…Aunt Petunia’s age?

This guest post comes from foremost Fantastic Four scholar, Chris Tolworthy.  Chris holds the unconventional view that the Fantastic Four (from 1961 to 1988) was the Great American Novel, and equivalent to Shakespeare.  This essay is typical of the stuff he finds every time he opens a comic, and why his site will never be finished.  Over to you Chris…

Since 1964, Ben Grimm (The Thing) has referred to his “old aunt Petunia” as a source of wisdom. Note the word “old.”  But in Fantastic Four #238-239 we finally see her, and she is young.  How young?  She looks to be in her 20s or 30s.  O’Hoolihan calls Petunia “a foin broth of a girl” and Johnny considers her attractive.  Assuming an upper age of 35, and with the stretching time scale between 1961 and 1982, she was born after 1935.  But for Ben to have fought in WWII he left home in 1945 at the latest.  Petunia would have been 10 or younger when she was dishing out old lady advice to a teenage Ben.  More seriously, she was supposedly a qualified nurse and possibly even married to Uncle Jake at this time.  The numbers do not add up.

Figure 1: Ben’s “old aunt Petunia”, from Fantastic Four #239, page 5.

As an aside, Petunia has a highly dated name.  Flower names (rose, lily, iris, etc.) had an explosion in popularity around the year 1900, but the fashion soon ended.  Babycenter.com now ranks Petunia as number 12,986 in popularity (compared with the dated but still possible Susan at 840 and relatively trendy Alicia at 185).  Everything points to Petunia being a generation older than Ben, and not a married nine year old graduate.

However, the story suggests a solution.  Petunia appears to ask Ben’s help with problems in the town.  We learn that ancient earth spirits are causing the bad people to face their inner demons and die, and the solution is to get the bad people to leave.  Only a handful of good people are left, including Petunia and Jake, and a girl called Wendy who spends time with the spirits.  Perhaps Petunia also spends time with them?  Wendy does not tell people what she knows about the spirits.  At the end of the book she is shown with the spirits, a fact not revealed to anybody.  But if it was not revealed, how was it in the book?  In the Fantastic Four we only see what the team tell Marvel: if the team don’t know about it then it can’t go in the book (cf. Fantastic Four #10, #176).  How, then, did they know Wendy’s secret?  Presumably somebody else had experience with the spirits.. Who else could it be but Petunia?  Jake is not mobile, but Petunia is feisty and curious: another Wendy.  Petunia would have explored there as a small girl (face it, there was not much else to do) and, like Wendy, would have discovered the spirits.  Perhaps “Wendy’s friends” are not just the spirits, but also Jake and Petunia.

Figure 2: Ben’s Uncle Jake was once angry we are told, from Fantastic Four #239, page 7.

Jake is also another version of Wendy’s father: he was once angry, we are told.  He comes from a time when men were often violent, and Ben comes from a culture of violent gang members.  But now Jake is at peace.  Perhaps Wendy’s tale is also Petunia’s tale.  Perhaps it is really all about Jake, but like Wendy, Petunia and Ben are too loyal to ever speak against him.  Jake had to face his inner demons, the demons of the violent earth that made his generation (the last generation to sweep the Native Americans away): he had to reap the whirlwind.  Notice that redemption comes from the land itself.  The American settlers lose their thirst to conquer the land and begin to cooperate with it.  The Grimm story is the story of the people of the land.  Note that none of this contradicts “second wife” or “many years younger” story.  But the significance is not that a 50 year old man married a 9 year old, the significance is that a 50 year old man married a 30 year old who healed his anger.

This raises several questions.

First, did Petunia move to Arizona too late to be this young? She said they moved to Arizona “shortly before” Fantastic Four #1.  But why would two New Yorkers choose Arizona?  Seems a long way from New York – where they trying to escape?  Or did they already have connections there?

Second, Jake is portrayed as a nice middle class doctor who was only angry because of his legs.  He contrasts with Ben’s alcoholic father and gang leader brother.  In The Thing #2 we see how Ben idolised his brother, but then his brother was killed in a gang fight, and Ben went to live with Uncle Jake.  Later Ben became leader of the same Yancy Street Gang; and only THEN did Jake talk to Ben about leaving the gang.

