Fantastic Friday: The original poker face

Reading the Fantastic Four comics from the start. The 2006 Thing solo series was all about Ben exploring his new life as a millionaire while still getting into superhero adventures.

Issue #5 begins with a flashback to the recent past, with Ben attending a fancy movie premiere. He’s confronted by Shecky, a.k.a. Old Man Sheckerberg, from Yancy Street. Shecky says Ben promised to help out at his store, but Ben is too busy being rich now. Ben offers to write Shecky a check, but Shecky refuses. Cut to the present, and Ben has had a change of heart, showing up at the store. He sees folks in the old neighborhood helping each other through hard times, reminding him of his own tough childhood.

The Yancy Street Gang makes their presence known by vandalizing Ben’s car, and then splashing him with water as he waits for the bus. Ben calls architect Arlo North, and Alicia answers the phone. He thinks he’s called the wrong number, not knowing Alicia and North are dating. He calls again and talks to North, asking for help. Ben later announces to reporters that he’s going to build a Grimm Youth Center on Yancy Street. Shecky is unimpressed, thinking Ben’s just doing this for his ego. Goons from the Maggia crime family try and fail to stop Ben, so they contact Paste-Pot Pete, um, I mean the Trapster for help. Ben and North work on the new building when they’re attacked by both the Trapster and the Sandman.

Issue #6 begins with Ben fighting Sandman for a bit before firing the “4” signal flare. The rest of the FF are busy elsewhere, so instead Spider-Man shows up to help. He’s wearing is new red and gold “Iron Spider” armor. He and Ben defeat Sandman by mixing his sand with Trapster’s glue. Ben then prevents Trapster from setting off a bomb.

Spidey and Ben chat for a bit, and then Damage Control arrives to clean up after the battle. Hercules is now with Damage Control, helping out as well. Arlo North then comes clean, telling Ben about him and Alicia. Later, at the youth center’s grand opening, Ben is remorse after losing his shot to get back with her. He dedicates the center to his brother Daniel, which convinces some street kids not to throw a brick through a window. Shecky remains unimpressed, telling Ben he still has to come help at the pawn shop. Later that night, an exhausted Ben falls asleep on a sidewalk bench, and the Yancy Street gang take the opportunity to paint graffiti all over him.

Issue #7 has Ben still jealous about Alicia dating Arlo North. Sue helps by inviting Alicia and Ben over to babysit the kids. Ben wants to use his new pet, the Inhumans’ teleporting dog Lockjaw, to teleport Alicia to France for a visit to the Louvre. When Alicia says she’s been there before, Ben comes up with another plan – the FF’s time machine. He takes her back to ancient Greece, to be present when all the classic sculptures were made. They run into Hercules, posing for a sculpture. Hercules mistakes Ben for a troll and they fight, accidentally breaking the arms off the Venus de Milo.

Alicia and Ben have a heart-to-heart talk, where she insists can only be just friends because there’s too much history between them for it to be otherwise. Later that night, Reed finds that New York has been transformed into a gigantic Italian villa, and he deduces Ben has been messing with the time machine again. “We’ll fix it in the morning,” he says.

Issue #8 begins with Ben in better spirits, hosting not just poker night but an entire poker tournament in his new apartment. Tons of superheroes and even a few villains show up. Even joke heroes the Great Lakes Avengers are there, and Squirrel Girl tells everyone about how she and Ben first met while fighting the Bi-Beast.

Impossible Man is also there, and he tells the story of how he got a rare Popuppian disease which caused his powers to haywire. He came to Earth hoping for Reed to cure him, and ended up fighting Ben in the Himalayas. Ben cures Impossible Man by scaring him, like you’d do with the hiccups. The fight destroyed a village’s immersive art habitat, so Ben hires Arlo North to rebuild it. This frees Alicia to attend the poker tournament.

