Fantastic Four #11

This is a weird issue. The bulk of the book is the Fantastic Four answering fan letters, with an 8-page Impossible Man story in the back.

coverFebruary of 1963, by Stan and Jack. The first appearance of the Impossible Man! New info about our heroes’ pasts (well, some of them)!

We open on a street scene, where the team is making a trip to the local newsstand to pick up their own comic. Apparently Marvel was pretty tight-fisted with the comps back then.

street
Younger readers might need to take a minute to go look up what a newspaper is.

For anyone keeping track, the full credits listing, including the inker and letterer, was added, more or less, in Issue 9. At some point the credits page will include all of the creative team plus the editors, but in these early days it was pretty slap dash. Issue 10 omits the lettering credit, for example, and there’s been no mention of a colorist at all yet. A lot of what you might call the secondary art duties were, I think, filled in by a variety of people around the office and I doubt they kept careful track of who worked on what. (In no way am I suggesting that coloring and inking are less important – a good color job can make a decent comic an Eisner-winning one.) Even though they’ve made some effort to put these in, who knows how accurate these are?

There are a surprising number of letters in the letters pages asking for these credits and that probably motivated more effort to put them in. I know when I was a kid I hardly spared a glance for those credits, though I do voraciously devour them now. It’s one of those appreciations that comes from becoming a more discerning reader.

lineI would make a joke about how you never see lines like that outside a comic shop today, but this past May I took this adorbs photo of my daughter with Kitty Pryde while waiting in a massive line that was half a block long for Free Comic Book Day. It happens! If you thought you could run into a superhero while standing in line at the shop you’d line up, too.

The team comes across some kids playing Fantastic Four. There’s a kid with a Thing mask, one loon jumping around holding sparklers to be the Torch, a kid with long sticks with gloves on them to stretch like Mr. Fantastic, and a little blonde girl pretending she’s invisible. O what kids did before they could go to the store and just buy a set of Hulk fists! The heroes show off for the kids a little and then head home. It’s a pretty cute scene.

thing
Goddammit, Ben, somebody has to pay for that.

The team arrives at home just in time to pick up the latest batch of fan mail from none other than Willie Lumpkin!

willie
I’m not sure inviting a guy with serious anger issues to work at the post office is a great idea, Willie.

Willie will go on to have a long and illustrious history as a Marvel Universe supporting character, and this is his first appearance. He did exist prior to this, as a newspaper strip written by Stan Lee and illustrated by Dan DeCarlo, circa 1960. You might know Dan DeCarlo for one of his more famous creations.

Remember the hidden elevator and Sue’s electronic eye key? Still a thing. I make note of this mostly because they use it to squeeze in some Sue-Johnny banter, which has generally been lacking in the series so far. This is the first time they’ve done much other than worry over each other.

Also Sue looks pret-ty good in that outfit.
Also I’m not gonna lie Sue looks pret-ty good in that outfit.

The first fan missive we get is this, which is one of my favorite gags of the series so far.

jokers
Being an internet troll used to be a lot more work.

Ooooh, those loveable scamps in the Yancy Street Gang! Or at least, that’s who Thing immediately blames it on. I expect this mystery will come up again sometime.

Reed calms Ben by gifting him with a new version of restorative serum he’s been working on. It’s a lot of fun to see the team being friendly and nice and loving on each other.

changeThis a sweet moment, even if Reed is insinuating that Thing isn’t even human when he’s got rocky skin, and even if Sue never shows him this level of affection when he’s rock.  But I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. Then we get a rare, touching instance of Johnny being sensitive about his buddy Ben.

sensitive
Johnny has a thing for rhythmic gymnastics now?

Not only is this a refreshing change of pace from the usual state of constant bickering we get from this series, it’s a great example of the extraordinarily concise storytelling these old books could (sometimes) engage in. Even as we get this nice character-building moment from Johnny, we get a reminder of his youth compared to the other members of the team and that he likes to spend his time tinkering around in the garage. It’s a good Johnny capsule, especially for new readers.

Ben stands around shirtless for a while until the serum wears off. It’s a little awkward.

meet
And I just realized I have Reed’s exact haircut. Fashion is cyclical, right? Right?

Reed and Ben take advantage of reminiscing what it’s like to be young by giving us some flashbacks to their own younger days. We finally get some exploration of the FF pre-cosmic rays! Turns out Reed and Ben were college roommates. Despite being polar opposites in most ways, brain versus brawn, rich kid versus poor kid, they got along quite well. They went to “State U.”, which sounds like a name you’d plug in as a placeholder until you came up with something better. I’m guessing this will later be tweaked to be Empire State University, which is the college pretty much everyone in the Marvel Universe attended, taught at, or exploded, but they just haven’t given it its full name yet. So far there’s no indication that Victor von Doom’s attendance here (unless he and Reed went to a different college together) overlapped with Ben’s, but it seems likely.

