Goodman Indiana Gazatte 19 March 1979
'Fantastic Four' began on golf course By ANDREW A. SMITH Scripps Howard News Service The Fantastic Four began on a golf course. The public first met the FF the following year in the premiere issue of the "Fantastic Four" No. It was in 1961 when we were introduced to scientist Reed Richards, his girlfriend Sue Storm, her teenage brother Johnny and Reed's college roommate Ben Grimm, a gruff former gridiron star and fighter pilot from the wrong side of the tracks. In the story, we learned that Reed had built a rocket to beat the Reds to the Moon. (Hey, it was 1961.) And he recruited Ben to fly it, and, because it was 1961 and nobody thought about stuff like this, rounded out the crew with his girlfriend and her brother. The four took off, but ran into a storm of cosmic rays — rays that forced them to crash-land and that gave them amazing powers representing the four elements of classical Greece: ■ Water: Reed (Mr. Fantastic) whose fluid mind was now matched by a fluid, stretchable body. ■ Air: Sue (Invisible Girl), who could turn herself and other things transparent. (Sue devel oped the power to project invisible force fields in 1964, married Reed to become Sue Richards in 1965 and changed her nom du combat to Invisible Woman in 1985.) ■ Fire: Johnny (Human Torch), who could burst into flame and fly. ■ Earth: Ben (The Thing), who gained great strength at the cost of growing a grotesque, rock-like, inhuman epidermis. It was, as I said, 1961; so, naturally, the first thought anybody had was to become a team of adventurers who would use their great powers to benefit mankind. And so began a series where the First Family pushed the boundaries of exploration from the Negative Zone to the Micro-verse, defended the planet from alien threats, updated their origins a couple of times, befriended the likes of the Silver Surfer and Black Panther, found time to have a couple of kids and, in the course of it all, fought a supervil-lain or two. That is, when they weren't fighting with each other. Because the FF brought something else to the table that was unprecedented in 1961: Personalities. In those days, superheroes were interchangeable, flawless icons. But not the Cosmic Quartet. Reed talked too much and tended to ignore his girlfriend, Sue was something of a mother hen, Johnny was hotheaded and impulsive, and the tragic, disfigured Ben was an emotional train wreck with a bad temper. This had the familiar feel of a real family, people who bickered and argued but still loved each other fiercely. After the "Fantastic Four," first Marvel and then all other publishers began grounding their flights of fancy with fallible, sympathetic characters whose actions had real-world consequences. Comics grew up, got more complex — and became a lot more interesting. And it actually began a year before "Fantastic Four" No. 1, with a golf game between DC Comics publisher Jack Liebowitz and Atlas Comics publisher Martin Goodman. In what is now a legendary day on the links, Liebowitz bragged over putts about his newest hit, "Justice League of America." That title took all of DCs best-selling superheroes and ganged 'em together, and it was selling like — well, like all of DCs best-selling superheroes ganged together. So Goodman — publisher of a small line of mostly monster comics — returned to the office and ordered his editor (and just about his only full-time employee), Stanley Lieber, to come up with an Atlas version of the JLA. Unfortunately, Lieber — who was approaching 40, and was so embarrassed by his comics work that he used the pen name "Stan Lee" — had decided to quit comic books and become a "real" writer. Even more unfortunately, Atlas didn't have any superheroes to gang together, so the task was impossible — Lieber might get fired before he could quit. According to "Excelsior! The Amazing Life of Stan Lee" (Fireside Books, 2002), Lieber aired his dilemma to his wife, Joanie, who said, "You know, Stan, if Martin wants you to create a new group of superheroes, this could be a chance for you to do it the way you've always wanted to. "You could dream up plots that have more depth and substance to them, and create characters who have interesting personalities, and speak like real people." What did Stan have to lose? Energized, Lieber returned to the office and huddled with collaborator Jack "King" Kirby, the legendary artist who virtually invented the visual language of superhero comics. All of this thanks to a quirky quartet who took a ride on a rocket. And to Stan and Jack, who dreamed it up. And to a golf game that's gone down in history.