5BC: Five Times Marvel Self-Mythologized

There’s a long-storied tradition among comics of having the writers and artists of those stories themselves be depicted within the very pages they are producing–creating an idealized heightened version of reality. While this was common across all companies, nobody did it as often or as brazenly as the creators working for Marvel. They truly went the extra mile in terms of mythologizing their own efforts to fill pages and create some stories. Here then are five instances of Marvel self-mythologizing.

FANTASTIC FOUR #10 – The first instance of self-mythologizing in the Marvel era came early, in only the tenth issue of the flagship title, FANTASTIC FOUR. It was also one of the most restrained efforts in this regard–both Stan Lee and Jack Kirby appear within its pages, but neither man’s face is ever shown. Mind you, this didn’t keep them from being featured prominently on the cover. This story was done just at the point where editor Lee had realized that he could turn promoting himself and the talent he worked with into a sort of club-cult for his readers–this issue is also the first to change the salutations on the letters page from Dear Editor to Dear Stan and Jack. In terms of the story, Doctor Doom, seeking to trap Reed Richards, goes to the offices of Marvel Comics and forces Lee and Kirby to summon Reed in for a story conference, at which point Doom lowers the boom on him. Doom also reveals his true face to the two cartoonists, in a moment that feels out of character today. If anything, it all reads very much like those occasions where Simon and Kirby would involve themselves in a story featuring their characters in the golden age. The door to the office labeled Lee and Kirby takes on an ironic tinge given the actual relationship between the two men over the years

MAN-THING #22 – Ever since he had begun writing it, MAN-THING had been a unique and idiosyncratic series primarily due to the writing of Steve Gerber. A bizarre conception to begin with–the Man-Thing had no intellect or true personality, and so was a difficult character to build a series around. But Gerber made it all work, with his trademark balance of satire, cynicism, absurdity, literary pretension and heart. And in the final issue, when it was time to ring down the curtain on the series, Gerber framed the final story as a letter from himself to editor Len Wein, explaining why he could no longer continue to write the book. This took the form of Gerber becoming so involved in his work that he himself was dragged into his own story–he revealed that ever since he’d gotten the assignment, he had been regularly visited by his own character, Dakimh the Sorcerer, and fed the stories that he was to write. This led, over time, to Gerber being attacked in his own apartment by the demonic agents of Thog, and spirited away on a final adventure alongside the Man-Thing and Dakimh where his own life was on the line. And so, he just couldn’t do it anymore. And that’s why the book was ending–not that it had been cancelled due to flagging sales. It’s a fascinating look into Gerber’s own mind and process, for all that it likely bears little relationship to the truth of how he crafted his stories.

FANTASTIC FOUR #176 – This was one of a pair of stories that came out in 1976 with a common theme, and it was the more popular of the two thanks to its creators–so much so that it’s been reprinted more often than any of the other issues of the series around it. In this particular issue, the Impossible Man, having made his return to Earth, goes to the offices of Marvel Comics because he wants them to make a comic book about him. On premises are not only the current FF creative team of Roy Thomas and George Perez, but also publisher Stan Lee and visiting editor/creator Jack Kirby. Lee winds up the butt of the joke a little bit in this one, alternately egotistical and cowardly, and he sets off the action when he mentions that the Impossible Man is too silly to star in a Marvel Comic, causing the shape-changing alien to rampage through the Marvel offices until the Fantastic Four can calm him down. In the end, Lee is forced to promise to give Impy a book but immediately reneges after the heroes have gone. The story abounds with in-jokes and appearances from other Marvel creators and staffers of the era, and gives a fanciful impression of just how the comics are being made–one that bears scant relation to reality.

WHAT IF #11 – Perhaps the ultimate expression of self-aggrandizement, this issue of WHAT IF presents a concept that I can’t see any Marvel fan having wondered about before it hit the stands: What If the Original Marvel Bullpen Had Become the Fantastic Four? This exercise in absurdity originated with WHAT IF editor Roy Thomas, who had pictured himself as the youthful Human Torch, a favorite character from his youth. Turning the idea over to Jack Kirby to execute made it perhaps possible to wind up with a final story of some interest, though Kirby had no strong love for Thomas, and opted to replace him in the tale with earlier Marvel production man Sol Brodsky, whom Kirby knew better. It’s a story that demands that you accept that a quartet of comic book creators were accidentally turned into super heroes by the Skrulls, who somehow exist in their world, and that Stan Lee possesses the scientific intellect of Reed Richards, despite filling his days writing and editing comic books. Kirby does cut himself some slack, allowing his comic book equivalent to transform back to his human form at will. Flo Steinberg, who herself had been well-mythologized as “Fabulous Flo” for years filled the Invisible Girl’s uniform. It’s absolute bonkers nonsense, and yet if you can get yourself to embrace the absurdity of the idea, it’s actually pretty fun. What’s more, this wound up being the very last Fantastic Four story that Jack Kirby ever worked on (though he did do a few covers after this.)

FANTASTIC FOUR #262 – One creator who clearly loved these sorts of stories was John Byrne. Over the years, Byrne would wind up including himself as a character in his series time and again–on occasion playing as the butt of the joke but just as often depicted in a straightforward and mythologized manner. This is probably the best remembered of Byrne’s assorted cameos–a story that was in essence a cross between Gerber’s MAN-THING adventure and FANTASTIC FOUR #176. Here, thanks to he gimmick that was “Assistant Editor’s Month” in which supposedly the main Marvel staff was gone, leaving their crazy assistants to run the asylum, John Byrne is summoned by the Watcher to bear witness to the Trial of Reed Richards (and, by extension, Galactus) in a far-off galaxy. As with Gerber, Byrne doesn’t play any active role in the proceedings apart from being a witness to them, but the other characters all treat him with respect and deference. This was the climax to a long-running arc, and so he didn’t want to get too goofball with anything, despite the requirements of the gimmick.

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