Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Origin of the Origin of the Fantastic Four?

How do you determine the germ of an idea?

There has been much gnashing of teeth, vituperative prose and verbal bloodshed over who should get credit for the creation of the Fantastic Four.

Jack Kirby fans are steadfast in their belief that their man brought the concept to Stan. Kirby had, after all, just finished a run on the CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN for DC. In their eyes, Ace, Prof, Rocky and Red had just been reimagined as Ben, Reed, Johnny and Sue.

Stan Lee, however, saw it differently. The story goes that publisher Martin Goodman had noticed that National's (DC) JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA comic was selling particularly well. He then ordered Stan to create a super team to headline a new comic for their company.

"I would create a team of superheroes if that was what the marketplace required," Lee wrote in ORIGINS OF MARVEL COMICS,"But it would be a team such as comicdom had never known. For just this once, I would do the type of story I myself would enjoy reading if I were a comic-book reader."*

Lee's words are red meat to Kirby fans. Personal biases aside, perhaps there is some truth to both versions.

And perhaps there is a third person deserving of credit as well.

John L. Chapman.

"If momentary exposure to the cosmic rays beyond the Heaviside Layer made a super-man of an ordinary mortal--what fabulous titan of strength and intelligence might the human become who'd spend hours under such forces!"

So reads the blurb accompanying the short story, "Cycle", by the above mentioned Mr. Chapman in MARVEL STORIES vol. 2 #2 dated Nov. 1940.

MARVEL STORIES vol. 2 #2 (Nov. 1940)

Chapman was an early science fiction fan from Minneapolis who had made it into the professional ranks by the Forties. His rather unremarkable career as a writer likely wouldn't even be under consideration if it were not for this barely six-page effort that bears some interesting similarities to the origin of an iconic comic book team some 20 years hence.

"Cycle" was the story of a man named Drake, who had been sent in a rocket on a trip to the moon, the "first man to leave the earth's atmosphere." Suddenly,the "jets" on his ship misfired, "in the vicinity of the Heaviside Layer," and he began plummeting back toward the ground. (note: the Heaviside Layer is one of several layers making up the ionosphere.)

Apparently, upon reaching this point, Drake was exposed to cosmic radiation.

"At first he thought it was the weightlessness of deceleration. But as the minutes fled by, and the ship's velocity decreased steadily, the certainty of a change became more prominent in Drake's mind."

Drake survives the crash and is subsequently brought to the World Tower (!) and into the presence of the Western Hemisphere's dictator (!!), Michael Gurth.

"The body and build was (sic) perfect. A wide chest tapered from broad shoulders. The hands were huge and strong. The legs were long and muscular. The hair looked as though it might have been dark at one time. Now it possessed a golden luster, matching the slitted gray eyes whose piercing gaze sent a chill down Tinsley's spine. Never before had the little scientist seen such masculine beauty."

Overlooking the homoerotic and Master Race implications (and poor writing), what Chapman was describing was Drake's transformation into a super human.

"Cycle" illustration
by Joe Simon & Jack Kirby

"Drake was the first man to pass the Heaviside Layer, the first human being to meet with the utter unknown. He was exposed to the natural cosmic ray forces,the same forces that the Heaviside Layer prevents from reaching the earth. You recall, Dr. Tinsley, an age-old theory of evolution concerning cosmic rays? The life forces they were called, the origin of the animate impulses. Yes--you begin to comprehend, don't you? You understand now what has happened to Drake.He was been exposed to naked cosmic rays, and as a result he was super-evolved."

This long-winded and scientifically goofy explanation** sets the stage for the dictator's own trip into space to be exposed to the cosmic radiation himself in order to, " gifted with unlimited power and military prowess that would enable me to dwarf the Eastern Hemisphere in a matter of weeks!"

I won't spoil the ending in case you wish to seek out this story, but needless to say, it doesn't work out as the dictator Gurth imagines.

So how does this all tie into the Fantastic Four's origin?

If somehow you don't know the story, Dr. Reed Richards is planning a rocket trip into space, but his pal, pilot Ben Grimm, angrily confronts Reed with his concerns about space travel:

FANTASTIC FOUR #1 (Nov. 1961), pg. 9
(as reprinted in ORIGINS OF MARVEL COMICS)

Nothing like the girl you have a crush on shaming you into doing something you know is dangerous!

FANTASTIC FOUR #1 (Nov. 1961), pg. 10
(as reprinted in ORIGINS OF MARVEL COMICS)

Coincidence? Maybe, but consider this: Both creators of the Fantastic Four were around and likely aware of Chapman's "Cycle" story.

