In 2022, Marvel is one of the biggest entertainment brands on the planet. From the ubiquity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to numerous other adaptations in film, television and video games, Marvel’s characters and their world have become recognizable and beloved by audiences around the globe. But 60 years ago, the Marvel Universe was a brand new idea brought into existence by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko, and one where they would soon start tying together the worlds of various comic book superhero properties.
The storytelling innovations the creators at Marvel made to the medium, particularly during the Silver Age, are a huge part of why adaptations of the Marvel Universe have such a strong presence in 21st century entertainment. Without the fresh blood that Marvel injected into the genre, the comics and entertainment landscape we live in would look substantially different today. Therefore, as a personal project, earlier this year I went back to the beginning of the Marvel Universe’s official canon to reread every superhero issue they published during the 1960s, and have continued this marathon past that point.
Today, we’re going to take a look at the most critical issues in the early era of Marvel, from the Fantastic Four’s debut in 1961 to the formation of the Avengers in 1963. From major character introductions to landmark story developments and simply particularly notable issues, join us for our first look at the essential issues of Marvel!
Fantastic Four #1 (Nov. 1961)
The first issue of the proper Marvel Universe, Fantastic Four #1 was an immediate stand-out among superhero comics of the era by presenting its eponymous group of heroes as flawed characters with interpersonal squabbles, providing extra texture to the classic hero vs. villain formula. Mr. Fantastic, the Invisible Woman, the Human Torch and the Thing all made their debut here, although they may not be as recognizable as you would expect. This issue didn’t have the specifics of the F4’s status quo 100% figured out yet; they don’t have their costumes or their Baxter Building headquarters, and they don’t even live in New York City (instead the story is set in the fictional “Central City”). This would all be ironed out by issue #3, but their origin of going into space and being transformed by cosmic rays is first told here. This issue also includes their first battle with a supervillain, the underground tyrant known as the Mole Man. While the Fantastic Four may have taken something of a hit to their pedigree in recent decades because of a string of low quality films, they were among the company’s crown jewel titles in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. We literally wouldn’t have any of the subsequent Marvel characters if the Fantastic Four franchise didn’t connect with readers in a profound way.
Fantastic Four #4 (May 1962)
The next major landmark for the Fantastic Four property is issue #4, which changed the nature of the Marvel Universe in a big way. This issue features the return of Namor the Sub-Mariner, who originally debuted in 1939 when the company that would become Marvel was called Timely Comics. While you don’t need to read Namor’s ’30s and ’40s comics to understand his appearance here, this issue effectively welds the canon of the Timely Era to the newly founded Marvel Comics universe. The Timely Era’s association with mainline Marvel continuity has been subject to numerous adjustments and retcons over the years, but it did provide a sense of genuine history to Marvel stories at the time so that the world felt bigger than what was presented on the page. The prince of Atlantis would become a regularly recurring figure in the Fantastic Four book and the wider Marvel Universe as both a hero and a villain, as well as being established as a mutant by the 1990s. Despite all this, Namor only recently made his live-action debut in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, but this just means that Namor’s longevity as a character has lasted for almost a century. Lastly, this issue started the love triangle between Reed Richards, Susan Storm, and Namor, and although some modern readers may find this recurring subplot tiresome, the soap opera style of storytelling it invoked was carried over to other Marvel books, and is a major reason why these comics had the longevity they did.
Incredible Hulk #1 (May 1962)
The debut issue of the short-lived first volume of the Incredible Hulk book introduced the world to Bruce Banner, the mild-mannered physicist who is transformed by gamma radiation into the near-indestructible monster known as the Hulk. This issue tells his origin and features him battling a Soviet villain called Gargoyle, who had also been altered by radiation. It’s notable for how different the portrayal of Hulk is to the green-skinned monster we all know. First off: He’s gray! Hulk wouldn’t receive his standard green coloring until issue #2. Even more surprising for first time readers is that Banner automatically transforms into the Hulk at night, and back to Banner in the morning. He would later be able to manually induce the transformation using a Gamma Ray Projector, before the standard “anger or stress” transformation method was established in Avengers #3. This issue also has the first appearance of Banner’s longtime love interest Betty Ross, her father General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross, and Banner’s friend and ally Rick Jones. Rick is an odd case because he has been essentially ignored in most adaptations, being included in neither of the Universal Hulk films aside from a namedrop, and still hasn’t appeared in the MCU. Rick also had connections to the Avengers and the original Captain Marvel, but it appears that his role as an audience surrogate for Marvel’s young readership is now considered antiquated by modern creatives.
