Saturday, August 26, 2006

The Comics Page #5: The Thing: Idol of Millions

Dan Slott's THE THING was sort of the ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT or FIREFLY of superhero comics; intensely beloved by a select bunch of people who followed it, completely ignored by everyone else. It ran for eight issues from 2005-2006, and is already missed. Fortunately, Marvel has just released the trade paperback collection of the complete series, under the subtitle IDOL OF MILLIONS, and I can't recommend it enough to people who missed the title on its first go-round. It is, arguably, the finest superhero book published this year or last, and maybe, just maybe if the trade sells, Marvel might give the title another "season" (as they've done with YOUNG AVENGERS and Slott's SHE HULK). Hypotheticals aside, the collected trade holds up as a funny, touching story, even considering the series' early end and the fact that it was never "written for the trade" to start with.

The Thing, aka Benjamin J. Grimm, "pug-ugliest member" of the Fantastic Four, has come into some money. A lot of it- billions, as a matter of fact, making him one of the wealthiest men in the world. (The book is not clear on how this came about- something to do with him getting control of some of the FF's money made from patenting inventions.) Already a celebrity among superheroes, he's now living it up, drinking champagne, riding in a limo, and attending glitzy parties. However, at one such party, he and the assembled guests are knocked out and dragged off to "Murderland", a lethal amusement park run by the madman Arcade. With the help of Tony Stark and a couple of reforming villains, Ben manages to save his fellow partygoers, but at the cost of his relationship with starlet Carlotta LaRosa. Soon, Sue and Reed Richards are thinking about how to get Ben to appreciate what he has instead of living it up constantly, and Ben himself tries to think of what he can really do with the money- and power- he now has. And of course, in the midst of all this, supervillains show up and he has to clobber 'em.

As I've said earlier, one of the joys of superhero comics, and the universes that DC and Marvel have created, is the variety of fun and wild characters and concepts that coexist in a world that's like ours, but more fantastic. It's the benefit of continuity, what loyal readers get in exchange for knowing what "616" means and why Dick Grayson isn't called Robin anymore. Slott understands this, and makes THE THING into a celebration of the Marvel Universe, full of familiar and not-so-familiar faces popping up to make things more entertaining (a fan-geek highlight comes when The Thing, up against a horde of Hulk robots each dressed as a particular past incarnation of the character, is aided by a group of similarly diverse Thing-bots- including a pirate-Thing who growls "Aye! It be clobberin' time!") It almost goes without saying that this is a lighthearted title, one of the increasingly rare "funny" superhero books that acknowledges and embraces the sillier side of the genre without descending into outright parody. In some ways the book reflects the "one big happy Marvel family" attitude of several books of the seventies- all the heroes know each other, they help each other out, and they're not above sitting in together on a poker game.

The book would be enjoyable just as a nostalgia trip, but there's a nicely human side to things as well. After learning the perils of wealth and fame in the first half of the series, Benjamin Grimm sets out to reconnect with his roots, working at a pawn shop to pay off what he shoplifted as a youth, and maybe give something back to the poor Yancy Street neighborhood. He's also become interested in reconnecting with his old girlfriend, blind sculptor Alicia Masters. She's with someone, but can't quite get the ever-lovin' blue-eyed Thing off her mind. This all could have ended up a lot more saccharine than it is, and Slott uses a light touch instead of high melodramatics to get across the idea that things are never quite as good or as bad as they seem.

Andrea DiVito pencils the first five issues, mixing excellent attention to detail with a good grasp of facial expression, making the drawings realistic and cartoony at the same time. Ol' Grimm himself is particularly lovingly rendered, his beetle brow and jigsawed skin looking as good as ever. Kieron Dwyer, who took over for the last three issues, has a style that's more abstract and not quite as pretty, but it doesn't detract from the story any. The colors by Laura Villari are appropriately vibrant throughout. A few character sketches by DiVito round out the collection (which is priced at $20.99).

THE THING: IDOL OF MILLIONS is far from the most ambitious or innovative comics story I've read in the last few years, but it's one of the best done just for what it is. There really isn't a false note or out-of-character moment in the entire book. Slott clearly loves the Marvel Universe and all the weird, goofy heroes and villains who make it up, but perhaps more importantly, he gets how they're all, at heart, people with the same ambitions and insecurities as the rest of us. Benjamin Grimm may be made of stone, but he's nothing less than human. This is a wonderful book.

Grade: A

[Please note: as of this posting, the Amazon link says this book hasn't been released yet. They're fulla beans, and you can find this at your friendly local comic shop.]

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