I’ve said it before on the site, but it really is a great experience when I’m just working my way through some old Marvel runs and come across a story that I instantly know will be perfect to highlight here on Marvel Madness. And today is one such story. I’ve been reading a lot of the Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four run lately, and a lot of it is a whole lot of fun. It’s one of those Marvel series’ that, if I wanted to, I could basically spotlight every single story here. They’re all relatively nuts, in that glorious way that classic Marvel is. But, every now and then, I come across a story even more insane than the rest of the herd. Today we’re going to be talking about a story that features my favorite of the Fantastic Four, the Thing, and we’re going to see him be sent to a planet where he’s forced to compete in gladiatorial combat. Yeah, it’s kind of handy that I came across a story like this in the same month that Thor: Ragnarok came out, giving me a bigger reason to feature it, keeping with a gladiator theme, but really as soon as I finished reading this story I got this article ready. Because it’s a goddamn delight.
The story begins with the tail-end of the previous story, which focused on the Moleman assaulting the weird half-underground house that Reed and Sue bought to try and live normal lives. He gave the Fantastic Four a good fight, and they’re all nursing their wounds while debating what to do with the Moleman himself, who is hogtied in a closet. The Thing gets pretty hotheaded about the whole incident, since the Moleman hurt his family, and ends up undoing his bonds so that he can intimidate him. Which was a bad call, because unfortunately the Moleman is a slippery rascal, and he manages to run past the Fantastic Four and jump down the pit that he crated in the house that leads down into this subterranean world. The Thing is pretty pissed off about this, but gets even more mad when Reed basically says it doesn’t matter. He says some bullcrap about how the police could never hold Moleman, so they shouldn’t even bother following him. Ben starts sulking around, acting petulant, and when he can’t take it anymore he tosses on some clothes, announces he’s heading out to Alicia Masters’ house to spend time with someone who doesn’t drive him crazy, and storms out.
But, as the Thing is off having a temper-tantrum, weird things are afoot. Out in some nondescript woods outside New York a space ship has landed. And not just any spaceship. It’s one belonging to a Skrull. The Skrull gets out of his ship, using a mold of Reed Richards’ face to practice his shape-shifting abilities on. He makes sure his ray gun is functioning, disguises his ship, and then starts walking to New York, clearly with the intentions of impersonating Reed Richards. But, before he can do that, he needs another face. So, as he’s walking, he encounters an old man, jumps him and takes the man’s face and outfit, hoping to blend in a little better. And, with that taken care of, he continues on to New York, with one mission in his mind. The capture of Ben Grimm.
The Skrull ends up hitchhiking, and once he reaches the city he just kind of wanders around, using some sort of Thing-Locator to track Ben down. He eventually decides that he needs some transportation, so he creepily watches a man park his car on the street, and uses his shape-shifting abilities to look like the man, and recreate his keys. So, now that he has a car, the Skrull is able to race around the city, getting ever-closer to the Thing. And, he finally gets lucky when he sees a mob of people surrounding the Thing, begging for his autograph. Ben is obliging, which gives the Skrull time to park, and head into an alley to prepare. He morphs himself into Reed Richards, and then runs out into the street, acting like he’s been looking all over for Ben. “Reed” tells him that there’s an alien invasion, and he needs his help right away. Ben doesn’t think much of it, and follows Reed as they hop in the car the Skrull stole, and drive off into the woods. The Skrull brings the Thing to its own spaceship, and as Ben is coming up with a plan to deal with the apparent Skrull invasion they have on their hands, the real Skrull takes out his ray gun, and blasts the Thing.
The Skrull has knocked the Thing unconscious, piles him into its spaceship, and sets course for an alien planet, where he’s planning on forcing the Thing to fight in some sort of game. But, things are about to get even crazier. Because the next issue in this story opens up with a bunch of stereotypical 30’s gangsters sitting around a table, looking at a dossier on the Thing. A man called Boss Barker is talking to his underlings, devising a plan to use his newest slave, the Thing, to win these gladiatorial fights in exchange for “Power Stones.” But, as Barker and his men are discussing the Thing they’re suddenly interrupted by Lippy Louie, a rival gangster with a proposition. He has an amazing fighter, a robotic being known as Torgo, and he’s convinced that Torgo and the Thing will make for a great fight. So the two gangsters make a wager, and plan for a battle among titans.
