The Thing

March 13, 2017
Other Titles

The Thing

Year: 1983-1986
Writers: John Byrne (17 issues), Mike Carlin (18 issues) and Bob Harras (1 issue)
Pencillers: Ron Wilson (33 issues) and Paul Neary (3 issues)
Rating: ***

The Thing was a commendable attempt to do something different with the superhero format, placing Ben into adventures that were more cerebral and fit less traditionally within the superhero genre. As an example, only around half of the 36 issues featured Ben in some form of physical conflict, and even then, sometimes it was within the sport of wrestling, or in a battle within his own mind.

Following on directly from Marvel Two-In-One, the technical quality of the title greatly improved. Ron Wilson, while never perhaps one of the greats, had become a much more dependable artist, even if his ability to keep continuity between panels wasn't always reliable. His take on the Thing developed a more iconic look for the time, as Ron did pencils on the first 17 issues, followed by breakdowns on the next 16. The final three issues had Paul Neary on pencils/breakdowns.

Sadly, while well-meaning and relatively engaging, the series perhaps doesn't achieve its full potential. The middle third of the book, running from Issues #11-#22, as well as a crossover into Fantastic Four Issue #274 (***) , is the story of Ben on "Battleworld", the deserted planet created by the Beyonder for Secret Wars. Ben stays behind on the planet, where he can change back to human form at will, and wants to deal with his feelings of estrangement from Alicia. Having thirteen issues exploring the nature of Ben's unconscious and his complete isolation is, in theory, a sound one. Sadly, while Byrne, Carlin (and, for one issue) Harras are fine writers, they perhaps lack the real imagination to take this concept to its wildest extremes. Rather than being some esoteric Solaris in a print genre, it instead travels very familiar routes, including Ben's imagination bringing back Doctor Doom and his own dark self. The revelation that he invented his own lover (Tarianna) and killed the embodiment of his human form are interesting, but there's the nagging feeling that the Battleworld issues could have been weirder, stranger, and truly broken new ground.

Ultimately any Marvel comic is constrained by its natural format, and while Marvel has produced many worthwhile entries to the form, it's always going to be within somewhat limited - albeit entertaining - parameters. This is why the enjoyable Marvel feature films often feel like a production line. Marvel are in the business of mass entertainment, and so while the Hulk also got trapped in isolation (in the multidimensional "Crossroads") five months after Ben did, this is still not the arena of Charles Burns or the Hernandez brothers.

The best of the comic comes with the first ten issues, which see the stronger stories, including Ben ruminating on splitting up with Alicia after all the trouble he drags her into. Although this was very much a common element of Marvel Two-In-One, it comes to pass here, and has genuine consequences for the character. More a question of taste are stories where Byrne writes Lockjaw as a talking Inhuman who was mutated, or Issue #8, where Assistant Editor Ann Nocenti is drawn covered in bandages on the letters page, as Ben has given her a beating. With the comic over 30 years old, maybe it's taking it all too seriously, but it is still a shock to see "Ben beats up as a woman" being used as a "joke" in the title. 

However, the 1980s saw superhero comics take a darker turn, and Issue #26 has Ben - a character well-known for never hitting women - comfortably KO a circus "fat lady" off-panel as she reminded him of an old teacher. Marvel's body image issues for women - produced at a time when size 14 Volcana was "fat" in Secret Wars - takes another hit with such a turn of events. Even worse is the ending to Issue #16, where Ben - under mind control - hits his girlfriend Tarianna six times, apparently killing her for a cliffhanger, before this is abruptly glossed over. (When Ben returned to Earth, he'd meet Sharon Ventura, who resembled Tarianna without explanation, and would receive an even worse treatment at the hands of writers before joining the Fantastic Four.)

Where the book falls short of its potential - and the reason why a Thing title again gets just an average rating - is the final 14 issues, which see the aftermath of Ben back on Earth. It starts off well enough, even though Mike Carlin struggles to capture Ben's voice ("That planet split my subconscious in two, an' manifested my darkest traits in an evil human form." is one of his unlikeliest sayings) but soon descends into some of the poorest issues yet. The Two-In-One saga of Alicia as a giant spider seems like a pleasant memory after Ben gets involved with leprechauns, a motorcycle wrestling gang and "Gator", a jealous wrestler who uses voodoo to match Ben's strength, before actually turning into an alligator. No, honestly.

