Monday, January 16, 2017

The Ms. Marvel You May Not Remember

Before writer Steve Englehart's run on Fantastic Four went south and he found himself in disagreement over editorial decisions, he was taking the team in an interesting direction: forming a brand new lineup, replacing Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman with two other characters while moving up the Thing as team leader. One of the replacements had found herself in such a role before--Crystal, one of the Inhumans and former girlfriend of the Human Torch, who had filled in for Sue Richards during her pregnancy. But who would be the fourth new member? Rather than bring back another former team member, such as Luke Cage or the She-Hulk, Englehart made a surprising choice by drafting a virtual unknown, one who had been dormant since her brief appearance in 1986.

Around the time that Carol Danvers was off in space as Binary, a new Ms. Marvel was being introduced in the penultimate issue of The Thing. Created by writer Mike Carlin and artists Paul Neary and Sam de la Rosa, we see her come to life when Sharon Ventura--a friend of Ben Grimm, who's spending time away from the Fantastic Four and active on the Unlimited Class Wrestling Federation circuit--avails herself of the services of Curtiss Jackson (remember him?), the so-called "Power Broker," whose treatments have been augmenting the strength of the UCWF's wrestlers. Unknown to Sharon, the scientist behind these treatments is none other than Karl Malus, who, like Jonas Harrow, specializes in enhancements of super-humans (for a fee) and whose questionable methods lean more toward experimentation than proven technique.

Unlike the Broker's other subjects, Sharon undergoes the treatment but escapes before a drug is administered that would addict her chemically and bind her to Jackson. On the verge of being recaptured, Sharon is rescued by both the Thing and an army officer, Lt. Lynch, who had previously stepped in when she was being mugged. (He seems to be underfoot, doesn't he?) While Ben cleans up the opposition, Lynch and Sharon head to the UCWF hotel, where one of the UCWF's recruiters, Ann Fraley (known as "Auntie Freeze" in her wrestling days) has a costume waiting for when Sharon would return from her treatment. Presumably it's a new wrestling costume for Sharon--but given this issue's cover, it's clear that it would have more significance for the character. And when Sharon suits up, the pieces are put in place to give her an identity that will take her far beyond the wrestling ring.

With The Thing coming to an end and Ben soon returning to the FF, Ms. Marvel's story is shunted to the pages of Captain America, as Cap joins Ben's wrestler-friend, "Demolition" Dunphy, in locating the Power Broker's base and mopping up his operation. In that story, we learn that Ms. Marvel had sought out the Power Broker on her own, but was captured and fell victim to further experimentation--and more.

Cap eventually prevails, and Jackson's operation is shut down--but Ms. Marvel has been traumatized by her experience in captivity, having developed a combination of fear and rage for men as a result. Yet once Jackson's operation is dismantled, she accepts Cap's offer of transportation, and we soon find her being dropped off at the Baxter Building.

Englehart takes his time with this character's introduction to the book, with perhaps good reason. Promo ads have already alerted readers to the fact that she'll be part of the new Fantastic Four--but unlike the other three, Sharon is an unknown quantity who must be made interesting enough to do more for the reader than fill a fourth spot on the team. What do both Sharon and Ms. Marvel bring to the table in this book? And how does she merit being one of the Fantastic Four?

In the beginning, Sharon's "hook" is that she's a very troubled person, trying to work through what happened to her while in the Power Broker's clutches--an experience she elaborates on a bit more when she decides against seeing the Thing again.

Yet Sharon's fortunes change when Diablo engages in a battle with the FF on the street, and is overwhelming them with elemental creatures who are countering their powers. With the team on the verge of defeat, Sharon has the good sense to attack the problem at the source--and since Diablo has the misfortune to be a man, Ms. Marvel's attack takes him to within an inch of his life.

Once the new FF team shapes up, the time soon comes for Reed, Sue, and their son Franklin to depart--and as goodbyes are exchanged, it becomes clear that Ben's goal with Ms. Marvel is more than just filling a slot in the lineup.

