What If Wednesday #11: What If the Fantastic Four Were the Original Marvel Bullpen?
On Wednesdays, The Amazing Justin Palm! gets drunk as shit and reviews an issue of Marvel Comics’ “What If?” so that you, the reader, can enjoy his drunken ramblings about a comic book whose sole purpose is to talk about shit that never happened, so it doesn’t matter at all. Dear Internet: You’re welcome.
Okay, so the last time I did one of these, my grandmother died, so, uh, let's hope that was just a coincidence and not the start of a trend. Right?
Alright, cats and kittens, I hope you're all ready, cuz this shit is about to get META. Okay, so in the Marvel Comics Universe, there exists a fictional Marvel Comics company. It's been there since, like, Fantastic Four #10. And this fictional version of the company prints the comic book adventures of the Fantastic Four and Avengers and the like, only slightly different from how they're printed in the real world, because these are now the licensed adventures of the superheroes, that the fictional Marvel Comics has been licensed to print. Confused yet? It gets better! Because due to a combination of Stan "The Man" Lee and Jack "King" Kirby being able to laugh at themselves, and Marvel's (real life) sliding timeline- which says that all of the Marvel Comics stories since 1961's Fantastic Four #1 basically have happened in the past 15 years in the Marvel Universe- basically, Stan and Jack and everyone else exist in the Marvel Universe as fictional characters. So, basically Stan Lee is still 40-something in the Marvel Universe. Basically.
Okay. I know that's a lot to wrap your head around; after all, it is clearly insane. (And slightly awesome? Maybe? I'm not really certain, honestly.) So anyway, this is a comic written and drawn by (the real life) Jack Kirby in 1978 about the (fictional versions of the) original Marvel Bullpen in 1961 becoming the Fantastic Four in (an alternate version of) the Marvel Universe. So, like, all the other stuff is the same, there's still Spider-Man, the Avengers, Dr. Doom, all that shit. But the Fantastic Four are now a bunch of comic book creators. Late 70's Kirby comics are so crazy, you guys.
So, Uatu opens the issue explaining how this quartet became the fabulous FF. Stan Lee is Mister Fantastic, Jack Kirby is a cigar chompin' Thing, and under-sung Marvel heroes Sol Brodsky and Flo Steinberg are the Human Torch and the Invisible Girl. Well, Uatu says he'll explain it, but he's a notorious manipulative liar, so really we just start in media res as the FF are fighting a cave monster while on the Isle of Dr. Murrow. Sure, why not? The cave troll monster thing beats up Jack-Thing and Fantasti-Stan, but Invisi-Flo catches him in a force field, and he promptly knocks himself out by frying his club-blaster into the force field and it knocking him out when it back fires. (I can’t believe that is a sentence I just wrote.) Flo recognizes the face of the uncouncious monster as Dr. Murrow, and while I still have no idea who that is, I accept it unconditionally. This is an "All Kirby, All the Time" comic, and the only way to survive those is to just go with the crazy, man. This shit does not wait around for you to keep up.
After yelling at his secretary for outthinking him, Fantasti-Stan realizes she's right, and that somehow one of Dr. Murrow's experiments must have turned him into this monster. Sol turns up, everyone jokes that they forgot he was there, and Sol mentions that that seems to happen a lot recently. Sweet Zombie Jesus, Kirby is getting even more meta than I thought here. Anyway, the FF check up on Murrow's lab, which, naturally, is filled to the brim with Krazy Kirby Machines ®. They mention that they're looking for a box of some kind. They dig around for a bit, and Flo (as the only competent member of the team) finds the box, which apparently emits COSMIC RAYS (you can see where this is going, right?). Cosmic Rays can penetrate anything (giggle) so Sol heat blasts it until it melts, so that the group isn't penetrated by them (giggle again).
Apparently the "'S' People" hid the box in Murrow's lab, and it turned him into a monster. And these "'S' People" also had a hand in turning the Marvel staff into super heroes. We flash back to that fateful day in 1961, when Jack and Stan were discussing a group of science fiction fans who want to test their wacky experiment at the Marvel Offices. Sure, why not? Sol and Flo walk in, with a surprise package sent by a fan. Jack and Sol wonder if they're cigars. Jack Kirby loved his cigars, apparently. When opened, the box contains a strange device that begins emitting a strange radiation (they’re Cosmic Rays, you guys!) bathing Stan's office and all inside. Naturally, Jack smashes it with his shoe.
