Like in all great literature, comic books rely on two facets to deliver their stories: plot and character. Without a good plot, the audience will get bored, but without solid, interesting, well-developed characters, the story won’t stick with the audience after they’re finished reading. Balancing the two can be tricky. While I enjoy the fantastic escape that comics can provide the imagination, every now and then there are issues that master this trick and create something that truly tugs at the heartstrings and makes the audience think.
This week, I’ve pulled two issues that center around Ben Grimm, of the Fantastic Four. These two explore the importance of loving yourself and being surrounded by people who love you. While the themes of self-esteem and body confidence are not unusual for the ever lovin’ blue eyed Thing, these two issues in particular balance the character development with interesting, deeply personal, and well-told narratives rarely seen in the normally fast paced and action packed life led by the Fantastic Four. Let’s take a look at these two stories that should definitely be part of your reading lists.
FOR BEAUTY PASSED AWAY (“The Thing” Vol 1 Issue 2, 1983)
In a weird way, this might be Ben Grimm’s most important issue to date. Ultimately, when the Thing isn’t kicking butt with the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, or whatever number of teams he is on, he is wallowing in low self-esteem. Whereas many Marvel heroes find themselves struggling with issues ranging from balancing superheroing and homelife, or existential self doubt, Ben deals with an issue a little more relatable and closer to home: his appearance. When it comes to hating how you look, Ben Grimm is the end of the spectrum. However, while there are many issues about Ben learning to cope, and wavering between acceptance of himself and acceptance from others, this issue changes the formula and completely flips the script.
Picking up after the events of Fantastic Four: Fragments and Avengers: The Annihilation Gambit!, Ben receives a call from his former girlfriend, Alynn Cambers, who has gone on to become a very successful movie star. She wants to meet him again and talk.
One problem: she’s never seen Ben as he is now. This results in Ben reminiscing about the breakup (and how he came very close to being engaged to her), his college days, and another wave of crippling self-esteem issues. I don’t want to spill the beans on this one, because this comic really does end with an amazing twist, one that actually left me in tears, as well as won the issue slot 59 in Wizard Magazine’s “100 Best Single Issue Comics Since You Were Born.” Seriously, if you haven’t read it, buy it or borrow it. It’s worth it.
TERROR IN A TINY TOWN (“The Fantastic Four Vol 1 Issue 236, 1981)
Marking the twentieth anniversary of the Fantastic Four’s first debut, this issue packed a whirlwind of a plot that explored just how much the characters had changed (or in some cases not) over their first two decades of existence.
The story essentially starts with a retold fragment of the Fantastic Four’s origin story, however, just as their rocket strikes the ground, Johnny wakes up and realizes it was all a dream. This extremely long and detailed issue then follows the various characters around Liddleville, where they, without having ever been superheroes, are living their dream lives. Ben owns a bar with his (not blind) wife, Alicia. Reed is a professor at a local college. Sue is a stay at home mom with Franklin, and Johnny spends his days leisurely working and dreaming of hitting it big. However, he can’t help thinking about his weird dream. He soon learns that the others are having the same dreams, and Reed forms a hunch that something it up.
As usual, he’s right.
Doctor Doom is up. Quite literally.
The good doctor has kidnapped the heroes, knocked them out, and applied their brainwaves to tiny duplicates, trapping them in a dreamworld all their own.
Now, naturally, the rest of the plot progresses with the four attempting to escape. However, Ben reveals that he likes his tiny life far better than his true one and would rather stay. It polarizes him from his friends. Luckily, Ben is a good man, so even though it takes some time, he eventually sacrifices his happiness for his friends and allows Reed to transform him into the Thing in the tiny world so they can escape back into the real one.
I haven’t even gotten to the most emotionally driven scene yet.
Because Ben is the Thing in Liddleville, the tiny version of Alicia is able to see what he looks like for the first time ever.
Full of plenty of amazing character moments, an interesting plot, and a paradise lost metaphor, this issue is an amazing read and a great way to celebrate the Fantastic Four’s journey by highlighting what the alternative could have been. Even if the issue doesn’t specifically focus on Ben alone, it does highlight him and new and unique ways just as much as the others.