need to reinvent the series and try new things creatively to boost sales was apparent with many of these runs, such as in 2012 with the run of FF (written by Jonathan Hickman and featuring art by Steve Epting and Barry Kitson) which also had a second volume by Matt Fraction and Mark Allred that ran from 2013 to 2014. Plus there were a lot of spin-offs like the Giant-Size Fantastic Four quarterly in the seventies, Fantastic Four 2099 (1996) which was part of Marvel’s futuristic 2099 series of comics which reimagined some of their most popular series, the 2004 reboot Ultimate Fantastic Four, the 2008 series Marvel Adventures: Fantastic Four, plus solo series for Human Torch, The Thing and Invisible Woman through the decades.
Hollywood came calling after the series was introduced in the sixties and adaptations soon followed. The first one was an animated series by Hanna-Barbera which ran from 1967 to 1968 on ABC and featured Gerald Mohr as Reed, Jo Ann Pflug as Sue, Jac Flounders as Johnny and Paul Frees as Ben.
Following a 1975 radio adaptation narrated by Stan Lee (which notably starred Bill Murray of future Saturday Night Live and Ghostbusters fame as Johnny Storm), DePatie-Freleng created an animated series which ran on NBC in 1978 and starred Mike Road as Reed, Ginny Tyler as Sue and Ted Cassidy as Ben but no Johnny Storm who was replaced by a robot named H.E.R.B.I.E. (Human Experimental Robot, B-Type, Integrated Electronics), created specifically for this show but later introduced in the comics as well.
The next animated adaptation of the team came in the syndicated series Fantastic Four which ran from 1994 to 1996 as part of the Marvel Action Hour (which included Incredible Hulk, Iron Man and Biker Mice from Mars) and featured the voices of Beau Weaver as Reed, Lori Alan as Sue, Quinton Flynn as Johnny and Chuck McCann as Ben.
The last animated television adaptation and still the best one is Fantastic Four: World’s Greatest Heroes which was created by French animation studio The MoonScoop Group of Code Lyoko fame and ran on M6 in France and on Cartoon Network in the U.S. This well-made adaptation ran from 2006 to 2010 and featured Hiro Kanagawa as Reed, Lara Gilchrist as Sue, Christopher Jacot as Johnny and Brian Dobson as Ben. I recommend checking it out on Disney+.
Members of the Fantastic Four have also made appearances in the animated Spider-Man and Hulk TV shows from the nineties as well as the TV shows The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes and Hulk and the Agents of S.M.A.S.H.
As for feature films, the first time the development of a film adaptation began was in 1986 when German producer Bernd Eichinger’s company Constantin Film obtained the film rights, although budget concerns kept interested parties like Warner Bros. and Columbia Pictures from fully committing to its production, and unfortunately Constantin would lose the rights if they failed to produce a film by 1992 when the option schedule would expire, so Eichinger produced a low-budget adaptation himself for $1 million with the help of B-movie master Roger Corman, however this movie, despite being completed, never got released.
While some have speculated that the film was never intended to be released and that Eichinger only produced it to retain the rights to the Fantastic Four, Eichinger denies this and recalls Marvel executive Avi Arad, who was afraid the low-budget adaptation would cheapen Marvel’s brand, offered to pay Eichinger his money back in exchange for cancelling the film’s release.
Those who have seen bootleg copies of the film have said that it is pretty much just as bad as you would imagine, although not a total bomb thanks to some good acting.
Avi Arad and Bernd Eichinger later produced a $90 million-budget 2005 adaptation for 20th Century Fox (Fox had precious success with the X-Men films) written by Michael France (Cliffhanger, GoldenEye, Hulk) and Mark Frost (Hill Street Blues, Twin Peaks), directed by Tim Story (Barbershop) and starring Ioan Gruffudd as Reed, Jessica Alba as Sue, Chris Evans as Johnny and Michael Chiklis as Ben.
Following that film’s success at the box office, Constantin would also produce the 2007 sequel Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer which like the first film got mixed reviews, but this one ultimately made less money which put plans for a sequel on hold as well as plans for a Silver Surfer spin-off. Following this lackluster success, 20th Century Fox rebooted the film in 2015 with Simon Kinberg, producer of X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days of Future Past, and Josh Trank, director of the 2012 low-budget sci-fi film Chronicle, helming the project.
This film was based on Ultimate Fantastic Four and had an incredible cast that initially made it seem promising, including Miles Teller as Reed, Kate Mara as Sue, Michael B. Jordan as Johnny and Jamie Bell as Ben. However the incredible cast could not save what is ultimately a dark, humorless and unfaithful adaptation which bombed among audiences and critics alike, with Trank agreeing with the consensus and blaming studio interference for the final product.
A sequel was initially planned but quickly abandoned, and today Disney owns the film rights to Fantastic Four thanks to their acquisition of Fox’s assets, so now Kevin Feige has control of the series and he has announced that Spider-Man: Homecoming director Jon Watts is working on a film adaptation. Hopefully that film will be the first live-action film to nail the characters properly. Although if anyone can produce a proper adaptation, it is definitely Feige, so we will see where the future of the Fantastic Four lies. The team has such an important place in Marvel history that not including them in the MCU would be unthinkable. And hopefully they will retain what made the characters so popular in the first place: their realistic family dynamic and their relatability. I believe that is the key to keeping the series relevant. Something many have failed to do through the years.