If you’ve been to Google.com today, you might have noticed the space-themed header. In case you’re not already aware, today marks the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gargarin of the former U.S.S.R. becoming the first human in space.
For a while when I was a kid, I loved space and almost everything about it. Like a lot of unrealistic kids, I had a phase where I wanted to be an astronaut. But Yuri fucking did it, becoming a national hero in the Soviet Union. Dude had a stamp and everything. The U.S. was less of a fan of him at the time, because the Space Race had become another way of showing our dicks were bigger than our Cold War adversary’s. But we got to the moon first, so we still kinda won. And the late Gargarin deserves a ton of respect, especially when you read about how dangerous the Soviet space program really was. That’s a link to a recent article on Cracked.com, one of the best comedy sites on the Internet, but behind the comedy is a boatload of info that shows how scary as shit it must have been for Yuri to risk his life to be such a pioneer.
So what does any of this have to do with comic books? Maybe a little more than you think. Yuri’s trip came a short six months before the release of Fantastic Four #1, a comic issue that helped revolutionize the industry. The FF’s origin, of course, features a trip to space that gives the quartet unexpected powers. Unfortunately, I can’t find specifics about just when the book started developing (not surprising, considering the legal battle about who’s idea it even was — see the Kirby lawsuit battles). But it seems probable to me that, at least among laymen if not even experts, there were still considerable questions about what kind of effects (short- and long-term) space travel would have. The FF’s origin story probably didn’t seem as ridiculous at the time, whereas today, various creative teams have tried to re-tool it slightly to make sense with what we now know about space travel; for instance, the Ultimate line changed the FF’s trip to the Negative Zone.
Furthermore, I feel like the widespread public interest in the Space Race had to have had something to do with FF becoming an unexpected hit. And the book’s success made it the cornerstone of Marvel’s early lineup of books, and encouraged Marvel to try other teams books, such as The Avengers and X-Men. But biggest of all, according to the book Comic Book Century, the comic’s success revitalized Jack Kirby’s waning creative energy and persuaded Stan Lee, who had been thinking about leaving the industry, to stay in comics. And the rest, as they say, is history.
A lot changed 50 years ago, but think about this comic book angle: If not for Yuri Gargarin, the Space Race might not have kicked to another level. If not for the Space Race interest, Fantastic Four could have been a flop. If not for FF‘s success, we might have lost Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and thus, maybe Marvel itself.
So from the kid in me who dreamed of space, and from the adult who still loves the creative escape of a good comic, Happy Yuri Gargarin Day.