Johns & Kolins get 'freaky' with 'The Thing'

What do fans of the "Flash" and the Marvel Comics Universe have in common? They're both enjoying creative renaissance thanks to acclaimed storytelling and artwork from fresh voices in the comic book industry. What else? Geoff Johns and Scott Kolins will be working their magic for both groups of fans, with a four issue mini-series focusing on, arguably, the most popular member of the Fantastic Four. Shipping in June, "Thing: Freak Show #1" will mark the first Marvel Comics collaboration between the "Flash" creative team of Johns & Kolins. In between their hectic schedules, the acclaimed comic book professionals took some time to talk to CBR News about Ben Grimm (AKA The Thing), the focus of the series and how they got the job.

"I met [Marvel Comics Editor] Tom Brevoort in San Diego briefly," explains Johns. "Scott and I were looking to do a mini-series of some sort outside of Flash. We went through some ideas and finally decided on a character we both love: Ben Grimm. I asked Tom if he'd be interested, he said yes -- I wrote up a proposal and Scott drew up one of the funniest pin-ups of the Thing I've ever seen. From there, Tom got the ball rolling really quickly and we started working on it. It's been an absolute blast for everyone involved. It feels really good to explore another character with Scott. We always seem to find details in their personality that we both adhere to and we try and bring them to the forefront. In the case of a wonderful character like Ben Grimm, it was easy. Grumpy. Funny. Unlucky." Kolins adds that, "Geoff and I talked about what we would want to dofor Tom and The Thing worked out for all of us. We had actually wanted to do a Hulk/Thing fight but someone else got first dibs. So we just picked another fight for poor Ben."

"Ben is the guy you'd want watchin' your back, the guy you'd let out with your sister and the guy you'd just like to hang with," continues Kolins. "He also happens to be a guy in crazy situations with the FF going to other planets and stuff. There's a humor to Ben's world, that's usually at his expense but there's a somber reality-heavy side too. No offense to Stan or the other great creators involved, but for me Jack Kirby is the soul of Ben Grimm, The Thing, and is indivisible for me in thinking about how Ben would act or what he would say. Not that Jack was Ben Grimm, The Thing - but there's an association in my mind after reading the comics and the interviews. Ben's a prime example of a great comic book character. He's very identifiable initially (heart of gold/tough guy) with real dimension (his since of family with the FF and his inner struggle with himself and his place in the world) topped off with a great and expressive look with cool powers. Who wouldn't want to twist a steel girder with their bare hands? Or not be killed by a bullet? But see that's where Ben's the coolest. Ben wouldn't just put his fists on his hips while bullets bounce off his heroic chest like Superman; Ben would still lift his arms in front of him reflexively, and still say 'Hey, cut that out!'"

It is obvious that both gentlemen are fans of the Thing and the duo explain the inherent appeal of the character that have kept him at the forefront of Marvel fan's minds for so long. "Well, first off, his visual is damn cool," exclaims Johns. "A big strong guy made out of rocks. Tossing around Semi-Trucks like they were cardboard boxes. Then underneath his hide we have one of the most emotionally complex characters in comic books. He's a character that defined a whole lineage of super-heroes. He was the first 'big guy' on a super-team, but he remains one of the most engaging and sympathetic of all super-heroes." Feeding off Johns' energy, Kolins once again jumps into the fray and expands upon his friend's answers. "Ben covers all the bases. He's a member of the Fantastic Four, he's incredible visually and just a very ... American in personality. I think he's almost more American than Capt. America! Just because Ben somehow is usually an underdog, and Americans love underdogs. I love underdogs. Always have."

These two, admitted life-long fans of Ben Grimm, also agree on their favorite Thing stories of all time, citing the original Stan Lee/Jack Kirby work as being particularly inspirational. "The original Lee/Kirby Thing stories really still hold up after all theseyears," says Johns firmly. "Issues like 'Fantastic Four #52' (one of Tom's favorites as well) are absolutely amazing. The internal struggle the Thing has always been thecenter of his character -- everything external like Galactus, the Mole Man, Skrulls, etc. -- come from the internal struggle. The Thing has a harder time dealing with himself than with any enemy that comes to his front door." Kolins echoes those sentiments and recommends a few other Thing stories that he considers "classic." "You can't talk/understand Ben with out reading 'This Man, This Monster,' 'FF#51,' even though Ben isn't in it that much. Sounds bizarre, but true. I never got into the stories where Ben leaves the FF and the human race (because of his looks) and decides he's king of Liliput or whatever. - But I did love, love, love the stories where he'd walk off pissed and just roam the Manhattan streets in the rain! I also really l love 'Marvel Fanfare #15' by Barry Windsor Smith. It's a beautiful April fool's story between Ben and Johnny. Wonderful stuff."

As mentioned previously, "Thing: Freak Show" premiers at your friendly neighborhood comic book shop in June, with both Johns and Kolins promising that the series will stay true to the essence of Ben Grimm. "Geoff's really playing off the 'Bad luck' angle for Ben which is great," explains Kolins. "Certain things happen at the beginning of the 'Freak Show' story which kinda just put Ben in a bad mood. So he decides to head out for a vacation and get away from it all. Right. Well, this is Ben Grimm we are talking about here, nothing happens easy for this guy. So if trouble doesn't find him, he'llbasically find trouble." Geoff Johns sums it up briefly, simply stating that, "The predominant theme is simply, Ben Grimm believes himself to be the unluckiest guy onthe planet. He has frustrations no one else will ever understand, and you'll see different views that validate this. It's entirely focused on Ben Grimm: his past, his present and his future. The Thing is a character that can clearly stand on his own, and we're out toprove it once again." Of course, the pervading question is; simply, why not insert this story in the "Fantastic Four" ongoing series instead of launching an all new series, albeit a finite one? "Well, the FF aren't in it except for about the first half of the first issue," concedes Kolins. "Then on it's Ben's show for three more issues. I don't think it would be fair to 'FF' readers to watch Ben for 4 issues and not see the Reed, Sue and Johnny."

