In which the Blogger comes across a three-panel sequence from a decades old issue of the FF while writing a piece on Jonathan Hickman's Fantastic Four, and finds himself writing about a series of matters which very much don't refer to Mr Hickman's enjoyable portrayal of The Thing, to which we'll come back to later;
In the Marvel Universe of today, where, as we've discussed before, super-heroes are becoming more and more of a quite distinct and separate class, it's become far harder for writers to maintain that fundamental quality of alienation which marked out most of the company's successful characters in the Sixties. In potraying a world where superheroes don't just fight together, but work together, sleep together, marry and even provide baby-minding services for each other, Marvel has made it incresingly difficult for the reader to believe that any of their line-leading characters are as absolutely estranged from society, let alone from themselves,as the likes of Ben Grimm and Peter Parker so touchingly once were.
The MU of 2011 is one in which a largely impermeable strata of superheroes now exists, monopolising a variety of fundamental opportunities and rewards. The only way for the likes of you and I to share in the bounties our costumed protectors can access is to serve them, marry them or, through chance or design, join their numbers. Conversely, the only way that a superhero can conceivably suffer any kind of overwhelming conflict or disadvantage is if they reject the willingness of their fellows to help them. Matt Murdock, for example, had to be quite clearly traumatised before he'd reject the "intervention" of four of his peers in Brian Michael Bendis's "Daredevil" # 56.
It's simply no longer an easy thing to buy into the idea that the X-Men are relatively powerless, that Spider-Man is an outsider, that the superhero community couldn't make sure that anyone filling Bruce Banner's previous role of blameless public enemy number 1 wouldn't receive proper and appropriate care if they surrendered. It takes far more of a willing suspension of disbelief to buy into the outsider-friendly qualities of most of Marvel's superheroes today than it does to believe that women can fly and men burst into flame, and when such a suspension can be achieved, it's usually only because the character involved has been portrayed as being either psychologically damaged or stupid, or both.
The message seems clear; the only reason that a superhero can't find a welcoming home and a mass of support is if they're either not clever enough to seek the aid of their peers or not well liked enough by them. (Yet, given how fundamentally decent the superhero community is, it really would take a fantastic degree of unpleasantness to push a fellow hyper-person entirely beyond the pale. This is, after all, a class which now has Quicksilver teaching their children! They look after their own and the law is often quite irrelevant to their class interests.) From being the ultimate outsiders, the representatives of those of us who felt to a greater or lesser degree on the outside of society and its rewards, the superhero now actually is society. Once these bright and shiny characters were symbols of adolescence and non-conformity, yet now they're actually our parents.
And anyone with the slightest grasp of political theory and history knows where this story of a society containing such a disproportionately powerful and obviously distinct class would be heading if superhero fiction could truly reflect human nature and experience; a real civil war and one form or another of elite rule, I'd presume. (Is it possible that J. Jonah Jameson was right where the big picture is concerned and wrong only on the details?) It's enough to make a blogger wonder if something of the success of Mr Kirkman's "Marvel Zombies" was that the book unintentionally tapped into a truth that we readers are all having to work so hard to deny; perhaps these superwomen, hypermen and cosmic-children of the non-zombie Marvel-Earth and beyond really are eating up everyone else's life-chances, if not their flesh. Typical people, already more and more marginalised in the modern West with the hardening of class boundaries and the decline of social mobility, wouldn't stand a chance in the MU, which is surely a problem, because it was many of those "typical people" that the superheroes of Stan Lee's Marvel Revolution succeeded in representing in the first place
I wonder if this is one among the many reasons why the superhero comic-book, from both DC as well as Marvel, has so declined in mass popularity? These books aren't representing any constituency beyond those who are already in love with the superhero and their immersive continuities anymore. The superhero narrative is now far more about the powerful and their transient burdens than it is about the relatively powerless. But it was the relatively powerless that these comics once spoke so beguilingly to.
In a culture which adores celebrity, and obsesses over it almost without regard for how it was or was not acquired, it can be hard to remember that fame and modesty, privilege and awkwardness, aren't necessarily mutually exclusive qualities. It was once a given, for example, that Ben Grimm was painfully shy of his appearance and of the attention it drew to him, just as he was ashamed of how untypical he looked. The latter of those traumas is as often as not ignored today, and that's all to the good. As Mark Millar had his character Debbie Green note, Ben Grimm's physical appearance wouldn't seem so monstrous to a population familiar with him and the root cause of his appearance; to Debbie, Ben Grimm has a "skin condition" which Cosmic Ray radiation has caused him. He's not a great rocky Kirby-esque superhero to her, but a man who's suffered terribly and done his best to cope with all that's happened to him. And in a culture which is in part attempting to celebrate rather than stigmatise difference, a Ben Grimm who's mortified by his own body sends out some rather questionable messages. Yet simply to show The Thing coming to terms with the changes to his body needn't mean he abandons that which was once one of his most endearing qualities, namely his moments of shyness and modesty.
