AMAZING SECRET ORIGIN STORIES
HOW DOC SAVAGE INSPIRED THE FANTASTIC FOUR!
by KIRK KIMBALL aka ROBBY REED


Chapter Four: A LEGEND IS BORN!

The year was 1961. The NY Yanks had beat the Cinci. Reds in the 58th World Series, construction had begun on the Berlin Wall, and John F. Kennedy had just sent 18,000 military advisors to South Vietnam.

Tiring of Godlike, perfect heroes, people were looking for heroes they could relate to -- heroes who were imperfect and flawed, just like they were. Then one day in November, at newsstands all across America, a brand new comic book was suddenly unwrapped and placed in the racks for the public to marvel at. The waiting was over. Fantastic Four #1 had arrived!

As the cover blurb put it: "The Thing, Mr. Fantastic, Human Torch and Invisible Girl -- together for the first time in one mighty magazine!" And a mighty magazine it was indeed -- mighty enough to revolutionize and revitalize the entire faltering comic book industry.

In creating the FF, writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby may have drawn inspiration from the old Doc Savage pulps. The FF got their powers from exposure to "Cosmic Rays," a device seen earlier in the Doc Savage adventure "Terror at the South Pole." The FF's urban headquarters may have been modeled after Doc's Empire State building HQ. And like Doc's crew, the FF had no secret identities or colorful superhero uniforms -- at least in the beginning. The team's powers derived from other comic book heroes, such as the Human Torch, Plastic Man, and Invisible Scarlet O'Neil. There seemed to be barely an original idea in the entire series. But so what. It worked!

No great artist has ever ignored the works of those who came before him. As Albert Einstein wrote, "The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources." For it is the job of the artist to use the works of others as sparks for his own creativity, and to fashion from them something entirely NEW, hopefully something which adds meaning to and explains the creator's own life, in an entertaining manner.

And for all its borrowing from the past, this is exactly what the Fantastic Four turned out to be -- something entirely NEW. In a classic example of a whole being more than the sum of its parts, the Fantastic Four was utterly unique. There had, quite simply, NEVER been a comic book like it!

What was so new about it? Well, for one thing, the heroes in the FF were different. For readers of DC comics, the FF was like a revelation. The realism of the dialogue, the team's constant infighting, the problems -- everything from paying the rent to adjusting to life as a rock-covered orange man-monster ... no DC hero had ever behaved like this!

And the ART! If the story was a revelation, the art was as though the apocalypse had just exploded into your living room. At first there was a raw and savage quality to it, then later, with the addition of inker Joe Sinnott to the book's creative team, it was refined into an unmatched vision of dynamic heroism. Reading each new issue was like following your best friends on an incredible adventure. Readers never knew how things would turn out -- and occasionally, neither did Stan Lee!

"Very often," Lee has said, "I didn't know what the hell [Kirby] was going to give me. I’d get some pages of artwork, and I wrote the copy and turned it into whatever story I wanted it to be ... It was like doing a crossword puzzle. I would try to figure out what the illustrations meant and then I would put in the dialogue and captions.”

Lee or Kirby: Who is the FF's Daddy?

It's one of comicdom's longest-running controversies: Who "really" created the Fantastic Four: Stan Lee or Jack Kirby? Considering the "Marvel Method," where writers gave artists a brief plot outline, artists drew the book, then writers filled in the captions and word balloons, shouldn't Kirby be given most of the credit for the book's success?

According to Stan, “In the beginning, I’d give [Jack] written-out plots, like the outline for the first Fantastic Four. After a while, I would just tell him what I thought the story ought to be. Then after a while, I would just give him a few words. He could practically do the whole thing by himself, y’know?"

So, Stan admits Kirby "could practically do the whole thing by himself."

'Nuff said.

Lee has also stated that “Kirby never asked me for co-writing credit. It was he who originally suggested the ‘by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’ credit, and as far as I knew he was quite contented with that.”

However, one has only to read the whacky captions and bombastic dialogue in a Kirby-written story to know that Stan's contribution to the FF was far from small. Kirby may or may not have created the diamond, but it was Stan who polished it to a blinding radiance.

This series has covered Lee's inspirations for creating the FF. Am I now advocating that we drag Stan Lee into a public square and force him to admit he's a copycat? Well, yes! Sort of. Let's haul Lee into the public square, for sure ... but when we get him there, let's all bow down and kiss his feet! That would be one way to publicly honor him, along with Kirby, as one of the salvations of that which is so near and dear to all of us: the comic book industry. Lee and Kirby made history-- together. Any examination of the means by which they did so, including this one, is only mere commentary.