Cut to one month earlier, when Shecky tells Ben that his debt is paid, and Ben doesn’t have to help at the shop anymore. Shecky takes Ben to the neighborhood temple, where a rabbi reminds Ben that Ben never had his Bar Mitzvah. Ben agrees to go through with it, practicing and studying. The FF, Alicia, Ben’s Uncle Jacob, and a bunch of superheroes attend the big day. Ben gives a speech about the story of Job from the Torah. He says he’s realized that, despite being a monster, he’s got it pretty good.

Then we cut back to the poker tournament, where Flatman of the Great Lakes Avengers outplays Ben in the final game. Ben is angry, but then Alicia whispers something in his ear that convinces him to kick everyone out except the two of them. The miniseries ends when Spider-Man asks, “Is that it?” and the caption says, “Yeah, that’s it.”

Unstable molecule: When Ben calls for help from his teammates, Reed cannot respond because he’s in the Negative Zone fighting Blastaar the Living Bomb-Burst. I’d really like Marvel to tell this full story someday.

Fade out: Sue doesn’t answer Ben because she’s in the ocean with Namor, using her force fields to stop an oil spill from spreading.  

Clobberin’ time: This series would seem to set wheels in motion for Alicia and Ben becoming a couple again, but it won’t actually happen officially until after the 2015 Secret Wars.

Flame on: Johnny doesn’t respond to Ben’s call because he’s rescuing Beyonce (!) from Dragon Man.

Fantastic fifth wheel: She-Hulk cameos at the opening to the youth center, remarking that she’s been away from the FF for so long that she’s surprised at how much taller the kids are. She’s also at the poker tournament.

Other alternate members of the team at the poker game are Luke Cage, Namor, Impossible Man, and Tigra. Remember that those last two were part of the so-called “Fantastic Seven” for a short time in the ‘70s. Also, She-Hulk, Luke Cage, and Medusa are all at Ben’s Bar Mitzvah.

Spider-Man mentions what he thinks is his membership in the FF by recalling when he, Wolverine, Hulk, and Ghost Rider were the so-called “New Fantastic Four.” In response, Ben famously quips, “You think that counts?”

Four and a half/Our gal Val: Franklin and Valeria appear only briefly, at the youth center opening and when being babysat.

SUE-per spy: The 2019 Invisible Woman miniseries revealed that Sue had a double life as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent all along. In this series, Ben asks Sue to dig up into on Arlo North, which she does easily. Could this be her spy training at work?  

Trivia time: Who are the Great Lakes Avengers? Most Marvel fans know Squirrel Girl by now, and the others are Mr. Immortal, Flatman, Big Bertha, and Doorman. This one also starts the running gag of them wanting a new team name. They call themselves the Great Lakes X-Men, the Great Lakes Defenders, and the Great Lakes Champions in this one.

What’s this “Iron Spider” business about? Spider-Man was living at Stark Tower at this time, as a member of the New Avengers. Tony Stark built the Iron Spider armor after Spidey died and came back in a battle against Morlun. The armor’s attributes included three (not four) mechanical spider arms, a glider, and chameleonic shape-changing powers.

It’s not stated in this issue, but Ben is working at the pawn shop to pay off the Star of David he took in vol. 3 issue #56. Shecky refuses a check from Ben, insisting that Ben work off the debt.

Why is Sandman a villain again, after all that time spent on his redemption? He even spent some time alongside the Avengers. Turns out the Wizard tinkered with his brain in Peter Parker: Spider-Man #12, making him evil again.

Spider-Woman and Yellowjacket are also at the poker game, but it’ll later be revealed that these are Skrulls in disguise.

Fantastic or frightful? These issues are more typical of writer Dan Slott’s style, with all the eye-winking humor based on Marvel continuity. The gags feel overdone after a little while, and all the drama between Alicia and Ben goes nowhere at the end. The Bar Mitzvah scenes are nicely done, however, as is Ben’s big speech at the end of it.

Next: The old Parker luck.

* * * *

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.
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