Fantastic Four Broke the Fourth Wall to Create Marvel's Shared Universe

The Fantastic Four's first cameos broke the fourth wall in the most bizarre way possible. Shared universes are all the rage in Hollywood, with every studio attempting to imitate the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But, in truth, Marvel was simply bringing an idea to the big screen that's been there in the comics for literally decades. Superheroes have been teaming up with one another since the dawning days of Marvel Comics.

In 1961, comic book writer Stan Lee was approached by his editor Martin Goodman to create a superhero team in the hopes they'd be as big a hit as DC's new Justice League. Working with artist Jack Kirby, Lee created the Fantastic Four - and the Marvel Universe was born. The next few years saw Marvel launch countless other books, introducing superheroes as varied as the X-Men, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Thor, and the Incredible Hulk. But right from the start, it was clear Lee imagined the stories he told to exist in a shared universe; in Fantastic Four #4, Marvel's First Family crossed paths with Namor the Sub-Mariner, a character who'd actually made his comic book debut back in 1939. The next issue saw the Fantastic Four learn about the Hulk too. But both stories featured a remarkable conceit that broke the fourth wall, implying the Fantastic Four really did exist in Marvel's "world outside your window."

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In Fantastic Four #4, the Human Torch stumbled upon an amnesiac who he swiftly recognized as Namor the Sub-Mariner, who'd been missing for years. But the scene was particularly amusing because Johnny Storm was able to recognize Namor because he'd just been reading an old comic book in which the Sub-Mariner fought against the Nazis - an "old, beat-up comic mag" that had apparently been published in the 1940s, just as in the real world. The very next issue, in Fantastic Four #5 - most famous for introducing Doctor Doom - the Torch read another comic starring the Hulk, and teased the Thing by comparing the two in ugliness. That particular comic was immediately identifiable as The Incredible Hulk #1, with the same cover.

Later comic book characters such as Deadpool and She-Hulk would break the fourth wall for humor, but in Stan Lee's scripts it served a crucial purpose; it moved the Fantastic Four closer to the real world, as though the comics readers were picking up were accounts of real events, with Marvel publishing historical documents. Lee always believed the magic of Marvel was the fact it was set in "the world outside your window" - the real world Marvel's readers inhabit. That's why Marvel superheroes are mostly based in real cities like New York and Los Angeles, unlike their DC rivals who inhabit fictional locations like Gotham City, Metropolis, and Coast City.

Perhaps the most amusing aspect of this, though, is the fact Lee foreshadowed the rivalry between the Thing and the Hulk - by having the Thing object to being compared to the Hulk, based on an image in a comic book. The Fantastic Four forged Marvel's modern shared universe by shattering the fourth wall and making readers feel as if they lived in the same world as their heroes, leaving a lasting impression that remains to this day.

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