I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the pleasures and perils of comic book metafiction. Why some of it works for me and why some of it falls flat. After picking on Bendis for the ending of New Avengers #7, I concluded that I like my metafiction and my adventure stories the same way I like my steak and my mashed potatoes: segregated, on separate ends of the plate, preferably with a sturdy wall of green beans between them.
Naturally, there are exceptions, and I glanced at some of them in my rant about the Purple Man at the end of last week’s Spoilers Abound. What I concluded there was that the metafictionalizing of an otherwise unselfconscious title or character (the sudden appearance of a comic book creator as “god” in the story itself, say, or She-Hulk literally smashing through the fourth wall to address us directly) was only welcome when the story in question could implicitly be separated, meat and potatoes-like, from the superhero series or universe to which it ostensibly belonged. This was only possible, I speculated, if the reader was sufficiently forewarned, either by other elements either within the story or by the identity of the writer/artist himself. (Grant Morrison can always be counted on to do something weird, for instance, and John Byrne announces his project on the cover of She-Hulk #1: caveat lector.) In other words, the enjoyment of superhero metafiction, for me at least, seemed dependant on the management of readerly expectations. If its appearance is too much of a non sequitur, the breaking of the illusion is no longer interesting; it’s just cheap.
So how to account for Fantastic Four #176, “Improbable as it May Seem--the Impossible Man is Back in Town”? This issue by the team of Roy Thomas, George Perez, and Joe Sinnott, is a stellar example of successful comic book metafiction; it is yet another illustration of why Marvel of the late 1970s could truly brag of being “The House of Ideas”; and it is confirmation that Fantastic Four really was, at times, “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine.” It also seems to stomp on every one of my over-precious aesthetic sensibilities concerning the strict division of metafiction and straightforward superhero adventure books. What gives?
The story, in brief, is that the FF are returning to earth from a cosmos-spanning adventure, with the shapeshifting, egg-headed Impossible Man in tow. Having saved the world from Galactus, they crash their spaceship in Central Park and make their way to the Baxter Building, on foot, by cab, and eventually by green and purple triple-decked surfboard. Impeding this parochial quest is the Impossible Man himself, who wanders into the Marvel Comics offices, confronts Stan Lee, and demands his own Marvel Comics series. Stan’s dismissive response (he’s still smarting over negative fan reaction to the Impossible Man’s “silly” first appearance in FF #11) precipitates bullpen chaos as Impy Imps-out, attacking the assembled Marvel staffers (including current writer/artist team, Roy Thomas and George Perez, as well as a visiting Jack Kirby, on loan from DC). In a winning parody of comic book slugfests, the staff dive for cover as the Impossible Man apes the abilities and weapons of various Marvel superheroes, blowing the Marvel offices to smithereens with Poppupian versions of Cap’s shield, Iron Man’s repulsor ray, Cyclops’s optic blasts, and Thor’s hammer, among others. As the office is getting trashed, the FF show up and Reed resolves the battle by strong-arming a promise out of Stan to feature the annoying Poppupian in one special issue of the FF comic book--presumably the very comic we readers now hold in our hands.
At one level, this story is a simple wish-fulfillment for Thomas and Perez. As Perez confesses in an interview in Wizard #165, this was his favorite issue from his run on the FF: “The fun part was drawing myself and [writer] Roy Thomas--boy, did I look good in those days!--and having my comic book self talking to Jack Kirby whom I had never met and wouldn’t meet for the first time until 1985.” Of course, this thrill of being inscribed into the four color world of the comic book page is the central theme of the issue: this is exactly what the Impossible Man wants too. In this way Thomas crafts a story that is at least partly about the desires and satisfactions of comic book creators. The story is both an extended in-joke and a fun reversal: the comic book’s creators (new and old) not only get to write themselves into the universe they created and interact with their characters, Lee himself gets to save the world (albeit reluctantly!) from the “silly” but potentially devastating threat of the Impossible Man. No wonder Perez cited this issue as his favorite or that Thomas wrote in his wonderful letter-column Afterword: “Every once in a while, a story comes along that, like it or don’t, you just feel you want to do--no, have to do. Once conceived, this issue of The Fantastic Four was one of those stories for me.” At this level, the Impossible Man is Perez and Thomas, gleefully seeking admittance to world they bring to life every month at the tips of their pens.
