Thursday, April 15, 2021

"This Man... This Monster!"


"Quite possibly this may be one of the greatest illustrated epics yet..."

A number of you who have read issues of Fantastic Four published in the 1960s more than likely recall a story from mid-1966 which featured this classic depiction of the Thing by artist Jack Kirby:

(Pictured here alongside Mike Deodato Jr.'s homage to Kirby's rendition) 

It's curious how this issue has become so highly regarded--or, more directly, what makes it so highly regarded. At first glance, the splash page, as well as the pages which follow, appear to indicate that this issue will be a turning point for Ben Grimm, perhaps focusing on his status as the Thing and featuring a reckoning in one form or another. Yet when you read this issue cover to cover, you realize that it instead quickly segues from the brooding of Ben Grimm to a plot which all but removes him from the story. That's hard to believe after looking at this issue's startling cover, which seems to indicate that not only is the Thing indeed a fixture of this story, but he's also involved in a crucial moment that sees one of his teammates fighting for his life, whose best friend stands in stony silence and makes no move to save him.



Kirby's depiction of the Thing on Page One is undoubtedly eye-catching, the character's solitude all the more enhanced by the fact that he's standing alone at night in the pouring rain thinking thoughts that we can only guess at--a stance which writer Stan Lee has clearly picked up on to help provide his story with a dramatic opening and (as he puts it) wonderment for the reader. But the contrast which Deodato offers is striking, merging elements from both the splash page and the Thing's pose on the issue's cover which make Ben's current dour mood even more of a point of interest for us.

Yet what has sent him into this tailspin? For the answer we must turn to a scene from the previous issue, where the Fantastic Four are picking themselves up following their incredible encounter with Galactus, who has departed Earth but left his glistening herald, the Silver Surfer, imprisoned on our world indefinitely--and the Thing's girlfriend, Alicia Masters, who was instrumental in appealing to the Surfer to intervene with his master regarding Earth's fate, suddenly appears to express her gratitude, though the Thing interprets what he sees (and hears) differently and develops a mood which stays with him even at street level.

(Ben would have a much different ending to a similar stroll he takes in a later issue, where his spirits are instead lifted by a female stranger who is anything but taken aback by the appearance of the Thing.)

Later, we find Ben still wandering the streets that night, though under another kind of cloud than those which are drenching him. It bears mentioning, however, that this sort of mood in the Thing is nothing we haven't seen before in previous stories, so it's not yet clear what Lee is bringing to the table that's different or new in that regard--except perhaps that Ben is coming to terms with the realization that he's going to live and die as the Thing, forever. The timing couldn't be better, then, for the introduction of a stranger who seemingly offers Ben a helping hand, and an ear to bend--for better, or for worse.

We've already seen our stranger begin to elucidate on our suspicion of how his introduction might make matters worse for Ben--but those beans were really spilled in the prior issue, where it's clear this man has no love for the Fantastic Four.

(Funny how it doesn't occur to this fellow that if it weren't for the FF, he might not have had an evening edition of the paper to read--or anyone to invite inside that night.)

We're never given a name for this antagonist--only that he seems to resent the fame of the FF, which in his judgment is undeserved. But in the scene that follows, we'll see that his resentment also extends to jealousy--and his ire is centered on Reed Richards more than on the team itself.

Thanks to our schemer, you've seen the last of any mileage which the bold title of this story might have aimed for, at least in the sense that Ben Grimm is its subject. Rather than the title making reference to either the true Thing himself or the one who appropriates his form, you could make the case that it's pulling double duty--referring to not just the Thing (the "monster"), but also to this story's villain (the man), though the terms could be used interchangeably depending on at which point you catch them. Without Lee's input on the matter, I suppose we'll never really know for sure.

At any rate, the sadness which consumed Ben is for all intents and purposes shelved, while our attention shifts to "the Thing" whose plan is now launched--and whose appearance and manner have allowed him to fool Reed and Sue completely, even when his victim arrives to blow the whistle on him. (A scene which would later come back to bite writer Roy Thomas as he attempts to establish in his own story how foolproof Reed's recognition is of both Ben and Sue against any deception.)

(Ben's stormy entrance includes an odd panel on Kirby's part, which shows Ben bending down and shoving his jacket to the floor.  I can't recall anyone who has ever made that sort of movement, or even close to it.  Wouldn't a person, furious or otherwise, just toss their jacket to the ground or fling it to the side, instead? Or are we looking at some Yancy Street version of throwing down the gauntlet?)

