Monday, March 3, 2014

A Change For The Worse

You could say that Fantastic Four #107, the issue where Reed Richards finds a viable "cure" for the condition of the Thing, falls into the "be careful what you wish for" category for both Ben Grimm as well as the book's readers. For the first time, the Thing would be able to function as his three partners in the FF--having the ability to turn into his super-powered form when needed, and then be able to "turn off" his power and return to his human form. It would finally be the best of both worlds for Ben Grimm, who has been trapped in the rocky, misshappen form of the Thing and consequently found that his life is at a standstill, outside of his contribution to the FF.

On the other hand, the cure effectively removes the most compelling aspect of the Thing--the anguish of Ben Grimm, always having to be kept in check, always stewing beneath the surface of his hard, orange skin. With the Thing's power now functioning in the same way as the others, Ben is no longer the odd man out, and no longer having cause to be bitter. It opens up a whole new set of possibilities for the character, and alters the dynamic of the Fantastic Four since Ben would really have no reason to change to the Thing unless the team had to meet a threat or otherwise go into action. It's what's best for Ben, of course--but is it what's best for the book?

Writer Stan Lee never really gives either the team or even Ben a real chance to find out, since he's rigged this cure with the dreaded side-effects sub-plot. The more Ben invokes his change to the Thing and vice versa, the more the process begins to affect his mind, making him increasingly short-tempered and irrational. At first, the changes to his personality manifest as irritability and impatience, qualities which could have applied to the Thing on any given day. But, when his treatment of Alicia becomes abrasive, his behavior raises our eyebrow:

But, this being the Fantastic Four, their hectic lifestyle briefly takes our focus off of Ben and puts it back on the team, when they undertake a desperate mission to the Negative Zone in order to stop one of Reed's former colleagues from making a bid for power. Ben is more "himself," and we get a sense of how his new state might mesh with the rest of the team:

Ben's personality change abruptly accelerates, though, when Reed is trapped in the Negative Zone--and Ben, for the first time, is able to step out of his friend's shadow and take a more assertive role in the FF. Unfortunately, in his current state, Ben takes that thought to extremes, and his anger and frustration lash out in all directions at once.

Eventually, though, Ben reconsiders and decides to help with Reed's rescue. But all bets are off once that's accomplished:

In and of itself, this development of Lee's actually makes for a good story, particularly in terms of an internal matter between these four close teammates and friends. It may yank the rug out from under the Thing, as far as a new direction for Ben Grimm--but for the FF and their individual and collective characterization, it doesn't get any better. Reed and Sue are in shock (particularly Reed, for whom these radical changes in Ben's personality are probably his first real exposure to them)--Johnny wants to take Ben's head off (and the feeling's mutual)--and Alicia, blind and only really "hearing" Ben's state of mind, has little to no idea of why he's treating her in such a way. The issue ends explosively, as well it should:

As for Lee, he's really only recycling an old plot (Ben turning bad after his mind is affected by an experiment meant to cure him) while giving it a new twist. This time, Johnny takes after him solo, as the two battle in the midst of the city--a situation which is further inflamed when the Hulk appears and attacks. When everything finally plays out to Lee's satisfaction, he pulls the plug on Ben's cure, though with a curious thread left dangling:

Which is to say, Ben's "cure" is still likely in effect--but he chooses not to pursue it. The note that Lee wishes to leave this story on seems clear: Ben has finally come to terms with who and what he is, and decides to continue as both the member of the Fantastic Four that he's thrived as, and as the Thing. And as Ben notes, there's also his relationship with Alicia to be considered, an uncomfortable point of concern that has never (to my knowledge) been satisfactorily confronted head-on by Ben and Alicia. We know this running theme so well by now--Ben knows that Alicia loves him, but only as the Thing. As writers, both Lee and artist/writer John Byrne benefited from the drama that's always available to be tapped from this pairing: a blind girl, in love with someone who resembles a monster.  The situation being a constant source of anguish for Ben--having found such unexpected happiness with Alicia, while mulling the nagging feeling that he's wrong for her. Byrne at one time even made Alicia's feelings pivotal in a 99.9%-certain cure for Ben that nevertheless failed tragically:

The situation has had a fair amount of panel space, and yet no discernible resolution.

I've lost count of how many cures Ben has either successfully or unsuccessfully gone through since this story. One or two even had him being able to change back and forth to the Thing at will, just as this first attempt made possible. For what it's worth, with this particular story taking place over forty years ago, we can at least be reasonably certain that this loose end from Reed's first real cure for Ben was probably stamped "CASE CLOSED" long ago.

Or, perhaps more accurately, "PENDING."


Anonymous said...

In my opinion, as a US American, Stan Lee boxed himself into a corner with Benjamin J Grimm. As The Thing, he was a brute, the muscle. As a person, he was a product of the poverty of Yancy Street. As a character, the antithesis of Reed Richards. If Reed solved problems with his mind, then Ben did with his fists. As explained in your previous post on the Secret Wars HERE (that would have been so cool if I knew how to post links and really could send readers to your post on the Secret Wars), when The Thing took on just about every baddie in the Marvel Universe and prevailed!!! There's no quit in Ben Grimm. Okay, where's the box of which you speak? Here tis... Ben, as Stan Lee originally created him, was a former football quarterback and fighter pilot (later to include jet pilot). I don't think there were many quarterbacks with college scholarships who were dumb, though maybe Ben and Reed went on the GI Bill. But certainly not pilots. I know Yeager did not have a college degree but the requirements during war time were relaxed. Could this have been the same for Ben? I think his intelligence was always downplayed for the sake of The Thing. I also think his leadership skills born on both the battlefield as well as the gridiron made him a better choice for leader. But then again, most of his decisions would have been: Reed, what do you make of this? (I refer you to Stargate SG1 HERE, again that would be sooooo cool if I could link, O'Neill, two lls, was not the smartest guy in the room, or most experienced, but was the leader nonetheless) That's how I would have loved to see The Thing. His personality is what makes him the leader.

The Prowler (linking out of here NOW.....okay NOW, wait a minute......NOW).

dbutler16 said...

This issue falls into a huge gap in my FF collection (most of issues 51-157). Yes, this is recycling an old plot, but it's an interesting take on it. The end is intriguing but I think it's say to say it was forgotten soon afterwards.

As far as Ben's intelligence, I get the feeling that some of it is show on Ben's part. Reed has said as much, even reminding Ben that he's got multiple (multiple?!) college degrees. Yes, being a QB and a pilot should make him at least a leader, and probably also someone who can think on his feet, so to speak. I also think Lee, and others, have neglected Ben's intellectual potential because he's such a great and entertaining character as it is. Why mess with that?