Have Them Fight God: Prince Philip and King Ben
I’m reading every Fantastic Four comic and posting four thoughts about each.
So far we’ve focused on the MC2 imprint, with articles on Spider-Girl #0 and #3, but this week we’re talking a break from that line’s retro take on Marvel‘s future to look at a comic from the same year that attempted a contemporary take on the past.
SHADOWS & LIGHT #2
…from April 1998, an issue of an anthology series whose lead story explores the Thing’s monstrosity and demonstrates it to be lesser than that of the British royal family.
Story and art by Lee Weeks.
In 2014, if you wanted to buy a lovely statue of Babs Tarr’s Batgirl then you were buying it in greyscale. By 2015 there was a coloured-in version, but that first item of merchandise for that notably colourful version of the character was notably devoid of colour. That seems weird. Even weirder is the reason why. It was a matter of prestige. They hadn’t run out of paint. This was an honour.
The Batman: Black and White brand still matters. Twenty years on and ‘Batman: Black and White’ still means something and can have an effect on properties as remote from it in terms of DC’s publishing history as the Babs Tarr Batgirl. Batman: Black and White, a four issue miniseries from 1996 which I’m not sure anyone actually reads any more, has punched well above its weight in terms of brand endurance.
A lot of the little oddments you find coming out from Marvel in the late nineties are the company’s rather blunt ‘answers’ to some sales or critical success that DC was enjoying. The DC of that period had many of both. Shadows and Light is Marvel’s answer to Batman: Black and White. Marvel’s own black and white, artist-led, four issue anthology. Shadows and Light is not a brand that has similarly endured. There will be no Shadows and Light statue of Spider-Gwen.
Shadows and Light is okay though. It’s not embarassing like Marvel’s attempt to do VERTIGO or interminable like Marvel’s attempt to do Kingdom Come. There’s some quality stuff in here. This second issue has got a nice little Jim Starlin thing with Doctor Strange, a Jill Thompson Spider-Man story, and Liam Sharp using Man-Thing to play about with the style of Bissette and Totleben’s Swamp Thing. It’s all fine. It’s only been forgotten because Batman: Black and White is an immediately exciting and focused concept while “Here’s some black and white stories about a random selection of Marvel characters” is not.
Our lead story is a Ben Grimm piece by Lee Weeks. To foster the sense that these are important works by important people then each story is introduced by an interview with its creator about its function and themes. In his, Weeks shares a couple of interesting thoughts about Ben. One is that “he’s the Detective Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) of the Marvel universe.” Park that for now, but remember it for later weeks. That’s going to come up again.
Because the other Ben theory that Weeks states here is the meat of this specific story. It’s the idea that people see Ben as a monster “mainly because that’s the way he views himself […] he’s mostly responsible for the way he’s perceived and should give people more of a chance to see him as a man.”
Ben is, most comics agree, a monster.
Ben has, most comics agree, a body that can be thought of as disfigured.
Those are more or less constants. What varies wildly is the relationship between Ben’s disfigurement and Ben’s monstrosity. In the Mark Waid run, for example, Ben’s a monster to Ben and to Ben alone; He sees himself as a monster while the world, regardless of his disfigurement, sees him as nothing of the sort. In the John Byrne run, on the other hand, Ben’s ongoing disfigurement is a consequence of his monstrosity; his own psychological flaws are what invariably revert him to his rocky form despite all of Reed’s successful cures.
So to get a handle on what’s happening in a Ben Grimm story the first thing to look at should probably always be how that story relates disfigurement and monstrosity. Lee Weeks’ take is that Ben views himself as a monster on account of his disfigurement, this causes him to act like a monster and that consequentially he’s viewed as a monster by others. That’s the mistake this story reckons Ben is making and it reckons it has a device with which to expose it.
What if, it asks, Ben didn’t know what sort of body he had, but that everyone around him did? How might he behave then? And how might he be perceived?
Understandably there’s a lot of work needed to create a situation in which somebody has no idea that they’re an orange giant made of rocks but that everyone around that person can see that truth plainly. How do you tell a story where somebody just doesn’t notice that they’re an orange giant made of rocks?
