The Thing that outlived midcentury conformism

The Fantastic Four including Ben Grimm, aka “The Thing,” have been around for a little more than 60 years now. I have no more than a very limited idea what has gone on with the character during the most recent third of that.

But something occurred to me yesterday, which seems interesting enough to note. Did the original concept of The Thing, as a character tortured by his transformation into a monster, rely on a conformist culture which is now very obsolete—and has the character concept evolved in response?

This is complicated to answer in any definitive way, for a lot of reasons. As noted, I know a good deal about the first two-thirds of the character’s existence and considerably less since then. I know that even the original concept was multi-dimensional. There was a comic element to The Thing from very early on, along with the tragic tortured element. From nearly as early on, the creators introduced occasional questions about whether or not Grimm completely wanted to be human again.

In the 1980s, John Byrne took those questions and other context from the early years, and invented from it a premise that Grimm was never stuck as a monster; instead, he always had the ability to turn his powers on and off like his teammates, but subconsciously suppressed that ability because of anxiety that the girlfriend he picked up a few issues into The Fantastic Four would lose interest in him as an ordinary human. While not a bad or unreasonable idea, this was probably never going to last; even after revealing it and breaking up the couple, Byrne himself inevitably invented new reasons to keep a traditional stuck-as-monster version of The Thing. By the 1990s, when I began reading, the premise had been quietly retconned out of the picture.

Still, it was actually re-reading an early story by Byrne—the 100th and final issue of the original Marvel Two-in-One series—which made me wonder about shifting cultural contexts. At the end of MTIO #100, Grimm muses about his life versus an alternate timeline Ben Grimm who got and stayed cured; primary timeline Grimm awkwardly considers that (probably owing to his counterpart being stuck on a postapocalyptic ruined world) he might be the better off of them.

That got me thinking of Stan Lee Meets The Thing, published I guess c. 2006. These were playful stories, probably not considered canon, but Grimm’s attitude in the story seems like it could “count” in some sense nonetheless. When (in a kind of fourth-wall-bending meta moment) Lee proposes rewriting the character’s story so that Grimm never becomes The Thing, Grimm angrily vetoes the suggestion, pointing out that he’s got a great life as a celebrity hero and “the idol of millions.”

Now, again, I don’t know the current Fantastic Four stories at all, and have only spotty knowledge of the past 20 years. But the appreciation for his life as The Thing (even when not comparing it to being human but on a ruined world) doesn’t seem completely removed from even the canon stories of the past two or three decades. I would imagine that something still persists of the original concept of Reed Richards, who really regrets screwing up his best friend’s life with the science experiment that made Grimm into a big orange rock-man. But it seems to me like the intensity has gone out of being angry, and tortured, as a monster and a freak.

One might say that happened a long time ago, and probably in part because writers just didn’t always feel like dwelling on it. The Fantastic Four’s 25th anniversary issue, published when I were just a lad, included a “Ben Grimm lets go of being enraged at Reed Richards for the consequences of the rocket flight for which Grimm signed up entirely aware of the dangers” moment.

Still, I can’t help wondering if the whole concept of the tortured mutated freak depended in part on a cultural conformism which is not only past, but now way past.

The Fantastic Four were created in 1961, by two guys around my current age, i.e. not kids. They were still writing from somewhere within, I would think, essentially the conformist world of post-war suburban 1950s America. Both Lee and Kirby were relative oddballs, in different ways, but that context seems like it might matter. I’m not sure if looking different from “normal people” would have seemed so automatically isolating at any point since Puritan New England.

Obviously things have changed. But, maybe lately, they have really changed?

One might observe that by 10 years into The Fantastic Four, The Marvel Universe or at least its New York City was logically way past our own world’s definition of “normal.” Atlanteans and gods and aliens walked around everywhere, along with all the goofballs in nutty costumes. But, in addition to the limits of how much The Marvel Universe is ever allowed to diverge from our own “real world” society regardless of what might be logical, superheroes and supervillains were still in some real sense a special category, and lots of them could and did slip back into normal human lives in-between punch-ups.

I wonder if the 21st century has just stretched our own world’s definition of “normal human lives” enough that Ben Grimm feeling intense angst about being The Thing just doesn’t seem to fit?

We live at a time when flying your freak flag is mainstream prime-time television, to the extent that there is still a mainstream. What even is “freak,” now, and is it bad? You have to sport a lot of tattoos and piercings for them to look in any way outré, I think. As Sean Kleefeld reminded us this week, gender nonconformity was basically exiled to the realm of joke long after the Fantastic Four were created, but a lot of today’s kids have just decided that rigid gender binaries are not even relevant concepts for them. There are Furries. Even on the right, toying with the concept of visual “freak” is not entirely out of bounds, see e.g. Jacob Chansley, or the actual lumbering orange monster who became gd president of the United States.

