Sunday, June 14, 2009

Out of the Vault - Fantastic Four #176

Posting this a day late. Sorry.

So one of the very few blogs I read regularly anymore is snell's "Slay, Monstrobot of the Deep," and for a while now, he's had this sporadic series going where he's building up to a recap of Fantastic Four #177, featuring the Frightful Four. But the actual hook he used to start off the series was the final panel of FF #176, featuring this shot of the Frightful Four's three main members (the fourth member has changed over the years).

So I thought it would be a good change of pace, after three weeks of blogging about comics featuring real people, to jump back into a good old-fashioned mainer-than-mainstream superhero comic. And what better issue to feature than the issue that leads into snell's series, Fantastic Four #176.

Cover-dated November 1976, Fantastic Four #176, titled "Improbable As It May Seem--The Impossible Man Is Back in Town!," is a palate cleanser. The FF had just finished an epic multi-issue adventure on Counter-Earth that had culminated in a titanic battle between Galactus and the High Evolutionary. Cosmic stuff, man, and I got briefly hooked on reading FF as a result of it. Issue #176 was a low-key, comic relief interlude before the next big multi-issue arc.

So the issue opens on a spaceship as the Fantastic Four are returning to Earth. Ben Grimm is upset, because he has become the Thing once more (he had spent the previous arc as a human, wearing an exoskeleton that was an exact duplicate of his rocky self). After several pages of recap and exposition, in which we learn that Galactus is responsible for the Thing's rocky return, our heroes make reentry--with one tiny extra problem. The Impossible Man, an alien shapeshifter who can duplicate any shape and any power, has also stowed away on board.

It does not go smoothly. The tachyon-powered ship comes into too fast, and the Thing shatters the controls when he tries to decelerate (apparently, Galactus made him stronger than he was before). The ship crash-lands in the lake in Central Park, providing the Impossible Man with his first bit of entertainment.

Our heroes next attempt to take a taxi to the Baxter Building. After some hijinx involving the Invisible Woman sitting unseen on Reed's lap so they'll all be permitted to ride in the same cab, the drive is promptly cut short thanks to the Impossible Man's pranks. During the confusion of the ensuing traffic jam, the Impossible Man wanders away and ends up visiting the Marvel Bullpen, where Stan Lee and...

Oh crap!

You mean this is another comic book featuring real-world people in a superhero story? Seriously???!!!!

So okay, yeah, both DC and Marvel did this to an extent (for a DC example, see Superman vs. Muhammad Ali)., but Marvel seemed to do it more. Someday, I'll have to cover the issue of Marvel Team-up featuring the Not-Ready-for-Prime-Time Players (which was the name of the SNL cast at the time).

So yeah, Marvel had in an early issue once mentioned the fact that there was a Fantastic Four comic book that chronicled their adventures. And in Fantastic Four #176, we see a conference between Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the FF's original creators, and Roy Thomas and George Perez, this issue's writer and penciller, over what to do for the next issue.

See, the Fantastic Four have been busy off-planet for a while now, what with fighting Galactus and all, so the guys at Marvel haven't been able to get in touch with them to find out about their latest adventure. Suddenly, Jack "King" Kirby has a craaaaazy idea...

...when the Impossible Man pops in and demands they do a comic book about him. When Stan remembers that readers didn't like Impossible Man's earlier appearance because he was too silly, the Impossible Man goes psycho. He decides to prove his real power by mimicking the powers demonstrated on the comics covers displayed around the room. He bounces around the room as Captain America's shield, blasts everything in sight with Iron Man's repulsor rays and Cyclops's optic blasts, even flies around on Namor's dainty little ankle wings.

At which point the Fantastic Four show up for a very brief battle, which draws in cameos from more Marvel artists and writers. Reed finally convinces Stan to agree to do an Impossible Man story in one very special issue of Fantastic Four, and the day is saved. All is well.

Until "Roger" (who I'm guessing is Roger Stern) shows Reed Richards a newspaper with a very disturbing classified ad. The Frightful Four are conducting supervillain auditions at the Fantastic Four's headquarters in the Baxter Building. Say what?

Our heroes rush over to the Baxter Building to find out what's going on, leading to the final confrontation with the Frightful Four, which leads into snell's series.

Overall, the issue isn't bad. The art is standard early George Perez, means lots of stiff poses and straight-on head shots (see the Fantastic Four in action above), but Joe Sinnott's inks are as slick as ever, and the story is fun.

The guys at Marvel must have been proud of it, anyway, because they replaced the normal letter column with a text feature detailing the genesis of the story, and mentioning that it would tie in to a later issue of The Man Called Nova, also featuring the Bullpen.

Can't wait.

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