“And now at my signal, those creatures of darkness, my denizens of earth’s center, shall dispose of all of you witless intruders!”
The Fantastic Four: A shadowy man in a window fires a device into the sky that explodes into a flaming numeral 4. This is the signal that summons three superpowered people to him — the Invisible Girl, The Thing, and The Human Torch. Once assembled, they are revealed to be the Fantastic Four. The origin of their powers is then told: they were astronauts on an experimental spacecraft which they hijacked in order to help win the space race. Once in outer space they were bombarded with cosmic rays which forced them to crash land back on earth where they discovered themselves physically transformed and imbued with great power.
The Fantastic Four Meet the Mole Man: Reed has pictures of military installations being destroyed by giant holes in the ground, created from underneath. Investigations lead them to a place called Monster Island, upon which Reed and Johnny fall through an underground passage.
The Mole Man’s Secret: The Mole Man tells Reed and Johnny how he was exiled and came to live underground and the secrets of what he discovered there. Joined by Reed and Sue, they all make an escape before they are destroyed by an enormous monster. On the way out, Johnny melts the tunnel entrance and the Mole Man destroys the island behind them.
One of the striking thing about this first adventure is how magnificently paced and plotted it is. The introduction of each of the characters in isolation from each other gives ample time to display their powers and give us a glimpse into their characters — Sue rather bashfully uses her power to suddenly slip away rather than wrap up her shopping. Ben reveals himself, but then slinks into a sewer to make the rest of his way out of sight, in the darkness. Johnny very ostentatiously departs from the auto garage where he is tuning one of his cars. What is odd to readers now familiar with the rest of the series is that all of them seem to be living their lives apart, and Reed activates the signal flare for what he prays “will be the last” time. This is not really a team yet, and far from being a family.
The second half of the first story is the origin of the FF which is one of the most retold origins in comics history, yet the telling here has rarely been matched. The smooth efficiency of each panel and word is delightful, and in five pages we know the answers to all but one of the mysteries posed in the previous eight pages — their relationship with each other, how they got their powers, and most importantly, their character as a group. This group identity — of adventurous, independent, scientist-astronauts who react to world situations on their own recognizance — is the bedrock foundation of the FF, and it’s here, stone solid, in the first issue, the introduction notwithstanding.
The second two stories of the issue, which is five pages longer than what will become the standard 21, is the FF’s first encounter with any villain ever, and that happens to be the Mole Man and his gallery of enormous monsters. Monster comics were a very popular trope of the early Marvel and the creators were obviously marrying these two genres — superhero and monster — as a way to bank some interest in the reading public. And yet, the Mole Man is as elegant a creation as the FF with a back story just as compelling as theirs, but nearly every character trait of him counters that of the group. Whereas their dominating characteristic is community, his is isolation. Less ugly than The Thing, who bears a striking likeness to the Mole Man’s minions, he was exiled from society and disastrously, fortunately happened onto powers so great (the secret of controlling underground monsters) that they could threaten all of human society. Where the Four desire (however reluctantly some of them were) to “help mankind”, the he wishes revenge.
And it’s lucky for mankind that the Fantastic Four were there to protect it. Although, to seriously contemplate the story in full, one realizes that the FF have not actually solved the problem that they set out to. They collapsed one tunnel system that enters the Mole Man’s domain, but it had been earlier established that there was a global network of them and his powerful monster provide him with the ability to create as many more of them as he could ever wish. And if it’s a puzzle why the FF blithely swoop away after bringing no conclusion to the problem, it is more of one as to why the Mole Man doesn’t continue with his plans.
That said, this issue is very justifiably a classic.