Benjamin J. Grimm was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. He made his first appearance in Fantastic Four #1, released in 1961. Since then, the character, who is arguably better known to his adoring masses as the ever-lovin’, blue-eyed Thing, has seen his varied adventures written and drawn by countless creative professionals in the comic book field, and endured a few cinematic ventures that are best left unremarked upon. Across many of those titanic tales — and I read as many I could wrap my grubby hands around — Ben Grimm was dependably, identifiably the same, arguably the most consistently rendered character in the stable of Marvel, a comic book publisher that made their name on atypically firm continuity.
For the uninitiated, it’s maybe worthwhile to explain how the fella pictures above got that orange, rocky hide. In the original iteration of the Fantastic Four origin story, Ben was part of a quartet that stole a rocket ship to engage in an unauthorized launch, all in an attempt to beat the Soviets in the space race, a plausible enough motivate at the fevered peak of the Cold War. Turns out the grouchy government officials intent of delaying the rocket’s deployment had a point. Inadequate shielding caused the neophyte astronauts to be bombarded by cosmic rays, giving each of them superhuman powers. Ben became the tragic figure, gifted with a Herculean strength but also cursed to be reformed into a thick, slate-skinned monster, dubbed the Thing. More than one comic book historian has noted that Kirby, born Jacob Kurtzberg, may have taken partial inspiration in the visual design of the Thing from the Jewish folklore figure the golem.
The clearest route to take with Ben Grimm, then, is to portray him as forlorn and agonized over his ghastly state. He becomes the physically devastated beast, repugnant to himself and wounded by the fearful reaction he stirs in others, locking himself away to wallow in his dejection. And Lee, always welcoming of melodrama, certainly exploited this natural storytelling opportunity. Ben, however, quickly became so much more than that. He was a wisecracker and smart aleck, freely drawing upon a sardonic worldview honed on tough New York City streets (Yancy Street, to be precise). Unlike Peter Parker, who cracked joke while adorned in the Spider-Man costume as a verbal armor over his insecurities, Ben’s jokes came from a place of ease, a fulsome comfort with himself that seemed entirely at odds with the heartbreak of his craggy visage. Presumably, this could undercut the drama. Instead, it makes the moments of understandable self-pity all the more poignant because they exist at such a distance from his prevailing personality.
There’s a cynicism at play, as well, though not a sort that aligns with the more modern form, representation of a harsh animosity towards the rickety culture. Ben’s cynicism is an everyman’s weariness at the colorful bombast of a universe out of control, beset by godlike behemoths with a taste for habitable planets and megalomaniacal Eastern European rulers with their own chagrin when confronted by a mirror. He has a aw-jeez-now-what! world weariness that makes for a surprisingly effective surrogate for the reading audience, undercutting instinctive rejection of the vividly fantastical with a wry acknowledgement that all this stuff zipping around seems like pure nonsense. He makes it believable because he can’t quite believe it.
Lee and Kirby spent around a hundred issues honing Ben’s voice before they largely ceded him to other creators. Even still, the consistency of Ben once he was a passed baton was remarkable, exceeding that of any of his three teammates, who spent at least the next couple decades weathering changes clearly intended to modernize them (a not altogether lamentable endeavor, especially with poor Susan Storm Richards). Through all that, Ben basically remained Ben, like some permanent testament to a idealized mid-century New Yorker: earthy but erudite, marginally educated but full of street smarts, everyone’s buddy and nobody’s patsy. He seemed like the lingering avatar of his co-creator Jack Kirby, even before the great artist basically ratified the theory with an extremely bizarre late-nineteen-story in the pages of the fanciful divergences title What If? As other characters shifted like greased stepping stones on wet pavement, Ben largely stayed put. For me, someone who fickly moved in and out of the Marvel Universe, Ben was always there to ground me, even when I didn’t quite recognize the other characters who were supposed to be familiar.
It maybe goes without typing that one of my mildly embarrassing old curmudgeon grievances in centered on a sense that the version of Ben Grimm that resides in the current Marvel Universe has finally been knocked lamentably off-model. The conspiracy theorists would likely attribute that to a relatively newfound disdain the publishing company has for the super-team that started it all, presumably because they don’t have control over the lucrative movie rights and they’re churlishly shorting those properties that don’t reside fully within their multi-tiered global entertainment stable. That may be true. It’s also probably irrelevant. I’ve no shortage of existing comic book stories containing my familiar favorite who can always skillfully identify to perfect time to commence clobberin’. Hoping for new ones is needlessly greedy.
Additional entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Character Sturdy” tag.