Fantastic Four #5 (Jul. 1962)
When it comes to Marvel supervillains, there are few in the same league as Doctor Doom. The evil mastermind and archenemy of the Fantastic Four made his first appearance in this issue, showing up to attack his rival Reed Richards and send the F4 on their first adventure to involve time travel. Doom’s physical appearance is fairly accurate here to how most would recognize him, but certain other elements weren’t in place yet. The country he rules, Latveria, would not appear or be named for two more years until Fantastic Four Annual #2; instead, Doom’s headquarters in this story is a regular castle in upstate New York. Even still, Doom’s menacing nature and intellectual rivalry with Mr. Fantastic is apparent right from the beginning, and he was such a great character even from his debut that he appeared again in the very next issue, starting his long-standing tenure as one of Marvel’s most recurring and popular villains. While Doom was not officially cited by George Lucas as an influence, many (including Stan Lee himself) saw similarities between Doom and Darth Vader, meaning that possibly the most iconic villain in popular culture owes a debt to this issue. Most impressive.
Amazing Fantasy #15 (Aug. 1962)
Few would argue that Marvel’s flagship character is anyone besides Peter Parker, the amazing Spider-Man. The teenage superhero and worldwide icon made his first appearance in the last issue of Amazing Fantasy, immediately transitioning into his own title The Amazing Spider-Man with his next appearance. Even more impressive is that Spidey made such an impression in a story that lasted a mere 11 pages, telling the first version of his origin and ending on him finding out that the burglar who murdered Uncle Ben was none other than the one he let go earlier in the story. Over the next six decades of continuity and Spidey’s 4000+ appearances in mainline Marvel comics, Amazing Fantasy #15 would forever remain the foundational touchstone for the character. Spidey’s origin has been revisited countless times over the years, including adaptations in both Sam Raimi’s 2002 film Spider-Man and Marc Webb’s 2012 film The Amazing Spider-Man. The narrator’s closing lines in the original story – “with great power, there must also come – great responsibility!” – have long since permanently entered the popular imagination. The core relatability of Peter Parker trying to make up for past mistakes and being driven to be better than he currently is, as exemplified by this story, is a huge part of the reason why the character has resonated with so many cultures across multiple generations.
Journey Into Mystery #85 (Oct. 1962)
The God of Thunder made his first appearance in Journey Into Mystery #83, but #85 is arguably a more important issue because of how much more groundwork it lays for the rest of the Marvel Universe. The issue features the first battle between Thor and his evil brother Loki, who of course would become Thor’s archenemy as well as one of the most recurring antagonists in the wider universe. It also incorporates other major Asgardian elements into Marvel canon, including the first appearances of Asgard itself, the Bifrost bridge, and Thor’s fellow gods Odin, Balder, and Heimdall. When Thor was first introduced in the comics he had a human identity as Dr. Donald Blake, and the question of how Thor and Blake were attached was a mystery that puzzled Marvel readers for years. This plot point would not be cleared up until Thor #159 in 1968, revealing that the reason Thor was on Earth in human guise was that Odin banished him there to learn humility more than a decade prior, bringing everything full circle with Odin’s first appearance here. While the body-switching aspect was removed, the basic outline of Thor being thrown out of Asgard so he could better himself among humans, as well as Thor’s intense rivalry with Loki and the high fantasy focus that was established in this issue, were adapted in Kenneth Branagh’s 2011 Thor film as part of the MCU.