And, in case you’re wondering what the hell is going on, we’re going to get some exposition from the Skrull who has captured the Thing. The two are flying through space, while the Thing is locked into some power dampening stockade. The Skrull is mocking the Thing, explaining that he’s a slave now, and that people are already bidding on the right to buy him and make him a gladiator. The Thing responds to this with his typical grumpiness, and keeps insisting that he’ll break out of his confines, take control of the ship, and return to Earth. But, the Skrull insists that this is impossible, because they’re rapidly approaching Kral, the outermost planet in the Skrull empire. And, Kral is a weird place. They land on the planet, and the Thing immediately sees that the entire planet is designed like 1930’s New York, and all the Skrulls are taking the form of human beings, dressed like they belong from the time period.
But, it’s not quite right. They aren’t actually acting like humans, they’re acting like they’re movies from the 1930’s. The Thing and the Skrull land on Kral, and he’s immediately purchased by Boss Barkin. The Thing tries to escape, figuring that he can overpower some Skrulls, but that collar he’s wearing puts him in too much pain to be effective, and before he knows it, he’s piled onto a transport truck that’s taking all the new slaves to the arena. And, now that he has some non-Skrull company, the Thing starts asking what’s going on. And it’s strange. Apparently Kral used to be a normal Skrull planet, until they met Machine Gun Martin. Martin was a gangster from Earth who escaped prison in the 30’s. And, while escaping, he came across a Skrull slaver who was on Earth looking for new gladiators. The Skrull captured Martin, but on the long trip back to Kral the two got talking, and the slaver was fascinated by Martin’s lifestyle. So, when they reached Kral, they began talking about it, they started watching old gangster flicks, and eventually the fad caught on, and the entire damn planet started acting like they were in a Jimmy Cagney movie.
The Thing is pretty baffled by this, but decides to roll with it until he can find a good way to escape the planet. But, he quickly learns that things are a little crazier here on Kral than he antipated. Because, as he and his fellow slaves are being driven to the arena, they’re suddenly attacked by a biplane. The Skrulls in the plane are trying to steal the slaves, and they get in a crazy fight where the slave-truck turns into an aircraft as well, and they start having a dogfight. The Thing’s slave-truck wins though, and with that taken care of they fly out to the arena where the slaves will be kept in between bouts. And, of course, it’s built to look like an old brewery. They land, unload the slaves, and the Thing immediately starts running his mouth.
Unfortunately for the Thing, these slavers don’t take kindly to sarcasm. So, to soften the Thing up, and see how tough he is, they sic one of their star fighters, a violent creature from a jungle planet, on the Thing. The two have a pretty brutal fight, and it becomes apparent that they’re evenly matched. So, when the slavers decide that the Thing has had enough, they activate their collars again, causing both the Thing and the creature to fall to the ground in pain. And, with that taken care of, they toss the Thing into the stockade where the other fighters are kept. Which is when the Thing meets his main competition. Torgo.
Now, I double checked, and this story did come out after Manos: the Hands of Fate. I highly doubt that either Jack Kirby or Stan Lee saw that movie, but in my head I’d like to believe that Torgo is named after the weird goat-legged oddball from that movie. It just makes me smile. This Torgo is a little more intimidating than that one though. This Torgo is a robotic being who just flat-out tells the Thing that he’s being trained specifically to defeat the Thing. He’s learning Ben’s weaknesses, and says that his entire existence will be justified if he can best the Thing in the arena. Cool guy.
However, even though Torgo is an asshole from moment one, he also has some advice for the Thing. Because, as the Thing starts sulking around, planning some sort of escape, Torgo lets him in on a secret. The power collar will cause the Thing pain, but it’s not just that keeping him from escaping. There’s some sort of device in the cells that implant the slaves with mental blocks that won’t let them flee. The Thing assume that this is just Torgo trying to mess with him, but when the guards come in and unlock the Thing, he finds that it’s true. He’s unable to fight back, and just has to wait in his cell. There’s no way out.