The World's Greatest Comic Magazine?

It's long been said that Kirby was asked to duplicate the layout of Brave and Bold #28 for the first Fantastic Four cover, but if you examine the FF's second cover, you'll notice that it, too, follows the same basic layout as the B&B cover. Then, with FF #3, the infant title's developing status quo was shaken to its core. Suddenly, this brazen new comic book boasted a brash new blurb on its cover, calling itself "The Greatest Comic Magazine in the World!!!" This phrase was institutionalized the following issue, #4, taking its permanent place above the FF logo as "The World's Greatest Comic Magazine."

Of course, this was just the usual superheated comic book rhetoric ... right? I mean, this was a brand new title, not even five issues old! The world's greatest? How dare they proclaim themselves to be better than Batman, Flash and even (gasp!) Superman himself?!?! What arrogance! And yet strangely enough, to this day, no one has EVER put forward a convincing argument to the contrary!

FF #2
FF #3
FF #4

The first FF story had covered familiar territory. The villain of the piece, the Mole Man, wasn't even pictured on the book's cover! Instead, one of Moley's big monsters is shown tearing up Manhattan. It was similar to the old human vs. monster books. So was the second FF issue, with the team being menaced by "Skrulls From Outer Space!" But with the third "World's Greatest" issue, the bug-eyed monsters were OUT, and the FF's new uniforms were IN.

What happened to Stan Lee's desire to have "a superhero series without any secret identities ... forego[ing] the use of costumes”? Well, it turns out that the FF's readers wanted the team in uniforms! The readers wrote in, demanding that the FF be given more traditional superhero outfits, and Stan listened. The team was quickly clad in blue jumpsuits similar to the purple costumes worn by the Challengers of the Unknown, but with a big number "4" on the chest, a la Superman's "S" symbol. It was a utilitarian sort of "non-uniform" uniform -- but it satisfied the fans, and would last for decades.

Now, Stan and Jack were off and running with "America's Greatest Fantasy Characters," as the old Marvel house ad above, from an early issue of The Incredible Hulk, calls them. Only one last element was missing: A reoccurring arch-villain! Paging Dr. Doom, please ... Dr. Victor von Doom...

Dr. Doom's Masked Identity

We are all familiar with Alexander Dumas’ famous novel, “The Three Musketeers,” the story of Athos, Porthos, Aramis, and their friend D'Artagnan. This historical romance combines, as Dumas once said, the two essentials of life -- “L'action, et l'amour” (action and love). “Musketeers” is actually part of a trilogy comprised of “The Three Musketeers,” “Twenty Years After,” and a lengthy tome called “Le Vicomte du Bragalonne,” or “Ten Years After.” This last book is divided into three parts, “Le Vicomte du Bragalonne,” “Louise de la Valliere," and the conclusion, “The Man in the Iron Mask.”

“Mask” is about a man held prisoner in the Bastille who is forced to wear an iron mask that completely covers his face. Although Dumas did alter some facts for dramatic purposes, the story is based on actual history. In 1661, King Louis XIV of France had his minister of finances, Nicolas Fouquet, arrested for embezzlement.

Pictured right is what is said to be the actual iron mask Fouquet was supposedly forced to wear, which was purportedly discovered during the storming of the Bastille in the French Revolution. It bears an uncanny likeness to the mask worn by the FF's arch enemy, Dr. Doom, does it not? Perhaps THIS is the real origin of Dr. Doom’s masked identity. For once, a huge part of FF lore that didn't originate with the old Doc Savage pulps. Or did it?

Doc Savage: The Kingmaker

One of the most unique things about the villainous Dr. Doom is his position as King of a foreign country, the tiny nation of Latveria. But Doom’s “royal” status may not be so unique after all. Way back in 1934, in a story called “The Kingmaker” by Lester Dent (cover pictured), Doc Savage and the Fab Five encountered a royal mess trying to thwart “the most far-flung plot of the century!”

It all began when a stranger named Conte Cozonac approached Doc, and asked for his help in overthrowing King Galbin, ruler of the small foreign nation of Calbia. Styling himself a Kingmaker, Conte Cozonac told Doc that if he was successful in overthrowing Galbin, then he, Doc Savage, would become the new King of Calbia! Surprisingly, Doc agreed -- and the Man of Bronze and his companions joined the revolutionary forces of Conte Cozonac.

The monarch of Calbia is described thusly: “King Dal Le Galbin had a tangled mass of snow-white hair. His eyes were blue, his jaw strong, his mouth grim. The Monarch of Calbia had powerful shoulders and a lean waist, and although his age must have been near fifty, indications were that he was still very much a man. He wore an extremely plain uniform, tailored snugly to his strapping physique. He affected no medals, gold braid, swords, or pistols. The ruler of Calbia... was at present the world’s nearest approach to an absolute monarch.”

