Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Hopelessly Devoted To You

If you've ever thumbed through past issues of Fantastic Four, you've likely come across one of the longest and interesting relationships in comics history--that of Ben Grimm, the Thing, and blind sculptress Alicia Masters. The character of Alicia, while often soft-spoken and understated, did quite a lot for the evolution of the Thing, who, up to that point, had been bitter at his monstrous state and possessed a hair-trigger temper that was even a cause for concern for his three partners; Alicia's introduction served to temper him, and brought out a side to him that made him step up and take his place on both the team as well as in the book.

Looking back on how it all started for the two, the most interesting aspect of their relationship is the fact that it comes across as progressing very naturally, rather than feeling forced in any way by writer Stan Lee or artist Jack Kirby. Alicia is introduced in the book along with a new villain, the Puppet Master--a/k/a Phillip Masters, her step-father, as he schemes to use his power to control the FF. It takes a while to get to the last names of both Masters and his step-daughter, with the Puppet Master's origin finally told in an issue of Marvel Team-Up; what might strike the reader as odd is that usually a child doesn't assume the last name of their step-parent unless that parent goes on to adopt them, but the MTU story doesn't establish that. In the early FF stories, she's mostly referred to as "Alicia," which in a way is endearing in terms of making her more tender and approachable for the Thing.

Alicia, when we meet her, is rather meek and submissive in the company of her preoccupied step-father, by all appearances leading a very cloistered life with him--even complying when Masters decides to use her in his plans for the FF as he begins to exercise his power over them. Yet when the Thing falls under his sway, Alicia can't help but be moved by what she senses of his character beneath his craggy outer shell--and the scene also serves to throw a different kind of spotlight on the Thing, who, for the reader, finally begins to evolve beyond the belligerence that's defined his character thus far.

The scene is later expanded on when the two arrive at the Baxter Building--and the rampaging Thing, acting under the influence of the Puppet Master, is tricked into crashing into a bottled serum that Reed had been working on to cure his condition. And while Masters' "prank" involving Alicia makes little sense and really accomplishes nothing for either Masters or the story, considerable strides are made with the budding relationship of Ben and Alicia.

Obviously we're seeing the beginnings of the long and perpetually odd complication of Alicia having stronger feelings for the Thing than for Ben Grimm. Even at its formation, Alicia's preference remains confounding, given that she's there to witness (if only by touch) that the two men she speaks of are one and the same--yet in essence, she has affection for only the form made of rock. It's a different outcome than the scene Kirby appears to have laid out--that of Alicia consoling Ben in his sadness at reverting to the Thing, and seemingly assuring him that she cares for him no matter what form he inhabits. Instead, Lee portrays the scene differently--with Alicia being profoundly sad that the one she first affectionately touched has changed to the form of a man, followed by relief when he again becomes the Thing. There's no question that Lee has added an element of interest for the reader--but to my knowledge, he only followed up this scene with even more misgivings and confusion on the issue from both of these characters, with an approach by John Byrne only serving to formalize the status quo.

At any rate, their relationship proceeds--at first on a close friendship basis, though Alicia's effect on Ben's temperament bears fruit almost immediately. With her ability to reach Ben on a level that no one has since his transformation, the Thing finally decides to stop wallowing in bitterness and commit to his teammates--and with the FF at the time declaring bankruptcy, his timing in showing solidarity with them couldn't be better.

It's also interesting to note that Alicia didn't start out as a famous, renowned sculptress--how could she have, as subservient as she was to her step-father and how directionless she seemed under his influence? And so we're witnesses to her beginnings in that stage of her life, as well.

Good grief. Even a tabletop of figurines frightens the heck out of Sue.

Clearly Ben has been spending a good deal of time with this woman--perhaps encouraging her to explore her gift for art while making a life of her own, though Lee wisely doesn't pry and imply anything like a whirlwind romance. Yet when Reed's mind is switched to inhabit the body of Dr. Doom, with his teammates none the wiser, an indication of the feelings that Ben is developing for Alicia becomes apparent in a heated moment that the other members of the FF aren't likely to forget.

The tables are turned on Doom soon enough, of course--leaving Alicia and Ben to continue dating, and surprisingly making appearances at social events which "the Thing," in his earlier days, would have crossed off his list in favor of avoiding people altogether and spending his time alone grumbling over his condition.

The change in Ben has an uplifting effect on the entire book, as he becomes more engaged with the FF and thus a more vital member of the team than before; while to the FF, Ben becomes a friend and teammate to rally around, rather than a loose cannon to beware of. And before a mission to track down the Sub-Mariner, Alicia and Ben all but declare their relationship status for all to see.

It's a pairing that becomes a rewarding mainstay of Fantastic Four well into the stories of the 1970s and '80s, with the events following Secret Wars regrettably damaging the relationship irreparably, at least on the personal level it had existed on for those decades. Yet for those of you curious about these two characters as a couple, that gives you a lot of stories to read through (in this book and elsewhere, with Marvel Two-In-One acting as supplemental material) in order to sift through their evolution together.

Though you won't catch wrestler "Fatal Finnegan" as a fan of this couple anytime soon!


Anonymous said...

Reed says "It's hard to believe that a girl who cannot see has such a marvellous talent" and he just leaves it at that. Surely Reed would be curious as to how a blind person could create such astonishingly accurate models of people she had never seen ? Wouldn't he want to investigate whether Alicia had some kind of super-power of her own ?

Comicsfan said...

Colin, Alicia's method for sculpting her subject(s)--becoming familiar with their appearance by running her hands over their features--is yet to be established, of course, so we could assume that she's worked from detailed descriptions that Ben has provided. As you've noted, Kirby's depiction is a little too detailed, considering that Alicia is only a beginner at this stage.