Last weekend, at the San Diego Comic-con, there was a screening for a new film about the great Stan Lee, With Great Power, following which was a Q & A panel with Stan the man and some heavy bitters, including producer Tom Desanto, Jack Kirby biographer Mark Evanier and former DC president and current writer Paul Levitz. In reading the recap of the event, it was comments from Levitz that actually stuck with me.
In describing the influence Stan’s writing had on him, Levitz said,”that body of work is what I studied to figure out how to do the superhero groups. Particularly when you look at the work in Fantastic Four from issue 40-60, there’s no richer period in comics.” As it turns out, I was just in the midst of reading some of that prime Lee writing when I read those particular comments.
Between issues 48-50 of Fantastic Four, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby introduced the growing Marvel Universe to two of its most iconic spaced out creations, the massive entity known as the Devourer of Worlds, Galactus, and his soulful herald, the Silver Surfer. In those three issues we find the human race facing it’s greatest peril, as the Surfer has brought his master to our planet for sustenance. For all of their great battles, it seems as though even Mr. Fantastic, The Invisible Woman, The Human Torch and The Thing will be unable to save the planet. However, with the intervention of The Watcher, another mammoth creature who just typically, well, watches things, and the Silver Surfer’s realization that all life has meaning, Galactus leaves Earth exactly as he found it.
As someone who hasn’t spent all his time revisiting the work of Stan Lee (and Jack Kirby, for that matter), it’s always an education when I read some of their prime work together. What amazes me most is the language that Stan uses throughout the story. Sure, it can be a little heavy-handed at times, and there’s no way around the fact that that there’s very little strong about Susan Storm when she isn’t using her powers. But Stan gets the nuances of family drama down pat. For instance, The Thing may be powerful, but when he interferes in the Johnny’s love life for the good of the Torch, his fear that the kid will hate him shows how the sensitive the man made of stone can be.
While the title may be Fantastic Four these three issues really are all about the Silver Surfer and how he comes to view life and the worlds that he has helped Galactus destroy. Interacting with a ben grime’s bling girlfriend, Alicia Masters, gives him a perspective he never had before and a willingness to stand up and defy he who made him who he is. This is pretty heavy stuff, even now, but the fact that this was a comic book storyline from 1966 shows just how thoughtful Stan Lee’s writing can be. These stories had characters contemplating the meaning of their lives and the repercussions of the actions they made. This wasn’t just villain of the month; this was existential drama on par with Camus (though admittedly not as depressing).
And then there’s Galactus. Arguably one of the most powerful creations in the Marvel U, Stan and Jack may have had him appear somewhat human, but there’s no emotion in the monster. He is simply a feeding machine that makes machines so that he can feed. And he is seemingly unstoppable. One of the thing our dynamic creators did in this storyline that I think is pretty remarkable for the time is that it really isn’t at the FF that stops Galactus from draining the Earth of its energies; it’s the combination of The Watcher and the Silver Surfer (with an able assist from the Human Torch, who granted was the only person able to procure the ultimate Nullifier, the device that could defeat Galactus).
There’s a rich history to the Marvel Universe and most of it finds it’s beginnings from the minds of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. If you’re looking for a great space-age story full of real drama and tension, or if you simply want to see what Fantastic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer should have turned out on the big screen, the brilliant run of Fantastic Four 48-50 is a must read.