While that answer may satisfy many fans, some will undoubtedly question "why" this story needs to be told and why the "Fantastic Four" series can't facilitate the necessary character moments in this mini-series. While Kolins and Johns understand that some fans may not want to buy a mini-series in addition to the "FF" comic, they maintain that this is a story that deserves the spotlight and focus that can only be found in a mini-series. "We're out to have fun, and we hope the people that pick up this book do too," says Johns, relating the objective of this mini-series. "That's our first and foremost goal. To simply have a good time hanging out with Ben. Being in a team book, you don't always get the spotlight. The Fantastic Four is a great group, but its focus is on the interaction between these characters. The dysfunctional family dynamic. The Thing hasn't had thefocus in a long time, and we're going to get into some events he never revealed to the FF. Nothing life-changing, but something that might help explain why Ben reacts the way he does. Something I think will intrigue and help define who the Thing is and who Ben Grimm was." However, recent solo character mini-series (dubbed the "Icon" line by Marvel Comics) have received mixed reviews, which makes some wonder if Johns & Kolins can avoid the alleged pitfalls of the other "Icons" series. "Well, we're gonna feature tons character development and introspection," says Kolins of the mini-series. "I don't know about the other 'Icon' books or if they were having 'problems.' Geoff and Ijust do our thing and hope it works. You let us know after if this mini series 'needed' to be told."

Having been given tons of creative latitude ("It's been absolutely terrific," says Johns), a character they love and four issues to craft a meaningful story, Kolins and Johns believe that this series will appeal to a broad base of fans. "I think Ben's one of those great characters who appeal to nearly anybody," says Kolins. "Again, he's got a great personality and a cool look plus a rich history for flavor. This mini really has it all. Action. Emotion. Thrills. Chills. Action. Fun. Jokes. Action. I don't know if anyone will cry reading 'Thing: Freak Show,' but there are some sad moments… oh and some more action!" Johns says that the series will appeal to "anyone who's looking for a fun story about a grumpy super-hero" and adds, "We tried really hard to make this accessible, but at the same time there will be a few surprises for longtime FF fans." According to the duo, this series will also be free of the continuity restraints that turn away many fans from established superhero characters and comic books. "It fits in wherever Ben Grimm had a spare couple of days," explains Johns succinctly. Kolins says that you don't need to be a regular "Fantastic Four" reader to enjoy this series and that, "This doesn't really affect the FF. It does affect who Ben is -but, sure, it could've been told by Stan and Jack or anybody after. It just so happens to be told by us."

So now that Kolins and Johns have made their big splash, as a duo, in the Marvel Comics Universe, will they be venturing further into this territory? "'Morlocks' has just come out last week and my work on the 'Avengers' begins in August," says Johns of his Marvel Comics projects. "I'm keeping a pretty tight lid on my plans for the 'Avengers.' On the other hand, as fast as Kolins may be (19 issues of "Flash" in a row), his monthly work on "Flash" is all that is scheduled so far. "No other plans yet though I'm sure it would be with Geoff. I don't know if I have time for another mini too soon as we are still kicking butt on the 'Flash!' Lets' see how 'Freak Show' does."

Kolins' comments about working with Johns does make one wonder exactly why these two have such great synergy (as displayed in "Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E" and "Flash"), a question that Kolins is glad to answer. "I'm not sure, though we talk a lot, and that helps hammer out details and let's us get into each others heads thinking out direction and goals. One thing in common for us is we really try to create stories organically; not trying to shoe-horn in things just because it's in vogue or we liked it in another book. We chose 'Thing's' specifically around Ben. In fact one of our goals with this was to try not do what we are doing in the 'Flash.' Different mood or setting. At least, different within mainstream comics, anyway." Johns agrees with this line of thinking and adds, "We have very similar tastes on what makes a good comic book. Always focus on the basic elements of the characters, the situation always reflects and challenges those. From there add twists and turns and surprises. Scott is willing to work the extra mile and so am I. We take our jobs seriously, but we have a lot of fun."

Now while it is a known fact that both Johns and Kolins are amazingly efficient workers, who both manage to stay far ahead of their deadlines, it would stand to reason that working on yet another series might disrupt their other work. "I'm pretty far ahead script-wise on 'The Flash' and Scott's fast enough to draw 14 issues a year," says Johns, whose admiration for Kolins is evident. "So we discussed it and Scott thought it best to take two issues of the 'Flash' off in order to do 'The Thing.' He was months ahead as well, so when all is said and done I think we'll still be a few weeks in the green." Kolins praises Johns and says that it is the synergy between the two that allows for such an efficient production rate. "We were ahead enough in our 'Flash' schedule to fit this in with only a couple of 'Flash' fill-ins. 2 'Flash' fill-ins (that are still great stories! I've just finished the covers for those!) when you get 4 'Thing' issues. I think that says a lot about Geoff and my productivity."

In the end, Johns and Kolins say that they're really excited about the fan reaction to their "Thing" series and before they head back to their work places, they have a few comments for fans:

Johns: "Like a comic, pass it along to someone else to read -- whether they readcomics or not."

Kolins: "Thanks for reading and telling people you like what we do!"

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