There are of course downsides to being The Thing besides concerns of appearance. He’s a massive rock dude, probably has to shuffle sideways through a lot of doors. Your food bill has to be higher, and if you enjoy the intoxicating effects of alcohol those are really hard to capture. Sex might be difficult and would probably at least be different. The Thing has only four, great big fingers on each hand, so typing like I’m doing right now would be right around impossible. (Of course, I would imagine that this never entered anyone’s mind when The Fantastic Four was created; test pilot Ben Grimm probably wouldn’t have had use for touch typing anyway. In the internet age, that would have changed. Although now, a lot of people just peck away at smartphones, and while that wouldn’t be very easy either, I might point out that even with my hands I find a stylus necessary for a lot of things, so I suppose Grimm would just stock up on those and manage alright.) Also, we’re in an era when people can assert that they are differently abled but not “crippled,” so this might provide some evolving context on The Thing’s physical inconveniences.

Meanwhile The Thing is an incredibly strong celebrity hero, very difficult to injure and potentially resistant to aging as well.

So, I’m sure that it’s still a valid part of the concept that Ben Grimm is stuck as The Thing; it isn’t like it makes no difference to the character if he can (as happens once in a while) change back and forth between The Thing and human form.

But it seems like, from what little I know, maybe it’s more in the realm of an unwanted change to life—with which an adult deals and which in this case has considerable advantages along with its disadvantages—rather than being torture because it excludes one from a conformist culture which is not anything like what prevailed so completely back when.

2 Thoughts on “The Thing that outlived midcentury conformism

  1. Just catching up with this and, naturally, I’m obliged to respond. 🙂

    The-Thing-as-tortured-outsider really started falling to the wayside in the 1970s. Byrne reverted him to his original lumpy look almost immediately after starting on the book in almost a direct reaction to George Perez’s version. I seem to recall an interview around that time where Byrne said Ben had grown to look more like a teddy bear than a monster, and he wanted to bring back that monster vibe from the Lee/Kirby era. He felt that, in order to do that, he had to physically change his appearance.

    And every instance since then where a writer wanted to do the tortured outsider angle again, they imposed an additional physical deformity on Ben. Englehart had him mutate further in West Coast Avengers, DeFalco had Wolverine slash his face, etc. Interestingly, when Englehart got to writing the FF book himself, he gave the tortured outsider role to Sharon Ventura by making her a Thing-like monster as well, and Ben actively promoted the “it’s okay to be different” attitude despite mutating into the Pineapple Thing. Additionally, every time since the ’80s where Ben’s been cured to a human form, when he eventually does get transformed back into the Thing, his response is never more severe than “aw, nuts.” (I think it’s literally that line in a couple instances.)

    All of which tracks, I think, with US cultural norms. There’s been a slow but reasonably steady progression towards being accepting of non-conformists. I recall noting that in the ’90s, when all the hippies had grown up and were getting into positions of authority. Plus with the advent of the internet and being able to find like-minded individuals that allowed you to cultivate a tribe that wasn’t limited by geography, people were able to express themselves without being in complete isolation. You’re almost encouraged to let your freak flag fly so that others can see that you share the same interests and passions. Ben was an outsider in 1961 because he was the only one who looked like that. Half a year later, the Hulk shows up. And then the Beast. And the Blob. And Gorgon. It’s not uncommon to find stories now where Ben is the ‘normal’ looking one! (FF v6 #19, Apr 2020 is the most recent to my immediate recollection.)

    Further, computers more broadly have helped push the US from an industrial economy to an information economy. So the everyday heroes are less the people who can lift heavy machinery and weld iron girders, but the people who develop the killer app or write a great new algorithm. Even war is less about the physicality of combat, but the ability to write a computer virus that takes the enemy’s communications down. All of that favors people who like smaller niches like Star Trek over people who like mass appeal spectacles like football.

    So, yeah, the Thing as a character has had very little to do with not being a conformist for many years now. You could argue a large part of his strength now is his authenticity; he knows who he is and doesn’t try to hide it. The same as gamers at PAX or technophiles at CES or cosplayers at Comic Con.

    Also, I’m several months behind on my reading, but the last I checked, Ben can revert to human form for one week once a year. I think that’s been in place for about a decade now. My guess is that was an editorial decision that went something like, “Listen, we do the Ben-turns-to-human-story pretty regularly anyway, let’s just go ahead and make it a permanent ‘power’ so we don’t have to keep inventing new excuses for it.” 🙂

    • Awesome perspective.

      Also, “the last I checked, Ben can revert to human form for one week once a year.” That’s so ridiculous in a perfect way, ha ha.

      “This Man [for one week each year], This Monster [for the remaining 51 weeks]”

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