Completely Unsubstantiated FF Theory

By | Monday, November 16, 2020 Leave a Comment
Fantastic Four #11 always seemed a bit odd to me. Except for #1, all of the issues before this one were single-issue stories. They were sometimes broken up by chapters to reflect the more anthology format that was more common at the time, but Jack Kirby and Stan Lee took the entire issue to tell their story. Issue 11, though, is broken up into two very distinct and separate stories -- one introducing the Impossible Man and another more quiet piece called "A Visit with the Fantastic Four," most of which is filled with flashbacks to Reed and Ben's military service and a summary of the first seven issues. Why did they feel the need to change the format? And why was Impossible Man completely and immediately discarded, not to be seen or even mentioned at all until thirteen years later?

OK, let's look at that last point first. In Fantastic Four #176, the Impossible Man winds up in the Marvel Comics offices as Roy Thomas and George Perez are discussing with Jack and Stan what to do for the next issue of Fantastic Four. Jack starts drawing up sketches of Impy, but Stan stops him to say, "Wait! I just recalled--we did this guy already--years ago! Remember? A lot of our readers didn't like that issue..." If that were the case, that would make sense why he wouldn't be used as a character again. So did readers not like FF #11?

If you go back to the issues immediately after #11 and read the letters that were published, there's actually a lot of glowing praise for the issue...
"I've just read issue #11 of FF, and all I can say is that your magazine is unequaled, matchless, first class, rare, priceless, exquisite, choice, unobjectionable, and inestimately fine."

"Latest issue of FF (#11) one of the best yet."

However, if you look more closely, you'll find that most of the praise is actually for "A Visit with the Fantastic Four" story in particular. Many cited that story and neglected to mention the Impossible Man at all. Of those that did, some fans did indeed voice displeasure at the Impossible Man story...
"'A Visit With the Fantastic Four gave us many new facts about the characters--very good. 'The Impossible Man' by itself was not worthy of being printed..."

"Issue #11 was one of the worst issues you've ever printed. The Fantastic Four hardly tried to stop the Impossible Man... [He] is a ridiculous villain."
Several issues prior to #11, Stan had started a poll within the letters page on whether or not the Invisible Girl should be eliminated from the title/team, and whether any new members should be added. While I can't seem to find a final tally, Stan noted in #10 that fans were overwhelmingly in favor of keeping Sue (639 to 8) but fairly split on new members (422 for, 486 against). Based primarily on timing, it seems fairly evident that "A Visit with the Fantastic Four" was created in direct response to the handful of people who thought the Invisible Girl should be removed. And, indeed, at least one fan wrote in to say that he was against the character previously but that single story changed his mind!

(I should probably mention the somewhat obvious caveat to this whole discussion: that I'm going on the handful of letters they chose to print. Whether that's truly reflective of the mail they received, I don't know.)

Before I get to my theory, I want to throw out one other bit of context. As I detailed in my column for Jack Kirby Collector #60, we have three surviving scripts from Jack and Stan's FF: #1, #8, and #55. The first two had been typed up by Stan for Jack, but the third was just Stan talking and he happened to get recorded by a reporter. How Stan communicated his story ideas to Jack changed over time, as he gave Jack more and more latitude. We have this backed up by John Romita Sr. who claimed that he shared a cab with the two of them once in which Stan 'outlined' the plot for what would become FF #30 during that short cab ride, and that was all Jack needed to work from.

So, with all that context, here's my idea. Issue #11 was a trial. Instead of Stan writing out scripts as he had done, he only did that for one of the two stories and left Jack to sort out the other one on his own. They would then compare the responses from readers and whichever story got more praise would be the approach they'd use going forward. They split up a single issue so sales and distribution would not factor in at all. Jack chose to do the quiet story about the Invisible Girl, and Stan scripted the rambunctous Impossible Man story. When he got negative feedback on it -- which, to be fair, was far from universal; some people noted that they enjoyed it -- he conceded that Jack could put out better stories more or less on his own with Stan just focusing on the dialogue. This would support why (as Roy Thomas would later recollect) Stan also had put an edict against using the Impossible Man in any story; he had taken personal offense that his character was dismissed as silly or ridiculous. The character's eventual re-appearance was only after Roy himself -- who in fact had a letter printed years earlier in which he praised both stories in FF #11 -- championed the character.

I have zero evidence to support this theory. It is entirely me just trying to guess a reason why FF #11 is such an odd duck in the early days of the FF. Jack and Stan don't do another split-issue story at all in that title. In fact, a couple issues later, they start expanding into a more decidedly serial form with one issue leading directly to the next and, a year after that, expanding further into multi-issue stories. Why is #11 this weird exception? Why was there an active moritorium on the Impossible Man character and not, for example, the Infant Terrible? I'm just spitballing based on what little information we do have about their creative process back then. But if somebody's got other ideas, I would be absolutely fascinated to hear them!
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