The Third Fantastic Four Script

By | Friday, April 12, 2024 Leave a Comment
Jack Kirby and Stan Lee perhaps most famously collaborated on Fantastic Four for the most extended period. That title, then, is often held up as an example of their evolving working relationship, and researchers scour margin notes to tease out how much of each story Jack was contributing. What has not been attempted, to my knowledge, is a joint analysis of all three surviving Fantastic Four “scripts” from that period where we can see what Jack actually drew compared with precisely what Stan had originally intended. (Unlike, say, with John Romita’s account of FF #30 being “written” in a car ride on the way to lunch. While I don’t doubt John’s story, we don’t have any concrete details of what was actually said.) The surviving scripts are radically different in form and highlight how much Jack really began to drive the creative effort.

The first script, of course, is that of Fantastic Four #1. Stan had somehow managed to hold on to it long enough to realize its significance and it’s become relatively well-circulated at this point; Marvel ran a re-typed version in FF #358 and Roy Thomas presented a copy of the original in Alter Ego vol. 2 #2. It’s not so much a script, though, as an outline for the team’s origin. The two pages provide an overview of the characters, touching on key traits and powers. Stan also notes editorial concerns he has over Comics Code issues. The document clearly indicates this as only half of the issue with their “first case” to follow, and includes a note specifically to Jack to talk with Stan for some further clarification.

Stan is clearly taking the company in a different direction with this, not only from the perspective of the genre, but that he’s switching their overall storytelling format. Previous books were a series of short, unrelated stories, and Stan clearly indicates that this one Fantastic Four tale which includes the origin is supposed to take up an entire issue. As it’s helping to redefine how comics get made on top of explaining the issue’s plot, it stands a little apart somewhat from the who-did-what debate. It can’t really be used as an example of how Stan and Jack “typically” worked because the document itself alludes to its uncommon nature.

The second script comes exactly one year after FF #1. Probably in answer to a written request, Stan sent Jerry Bails a page of his script for Fantastic Four #8, which was subsequently published in the apazine Kappa-Alpha #2. While still fairly broad, as far as scripts go, it has a more solid breakdown of the action; three to five page chunks instead of half an issue. Stan was clearly giving Jack a fair degree of latitude with the stories, despite having the ideas and vision of how the stories should roll out. Jack changed some pacing a bit and added in a few personal touches, but the issue reads more or less how Stan wrote it.

At this point, they had been working on the Fantastic Four for a year. They certainly had started getting into a rhythm, both with how the stories should work as well as how they would work together on them. They both had a pretty good handle on the characters, and Stan was starting to get feedback from fans on what they liked. But they would continue on the book for the better part of a decade, and they and their working relationship would continue to evolve.

The third surviving script comes from 1966 with Fantastic Four #55. It’s on the heels of the Galactus Trilogy where Stan allegedly just told Jack to “Have the FF fight God” leaving Jack to work out the details of those three issues. By this point, though, Stan was no longer writing scripts down for Jack; they would just talk over the plot and Jack would work from that. This particular script, though, survives because there were two notable witnesses to it. The first witness, the one who actually captured what Stan and Jack discussed, was Nat Freedland. He wrote the famous “Super-Heroes with Super Problems” story that appeared in the New York Herald-Tribune. Towards the end of that piece, he recounts sitting in on a weekly story conference with the two creators where Stan extemporaneously blurts out thirteen sentences and sentence fragments that are the entirety of his “script” for FF #55.

The issue itself only bears a passing resemblance to what Stan says. There is indeed a fight between the Thing and the Silver Surfer over a misunderstanding with Alicia, but that’s effectively where the similarities end. Alicia was never in trouble, just lonely. It’s Mr. Fantastic, not Alicia, who corrects his friend. The Thing doesn’t wind up brokenhearted and leave on his own; he never really loses control or fails his teammates. Not to mention that Dr. Doom doesn’t make an appearance anywhere, much less capture the others. Jack took only the barest nugget of an idea from Stan, and largely created the issue himself, and even thought to add in a page about the Human Torch’s solo adventure that was running as a sub-plot at the time. (Though I suppose this could have been added later at Stan’s request.)

Now, the particular Tribune article where Stan’s script appears is generally remembered more for exemplifying the big rift between Jack and Stan. Jack felt insulted by how he was portrayed and blamed Stan. To be fair, Jack felt slighted because of how he was depicted by the reporter and one can’t help but wonder if the writer had an agenda of some sort. Which in turn brings into question the accuracy of anything that was printed from that story session.

However, we have a second witness to that meeting. Although he remained silent throughout, having only been with Marvel a few months at that point, Roy Thomas was sitting in as well. Though he wasn’t entirely sure why he was brought in (“... to be a witness or whatever, because I certainly took no part in it”) he saw and heard the whole exchange. He’s never publicly questioned the authenticity of what was in that article, and when I questioned Roy directly on this point a few years ago, he said that it was accurate, adding the caveat “that the relationship of Stan and Jack, and everything else, was funneled through the reporter’s POV, so that Jack came off more poorly because he wasn't as outgoing as Stan.”

So the script we see in the Tribune piece is an accurate representation of how Stan delivered his stories to Jack, and we can clearly see what Jack did with them on the printed page. Jack took Stan’s thirteen sentences and essentially walked out only remembering, “Thing fights Surfer over misunderstanding with Alicia.” He effectively wrote the actual story himself, based on that short synopsis.

That suggests two things. First, Stan was generally okay with that process of Jack largely doing his own thing with the stories. Jack clearly knew what he was doing, so Stan didn’t have any reason to alter that arrangement. Stan would just set Jack off in a general direction and he’d come back with great stories, regardless of what they actually discussed previously. (Stan has since noted that he rarely remembered what he said in those story conferences anyway.) Second, that “Have the FF fight God” anecdote might not actually be too far off from what actually happened. It would have been about the sum total Jack might have remembered from their story conference at any rate, and is lent credence by Stan’s oft-told remembrance of how he was completely surprised by Jack’s introduction of the Silver Surfer.

In 1961, Stan wrote a two page outline explaining half of an issue. In 1962, he took two pages to outline an entire issue. In 1966, for a complete issue, Stan rattled off thirteen sentences. Of which Jack only remembered one.

The question that really remains is: when did this switch from written to verbal outlines occur? Obviously, after #8 and, if we take the anecdote about #30 into account, sometime before then. I have a hunch the change occurred with Fantastic Four #11, the only issue of their run to have two distinct stories but, admittedly, that’s mostly a guess. So until we’re able to uncover another script, either written or verbal, we’re left wondering when that change took place. Because certainly by 1966, as shown with the Tribune article, Jack was writing the stories himself with only the barest directions provided from Stan.
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