Naturally you start with amnesia and a blindfold. They don’t solve everything though. Take away a man’s sight and his memory and he’s still got many other means by which he may swiftly apprehend that he’s an orange giant made of rocks, should he indeed be such. The story being in black and white only helps hide the ‘orange’ part.
There’s a gesture at his sense of touch having been compromised too, but little to explain why, during the three days his spends in the community where this story is set, his suspicions about his physicality aren’t aroused by the people around him saying things like “He’s as big as five men!” and “He’s like a great warrior made of stone!” and other subtle clues.
The weirdest thing though is what we’re to understand about Ben’s sense of proprioception here. He spends the story mostly performing manual labour, so he’s obviously able to effectively co-ordinate his body. Yet a climactic moment is him remembering how many fingers he has and how large they are.
He remembers this in the process of saving a life. Chucking himself off the edge of a cliff to grab and save someone who’s falling off it. Ben remembers who he is and performs a heroic action. Hero Reborn? No. This is the moment when Ben becomes a monster.
While saving his friend’s life, all Ben can think about is that this is not what he wants to be or do. “I just wanted to be be pilot,” he complains, “Just wanted to fly.”
Having saved this guy’s life, Ben then tells him that he doesn’t see any value in him having done so. Then he throws a massive stompy temper tantrum, terrifying all around. Lee Weeks has told his story; The Ben that is seen as a monster is the Ben that acts like a monster because of how Ben feels about looking like a monster. My macro level view of the massively multi-authored, multi-decade continuity that is the Fantastic Four can’t sign off on that exactly, but we’ll hang onto it and compare it to other Ben Theories as we go along.
What I find more interesting, to be honest, is the question of what Ben wants. This is a Ben who receives no emotional reward from acts of heroism. He takes no pride in it and takes no joy from gratitude. There’s nothing in being a hero for Ben. Action is not his reward. What does he want?
And what does the industrialised world want from the idea of the cargo cult?
We kind of love it.
In Britain the right-wing press never misses the most tenuous opportunity to remind us that the Yaohnanen tribe of Vanuatu worship Prince Philip as a god.
Even though they sort of don’t really.
What’s happened sounds to be more like the Yaohnanen tribe got a whiff of Prince Philip’s importance via some obnoxious seventies display of imperialist majesty and made a reasonable association between the divine and the British Monarchy. The British Monarchy being an institution that was then literally claiming to own the Yaohnanen’s world. The tribe making that association was reasonable because not only only was the material history of why the British were co-owning Vanuatu with the French much more absurd than divine mandate, but because an association with the divine is the actual foundational justification of the existence of monarchs in the first place. The link between monarchs and the divine that the Yaohnanen had made was far weaker and less fanciful than the link asserted by Britain’s own constitution.
Right and Left: People behaving reasonably. Centre: Someone being a dick.
Despite the miniscule amount of self-awareness the British Establishment would need to apprehend the above, they never have. They probably don’t know how many fingers they’ve got either. So they’ve spend the last forty years egging the Yaohnanen on for the lulz and sending Karl Pilkington over to smirk at them. Karl fucking Pilkington.
We do this because we are deeply and depressingly flattered by the idea of indigenous peoples worshipping our detritus. Cannibal tribes bowing in obeisance to Radio Luxemborg appear in Will Hay’s smash hit 1936 comedy Windbag the Sailor and we’ve never got over the idea. Our response to the existence of cargo cults is to take it as evidence of our sophistication over peoples to whom even our trash is of value. Though I suppose it’s encouraging that we understand that Prince Philip is trash.
So here is a story where an amnesiac Ben Grimm crash lands on an isolated South Pacific island. It’s Lee Weeks’ solution to the problem of how to provide him with a community who can respond to his behaviour but who won’t mention that they’ve seen him on the telly. It can’t just do that though. The set up is to provide an economical solution to the problem of putting Ben in a social vacuum where there is also society, but it’s denied that economy by crash landing in a tradition of dodgy writing about South Pacific tribal peoples encountering things that have washed-up on their shores or fallen from their skies. The simplicity of a story about how Ben presents to others is complicated by its proximity to stories of how the Other processes the industrialised world’s bits and bobs.
