The publication of Fantastic Four #1 kicked off what writer/editor Stan Lee would come to call the “Marvel Age of Comics,” and also introduced readers to the fictional world I have come to call the Original Marvel Universe. Fantastic Four set the standard for Marvel Comics, and for many years served as the company’s flagship title. The team’s chronology is therefore unusually rich and complex.
However, the sequence of events that led to the fateful trip into orbit that first gave the four heroes their superhuman powers was really never explored in great detail. For example, it was never adequately explained what Sue and Johnny, who were later shown to live in a house on Long Island in New York, were doing in California with Reed and Ben, especially since Johnny was still in high school. Also, piloting a rocket ship into outer space requires at least several months of intensive training. Ben Grimm couldn’t possibly just show up one night after work and get behind the controls. And so, by making a careful examination of the stories, including the numerous related flashbacks seen over the years, I have used common sense to construct a simple, straightforward narrative, laying it into a historical context, that reveals previously hidden details.
Note: The following timeline depicts the Original Marvel Universe (anchored to November 1961 as the first appearance of the Fantastic Four and proceeding forward from there. See previous posts for a detailed explanation of my rationale.) Some information presented on the timeline is speculative and some is based on historical accounts. See the Notes section at the end for clarifications.
And now, the way it began -- The True History of the Fantastic Four!
February 1961 – His starship project nearing completion, Reed Richards contacts Ben Grimm to take him up on his college promise to be the pilot. Impressed by Reed’s tenacity, Ben accepts the job and resigns from the Air Force, taking a position at Richards Laboratories in Central City, California. Ben begins extensive mission training, and he and Reed renew their friendship. Ben continues to date Dr. Linda McGill, whom he had recently met on the Air Force base where he was last posted, though it becomes more of a long-distance relationship.
May 1961 – Susan Storm travels to California to spend the summer with Reed, leaving her brother Johnny with their aunt. Reed quickly realizes he has fallen in love with Sue, and they soon reach an unspoken agreement that they will eventually marry. Driving home one evening, Reed and Sue encounter a flying saucer and its lone occupant, an alien invader calling himself Gormuu. The creature quickly grows to gargantuan size and attacks Central City. Realizing Gormuu is actually expanding rather than gaining mass, Reed is able to feed him enough raw energy to dissipate Gormuu’s molecules. Convinced that advanced alien races may pose a threat to the earth, Reed sees his project as more important than ever.
June 1961 – After completing his sophomore year at Glenville High School, Johnny Storm joins his sister Sue in California. He quickly makes a number of new friends, thanks to his interest in hot rods and racecars.
July 1961 – Reed is stunned when he learns from the government that his funding is likely to be cut. His protests fall on deaf ears as the new Kennedy administration has decided his research is too radical. Having already spent his entire inheritance, Reed realizes his only chance of convincing the government to continue its support is to test his ship as soon as possible.
August 1961 – Without time to train another two members of his crew, Reed reluctantly agrees to allow Sue and Johnny to accompany them into space. Ben objects to this suddenly accelerated schedule, fearing safety is being compromised, but Sue goads him into taking up the challenge. Unable to obtain official clearance, Reed, Sue, Ben, and Johnny steal into the complex in the middle of the night and initiate an unauthorized launch. Unfortunately, an unexpected surge in cosmic radiation overwhelms the ship’s shielding, and the four astronauts are bombarded by cosmic rays. The ship crashes to earth near Ithaca, NY. Emerging from the wreckage, the foursome discovers they have undergone a mutagenic change on a fundamental level. Sue fades from sight, having gained the power of invisibility. Ben transforms into a hideous orange-hued brute. Reed’s body develops a bizarre elasticity, and Johnny suddenly bursts into flame and rises into the air.
Having tracked the starship’s flight, the military goes into action. An Army helicopter arrives at the crash site and transports the four astronauts to a nearby base, where they are debriefed by government agents. Reed is informed that not only is his funding terminated, but his project has been shut down and his security clearance revoked.
