Wednesday, August 30, 2017

What Lurks Inside The "Beehive"?

On the heels of the Fantastic Four's battle with Ronan, the Accuser, the title shifts gears and throttles back to tackle what would essentially become a missing persons case, one involving one of their dearest friends--Alicia Masters, renowned sculptress as well as the girlfriend of Ben Grimm, the Thing. And while it's initially a low-key, investigative issue for the Fantastic Four, it offers several things that FF readers can't help but find riveting: 1) An intriguing new group of "villains" who are on the verge of creating a new form of human life, but whose motives may be less than altruistic; 2) the FF's tireless efforts to solve the mystery of Alicia's disappearance; and 3) a focus on the tragic Thing, driven once more to self-pity, yet forced to consider his condition in a new light with the help of just a gesture and a few kind words.

But, front and center, it's the unaccounted-for Alicia whose disappearance gives this story its slowly building momentum. And to give you an idea of how her unknown fate might affect the composure of the FF's strongest member, we have only to take a glimpse at artist Jack Kirby's tantalizing cover to the issue, which has both of its characters fearing what's to come.

Upon arrival at Alicia's apartment, there's of course really no cause for Mr. Fantastic, the Invisible Girl, or the Thing to suspect foul play simply because Alicia isn't there, particularly since she wasn't expecting them. It's only Reed who puts the idea out there that something may be amiss, since her door was unlocked. The Thing, on the other hand, who more than once has jumped to the conclusion that Alicia might be seeing someone else--assuming that she's finally come to her senses about being involved with someone in his physical state--immediately becomes morose about his appearance and rejects Reed's assurances of Alicia's feelings. And that rejection quickly explodes and turns to blame.

Whoa, Mr. Kirby--no wonder Reed is sometimes referred to as an "egghead." What's up with that head in that last panel?

As for Alicia, we as readers have the benefit of looking into her mystery more expeditiously than even Reed can--and so we join her as she arrives at a facility that has, over time and in other stories, come to be known as "the Beehive," even though writer Stan Lee's narrative only goes so far to say that it merely resembles one. To its occupants, it's officially known as the Citadel of Science--and Alicia has only begun to learn of its purpose, as well as her own in being brought there.

These scientists (who would later become known as the Enclave) are figures that Alicia recognizes by name--each of them world-famous and reported to have died from accidents, but who are now revealed to have gathered together in this place to conduct a mysterious experiment. The mystery only deepens when Alicia is asked to indulge the group by sculpting a bust of the one named Morlak--and when the result turns out to be a perfect likeness, the men are delighted, and it becomes apparent that Alicia has become a crucial part of their plans.

Meanwhile, the Thing is nursing his dour mood in the park, at first finding uncomfortable reminders that he's trapped in a form that the opposite sex would find repugnant. But a fresh perspective can go a long way toward lifting one's spirits--and Ben Grimm finds that his popularity and appeal to others outweigh any thoughts of throwing in the towel in respect to making a life for himself.

The encounter has the Thing rushing back to his partners hoping that they're in a forgiving mood. Currently, however, the rest of the FF are involved in an investigation that may dampen Ben's good spirits, as they follow Reed's hunch that there may be more to Alicia's disappearance than they realized.

Back at the beehive Citadel, Alicia is just beginning to learn more of the experiment for which Morlak and the others have enlisted her assistance--but unknown to her, there is also great danger here. Whatever the nature of the work being done here, it soon becomes clear to Alicia that this experiment has moved well beyond anyone's control, and in violent fashion.

While the Citadel's security forces move to handle the emergency, Alicia is finally told of this experiment's purpose--while its deadly subject is inadvertently given a name, one that Bronze-age Marvel readers would be reminded of in 1972.

With the escaped life form's violent reaction, Zota, Shinski, and Morlak attempt to regain control of their creation without harming him, though it becomes clear that they have little to no hope of even getting a look at what it is that's emerged from their chemical tank. For whatever reason, "Him" reacts with hostility towards them--and at last, Alicia realizes why she has been brought to this place.

