Apocryphal legend has it that in 1961, longtime magazine and comic book publisher Martin Goodman was playing golf with either Jack Liebowitz or Irwin Donenfeld of rival company DC Comics, then known as National Periodical Publications, and that the top executive bragged about DC's success with the new superhero team the Justice League of America.[note 1] While film producer and comics historian Michael Uslan has debunked the particulars of that story,[note 2] Goodman, a publishing trend-follower, aware of the JLA's strong sales, did direct his comics editor, Stan Lee, to create a comic-book series about a team of superheroes. According to Lee, writing in 1974, "Martin mentioned that he had noticed one of the titles published by National Comics seemed to be selling better than most. It was a book called The [sic] Justice League of America and it was composed of a team of superheroes. ... 'If the Justice League is selling', spoke he, 'why don't we put out a comic book that features a team of superheroes?'":16
Lee, who had served as editor-in-chief and art director of Marvel Comics and its predecessor companies, Timely Comics and Atlas Comics, for two decades, found that the medium had become creatively restrictive. Determined "to carve a real career for myself in the nowhere world of comic books",[note 3] Lee concluded that, "For just this once, I would do the type of story I myself would enjoy reading.... And the characters would be the kind of characters I could personally relate to: they'd be flesh and blood, they'd have their faults and foibles, they'd be fallible and feisty, and — most important of all — inside their colorful, costumed booties they'd still have feet of clay.":17
Lee said he created a synopsis for the first Fantastic Four story that he gave to penciller Jack Kirby, who then drew the entire story. Kirby turned in his penciled art pages to Lee, who added dialogue and captions. This approach to creating comics, which became known as the "Marvel Method", worked so well for Lee and Kirby that they used it from then on; the Marvel Method became standard for the company within a year.:87
Kirby recalled events somewhat differently. Challenged with Lee's version of events in a 1990 interview, Kirby responded: "I would say that's an outright lie",:39 although the interviewer, Gary Groth, notes that this statement needs to be viewed with caution.[note 4] Kirby claims he came up with the idea for the Fantastic Four in Marvel's offices, and that Lee had merely added the dialogue after the story had been pencilled.:38 Kirby also sought to establish, more credibly and on numerous occasions, that the visual elements of the strip were his conceptions. He regularly pointed to a team he had created for rival publisher DC Comics in the 1950s, the Challengers of the Unknown. "[I]f you notice the uniforms, they're the same... I always give them a skintight uniform with a belt... the Challengers and the FF have a minimum of decoration. And of course, the Thing's skin is a kind of decoration, breaking up the monotony of the blue uniform.":4 The chest insignia of a "4" within a circle, however, was designed by Lee. The characters wear no uniforms in the first two issues.
Given the conflicting statements, outside commentators have found it hard to identify with precise detail who created the Fantastic Four. Although Stan Lee's typed synopsis for the Fantastic Four exists, Earl Wells, writing in The Comics Journal, points out that its existence does not assert its place in the creation: "[W]e have no way of knowing of whether Lee wrote the synopsis after a discussion with Kirby in which Kirby supplied most of the ideas".:78 Comics historian R. C. Harvey believes that the Fantastic Four was a furtherance of the work Kirby had been doing previously, and so "more likely Kirby's creations than Lee's".:69 But Harvey notes that the Marvel Method of collaboration allowed each man to claim credit,:68 and that Lee's dialogue added to the direction the team took.:69 Wells argues that it was Lee's contributions which set the framework within which Kirby worked, and this made Lee "more responsible".:85 Comics historian Mark Evanier, a studio assistant to Jack Kirby in the 1970s, says that the considered opinion of Lee and Kirby's contemporaries was "that Fantastic Four was created by Stan and Jack. No further division of credit seemed appropriate".:122
The release of The Fantastic Four #1 (Nov. 1961) was an unexpected success. Lee had felt ready to leave the comics field at the time, but the positive response to Fantastic Four persuaded him to stay on. The title began to receive fan mail and Lee started printing the letters in a letter column with issue #3. Also with the third issue, Lee created the hyperbolic slogan "The Greatest Comic Magazine in the World!!" With the following issue, the slogan was changed to "The World's Greatest Comic Magazine!" and became a fixture on the issue covers into the 1990s,:87 and on numerous covers in the 2000s.
#48 (Sept. 1966): The Watcher warns, in part one of the landmark "Galactus Trilogy
". Cover art by Kirby and Joe Sinnott
Issue #4 (May 1962) reintroduced Namor the Sub-Mariner, an aquatic antihero who was a star character of Marvel's earliest iteration, Timely Comics, during the late 1930s and 1940s period that historians and fans call the Golden Age of Comics. Issue #5 (July 1962) introduced the team's most frequent nemesis, Doctor Doom. These earliest issues were published bimonthly. With issue #16 (July 1963), the cover title dropped its The and became simply Fantastic Four.