As for what Ms. Marvel brings to the team, there's obviously her augmented strength--but as a former wrestler, she also brings agility and training, as well as an instinctive knowledge of tactics. Sharon is also working out how she fits in with the other team members, especially considering that she is the only stranger among them; but there's also a "comfort zone" that she prefers to maintain for the time being, combined with an issue of trust that is understandable given the difficulties she's trying to work through. Not surprisingly, she relates well to Ben, with their shared history as wrestlers as well as the fact that, to her, Ben isn't a "man" in the conventional sense. It's also interesting that everyone (including Reed and Sue) has accepted Ms. Marvel into their ranks most likely on the strength of Ben's recommendation of her, though no one really knows anything about her; otherwise, the fact that she has never been in the field, much less part of a team, would likely raise the question with her seasoned teammates of whether she's ready for this kind of role.

As things turn out, we find Ms. Marvel's time with the FF to be all too brief, at least in her current form, when the new Fantastic Four has its baptism of fire in battle with a rather forgettable villain named Fasaud. During the final confrontation, the Thing and Ms. Marvel have pursued and engaged Fasaud while flying a space shuttle to attack an orbiting satellite crucial to his plans. The two are successful in defeating him; but their ship is critically damaged and, to make matters worse, the craft is flooded by cosmic rays during their out-of-control descent. The Thing survives, now mutated by the rays into a stronger version of himself. But as for Ms. Marvel, her fragile psyche isn't strong enough to cope with her own startling transformation.

The monstrous change in her appearance proves to be too much for the nascent hero, and Sharon attempts to take her own life before Ben manages to calm her and convince her to stick it out. It takes some time to come to terms with her new state, but, in the process, Ms. Marvel grows closer to Ben, and closer to the FF--and this new team of Englehart's becomes a solid fighting group, with Ms. Marvel on board for the duration.

The problem with this lineup seems clear, but is virtually hidden in plain sight--the fact that these four individuals are no longer bringing four unique abilities to the team, now that Ms. Marvel has become a second "Thing" whose power duplicates Ben's but to a lesser extent. Englehart has compensated for that fact somewhat, with his development of Sharon and making her more at ease while putting her past behind her; in fact, to Englehart's credit, all of the FF members make for interesting reading, as they continue to chart a new course for this famous, classic team. Readers may at some point find the "She-Thing," as Ms. Marvel will one day be known, to be redundant--but thus far, Englehart has kept the group's dynamic in the forefront, and dealt everyone in nicely.

And speaking of Sharon being at ease, there's another development that makes it clear how comfortable she's grown not only with the Fantastic Four, but with someone she can now relate to on every level.

Time passes, and an accident due to exposure to a treatment for the Human Torch causes Ben to revert to his human form--while Englehart protests the return of Reed and Sue to the team by assuming the pseudonym of "John Harkness" in the book's credits. His final story would come after just six more issues, when writer/artist Walt Simonson takes the book's reins. And with the return of Doctor Doom, another change is about to occur.

Sharon has no way of knowing that Ben has decided to return to being the Thing so that she doesn't feel so alone. Nor is Doom about to interrupt his own plans to tell her.

The conflict with Doom continues when the FF arrive to rescue Sharon, and from there they become involved with the Time Variance Authority. Once that adventure is over, Sharon drops off the face of the Earth as the FF continue on. Only later, when Sharon returns to New York, does the Thing find out how she's been spending her time--as well as discovering how she truly felt about being trapped in her monstrous form.

As Ben suspects, Sharon is indeed following Doom's instructions, as part of some deeper plan he's involved with. For now, though, she decides to informally rejoin the FF and reclaim her old code name--though from the look of her new costume, it seems her wrestling days are well behind her.

However, when push finally comes to shove as Doom plays his hand, Ms. Marvel shows where her loyalties truly lie. Unfortunately, in a later scene with Ben, it's clear that her motives aren't cutting any ice with him.

Regrettably, it doesn't take long for Sharon to learn the price of her switching sides, when agents of Doom ambush her on the street and douse her with some form of gaseous compound. And when Ben discovers her, it's clear that Doom has reversed his earlier procedure on her, and then some.

Just as before, when Sharon underwent such a change in appearance, she's unable to bear the thought of living her life in such a form and reacts drastically--and again, the Thing pursues her and tries to pull her back from the brink. But this time, he won't be successful.