If this were all there was to it, the story would be a pleasant, slightly self-indulgent trifle. What makes this issue a classic is that, ultimately, Thomas and Perez’s fondness for this story is not rooted in the vanity such a wish-fulfillment might imply (in fact, they are mercilessly self mocking throughout the tale). As both Thomas and Perez suggest, and as central as Stan Lee might be to the resolution of the plot, the story, at its core, is a love letter to Jack Kirby--and to the comic book medium itself. It is, in other words, a story that is at once an exploration of the unique creative process that underlies the art of comics and a brilliant metafictional analysis of the language of that art form--an analysis, one might add, that anticipated Scott McCloud’s own seminal study by a number of years.
At the centre of this comic book analysis of comic book form is the weird, anarchic figure of the Impossible Man.
From the moment Impy inflates himself into a balloon and floats into the Marvel Comics offices, it’s clear that this shape-changing alien has begun to symbolize the very conventions of comic book storytelling through which he is represented. The panel in which Perez juxtaposes Impy’s floating balloon-head with a word balloon announcing the address of “the best comic-books in the world” and a thought balloon in which Impy thinks simply, “comic-books,” provides a taste of how this issue blurs the distinction between conventional signs (word balloons, which our reading habits “erase” from the visual plane) and concrete signs (the images we interpret as literally “there”). This panel invites us, in short, to read the Impossible Man as a protean embodiment of the invisible language of comic books.
This is confirmed--spectacularly, and in several ways--by the fight scene itself. Here, Impy’s malleability makes him a kind of degree zero of character construction as he assumes the distinguishing features of both male and female Marvel heroes (Black Bolt’s crepe-paper gliders, the Wasp’s wings, Namor’s ankle feathers). Because these transformations are literally taking place within Marvel’s offices, the impression one gets is not that he is imitating, but rather that he is generating the raw material of Marvel’s super-powered characters. Moreover, Impy is also “bigger” than any of the characters he generates, since he never completely becomes them, but simply sprouts wings or a hand in the shape of mjolnir. And he always, of course, remains purple and green, whatever new form he takes. The Impossible Man’s multiplicity in this regard hints at the mixed or hybrid nature of the comic book medium itself. As a medium that appears at the intersection of word and image (an intersection suggested by the word balloon device itself, an “image” that is all about words) the comic book, like Impy, is a protean, hybrid creature--hybrid not only in its form (words and pictures) but in the collaborative nature of its production (writer, penciler, inker, colorist, letterer, editor, cover artist, etc.).
Indeed, it would not be impossible to regard Impy as a emblem of both the visual and the verbal aspects of comic book narrative itself. For not only does his potential to infinitely assume new shapes make him a master-signifier of visual art; his infinite capacity for boredom and his consequent appetite for conflict also make him emblematic of narrative itself. In the opening scenes of the issue, the Impossible Man yawns and complains that he’s “already bored” as the High Evolutionary’s spacecraft hurtles earthward, threatening, as the Thing puts it, to splatter the FF “from the zoo to Morningside Heights!” Only when the ship actually crash lands in the lake in the middle of Central Park is Impy momentarily reassured that things aren’t going to be “as boring as [he] feared.” His literal desire as well as his narrative purpose in this tale is to avoid boredom by complicating the plot. A task at which he is doubly successful: his destruction of the Marvel studio is the climax of the action in the comic book we read (the conflict that makes the narrative “fun”), and its metafictional significance is underlined by the fact that the fight is the consequence of his desire to be represented in an exciting narrative form--the comic book! Thus, between his powers and his temperament, the Impossible Man embodies the hybrid union of pictures and narrative that Scott McCloud fittingly dubs, “sequential art.” Impy is comics.
This is evident in other ways as well--perhaps most importantly in the way that Impy’s control over his own bodily transformations suggests that he is not simply the raw material from which anything can be made, but is also the shaper of that very material. In short, Impy is both sides of the creative process represented within a single being: he is maker and matter, will and imagination, artist and clay, all at once.
The artist/clay metaphor is, I think, a particularly appropriate description of creation and creativity within a medium like superhero comics that relies heavily on genre conventions and in which stories are not created ex nihilo, but are part of a dialogic process between a “creator” at any given moment in time and the “clay” (the rules of the superhero genre, the accretion of stories and images of the characters he or she is working with, etc.).
