Sunday, January 22, 2012

Blog From Another Universe #5: Fearsome Four by Lee and Kirby

Everybody knows that it was the 106-issue run of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s X-Men that really kicked the Marvel Age of comics into life, with the World’s Greatest Mutant Magazine providing such a burst of life and energy that the entire superhero genre was revitalised.

But less well known is the fact that the Marvel Age almost didn’t happen at all, with the company almost destroyed by the continued survival of EC Comics, when that company almost pushed Marvel out of the market altogether, while also influencing it into a less successful direction.

As a comic company, EC was almost wiped out during the Fedric Wertham-inspired moral backlash against horror and crime comics in the 1950s, and for one brief moment, it looked like EC would only be able to publish its flagship humour title Crazy.

But when William Gaines got a good night’s sleep in 1954 and made an impassioned and eloquent speech on the importance of artistic freedom before a senate committee, the moral outcry soon faded away, and EC continued with more sexy and violent stories.

EC’s continued success ate up precious market share that other companies could not afford to lose, and Stan Lee was ordered by Marvel publisher Martin Goodman to do something with a superhero team. Goodman had heard about the surprise success of Justice League of America, which managed to crave out a small – but profitable and growing – slice of a comic market dominated by crime and horror, and he wanted a piece of that pie.

But with EC comics now the biggest company in the industry, Lee decided to play it a bit safer by going back to the monster genre and – with co-creator Jack Kirby – created the Fearsome Four, a team of destructive creatures who rampaged through the earliest days of the Marvel Universe.

The Fearsome Four – Mr fearsome, the Human Fireball, Invisible Witch and the Thing – were a group of thrill-seekers who sought to unlock the mysteries of the occult through the use of science, and instead unleashed their own primal desires in the form of fantastical powers.

For 18 wonderful issues by Lee and Kirby, the Fearsome Four plotted and schemed to destroy a world that didn’t understand them, with only mysterious masked hero Doctor Victor Von Druid standing in the way of their terrible plans.

And with new EC titles like Tales From the Tomb and the Crypt of Horror still a heavy influence on everybody’s stories, the creators pushed things to the extreme – the Invisible Witch created bubbles of nothingness in men’s minds; the Thing would rip off limbs without a second thought, the Human Fireball would set helpless waitresses ablaze from the inside and Mr Fearsome could tear a man’s soul apart with a glance. 

While Kirby’s art showed plenty of the bombastic energy that would later make the X-Men the biggest comic in the world, it was also stuffed with gloom, dread and awful terror, mixed with gore that still seems overtly gruesome, decades later.

But while the Fearsome Four was a bold experiment in fusing horror and superhero comics, it was not a huge success and cancelled after a year and a half in late 1963. Lee and Kirby were both hugely disappointed - they had both put their creative hearts and souls into the Fearsome Four and were ready to turn their backs on comics altogether.

But after the modest success of Spider-Man - a creepy and largely forgotten superhero who lived in an old dilapidated mansion with a werewolf for a groundskeeper - the comic company survived long enough for Kirby and Lee to give one more go, and struck gold with the X-Men.

With stories like the Galactus Saga, in which the world’s most feared and misunderstood heroes saved Earth from the World Eater and were finally embraced by a thankful public,  Lee and Kirby started the real Marvel Age. By the time they were finished on the mutant title, other creators were taking the next step in the company’s evolution - Claremont and Byrne were making The Defenders the most exciting book in the market, while Frank Miller was bringing a new noir sensibility to the Hulk title and Steve Gerbe was doing odd things with dwarfs in the pages of the Champions.

The Fearsome Four only appeared once more in the Marvel Universe, showing up as villainous henchmen in a 1994 issue of Nightstalkers, only to be swiftly dispatched by Hannibal King, but the original 18 issues had relatively low print runs and are now highly prized by collectors.

EC Comics has been the biggest company in comics ever since it purchased DC Comics in 1975, and incorporated its wide range of genre-bending titles into a larger and weirder superhero universe, but Marvel has gioven that comics giant a run for its money over the years.

While Marvel eventually found its own voice, the Fearsome Four is a fascinating relic of a time when it tried to talk like somebody else. The Fearsome Four never really caught on, but they don’t have to be forgotten.

No comments: