Looking back at the Fantastic Four’s 25th Anniversary

This year Marvel Comics is celebrating their 80th anniversary with the release of Marvel Comics #1000 and a number of specials reuniting older creative teams.  The occasion prompted me to take a look back at 1986 in general, and at Fantastic Four #296 in particular, when Marvel celebrated their 25th anniversary.

Fantastic Four 296 cover

I’m sure at least a few people are wondering “How in the name of Irving Forbush could Marvel have celebrated their 25th anniversary in 1986 and then only 33 years later be celebrating their 80th?!?”

The fact is Marvel Comics actually has two anniversaries.  The first is for late August 1939 when Timely Comics, the company that would one day be known as Marvel, released their very first comic book, Marvel Comics #1 (with an October cover date).  The second is for early August 1961 when the first issue of Fantastic Four was published (with a November cover date) ushering in what is now known as the “Marvel era” or the “modern Marvel universe” that has been in continuous publication to the present day.

Marvel Comics 1 cover 1939 smallThis, of course, is very convenient for Marvel Comics, as it gives them not one but two historic anniversaries to celebrate every few years with high-profile specials and reprints, as well as the accompanying publicity.

In any case, back in 1986 it was the 25th anniversary of the debut of Fantastic Four #1 by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby.  Marvel made a fairly big deal of it, with Marvel Saga and The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe Deluxe Edition offering in-depth explorations of the characters’ histories (in the days before trade paperbacks and the internet both of these titles were invaluable resources to young fans such as myself).  Marvel’s then editor-in-chief Jim Shooter also launched the New Universe with much fanfare, but due to various behind-the-scenes events that line ultimately did not last long.

Another part of the celebration was that all of Marvel’s comics released in August 1986 featured cover portraits of their lead characters, surrounded by a border of character illustrations, the latter of which were drawn by longtime Marvel artist John Romita.  A gallery of these covers can be viewed on Sean Kleefeld’s blog.

This finally brings us to the main subject of this post, namely Fantastic Four #296, the big 25th anniversary issue commemorating the birth of the Marvel era. This 64 page story was plotted by Jim Shooter, scripted by Stan Lee, lettered by John Workman, colored by Glynis Oliver, and edited by Mike Carlin.  It was drawn by a very impressive roster of artists: Barry Windsor-Smith, Kerry Gammill, Vince Colletta, Ron Frenz, Bob Wiacek, Al Milgrom, Klaus Janson, John Buscema, Steve Leialoha, Marc Silvestri, Josef Rubinstein, Jerry Ordway & Joe Sinnott.Fantastic Four 1 cover small

The set-up for “Homecoming” is a bit on the convoluted side.  A couple of years earlier, during the lengthy run by John Byrne that immediately preceded it, Ben Grimm aka the Thing had been written out of the book, and She-Hulk had come onboard the fill his spot.  In recent issues the Thing had been lurking at the periphery, as Byrne was setting the stage for him to finally return to the team in their 25th anniversary story.  But then Byrne abruptly departed Marvel, going over to DC Comics to do a high-profile reboot of Superman.  This left Shooter and Lee sort of scrambling to pick up the pieces, to tell a story that makes sense with what Byrne had recently been doing.

As FF #296 opens, the Thing is despondent.  His ex-girlfriend Alicia Masters is now dating Johnny Storm, the Human Torch.  The Thing, who resembles a large pile of orange rocks, feels more disconnected from humanity than ever.  After brooding in the rain at the site where Reed Richards’ rocket ship crashed years before, and the team all first gained their powers, Ben decides to exile himself to Monster Isle, home to the FF’s very first foe, the Mole Man, who himself has been ostracized by humanity.

Days later the rest of the team learn from pilot Hopper Hertnecky where their friend & teammate has gotten off to.  Hopper reiterates to them the Thing’s longtime frustration that while Reed, Sue and Johnny all gained amazing powers from the cosmic rays that bombarded their spaceflight, Ben was horrifically mutated.  Reed once again begins to beat himself up over his role in his best friend Ben becoming a monster.  However this time Sue bluntly states that this time Ben is unfairly taking out his frustrations on Reed, that whatever Reed did or did not do, he has attempted on numerous occasions over the years to help Ben, to find a permanent cure for him.

Motivated by Sue’s words, Reed decides he needs to see Ben one last time, to settle their argument once and for all.  Sue and Johnny insist on accompanying him.  She-Hulk and Wyatt Wingfoot, however, choose to remain behind, realizing that this is a family matter, and as close to the team as both of them are, they haven’t been there since the very beginning.

Fantastic Four 296 pg 9
Artwork by Kerry Gammill, Vince Colletta & Barry Windsor-Smith

Mister Fantastic, the Invisible Woman and the Human Torch journey to Monster Isle.  They are quickly attacked by the Mole Man’s army of strange monsters.  They are brought before the Thing, who has taken to dressing like the Mole Man.  Ben tells the others they shouldn’t have come, this is his home now.  He tells them that he is going to help the Mole Man create a safe haven for outcasts of society.

Ben is convinced of the Mole Man’s altruism, but he begins to experience doubts when Alicia unexpectedly arrives.  The blind woman coerced Hopper into flying her to Monster Isle, so that she can make her peace with Ben.  Learning that Alicia has broken up with Ben, and that Ben has been showing the rest of the team around the subterranean domain, the Mole Man’s bitterness & paranoia inflame.  He has his servants kidnap & disfigure the Human Torch as punishment for Johnny “stealing” Alicia from Ben.

As upset as Ben is about Alicia being with Johnny, this nevertheless shocks & disturbs the Thing’s confidence in the Mole Man.  Ben’s faith is further shaken when Reed explains that the earth-moving device the Mole Man intends to use to create an island refuge for humanity’s freaks & outsiders will cause devastating damage to the mainland.

At long last Ben realizes that no matter how noble Mole Man’s motives might be, he is nevertheless a disturbed, dangerous fanatic.  The Thing joins with the others to wreck the Mole Man’s machines, and to restore Johnny to normal.  As the subterranean headquarters beneath Monster Isle crumble, they make a break for it.  The issue ends as they are rescued by Hopper in a rubber raft.  A grumbling Ben reluctantly admits that his place is with the team, and at long last the Fantastic Four are reunited.

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Artwork by Ron Frenz & Bob Wiacek

The plot by Jim Shooter is a solid one, in that it achieves two primary goals: It commemorates the anniversary & history of the Fantastic Four, and it gets the original line-up back together for the first time in two and a half years.  Perhaps it’s not the best FF issue I’ve ever read, or the most imaginative, but it’s entertaining.

The script by Fantastic Four co-creator Stan Lee is also good.  In later decades Lee sometimes became almost a parody of himself, with his whole “Face front, true believers!” bombastic, tongue-in-cheek style of prose and promotion.  Some of that is certainly on display here.  However, as the editor and the main writer / scripter at Marvel throughout the 1960s, Lee was largely responsible for giving most of the company’s characters their distinctive voices & personalities. Looking at this story it is apparent that he had remained capable of poignant, dramatic writing, especially if paired up with a talented artist / collaborator.  Lee’s opening narration and dialogue for FF #296 is very effective and combined with the art by Barry Windsor-Smith results in a genuinely moody, atmospheric scene.

Speaking of the artists, there are some distinctive choices on display in FF #296.  The aforementioned work by Windsor-Smith immediately set the tone.  On several pages the story cuts back & forth between his art and a flashback of the FF’s origin drawn by Kerry Gammill & Vince Colletta.  It definitely offers an interesting contrast.

In general I am not overly fond of Colletta’s inking.  Nevertheless, back in the mid 1960s he did ink several of the Lee & Kirby FF issues, and his work on this story in conjunction with Gammill’s pencils evokes a Silver Age feel that is very well suited to a retelling of the events of the team’s first story.

There are several pages by the team of Ron Frenz & Bob Wiacek.  Frenz is a very solid, effective storyteller, so he is certainly well-suited to dramatically render scenes that feature a significant amount of exposition and character moments.  Wiacek is one of the best inkers in the biz, and his finishes complement Frenz’s pencils.

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Artwork by Al Milgrom & Klaus Janson

I also enjoyed the pages by Al Milgrom & Klaus Janson.  They are two artists with very different styles, yet the combination works very well.  Milgrom’s super-hero oriented penciling is very effective for rendering the team fighting the Mole Man’s weird, wacky monsters, and Janson’s inking gives it a darker, gritty feel.

The next pairing, John Buscema inked by Steve Leialoha, is a bit odd.  Both are incredibly talented artists, to be certain.  In addition, Buscema was the first regular penciler on FF after Kirby left the title, doing really good work during the early 1970s, so he’s an appropriate choice to contribute to this issue.  Nevertheless, I do feel Leialoha’s inks sort of subsume Buscema’s characteristic style.  Of course, it is possible that Big John was only contributing layouts, something that became more prevalent for him in the 1980s, leaving it up to Leialoha to do the lion’s share, and resulting in more of his style coming through.

I think that under any other circumstances the team of Buscema & Leialoha would have been very effective.  It’s just that here, on this particular story, a somewhat more traditional inker might have been a better fit for Big John.  But that’s purely an emotional, sentimental judgment on my part.  At the very least, this does demonstrate once again just how significant an impact the inker can have on the finished artwork.

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Artwork by John Buscema & Steve Leialoha

The next segment is by then up-and-coming penciler Marc Silvestri and established inker Josef Rubinstein.  This was a year before Silvestri would begin his well-received run on Uncanny X-Men, but there’s definitely a lot of potential on display, with solid action & effective storytelling, and it’s apparent why he soon became a hot artist.  Rubinstein’s inking ably supports the young penciler.

Rounding out the issue is Jerry Ordway on pencils and Bob Wiacek & Joe Sinnott on inks.  It was certainly very appropriate to have Sinnott involved in this issue.  He had a long, acclaimed association with the Fantastic Four series.  Sinnott inked the second half of Lee & Kirby’s long FF run, and is generally regarded as one of the best inkers ever paired with Kirby.  After Kirby left Marvel, Sinnott continued as the book’s inker for over a decade, working over John Buscema and several other pencilers, right up until the beginning of Byrne’s run.

That said, in my mind Ordway inked by Sinnott was another unusual choice.  Sinnott is an inker whose work is almost always recognizable, no matter who he inks.  Ordway, however, is one of those pencilers whose style is so strong & distinctive that, no matter who inks his pencils, the finished artwork basically looks the same.  To my untrained eyes Ordway inked by Sinnott does not look much different that Ordway inking himself, or Ordway inked by Wiacek or Al Gordon or Dennis Janke or anyone else.

Of course, this may also be down to Ordway and Sinnott having similar styles.  Ordway has cited Sinnott as one of his major influences.

Oh, well… I’m probably quibbling.  The pages by Ordway, Wiacek & Sinnott look great, and that’s the important thing.  Ordway has stated that growing up in the 1960s he was a huge Marvel fan, so it must have been a thrill for him to work on several issues of Fantastic Four around this time, especially this anniversary story.

In any case, the back cover artwork is by John Buscema & Joe Sinnott.  It’s a really nice image that showcases both artists’ styles, and really evokes the early Bronze Age era of the title.  So that gives us a really good example of “traditional” FF artwork.

Fantastic Four 296 pg 43
Artwork by Marc Silvestri & Josef Rubinstein

However, there are two individuals who were not involved with Fantastic Four #296.  The first is Jack Kirby.  The second is John Byrne.

Kirby is, of course, the co-creator of Fantastic Four.  He co-plotted & penciled the first 102 regular issues of the series, as well as the first six annuals.  Kirby’s role in the creation & development of the Marvel universe cannot possible be overstated.

Unfortunately in 1986 Kirby was involved in a protracted battle with Marvel’s owners over both the rights to the characters he helped create and the thousands of pages of original artwork he had drawn for the comics.  This made his participation in this anniversary issue impossible.  Even if Marvel had asked him to contribute, given how angry he felt at his mistreatment by the company I am sure he would have refused, and I certainly would not have blamed him.

As for Byrne, he is often credited with the revitalization of the Fantastic Four title.  The writing on FF throughout the 1970s is generally regarded as uneven.  Byrne came onboard as writer & artist with issue #232 in 1981, and very quickly made the FF into an exciting, popular series.  His time on the book is frequently compared to the original Lee & Kirby run.

However, once again real-world events intruded.  By 1986 Byrne and Shooter were not on good terms and, as previously mentioned, this led to Byrne abruptly leaving Fantastic Four.  His last full issue was #293, released just three months earlier.

Fantastic Four 296 pg 64
Artwork by Jerry Ordway & Joe Sinnott

I doubt that back in late 1986 any of this impacted on my reading of Fantastic Four #296 in the slightest way.  As I said before, this was pre-internet, so I had no way of easily finding out about all of these events.

Nowadays, though, I have a much greater knowledge of the history of the Fantastic Four series, and an awareness of what was going on at Marvel in the mid 1980s.  So when I re-read this issue a couple of weeks ago, the absences of Jack Kirby, who co-created the first decade of the book, and John Byrne, who had just come off a five year run that saw a creative renaissance, felt especially conspicuous, as well as exceedingly unfortunate.

Not to jump on an anti-Marvel bandwagon, but I certainly understand why over the past three decades so many artists & writers have chosen to go the creator-owned route.  After all, if Marvel can screw over Kirby, the guy who created many of their characters, well, they’re certainly not going to hesitate to kick anyone else to the curb, either.  Far better to retain ownership of your characters and benefit fully from their success, no matter how modest, than to create a runaway hit for Marvel (or DC Comics, for that matter) and see other people make millions of dollars off your creativity.

Having said all that, I do still enjoy a few Marvel and DC books, such as Fantastic Four (the current run written by Dan Slott is the best the book has been in a long time).  I just believe that it’s absolutely crucial for anyone who wants to work for the Big Two to go in with their eyes open, to know exactly what their rights are, and to be fully aware of the history of the industry, so that they do not find themselves in the same position that Kirby and so many others unfortunately did.

Fantastic Four 296 back cover
Artwork by John Buscema & Joe Sinnott

One other note:  Back in 1986, I was 10 years old, and the idea that Marvel was celebrating its 25th anniversary was a little difficult to comprehend.  To me 1961 seemed so incredibly far in the past.

Contrast this to a couple of years ago, when Image Comics celebrated their 25th anniversary.  My first reaction was that there was absolutely no way Image could be 25 years old, and it was impossible for 1992 to have been a quarter of a century ago.

I guess it’s just one of those matters of personal perspective.  Anything that happened before you were born is automatically ancient history, and anything that happened during your lifetime, even if it was decades ago, still feels like the recent past because you were there and experienced it firsthand.

The wedding of Ben Grimm and Alicia Masters

For a brief moment it appeared that 2018 was to be the Year of Super-Hero Weddings. Batman and Catwoman were all set to tie the knot, and Colossus and Shadowcat were also ready for wedded bliss.  Unfortunately, Selina Kyle left Bruce Wayne at the altar, and Kitty also backed out at the last sec, much to Peter’s consternation. In that case longtime on-again, off-again couple Rogue and Gambit decided to take advantage of the occasion to impulsively leap into holy matrimony, so at least somebody got hitched in the X-Men books.

Third time was the charm, though, and as 2018 came to a close we finally got a scheduled wedding go through as planned: Benjamin Jacob Grimm, aka the Thing,  married his longtime girlfriend, blind sculptress Alicia Reiss Masters.

fantastic four wedding special cover

The blessed event took place in the pages of Fantastic Four #650, or if you prefer issue #5 of the current volume. Setting up the event is the Fantastic Four Wedding Special. Dan Slott was the main writer, with Gail Simone stopping by to give us Alicia’s bachelorette party.

(What volume of Fantastic Four is Marvel up to, anyway? I honestly don’t know! With all the renumbering and rebooting that Marvel keeps doing, who can keep track?)

Of course, as soon as the news broke about Ben and Alicia’s impending nuptials, alarm bells immediately began blaring in the heads of longtime readers, myself included. After all, back in FF #300, Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, had married Alicia, only for this to later be retconned away when Alicia was revealed to have been replaced by a Skrull imposter named Lyja.

Dan Slott swore up & down on social media that there would be no Skrulls involved. The house ad for FF #650 even boldly proclaimed…

“No bait. No switch. Not a dream. Not a hoax. And we swear, not a single Skrull around. This is really happening!”

Of course, that still leaves shape-shifters, and evil other-dimensional duplicates, and Space Phantoms, and LMDs, and clones… hey, Dan Slott spent a decade writing Amazing Spider-Man, so at this point he probably has clones on the brain!

*Ahem!*  Actually, there was a moment towards the end of FF #650 where it briefly appeared the wedding was going to be called off, and I literally considered throwing my copy of the issue across the room in frustration.  Fortunately, though, Ben and Alicia did go through with the ceremony.  So it seems that this is really, truly supposed to be the real, permanent marriage of Ben and Alicia… at least for the present. Keep your fingers crossed!

fantastic four 8 pg 9

Whatever the case, unlike a lot of super-hero weddings, which come across as sales events, this actually does feel like a natural progression. Alicia was first introduced waaaaay back in Fantastic Four #8 (1962) by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Dick Ayers.  Alicia was manipulated into disguising herself as the Invisible Girl as part of a cockamamie plot by her stepfather, the diabolical Puppet Master, to destroy the FF.  There was an immediate attraction between the Thing and the sensitive young woman, and the very next issue they were already dating.

The Wedding Special contains a humorous back-up by the great Fred Hembeck. Narrated by the Puppet Master, this vignette touches on how her introduction prompted a crucial turning point in the Thing’s early development. If you read the first few FF stories by Lee & Kirby, the Thing was very much depicted as a dangerous character, a being whose rage and self-loathing at his horrific mutation threatened to lead him to villainy.

And then the Thing met Alicia, who sensed the kind, sensitive soul underneath Ben’s anger and depression. From this point forward the Thing was written as alternately tragic and comedic, a heroic and loyal figure who masked his pain at being trapped in a monstrous form with a gruff, irreverent persona.

fantastic four wedding special hembeck

It has often been observed that the Fantastic Four is not so much a super-hero team as it is a family, one that is often dysfunctional, but which at the end of the day will stick together through hell & high water. Slott has only been the regular FF writer for a few issues, but he’s scripted the characters several times in the past, including on the Thing’s short-lived solo series in 2006.  So I find that he already has a really good grasp on them. Slott’s stories are the perfect mix of soap opera dramatics and irreverent humor. He was definitely well-suited to write the wedding of Ben and Alicia.

Over the past couple of decades, I have gravitated away from mainstream super-hero books. My interests are much more on books that are character-driven. I am a huge fan of Love and Rockets by Jaime & Gilbert Hernandez.

I think that’s why I appreciate Slott’s work on FF so much. He isn’t writing a book that centers on super-powered beings slugging it out, but on the family dynamics of Reed, Sue, Ben, Johnny, Franklin, Valeria, Alicia and the rest of the extended FF family.

That’s certainly the case with the Wedding Special and issue #650. Slott does a superb job at exploring new sides to characters who have been in print for decades. I appreciated Slott’s look at the friendship between Susan Storm and Ben Grimm, and the examination of how Sue feels about what happened to Ben, the sense of responsibility she feels, as she was the one who pushed him to pilot Reed Richards’ ill-fated spaceship.  Slott reveals that in the early days of the team, in an effort to help the Thing find some happiness, Sue played matchmaker, encouraging him to pursue a relationship with Alicia.

fantastic four 650 pg 21

The interaction between Ben and Johnny during the bachelor party is also well done. It’s one of the best scenes between these friendly rivals that I’ve seen in the series’ entire history.

The actual wedding was beautifully written by Slott. It’s a lovely scene. I was especially moved when Slott revealed Reed’s wedding present to Ben and Alicia. It actually made me a bit misty-eyed.

I was also happy that Ben and Alicia had a Jewish ceremony. After all, the Thing is Jewish. At the same time, I appreciate that Slott didn’t make it a huge deal.  It was just one detail in the story. As I’ve said before, I like that Ben Grimm is Jewish, but I certainly do not think that should be his defining characteristic. In other words, he is a character who, among other things, happens to be Jewish.

By the way, I am curious if Alicia might also be of Jewish ancestry, as her late biological father was named Jacob Reiss.

fantastic four 650 pg 42

Among the close family members who attend the wedding are Ben’s Uncle Jake and Aunt Petunia. It was nice to see them again after so many years.

A few readers were upset that Aunt Petunia was depicted as being in her 40s or 50s here. After all, when we first met Petunia in FF #238, she was shown to be both young and attractive.  I realize that John Byrne did this to humorously subvert reader expectations, since before that, whenever the Thing mentioned Petunia, the implication that she was a tough, feisty old lady. However, I don’t know if in the long run that was such a good idea. Maybe it wasn’t such an issue back in 1982 when Byrne wrote that story, but nowadays the idea that Uncle Jake, a senior citizen, married a woman who was young enough to be his daughter is sort of weird & uncomfortable. It’s probably a good idea to nowadays depict Petunia as being somewhat closer in age to Jake.

Anyway, I really did enjoy Slott’s work on these stories. I like the idea of Ben and Alicia as a married couple. I just hope that Galactus doesn’t end up eating the Earth before we get to see Ben and Alicia go on their honeymoon!

Gail Simone also does good work with the characters in her segment for the Wedding Special, penning a tale that is both humorous and poignant. I hope she has another opportunity to write the FF again in the future.

The artwork on these two issues was also great.  Laura Braga does sexy, humorous work on the bachelorette party story in the Wedding Special, while Mark Buckingham & Mark Farmer turn in some effective art on the second tale, evoking the style of Kirby as the Thing has a surprising encounter with the Puppet Master.fantastic four 650 pg 61

The framing sequences of FF #650 are illustrated by Aaron Kuder, culminating is his gorgeous depiction of Ben & Alicia’s wedding.  In places Kuder’s art here brings to mind the work of John Romita Jr and Frank Quitely.

Mike Allred & Laura Allred contribute the moving flashbacks to the couple’s early days.  The Allreds possess a style that is distinctively “indy” while nevertheless evoking the wacky, offbeat elements of Silver Age stories.

It was a pleasure to see Adam Hughes illustrating the bachelor party sequence in #650. Hughes is very well known for his cover artwork, and for his depiction of sexy women. As a result, it is often forgotten that he is also a good storyteller who knows how to lay out pages. He certainly does good work here, both on the humorous sequences and in the quieter character driven moments.

The reason why Hughes mainly works on covers is because he is not an especially fast artist who is capable of drawing a monthly series. That’s unfortunate, because as he demonstrates here, he knows how to do solid interior work.

Providing the letters for both issues is VC’s Joe Caramagna.

fantastic four 650 cover

Topping off these two comics, quite literally, are covers by Carlos Pacheco & Romulo Fajardo Jr and Esad Ribic.  Pacheco’s cover is my favorite of the pair, but I certainly like both.

Let’s raise a toast to Ben and Alicia.  Long may they be a happy couple.  What God has joined together, let no man (or Skrull) put asunder!

Celebrating Chanukah with The Thing

The Jewish holiday of Chanukah is coming up, which makes this a good time to look at one of the most famous Jewish heroes in comic books: Benjamin Jacob Grimm, the orange super-strong rock-like Thing from the Fantastic Four.

The Fantastic Four, who made their debut in August 1961, were created by two Jews, writer/editor Stan Lee (born Stanley Lieber) and co-plotter/penciler Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg). The Thing was never identified as any particular religion by Lee & Kirby.  However, the personality & background of Ben Grimm, a gruff-taking, street-smart, working-class Joe who grew up on the rough & tumble streets of the Lower East Side during the Great Depression, was similar to Kirby.  It was often suggested that Ben Grimm was a semi-autobiographical creation.  Interviewed in 1987, Kirby acknowledged the similarities…

“Yes, everybody I’ve talked to has compared me to Ben Grimm and perhaps I’ve got his temperament, I’ve got his stubbornness, probably, and I suppose if I had his strength, I’d be conservative with it. Ben Grimm is that way… If he uses his strength, he’ll use it in a justifiable manner– to save somebody, or to help somebody, or to see that fairness grows and evolves and helps people.”

In a 1976 Chanukah card Kirby drew the Thing as Jewish. It’s unknown if this meant that Kirby actually saw Ben Grimm as Jewish, or if it was just a humorous bit he did for a card he was sending to his family & friends.  Nonetheless, for years this fueled speculation among both comic book fans and creators that the Thing could be Jewish.

ben-grimm-the-thing-chanukah-by-jack-kirby

The Thing’s faith was finally identified in Fantastic Four volume 3 #56 (August 2002). “Remembrance of Things Past” was written by Karl Kesel and drawn by Stuart Immonen & Scott Koblish.  A brooding Thing finds himself back on Yancy Street, where he grew up decades earlier.  He runs into Hiram Sheckerberg, a curmudgeonly pawn shop owner who knows Ben Grimm from way back when.  The still-cranky Sheckerberg at first mistakenly believes the Thing is part of an extortion racket that is threatening him.  However the true culprit soon turns up at the pawn shop: Powderkeg, aka “the man with the explosive aura,” a super-powered thug whose shtick is that he literally sweats nitroglycerine.

The Thing defeats Powderkeg, but during the fight Sheckerberg is knocked out. Believing the old man is dead or dying, the Thing begins say the Mourner’s Kaddish.  It turns out Sheckerberg was only stunned.  After getting to his feet, the crabby pawn shop owner addresses the Thing…

Sheckerberg: It’s good, too, to see you haven’t forgotten what you learned at Temple, Benjamin. All these years in the news, they never mentioned you’re Jewish. I thought maybe you were ashamed of it a little?

The Thing: Nah, that ain’t it. Anyone on the internet can find out, if they want. It’s just… I don’t talk it up, is all. Figure there’s enough trouble in this world without people thinkin’ Jews are all monsters like me.

Sheckerberg disagrees with the Thing’s assessment that he is a monster, reminding him of the legend of the Golem…

“He was a being made of clay — but he wasn’t a monster. He was a protector.”

fantastic-four-vol-3-56-pg-19

The police and paramedics soon arrive. The Thing, having wrapped up Powderkeg in a lamppost, is ready to hand over the thug to the authorities.  But first we get this little exchange…

Powderkeg: And you’re really Jewish?

The Thing: There a problem with that?

Powderkeg: No! No, it’s just… you don’t look Jewish.

In the decade and a half since that story, the Thing’s faith has been addressed by subsequent writers, usually in passing. I feel this is the best way to handle it, showing him as a super-hero who happens to be Jewish, rather than making his faith the central, defining aspect of his character.

Nevertheless, on occasion Ben Grimm’s religion has been addressed head-on, such as in the story “Last Hand” written by Dan Slott and drawn by Kieron Dwyer, in The Thing #8 (August 2006).

Sheckerberg and Rabbi Lowenthal approach Grimm about having a Bar Mitzvah. The Thing is confused, pointing out that he is much older than 13.  Sheckerberg observes that it has been 13 years since Grimm was reborn as the Thing.  A reluctant Grimm agrees, spending the next month studying with Sheckerberg and Lowenthal.  Finally the big day comes.