September 1961 – The foursome returns to Reed’s lab in Central City, California, where he begins studying what’s happened to them. He first synthesizes “unstable molecules,” based on their transformed space suits. Ben has the most trouble dealing with his transformation, though Johnny’s flame poses a hazard to everyone, and Sue seems on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Reed realizes that they all need to find some positive direction to move in, and he suggests they use these strange new powers to help protect and advance the human race. Devising colorful code-names for themselves, they create a new team of super-powered adventurers called the Fantastic Four. Sue decides to call herself the Invisible Girl, Ben names himself the Thing, Johnny adopts the name of his boyhood hero, the Human Torch, and Reed proclaims himself Mister Fantastic.
Ben returns to his apartment in a profound depression and receives an unexpected visit from Linda McGill. The shock of his transformation causes her to panic and run away, which makes Ben lash out in a fit of rage, destroying his apartment. Despondent, he makes his way to a nearby bridge, where he contemplates committing suicide. However, Linda has followed him to apologize and offer comfort. Not wanting Linda to be saddled with a hideous freak, Ben drives her away, but nevertheless finds the will to go on.
October 1961 – The superhero concept proves therapeutic, as Reed had hoped, as the Fantastic Four throw themselves into learning all they can about their strange new powers. Training constantly, they begin to gain control over their abilities. Reed channels all his research into the project as well, while struggling to raise money for the endeavor through his many inventions and patents. He also draws upon his wartime training in the O.S.S. as he prepares himself to lead the team on its missions.
November 1961 – When the world’s atomic plants come under attack, Reed sees an opportunity for the Fantastic Four to go on their first mission. The team travels to Monster Isle in the Bermuda Triangle, where they discover the Mole Man and his subterranean kingdom. The crisis averted, the Fantastic Four goes public following this mission and are hailed as heroes for saving the world’s atomic plants. They are described in various newspaper and television reports, becoming a media sensation. The Fantastic Four themselves quickly become the focus of the story, rather than any threat they may have defeated. Unaccustomed to super-powered adventurers, the public offers the bizarre quartet a wary acceptance.
December 1961 – The foursome decides to move back to New York City when Reed sells Richards Laboratories in order to raise money for the team. He and Ben take apartments in the city while Sue and Johnny move back into their old house in Glenville, Long Island. Johnny returns to high school, having missed the entire first semester of his junior year. Ben becomes increasingly reclusive as his bitterness only seems to grow.
February 1961 – For a breakdown of events in the lives of Reed, Sue, Ben, and Johnny up to this point, see OMU: Ancient History 4. Ben’s relationship with Dr. Linda McGill was shown, in abbreviated fashion, in Marvel Fanfare #46.
May 1961 – Reed’s battle with the alien Gormuu was presented in Fantastic Four #271, in John Byrne’s homage to Marvel’s monster comics of the late 1950s–early 1960s. We also see Johnny around this time, being bullied after school by Georgie Munson and his buddy Greg, in a flashback in Fantastic Four #233.
August 1961 – The Fantastic Four’s origin story was revealed primarily in flashbacks in Fantastic Four #1 and The Thing #10, though it was retold numerous times with little variation. August 8, 1961 was the date the first issue of Fantastic Four went on sale, and serves as one of the two dates upon which my timeline of the Original Marvel Universe is based.
September-October 1961 – I believe the account of the group’s decision to become a team of superheroes in Fantastic Four #1 involves a fair amount of artistic license for dramatic effect, and the actual process of forming the team was a bit more extended. Clearly, they would need some time to come to terms with their bizarre transformations and to be able to control their powers. The psychological impact of their transformations was never thoroughly examined in any canonical story. In the flashback in The Thing #10, especially, they seem unaccountably blasé about what they’ve just experienced. Danny Fingeroth’s attempt in Marvel Fanfare #46 to show Ben’s depression, though somewhat rushed, was a step in the right direction.
November 1961 – This is the cover date of Fantastic Four #1, and serves as the other date upon which my timeline is based. In those days, comics were routinely cover-dated about three months ahead, so they would seem fresher after sitting on the stands for several weeks. After all, a bi-monthly comic could sit on the stands for seven or eight weeks before the new issue came out, and publishers didn’t want to risk losing sales on a magazine thought to be “outdated.”
December 1961 – It is eventually made clear that the team must have moved from California to New York sometime between the first two issues, though they do not establish their headquarters until the third issue.
OMU Note: The final canonical appearance of Mister Fantastic, the Invisible Woman, the Human Torch, and the Thing was in Fantastic Four #354.