It turns out Doc went to Calbia just to get the opportunity to destroy “the most fearsome weapon the world has ever seen,” a new aerial torpedo the Calbians had been developing. In the end, Doc destroyed the weapon, of course, but he did not become King. He was offered the position, but “declined with fitting ceremony.” Whatta guy!

Did “The Kingmaker” of Calbia inspire Stan and Jack to make Victor von Doom King of Latveria? (Pictured right: Alex Toth model sheet for the old FF cartoon version of Doom.) This much is certain: Both were technological geniuses, and both were kings of mythical Eastern European nations with somewhat similar-sounding names.

Pictured below are Doom's first three FF cover appearances. Like the rest of the FF's supporting cast, the good doctor's appearance underwent slight changes in the beginning, but by FF #16 his look had stabilized into the green-hooded, grey-armored megalomaniac we all know and love ... to hate.

FF #5
FF #6
FF #16

What about that other wildly popular character the FF spawned, the Silver Surfer? Did Stan Lee draw inspiration from Doc Savage pulps to create him, too? This time, the answer is a firm NO, because Lee did not create the Silver Surfer at all! Lee readily admits that the Surfer was Jack Kirby's creation. “I told Jack I wanted a character called Galactus," Lee recalls. "When he sent me the artwork, there was this oddball on a flying surfboard, and I said ‘Who the hell’s this?’ ” Kirby told Stan, “I figured anybody as powerful as Galactus ought to have a herald who would go ahead of him and find planets.”

The Doctor Is (Back) In

In 1964, Bantam reprinted a number of old Doc Savage pulp adventures by Kenneth Robeson [pen name of Lester Dent] in paperback, complete with absolutely stunning new painted covers (pictured below) by artist James Bama. Here are just three of Bama's beauties:

Superamalgamated! These paperbacks lead to a resurgence in popularity for Doc, which lead to several short-lived "Doc" comic books series at various companies (including DC, Gold Key and Marvel), which lead to a "Doc" feature film! Doc made his cinematic debut in "Doc Savage, The Man of Bronze" (1975). The movie is available on VHS at Amazon.com (box cover pictured below, right). Starring former Tarzan Ron Ely as the titular Man of Bronze, it's a more or less faithful adaptation of an old Doc Savage pulp adventure where Doc matches wits with the evil genius who killed his father, and now has plans for world domination. Needless to say, Doc stops him cold.

Unfortunately, the Doc film is a low-budget piece of dreck which takes a Bat-style "camp" approach to Doc and the Fabulous Five (pictured left). It's on a par with the disastrous first FF movie -- it's THAT bad. Especially painful to watch is the portrayal of Monk of the Fab Five as an overweight, whining super-nerd. If you're a Doc fan, or want to become one, stay far away from this movie. Sadly, Arnold Schwartznegger's political success has put his plan to play Doc on the shelf permanently, so this campy, crappy movie may be all Doc fans will ever have.

CONCLUSION: ''It's Superamalgamated Clobberin' Time!''

Things finally came full circle when Clark Savage Jr. was paired with Ben Grimm in Marvel Two In One, a title teaming the popular Thing with a different Marvel character in (almost) every issue. At this time, Marvel had been licensed to produce Doc Savage comic books, so it was inevitable that the Thing would meet Doc sooner or later.

As the cover blurb on MTU #21 says, the story features "The greatest heroes of two eras fighting side-by side!" The cover is penciled by Ron Wilson, and inked by longtime FF inker Joe Sinnott! Unfortunately, this Ben/Doc encounter, written by Bill Mantlo with art by Ron Wilson and Pablo Marcos, was something less than classic. Even the story's special guest star, the Human Torch, couldn't save this one.

And that, it seems, is the fate of Doc Savage. His modern comic books and film just never clicked with the public. Poor Doc has only been successful as a pulp magazine, while the superheroes whose creation he helped inspired -- Superman and the Fantastic Four -- went on to become glorified multimedia superstars worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The money from their merchandising contracts alone easily dwarfs Doc's entire fortune!

But that's OK, because Doc measures his worth not by using base monetary considerations, but by evaluating the service he has provided to humanity. Measured by this lofty standard -- even well over half a century since his creation -- the Man of Bronze is STILL in a class all by himself. And he always will be. Good old Doc. The one, the only... DOC SAVAGE!

-- THE END --
This article originally ran in DIAL B for BLOG issues #48-51 and is reprinted here with the author's permission.