“A Visit with the Fantastic Four” and “The Impossible Man”
Script by Stan Lee
Pencils by Jack Kirby
Inks by Dick Ayers
Letters by Art Simek
Another, much more successful experiment than the previous issue, this is a rare issue with two FF stories that is refreshing, fun and entertaining. Interestingly enough, Stan Lee writes in the intro to the second Marvel Masterworks volume of Fantastic Four stories that this issue was extremely unpopular at the time. Fans in particular disliked the Impossible Man as being too “silly” for so “serious” a comic book as The Fantastic Four.
Meet Willie Lumpkin, who Stan played in his cameo in the 2004 Fantastic Four movie
This issue starts off with the behind-the-scenes story that Lee writes was inspired by the many fan letters Marvel had been receiving on the title. It has a lot of really fun little moments, starting with fans lining up at the newsstand to get the most-recent issue of the FF comic and a kid running down the street thrilled that his letter got published on the fan page. This great little story offers lots of fun bits, including the introduction of Willie Lumpkin and a lot of background on the FF themselves.
That background offers some particularly interesting tidbits, including details of Reed and Ben’s service in World War II. This book has them in college together before the U.S. entered the war, so that would mean Reed and Ben would have have roughly been born in the early 1920s. That would have made them both about 40 in the comic – roughly the same age as Stan and Jack themselves were when they did this story. Not sure how old Sue’s meant to be, though she can’t be too much younger than Reed as it’s said they have known each other since childhood and grew up as next door neighbors. Johnny, of course, is supposed to be about 16, which makes it unlikely he cheered on Ben during his football years, as the story says. I also liked the detail of Reed having worked with the O.S.S. in the underground behind enemy lines in Europe, which is not a detail that had registered with me.
Don’t dis Sue in front of Reed and Ben — you don’t want to make them angry.
Then there’s the best part of the story, which is the defense of Sue from the critical letter writers. For some reason, fans have always wanted Sue out of the book and I remember it still being an issue when I was reading the book in the 1980s. I like this idea of having the characters defend her, rather than Stan doing so in a letters column — it just has a bit more weight and is more effective at pointing out the idiocy of such comments.
I suspect this story was pretty much all Stan’s idea — it’s light-hearted, heavy on the dialog and very character-centric. Maybe it was just an idea that didn’t lend itself well to the kind of blowout splash page that Kirby has done in the past, but it is a very well written and well drawn story that demonstrates just how far the comic has come in its short lifespan.
The Thing hanging off the side of the Fantasti-car is perhaps the only panel in the second story I really like.
The second story, introducing The Impossible Man, is a little more standard but still goofy enough to make it a good pairing with the first tale. The Impossible Man himself is fairly annoying — kind of an impish character similar to Bat-Mite or Mr. Mxyzptlk. And the way the story pans out isn’t exactly the most innovative thing ever put on paper. But, like the first tale, it does demonstrate the overall improvement in the book. There’s a lot more consistency in how the characters look from issue to issue, the dialog is better and fits better with the overall pacing and storytelling. The silliness of the Impossible Man is mitigated by this being a short, 11-page story — a full issue of this guy would have been way too much.
Lastly, this issue wraps with a regal pin-up of the Sub-Mariner in his underground lair. It may also be of interest to note that this issue was previously presented with the stories in the opposite order in older editions of the Marvel Masterworks series. I think the order is significant in this case — the genial nature of the fan visit tale makes the Impossible Man story go down a bit more smoothly.
All in all, this is a surprisingly satisfying issue, and truly off-beat. I wonder if the reaction fans had been more positive, if we might not have seen more two-story issues and visits with the team from Kirby and Lee.
Some of the formula that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had figured out for the title was starting to settle in at this point, with the opening argument between the Thing and the Torch being both familiar and executed very well. The argument this time begins when Reed asks Johnny to keep Ben out of his lab. Ben throws a temper tantrum worthy of a 2-year-old and storms off, followed by Sue.
While they argue, they spot the first act of the mystifying Puppet Master, who uses his ability to make people do anything he wants by making little puppets of them from radioactive clay and then making them act out his wishes in miniature play sets. His first act is to make an apparently random man jump from a bridge to his death.
So, yes, the Puppet Master is one of the silliest villains in all of Marvel. Nothing about his power makes sense. Neither does his oddball physical appearance, or the fact that he was married at one point to the mother of beautiful blind sculptor Alicia Masters.
Alicia is the most significant new element introduced in this issue, and she takes on a fairly major role in the life of Ben Grimm and in the Fantastic Four comic book. In this issue, we really don’t learn too much about her, other than that she looks a lot like the Invisible Girl and is blind. And in Stan Lee’s typical melodramatic fashion, the blind girls sees the man behind the rocky visage of the Thing and falls in love with him — just as Reed has made progress on a way to reverse the Thing’s transformation.
This guy is a few years too early for the Gwen Stacy auditions.
The plot gets quite silly. In addition to creating puppets, the Puppet Master can create giant robots and a mechanical flying horse that can outrace the Human Torch. There’s also a prison riot before a simple matter, uh, trips up the Puppet Master, who falls to his death very much like his first victim. That leaves Alicia behind to be consoled by the Thing.
Excellent compostions, lettering —
and no background, but who cares
Reading this issue for the first time in ages, Kirby’s art makes it seems better than it really is. Kirby’s work is more confident on this issue. He has a better grip on who these characters are and what they look like. At the same time, he’s getting better at drawing them using their powers and putting them into action sequences. The Thing in particular gets some nice sequences in which he gets to tear a huge armored door out of the wall and builds a cage around rampaging inmates. Kirby’s chapter splash pages remain particularly compelling, and its worth noting how well he composes these panels.
You can see Kirby get a better grip on techniques like this in this issue.
These three panels sum up a lot of the appeal of early Marvel comics, and shows a lot of heart.
I have no idea what the reaction was to this issue when it came out, but I would think it would be somewhat reassuring to see the quality hold in most areas because so many comics that start out promising hit a wall about eight to 12 issues in and never recover from it.
Excellent storytelling in just three panels! This sequence would fill an annual these days.
The last thing I’ll say is that the cover to this issue is surprisingly weak. It’s very cluttered and uses an unusual shade of orange (at least it’s orange in the Marvel Masterworks version and looks like orange on comics.org). It also has some of that line-thickening that happens when the stats of the original art get a few generations too removed from the original. For example, the issue number and the white copy at the top of the page just turn into block shapes without good definition. That’s a shame considering how much Masterworks cost to buy, but I don’t know how much Marvel could do to fix it without access to the original art or hiring an artist to do some touchup or a re-creation.
Another great splash panel that delivers a sense of both power and scale.