Fantastic Friday: When the night falls

Reading the Fantastic Four comics from the start. It’s our third and final go-around with Marvel’s “Startling Stories” line, and the second one featuring good old Ben Grimm. The Thing: Night Falls on Yancy Street puts our favorite rock monster through the ringer.

What’s all this, then? Startling Stories were comics for non-Marvel creators to tell Marvel stories in their own styles. This one is written by indie comics sensation Evan Dorkin, creator of Milk and Cheese, The Eltingville Cub, and his packed-with-gags joke strip simply called Dork. Artist Dean Haspiel has had a wild career, dabbling in all sorts of things. He collaborated with Harvey Pekar on American Splendor, and his own works include the long-running Billy Dogma series, The Alcoholic for Vertigo, and webcomic The Red Hook. On TV, he won an Emmy award for his work on HBO’s Bored to Death.

After a short retelling of the FF’s origin from Ben’s perspective, we start with Ben as he stands among the flaming wreckage of what used to be Yancy Street. Then we flash back to the FF fighting Red Ghost and the Super-Apes aboard a satellite. After saving the day, Ben muses about how the routine never ends, and how he’s tired of being the one who always takes a beating for the team. Back home, Ben muses about how he’ll never have a normal life. He visits Alicia, who has a seeing eye dog named Silver. Alicia tries to calm him down, but he’s too angry. He then goes back to the old neighborhood on Yancy Street, where pranksters throw eggs and rotten vegetables at him.

When threatening to beat up the Yancy Street Gang, Ben meets a woman in a dumpster (!) who can look inside the cracks in his rocky skin. Inside, she sees a desert with pyramids, and her and Ben meeting in front of them. Back in the present, the woman, named Hazel, says she’s scavenging dumpsters for items to use in her landscape design business. She found an intriguing stone head. She patches up Ben’s torn coat, in exchange for him giving her a tour of Yancy Street. They go for lunch, and she says he’s a lot nicer than the tabloids. She tells him about losing her parents at a young age, and her life as an artsy type. That night, they go to Coney Island, and Hazel tells Ben she finds him incredibly attractive. Then a mysterious wind kicks up and she insists on going home, all while a shadowy figure watches them.

Issue #2 begins with Ben working up the courage to call Hazel. They agree to meet for an afternoon in Central Park. He ends up running late when the old “flying bathtub” Fantasticar break down on the way. They meet the volunteer group Hazel does landscaping for, and they spend the afternoon working with them. He takes her a flight in the Fantasticar, and he commiserates about being a monster. She tells him, “You’re plenty human.” She wants to kiss him, but they’re interrupted by the “4” symbol in the sky. He drops her off and joins his teammates as they fight Dragon Man.

Later, back at HQ, Ben is relatively chill, feeling happier than he has in a long time. He then gets a phone call from Alicia. He doesn’t want to talk to her. He snaps at Reed, saying doesn’t want to help him, only to use him in Reed’s adventures. He threatens to leave the team. He meets with Hazel back in the part, and she asks him to always stay near her. Then the Sandman attacks, revealing that he’s Hazel’s ex-boyfriend. He and Ben fight for a pages before Ben uses a water tower to turn Sandman into mud. Hazel is heartbroken after having her secret revealed. She asks Ben, “Do you still want to know me?” Before he can answer, he’s attacked by the Wizard, the Absorbing Man, and Paste-Pot Pete, um I mean the Trapster – a new Frightful Four!

Issue #3 starts with the Trapster incapacitating Ben with his super-glue while the others talk about “the Baxter job.” A small army of cops show up, and the Frightful Four fight them. Ben recovers and joins the fight. The Wizard hits Ben with sleeping gas, just as Absorbing Man moves in Hazel. He has a dream of Hazel turning him human again, only for them to get buried in sand. Ben wakes inside an abandoned Yancy Street bowling alley, which is the Frightful Four’s secret hideout. Hazel is there, and she apologizes to Ben for not telling him everything. She feared that if he knew about her and Sandman, he wouldn’t have liked her. Sandman recovers, and the Frightful Four fight for a bit. Wizard breaks it up, saying he has taken “precautions” against disloyalty.

Ben and Sandman argue about Hazel, while the Wizard reveals his plan is to break into the Baxter Building and steal the Ultimate Nullifier, which Reed once used to scare off Galactus. Ben says Reed doesn’t have the Nullifier, but the Wizard doesn’t believe him. The Wizard then offers Ben to turn Ben human again if Ben helps the Frightful Four. Ben refuses and the villains torture him (!). The Wizard then threatens to harm Hazel if Ben doesn’t cooperate. Ben reluctantly agrees. The Frightful Four head into the city, with Absorbing Man staying behind to watch Hazel. Ben’s mission is simply to get inside the Baxter Building, steal stuff, and walk out with it. Inside, he gets a message from Alicia. She wants to know what’s happening between them. In the FF’s trophy room, he finds the Nullifier and walks out with it. He’s then confronted by the Yancy Street Gang, their faces hidden in shadow. They say they want to talk about Hazel.

At the start of issue #4, the Yancy Streeters say Hazel herself is original Yancy Street. Ben chases them off, not wanting them to get involved. He meets us with Trapster, who finds an FF signal flare in Ben’s coat. It’s a distraction, allowing Ben to destroy Trapster’s glue gun. Trapster gives up Hazel’s location. Ben finds the Frightful Four there, and he hands over the Nullifier. The villains fight with each other over who gets to use it, only to Hazel to grab it.

Then we learn that Hazel and Absorbing Man had a deal, she agrees to stick with him to save Ben and Sandman. Absorbing Man then reveals that Hazel has a fascination with heroes and villains with rocky-hard skin. Hazel presses the button the Nullifier, and… nothing happens. Ben says this is a decoy Nullifier, made to bluff Galactus.

Ben and the rest of the Frightful Four team up to fight Absorbing Man, who absorbed Hazel’s diamond earring, making him strong as a diamond. He fights off the other villains, and then he and Ben go at it for several pages, trashing buildings up and down Yancy Street as they fight. Hazel returns, saying that Ben betrayed her feelings, and that she’s siding with Absorbing Man. But it’s a trick – she switched her diamond earring with a glass one, turning Absorbing Man to glass when he touched it. Ben punches out Absorbing Man, but Hazel is injured in the blow. She says, “I never meant to hurt anyone… I just wanted to be happy.” Then, tragically, she dies in Ben’s arms.

Ben wanders the streets alone, ending up back at Coney Island, and wishing all the stars in the night sky would go out, until there is “nothing left at all.” And on that dour note, the comic ends.

Trivia time: It’s impossible to sort out when and where this miniseries takes place, as Dorkin and Haspiel mix and match elements from various eras of FF history into this, to play around with as they please. The Marvel Wiki doesn’t even try, listing this entire story as an alternate universe.

Fantastic or Frightful? Who would’ve thought the creator of the famously mean-spirited Eltingville Club could conjure up such a heartfelt romance as seen in this series? Evan Dorkin writes with his heart on his sleeve this time. Then there’s the action. I breezed through a lot of it in my summary, but the slugfests are great. Cleanly drawn and choreographed, and with the characters using their powers in a lot of neat ways. I wonder if the ending sets up a part two that never happened, but either way this is a terrific read.

Next: Fire and water.

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Want more? Check out my new ongoing serial, THE SUBTERKNIGHTS, on Kindle Vella. A man searches for his missing sister in a city full of far-out technology and hidden dark magic. The first three chapters are FREE, so give it a shot! Click here for a list of all my books and serials.

About Mac McEntire

Author of CINE HIGH. amazon.com/dp/B00859NDJ8
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