Perhaps what's most surprising about these issues is how many pivotal developments in the Fantastic Four are revealed here. Reed and Sue deciding to leave the Baxter Building and Ben, Reed and Johnny being zapped from Central Park to take part in Secret Wars are all things that take place in these pages, not in the pages of the main title. There's also the introduction of Sharon Ventura, aka Ms. Marvel. The following year Ben would return to lead the Fantastic Four and ask Sharon to join the team.

The title had some decent sales figures, actually considerably higher than Marvel Two-In-One. A statement for the months August 1983-1984 (Issue #24) had the title selling just under 219,000 on average, though when Ron Wilson left the title (to work on Masters of the Universe and Wolfpack) it seemed as if the lack of available resources was a contributing factor. With Marvel's New Universe line being released in October 1986, six titles were cancelled to make way, and The Thing was one of them, ending in July of the same year. (It should be noted that no other sales figures were provided throughout the run, and that the first post-Byrne issue had dropped below 179,000, which may have been a continuing trend).

This does, unfortunately, leave the title with many unanswered questions. Not unique to the title - who was the mysterious "hippy" who shot the Miracle Man in Issue #24? - but here an entire subplot was lost between editorial teams. In Issue #30 Ben completely snaps, and almost murders the Beyonder... the following issue he gets the first of some random dizzy spells and headaches, with it not being clear if the two are related. This continues until the final issue, whereby Ben mutates without explanation, and flees, wanting to be alone rather than anyone see him in the condition.

With his title cancelled, Ben's story continued in West Coast Avengers #9 and #10, which take place either side of his transformation. A guest star in the title for six issues, with #9 he finally decided to join the team... but with #10 he goes on the run, too ashamed of his mutated appearance to even be seen by his would-be teammates. The next appearance of Ben in a Marvel comic was his return to the Fantastic Four title with #296. Oddly, Ben looks the same as he always did in his return to the FF, and although Reed states that his cellular mutation had gone "into remission" during his stay with the Mole Man, we see him looking the same before he visited Mole Island. 

Three issues later Ben mentioned his condition to She-Hulk, but as he's not sure what caused it himself, it doesn't shed any further light on affairs. It's left to Steve Englehart to attempt to address it in July 1987 (Fantastic Four #304) and, the following month, West Coast Avengers #23. Both issues see Ben state that the Mole Man's machines "stabilised" his condition. While this is clearly a retcon, it can be forgiven, as it closes the chapter, but it still leaves the unanswered question of what exactly caused the mutation in the first place. After this point it's conveniently forgotten and never referenced again, or explained, an oddly discarded plot point that fell between the cracks of a cancelled title.

Ultimately The Thing stands as a relatively entertaining title that failed to live up to its true potential, and suffered from having its run prematurely curtailed.

It Started On Yancy Street (Part Four):

Ben as a man who grew up on Yancy Street is now completely set in stone (no pun intended) and consolidated by a first issue here where we get to see his life in flashback. Ben's previously-unknown brother gets murdered in a gang fight, and we also see Ben's parents die. As writer John Byrne is busy retconning Ben's life, he also gives us another contradiction relating to Victor Von Doom: we see Ben and Doom meet at university, another thing that Ben claimed never happened in 60s issues of the FF.

From this point on, it became a fixed part of Ben's background, with his wrestling debut (Issue #28) introducing him as "all the way from Yancy Street". Their first-ever mention (In The Fantastic Four #6) saw the Thing say to Johnny that "I've heard from those mealy-mouthed braggarts before! They get their kicks out of tryin' to rile me!" Even more significant is Fantastic Four Issue #29, which has an offscreen FF member describe them as "just a gang who hates us" and Ben describing the place merely as "a neighborhood". In fact, so unprovoked is the Yancy Street Gang's attack at the start of the issue that Reed suspects the Puppet Master might be behind it....

Byrne's somewhat anal obsession with explaining away the FF's past also gave us other, previously-ignored scraps of continuity: when the Fantastic Four first started they lived in a very DC-ish "Central City", and only began living in New York, without explanation, from Issue #3. Anyone who worried unduly for 21 years about such matters would have had their minds put to rest by Ben, confirming that they moved, and that "Central City" is located in California. The same story also introduces a previous love of Ben's, Alynn, a rarely-seen romantic element in the life of a curiously sexless man, even before his genitals turned to orange rock. The real romance of this particular title is between Ben and Tarianna... who later turns out to be a figment of his imagination. Poor Ben never had it easy.

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