Friday, August 6, 2010

The Best Thing Lee and Kirby Ever Came Up With

There was a time, in the 80's when I was a full-out Marvel Zombie. Marvel comics, and the Marvel Universe were the be-all and end-all for me. Sure, Batman was always my favorite, but Superman and the rest had slipped into a pool of mediocrity. It took Crisis on Infinite Earth, and major reboots for the entire line to get DC cooking on all burners.

Example: The Flash is my second-favorite superhero character. That would absolutely not have been true before Crisis on Infinite Earths, which features the death of the original Silver-Age Flash, Barry Allen, and the ascension of former Kid-Flash, Wally West, to the mantle. Wally's youth, and his clear feelings of inferiority in regards to his mentor and taking over his role were what hooked me on the character.

It was that sort of thing, the sense that change, though it might not be permanent (nothing in comics is), would be explored to the fullest, that got me hooked on DC over Marvel. Wally remained the Flash for over 20 years, Barry returning only recently.

However, Marvel does have great characters. No one can deny it, and the original characters, the ones that laid the foundation of the "House of Ideas," are still able to enthrall me if used correctly. Stan Lee's work with Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko is a monument of creativity and pushing the medium forward. If only Spider-Man (with Ditko) had arose out of that period, it would've been extraordinary.

But it wasn't just Peter Parker, with his teen-age angst and money problems. Lee and Kirby, in Fantastic Four #1, gave us a creation that will always strike me as a true diamond in the Marvel universe. A character that was just as much an "everyman" as Peter Parker, but from a completely different angle.

I'm talking about Benjamin J. Grimm

The Ever-Lovin', Blue-Eyed Thing.

There are few characters that can provide so much grounding to any story you put them in. Ben Grimm is one of those characters, and it's no accident that he was the linchpin for one of Marvel's long-running team-up books, Marvel Two-in-One. His blue-collar, kid-from-the-streets sensibility allows him to provide a human grounding to even the most fantastical stories, and his membership in the Fantastic Four, who aren't so much super-heroes as explorers, allows him to feel at home in those fantastical stories.

Literally, you can make a case for Ben fitting in any story, from a gritty tale of street life to a galaxy-spanning hunt for a cosmic maguffin. When he's entered the story, he's a character we can always identify with. For, you see, Ben Grimm represents all of us, in a way that is far more primal, and less cliche' than Peter Parker's soap opera girl problems.

The Thing is a monster, at least we're told he is. It's how he refers to himself constantly, and more than a few little old ladies have fainted upon sight of him. He's a man trapped within his physical form, and I can't think of a single person who's never felt that way. Unlike Marvel's other monster-heroes, such as The Hulk or the Man-Thing, he's trapped in this form forever, and he knows it.

Burce Banner is not always the Hulk, he gets regular respites away from the beastly creature, and he remembers nothing of what has happened. The Hulk is, literally, an alter ego. An entirely different persona that Banner knows is there, and is haunted by, but does not have to directly confront (usually). The Man-Thing, as we are repeatedly told, does not think. It's an instinctual creature, more a force of nature than anything else.

Ben Grimm is a man, a common man in many ways (grown up on Yancy Street as a tough New York kid), and uncommon in others (a test pilot), but a man who is now trapped in this rocky form. Trapped by the actions of his best friend, no less. Always apart from the world around him, unable to travel and feel as the rest of us do, buried under that orange hide. Like many of us, when we feel trapped inside physical forms that are not as wonderful or perfect as we might like, we can rage and feel sorry for ourselves.

Ben is no exception.

Even lashing out at his closest friends

I should point out that "Alicia" is Ben's long-time girlfriend, who's blind. Yeah, yeah, Lee and Kirby didn't work in subtleties. It's melodrama folks, in the absolute best sense of the word, and originality isn't the most important thing.

So, yes, Ben is a tragic figure. However, he's also a character who never allows that to wholly define him. The joy that rises up within this character is infectious and allows us to see him as even more of a hero for not allowing his tragic state to be the entirety of his being. The Thing is a trigger for comedy on many levels, and rarely at the character's expense, but in his joy for life.

(these two are in sequence - click for larger)

(Click for larger version)

In the best sense of those who put aside their own baggage to get the job done, The Thing is always the first to leap into danger for others. His self-sacrifice is almost without bounds. One of the things that the makers of the recent Fantastic Four movies, particularly the first one, is that Ben is the emotional core of the group. The choice he's often given, just like in the movie, is between the chance to be human again, and the lives of his friends.

Side note: There are a lot of problems with the two films they made, but Michael Chiklis' Ben Grimm (and Chris Evans' Johnny Storm) is not one of them. If only the other half of the team had been cast so well...Not to mention the stunningly bad version of Doctor Doom they came up with.

He's always tempted, because Grimm is nothing if not painfully human, but his love for his family (and the Fantastic Four is a family, not a team) always wins out. Ben would rather die than see any harm come to them, and the deep love they return is some of the greatest moments you'll find in the Fantastic Four book.

(Click for bigger)

Of course, the love Alicia gives Ben is just as selfless, no matter how much he want's to believe it's just because she can't see him. Alicia, and the readers, know it's the selfless, pure sould that lies within that she's really in love with.

Ben is known for moments of self-sacrifice that rival even Peter Parker's. Spider-Man tends to hit us flat in the gut with the weight Peter carries, with constant references to the people he's letting down, and how Aunt May would never be able to handle learning that Peter died as Spider-Man. The Thing, on the other hand, always seems to have a grumpy wisecrack, and gets the job done.

(Click for bigger)

...Maybe that's what I relate to.

I guess what it comes down to, is that the Marvel Universe, which was built on the basis of heroes that just felt more human than what you would find at DC or the other companies, has no character that feels more human to me than Ben Grimm. Grumpy, loudmouthed, angry, sweet, gentle, honorable, steadfast Ben Grimm. When I read that character, written well (because any character can be awful if you don't use them well), he reminds be of the best of humanity. Humanity at it's weakest and strongest, it's most noble and self-centered. He is, truly, a great creation.

If you're looking for great Thing/Ben Grimm stories, this list from the Comics Should Be Good website is a great place to start.

Personally, I'd recommend:

The Thing series form 2006, with Dan Slott writing, and the majority of art by the fantastic Andrea Di Vito. It was canceled after only eight wonderful issues. It's a crime it's not still going, as I, personally, believe it to be the best thing Marvel has put out in 20 years. There's a collected edition, but I believe it's out of print, as well. But you can find it around.

There's also the Essential Fantastic Four collections, which are in black and white, but a tremendous value with 20+ issues for less than $20.

The same is available for Marvel Two-in-One, and those are great "80's Marvel" fun.

One last thing.

(No pun intended)

I want to share a page from the Fantastic Four vs. The X-Men mini-series. Not a terrific series, but I find this a great moment. The set-up is this, Rogue, an X-Man with the ability to "steal" powers, attempts to do so to Ben. Part of Rogue's deal is that in stealing powers as she does, she also takes a bit of the victim's personality, memories and emotions. With The Thing, she gets a bit more than she expected.

(click for bigger - it gets REALLY big)

1 comment:

  1. Mark, this totally made me hate you a lot less. ;)

    Ben Grimm blog entry!?--You're the tops, Mark Pracht!