Happy Yuri Gargarin Day!

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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.

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4 Responses to “Happy Yuri Gargarin Day!”

  1. davidry214 Says:

    Also, there’s a new documentary showing what Yuri saw on that first orbital trip. It’s long (100ish minutes), and I haven’t had a chance to watch it all yet, but it’s getting rave reviews. Just from skipping around a bit on it, my mind is pretty blown right now.

  2. gokitalo Says:

    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)

    Apparently it came about earlier in 1961, when publisher Martin Goodman wanted Stan to introduce a new comic about a superhero team, possibly to compete with Justice League of America. Stan came up with a synopsis for the story, then gave it to Jack to draw. Then Stan would stick in dialogue and captions as Jack’s penciled pages came in. And history was made!

    Jack definitely deserves at least half the credit for the FF: he designed the characters and their world, and he laid out the stories. But I’m pretty sure I’m pretty sure Stan came up with the FF. Even though the team resembled the Challengers of the Unknown, which Kirby co-created, it has that focus on human foibles Stan was known for. Kirby was more into exploring grand themes on an epic scale.

  3. davidry214 Says:

    Yeah, I read that too, but the Goodman account is somewhat disputed.

    I think Lee’s loyalty to Marvel later caused him to downplay Kirby’s contributions somewhat. But I don’t think either guy’s account decades later can be entirely accurate. I don’t buy that Kirby just drew exactly what he was told without significant input, and I certainly don’t believe Lee only scripted what Kirby already created. Having read a decent amount of their works together and apart, my gut says is was a highly collaborative project. But no one wanted to say that later, because evenly shared credit can be messy legally.

    Regardless, I’m sticking to my thesis in this post. I think the duo had to have been influenced by the times, particularly public interest in space in general and Gargarin specifically. They played so heavily on those same themes of scientific curiosity and exploration throughout that legendary run. Maybe art doesn’t necessarily imitate real life, but it can be heavily influenced.

  4. Gokitalo Says:

    Oh yeah, I think Gargarin could’ve definitely influenced the FF directly. The early Marvel Comics very often reflected the times they were published in: the Fantastic Four were born from the space race, Hulk and Iron Man came about from the arms race and the Vietnam War, the X-Men started dealing with prejudice, etc.

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