It’s worth nothing that Ben’s Haftorah is from the Book of Job, which is not part of the Jewish Old Testament. However this nevertheless in an appropriate choice on Slott’s part, given the struggles that Ben has been forced to endure since his transformation.

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The Thing’s faith has also been mentioned in a few Holiday Specials, with Ben being shown observing Chanukah instead of Christmas.

Truthfully, Chanukah is not a major Jewish holiday, not like Passover, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. However, Chanukah typically falls in the month of December, around the time of Christmas.  The exact dates vary from year to year, since the Jewish faith is based around a lunar calendar rather than a solar one.  (Yeah, that’s Jews for you; we just have to be different!)  Because of its close proximity to Christmas, often Jews will exchange gifts.

“Chinese Food for Christmas” written by Jamie S. Rich and drawn by Paco Diaz appeared in the Marvel Holiday Special 2011. Playing on the idea that Jews go out for Chinese food on Christmas, the Thing is planning to attend a big Chinese buffet organized by Kitty Pryde, aka Shadowcat of the X-Men, Marvel’s other significant Jewish hero.

En route to dinner, the Thing encounters an odd creature that has been stealing Christmas decorations.  It turns out the creature was trying to put together a Christmas party for the orphans at the Yancy Street Children’s Home, which ran out of money.  Ben Grimm invites the kids and their odd benefactor to the buffet dinner, where we see Shadowcat, as well as several other Jewish heroes, namely Moon Knight, Songbird, Sasquatch and Wiccan.

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Casting my mind back to 2002, I recall that I was genuinely thrilled to find out that the Thing was Jewish. When I was a kid, I was definitely shy & insecure.  In general I didn’t feel like I fit in.  The fact that I was Jewish added to that, giving me one more thing about which to feel different.  This was especially true in December, when everywhere you turned it was Christmas all the time.

It’s worth noting that I felt this way even though I lived in New York, which has a significant Jewish population.  I can only imagine how much more of an outsider I would have felt if I had grown up in a different part of the country.

My experiences when I was younger definitely led me to appreciate the importance of representation in pop culture. When I was a kid there were very few Jewish characters in movies, television or comic books.  This left me with almost no one to identify with, which exacerbated my feelings of being different.  I was already in my mid-twenties when the Thing was revealed to be Jewish, but it nevertheless felt really significant to me that one of the most iconic Marvel Comics characters was revealed to be Jewish.

There was an excellent piece written last year by Mordechai Luchins, “That Time My Four Year-Old Schooled Me on Representation.” I definitely agree with the sentiments expressed by the author.  It is crucial to have diversity in pop culture.  Just as I really wanted, and needed, for there to be Jewish heroes in the stories I read and watched, so too do women, blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, the LGBT community and other groups want and need the same thing.

fantastic-four-vol-3-56-pg-22

I think it is very easy for some white Christian males to take for granted that the majority of the characters in movies and television and comic books and other media look & sound like them. I really hope that these people will eventually come to understand the importance of diversity, and to realize that pop culture is big enough for all of us.

Whoever you are, whatever you celebrate, I hope that you all have a very happy holiday season.

Look out! Here comes Spider-Gwen!

A few months ago Marvel Comics published the epic “Spider-Verse” crossover masterminded by writer Dan Slott, which featured appearances by pretty much every single alternate reality version of Spider-Man ever conceived, as well as introducing numerous new incarnations.  The breakout star of “Spider-Verse” was Gwen Stacy as a new Spider-Woman, who fans took to calling “Spider-Gwen.”

Making her debut in Edge of Spider-Verse #2, this parallel universe revision of Gwen Stacy / Spider-Woman was quickly given an ongoing title once “Spider-Verse” wrapped up.  Spider-Gwen #1 hit the shelves a mere five months after Edge of Spider-Verse #2, and so far is selling at a brisk pace.

Spider-Gwen 1 cover

I think there is a very basic reason why Spider-Gwen is such a success, and it ties in with the history of the original version of the character.  Gwen Stacy first appeared in 1965 in Amazing Spider-Man #31 by Steve Ditko & Stan Lee.  Gwen was originally something of a haughty ice queen.  After Ditko departed the series, Lee and new penciler John Romita gradually transformed Gwen into a warmer, caring figure.  She became involved in a long-term relationship with Peter Parker.  All these years later many long-time readers regard Gwen as Spider-Man’s first true love.

Fast forward to 1973 and the tragic events of Amazing Spider-Man #121.  In a story by Gerry Conway, Gil Kane & John Romita,  Gwen Stacy was brutally murdered by Spider-Man’s arch-enemy the Green Goblin, thrown from the top of the Brooklyn Bridge.  In hindsight, Gwen’s death is probably the first prominent example of what two decades later would be referred to by Gail Simone as “women in refrigerators” syndrome.

Ever since then the character of Gwen Stacy has been defined primarily by her death, by the fact that she was killed by Norman Osborn in order to make Spider-Man suffer.  A version of Gwen introduced in Ultimate Spider-Man was eventually murdered by Carnage.  Gwen appeared in the two recent Amazing Spider-Man movies, played by actress Emma Stone.  And, yep, at the end of the second one, she gets killed by the Green Goblin.  No matter what reality Gwen popped up in she seemed to have a target painted on her back, and fans were left holding their breaths waiting for someone to inevitably pull the trigger.

So by introducing an alternate reality version of Gwen Stacy who is Spider-Woman, this horrible trend is finally turned completely around.  Instead of being a victim, Gwen is now a hero.

