Monday, March 27, 2006

Money Can't Buy Happiness

I thought I'd start my talks about The Thing by looking at the basic theme of the first four issues: money can't buy happiness. Over in J. Michael Straczynski's Fantastic Four, one of the plot developments he made was to make the Thing a multi-billionaire. It's largely a sub-plot within that book, but it's an interesting notion to take a classic blue-collar archetype character and see how they handle the, for them, unique situation of suddenly coming into a lot of money.

Now, I'm not certain if the plot point came up first and Dan Slott starting playing it up more, or if Slott specifically asked to have Straczynski write that in so it could be a launching point for the new series. In either event, it's provided a nice backdrop for Slott's storylines, allowing for Ben Grimm to have some classic plots reminiscent of Marvel Two-in-One but still create some new forms of interaction with his companions.

Take, for example, issue #1. The book starts off with the Thing and Black Goliath fighting a new villain named Cauldron. The story reads much like a classic superhero fisticuff, with the somewhat more modern twist at the end of some bystanders claiming that they'll sue for pain and suffering. More interesting, however, is that Ben learns after the fight that Black Goliath had only invited him over in the first place to help pay for some of his research. Not to make Goliath a cold and impersonal character, he still seems to maintain his friendship with Ben and cares about his personal life -- a more distinct tip of the hat to the old Two-in-One stories where they first met -- but the subtext of using his friend's wealth as a means to further his own ends seems to taint the relationship somewhat. Even in #4, his oldest friend, Reed Richards, hits Ben up for money and, although Reed's intentions are shown to be more altruistic, Ben's impression is that the relationship is again tainted by his financial status.

The message is abundantly clear, certainly by #4, that a man's measure is not tied to the size of his bank account. Many people dream the "American dream" of "making it big" and "striking it rich" but those dreams aren't really worth having if you aren't aware of what you truely enjoy and what really makes you happy. When was the last time Marth Stewart was really happy? Has Paris Hilton ever been truely content? I'm not about to pass judgement on either of them and, despite their charicatures in the book, I don't think Slott has either. But it's a question that he does seem to think that we should all ask ourselves. Is the money we earn (or are given) what makes us happy, or is it something else? Does the money have value if we can't be content?

And you thought this new series was just another directionless superhero slugfest title! So, if you haven't already, tell your local comic shop dealer to put The Thing on your pull list.

3 comments:

Gregg Allinson said...

I still can't buy this "Oops! I'm rich!" subplot for Ben. I mean, surely the guy's got a little money coming in from the Avengers and USAF, right? Probably not enough to be rich per se, but he's at least got some pocket cash. And I don't see Ben being an idiot who runs out and spends his money at the drop of a hat, either, given his "wrong side of the tracks" upbringing and the Fantastic Four going flat broke every other year. I mean, cripes, what would he spend that much money on anyway? Sky-Cycles?

Sean Kleefeld said...

Well, Reed notes in Thing #1 that Ben's never really been wanting for anything per se... at least as long as he's been a member of the FF. So it's not like Straczynski or Slott are saying, "This guy was destitute before he became wealthy." But I think that if, by some bizarre chain of events, I suddenly became a billionaire and money was seriously not an issue, I would probably blow some of it recklessly. I doubt I'd spend it on poker and horse racing, but I'd likely find myself with an unecessarily powerful computer, lots of original comic book art that I wouldn't even have room to display, and a house with secret rooms and trap doors because... well, it'd be cool to have a house with secret rooms and traps doors.

Most of the time, I'm a realist. I don't go on daydreaming about winning the lottery or anything like that. I look at the paycheck I get and see how I can make that stretch out to pay the bills and maybe buy a few extra comic books from time to time. But I have to admit that even I wish from time to time that money was NOT an issue at all. That I didn't have to spend at least a third of my life ensuring that I can afford to have a roof over my head.

Ultimately, if I got a billion dollars, sure, I'd pay off the car and the house and the credit cards and whatever. And I'd try to set up some kind of trust fund to ensure that I'd have a steady income even if I never worked again. But then, I'd go on a shopping spree like I've never dreamed of before.

So I don't know that the premise is entirely unrealistic. If all of your limits are suddenly removed, regardless of what we're discussing, you are very likely to indulge to excess for at least a little while, until you have your god-son Franklin point out what an ass you're being. :)

plok said...

You know, originally I wondered at the "rich Ben" thing...how could he not have known he was rich? Ben's not stupid. It bugged me. But then I got on board with the whole idea, largely thanks to may favourite scene in the MK 4 where Ben deals with the Yancy Street Golem. He's at the malt shop with Ben Urich and Jessica Jones, and he says something like "this grub's on the FF, by the way," and suddenly I realized he just uses the company credit card whenever he buys something, which he probably almost never does having grown up poor. Johnny probably spends five times a week what Ben does in a month, and even Sue probably runs up a decent-sized bill from (I assume) running the non-Kirby-tech part of the household...Reed's probably been taking Ben aside for years saying "Why don't you spend some of this money, it's there for you to spend!", and he's probably been demurring, saying "You can have what I don't use to buy your tinkertoys with, don't worry about me, I'm doing good, and anyway what's a big pile of orange rocks got to spend his money on anyway etc. etc.", so now it makes sense to me that Ben might just never have thought of himself as rich, but since he's now bankrolling the whole FF on his own dime he's probably getting a charge out of it. This also solves the problem of "um...wasn't Ben a gigantic super-celebrity before this anyway?" Yes, he was, but he never tried liking it before.

Wow, that was longer than I wanted it to be, but basically what I'm saying is: Slott makes it make sense, where JMS (in my opinion) made it seem like a slight departure. Slott's always doing the Englehartian thing anyway, taking extraneous stuff other writers have slapped down on top of the basics, and showing how they can be utilized. Good for you for boosting the book at such length, Sean, keep on with it and I'll keep reading.

Oh, and why is the "grub's on the FF" scene my favourite in an issue that is loaded with good moments? Glad you asked: because it casually underlines how the FF is an equal partnership, not just Reed giving everybody an allowance. Ben doesn't say he'll pick up the tab, he says that the *FF* is happy to pick up the tab, which they are, because he said so.

A very minor point, I know. But I liked it. A tiny piece of character continuity, that the last issue of Slott's Thing seems to participate in without even really trying to.