Wednesday, December 21, 2016

It's Clobberin' Time, All The Time

Like the Avengers, the Champions, the X-Men, or just about any other super-group whose members break out in battle amongst themselves for seemingly no good reason*, there's no doubt that the Fantastic Four have had their share of infighting. Indeed, it would become one of the hallmarks of their partnership, and even well before then, since the team's growing pains practically started from day one. And with their disagreements and squabbling and skirmishes came recurring themes in their stories that in one way or another took advantage of the drama that could be mined when members of the FF either turned against each other or simply didn't get along. You might see, for instance, one of the team quitting (or even all of them, if briefly); there were also a number of times when the Thing lashed out at his teammates, mostly due to external factors but also because he was disgruntled at being trapped in a monstrous state.

*Thank goodness we don't have super-powers--imagine the carnage at, say, Thanksgiving, where our relatives already break out in hostilities at the drop of a hat.

With two hotheads like the Thing and the Torch on the roster, it seemed inevitable that every once in awhile we'd see them square off, whether it was simple horseplay, an out-of-control argument, or in deadly earnest. As we can see, such clashes make for eye-catching cover art, though you'd think there would be only so many times when this kind of face-off could be dusted off and recycled. These men are on the same team, after all; at the end of the day (or story arc), they have to go back to the Baxter Building and clock in again. How many battles between them can they just sweep under the rug?

In this 1971 story, writer Stan Lee borrows a few elements from issues 68-70, once again making the Thing a danger to both the FF and New York City--thanks again to one of Reed's experiments that backfires, though there is no devious third party like the Thinker responsible for it. And this time, it's only the Torch who goes after the Thing, while Reed and Sue are kept on the sidelines. This story continues developments from the previous issue, where the Thing has successfully emerged from a procedure Reed designed that enables him to change back and forth between his human form and his rocky state at will. Yet over a short period of time, it became evident that the experiment had resulted in side effects to Ben's personality, making him progressively more irritable, impatient, and angry. Reaching a point where he eventually turns against his partners, he parts company with the FF for good and leaves in a rage.

Now, the Thing stomps through the streets of New York, looking out for Number One. And heaven help anyone who crosses his path, because this figure is no longer the hero we remember. This is only:

First, however, this issue's splash page seems a little off in terms of scale. In other words, meet Thing Jr.:

As difficult as it is to find fault with John Buscema's early FF work, the Thing here looks too small and perhaps too hunched, considering the imposing impression he's supposed to be giving the reader to indicate the crisis at hand. He should be the center of attention on this page; instead, there's a little too much street and not enough Thing. But it would be a simple fix to make, and all without altering Mr. Buscema's work significantly:

VoilĂ --no space is being wasted, the Thing has our immediate attention, and it's more evident that he means business. (Though the sound effect of the Thing's swat of the vehicle in his path would need some further work.)

Since the heightened tension from the previous story results in the Thing now at large in the city and, as Reed says, "capable of anything," it makes sense for Lee to spend much of this story's focus having the Thing throw his weight around and endangering citizens, considering himself free from the FF's yoke though now a very dangerous man in his own right. Unfortunately for pedestrians, Ben has reached the point where he has no intention of following any more rules or orders, and he has no regard for anyone who gets in his way--whether intentionally or otherwise.

With crowds gathering and the Thing wreaking havoc through a number of city blocks, the arriving police know that they're going to have their hands full. Of course the Thing can't possibly give them the slip, even on crowded streets; but with thanks to Reed (though Ben currently has more hostile sentiments for his former friend), it's not the Thing who's now able to hide in plain sight, but Ben Grimm.

Again, Buscema's contribution to a story more than compensates for his occasional oversights. That panel of Ben as he succeeds in duping the police officer speaks volumes on just how far this man has gone over the edge--and Lee capitalizes on it beautifully.

But what's happening with the rest of the FF during this crisis? Normally we'd expect them to be out in force--especially Reed, who's already summarized Ben's state of mind and who knows full well what the Thing is capable of. And in spite of the circumstances of Ben's exit from the team, the Thing is still the FF's responsibility, considering that it was Reed's procedure that's causing Ben to lash out. Yet with the exception of the Torch, Lee instead mothballs Reed and Sue for the duration. All of them seem torn as to whether or not to pursue their erstwhile partner, even with the ramifications of Reed's experiment now no longer in doubt; though perhaps at this point it's a fair development, considering that Ben hasn't done anything yet (at least to their knowledge) to warrant the FF mobilizing, and they have some breathing room to consider their next step.

As to what that would be, even Reed seems unsure. Returning to his lab to work on a way to neutralize the side effects of the experiment would seem to be his priority, assuming he feels that Ben can't be reasoned with in his current state--while Sue, a character that Lee has steadily sapped of having any meaningful contribution to the team, opts to accompany her son and Agatha Harkness back to Whisper Hill, as if Ben's explosive and ugly departure is nothing that really merits her remaining with the team on stand-by. It seems a rather nonchalant attitude for Sue to take, considering that Ben means as much to her as he does to Reed and Johnny. In addition, aside from Alicia Masters, Sue is probably the most likely person to be able to reach Ben if things come to a head, yet the consensus appears to be that neither she nor her powers will be needed during this emergency--and with that assessment seemingly shared by Sue herself, we have only her writer to hold accountable for it.

