Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Marvels: Fantastic Four #11

"A Visit with the Fantastic Four" by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Dick Ayers
(February 1963)

This is the first time there's ever been two stories in an issue of Fantastic Four. Though the cover promises an adventure with the Impossible Man, the issue actually starts with a kind of neat, offbeat story directly aimed at the reader who can't get enough of the FF and wants to know more about these strange characters.

Stan and Jack have really done a great job of establishing Reed, Sue, Johnny and Ben as celebrities in their own universe. They're mobbed by fans and autograph-seekers, honored by the UN, and even have a comic book about them by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby!

The story begins, meta-style, with a line outside the newsstand of people waiting to buy the new issue of Fantastic Four. Kids play as the characters on the street, and when the FF walk by in their street clothes, they provide the kids with demonstrations of their powers. We also get the first appearance of Willie Lumpkin, the amiable old mailman, bringing the FF another round of fan mail. (If there's one thing I actually liked about that mess of a Fantastic Four movie, it was Stan's cameo as Willie Lumpkin.)

We also see here how the FF have their own private elevator to take them up to the top floors of the Baxter Building. Their belts have an electric signal that activates the elevator only for them. I still don't know who else would want to work out of that building, though, since we've already seen Doctor Doom lift it into the air on two separate occasions (once all the way into outer space).

The stuff with the fan mail is fun. I mean, they're not having organic conversations, it's all fan service, but it's also a neat nods to a burgeoning fandom. We learn about how Ben and Reed met--college roommates, where Reed was a brilliant science student and Ben was a football star. Then the two both served in World War II, Ben flying for the Marines over Okinawa and Guadalcanal, and Reed working behind the lines with the French Resistance as an OSS operative. Sue was the girl next door that Reed dreamed of marrying (a scene which allows Sue to remind the reader that, in the words of Reed, "there's still the shadow of Sub-Mariner between us").

There's the inevitable recap of the origin, of course, and there's also a bit where Reed uses a cream to (temporarily, again) turn the Thing back into Ben Grimm. And there's also the first Yancy Street Gang prank.

Classic. Already graduating from that harassing letter they sent him in #6.

The big emotional turning point in this is when Sue reveals that she's been sent letters telling her that she contributes nothing to the team and that she shouldn't be a member of the Fantastic Four, echoing a number of sentiments in the letters column. Here, Stan has an angry Reed directly remind the reader of Sue's part in defeating the Skrulls and the time she saved them from Doctor Doom's airless chamber. I don't know if I'm a fan of Reed comparing her to Abraham Lincoln's mother, though...

Stan took the letters seriously, and it seems to have bothered him that there were fans who didn't think Sue rounded out the team the way he did, and though the real solution would be giving her more to do--and putting her in situations where only her abilities can help them--his impassioned defense reveals how much he thinks this character is integral to the book. He just needs to start showing us through the stories.

In the end, the characters celebrate Sue's birthday with a surprise party, and Willie Lumpkin shows up with even more mail.

It's a fun few pages aimed at you, the reader, the FF fanatic, and it's a cute way to do it. I wouldn't want to see it in every issue, but there's a fandom building up here, and it's nice to see Stan and Jack taking some time out to celebrate it.

:: One stray observation: Willie Lumpkin was the star of a briefly-syndicated comic strip called Willie Lumpkin that Stan did with Dan DeCarlo in 1960. I just love that Stan threw him in there. (Did you ever read any of the My Friend Irma strips those two did together? That stuff always makes me laugh.)

"The Impossible Man!" by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Dick Ayers

This main story is a slight tale about the Impossible Man from Planet Poppup, who takes a vacation to Earth and ends up wreaking havoc on the place. There's not much more to it. Stan and Jack seem to have challenged themselves to create a character who could conceivably defeat the Fantastic Four, but decided not to make him intentionally malicious. Instead, the Impossible Man is more like a cartoon; he's just having a gas. He's on vacation, comes from a race of people who can turn themselves into anything they can think of, loves rattling the squares, and eats attention like it's candy. He's just having a good time, narc. He's... well, he's Bugs Bunny.

It's such a slight, brief story that there's no need for a play by play. The FF simply can't defeat him, but Reed realizes that the best way to cut off someone who needs attention more than they need air in their lungs is to simply not give it to them. Somehow he gets basically everyone in the world to stop paying attention or even taking notice of the Impossible Man, so the Impossible Man gets bored and leaves the Earth.

There's not much more to it than that. I thought it was funny. Like a little cartoon adventure.

Stray observations:

:: For reasons I can't quite define, I pictured the Impossible Man with an over-the-top voice provided by Jonathan Harris.

:: The fan reaction to the Impossible Man was so negative that the character didn't appear again until 1976. Even then, Stan--who, as I said, took the letters seriously--remembered the fan hatred so well that Roy Thomas had to convince him that it was okay to have the character show up (in an issue loaded with Galactus and the High Evolutionary at that!).

:: Regarding the letters page: I'm with Larry Tucker of Wichita Falls, who points out that Sue Storm has been captured four times and "would make a better action character than a hostage." Stan identifies the characters' ages: Reed and Ben in their late thirties, Sue in her twenties, and Johnny just 17. This runs counter to the way they cast every movie now. Have you seen the shortlist for the casting for the new reboot movie? Seems like they don't want anyone to be older than 24, which kind of takes away from the gravitas of the characters to me. There's also a letter from the "Save the Torch" campaign begging Stan not to kill off the Human Torch (which takes Stan by surprise) and a letter from Sherman Howard who I assume is not Sherman Howard the Star Trek actor, but how cool would that be?

All in all, not an essential issue, but lots of fun and lots of stuff for the fans. Even now in 2013, reading it is sort of like being in a private club of FF and Marvel fans. The enthusiasm for this sort of partnership between reader and creators is still infectious and inclusive. Anyone who loves comics is welcome. No Dan DiDios, Jim Lees and Geoff Johnses telling you what you want here.

Next time: Donald Blake, Mob Doctor.

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