My Favorite Monster: Why The Thing Is A Prince Among Monsters [Fantasy Week]
This week is Fantasy Week at ComicsAlliance, celebrating the best in magical fiction and imaginary worlds, and we’ve invited our writers to mark the occasion by celebrating a hallmark of the genre; the legendary creatures and outcast freaks we call “monsters.” This is My Favorite Monster.
It feels almost too clichéd to be worth saying: whether you're naming a favorite superhero or a favorite comics monster, the Thing is no surprise for the top of either list. In fact the archetype of the monster as member of a superhero team started with him, and with Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, who introduced the character in Fantastic Four #1. He wasn't exactly the first superheroic monster, but he was the first one who wasn't a loner, and the first whose gruff but self-conscious demeanor contrasted with the sunnier dispositions of his non-monstrous teammates.
Everyone reading this knows the Thing already, but I’m going to introduce him anyway. Benjamin Jacob Grimm was born on the Lower East Side of New York City to a working class Jewish family. He went to college on a football scholarship, and became close friends with his roommate, a scientific genius named Reed Richards.
He went on to become a pilot, so he was the natural choice when Reed needed someone to fly the experimental rocket he’d built. They went into space with Reed’s love interest Sue Storm and her little brother Johnny, got bombarded by cosmic rays, and became the Fantastic Four. The cosmic rays turned Ben into a big orange monster, and he was really angry about that at first. He (mostly) mellowed about it over time, although the subject of his humanity is a recurring theme in some of his best stories.
The Fantastic Four is a family, and although he’s the only one not related by blood or marriage, Ben Grimm has always been an important part of that family. Of the four, though, he has the strongest connections in the larger superhero community. Sure, Reed occasionally talks science with Tony Stark and Johnny has a long-running rivalry with Spider-Man, but Ben plays a regular poker game with Nick Fury, Wolverine, the Beast, Carol Danvers, and whoever else happens to be free that night. His fights with the Hulk are legendary, and he’s good buddies with Captain America. In fact, he had his own team-up book for a hundred issues, Marvel Two-In-One, in which he appeared alongside a different hero every month.
The Thing has an exaggerated blue collar New York dialect (a bit like Jimmy Durante), and that, combined with his appearance, leads some to misread him as not being too bright. On the contrary, he’s extremely intelligent, although it’s not always easy to notice, since he spends most of his time hanging out with the universe’s preeminent super-genius. Ben Grimm has an engineering degree and can pilot just about anything, and he can figure out a supervillain’s scheme as quickly as most other heroes. The main difference between the Thing and more methodical heroes is that while he’s figuring out what you’re up to, he’s probably already punching you at the same time.
The Thing has a gruff exterior, although it’s not the same sort of nihilistic gruffness exhibited by Wolverine, or the “my war is all that matters” grumpiness of a well written Punisher or a badly written Batman. The Thing is more like a street kid at a cocktail party (at times, in fact, he’s literally this). He knows he doesn’t fit in, and he doesn’t know how to act. He wants to be liked, but he suspects it’s probably hopeless.
Underneath his manners and his insecurities, though, the Thing always seems like an incredibly good guy. Even among superheroes, he stands out in that regard. You can count on Wolverine or Batman to defend the innocent, but would you ask one of them to babysit your toddler? Spider-Man and Thor are great to have on your side in battle, but would you expect one of them to wake up early and cook breakfast for the whole family?
The Thing does these things, because that’s the sort of guy he is. He may not be the superhero you’d want to go on a date with, but he’s the superhero you want at your party. He’s the guy who helps you move, invites you out for a beer, and does his best to cheer you up when you’re in a bad mood. In a world with so many friendly monsters, no monster could be friendlier.