After graduation, they both got caught up in the war! Note that this is written in 1963, so these guys would likely be in their mid-40s at this point. The letters page of this issue answers a fan letter to say that Ben and Reed are in their late 30s, having graduated college “very early”, with Sue in her 20s, but I’d say that’s 7-10 years too young for all concerned–maybe they joined right at the end of the war, though. Johnny is reported as 17, which seems to track even if that’s a pretty big age difference between him and his sister.

post gradYowsa! This is news to me. As far as I know this has all been retconned out of existence, with Ben not as a fighter jock but as a test pilot, and Reed having no military experience at all. In a few years maybe Ben will just have been an airline pilot, though really there is no shortage of wars for the sliding timeline to take advantage of.

This stuff about Reed in the O.S.S. is particularly fascinating. The Office of Strategic Services was the U.S. military’s central intelligence organization, created to coordinate the intelligence gathering services of the various branches of the military under one roof and carry out whatever miscellaneous covert missions the government might need. They were trained by the British and had operatives all over the world.

It would actually make more sense for Reed to have been employed in the Research and Development department of the O.S.S., crafting exploding pens and cufflink radios. He would have worked alongside Julia Child!

But I suppose that’s not as badass as being a resistance fighter. There were O.S.S. agents involved in resistance movements in a variety of hotspots during World War II, including China and French Indochina, but by the art I expect he was in France, making him a part of Operation Jedburgh. These lunatics were para-dropped, at night, in teams of three behind German lines in France just prior to the Normandy invasion. Once they joined up with the locals they advised and trained the resistance fighters, coordinating their efforts with the Allies, and even arranging for airdrops of supplies and ammunition. Pretty amazing stuff. From the O.S.S. recruiting qualifications:

Officers recruited as leaders and seconds in command should be picked for qualities of leadership and daring, ability to speak and understand French, and all-around physical condition. They should be experienced in handling men, preferably in an active theater of operations, and be prepared to be parachuted in uniform behind enemy lines and operate on their own for some time. They must have had at least basic military training and preferably have aptitude for small arms weapons.

The actual effectiveness of these teams is…debatable. The operation began too late to create the necessary networks for significant intelligence gathering. The communications equipment often broke during the airdrops, and in general the administration was short-sighted and sloppy. The regular army generals weren’t all that keen on depending on rag-tag groups of partisans, with whom they had spotty communication, for significant support. A number of the teams were too eager for combat and got themselves killed trying to achieve too much. Still, it was a cool idea?

So these were men of action even before they were superheroes. At the time, these were the readers’ dads, basically, and that must have been pretty awesome to read.

We also find out that Reed and Sue grew up living next door to each other. Thoughts of her kept him going during the war!

mooning
By my estimation, Sue is about 14 during the war. But nevermind that!

Dammit, Sue, again with the Namor! Just because a guy has great abs doesn’t mean you can forgive him trying to conquer the world and murder everyone you know and trying to date-rape you. Though I guess if we’re being honest, Emily Ratajkowski could threaten the Eastern Seaboard with a nuclear strike and a lot of people would probably be okay with it, so maybe this isn’t so crazy. This is the second issue in a row they’ve brought up the will-they / won’t-they of Reed and Sue, so it feels like they’re about to make a big push on that front.

After that, the topic turns to their origin, and we get a couple pages recapping the events of Issue 1. The letters pages of this issue and last issue indicate that every issue of Fantastic Four up to that point had completely sold out, so anyone looking to catch up was out of luck. I’m sure this was on Stan and Jack’s minds and why they have a tendency to repeat things like the origin so often. Every issue is somebody’s first.

The letters section wraps up with a topic that’s most distressing!

disturbing
Yeah, well we thought you’d have nipples, Ben, so maybe we’re all a little weirded out right now.

What follows is basically an entire page of Reed and Ben telling the audience to go fuck themselves and it’s both hilarious and well earned. There have certainly been moments of weak writing where Sue is concerned (her frequent kidnappings, and let’s not get started on the Namor thing again), but overall I’ve been impressed by how much she’s been used.

lincoln
Nice contemporary reference for the kids there, Reed.

They point out the examples of how she’s saved the day a couple times (moments I’ve pointed out myself in previous editions of this column). In the middle of their tirade, Ben reverts back to his rocky form and everyone gets bummed out. The segment doesn’t end on a downer note, though, as Johnny calls them all for a special surprise birthday party for Sue. Happy *cough cough* birthday, Susan Storm!

birthday
Johnny blundered his one job of facing the cake the right way.

We get to see the flying saucer from Planet X again! Nice to know it’s been stashed in the garage next to the Christmas decorations instead of analyzed and used to catapult humanity’s quest for the stars by thousands of years.