While the early stories were complete narratives, the frequent appearances of these two antagonists, Doom and Namor, in subsequent issues indicated the creation of a long narrative by Lee and Kirby that extended over months. According to comics historian Les Daniels, "only narratives that ran to several issues would be able to contain their increasingly complex ideas".:88 During its creators' lengthy run, the series produced many acclaimed storylines and characters that have become central to Marvel, including the hidden race of alien-human genetic experiments, the Inhumans; the Black Panther, an African king who would be mainstream comics' first black superhero; the rival alien races the Kree and the shapeshifting Skrulls; Him, who would become Adam Warlock; the Negative Zone and unstable molecules. The story frequently cited as Lee and Kirby's finest achievement is the three-part "Galactus Trilogy" that began in Fantastic Four #48 (March 1966), chronicling the arrival of Galactus, a cosmic giant who wanted to devour the planet, and his herald, the Silver Surfer. Fantastic Four #48 was chosen as #24 in the 100 Greatest Marvels of All Time poll of Marvel's readers in 2001. Editor Robert Greenberger wrote in his introduction to the story that, "As the fourth year of the Fantastic Four came to a close, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby seemed to be only warming up. In retrospect, it was perhaps the most fertile period of any monthly title during the Marvel Age." Daniels noted that "[t]he mystical and metaphysical elements that took over the saga were perfectly suited to the tastes of young readers in the 1960s", and Lee soon discovered that the story was a favorite on college campuses.:128 The Fantastic Four Annual was used to spotlight several key events. The Sub-Mariner was crowned king of Atlantis in the first annual (1963). The following year's annual revealed the origin story of Doctor Doom. Fantastic Four Annual #3 (1965) presented the wedding of Reed Richards and Sue Storm. Lee and Kirby reintroduced the original Human Torch in Fantastic Four Annual #4 (1966) and had him battle Johnny Storm. Sue Richards' pregnancy was announced in Fantastic Four Annual #5 (1967), and the Richards' son, Franklin Richards was born in Fantastic Four Annual #6 (1968) in a story which introduced Annihilus as well.
Marvel filed for a trademark for "Fantastic Four" in 1967 and the United States Patent and Trademark Office issued the registration in 1970.
Kirby left Marvel in mid-1970, having drawn the first 102 issues plus an unfinished issue, partially published in Fantastic Four #108, with alterations, and later completed and published as Fantastic Four: The Lost Adventure (April 2008), Fantastic Four continued with Lee, Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway and Marv Wolfman as its consecutive regular writers, working with artists such as John Romita Sr., John Buscema, Rich Buckler and George Pérez, with longtime inker Joe Sinnott adding some visual continuity. Jim Steranko also contributed some covers during this time. A short-lived series starring the team, Giant-Size Super-Stars, began in May 1974 and changed its title to Giant-Size Fantastic Four with issue #2. The fourth issue introduced Jamie Madrox, a character who later became part of the X-Men. Giant-Size Fantastic Four was canceled with issue #6 (Oct. 1975). Roy Thomas and George Pérez crafted a metafictional story for Fantastic Four #176 (Nov. 1976) in which the Impossible Man visited the offices of Marvel Comics and met numerous comics creators. Marv Wolfman and Keith Pollard crafted a multi-issue storyline involving the son of Doctor Doom which culminated in issue #200 (Nov. 1978). John Byrne joined the title with issue #209 (Aug. 1979), doing pencil breakdowns for Sinnott to finish. He and Wolfman introduced a new herald for Galactus named Terrax the Tamer in #211 (Oct. 1979).
1980s and 1990s
Bill Mantlo briefly followed Wolfman as writer of the series and wrote a crossover with Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man #42 (May 1980). Byrne wrote and drew a giant-sized Fantastic Four promotional comic for Coca-Cola, which was rejected by Coca-Cola as being too violent and published as Fantastic Four #220–221 (July–Aug. 1980) instead. Writer Doug Moench and penciller Bill Sienkiewicz then took over for 10 issues. With issue #232 (July 1981), the aptly titled "Back to the Basics", Byrne began his run as writer, penciller and inker, the last under the pseudonym Bjorn Heyn for this issue only.
Byrne revitalized the slumping title with his run.:265 Originally, Byrne was slated to write with Sienkiewicz providing the art. Sienkiewicz left to do Moon Knight, and Byrne subsequently became writer, artist, and inker. Various editors were assigned to the comic; eventually Bob Budiansky became the regular editor. Byrne told Jim Shooter that he could not work with Budiansky, although they ultimately continued to work together. In 2006, Byrne said "that's my paranoia. I look back and I think that was Shooter trying to force me off the book". Byrne left following issue #293 (Aug. 1986) in the middle of a story arc, explaining he could not recapture the fun he had previously had on the series. One of Byrne's changes was making the Invisible Girl into the Invisible Woman: assertive and confident. During this period, fans came to recognize that she was quite powerful, whereas previously, she had been primarily seen as a superpowered mother and wife in the tradition of television moms like those played by Donna Reed and Florence Henderson.