The first move the story makes here is the sort of thing Carl Barks liked to do. Ben is not the first intercession into this tribal culture. That was ‘Kelmack’, who we later learn to be Lt. Kelly MacCormack, a WWII fighter pilot. Ben is interacting with a culture that has already been influenced by the choices of a previous visitor. Reading MacCormack’s diaries towards the end of the story, Ben notes that he “went primitive” but that doesn’t seem to have been quite what he did at all. Rather he seems to have exploited his technologies to set himself up as a king.
How the inhabitants of this story’s unnamed island are to understand Ben is in light of not just their beliefs but in light of prior colonial activity. Already this story is one up on press coverage of the Godly Prince Philip.
The islanders are named, distinguished, and have differing points of view.
Taree understands Ben to be a new king, as promised by Kellmack. Her logic is that there is obviously something special about someone who just walked away from an explosive spaceship crash. Nuntoo takes him to be a demon. Takar confines himself to the immediate material evidence and goes with “great warrior made of stone.” Pakai, and eventually the tribe as a whole, seem mostly convinced by Taree’s arguments and by Ben’s feats of strength and so they settle on “he’s a king.”
But what is the role of ‘king’ here? We don’t see Ben performing any role that looks either executive or ceremonial. We see him in two roles; Patient and construction worker. Regardless of what they think he is, how they mostly treat him is as someone who needs to recover from a spaceship crash. And regardless of this, how Ben mostly behaves is as a construction worker.
That’s not unusual for Ben. Along with ‘wrestler’ then it’s one of the two most frequent things for him to be when he’s not being a superhero. But what isn’t usual is the way that ‘construction worker’ and ‘king’ interact here. Everyone would like Ben to perhaps have some rest and have a go at recovering from his massive ordeal. But, as per Two-in-One Annual #7/Secret Wars: Siege #4, Ben is the man who won’t lie down. He’s up and about carrying heavy objects and building big useful things.
It’s this behaviour, that comics usually have Ben default to because it’s manual and coded as working-class, that here guarantees his kingly nature.
“It’s not possible!” says Nuntoo as Ben carries a big rock.
“It’s for a king!” says Taree.
“Our great king!” chants the crowd as Ben builds a bridge.
The islanders have taken external material and accorded it value, but that’s because they’re getting their big rocks moved and bridges built. They’ve done what every cargo cult does; taken something from outside and put it to a purpose for which they have a cultural use.
But what do the Fantastic Four want?
This story’s Fantastic Four is an oddly half-baked attempted at a modernised view of the Silver Age. It’s a generic version of the early team in which Sue has big hair and no discernible personality and everyone talks in a weird mixture of Stan Lee shtick and phrases that have no place in it. Johnny’s line “Cut the crap, big brain!” is my favourite example, but I’m also partial to Ben name dropping Timothy Leary like he’s forgotten which Sixties he’s from.
The situation that’s put Ben on the island is that NASA have come to him asking him to test pilot a rocketship for them. He accepts, the controls freeze up, and it explodes.
Johnny’s understanding of the situation is darker. He seems to think that Ben has purposefully killed herself. Not only is he certain that Ben’s dead, but he’s furious with Reed about it and furious with Reed for continuing to search for Ben.
“You should’ve been so concerned before NASA approached him. You saw him. He hadn’t been that down since he became the Thing.”
Everything’s interesting there. That Johnny’s teasing and provoking of Ben is a strategy to help keep the guy alive is a popular interpretation, but this really shows the sort of responsibility Johnny feels the FF have towards Ben. They are, Johnny here believes, his suicide watch. To let him go off and fly missions for NASA is to fail him because…look! This is what happens.
But what does Ben want? Ben wants to fly. That’s why he takes the NASA mission. That’s what he says he’d rather be doing than saving lives. That’s what he eventually does at the end of this story as he takes the controls of the Pogo Plane.
Reunited with his family, Ben is able to fly.
That’s what he wants and that’s what his family want for him; to create a space where he’s able to. Ben’s not a superhero. He’s part of the Fantastic Four, which is a structure built to allow its members to support each other in perusing their own weird ideas of happiness. And this is one of the foundations on which that structure’s built. Ben wants to fly. The earth loves the air.