In a move that surprises no one who read this issue's title, the weird box granted all four of them the powers of the comic book Fantastic Four. A couple of pages of everyone freaking out about their new powers ensue. Anyway, the box had a note on it, saying that "the 'S' People" were responsible, so now our new FF are on a quest to find them. Then we get a weird page about the Bullpen FF continuing to make comics of the comic book FF, as a reflection of themselves or something (like I said, there's some serious metafiction in this comic). No one knows that the "Original Bullpen" are also the Fantastic Four, and no one knows why a replica Baxter Building is sitting in the heart of New York City, but, you know, whatever.
Anyway, the FF get back from another off-camera adventure, and they've learned that the "S" People are space aliens of some sort. Kirby-Thing turns himself back into Jack Kirby, and the group runs some tests in their secret lab in the fake Baxter Building. Only, all of this is in the past, I guess, because we cut back to right after the whole “Dr. Murrow’s Lab” scene. Meta and time jumping in this one, kids.
Back in the present(?), the FF are heading towards Atlantis, because apparently the "S" People are coming after Namor? Or something? Whatever. Namor's not a fan, so he blasts the FF's submarine with a sonic blast that makes them easy pickin’s. With the four of them captured, Namor begins his interrogation. A cosmic ray box was left in Namor's bedroom, and he assumes it's the fault of, and I'm quoting Namor here directly, "Smilin' Stan Lee". I have no idea why, but reading Namor say that outloud is hilarious to me. The group tries to explain to Namor that Stan didn't invent the box at all, and that they came to Atlantis to warn him about the devices, but then shit just explodes for, like, no reason*, and Namor is more pissed off than ever.
Everyone fights for a while. Flo tries to be mature and break up the boy's fighting shenanigans, but it's like 4 guys to 1 girl, and they're not about to listen to reason. Eventually, Stan the Man convinces Namor that they hate the Cosmic Ray boxes more than anyone, because the boxes gave them their (awesome) powers. They reveal that they (somehow) know the boxes were left here by alien invaders, which is handy, because Namor just happens to have an Extra-Terrestrial Monitor. No, really. Dude just has one lying around in his garage. Namor has some pimp-ass shit, you guys.
His Extra-Terrestrial Monitor is some sort of Wheel of Fortune death ray thing, which is great, except that an extra-terrestrial is in The Very Room They're In, disguised as one of them, because the extra-terrestrial is a God Damn Skrull. Fuckin' Skrulls man, they just do not know how to quit. Too bad this alien knocks everyone out before he reveals himself to be a dirty, no good, shape changing Skrull. So the "S" People? Skrulls. Every last one of them. They’re such smug bastards that they basically gave themselves away in passive-aggressive little notes for, like, no reason.
So, I guess the Skrulls have been giving people super powers for.... some nefarious purpose? Except Namor was just playing possum, he wasn't really knocked out, so he knows the truth now, the bad guys are Fucking Skrulls. And then he joins the FF for a Skrull Beat-down. The FF and Namor team up, catch the fleeing Skrull, and blow him straight to hell. Frankly, it's a bit anti-climatic. And that explosion somehow blows up the super-secret Skrull under water base. So... Stan Lee and crew got powers from Skrulls, but can't change back, and they're sad. But... you know... whatever.
No, really, that's how this ends. Those last two paragraphs exhaustively explain the final three pages of the comic. Fucking Skrulls. Those dudes fuck everything up.
Umm. Huh. Well, that's the end, I guess. That was a weird comic. Internal referencing aside, that was... huh. You know, I read on 4thletter how this issue doesn't really deliver, because once you get past the initial concept, this is essentially just a basic Fantastic Four story and really not much more. And yeah, I kind of agree. It's a weird concept, and it starts kind of great, but it doesn't really seem to go anywhere beyond "hey, let's do the Fantastic Four, but starring our friends!" Which is fine, I guess, but not much more than that. It's mindless fun, and I have nothing against metafiction. But once you get past the cover, it is exactly what you've already read, and it doesn't go beyond that. Which... I don't know. I guess I was just hoping for more.
Next time on What If Wednesday! Marvel's perpetual sidekick takes center stage! Because next time we're asked the question: What If Rick Jones Had Become The Hulk?!
*= Or, maybe, like, Jack-Thing breaks his bounds and punches Namor in the face? Frankly, the panel is not entirely clear. But the Old Fashioned in my hand is telling me shit is just exploding for the sake of 'splodin', so I'm going with that.