Byrne staked new directions in the characters' personal lives, having the married Sue Storm and Reed Richards suffer a miscarriage and the Thing quitting the Fantastic Four, with She-Hulk being recruited as his long-term replacement. He also re-emphasized the family dynamic which he felt the series had drifted away from after the Lee/Kirby run, commenting that, "Family—and not dysfunctional family—is the central, key element to the FF. It is an absolutely vital dynamic between the characters." [emphases in original]
Byrne was followed by a quick succession of writers: Roger Stern, Tom DeFalco, and Roy Thomas. Steve Englehart took over as writer for issues 304–332 (except #320). The title had been struggling, so Englehart decided to make radical changes. He felt the title had become stale with the normal makeup of Reed, Sue, Ben, and Johnny, so in issue #308 Reed and Sue retired and were replaced with the Thing's new girlfriend, Sharon Ventura, and Johnny Storm's former love, Crystal. The changes increased readership through issue #321. At this point, Marvel made decisions about another Englehart comic, West Coast Avengers, that he disagreed with, and in protest he changed his byline to S.F.X. Englehart (S.F.X. is the abbreviation for Simple Sound Effects). In issue #326, Englehart was told to bring Reed and Sue back and undo the other changes he had made. This caused Englehart to take his name entirely off the book. He used the pseudonym John Harkness, which he had created years before for work he didn't want to be associated with. According to Englehart, the run from #326 through his last issue, #332, was "one of the most painful stretches of [his] career." Writer-artist Walt Simonson took over as writer with #334 (December 1989), and three issues later began pencilling and inking as well. With brief inking exceptions, two fill-in issues, and a three-issue stint drawn by Arthur Adams, Simonson remained in all three positions through #354 (July 1991).
Simonson, who had been writing the team comic The Avengers, had gotten approval for Reed and Sue to join that team after Engelhart had written them out of Fantastic Four. Yet by The Avengers #300, where they were scheduled to join the team, Simonson was told the characters were returning to Fantastic Four. This led to Simonson quitting The Avengers after that issue. Shortly afterward, he was offered the job of writing Fantastic Four. Having already prepared a number of stories involving the Avengers with Reed and Sue in the lineup, he then rewrote these for Fantastic Four. Simonson later recalled that working on Fantastic Four allowed him the latitude to use original Avengers members Thor and Iron Man, which he had been precluded from using in The Avengers.
After another fill-in, the regular team of writer and Marvel editor-in-chief Tom DeFalco, penciller Paul Ryan and inker Dan Bulanadi took over, with Ryan self-inking beginning with #360 (Jan. 1992). That team, with the very occasional different inker, continued for years through #414 (July 1996). DeFalco nullified the Storm-Masters marriage by retconning that the alien Skrull Empire had kidnapped the real Masters and replaced her with a spy named Lyja. Once discovered, Lyja, who herself had fallen for Storm, helped the Fantastic Four rescue Masters. Ventura departed after being further mutated by Doctor Doom. Although some fans were not pleased with DeFalco's run on Fantastic Four, calling him "The Great Satan", the title's sales increased over the period.
Other key developments included Franklin Richards being sent into the future and returning as a teenager; the return of Reed's time-traveling father, Nathaniel, who is revealed to be the father of time-travelling villain Kang the Conqueror and Reed's apparent death at the hands of a seemingly mortally wounded Doctor Doom. It would be two years before DeFalco resurrected the two characters, revealing that their "deaths" were orchestrated by the supervillain Hyperstorm.
The ongoing series was canceled with issue #416 (Sept. 1996) and relaunched with vol. 2, #1 (Nov. 1996) as part of the multi-series "Heroes Reborn" crossover story arc. The yearlong volume retold the team's first adventures in a more contemporary style, and set in a parallel universe. Following the end of that experiment, Fantastic Four was relaunched with vol. 3, #1 (Jan. 1998). Initially by the team of writer Scott Lobdell and penciller Alan Davis, it went after three issues to writer Chris Claremont (co-writing with Lobdell for #4–5) and penciller Salvador Larroca; this team enjoyed a long run through issue #32 (Aug. 2000).
