Despite the number of Jewish artists and writers behind the pantheon of comic-book heroes, not many were made (or allowed to be made) in their author’s own image. One super-Semite, though, has been underplaying his heritage for years: Fantastic Four’s The Thing. Created in 1961 by Stan Lee (née Lieber) and Jack Kirby, the stone-golem was Brooklyn tough-guy Ben Grimm from Yancy Street, before being blasted by cosmic rays. His roots were made explicit in the beautiful “Remembrance Of Things Past,” (2002) in which Grimm went back to his old block to return a gold Star Of David he stole as a kid. But another decade passed without him exploring his religious roots any further (to be fair, there was clobbering to do.)
Enter Matt Fraction. Having written for some of comics’ heaviest hitters (Iron Man, X-Men, Thor, Hawkguy, and his own magnum indie opus Casanova), Fraction was handed the reins to a re-launch of Marvel’s Fantastic Four, the “World’s Greatest Comic Magazine,” last year. In a recent issue–Vol. 4 #8– The Thing reverts to human form for one week and returns to 1940’s Yancy Street, highly reminiscent of the Lower East Side’s Delancey Street of that era, with Hebrew signs in shop-windows and yarmulkes on shop-owners’ heads. It’s a wonderful, mostly stand-alone issue (and you can pretend you’re buying it for your little cousin) — at one point Grimm even pauses to touch his aunt’s mezuzah. I talked to Fraction about how this Thing story differs from other Thing stories:
Did you know you were going to deal with The Thing’s Judaism when you started on Fantastic Four? What made it an important part of the character?
I had a suspicion, yes; I got to write an introduction to Eisner’s Last Day in Vietnam early this year and that, along with IDW’S jaw-dropping The Spirit: Artist’s Edition, sorta’ sent me back into the Eisner catalog and… and that and just lots of Kirby kicking around in my head in general led to me thinking about a Thing story set on a very Dropsie-kind of Yancy Street. And I wanted to juxtapose Ben Grimm as a man of faith against Reed, who I’m showing very much as a Man of Science who thinks “anything weird is just something I haven’t figured out yet.”
In your first eight issues, you’ve already taken the F4 to the beginning and end of time, alien planets, and ancient Rome. Why come home to Brooklyn now?
I dunno; it felt right. Ben learned he’s got the degenerative illness that Reed (Mr. Fantastic) has and we get to do these Thing-Turns-Human stories once in a blue moon, so after finding out he was sick… I liked the idea he’d use his human time to go back and try to prevent his girlfriend from being blinded by her maniac uncle.
Fantastic Four has always been comics’ first family. What does Ben Grimm want from his Brooklyn family that he doesn’t with get with his Fantastic family?
You’ve mentioned on Tumblr that you know your last name is Ashkenazi but your family and religion ‘parted ways’ before you were born. Did writing this issue stir up any curiosity about your own roots?
No more than I always have, but the people with those answers are gone now; still, that side of my family is a bunch of question marks and shrugs, as far as I know. One day it’d be nice to have the time to do the research and see what shakes.
What excited you about writing for old-school, Tommy-gun Brooklyn?
Ben giving young Jack Kirby a copy a pulp magazine; The Thing vs. Gangsters; a man of God trying not to become a monster of vengeance; Ben in the rain. And something funny about the roots of the Yancy Street Gang hating Ben Grimm comes from Ben Grimm teaching Yancy Street how to stand up to the Yancy Street Gang…? I dunno, that snake-eating-its-tail thing always gets me.
What makes The Thing’s Judaism important to the story going forward? It looks like he’s about to atone for a major transgression…
It’s his, pardon the pun, rock.