Fantastic Four In Animation - A Retrospective

Part One - Part Two - Part Three - Part Four

Although you might struggle to believe it now, there was once a time when Stan Lee was sick to his stomach of writing comics. The now easily excitable creator yearned for more from his chosen profession as he felt that comic books were growing stale and he wanted to write about characters that he could personally care about.

With his editor noticing the popularity of the Justice League Of America, Lee and legendary comic artist Jack Kirby went to work creating an all new team of superheroes, which Lee originally intended to be his swan song. They strived for something different from the book Ė they werenít interested in having Gods beat the crap out of villains in silly suits with whatever power they discovered this week. They wanted to make them relatable Ė they wanted the book to be about extraordinary things that happened to ordinary people.

The story is so old youíve probably heard it a million times by now, but scientist Reed Richards took his girl Sue Storm, her brother Johnny and his best friend Ben Grimm into an untested rocket and jetted off to the moon in order to beat the commies into Space (get used to this type of attitude if youíre ever going to read these old Lee/Kirby stories, Stan Lee didnít like communism in the slightest). Ignoring Benís advise for shielding the vessel against cosmic radiation, the four flew off into space and where bombarded with cosmic rays before crashing. Realising that the rays had altered their bodies in ways previously unimaginable, the four began to battle evil and explore the unknown.

The comic was a major success, rejuvenating the medium and began what a golden streak of new comics from Lee/Kirby including The Incredible Hulk, The X-Men and The Silver Surfer and Lee would go on to create characters such as Spider-Man, Daredevil and Dr Strange in a boom period of the next five or so years. The Fantastic Four would be one of the shining stars on the comic rack, and the book is widely regarded as the finest work either of both The Man and The King in their 100 issues plus run, which is yet to be beaten by any two creative teams over at the House Of Ideas.

The comic was successful to be one of two Marvel Comics to be given itís own show in the 1967 fall schedule on ABC on Saturday mornings and on September 9th, both The Fantastic Four and Spider-Man premiered.

The episodes themselves were based upon the Lee/Kirby comics and managed to do a fairly good job capturing the unique tone of the old comics, with Benís feelings towards his looks and Johnnyís rebellious nature. Obviously, watching them in this day and age would probably even be difficult for the thick skinned which is more than understandable Ė the cartoon celebrates itís 40th anniversary next year and in those days, cartoons were just dumb fluff aimed at a very young audience. Also, as this was a Hanna-Barbera production, it was cheap looking, just like the aforementioned Spider-Man series. Unfortunately, it didnít have a catchy theme song to make it so memorable.

The series lasted 19 episodes and featured a hell of a lot of villains, as again, these were pretty straight up adaptations of the Lee/Kirby comics, with the odd original story thrown in. The likes of Dr. Doom, Blastarr and The Mole Man all appeared here, even if they werenít all that 3-dimensional. Since Iíve yet to actually see this show, Iíll simply have to inform you that our own Jon T rates Galactus as the showís finest episode, the story of course being based upon the legendary Galactus trilogy (the original one, of course Ė not the piss poor Ultimate Galactus Trilogy).

It would over a decade later before The Fantastic Four made it back to the small screen, in the late 70ís as DePatie-Freleng Enterprises brought The Fantastic Four back to animation. Both Stan Lee and Jack Kirby actually worked on the show, with Lee scripting several episodes and Kirby providing the storyboards. Boyd Kirkland, who drew layouts for the show told Marvel Animation Age of his experience of working with the legendary King of comics;

ďThe biggest kick was drawing layouts on the Depatie-Freleng FF show because Jack Kirby was drawing the storyboards. He didnít quite have a handle on scene cutting or continuity, etc., so we had to fix those things, but his drawings were just so powerful and great to look at, like his comics, they were a great inspiration. The best use of his talents in animation was as a designer for the Thundarr series, which I also drew layouts for on the first season.Ē

Oddly enough, despite the presence of Lee, Kirby and Roy Thomas on the show, itís regarded to be inferior to the 1967 show. The show is also universally mocked because The Human Torch doesnít appear in the show. He was replaced by HERBIE, a robot created by Reed Richards. HERBIE has become the butt of millions of jokes over the years, but in all fairness, he was a Lee/Kirby creation. Despite popular belief that Johnny Storm wasnít featured in the show because the network thought kids would set themselves on fire, The Torch didnít appear because his rights were bought by someone hoping to do a live action version of the character, in a similar vein to The Incredible Hulk and the terrible The Amazing Spider-Man shows of the same decade.

The show isnít as faithful to the comics as the previous show and features some of the most primitive animation one can recall and is clearly aimed at an even younger audience than the previous FF show. Despite some stellar casting, thereís really not too much to write home about here. The lack of Johnny Storm doesnít seem to be that big a deal in the grand scheme of things, but the fact that the characters arenít really all that well defined really hurts the show. For example Ė Ben doesnít seem to care that heís now made of rock. Given how important this has always been to his characterisation, it really does make him come across as flat and uninteresting. The show remains moderately enjoyable in Jon Tís opinion, but itís not something Iíd personally hunt down to see, even though Iím a fan of The Fantastic Four.

The series later had a random spin off with a Thing solo show, barely related to the character. In it, a teenage Ben Grimm would transform into The Thing with the help of a magic ring whenever he shouted ďThing ring do your thing!Ē.

Iíve never seen the show and I never, ever want to.

And believe it or not, as far as the Fantastic Four in animation goes, it was about to get much worseÖ