In New York, the Thing locates his partners in Alicia's apartment and rushes to join them, realizing that they all wouldn't be there (with the exception of Johnny, despite Lee's script to the contrary) unless they'd discovered something wrong with the circumstances of her absence. Thankfully, his mood has improved, though it's quickly overshadowed with impatience and, needless to say, worry.

It's a fine demonstration of what makes these people unique as a team, their personal matters just as much a part of their makeup as their professional responsibilities. Lee goes a bit over the top with Reed, who basically believes that he not only deserved the back of Ben's brutal hand, but that it was also the correct thing for Ben to do because it favorably improved his mood. What a great lesson to instill in your impressionable young readers, Mr. Lee. Kudos.

Finally, though, Reed, Ben, and Sue learn the fate of Alicia--all the more shocking because it raises more questions than it answers. It's a gripping scene, and, as you might imagine, sends the Thing's level of anxiety through the roof.

In the Citadel, Alicia and the scientists' fourth associate, Dr. Hamilton, are suiting up to enter the chamber, with Alicia packing enough clay so that she can mold the image of whatever it is they'll encounter. The course of action would seem to make very little sense, for two reasons in particular. For one thing, Alicia is shown to be rather untroubled about her mission, since she's been told there will be no danger--even after experiencing the violent attacks of this life form and hearing the panic in the other scientists as they recounted their story to her. Why should she believe their assurances now, after all the evidence to the contrary? Also, it seems unnecessary for Alicia to remain in proximity to "Him" while doing her work--she only needs to feel the contours of his face at this point, and then return to the relative safety of the Citadel's interior to finish her task. Why would she assume that this being would passively refrain from any hostile action while she's busily molding her clay, assuming he allows her to make physical contact with him at all?

Back at the Baxter Building, in a scene which helps to close the first of this two-part story, hours of lab work by Reed have done little to quell the Thing's nerves. Unfortunately, he's not likely to be any more docile after Reed's progress report.

A single panel that promises the imminent confrontation that awaits Hamilton and Alicia serves to build our anticipation toward who, or what, has been created here. But the Fantastic Four's concerns are on a far more personal level.  Will the FF be able to duplicate the means by which they can reach Alicia? And will they be in time to save her from the unknown fate that awaits her?

Fantastic Four #66

Script: Stan Lee
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inks: Joe Sinnott
Letterer: Artie Simek


Jon H said...

"Alicia is shown to be rather untroubled about her mission"

Probably because of the Kirby-Xanax cocktail she drank.

Warren JB said...

Maybe beside the general point of the post, but best. Ben Grimm moment. Ever.

Granted, I don't have much personal experience of being trapped in the form of a big orange rock monster, but I always thought the guy was too hard on himself. He's one of the biggest, most irreproachable heroes in the 616. You'd have to be stone on the inside, never mind the outside, not to love him!

Comicsfan said...

Well, Warren, at the end of the day, Ben can't take all of his fans home with him, nor can any of them truly offer him the kind of relationship he knows is denied him as the Thing. Perhaps it explains the guilt he sometimes feels in being with Alicia--he loves her, but knows he can't return her feelings with anything more than platonic love. It doubtless weighs on him at times; it's no wonder that he feels trapped, even in a life that everyone else is envious of.

Warren JB said...

True, true! I, ah, got carried away in the moment. Though speaking of their platonic relationship, I got the impression that part of Ben's angst was that he thought Alicia only loved him because she couldn't see how 'hideous' he was. Her Daredevil-like tactile sense that informed her sculpture puts the lie to that, maybe.

Similarly, I still stand by what I said, regarding his public appearances! He's generally worried that the townsfolk will shake their fists at his grotesque appearance, mothers will shield their children, torches and pitchforks, crops failing, milk curdling, etc. etc. Good to see his expectations subverted in this way.

Comicsfan said...

Warren, that is an excellent point about Alicia's "sculptress-sense" vis-a-vis Ben's appearance, though it may be rendered moot by the fact that Ben has been aware for some time that Alicia prefers him as the Thing rather than as Ben Grimm. That is a complicated relationship for sure, and it will probably take better men than you and I to figure it out! :)