Friday, July 18, 2014

A Visit With The Fantastic Four!

Fantastic Four #11 generally gets high marks from comics fandom, though probably not because it features the first appearance of the Impossible Man; rather, because it devotes half its space to a revealing look at the Fantastic Four itself, in a fun and satisfying informal Q & A designed to appeal to the book's growing fan base.

"A Visit with the Fantastic Four" probably did a lot not only to lock in its current readership, but also to tempt those readers not yet on board--as well as to reach out and welcome readers to the new Marvel Comics. The Avengers and X-Men were still months away; Thor had only a few issues under his belt (and still having his stories told in Journey Into Mystery); Incredible Hulk was on the verge of being cancelled; and both Iron Man (in Tales of Suspense) and Amazing Spider-Man would be hitting the racks the following month. Fantastic Four was carrying the ball for the team, as it were--and this issue made the FF virtual ambassadors.

Structured in the form of a story, this "visit" feels as if the team members are taking us along with them throughout their day and eventually inviting us into their dialog, acting as our guides and responding to "fan letters" to further establish a connection with whoever is holding the current issue. But, while admittedly doing a service for Marvel's line of super-hero titles, the story is a splendid FF tale in itself; and since it includes a brand new FF story, as well, the reader must have felt they were getting a lot for their 12¢.

For instance, just look at all the things happening on the splash page:

The kid calling out to his buddies stokes eagerness and excitement for the reader, indicating that something is going on here that they don't want to miss; and just in case that's too subtle, let's throw in a line outside the newsstand store, consisting of people of all different ages. Other than Free Comic Book Day or special collectors' issues, how often do you see a line outside your comics shop? We also learn that the FF themselves are aware of the comic, as part of what we'd later be told is a licensing deal they've set up with Marvel--an arrangement not only for profit, but one which also gives them favorable publicity with New Yorkers. (Hey, I sure hope that cop is on his break!) And it's a good bet this one page did a lot to lay the groundwork for making a comic's letters page one of the most popular features of an issue aside from its story.

So let's see what all the excitement is about!

How clever to start the story by having the FF interact with their fans first thing--not only putting the reader directly on the scene and drawing them in better than any narrative, but also making the FF more accessible.

It's not a long meeting with their fans, and only with those few who were role-playing as them, but it gets the job done.  Afterward, the FF take us through a behind-the-scenes look at their routine, starting with their arrival back at the Baxter Building where they're met by their faithful (and, from the looks of it, overworked) mailman, Willie Lumpkin. It would be our first meeting with Willie, whom we'll see at times playfully solicit for FF membership:

(Y'know, the weight of a sack of mail that size would be taxing to a guy in his 30s, let alone a senior like Willie. How about Reed whipping up a hand-truck or something to make it a little easier on the old timer?)

If it's mail call, you know what that means--or you soon would, thanks to this issue which gives the Thing his first booby-trapped package from the Yancy Street Gang (assuming we pay no attention to writer Mark Waid's later meddling):

The story moves smoothly from scene to scene, further giving us the impression that we're in the same room with the FF while things occur to them to talk about. And since the Thing is front and center, we can find out how Reed is making out on his efforts to cure him:

The only odd thing to happen at this point is Johnny's excusing himself, which doesn't really make sense in this kind of story and probably would leave a few Torch fans disappointed:

But that leaves the trio of Ben, Reed, and Sue, who have history and a natural chemistry that is more than able to pick up the slack. It's here we see Sue break the "fourth wall," and directly acknowledge the reader(s):

Which brings us another first: Reed and Ben's introduction to each other when they roomed together at State U., a scene which we'd see again in the origin story of Dr. Doom but well over a year away:

But we'd also find out that their relationship with each other extends beyond their college years, as they both have roles in World War II:

Around this time, fan interest in Sue's feelings for the Sub-Mariner was heightened by the magazine constantly being coy about nailing them down. The situation would be status quo for months to come--even the Q&A pages in the first FF annual would duck the question. So it's not surprising to see Sue shut it down again here:

What really caught my eye in this story is that it contains the first retelling of the FF's origin (beyond flashbacks to their transformations), which gives more context to their pre-launch planning meeting:

Their origin story helps the FF to veer in a direction less full of smiles and fond remembrances, and helps remind the reader that these are "real" people whom they've taken an interest in--and part of that interest included letting the folks at Marvel know on occasion when something didn't please them. And if readers had a beef to pick with the handling of the FF, one example would surely be Sue's place on the team, and the fact that her invisibility power was symbolic of her usefulness to the others. As we'll see, writer Stan Lee meets that accusation head-on:

Yes, I know what you're thinking: it's disturbing that the FF would have a bust of anyone as part of their decor. But aside from that, the analogy to Lincoln's mother comes off as reaching. Lee clearly sees Sue's role as supportive, in a mostly non-combative, reserve capacity--but, with a "4" on her chest and wearing the same distinctive uniform as her partners, to say nothing of having super-powers, what are we to think? That she wasn't designed to go on missions with them and put herself at risk, but instead be an ideal hostage? It would be close to a year before Sue would be given her force field powers, and even that ability seemed geared toward defense and protection rather than offense. Sue Storm isn't a mother to these men, serving by quiet example--she suits up and goes on life-or-death missions with them.  An invisible team member is quite an asset--why play that down?

With tensions pretty high (jeez, calm down, Stan Reed!), it's time to bring the Thing full circle to the result of Reed's latest formula:

It feels like we've read a full-fledged story here for just eleven pages. And it even has a happy ending, when we finally find out what Johnny's been up to:

It's a successful story-within-a-story, any way you *ahem* slice it.  Despite the final panel's wording, it was an approach we wouldn't see with Marvel's other books--nor would it have worked as well with solo heroes like Spider-Man, Daredevil, Thor, or Iron Man, who would basically be having conversations with themselves. The Avengers would have been a good choice for another group story like this--they could certainly have used the bounce that the FF story no doubt produced. But while Lee obviously felt comfortable letting the FF rest on their laurels and kick back like this for half a story, you never got the impression during the Avengers' run that their fans were as devoted.

When we continue our look at this issue, we'll crack open its second part and find the FF meeting yet another alien. "Impossible!" you say??

Fantastic Four #11 (Part One)

Script: Stan Lee
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inks: Dick Ayers
Letterer: Art Simek


Kid said...

Sue does come across as a bit of a limp dish-rag with her wimpy response to that letter 'though. Nowadays, she'd have scoffed at it in a dismissive way - as would any modern-day superheroine.

Anonymous said...

But how old is Sue ? While Reed was an underground freedom fighter (,okay) in WW2 he was dreaming of Sue back home which means Sue must have been at least 17 or 18 and so by this time she must be nearing 40 - I assumed she was meant to be about 27 ! And Reed has been waiting for Sue to decide for 20 YEARS ??!!

Comicsfan said...

Kid, I agree, a night-and-day difference--though at the time, her abilities were only minimal, and she wasn't nearly as seasoned (or as self-confident).

Colin, I raised an eyebrow at that, as well. I always imagined Sue to only be about 10 or 15 years older than Johnny, but that would have put her in her early- to mid-'teens during the war. On the other hand, assuming Reed was in his early 20s while in the war (since we know he joined up shortly after graduation from college), that would make him about seven years older than Sue, which seems about right. As for Reed's patience in regards to Sue's decision, I think that's really only pertinent to the situation with the Sub-Mariner. Prior to then, we have to assume that Reed resumed seeing Sue after the war but didn't really progress in his relationship with her due to his preoccupation with the rocket project or other reasons.

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