Of course, it’s not just the concept but the execution.  As I understand it, Slott initially thought up the idea of giving a parallel universe version of Gwen the spider-powers.  The actual development of the character fell to writer Jason Latour and artist Robbi Rodriguez, the latter of whom designed Spider-Woman’s distinctive costume.

Edge of Spider-Verse 2 pg 2 & 3 Spider-Gwen origin

I have to admit, when I first read Spider-Gwen #1-4 I was a bit lost.  I felt like I had come in on the second act.  So I went and finally purchased Edge of Spider-Verse #2, now on its fifth printing (I told you the character was hot).  Reading that and then re-reading those issues of Spider-Gwen, things did make more sense.

Admittedly the story in Edge of Spider-Verse #2 drops the readers right into the middle of things.  I imagine that when Latour wrote it he didn’t have any idea that Spider-Woman would be an instant hit.  So he set out to give readers a crash course on Gwen’s origin via a quick two-page flashback before showing us what she was up to, and then ending the issue with a hook leading into the rest of the “Spider-Verse” crossover.

In the Spider-Gwen reality of Earth-65 it was Gwen Stacy and not Peter Parker who got bit by a radioactive spider and gained super-powers.  Much like Peter did waaaay back in Amazing Fantasy #15, Gwen adopted a costumed identity in order to seek fame & fortune.

Peter, who was as much of a socially awkward nerd in this reality as he was on “mainstream” Earth-616, became a huge fan of Spider-Woman.  Tired of being bullied by his high school classmates, Peter decided he also wanted to be famous.  He developed what appeared to be a serum similar to the one that turned Curt Connors into the Lizard.  Transforming into a monster, Peter fought Spider-Woman, and during the battle was fatally wounded.  The dying Peter told Spider-Woman “I just… just… wanted to be special… like you.”  This left Gwen completely devastated, as she and Peter had been close friends.

The J. Jonah Jameson of this world, who much like his 616 counterpart never met a spider-themed vigilante who he didn’t hate, immediately began blaming Spider-Woman for Peter’s death.  His editorials in The Daily Bugle convinced the general public and the NYPD that Spider-Woman is a criminal.

In a crowning piece of irony, Jameson is the one who declares “Spider-Woman and those like her must learn that with their great power comes an even greater responsibility!”  It is an admonishment that Gwen takes to heart.  She sets aside her frivolous goals and vows to use her powers to help others, even if most people believe her to be a murderer.

Edge of Spider-Verse 2 pg 18

Gwen’s task is made all the more difficult by the fact that the police officer leading the manhunt for her is none other than her father, Captain George Stacy.  This ends up placing Stacy in the crosshairs of the Kingpin, who has his own plans for Spider-Woman.  An assassin is dispatched to murder the police captain.  Spider-Woman saves her father’s life, but Stacy immediately turns around and tries to arrest her.  This forces Gwen to unmask, much to her father’s shock.  She attempts to explain her actions to her father:

“You’re a good cop, Dad. You put on that badge and carry that gun because you know if you don’t, someone who shouldn’t will.

“When I put this mask on, I only did it because it freed me from responsibility. I thought I was special. And Peter Parker died because he tried to follow my example. I have to take responsibility for that. To make his death mean something.

“This mask is my badge now. If I don’t define what it means, monsters like this will. This is where I’m needed most.”

I’m glad that Latour got the reveal of Gwen’s identity to her father out of the way early on.  He avoided having the clichéd set-up of an authority figure on a misguided mission to hunt down a misunderstood vigilante, not knowing that their target is a loved one.  That type of thing has been played out too many times in the past.

The Spider-Gwen series is very much concerned with Gwen’s efforts to make things right.  Beneath the flippant attitude and corny quips of Spider-Woman, she is in turmoil, still haunted by feelings of guilt over Peter’s death.  Her relationship with her father is severely strained, as she has forced him to choose between his responsibilities as a parent and his duty as a police officer.  She is very much the novice crime-fighter, making a number of serious mistakes.  Gwen also struggles to balance her two identities, to find a way to be both an ordinary teen and a super-hero.  Her friendships with the members of the band the Mary Janes is on the skids since she keeps flaking out on them due to her activities as Spider-Woman.

It’s interesting how similar yet how different the Spider-Gwen universe is from the “regular” Marvel universe.  The Kingpin and the Vulture are much like their 616 selves.  Matt Murdock is not Daredevil but he is still blind and possesses heightened senses.  However in this reality he works as the Kingpin’s lawyer and is totally corrupt.  Frank Castle is also a regular fixture, not as the Punisher, but as a member of the NYPD, albeit one who is nearly as ruthless as his vigilante counterpart.  Castle’s idea of “interrogating” a suspect is to beat him within an inch of his life.

Spider-Gwen 2 pg 3

Despite the often somber tone, Latour features a lot of humor in his stories.  Spider-Woman draws the Vulture out of hiding by spray painting insulting graffiti all about the city such as “Your nest is a hot mess” and “Death from a butt.”  In the second issue, after sustaining a concussion during her battle with the Vulture, Gwen begins hallucinating that her one-time ally Spider-Ham is following her around making smartass comments.

I did feel that these issues went by a bit too quickly.  At $3.99 each, it would be nice if they were somewhat more substantial reads.  But that’s hardly a complaint that I would direct solely at Latour.  It seems endemic of a good portion of the comic book biz: the more expensive single issues become, the shorter the time it takes to read them, or so it seems.

