The origins of the Fantastic Four are easy to recap: One day, four scientists—Reed Richards; his girlfriend, Susan Storm; her younger brother, Johnny Storm; and Reed’s old college chum Ben Grimm—were out flying around in space when they were bombarded by cosmic rays. After returning to Earth (via a crash landing, of course), Reed found he could stretch and twist his body in impossible ways, Susan had the power to disappear, Johnny could fly and hurl fireballs at the same time, and Ben, well, he looked like a human rock, with stone strength to match.
Less clear is whose idea it was to create these characters in the first place. Writer Stan Lee says his boss at Marvel, Martin Goodman, told him to come up with a superhero team to compete with DC’s Justice League. Lee was reportedly fed up with the comic-book world at that point, but he obliged. Artist Jack Kirby says that he already had all the drawings, and that all Stan Lee did was fill in some dialogue. Whatever.
What we do know is that the Fantastic Four were an instant hit when they debuted in U.S. drugstores and comic-book shops in November 1961. The roughly 500 issues that have followed are a testament to the quartet’s staying power. The first issue, in which our heroes battle the dreaded Mole Man, is of course collectible, as is the Galactus Trilogy (Fantastic Four numbers 48-50, March to May, 1966), in which the foursome meets the legendary Silver Surfer.