Monday, April 27, 2009

Things I Like Which No One Else Does

Part One of what is sure to be another extremely infrequent series

The Thing's Spiky Look

Although nowadays characters change costumes and powers at the drop of the proverbial hat, back in the mid-to-late 80s when Marvel decided (either by design or sheer coincidence) to give almost all of their top-tier properties significant makeovers, it was slightly shocking. Suddenly, Spider-Man was a black creature of the night; Captain America was out of the red-white-and-blue; the Hulk was gray and pissed; Thor was sporting a full-beard and armor; Iron Man had ditched the red and gold for red and silver; Storm got a mohawk. The Fantastic Four changed, too. She-Hulk joined the team for a brief period following the first Secret Wars - but this was nowhere near as jarring an inclusion as it could have been, considering that Byrne's She-Hulk made a copacetic fit with the FF's longstanding family dynamic. Soon after issue #300, however, they upended the series premise entirely, booting Reed and Sue into semi-retirement in Connecticut, and leaving Ben and Johnny to forge ahead with Sharon Ventura - Ms. Marvel - and Crystal. To make matters even weirder, the Thing's appearance was transformed radically - from his traditional craggy form into something spiky and far more intimidating.

Obviously it was a temporary change. Looking back, it lasted a scant year-and-a-half, although he didn't immediately revert to hie previous form, but spent the next couple years as just plain Ben Grimm. The funny thing is, for whatever reason, while most of the 80s revamps were generally well-received and are similarly well-remembered, the Thing's brief change is almost never mentioned. Obviously, no one believed at the time that Spider-Man would stay in his black costume forever, but it is an extremely striking design and remains popular whenever it shows up. (It was a big mistake to change Venom's design to whatever purple Scorpion-esque monstrosity it was in Thunderbolts - seriously, the black costume is one of the best costumes in comics, regardless of who's wearing it. Similarly, the third Spider-Man film completely failed in this regard, not actually using the black costume but merely a dirty version of the standard togs. But then, Sam Raimi had no real interest in using the costume to begin with, so it's not surprising he failed to grasp the appeal.) Cap's black costume lives on in a slightly modified form with USAgent; the Hulk reverts to gray for the odd storyline every few years; you could even make an argument that Thor's current look owes a lot to Simonson's armor design, although that would depend entirely on whether or not Oliver Coipel has ever read Simonson's run (which is hardly a given). But no one ever talks about the Thing.

Which strikes me as odd, because the spiky Thing kicked ass. It wasn't merely a cosmetic change: the new look brought with it a significant power-boost, so that for the first time the Thing was actually on par with Thor and Hulk in terms of strength. It might seem like a small issue, but think about how many great Thing moments depend on his underdog status: he's incredibly strong, but never the strongest. He has to work that much harder. It might seem on first glance that upping his power level would be a mistake, then, in terms of the character's established appeal. And certainly, if the change had been permanent, it would have been a mistake. But as far as the story went, it was really interesting to see the Thing in a more confident, assured, and even cocky role. Playing against type, so to speak.

There's a great - one of the best - Hulk / Thing battles, in the middle of the storyline, with the spiky Thing tackling the canny gray Hulk. In the first part of the battle (in the pages of Fantastic Four, 'natch), the Hulk and Thing wail on each other like usual, with the difference being that for the first time ever the Thing actually manages to beat the Hulk in a contest of pure strength. It's a great moment for longtime Thing fans, even if it is the weakened gray Hulk - the Hulk still knows he's been beaten by someone he had always dismissed as a lightweight. Then, in the second part of the crossover (in the pages of Incredible Hulk), Peter David presents another clever inversion of the traditional dynamic. Continuing their battle, the Hulk realizes he just can't win in a straight fight with the new Thing, so he uses his wits to out-think and exhaust his overconfident opponent - in much the same way that the Thing had used his wiles to stay competitive with the Hulk for all those years when he was the weaker party. it's a great two-part story because it uses the opportunities presented by the shifting status quo to give both characters a great moment.

On a purely mechanical level, I can't help but wonder whether or not the look's lack of staying power has anything to do with the fact that it's probably a bitch to draw. Regardless, I wouldn't mind seeing the look return, as it added an interesting wrinkle to a property that had become fairly predictable.

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