Hey, this blog is back! We had some technical difficulties for a while there, which have hopefully been worked out by now. To celebrate the return of Fantastic Friday, we’re going back to 1982 for Fred Hembeck and The Fantastic Four Roast!
The Fantastic Four Roast is the brainchild of Marvel’s then-EIC Jim Shooter and fan cartoonist Fred Hembeck. Fred Hembeck rose to fame by self-publishing his own superhero parody comics, which became so popular Marvel went ahead and hired him to draw his parodies for them. Hembeck remains beloved to comic fans to this day, evidenced by a recently-published Fred Hembeck Omnibus hardcover. So when he shows up as “host” of the roast, ‘80s readers knew what they were in for.
On the comic’s inside front cover, Hembeck introduces readers to the concept of a roast, a half-party, half-standup comedy show, where a celebrity guest of honor receives playful jibes from his fellow celebrity friends. Yes, Hembeck references the classic-and-possibly-dated Dean Martin roasts that were this comic’s inspiration.
The story begins, and rather than full-on parody from the start, we’re squarely in the Marvel Universe continuity of 1982, with FF in the Baxter Building and in their uniforms/hairstyles at that time. Reed, Sue, Ben and Johnny are getting ready for a party, which they believe will be a “Fantastic Four Toast.” Ben and Johnny start bickering, leading to a classic excuse-for-the-characters-to-use-their-powers-for-a-few-pages intro. As this happens, a mysterious figure watches our heroes from the shadows, plotting their doom.
Cut to the Plaza Hotel, where J. Jonah Jameson is now a TV newsman, introducing the night’s festivities, where the Avengers, the Defenders, the X-Men, the Inhumans, and even the Legion of Monsters show up to pay tribute to the Fantastic Four. The FF enter the hotel to learn that this is a roast, not a toast. All the Marvel heroes are sitting around dinner tables inside. Fred Hembeck himself plays MC, and the FF take the seats of honor.
We get the first round of superheroes doing standup, which is what this comic is known for. First up is Spider-Man, who drops down from the and ceiling exchanges banter with Johnny. He’s replaced by Sandman, who introduces the fact that all the villains are present as well as the heroes. Sandman jokes about his time with the Frightful Four, pointing out that Medusa left their team, only for Medusa to drag him off the stage with her super-hair.
Then we get back to the plot. As everyone is served the first of their four-course meal, the mystery villain places an object in a bowl of soup. Johnny gets the bowl and finds a tiny bomb in it. With Reed’s suggestion, Johnny flames on and harmlessly burns up the bomb inside his mouth.
Then more standup as Captain America and Reed remind everyone that they’re both World War II vets, despite not having aged all that much. Next is Iron Man, who flirts with Sue, and then Namor the Sub-Mariner, who REALLY flirts with Sue. Then what might be the best bit in the comic, the Hulk takes the stage and tells some pathetic “puny human” jokes, threatening to smash everyone if they don’t laugh.
The salad course is served, so it’s time to catch up with the plot. The mystery villain has placed a “hypno-disc” inside Sue’s salad, and uses it to mesmerize her. She renders the disc harmless by turning it invisible. Then Ben snatches her salad from her and eats it, disc and all.
More standup acts. Power Man and Iron Fist argue with each other rather than crack wise. Sixteen Avengers take the stage for a humorous retelling of the FF’s origins. Thor is next, making Ben the butt of a bunch of bald jokes. After that is the Watcher and the Silver Surfer, who riff about alternate reality versions of the FF, only for the Watcher to nauseous after the Surfer flies circles around him. Daredevil shows up, complete with shadowy Frank Miller-like art, to talk about how much insurance companies hate the FF. The X-Men flat-out attack the FF, only to claim they’re being mind-controlled by Magneto (who doesn’t have mind control powers). Dr. Strange is next, and his speech is so boring and long-winded that Eternity itself shows up to drag him off the stage.
Time for the main course, Cornish game hens. Except the mystery villain has snuck a tiny machine gun into Reed’s hen. His elasticity absorbs the tiny bullets, and he spits them out like watermelon seeds. Ghost Rider enters, using his hellfire to roast not the FF, but their dinners. Black Bolt, with Medusa’s help, says he can sense someone is trying to destroy the FF. Several of the heroes pledge to help if needed.