Now on to the Impossible Man! impossibleSuperman has Mister Mxyzptlk, Batman has the Bat-Mite, Jean-Luc Picard has Q, and the Fantastic Four has the Impossible Man. As much as this splash page builds him up, he’s the first antagonist of the series who isn’t really a villain.

Side note: Thing just said clobber!

hobos
Has anyone seen John Hodgman and the Impossible Man in the same place at the same time?

We meet the Impossible Man at a hobo jungle, which I had no idea was a thing! Don’t get too excited, it’s just a hobo camp near a railroad. He declares that he’s from the planet of Poppup, in the 10th Galaxy. Earth never seems to get visited by local star systems. The hobos think it’s an awesome idea to play a little prank on this stranger.

bank idea
Credit where it’s due, though, that is pretty funny.

Holy crap, that guy just turned into a jet! That distinctive POP! sound happens every time he changes. Following the hobo’s advice, he finds the nearest convenient bank, walks in, and grabs some piles of money that are stacked in the vault. Police show up and do what police do.

amused
Shoot at the unarmed guy and innocent passersby simultaneously.

And this is the template for the rest of the story. Impossible Man goes somewhere to play a prank or just enjoy the local color, and the reactions of everyone around are a source of great amusement to him.

The police call the Fantastic Four in to stop him, and he explains his background. Poppup is a terribly dangerous place full of horrific dangers, and his people have evolved the ability to change into whatever will allow them to survive the dangers. Reed lays down some legit science!

poppup
No, I will not make a “walking erect” joke. Nope.

In case you’re curious on the timeline, X-Men, featuring, of course, superheroes powered by evolutionary mutation, would premier later in this very year. Evolution, particularly as an easy explanation of super powers, must have been on Stan’s brain at the time.

sue braveWell, Thing and Human Torch quickly escalate the situation in their usual, hasty manner, and it quickly devolves (no pun) into a pointless fight. We do get this pretty cool scene with Sue, though, as she bravely puts herself in harm’s way to try and stop the alien from escaping. The team can’t hurt flowersImpossible Man, and he inadvertently comes close to killing a bunch of civilians. This is when he realizes that Earthlings don’t have his incredible powers, and that he can do whatever the hell he wants.

This is when Impossible Man amps the pranks up. He steals a car to go on a joy ride. Then he transforms, horrifyingly, into a bomb, and only Reed’s quick thinking saves everyone. Impossible Man thinks this is all just sooo hilarious and makes a disturbing declaration!

staying
You know what “play” means, Trumpy?

Reed comes up with a controversial plan!

reeds plan
One side, red! (I’m all about very esoteric references today.)
Killer? Easy there! What am I, a football player?
Killer? Easy there! What am I, a football player?

Mr. Fantastic spreads the word – everyone is to ignore the Impossible Man, no matter what he’s doing. Reed gets a little shit for looking like a coward, but everyone goes along with it nonetheless. We get a little montage of the Impossible Man pulling off ridiculous stunts just to be ignored by the people around him.

It totally works! Eventually, Impossible Man gets sick of playing his pranks to a cold audience.

end
Impossible Man isn’t a Grateful Dead fan I guess.

I was astonished to see that, according to various wiki, Impossible Man doesn’t show up again until 1976! He’s made plenty of appearances since then, though, so apparently the creative teams that come after Stan and Jack liked the character a lot more than they did. I think I’ve only read one or two modern stories involving him, but it seemed like he was used a lot in the ’80s and ’90s. He’s a fun character in small doses like this 8-pager. Kirby is great at illustrating the petulant, childish tantrums. Don’t expect to see him again here anytime soon, though.

Next time: HULK!

3 thoughts on “Fantastic Four #11”

  1. 1. Was there ever a time when lunatics were captured by men with nets? The cop’s line seems to reference a thing I can’t tell if I’m remembering or imagining.
    2. I’m always surprised by how light-hearted and informal these comics are with the fourth wall. Like taking pages to answer fan mail. Or when Doom busts in on the comic creators and forces them to alter time/space to suit his plan. It’s in very stark contrast to the Dr. Strange comics (which you know I am reading right), which are so very straight-faced in comparison.
    3. Dammit, you made me watch the “Blurred Lines” video again. I mean, I turned the sound off, but the Thicke-to-Ratajkowski ratio is still too high.

    1. I think the cop’s line is just a general reference to how mentally troubled people were handled back then (he probably could have also said “men with the straighjackets”). There hasn’t been an incident like that in these comics so far.

      They blur the lines a lot more with Fantastic Four than they do with other comics I’ve read from this period. I think because there’s no secret identities involved, and they’re in-universe celebrity status means they get a lot of public attention. In issue 12 there’s a reference to how fan letters about the Fantasti-car led to the re-design.

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