So, the Thing is just going to have to deal with this new life until he can figure out an escape plan, and that means he’s going to have to train. The slave-masters take the Thing out of the stockade the next day, and bring him into a courtyard where the various competitors are practicing. And, as if they’re making fun of him, the Skrulls force the Thing to spar with a little tiny creature with an awkward magnet on it’s head. He makes fun of the creature, saying that this fight wouldn’t be fair, but that turns out to not be the case. Because this thing has some sort of control over magnetism, and because Stan Lee didn’t seem to have any idea what magnetism is, the creatures is able to lift the Thing up, and toss him around like a ragdoll.
While all of this has been going on, the Fantastic Four have been back on Earth, trying to find Ben. They’ve looked all over the city, and some sensors of Reed manage to show that there’s residual radiation from a Skrull ship. So, putting it together, Reed becomes worried that the Skrulls have kidnapped Ben. He then creates a device that can track the Skrull ship, and he starts working on an old Skrull ship that they’ve had laying around the Baxter Building for years, getting ready to hit the stars and find Ben.
Meanwhile, the gangster Skrulls are still throwing everything they can at the Thing, trying to see how powerful he is while simultaneously trying to break his spirit. The Thing eventually defeats the magnet guy, and a giant horned monster. But, with each victory he starts to get more of his wits about him, and the hypnotic suggestion that keeps him from escaping starts to wear off. This terrifies the Skrulls, so they decide to take things up a notch, and use a giant pneumatic press to keep the Thing pinned while they think of something to do with him. Unfortunately, no one seems to really know the full extent of the Thing’s strength, so he’s eventually able to rip the thing apart. This shocks the Skrulls, but also makes them excited to see what a champion they have on their hands. So, they send the Thing back to his cell to get more of the hypnotic suggestion, and word goes out that he’s ready to participate in the fights.
The gangsters then all put on their best suits, and head down to the arena to start gambling. We get to see a lot of squabbling between the various gangsters, while they jockey for power, but none of that really matters. What does matter is that the Thing is still desperately trying to find a way out of this predicament. Which isn’t helped by Torgo just standing around, musing about how it’s almost time for him to kill. But, when Torgo mentions that he doesn’t want to kill, he just knows it’s his duty, the Thing sees an opening. He tries to convince Torgo that they could work together, and overpower the guards, letting them both escape. But, Torgo is not down with this suggestion, and starts yelling at Ben. The two end up fighting in their cell, and the slavers have to rush in and separate them.
So, with another plan failed, Ben has no choice but to be led out of his cell, with Torgo, and brought to the arena for the fight. They’re rounded up and put in lines, ready to fight. The Thing still isn’t giving up though, and he tries to rally the other captives to his side, still hoping for a little revolution. Until Torgo lets him know about one other wrinkle. The Skrulls apparently have a weapon that can destroy any of these being’s homeworld if they rebel. So, even if the Thing managed to convince the other slaves to join his rebellion, the Skrulls would just destroy the Earth. These Skrulls have really thought of everything. But, Ben still won’t give in. Even as Torgo explains again and again how impossible things will be, he keeps trying to convince the robot that there’s some way out of this.
The guards then arrive, and force the Thing and Torgo out into the arena for the biggest match of the day. The Thing starts yelling at the gangster Skrulls as soon as he’s out in the arena, trying to get them to realize that this is madness, but it’s no use. They came for blood, and they’re going to get blood. And, because Torgo is a good solider, he immediately starts the fight. Torgo and the Thing begin beating the hell out of each other. Torgo keeps telling the Thing that it isn’t personal, but the Thing won’t stop trying to win Torgo onto his side. He even tries to convince Torgo that the Skrull’s weapon isn’t real, and that it’s all just a bluff. Until the Skrull in charge of it decides to do a demonstration, and blow up some asteroids.