Stanley Lieber (Lee) was on the premises at Timely in 1940, "assisting". It is a fair assumption that he read that issue of MARVEL STORIES when it came out and perhaps it was a latent memory of it that he grafted onto Kirby's Challengers concept. It's even possible that Lee pulled copies of the Goodman pulps upon occasion for "inspiration".

And Kirby? Just look to the bottom of the MARVEL STORIES contents page: "INSIDE STORY Joe Simon and Jack Kirby"

Although the illustration looks more Simon than Kirby, he probably had a hand in it. And though the "cosmic radiation" twist was probably Lee's contribution (consider the role of radiation in other Marvel heroes origins--be it cosmic, gamma or spider-borne), Kirby may have read "Cycle", too.

All that I've proposed is conjecture, obviously. What Kirby and Lee were creating in 1961 was "just" a comic book--not a cultural icon. They were looking at producing a saleable comic and the hook they came up with--cosmic radiation created superheroes--may have just been plucked from out of thin air.

Then again, they had the means, motive and opportunity, and that usually is enough to convict.


Among comic book fans, this issue of MARVEL STORIES is known (if they know it at all) for having an early house ad for MARVEL (MYSTERY) COMICS featuring the Human Torch. Though it's been reprinted elsewhere, here it is for your viewing:

Human Torch house ad


**Perhaps not so goofy according to the science of the era! In an article entitled, "Secret of Life Sought" that appeared in the Oct. 1930 issue of POPULAR MECHANICS, " the evidence piles up, the daring theory is being advanced that X-rays, radium rays and cosmic rays are among the primary causes of evolution--if they do not happen to be the sole cause."


  1. Nifty! Heck, I daresay it's fascinating, even. Of course, there's so much going on with the FF — the combination of monster comics with a Golden Age superhero redo with the Challengers "dedicated team" concept — but this is a very compellingly possible addition to the mix. Nifty and fascinating...
    PS: When did the Torch start wearing a picture of himself on the back of his jersey?!?

  2. >>PS: When did the Torch start wearing a picture of himself on the back of his jersey?!?<<

    Those are his Human Torch Underoos, available in the Superhero Department of stores everywhere. ;-)

  3. Interesting coincidence. But to suggest that a 20 year-old minor story specifically influenced 2 men for one story is way too farfetched. No jury would buy that story. Especially with all the other more recent obvious influences.
    Thanks for bringing the story to light.

  4. The proximity of both men to this story is what I find interesting, Cyber. If it had been just a random story in a random pulp, I wouldn't have even mentioned it. But it was in a publication both creators were aware of and a latent memory of the story is well within plausibility.

    And you underestimate my charm and wit. I'd have that jury eating out of my hand. ;-)

  5. Interestingly, I believe that Lee and Kirby had used a similar origin a few months earlier in Strange Tales #84 ("The Wonder of the Ages!!! Magneto!") where the main character gains superpowers when exposed to radiation while in space.

  6. Stan Lee re-used many plots over the years, Math. While I don't know that particular story you cite, it doesn't surprise me at all. I'll have to check it out sometime.

  7. A couple of things wrong here:
    1. In 1940, Lee was a child just out of high school. Simon-Kirby were seasoned pros. When does Lee start really earning a living? Who knows? But when Kirby joins the Marvel team in the early 60s, who is Goodman going to turn to - Lee (who has done nothing) or Kirby (who was a well-known pro by that time). I mean, really. Common sense??
    2. Challengers was "a collaboration" between Kirby, Wood, and Jack Shiff (editor). Just sayin.
    3. The gamma radiation meme in scifi was so common, you could call it a genre (person exposed to radiation turns into...).

    1. Hi there BobFrost! I appreciate your thoughts, but I mostly disagree:
      1) Not sure what point you're trying to make in this comment. I'm quite aware of how old Lee was in 1940, but what does that have to do with creating the Fantastic Four 20 years later? And Simon and Kirby were hardly "seasoned pros" at the time. Kirby had started in comic books circa 1938 and Simon in '39. A year or two doesn't make for much seasoning. Common sense.
      2) Again--not sure what your point is here. I know that Kirby didn't create the Challs totally on his own. But that team is generally acknowledged by comic historians as a direct influence upon the FF, and Kirby undoubtedly had a hand in the creation of both. As for Goodman "turning" to Kirby over Lee--that's just silly. Lee was Goodman's man and in the role of editor, he was also Kirby's boss. Kirby didn't circumvent Lee and deal directly with Goodman. Just sayin'.
      3) I agree, the trope of radiation-caused change (or mutation) has been used frequently, But not so much in 1940. Even though science of the period was beginning to develop theories of radiation's evolutionary effects (see above note at end of my article) it wasn't a common idea in sf at the time. I'd love to know of some pre-1940 examples if you have them, though.