The artwork by Rodriguez on Spider-Gwen is amazing.  He gives this series a unique look and atmosphere.  Rodriguez’s illustration of the action sequences is dynamic, with extremely effective layouts & storytelling.  Likewise, he does solid work with the quieter character moments, as in issue #4 when May Parker talks to Gwen about what happened to Peter, and about her feelings concerning Spider-Woman.

Spider-Gwen 3 pg 10

Rico Renzi’s coloring on these issues certainly stands out.  He utilizes unusual, distinctive hues to create a palpable sense of atmosphere.  Renzi’s coloring very much complements Rodriguez’s artwork.

The design sense that Rodriguez demonstrates on his covers for Spider-Gwen is striking.  He creates very eye-catching, abstract compositions on each of them.

As with so many other comic books nowadays, Spider-Gwen is being released with numerous variant covers by a number of different artists.  For issue #4 I decided to mix things up a bit and buy one of those, the regularly-priced variant by Mark Brooks.  His portrait of Spider-Woman hanging out on the side of the George Washington Bridge is done a much more photo-realistic style than Rodriguez’s work.  I’ve recently seen Brooks’ work on a number of covers for Marvel titles.  He’s done quality work on these.

Spider-Gwen 4 variant cover

While I was somewhat undecided after reading the first couple of issues of Spider-Gwen, the next two hooked my interest.  For the time being I think I’ll keep following this book and see where Latour & Rodriguez are going.

At the very least, with all the action taking place on “Earth-65” I hopefully won’t have to worry about Spider-Woman getting tied up in all the Secret Wars shenanigans currently occupying most of Marvel’s publishing line.  Ideally Gwen will be given the time to feature in several stories in her own reality, to stand on her own two feet, before once again crossing over into other realities.

Having said that, if and when Spider-Gwen does pay a visit to Earth-616, hopefully we will get to see her toss Norman Osborn off a bridge!

Free Comic Book Day 2012 at Jim Hanley’s Universe

As you may have noticed, I go back & forth in terms of topics.  Most of the time I write about comic books & sci-fi, but occasionally I will share my thoughts on political or societal issues.  I hope the shifting of gears isn’t too disconcerting!  In any case, today I’ll be going back to the lighter side of things, and talking about Free Comic Book Day 2012, which this year was on May 5th.

I went to the big event that was held at Jim Hanley’s Universe, a comic shop on 33rd Street in Manhattan by the Empire State Building.  The store was giving away the Free Comic Book Day special issues released by Marvel, DC, and a variety of independent publishers.  I decided to go with the “indies” this year, and got the spotlight books from Image, IDW, and Valiant, plus The Censored Howard Cruise published by Boom! Town.  The books were understandably of a promotional nature, with mostly excerpts from upcoming comics and interviews with creators.  I was disappointed that the IDW volume was nothing but a big catalog, but looking through it, they do publish a diverse range of titles and graphic novels.

In addition to the give-away books, Jim Hanley’s Universe had several comic book creators as guests: Robert Venditti, Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, Dan Slott, and ChrisCross.

Venditti is the writer helming the re-launch of X-O Manowar from Valiant Comics.  I read a lot of the original Valiant titles back when I was in high school and college.  For a while, they had some good books.  Hopefully the company’s revival will bring about some quality titles.  Venditti was signing copies of the first issue of X-O Manowar.  I bought a copy, which I haven’t had a chance to read yet.  But skimming through it, the artwork by Cary Nord & Stefano Gaudiano looks amazing.

What can I say about Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez?  He is just an amazing artist who has worked at DC Comics for several decades.  The thing is, he is not what you would regard as a “household name,” because he’s never had a lengthy stint drawing any particular series.  But the odds are very, very good that you have seen his work without realizing it.  In the 1980s and 90s, he was the main licensing & style guide artist for DC, producing hundreds of pieces of artwork that were used on all manner of products: t-shirts, cups & mugs, posters, toy packaging, etc, etc.  Of the work he has done which is credited, Garcia-Lopez illustrated some amazing stories, working on characters such as Superman, Batman, Jonah Hex, and Deadman.  I am especially fond of his depictions of Wonder Woman.  He draws the Amazon princess as a stunningly beautiful yet strong and confident figure.  In addition to getting several books signed by him, I was fortunate enough to get a quick sketch of Wonder Woman from Garcia-Lopez.

It was cool meeting Dan Slott again.  He is probably one of the nicest guys in the comic book biz.  Slott’s been writing Amazing Spider-Man for the last few years.  I brought along my copy of Justice League Adventures #11, which was a very moving, emotional issue, to get autographed.  It turns out that was one of Slott’s favorite comics that he’s worked on, and he explained the background behind how he came to write that particular story.

Finally, I ended up waiting on line a while to get ChrisCross’s signature on a few books.  He was generously doing free, detailed sketches for everyone who wanted one, and there were a bunch of teenagers in front of me getting drawings by him.  Considering that the last time ChrisCross was at JHU he took the time to do a nice Batman sketch from him, I figured that I ought to be patient and let some other people have their turns.  Besides, ChrisCross is an amazing artist, so I definitely wanted to get a few things autographed.  I asked him if he was working on any new projects, and he said he is, but the details are top-secret.  I’ll just have to keep my eye out for his work in the future.

So that was Free Comic Book Day at JHU.  As you can imagine, it was really crowded & hectic, but a lot of fun.  It looked like the staff was ready to drop from exhaustion, though, and I don’t blame them!

I took a few photos at JHU which I posted on Flickr.  Here’s a link:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/bh123/sets/72157629626265134/

Anyway, if you happen to be in the New York City area, Jim Hanley’s Universe is a cool comic shop that’s well worth checking out.