The Thing is pretty convinced by this, and realizes that he’s going to have to survive this fight and figure out a new strategy. Which is difficult, because the Skrulls are now giving Torgo and the Thing weapons, and the Thing has no idea how to use them. He ends up hurting himself with a weird smoke bomb, giving Torgo the chance he needs to take down the Thing. However, Torgo can’t do it. He considers it dishonorable, and refuses kill the Thing because of his own ignorance. The Thing takes advantage of Torgo’s hesitation though, and punches him, earning them both a timeout while the Skrulls figure out what to do about the fight.
The Skrulls then give Torgo and the Thing some weird club-like weapons, and decide that this is the final stage of the fight. The two will have to beat each other to death, and there’s nothing that can stop the fight until they do so. Torgo quickly gains the upper hand in the fight, because he’s more familiar with the weapons than the Thing, but Ben’s strength makes it so he’s able to fight back and keep himself alive. He even gets one over on Torgo, and bends the weapon around Torgo, pinning him. But Ben isn’t willing to kill Torgo, and the robot gets out of the trap to continue the brawl. Torgo then decides he’s had enough, and uses a secret function of the weapon to gas the Thing, causing him to collapse on the ground so that Torgo can preform a killing blow.
Meanwhile, the Fantastic Four have been flying around in space in their stolen Skrull ship, and have managed to track the energy signature of the ship that kidnapped Ben. They end up encountering the slaver that kidnapped him, and learn all about Kral. The FF then get dressed up in 30’s clothes, and land on Kral, claiming to be big-deal gangsters. They end up finding one of Boss Barker’s underlings, and learn all about the gladiatorial match, and realize that they need to speed over there as fast as possible to save Ben.
Back at the arena, things are getting intense. Torgo has the Thing in a position where he can kill him, but something odd is happening. He still can’t bring himself to do it. He’s gained respect and friendship with Ben, and he’s now willing to help him escape. There’s just the problem of the Skrull’s planet-destroying weapon. Well, there was the problem, because as Torgo and the Thing are trying to figure out a way to defeat the weapon, the Fantastic Four show up and manage to destroy the machine. The Skrulls are all shocked by the sudden appearance of people who are fighting against them, and in that shock things are able to pop off.
Because, without the device keeping them in check, Torgo decides they’ve had enough with this planet. He takes one of the Skrull’s weapons and blows a hole in the slave chamber, freeing them all. The slaves them start their revolution, get weapons, and begin attacking the Skrulls of Kral, all while the Fantastic Four have a little reunion. The Fantastic Four help a bit, but it turns out training massive creatures how to be excellent fighters was not a good plan for the Skrulls, because the slaves are now able to easily tear through the Skrulls of Kral. So, realizing that they have things taken care of, the Fantastic Four get on their stolen ship, and fly back to Earth.
I love this story. These 60’s Fantastic Four comics are so wonderfully strange, and they’re almost always worth a read, unless the Inhumans are involved. Honestly, I feel like this story easily could have been featured on Marvel Madness even if it was just about the Skrulls kidnapping the Thing to make him a gladiator. That would have been enough. But to add the insane wrinkle that the Skrulls are obsessed with 1930’s gangster culture, and have all made themselves into bad Jimmy Cagney ripoffs is just such a strange idea, and i adore it. That didn’t need to happen. But I’m so glad it did. I’m kind of shocked that I’ve never seen an idea like this before, since the Skrull’s have their shapeshifting abilities, I’d think that there would be more stories out there that featured them changing into something as a group. And then, when you add in the fact that this is a story that focuses on my favorite member of the Fantastic Four, the Thing, it’s just the cherry on top. I love Ben Grimm, and this story is one that really shows why he’s so great. He never stops trying. Nothing crushes the Thing. His will and his spirit can never be broken, and he’s go through with the craziest things in the world as long as he can get home and help protect his family. He even befriends a psychotic robot and tries to get it to understand his ethos in this story, because he’s just so convinced that his sense of honor is the right way to live life. And, he’s probably right.
Fantastic Four #90-93 was written by Stan Lee, penciled by Jack Kirby, inked by Joe Sinnott and Frank Giacoia, and lettered by Sam Rosen and Art Simek, 1969.
Categories: Marvel Madness