Tales of Suspense #39 (Mar. 1963)
Tony Stark, also known as the invincible Iron Man and one of the founding members of the Avengers, first appeared in Tales of Suspense #39 in an origin story that most fans would find very familiar. This issue introduces Stark as a weapons and technology manufacturer working with the United States government, as well as a millionaire bachelor who enjoys high society parties. While testing his tech overseas he is captured by an enemy force, damaging his heart in the process, and after escaping he decides to change his ways and become a superhero. The major difference to the story most Marvel fans would know from the movies and later comics is that Stark’s origin took place in Vietnam. Iron Man was more overtly politically-themed than other Marvel heroes when he was introduced, often finding himself battling villains from communist nations. After Iron Man started doing these types of stories, many of the other heroes followed suit, if not quite to the same regularity. The political themes used in Iron Man’s book were, let’s say inconsistent in their sophistication, but to the Bullpen’s credit, the way political commentary was weaved into Iron Man’s book in the years that followed would change remarkably to reflect the evolving mindset of American readers. A fairly accurate retelling of Stark’s origin (with the setting changed to Afghanistan) would provide the basis for Jon Favreau’s 2008 film Iron Man, kickstarting the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Fantastic Four #12 (Mar. 1963)
The whole point of having a shared universe is for the characters to cross over into each other’s stories, and Fantastic Four #12 was the first time Marvel characters officially got in on the action. Although there were Easter eggs prior to this, such as the Human Torch reading the first issue of the Hulk’s comic in FF #5, Fantastic Four #12 features the first mighty Marvel crossover with the Fantastic Four being commissioned by General Ross to hunt down and battle the Hulk. With this development, the shared universe was firmly established, and this would continue the same month with the Fantastic Four making a guest appearance in Amazing Spider-Man #1. From here on out, Marvel characters popping up in each other’s books would become so commonplace that the feeling of a wider world was present even if you were only reading a single title. Another reason that Fantastic Four #12 is one for the history books? It features the very first showdown between the Hulk and the Thing, who would be both allies and rivals for many years to come.
Tales to Astonish #44 (Jun. 1963)
Henry Pym first appeared in Tales to Astonish #27 and took on his Ant-Man identity in #35, but the most important issue of that book for the character was #44, which introduces Janet van Dyne as the Wasp. Pym’s career as a solo hero was fairly short-lived and not particularly notable in terms of stories or villains, a problem that only became worse as time went on and Pym adopted numerous other superhero identities (Giant-Man, Goliath, Yellowjacket, etc.). It was only with the introduction of the Wasp as his crime-fighting partner and love interest that the character started to truly come into his own. The core dynamic between Pym and Janet would be consistent for decades, with their relationship being the driving force of several soap opera style story arcs after they were moved off of Tales to Astonish and into regular circulation as part of the Avengers comic. Plus, this story doesn’t just provide Janet’s origin, but also tells the tale of Hank’s sadly doomed first wife Maria Trovaya, whose death was his motivation to use his scientific knowledge to battle crime in the first place. It’s a shame these characters weren’t focused on in live action adaptations, because their relationship is one of the highlights of the Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes cartoon.
X-Men #1 (Sep. 1963)
X-Men may be one of Marvel’s most lucrative franchises nowadays, but one of the more fascinating things about their comic history is that during the ’60s, they were kind of the “losers” of the main comic books Marvel had running at the time. They weren’t as popular as other books like Fantastic Four, Amazing Spider-Man or Avengers, and wound up being canceled with #66 in 1970, with the books running nothing but reprints for five years. Even still, the inaugural issue of X-Men is incredibly important for introducing so many elements of the franchise. Professor X and his first class at the Xavier Institute for the Gifted, including Cyclops, Angel, Beast, Iceman, and Marvel Girl, all teamed up to battle Magneto, launching one of the most sprawling soap opera sagas in the Marvel Universe. Mutants received their start here, beginning a run of early issues that would introduce a handful of other major characters, but many of the X-Men’s most famous personalities would not show up until the series was revived in the mid-’70s. The X-Men may have taken a while to reach their potential, but these foundational building blocks were the test run for some of Marvel’s most beloved characters.
Avengers #1 (Sep. 1963)
In a similar way to how the Marvel Cinematic Universe introduced all of its major players before teaming them up in the first Avengers film, all of the main characters of the Avengers comic had appeared elsewhere before this issue. Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Ant-Man, and the Wasp were all established parts of the Marvel world before being brought together in this landmark first issue to stop one of Loki’s schemes. Other supporting characters like Rick Jones, Jane Foster, and even a cameo appearance from the Fantastic Four cemented how the Avengers book would operate as a place where all the corners of the Marvel Universe would intersect. What’s most notable about Avengers #1 is how easily all the supposedly disparate characters and franchises fit together, which can be chalked up to the foresight of the Marvel bullpen to conceive these characters as early as possible to be considered part of a shared universe. More than any other Marvel franchise, Avengers would be the foundation upon which this shared world would continue to build, and the fact that we’re still seeing new stories 60 years later proves just how durable a base it would be.
Check back soon for our next installment as we look at the mid-1960s of the Marvel Universe!