They say the only three certain things in life are birth, death, and change. When it comes to comic books those things are also certain as they come in the form of retcons, reboots, and resurrections.
For our purposes retcons are elements that are retroactively added into a character’s history after the fact, reboots are either big full change revivals of a character/title or are extensive changes to their canon, and resurrections are characters making the return from death or character limbo.
Each week we’ll explore the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to Retcons, Reboots, and Resurrections.
Death and resurrection are nothing new when it comes to superhero stories, the two tied together concepts are about as common as taking a breath in these worlds. Whether it’s for a few months or a few years, a great number of heroes have shuffled off the mortal coil only to return in a variety of (often convoluted) ways.
More often than not the returns are glossed over and are tied to some science-fiction method of return. Every once in a while there is a trip to some sort of afterlife for this return, versions of Hell being the most visited after-death realm.
On some very rare occasions though, comic books have taken the “meeting your creator” sentiment about the afterlife in a very literal direction.
Enter the death and return of one Benjamin “The Thing” Grimm.
What Was It?
Back in 2005, Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo were crafting a run on Fantastic Four that to this day still remains a fan-favorite in many regards. Early into that run, the duo had Doctor Doom return, tapping deeper into sorcery rather than science this time, where he kidnapped Valeria, sent Franklin to hell in a deal with demons, and tortured the Four in devastating ways meant to break them. They won the day and Doom was dragged to hell (for failing in the deal since Franklin was rescued) but managed to scar Reed’s face in the process.
This arc led Reed into one of his very obsessive spirals and in the aptly named story arc ‘Authoritative Action‘, where he decided that Doom could not be allowed to have a power base should he return therefore Reed declared the Four the new rulers of Latveria. During this time they revealed many of the horrific secrets of Doom to his people, who began to warm up to the Four and the idea of being independent of Doom at last. Because of this coup though, the U.N. and S.H.I.E.L.D. warned Reed to end this or they would act against the foursome. Hiding those messages, Reed encouraged the family to keep doing the work they were doing.
Ultimately S.H.I.E.L.D. struck against the four, Nick Fury having held off the attack as long as he could, and the attack led to the revelation of Reed’s true motives. Mr. Fantastic’s plan was to construct a prison for Doom to keep him locked away forever but to do so he would need to sacrifice himself to be the “warden” of sorts trapped with Doom to ensure there would be no escape. The whole trip to Latveria was meant to not only free the people & break Doom’s power base to give the Four a ‘win,’ but a means for Reed to push the others away from him so that he could commence this sacrifice.
Unfortunately, it went wrong as the others came to rescue Reed and Doom escaped by possessing Susan, using her powers to slaughter a bunch of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, before taking over Johnny and then ultimately Ben. At that moment though, Ben broke through and begged for Reed to kill him while he held Doom within so that he would not be a party to the death of his family or others. Despite it tearing him apart to do so, Reed did what his friend asked as he killed him with a weapon devised by S.H.I.E.L.D. expressly to penetrate Ben’s rocky exterior.
Unable to live with himself and without his best friend, Reed devised a way to travel to the afterlife to bring Ben back to life. To accomplish this he recreates a device of Doom’s meant to contact the afterlife, steals Ben’s body back from the government (putting it in a healing tank because there is still a spark of ‘light’ within), and reunites the rest of the family/team.
Long story short, they battle their way through heaven (fighting angels, rivers of blood, and more that may or may not have been their brains’ way of dealing with the realm) and reach Ben as he attempts to actually enter Heaven which he can’t enter because of Reed’s real-world attempts to heal Ben’s body. Ben wants to stay in heaven, Sue and Reed accept this, Johnny doesn’t, Reed breaks down in grief over what he has done to his family, and Dan Grimm (Ben’s long-dead brother) offers to let them all stay in heaven with Ben.
They decline, which turns out was the “correct” answer to Dan’s test and they are allowed to meet with the creator. As they walk through the open door before them, they are shocked by what they find.
Within is an older man in a modest-looking apartment working at a drawing board. It’s here that he’s drawing things, things that are happening or have happened in the “real world” at some point. This creator is in the form of none other than Jack Kirby himself, the co-creator of the Fantastic Four and so many other beloved Marvel (and DC) characters. This Kirby God has a long talk with the team, where Reed can’t believe that the creator’s pencil is “the wellspring of creation” until it’s used to erase the scarred damage to Reed’s face and return the human-looking Ben to his rocky form (since his real body is still in that form).
The creator sends them back to Earth after telling them that the device used to come here will never work again, and gives them a gift before they are gone. That gift is a sketch that shows the team in the future, far older, still together, and happy with the caption “to be continued” upon it. The creator has given them “a happy ending” in a way.
Was It Good?
As stated above this run is still a favorite of many out there, and resonated heavily at the time. It resonated so much that when Waid was fired (because of then Marvel President Bill Jemas) and Wieringo quit in solidarity and were about to move fully to DC, editor Tom Brevoort and Editor-In-Chief Joe Quesada did everything to get them back which included making Wieringo a Marvel Exclusive artist (after his DC exclusive fell through when he was planning to come back to do two issues to finish off the FF run). Brevoort and Waid shared much of this during an oral history of the run with Newsarama earlier this fall.
Overall the return was interesting because it went a different direction than most other character resurrections at the time. The tribute to Kirby was very well done, though unfortunately, Waid revealed in the oral history that the Kirby family wasn’t very happy about this choice.
While this was a very short-lived death of a beloved character, compared to the length that most deaths go these days, it definitely worked because of who these characters are and what they mean to one another. They aren’t just a team, they are a full family. Taking one piece away leaves them shattered in ways that are hard to recover (as we’ve seen a few times in their history). They truly would move Heaven and Earth for one another.
Next Week: A classic comic book icon gets a spine-tingling modernization