Fantastic Four #176 represents this dialogue between artist and clay, present and past, through an encounter between the FF’s current creative team (Roy and George) and its original creative team (Stan and Jack), all of whom are hanging out in the Marvel bullpen. As if to underline the creative dependency of the present upon the past, Thomas exploits the clever conceit (established in FF #10-11) whereby the Marvel Comics produced “within” the Marvel universe are a sort of non-fictional, semi-journalistic infotainment. This fictionalized “Marvel Comics” produces an “authorized F.F. Comic Mag” that details the FF’s “real” adventures, so when the team goes off on an interstellar trek, the boys in the bullpen are left in the lurch. As “George” outlines the dilemma to “Stan”: “We’ve been trying to reach the Fantastic Four all week! Their answering service says they’re out of town.” Only Jack Kirby is accorded the role of genuine creator, for of the writers and artists present, only “Jack” makes the audacious suggestion that the current “creative” team “just make up some stories about the F.F.” “What? Make up stories--?” Roy gasps. “--instead of just drawing what really happened?” an astonished George finishes his sentence. (A lovely detail, since as artist, George literally does “finish Roy’s sentences”!) Stan (in what I take to be a wry nod to his role in creating a “realistic” superhero universe; heroes with real problems, etc.) rejects the route of complete invention, saying, “Nice try, Jack... But it just isn’t done.... No, we’d better come up with a more realistic plan before it’s too--” And at this precise moment, Impy, the madcap embodiment of the medium’s creative energy, pops in and says admiringly of the comic book covers on display: “My, my! How very imaginative!”
Ultimately, Roy and George are inspired by and keen to take up Kirby’s challenge to imagine, and it’s obvious that we are to understand this exchange as a tribute to Kirby’s visionary creative genius. (Impy is the spirit of Kirby made flesh here in all his joyful, green and purple glory.) The conceit of writing an “authorized” tabloid version of the “real” FF’s exploits thus becomes, in Thomas’s script, the basis for a profound compliment to Kirby in which Thomas humbly suggests that a comparison of his and Perez’s own creative efforts with those of the “King” can only be understood in terms of the difference between fiction and non-fiction, creativity and imitation. Over the course of this scene, however, imitation (of the “real” FF) is transformed into inspiration (by Kirby), and the creative relation between present and past, artist and clay, is thus also brought squarely into view.
Kirby becomes, in Thomas’s appreciation, the exception that proves the rule of Marvel superhero comic book artistry: that creativity is always already intertextual and dialogic. Kirby himself becomes the paradoxically original “ground” upon which this truism of non-original creativity is staked, and Impy comes to signify the collaborative spirit of this marvelous new alchemy. What is the Impossible Man? A better question might be, who? On Kirby’s magnificent cover at least, he is a peculiar kind of self-portrait. Stepping nimbly over a table strewn with pages of comic book art, the hybrid Impossible Man dominates the scene with the ever-changing organic powers that, like Kirby’s, are literally at the tips of his fingers. The Impossible Man is, at this level, the “King” of Marvel Comics. As the nick-name “Impy” implies, however, he is also an “imp,” a mischievous, Puckish genius loci that extends beyond Kirby to “inspire” (en-spirit) the entire place, keeping the new generation of artists and writers in permanent touch with both the accretions of history (all the issues of the FF that precede theirs) and with the protean spirit of creative energy itself.
By the happiest of accidents, the complex hybrid creativity of comic book storytelling that the Impossible Man and the scenes in the Marvel bullpen represent is inherent in the creative genesis of this very story. As Thomas recounts in the special edition of the FF letter column, then called “Baxter Building Bulletins,” Kirby’s role in the issue far exceeded the simple job of cover artist:
[Production Manager] John Verpoorten and [John] Romita informed me that if I wanted Jack “King” Kirby to pencil the cover for F.F. #176, I’d better give him a coast-to-coast phone-call right away and describe the cover scene to him.Given the nature of Marvel scripting (which typically happened after the finished art had been produced), it’s safe to say that Kirby’s influence on this landmark issue was on more than just the art choices Perez would make in the second half of the story. It no doubt provided an added layer to Thomas’s script as he was forced to reckon with the catalyzing force of Kirby’s creative input. (Was Kirby even in the original plot? I wonder.) Most importantly, Kirby’s idea of “using Marvel-type gimmicks” suggests that he saw something even more profound than Thomas had about the relationship between the Impossible Man and the comic book form--something that Thomas and Perez’s final product ultimately captures and something I have been trying to articulate here under the rubric of “metafiction.” That it should flow from the conjunction of past and present, from a genealogy whose components are still in vital contact, is one of those extraordinary instances of planetary alignment that happen only once in a lifetime.
And did I ever want Jack to do it! After all, he and Smilin’ Stan Lee created the character, a decade and a half ago in one-and-one-only story which, while it did not lead to fabulous sales or such-like, had become a cultish favorite among certain F.F. lovers (myself included, but definitely, since the night in late 1962 I first laid eyes on F.F. #11).