*1 Millar is never given credit for (a) realising that the Thing needs a tragic dimension and (b) creating that not from his appearance but from his decency in refusing to marry the woman he so dearly loved because of the danger it'd put her into, and (c) dealing with that hoary old obscenity of how those who are different should be kept away from those they might upset. Given that he's always the Great Satan with some folks, of course (sigh), I doubt Millar will be given the credit he's due from some quarters for displaying the empathy he supposedly entirely lacks.
Certainly, from the vantage point of the culture of 2011, it's become extremely hard to imagine the Marvel-Earth's Ben Grimm as an outcast, as a man mocked and cruelly ostracised by most if not all of society because of his supposedly terrifying appearance. His very uniqueness and distinctiveness matched by his achievements and his capabilities would undoubtedly make him a darling of the various modern medias and a great number of the public too. His sense of humour, his ability to communicate without pretension, his hang-dog and counter-intuitively cute and vulnerable appearance; Ben Grimm simply wouldn't provoke the wholescale negative response today that was a given in 1961, when the character first appeared, and when being seen to be normal and conventional was far more of a social prerequisite.
Indeed, The Thing has a whole series of advantages where public perception is concerned in comparison to typical women, men and children who've so tragically suffered disfigurement; Grimm is after all identifiably whole and his features are symmetrical, while his appearance as such is different enough from the norm to defeat a great deal of the unfair shock and revulsion facing folks who are both recognisably physical typical and yet noticeably not too. He's associated with heroism and a status-rich community, and, in that context, folks are used to him and to the respect that others of standing have for him. In that sense, it's actually very hard to consider using Ben Grimm as a metaphor for physical disfigurement as he once crudely but successfully was; certainly the metaphor has to be played with in a far more careful way than once might have been the case, when society had a less nuanced view of the issue and The Thing's superheroic career would've been less known to his fellow civilians.
Where modesty ends and shame begins is a difficult question to answer where Ben Grimm is concerned, yet there's often been a keen sense that he's as desperate to avoid public attention as he is to sidestep other's awareness of his difference. The practise of showing The Thing wandering Manhattan barely disguised in a fedora and an extra-large Mac has always seemed to me to be at least in part about his wanting to retain his anonymity, to be able to exist in the city he grew up in without being a defining characteristic of someone else's experience of it. In the three beautifully judged panels by John Buscema and Joe Sinnot from the "Fantastic Four" # 129 reproduced below, for example, we're shown Ben Grimm preparing for such a wander across the island, and it's easy to imagine that Grimm's desire to not "be conspicuous" is motivated by his wanting to avoid attention rather than a fear of, and a weariness of, causing shock and offense to ignorant others.
The truth is, of course, that Grimm might surely have come more to terms with how others regard him after almost 15 years of the FF's publication than he was often shown in this period. But the fact that people often do learn to deal at least in significant part with their disfigurements and move on shouldn't blind even the most vehement of the politically correct from denying that, now as then, there will always sadly be significant numbers who are intolerant if not actively cruel to those who are self-evidently physically different. I'm not suggesting in any way that The Thing should exist in some kind of sanitised cloud cuckoo land where everyone loves him so much that they break into happy smiles and show tunes expressing positive psychology as he approaches. Quite the contrary is true, for this is an issue which can't be too underplayed. The balance has to be created between Ben's sense of loss and the worth of the new life he's found, between society's
relative tolerance and the worst of the prejudice which so often still exists. As such, it's an interesting and laudable choice in FF # 554, for example, to have Debbie Green worrying that Ben's appearance might "upset the kids", and to have her polite but prejudiced attitude transformed without speeches or tearful conversions as the Hitch/Miller series progresses. There's surely no doubt that The Thing would still face bigotry, and of the demure "don't scare the citizens" sort as well as public displays of revulsion. I'm just suggesting that there always ought to be a difference between how Ben regards himself and how others do. Let some others be appalled by him, but he shouldn't be ashamed. Similarly, he'll undoubtedly regret, and at times with some measure of genuine heart-break, the loss of his old body and the capacities it brought with it, both physically and socially, but that's not the same thing at all as his being portrayed as distraught at his otherness.
