BHOC: FANTASTIC FOUR #176

Back at the Drug Store, I was astonished and elated to find this issue of FANTASTIC FOUR in my latest dive through its big bin of somewhat-older comics. And the reason is that this issue pre-dated all four of the FANTASTIC FOUR issues that I’d previously found there. It was evidence that it was possible not only to fill in the gaps between those issues and the current ones, but also to delve back even further into the history of the series. So this was a pretty exciting turn of events.

This issue has become oft-reprinted in the years since, in that it’s both effectively a self-contained story and most of the action takes place in–well, let’s get to that in due time. That’s a beautiful splash page of the Thing by George Perez and Joe Sinnott. Perez would become my favorite contemporary artist for many years, and I still think Joe Sinnott is just about the best inker comic books have ever seen. I must confess that the Thing talking about having been just a guy in an armored suit confused me a little bit–did this mean that he’d been in a costume for the preceding 175 issues and had only just now been literally transformed into an actual monster? And how did that square with the MARVEL’S GREATEST COMICS story I had read in which Ben was permanently cured? Had he been in an armored costume ever since then? It was all very mysterious and intriguing.

The story opens with the FF on their way back to Earth after a prior adventure in which they faced Galactus, who is responsible for this mysterious transformation on the part of the Thing. Apparently, the team were able to defeat Galactus only with the help of their passenger: the Impossible Man. I already knew all about Impy from the subsequent issues I had read–he could transform his body into any shape or form he desired, and he was childlike and a bit of a brat. 

The Thing is so not used to his rocky form that he winds up accidentally destroying their ship’s braking system, leading to a brief action sequence in which the Human Torch exits the ship and creates thermal updrafts in order to slow its crash-landing in the lake near Central Park. It has to be said that writer Roy Thomas and George Perez fit in a ton of character and incident on these pages, mostly due to Perez’s facility at crafting 8 panels on a page or more. Anyway, everybody survives the crash, but now they’ve got to get across town and back to the Baxter Building.

The New York checkered cabs of this era will only pick up 4 passengers, and the there are five who need the lift, so Sue uses her power to remain invisible. Along the way, though, Impy gets bored and freaks out the cab driver by changing into a rear view mirror ornament among other things, and the FF wind up in the middle of traffic trying to soothe the poor cabbie. An unlucky motorist has the poor sense to lean on his horn in the Thing’s direction, causing his vehicle to suffer an enginedectomy at Ben’s bad-tempered hands.

As luck would have it, the team is right outside the 575 Madison Avenue offices of Marvel Comics–and when the Impossible Man hears of this, he makes a beeline inside to demand that Stan Lee make a comic book about him. And this whimsical look into the Marvel offices of 1976 is why this issue is so remembered and so often reprinted. Roy and George are in conference with Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the big two of FF lore, when the Impossible Man bursts in–Roy and George are stymied because with the FF away, they have no information with which to create their authorized comic book featuring the team. In a characterization that is perhaps retroactively too on-the-nose, Kirby tells them they should just invent their own stories.

The issue pauses here for the letters page, which this month is devoted not to the readers’ knocks and boosts but rather to writer Roy Thomas explaining the genesis of the story we’re in the midst of. Among other things, he mentions a similar story being in the works at the same time for NOVA, but it would be many years before I’d get the opportunity to have a peek at that one. Looking at it today, I find this page really indulgent (especially when Roy digresses to talk about an impending meeting with a fellow Elvis aficionado) but I have to say that it did its job perfectly. Already the various creators who made up the ranks of Marvel were better known to me as personalities than their DC counterparts whom I’d been following for many years.

Back at the story, Stan remembers the Impossible Man from years ago, and how the Marvel readers expressed that he was too silly for the Marvel books. This pisses Impy off, and he goes on a wild in-joke filled rampage through the Marvel offices, using his powers to mimic the powers and attributes of assorted Marvel characters. From what I can tell, George wasn’t using the actual Marvel offices as reference for this fight–he simply drew a generic set of offices designed however the story needed them to be. The Ff show up in the midst of Impy’s rampage and try to corral him, but to no good effect. Marvel Comics is being trashed.

Getting to the heart of the Impossible Man’s anger, Reed snaps up Stan Lee and explains to him that all it will take for the Impossible Man to go away is being featured in a single conic book issue. Stan’s not having it until the Thing stares him down. But there are more important issues for the FF to deal with: a classified ad informs them that the Frightful Four have taken over their Baxter Building headquarters and are holding tryouts for their fourth member that afternoon. Conveyed by Impy, the FF head out–and Stan immediately and two-facedly reverses his decision on doing an Impossible Man issue. Comedically standing in front of a huge personalized Howard the Duck poster, he proclaims that “Marvel Comics hasn’t got time to waste on silly-looking characters!” I’d already read the next issues in which the FF and their evil counterparts battled it out, so the wrap-up where the Frightfuls are confronted was just checking boxes to me. But this was another wild and fun issue by Roy and George.

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