Stan Lee and Jack Kirby...imaginary? Well, larger than life, certainly, but as this response to an early letter to the Fantastic Four comic (printed in ish #4, to be precise), Lee and Kirby definitely existed...and weren't above poking fun at themselves from day one, cementing Marvel's reputation as hipper and more with-it than the Distinguished Competition. Stan's shameless and friendly hucksterism became a trademark of Mighty Marvel, but in this fan letter Jim Moony hits on a topic that shaped one aspect of the Marvel Universe...that, as we've been exploring over the past few posts at Comics Oughta Be Fun! (here, here, and here, to be precise), inside the Marvel Universe there is also another Marvel Comics, which creates and publishes the true adventures of our favorite superheroes. We've seen the Impossible Man, the X-Men, and Ultimate Spider-Man crash through the walls of their earth's Marvel office. But where did this ultra-meta concept begin?
As early...woudja believe it...as the second issue of the Marvel Age, Fantastic Four #2, which also introduced the shape-shifting alien Skrulls. Skrulls, in addition to being very easily hyp-mo-tized into turning into cows ("Moo!"), apparently have pretty bad vision, which means taking one to see Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D would be just wasted money, and that Reed Richards can fool them into believing that panels clipped from Marvel's pre-superhero monster issues of Tales to Astonish and Journey Into Mystery are actually photographs of Earth's mightiest warriors. There you have it: Marvel Comics existing in the newly-hatched Marvel Universe. Even more meta, the Marvel Monsters later became part of the Marvel Universe themselves, which means early Marvel Comics were printing comics about real life monsters. That Stan was one cool cat.
By Fantastic Four #4, the reintroduction of Timely Comics's superheroic Sub-Mariner into the Marvel Universe, Stan 'n' Jack are showing old that old Timely Golden Age comics exist in the Marvel Universe. Nice to know Bowery flophouses have great reading material lyin' around!:
And in the next ish (#5), modern Marvel Comics are shown to exist in the Marvel Universe when Johnny's spotted reading issue #1 of The Incredible Hulk:
Dig the lovely subtlety in Kirby's panel when Johnny mocks Ben by comparing him, not to a summer's day, but to Doc Bruce Banner, pelted by gamma rays. I love Johnny's peeking-over expression, and the Thing's big mitts wrapped around a tiny delicate teacup:
Weep, oh ye fanboys and collectors, when Johnny then doesn't bag and board his Hulk #1, but flames on...burning up $32,000 in the snap of his fingers. Johnny, no!
Marvel Comics were therefore well-established as existing inside the Marvel Universe fairly early on, but it wasn't until FF #10 that their creators actually appeared on the same stage as the stars of the magazine. Right up front on the cover, in fact, a Lilliputian Lee and a Junior Jack herald their arrival on Earth-616:
Welcome to the Marvel Universe offices of Lee and Kirby, where creativity reins! Um, well, maybe not. The brilliant and bombastic mind of King Jack is reduced to creating a lame supervillain with a droopy mustache. Geez, Stan, give Jack a break! The guy created Granny Goodness, for geez sake...oh wait, point taken.
The next panel: one of the greatest captions in the history of the Fantastic Four:
But, I call no way to these next panels, with Jack shrinking away from Doctor Doom. The Jack I know woulda tackled old Doomsie head-on, going at him gung-ho and all-guns-blazing, and then he probably would have been incinerated for his trouble. Hmmm, come to think of it, the world is better off for Jack Kirby not trying to tackle Doctor Doom.
Doom threatens Stan and Jack into betraying the Fantastic Four by destroying the one thing Jack loves more than life itself: the ability to smoke cigars. But more important, in these next panels the concept is first set up that the creators of the FF comic book regularly meet with the FF themselves to transcribe their adventures into comic book form, a process that is still going on today: Earth-616 Mark Millar probably meets with Ben Grimm every week down at the Ear Inn to shoot the breeze and take notes. Make sure you pick up the tab, Mister Millar!
History tends to forget that in his first published appearance, Stan Lee betrays the Fantastic Four to their most villainous archenemy:
is it any wonder, therefore, that a few years later in Fantastic Four Annual #3, Stan 'n' Jack are persona non grata at the wedding of Reed and Sue? Reed may be a good guy, but he don't forget being knifed in the back, Lee and Kirby!:
Years later, the same scene is enacted, minus the late great Jack, in the Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer movie, but Stan still ain't gettin' in. Reed Richards: brilliant inventor, and man who holds a grudge a long time:
Years later, in his "Back to the Basics" run of Fantastic Four, John Byrne paid homage to the idea of the FF's comic book writer and artist getting involved in the FF's adventures when he meets the Watcher in issue #262...
...and taken off-world (well, what better place for John Byrne...but I kids the John Byrne) to take part in the Trial of Reed Richards:
There's plenty of other examples of the meta-references of Marvel Comics inside the Marvel Universe, of course, most notably the fifth-week event miniseries of "Marvels Comics" which allowed us to look at what those Earth-616 comics really look like. I'm sure there will be more in the future. Your mileage may vary, as the kids today seem to say on the internet, but for me, it's one of the things that makes the Marvel Universe a heckuva lotta fun: that even in a universe of aliens, monsters, heroes and gods, there's still plenty of room for a floppy four-color comic book adventure to take you away from it all.