1961: The Thing is Already the Heart and Soul of the Marvel Universe
There’s a weird balance I have to strike when writing The Marvel Years of staying in the “moment” of the era vs. bringing in my pre-existing knowledge of Marvel’s entire history. I already loved these characters going in, but what I hadn’t considered was when I would fall in love with these characters again in the context of the chronological timeline.
I wouldn’t have guessed it would be so soon, but it’s already happened. In 1961. In Marvel’s second ever issue of continuity. In Fantastic Four #2, I’ve found love in Benjamin Grimm, The Thing.
In his first appearance just a few months prior, Ben Grimm made his debut as the pilot of Reed Richards’ daring space venture. He hadn’t left much of an emotional impact in that initial appearance; first playing wet blanket to Reed’s dreams, then as an ill-tempered monster who resulted from that fateful trip.
The ill-temper was warranted, given that his life had been forever changed that day, cursed to live out the rest of his days as a monster. But, that emotional arc wasn’t really sold in the first issue. We were left to assume as much, but it wasn’t made a priority of the story at hand. As such, it became an afterthought to the formation of the team and the subsequent battle with the Mole Man.
In Fantastic Four #2 the weight of his transformation is finally felt. In this story, the Fantastic Four are framed for a series of crimes and forced to hide out away from civilization as wanted criminals. Cabin fever quickly sets in, and The Thing starts yet another fight with Reed Richards.
In that fight, all of Ben’s inner torment spills out. He blames Reed for the transformation that made him into a thing, and what’s worse – the other three all went through a similar transformation, but they can all revert to human beings at will. It’s easy for them to remain calm when they all have the benefit of both superpowers AND a human appearance. Ben’s always going to be viewed as a monster, and their current predicament of being wanted criminals further drives that point home for Ben.
What’s even more tragic is the way that Sue and Johnny respond to this. Instead of feeling for him, or even pitying him, they’re terrified of their old friend. They’re already thinking about how to “take him out”, if necessary.
This B-plot reaches its conclusion towards the end of the book. The FF have gone into space to deal with the alien Skrull menace and clear their names. On their way back down to Earth, their ship is bathed in the same cosmic rays that caused their initial transformation into super beings.
The Thing feels himself transforming again, and can’t bear to face the results this time. We cut forward to Earth, where The Thing learns in dramatic fashion that he has indeed changed – but back into his human form of Ben Grim!
The exuberant thrill and relief that Jack Kirby draws into Ben’s expression, are only matched a few panels later by the utter dejection The Thing expresses when he finds out that the reversion was temporary. Or, as The Thing puts it, “It was just a joke!! Yeah – a real funny joke!”.
Ben will let his anger get the better of him from time to time, but unlike the Hulk, the secret isn’t that he’s always angry. The secret is that he’s sad. Much like Spider-Man jokes to hide his nervousness, The Thing’s humor is used to mask his dejection.
Instead of using this setback to fuel a hatred for humanity, or as an excuse to take what he wants, or simply as a sign to give up – Ben keeps on doing what he has the power to do, which is being a hero. Shortly after experiencing the universe’s cruelest joke, The Thing bottles his emotions long enough to take care of the remaining Skrull invaders who still pose a threat to Earth.
The Thing is the first perfect synthesis of Kirby's grand ideas and Stan Lee's humanizing touch in the early years of the Marvel Universe, and this issue is the first time they've gelled on something that's truly unique to that era of the medium.
The Thing is the prototype of a Marvel hero, he exemplifies what makes these characters so different. He’s flawed, he’s haunted, he’s fallible. Despite the outward appearance, he’s a living, breathing human being. But most importantly, he’s a hero through it all.
And what’s more, you just want to give the poor guy a hug.