As to the scene itself, it's difficult--strike that, impossible to believe that Reed would so readily dismiss the possibility that the newcomer could indeed be the real Ben Grimm, especially in light of the odd behavior he's seen in the Thing upon his return to the Baxter Building. Instead, he denies the stranger's claim outright, while demonstrating little interest in exploring the matter--an improbable reaction, considering Reed's natural inquisitiveness and in light of all the mind-boggling things he's experienced during his time in the FF. And it's so simple a conundrum to get to the bottom of, since there must be a number of incidents common to both Reed and Ben that this false Thing would have no knowledge of, which either man could raise as a test.

But the faux Thing is fated to face another kind of test as we pivot to the impending experiment which Reed alludes to, one he feels driven to conduct after the encounter with Galactus which the Earth barely survived.

While there might be those of you who would suggest that it's this experiment's urgency which overrides any doubt Reed might have had in this Thing's bona fides, consider that it doesn't stand to reason that Reed would place his life in the hands of a man whose identity he wasn't absolutely sure about. (Of course, the whole experiment is moot anyway, since Reed has already explored faster-than-light usage of "sub-space," but he's probably not about to listen to me in his current state. Maybe he'll be mollified with the knowledge that he's actually discovered the Negative Zone, an "offshoot" of sub-space, instead.)

As we've seen, the Thing (whose thought expressions shift back and forth between his own and those that Ben Grimm would have, for whatever reason) has begun to see Reed in a different light other than a man who seeks fame and publicity--but it's when Reed is endangered that the intruder finds his conscience, leading to a moment of sacrifice through which he comes to terms with his wasted life.

(Whatever "extreme conditions" the Thing speaks of which has caused Reed to don a protective helmet are apparently enough to give pause to Mr. Fantastic, a man whose elastic body could conceivably withstand such conditions--though I've probably picked the wrong moment to quibble about such a minor observation.)

Unknown to Reed and Sue, the death of the doppelganger has caused the real Ben Grimm to revert to the Thing once more, a moment where he decides to accept (at least for now) that the possibility of his ever existing again in human form is just a pipe dream. Time would tell on that score, of course--but for now, there's a happy reunion to look forward to, as well as an acknowledgment of the heroism of a mysterious man who turned his life around, better late than never.


This issue's cover would  receive a makeover six years later, courtesy of artist Sal Buscema.



dangermash aka The Artistic Actuary said...

I thought that if you take a look through the whole of this issue, there's only a single panel where superpowers are used, Johnny setting his thumb in fire in a Uni coffee shop just to illustrate his powers to other students without creating a scene. But looking at this post, there's Ben trashing a wall at the beginning. Oh well.

Darren Clayton said...

No, you are correct - the wall smashing was from the previous issue. The Torch’s thumb flame is indeed the only time one of the FF uses their powers in this issue.

Big Murr said...

The identity debate is where my suspension of disbelief snapped. As you say, CF, a dead ringer for Ben Grimm is cause for all kinds of consternation, not "just some kooky street person". Super Skrull, androids, etc, etc all could "easily imitate" the Thing. After that scene, my interest in the story is at arm's length. It's one of those stories where pesky details are swept aside wholesale for a Deep and Meaningful Moment.

A lesser frown came with the mystery man and his all too compressed back story. He "spent a lifetime creating my duplication apparatus" do what? It therefore would be a project that started long before the appearance of the Fantastic Four. What was mystery man intending to duplicate? He was an odd-looking fellow...perhaps he originally had big plans to lure Rock Hudson or John Wayne into his apartment and steal their appearance?

Dangermash and Darren - I would challenge this "no powers" assertion. I would count the Thing crushing a titanium bar like a pop can a demonstration of superpower, not to mention lifting a massive piece of machinery with one hand. Less spectacular, the Thing hurling Reed out of the Negative Zone like a fastball is beyond human levels.

Colin Jones said...

This story also appeared in the second FF Treasury Edition which is where I first read it.

dangermash aka The Artistic Actuary said...

That's not The Thing crushing that bar, Murr, it's the imposter. I should have said the flaming thumb was the only example of one of the original four using their superpower.

Comicsfan said...

Come to think of it, "kooky street person" also had to have the FF's private elevator key to get up to see Reed, Sue, and "the Thing" unannounced, Murray. (Or else he took the stairs, which unauthorized visitors have been known to do.)