Promotional art for Fantastic Four: The Lost Adventure
#1 (February 2008) by Jack Kirby
Following the run of Claremont, Lobdell and Larroca, Carlos Pacheco took over as penciller and co-writer, first with Rafael Marín, then with Marín and Jeph Loeb. This series began using dual numbering, as if the original Fantastic Four series had continued unbroken, with issue #42 / #471 (June 2001). At the time, the Marvel Comics series begun in the 1960s, such as Thor and The Amazing Spider-Man, were given such dual numbering on the front cover, with the present-day volume's numbering alongside the numbering from the original series. After issue #70 / #499 (Aug. 2003), the title reverted to its original vol. 1 numbering with issue #500 (Sept. 2003).
Karl Kesel succeeded Loeb as co-writer with issue #51 / #480 (March 2002), and after a few issues with temporary teams, Mark Waid took over as writer with #60 / 489 (October 2002) with artist Mike Wieringo with Marvel releasing a promotional variant edition of their otherwise $2.25 debut issue at the price of nine cents US. Pencillers Mark Buckingham, Casey Jones, and Howard Porter variously contributed through issue #524 (May 2005), with a handful of issues by other teams also during this time. Writer J. Michael Straczynski and penciller Mike McKone did issues #527–541 (July 2005 – Nov. 2006), with Dwayne McDuffie taking over as writer the following issue, and Paul Pelletier succeeding McKone beginning with #544 (May 2007).
As a result of the events of the "Civil War" company-crossover storyline, the Black Panther and Storm temporarily replaced Reed and Susan Richards on the team. During that period, the Fantastic Four also appeared in Black Panther, written by Reginald Hudlin and pencilled primarily by Francis Portela. Beginning with issue #554 (April 2008), writer Mark Millar and penciller Bryan Hitch began what Marvel announced as a sixteen-issue run. Following the summer 2008 crossover storyline, "Secret Invasion", and the 2009 aftermath "Dark Reign", chronicling the U.S. government's assigning of the Nation's security functions to the seemingly reformed supervillain Norman Osborn, the Fantastic Four starred in a five-issue miniseries, Dark Reign: Fantastic Four (May–Sept. 2009), written by Jonathan Hickman, with art by Sean Chen. Hickman took over as the series regular writer as of issue #570 with Dale Eaglesham and later Steve Epting on art.
In the storyline "Three", which concluded in Fantastic Four #587 (cover date March 2011, published January 26, 2011), the Human Torch appears to die stopping a horde of monsters from the other-dimensional Negative Zone. The series ended with the following issue, #588, and relaunched in March 2011 as simply FF. The relaunch saw the team assume a new name, the Future Foundation, adopt new black-and-white costumes, and accept longtime ally Spider-Man as a member. In October 2011, with the publication of FF #11 (cover-dated Dec. 2011), the Fantastic Four series reached its 599th issue.
In November 2011, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Fantastic Four and of Marvel Comics, the company published the 100-page Fantastic Four #600 (cover-dated Jan. 2012), which returned the title to its original numbering and featured the return of the Human Torch. It revealed the fate of the character of Johnny Storm after issue #587, showing that while he did in fact die, he was resurrected to fight as a gladiator for the entertainment of Annihilus. Storm later formed a resistance force called Light Brigade and defeated Annihilus.
Although it was launched as a continuation of the Fantastic Four title, FF continues publication as a separate series. Starting with issue #12, the title focuses upon the youthful members of the Future Foundation, including Franklin and Valeria Richards.
In the graphic novel Fantastic Four: Season One, the Fantastic Four is given an updated origin story set in the present day instead of the 1960s. The hardcover compilation debuted at number four on The New York Times Best Seller list for graphic novels.
As part of Marvel NOW! Fantastic Four ended with #611, ending Jonathan Hickman's long run on FF titles, and the title was relaunched in November 2012 with the creative team of writer Matt Fraction and artist Mark Bagley. In the new title with its numbering starting at #1, the entire Fantastic Four family explore space together, with the hidden intent for Reed Richards to discover why his powers are fading.
Writer James Robinson and artist Leonard Kirk launched a new Fantastic Four series in February 2014 (cover dated April 2014).
Robinson later confirmed that Fantastic Four would be cancelled in 2015 with issue #645, saying that "The book is reverting to its original numbers, and the book is going away for a while. I'm moving towards the end of Fantastic Four. I just want to reassure people that you will not leave this book with a bad taste in your mouth." In the aftermath of the "Secret Wars" storyline, the Thing is working with the Guardians of the Galaxy and the Human Torch is acting as an ambassador with the Inhumans. With Franklin's powers restored and Reed having absorbed the power of the Beyonders from Doom, the Richards family is working on travelling through and reconstructing the multiverse, but Peter Parker has purchased the Baxter Building to keep it "safe" until the team is ready to come back together.
A new volume for the Fantastic Four was released in August 2018, as part of Marvel's A Fresh Start event.