Dessert is served, and Ben’s ice cream grows into a giant ice cream monster. His punches pass right through the monster, so Reed hands Ben a spoon. With an “It’s slobberin’ time!” Ben eats the entire monster. He then deduces that only Dr. Doom could be behind the attacks. Doom shows up in person, exclaiming “Wrong, camel breath!” Doom explains that he might have been a fun guy if he’d never meet Reed Richards.
Reed then sees a mysterious figure throw a switch backstage, and there’s a two-page spread of all the heroes leaping into action. (This is actually a collage of promotional images of the Marvel characters, but whatever.) The mystery villain is… Willie Lumpkin, the FF’s mailman. He explains that he found an undelivered package with the FF’s address in the post office basement. He tripped and accidentally opened it, revealing a device called the Brain-Skull. It turned Willie into a genius, but also evil. Reed says this was a backup invention of his to fall back on in case the FF’s origin spaceflight didn’t pan out. Reed safely dismantles the Brain-Skull and says the real enemy here is the U.S. Postal Service.
We follow this up with quick one-panel-each rapid fire jokes from Wyatt Wingfoot, Agatha Harkness, Crystal, Quicksilver, Moon Knight, She-Hulk, Spider-Woman, Ant-Man, Howard the Duck, Man-Thing, Thundra, Tigra, Dazzler, Brother Voodoo, Impossible Man, the original Guardians of the Galaxy, and, strangest of all, Spider-Man’s Aunt May with the cosmic power of Captain Universe.
Then comes the time in the evening where the guest of honor gets to turn the tables and roast the roasters. Johnny threatens to give everyone a hotfoot and Reed says he doesn’t mind the jokes because he’s… willing to be flexible. Sue announces that after this night, she should have her own battle cry like “Flame on” or “It’s clobberin’ time,” so she turns invisible with a cry of “Fade out!” Ben gets the final word with a bunch of puns ending with “Things for the memories.”
Out in the audience, Black Bolt loses it and laughs out loud upon hearing “Things for the memories.” His earth-shattering voice destroys the entire room. Amid the rubble, the heroes all leave while Hembeck keeps making jokes. Ben gets the final word again, saying “At least the food was good.”
The inside back cover features Hembeck sharing some of his favorite funny FF moments, and dedicating the issue to FF creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.
Unstable molecule: Reed says his rubbery powers are what keeps him young-looking, despite he and Captain America being two of the oldest superheroes.
Fade out: Yes, this is where I get the “Fade out” quote from Sue for this blog. It never took off as a catch phrase for her, though. Maybe someday.
Clobberin’ time: Upon arriving at the Plaza Hotel, Ben gives a lousy tip to a taxi driver, which was a running gag in the FF’s regular comic, again making this parody feel like we’re still in the Marvel Universe.
Flame on: This is the only time I know of that Johnny burns something inside his mouth. The great fan question of whether he breathe fire like a dragon continues to go unanswered.
Fantastic fifth wheel: The comic is quick to point out that Crystal, Medusa, Power Man, and even Tigra and Impossible Man were all former members of the FF. Frankie Raye is also mentioned at one point, and she appears on the cover.
Four and a half: Franklin doesn’t attend the roast because he’s at home with a cold, where Alicia is babysitting. He says he’d rather watch the Three Stooges than his parents on TV.
Commercial break: This wacky parody comic got the deluxe treatment — 30 pages with no ads!
Trivia time: Is this canon or isn’t it? The Marvel Wiki states that Fantastic Four Roast takes place in an alternate universe dubbed the “Hembeck-verse,” where all Marvel characters are aware they are comic book characters and can break the fourth wall. The wiki states that The Fantastic Four Roast is the only appearance of the Hembeck-verse. But then you click on the entries for Fred Hembeck Destroys the Marvel Universe and Fred Hembeck Sells the Marvel Universe, and those also list the Hembeck-verse as a location. The wiki editors need to sort out this complex Hembeck continuity, it seems.
Trivia time: The Fantastic Four Roast is a must-read for FF fans. The actual jokes might be embarrassingly bad, but what makes it work is how everyone is written in character. The creators sat down and worked out how each Marvel hero would actually do standup comedy. Also, there’s an actual plot with actual life-or-death stakes, something often skipped in superhero parodies. It’s silly and stupid, but also an important piece of Marvel history if there ever was one.
Next: Galactic town.
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