Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Ben Grimm, Unleashed!

For a book (as well as its parent company) still reeling from the aftershocks of Jack Kirby's departure, Fantastic Four appeared to have picked itself up and dusted itself off quite nicely, judging by the quality of the stories we were presented with in the span of issues dating from September of 1970 to late 1971 (with one story salvaging some of Kirby's panels from a forthcoming plot that finally saw print in 2008). The FF had just dealt with not only the loss of their temporary member, Crystal, but also a danger to New York City in the form of a mysterious, destructive monster in the streets--while, back at their headquarters, Reed Richards had been forced to make a choice between racing to the aid of his wife, Sue, or possibly causing the death of his friend, Ben Grimm, by interrupting an experiment designed to allow his teammate to finally shift back and forth between his human form and the Thing at will.

Add to that the introduction of artist John Buscema to the mag in that story's follow-up issue, in a stint on the book that would last for thirty-three issues before taking a breather, and you could safely say that the FF book was going to be A-OK, and then some.

But could we say the same for the Thing?

We pick things up with Reed, Sue and Johnny regrouping at the Baxter Building after having dealt with the crisis in the city. But because the experiment with Ben was interrupted, necessitating that Reed and the Torch improvise a method to place the entire chamber in a deep freeze which would keep the procedure in exactly the state it's currently at and thus prevent Ben from going into shock, our splash page reveals that Reed is now uncertain that his best friend will survive the experiment.

But the FF, and especially Ben, deserve to be cut a break sometimes, don't they?

It's something of a historic occasion for the team, since Reed's procedure has for the first time provided their most tortured member with the means to mimic his three partners in their ability to render their power dormant until needed, correcting the tragic situation that came about when Ben found himself trapped in the monstrous form of the Thing from Day One. And while it's true that, from the reader's standpoint, that same tragic circumstance has been one of the main draws of the book and served to make the Thing one of the most standout characters in Marvel's line of books, it would be premature to draw conclusions at this point as to whether this latest development has helped or hurt the book. Surely, however, no one could begrudge Ben his moment, after he's been deprived of so many moments he might have had as a human being since the fateful crash that seemingly altered his life forever.

But there is still the acid test to undertake--and for that, Ben will need a certain amount of "encouragement" from one of the few people able to get under his skin.

Though however elated he feels now, for Ben the icing on this cake arrives just in time to celebrate with him.

Thanks to writer Stan Lee, Alicia and Matt Murdock appear to have the same low opinion of their chances for happiness and marriage, solely on the basis of their being blind. Their respective scenes amount to a disturbing pattern for Lee, though I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and presume that he puts such a notion out there only so that other characters in the story can refute it, as Ben did here.

As anyone with a pulse beat can probably tell, Reed's comment in that final panel is likely a portent of bad news to come. Even so, the couple's date at first proceeds normally enough, at least where the now-human and understandably prankish Ben Grimm is concerned. But given what occurs afterward, in a violent scene which makes one wonder why anyone in 1971 would step out for a stroll in New York City, what would normally be a minor if irritating matter for the Thing becomes an exercise in almost severe punishment, or worse.

But since this book is about the Fantastic Four, Lee has the luxury of checking in on the other members of the team--partly to build suspense in regard to Ben, but also because all of these four people collectively make this book the unique read it is. For instance, Johnny continues to be heartbroken about his separation from Crystal--while Sue has a scene with Reed that makes her wonder why she and the others seem to be so bad-tempered lately (which in hindsight may or may not be due to the Over-Mind having arrived and begun his mental infiltration of Earth).

As for Reed, he's confronted by an unwanted visitor who potentially poses a danger to the entire planet--but who will not be denied.

And speaking of bad tempers, both Ben and Johnny are on short fuses due to their respective circumstances--and each has picked the worst time to take their frustrations out on the other.

The story of Janus takes place in the following issue, which makes use of previous work by Kirby for a story that was unpublished. But afterward, Reed's worst nightmare comes true, as Janus makes a bargain with Annihilus in exchange for ultimate power, an agreement which may mean the end of Earth unless the FF reach him in time. As for Ben, his side effects progress to a point where he becomes a danger to the entire city, forcing the Torch to seek out and deal with him, as Reed must deal with the team's irascible landlord, Collins. (It's a tough call as to who ended up with the more hazardous mission.)


Big Murr said...

This story always makes me wish Stan and Jack had gone with a different look for the Thing. I never found him "monstrous". He's weird, for certain, but never scary. Essentially too...muppet-ish.

The wide panel where we see all the steps of Thing changing to Ben Grimm...I like the center versions. An actual human with a rocky skin condition. It wouldn't have changed any story lines of Ben being distressed and depressed at being ugly and non-human. I know I would have found him more daunting and cool as a young reader.

Anonymous said...

I would agree Murray, that the Thing has an almost cartoonish to him in some panels, but he's providing all the comic relief in the F.F.
Y'know, something to give a break from the drama. I think Jack or John could make him look fairly scary when they wanted to, like during one of those periodic arcs where he was, ah, temporarily evil. And he could be drawn mean, too, like when he was facing somebody particularly nasty.
C.F., I never thought about it, but I would think Stan would have been smart enough to know blind people can and do get married. I've only known one blind person very well in my life and he had a wife and kids. Nothing tragic about it.
I think Stan was just pumping up the melodrama. It would seem pretty ridiculous today.


Comicsfan said...

M.P., good points all around!

Fred W. Hill said...

In the earliest issues, the Thing certainly looked more monstrous, and certainly in that scene wherein Ben transforms during the confrontation with the thugs, he looks much more chilling in mid-change than when he is fully changed. Recalls the story featuring the first appearance of Diablo who partially "cured" Ben so that he looked more human but also much more unsettling. Hard to say how the readership as a whole would have taken to a more particularly hideous version of the Thing, but certainly in his classic Kirby/Sinnott appearance, he could look nasty enough when enraged and unhinged. Still, while the Thing could look rather "cuddly" at times, I don't think any sane person would want to be inflicted with even that appearance.