So I called Jack. Yes, he said, he vaguely remembered the Impossible Man. The thin green guy with the pinhead, right? I said right. And here’s the important part: I asked Jack to have Impy, on the cover, using some of the gimmicks George and I had planned for the interior, such as hosing the Human Torch and hammering the Thing....
A few days later, I got this strange penciled cover in the mail which was just what I’d asked, except that Impy was blasting the F.F. with hands shaped like Iron-Man’s glove and Thor’s magic hammer! And there was even a note suggesting he could have shaped a fist like Captain America’s shield! Immediately I saw Jack’s reasoning: this was the Marvel Comics office, right? So why not have him using Marvel-type gimmicks?
Ten minutes later I was on the phone describing the cover to George, and we instantly decided (since George was just beginning to draw the first half of the book) to utilize Jack’s ideas.
My reading of this phenomenal metafictional issue has been moving outwards from the centre, into increasing degrees of abstraction. I’d like to take it one further degree: from the hybrid nature of comic book form, to the hybrid nature of comic book storytelling and creativity, to the hybrid, paradoxical nature of art as such. As always, the Impossible Man is glue that holds it all together.
As I noted above, the battle in the bullpen concludes when Mr. Fantastic persuades Stan to give the Impossible Man a special issue (the very issue we are reading), thus having the esteemed EIC save the day, a conclusion which acknowledges his power as a creator--a power that is equal and complementary to Jack’s. This complementarity is hinted at again in the epilogue to the bullpen story where Stan revokes his promise to placate the Impossible Man on the grounds that “Marvel Comics hasn’t time to waste on silly-looking characters.” Meanwhile, a poster of Howard the Duck smiles on the wall behind him! Serious Stan’s refusal of “silly” things like the Impossible Man is obviously ironized by the image of Howard, and of course, even more fully by the very “silly” issue we hold in our hands. Moreover, this silliness that Stan pretends to repudiate in the name of “realism” is none other than the “silliness” of raw creativity itself, represented earlier by Jack’s wild idea that the current writer just “make up some stories.” What this suggests to me, at least, is that the opposition between the “Stan” and “Jack” in this issue is really not an opposition but a dialectic: the dialectic of art, and specifically of the Marvel comic book, in which of which the thesis of realism and the antithesis of silliness meet in the impossible synthesis of the Impossible Man himself.
Like the Impossible Man, comic books (and especially Marvel superhero comic books of the 1970s) were inescapably realistic and silly all at once. Their “silliness” in fact seemed realistic, because it was naturalized through conventions. (To my mother, adults with powers running around in capes and tights was “silly”; to me, it made perfect sense.) As an embodiment of the comic book medium and a synthesis of its creative processes, the Impossible Man is true to his name. For the implied paradox of possible impossibility--of something that must be impossible, and yet manifestly is--is the paradox of all art and all representation: that strange absent presence that transports us elsewhere, without ever, for a moment, being “real.”
To return, very briefly, to my original question as to why this metafictional issue of the FF is so genuinely fantastic despite its violation of my personal (and no doubt idiosyncratic) rule against interrupting a serious superhero saga with a garish burst of self-consciousness, one could propose various answers: Its metafictional plot is not only contained within a single issue, it is also totally superfluous to the book’s ongoing storyline. It is, for all intents and purposes, an imaginary story. (A smaller version of Bryne’s She-Hulk or David Mack’s Daredevil: Echo). It may take place within the numeration of the regular FF comic, and we may understand it to literally have happened, but we are not required to integrate it into the overarching narrative of the FF comic book. Its metafictionality is also tempered by “realism” within the context of the Marvel universe’s “real world” focus and within the specifically New York flavor of the FF comic. Moreover, it had been established long before that Stan Lee and the Marvel bullpen were already part of the Marvel Universe. Besides, Lee’s face was well-known to readers of the Bullpen Bulletins page that appeared in the monthly comics (where he was drawn in semi-realist caricature), as was his persona, which receives an amusing satirical treatment here.
Ultimately, however, The Impossible Man is a metafictional treat because Thomas and Perez give his rampage through the bullpen in FF #176 real emotional depth and genuine explanatory weight. This brilliant “off-beat” issue is not just a clever bit of self-reference, not a “gimmick,” not even simply a tribute to a legendary creative mentor. It is a subtle object lesson on the sequential art of comic books, and school has never been this much fun.