But Ben Grimm must surely, after all this time, be terribly bored and weary of so much of society's rudeness towards him, regards of how solid his self-esteem may or may not be. After all, discrimination doesn't have to be an actively malicious business, as we all know. It can be the torture of always being made to be aware of being different, even as that difference is treated with every attempt at courtesy and respect.
In this brief three-panel sequence, we're presented with Grimm's desire not to be judged on his appearance and his reputation, for good or for ill, as he sets out from the Baxter Building to his girlfriend Alicia's home. In the first panel, his sense of his own powerlessness in this situation is emphasised by Mr Buscema's decision to portray him from an askew high-angle. By being placed in such a way as the reader is looking down on Grimm, The Thing's own sense of isolation and helplessness is emphasised, for he looks strangely tiny and toy-like. Similarly, the choice to have the line of the bottom of the wall behind him extending up at an angle of approximately 45% makes his world seem seriously out of kilter, as if he's just about to tumble from the panel if that right leg of his wasn't braced as it is, if the black inks of his right-facing shadow weren't holding him into the frame. Leaving the Baxter Building is obviously a matter of abandoning security and predictability for a far less pleasant and reasonable world.
In the second panel, below, Grimm is again a victim of geometry. Just to walk from the base of one flight of stairs to the top of the next involves him having to walk upwards in a landscape which is always tipping him over to the left, as if Grimm's reality was a ship that's just about to tip and sink. It's clearly an exhausting and lonely shadowed world for Grimm to be plodding downwards through, and descending through the thirty-five stories of the Baxter Building would surely be a tedious, lonely and dispiriting experience. From the air-conditioned privacy of the Fantastic Four's technological castle of a home down to street level feels like a fall from heaven to at the very least purgatory. The degree to which Grimm longs to avoid the attention of the Baxter Building's lobby and the expectant tourists there is wordlessly accentuated here, and it's credit to writer Roy Thomas that he avoids ladling on the angst in this scene. His restraint is as well-judged as is the precision by which those word-balloons of his are placed, for at this moment in his career, Mr Thomas was second only to Stan Lee in that vastly under-estimated skill.
It's that last panel which is perhaps the best judged of the three. There's the saddest irony present in the fact that Ben's desire to stay incognito has so obviously failed and yet he retains his disguise . Hemmed in by the vertical emphasis of the panel's design, with the straight lines of buildings and the ranks of people separating as he plods onconstraining him, this is a shot of a man who has no choice, in body and spirit, but to keep going without looking from left to right. Even the forefront of the panel is dominated by the faces of people who won't respect Grimm's privacy, an element which creates the sense of a man who's entirely encircled by a lack of compassion. Certainly, even if the shocked passers by don't recognise him as the Fantastic Four's strong-man and pilot, then they're considerably shaken by his size and mass. Yet it's notable that The Thing isn't walking down back-alleys or hugging the edge of the pavement here. Now that he's in public, he's making his way down the middle of the pavement as if he's made all the accommodations that he's going to make, as if he's got an absolute right to be there.
Which of course he does.
Yet the truth is that he's already felt obliged to make far too much of an effort to avoid attracting the attention of his fellow citizens, and in making the choices he has, we're presented with a picture of a man who both doesn't believe he belongs and yet who refuses to let that completely stop him from living as most other people can. In this light, walking on and failing to give way to some of New York's more fashionable citizens seems exactly what The Thing ought to be doing. If folks can't recognise the Thing by now and be respectful of him for all he's done for their society, well, let them hop out of his way with a frown and a look of disconcertion. It's their problem, not his. Ben Grimm's just out for a night-time walk to see his girlfriend.
What is these people's problem?
But I fear that I often struggle to believe in the essential loneliness of Ben Grimm today, although I'm still quite convinced by the suffering and courage of the character caught so elegantly and perceptively in the three-panel sequence above. And without that tragedy, the character looses a great deal of its dignity and appeal, and becomes on occasion just a big cheerful orange-skinned bloke with all the power and friends in the world. A celebrity, a millionaire, a superhero on several world-saving teams; a winner.
And though I'm glad for Ben Grimm that he's at times shown coming out well ahead, I worry that this great class of superheroes is making it more and more impossible for even the most brilliantly designed of characters to stand for anything other than success, to carry any other meaning beyond that of a winner with, at worst, a few problems to be dealt with.
When all that a superhero can often stand for is the fact of being a superhero, then the sub-genre is, if I might suggest, in something of a crisis.