The Thing immediately leaves the scene, and flies off to Latveria to give Doom some serious payback for what was done to Sharon. Meanwhile, Reed discovers that Sharon has survived, and returns her to the Baxter Building to place her within a tube in suspended animation until he can devise a treatment for her condition.

The despondent state that Sharon is in, however, makes her next choice understandable (though certainly not rational), when Klaw--now a member of the Frightful Four--releases her, and her bitterness leads her to stay with her new associates and fill out their lineup. Eventually, the two teams slug it out, and Sharon--now back in her original Ms. Marvel togs--accepts the lifeline that Wyatt Wingfoot throws to her.

Sharon's appearances taper off at this point, becoming involved in the Secret Invasion storyline to a degree and eventually returning to wrestling, back in her human form.

Looking at her evolution in this book, it's Ms. Marvel's earliest appearances with the FF, before she physically transformed, that I found intriguing in terms of the character's potential as one of the FF--and there was also her semi-famous name to live up to and make her own. Acrobats such as Ms. Marvel, Captain America, the Beast, Nightcrawler, Hellcat, the Black Widow, Puck, the Black Panther, et al. always seem to pop up on teams in order to balance them out with abilities that set them apart from the more sensational powers of their teammates, and they often present a challenge as to how they can contribute. It's clear Englehart knew how to write this character in a way that would hold both potential as well as our interest, but how memorable she was as a strong character in her own right perhaps comes down to a simple question: When she transformed into her rocky state, how difficult did you find it to still think of her as "Ms. Marvel"? If the essence of her character for you comes down to the fact that she was "the second Thing" in the Fantastic Four, then it's clear that the Ms. Marvel we were introduced to wasn't making the cut with the FF as she was--and that seems a conclusion that both Sharon, and her writer, agreed with.

The promotional ad featuring the new Fantastic Four.


Gvieto said...

Thank you for sharing the story of Ms. Marvel that I never knew. Now maybe I can quit complaining that my original characters The Ladies Of Portobelo will never have a comic book or cartoon series since they are not the "in" heroes.

Warren JB said...

"The Ms. Marvel You May Not Remember"

I knew there was a 'She-Thing' (the kiss scene tends to turn up in 'top ten bad ideas in comics' lists, and suchlike) but had no idea of her past as a new Ms Marvel before that, or her history after that. Thanks for that!

Although I'm left a bit confused about what made Wyatt so persuasive.

Comicsfan said...

Warren, perhaps it's as simple as Wyatt put it: "She's a good person at heart." There were also the words that Ben exchanged with her that may have had an impact in terms of her fighting the wrong battle; she's been raging about her circumstances for a long time, and I can buy the fact that she might simply be tired of railing against factors beyond her control. What I couldn't quite buy is the hug with Wyatt--I can see her standing down, but an embrace I would have expected to happen with Ben, not a virtual stranger.

Warren JB said...

You're right! It's the hug more than anything else that seems strange. I doubt what Wyatt said is much more than what Ben himself has said or expressed in the past (in fact, that 'you'll have to go through me' line seems like an almost irresistable invitation... though maybe that's just me) but the latter's virtually pushed off to one side. Shades of Leia and Chewy in Star Wars: The Force Awakens!

I have to say, also, kudos to Marvel for trying a female character with a monstrous appearance that she had to deal with, in the vein of Ben Grimm. Makes a slight difference to other female versions of monstrous male characters...
(I was going to link to a She-Hulk pic, but just a quick google image search tells me that might be redundant for most comic readers' recollections)
Although for all Ben's angst over the past 50+ years, I don't know if he was so violently suicidal. It could easily be put down to Ben and Sharon's different personalities, but it also reminds me a little of 60s Star Trek, where the worst thing that could happen to certain female characters - especially Uhura - was to lose their looks.

L winters said...

She seemed reasonably popular with ff fans at the time. She was a sympathetic character. I read most of the above mentioned issues at the time,and was puzzled that marvel gave up on the character. She was quite beautiful in human form , I thought Ben was an idiot to dump her. Then again, the whole ff team basically dumped her. Some friends they were.

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