As for the Torch, it's perfectly reasonable for the character to want to take action, considering his own fondness for his friend as well as the fact that he's never been one to cool his heels (so to speak)--though you'd think a blazing, provocative sight like the Torch keeping tabs on him isn't likely to be met by the Thing with anything short of outrage.

IF it comes to a fight? Oh, Reed... just how long have you been on this team?

I can't speak for Johnny, but the message I'd be getting if a super-powered foe had punched through the sidewalk beneath me, and large chunks of concrete impacted with my body with enough force to send me flying, would be the unmistakable realization that I'd been badly hurt--right before I fell unconscious to the ground like a sack of flour, the impact with the street doing even more damage to me. Hopefully, there would be a couple of medics in the vicinity who would rush me to the hospital, where I'd end up in traction. The Torch, however, hasn't gotten any message at all, and is back in action before you can say "ouch."

With the many scenes in this issue of hostile crowd reactions to the FF's engagements, Lee is likely laying some groundwork for his story involving the Over-Mind, who has presumably already begun influencing the minds of those in the city and turning public opinion against the FF. (Though Jameson hardly needs an excuse to pound out an inflammatory editorial.) Nor is Reed spared back in the Baxter Building, as the building's hard-nosed landlord, Collins, informs Reed that he's breaking the group's lease and evicting them without notice. Reed, reacting with uncustomary anger, virtually terrorizes Collins into running for his life; but as far as helping the Thing, Reed seems at a loss as to how to proceed. (Yes, that Reed, whose brilliance has been lauded and well-documented throughout this book's run.)

And so rather than join the Torch and perhaps offering an alternative to dealing with the Thing that doesn't involve facing off with him, Reed haunts his own laboratory as he struggles to come to grips with how things got to this point. (Heh heh, get it?) It's important to remember that, until only recently, Reed was trapped in the Negative Zone and fighting for his life against Annihilus, returning only to find that Ben was angrily rebuffing his teammates and on the verge of leaving the FF. It seems that Ben's changed condition had taken everyone by surprise--or did it?

It may have just been Lee's way of bringing the reader up to speed on recent events involving Ben--but if we're to take Reed's musings as factual, it's a shocking revelation that we're seeing here: that Reed in fact knew that his procedure on the Thing would produce these personality changes, and he went ahead with the procedure anyway, without informing Ben of the experiment's side-effects. Which begs the question: Why would Reed choose to proceed, instead of working out the bugs in this experiment first?

But I prefer to give Reed the benefit of the doubt, and chalk up this scene to Lee presenting a condensed flashback that unfortunately included the information on the personality changes in Reed's own words, rather than couching those developments entirely in the form of narrative. The previous story seems to back that up, since Reed had already theorized (at least according to Sue) that the experiment had affected Ben's mind in some way. The alternative is to accept that Reed was irresponsible, convincing his best friend to go through with this experiment even knowing that it would adversely affect his personality with the effects becoming steadily worse.

Meanwhile, the Thing's "might makes right" attitude and his desire to put himself on Easy Street bring him into conflict with the Torch once more--and, after escaping, once again facing off with the police.

The situation with the Thing has clearly reached the point where the FF must act in one way or another--and with neither the Torch nor Reed making any headway (and of course no contribution at all from... from... er, what was the name of that fourth FF member again?), desperate times call for desperate measures. And, brother, Reed must be desperate if he's resorting to a decision that could make this crisis many times worse than it already is.

Unfortunately for Banner, his cabbie believes in taking the scenic route to the Baxter Building. Granted, simply driving through Times Square would probably be enough to trigger Banner's change, but our accommodating driver apparently wanted to be certain to have a good story to tell the boys back in dispatch. And so:

It looks like things can't get any worse for the FF. Reed is on his own back in his lab; the Torch is probably beginning to feel extremely sore and bruised, for some reason; and the Thing runs into the toughest customer there is. But on a more positive note, Sue is miles away, kicking up her feet on an ottoman and watching "Sesame Street" with young Franklin.

Battle of the Behemoths! (And one must die!)

Fantastic Four #111

Script: Stan Lee
Pencils: John Buscema
Inks: Joe Sinnott
Letterer: Sam Rosen


Anonymous said...

It's Donald Trump Amok that worries me :D This is the first time I've seen this story since it appeared in Captain Britain #3 and #4 in 1976, yay ! I'd never seen the Thing turn against his teammates before so it was a shock to see an "evil" Thing.

Anonymous said...

I've been in a New York City cab in heavy traffic, and that's the last place you wanna be if you need to stay calm, whether Ben Grimm is tearing up Central Park or not!
Beautiful pencils here. Big John makes it look effortless.

Comicsfan said...

Colin, I might not go so far as to call the Thing "evil" here--at least not yet. It's true he's on the fast track to become a super-villain, and he might indeed become progressively worse to the point of using his power even more unconscionably than he already is--but right now I think Reed has it right in saying that he's turning "bad." Admittedly, it's a distinction that may be fleeting.

M.P., I've only had one cab ride in NYC, and it was at night when traffic wasn't a bit congested so I was reasonably relaxed for the entire drive. (Though my cabbie talked my ear off!)