Jack Kirby Collector Edited by John Morrow Jack Kirby Collector celebrates the life and career of the "King" of comics through interviews with Kirby and his contemporaries, feature articles, and rare & unseen Kirby artwork. Now in tabloid format, the magazine showcases Kirby's art at even larger size.

The FF And The Secret History Of The '60s

Written by & © Darcy Sullivan

From Jack Kirby Collector #9

People who were already into comics circa 1961 and picked up Fantastic Four #1 always remark on how strange it seemed, a perspective nobody younger than them can truly share. In the same way, those of us who grew up in the '60s reading Fantastic Four probably have a different perspective on the comic than those either younger or older than us. To many of us, Fantastic Four was the myth of our time.

Generally, when people talk about superheroes' mythic quality, they're talking about the way superhero stories use larger-than-life characters to tell universal stories about the Nature of Man. That's true of Fantastic Four as well - they are a peculiar nature myth, in fact, representing as they do the family of earth, wind, fire and water - but in the 1960s the stories the comic told seemed specific to that time. To those of us young enough to grasp but not follow world events, Fantastic Four read like an allegory, a secret history of the 1960s.

Take Galactus and the Silver Surfer. On the one hand they represent the father and the rebellious son, but to us they symbolized all the terrible dread hovering over us in the 1960s, and the strange mixture of idealism and power needed to stand up to the Establishment. For kids with only an inkling of the Vietnam War and the resistance to it, Galactus' tale seemed pregnant with hidden meaning. What was that mind-blowing trip the Human Torch undertook to save Earth but a consciousness-altering psychedelic experience?

Indeed, rebellious children were all over FF in those days. The weird infant from #24, the Impossible Man, even those no-goods on Yancy Street reminded us readers that youth had different, sometimes unfathomable priorities, and an often-surprising strength. Sometimes they seemed negative at first, then turned out to be all right after all - just like T'Challa, whose other name, the Black Panther, sounded a bell even for us kids.

In this respect, the Inhumans probably struck the deepest chord. Within our world, these stories told us, are other communities that, though strange to us and perhaps confrontational, are not necessarily bad. As proto-hippies, the Inhumans made the burgeoning underground culture intriguing even to us straights.

Indeed, Fantastic Four's general sense of discovery fit right into the zeitgeist of the '60s. Many comics before and since have emphasized conflict, but few if any have conveyed the same spirit of exploration. What blew us away back then wasn't the size of the fights but the constant uncovering of vast realms: Hidden Lands, Negative Zones, micro-worlds and the like. No perspective was absolute - another dimension was always whirling above us, beneath us, within us. Fantastic Four embraced the era's inclinations toward introspection, cultural anthropology, and internationalism.

But Fantastic Four was more than mere phantasmagoria. It was grounded in a very specific Earthly setting, New York City. This was back when artists drew backgrounds more often than not, so the city's Kirbyized buildings kept the whole thing rooted in reality. Kirby clearly loved and romanticized the town - the men in his 1960s NYC still wore hats and smoked pipes. Still, the city's presence made the stories seem more real, and thus more meaningful.

To many of us, FF was more "relevant" than the comics that would be so dubbed, including Spider-Man. Comics that wanted to be "hip" traded in triviality, and cast a very short shadow. (Most of them were painfully unhip anyway, even if we were too young to tell.) Fantastic Four was all about the cosmos, but we felt in the stories and in Kirby's grandiose drawings the progress and panic of our time, the huge ambition of our Great Society and the corresponding terror that social change might strip away our (white middle-class) centeredness and privilege. Nothing as specific as Spider-Man (or the later Green Lantern) could encompass the profound emotions of a society questioning itself.

FF was a big comic for a generation facing big issues. It continually noted that we (or Ben, or anyone but Reed Richards) couldn't hope to understand the forces at play, just as we readers couldn't fully comprehend and process a President's murder, the drafting of unwilling men to combat, or the Cold War's machinations. And just as America still struggles to come to terms with the 1960s and the changes it wrought, we grown-up readers may never work out what Johnny Storm saw as he zoomed through the timeless ether, or why Ben Grimm was constantly turning on his friends, or what visions sparked Kirby's radical machinery designs. We only know we experienced something great enough to linger, and important enough to influence us still.

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