Something does not add up. While it is possible that a lower class alcoholic has a middle class doctor for a brother, it is statistically unlikely.  More seriously, Jake knew that Ben’s favourite brother was killed in a gang fight.  Why did Jake wait until Ben was gang leader before suggesting it was a bad idea?  It sounds like Jake was saw gang membership, including stabbing, as perfectly acceptable.

Third, we are told that people disapproved of Jake marrying a much younger woman.  But the numbers suggest this was only a man in his fifties marrying a woman in her thirties – unusual but hardly a scandal.

Which leads to our next curiosity:

Fourth, why did Petunia have such an influence on Ben?  According to The Thing #2, Ben was raised by his aunt Alyce, and Petunia did not arrive on the scene until later.  Ben was a gang leader while Petunia was a student nurse who claims she never questioned anything Jake did.  Why would Ben be influenced by Petunia more than Alyce?  Petunia’s story is all very neat – far TOO neat.  Jake was an idealised man?  Jake needed the excuse of an injury to explain why he met this nurse?  But he was a doctor in a busy hospital (cf. Fantastic Four #238, 257): he worked with nurses all the time!  Then it took years for Petunia to be Jake’s student and then eventually his wife, and then become an influence on Ben?  There isn’t enough time.  And Petunia never questioned Jake? This doesn’t sound like a woman that the rebellious Ben would idolise.

A simpler explanation is that Jake was seeing Petunia before the accident, and we are hearing the sanitised version of events.  I am not suggesting that Jake killed his wife deliberately.  But if Jake was seeing somebody then his marriage may not have been a happy one: Jake’s brother was an alcoholic.  It’s easy to see how Jake might have been driving after drinking, and having a lot on his mind.  That would explain why he and Petunia wanted to move from their home in New York and get as far away as possible: accidentally killing your wife then marrying your much younger mistress is quite a scandal, and they would want to get away.

In short, Jake was not innocent.  Though Petunia probably is.  Petunia must have a pure heart, to survive being friends with the spirits.

Fifth potential problem: if Petunia knew about the spirits, why didn’t she tell Ben?  For the same reason that Wendy kept them secret, right to the end.  Some things are best not discussed.  But why would Petunia come to ask help from Ben if she could already talk to the spirits?  Because the evil in the town is causing deaths, and she needs help to get the bad people out of there.  Wendy did not tell everything she knew, so why should Petunia?

Finally, why did Ben not notice that Petunia had not aged?  Reed notes that the spirits may still be around in ten thousand years.  Like the Native American “ancient ones” found by the Miracle Man, they appear to have slowed aging to an almost standstill.  Being around time-stretching superheroes keeps a person young (as noted in the fourth-wall-breaking She-Hulk book), so perhaps being around these earth spirits will slow aging to a crawl.  This would explain why Petunia had barely aged since Ben knew her when Ben was a child (and 35 then seemed ancient).  This also explains why Ben does not notice that Petunia has not aged: time dilation in comics is never noticed by those who experience it.

3 Responses

  1. Even though I never warmed to Byrne’s idea about Petunia — nor anything else he did in his run on the FF, if you’ll pardon me saying so — I really admire the audacity of this fix. Instead of tidying it up or explaining it away, this explanation embraces the weirdness head on and uses it for all it’s worth. Even though I’d rather retcon the story out of existence, this explanation is much more sophisticated gamesmanship.

    Also, this topic puts me in mind of two things that bug me in general about Byrne’s solo Marvel and DC work. One is his seeming belief that a “surprise twist” consists of cheating the audience, saying “you never saw this coming because you were never given any information whatsoever pointing in that direction and were wildly misled by all previous clues, haha fooled you!” To my way of thinking this is the exact opposite of a clever twist. The ideal is the reader going back after the surprise twist has been revealed and saying “Wow, it was staring me in the face all along and I never saw it, but now it’s obvious it could never have been any other way.” Byrne hasn’t got a clue there.

    (Sorry, that’s my pet rant on him and I have to deliver it every time his name is mentioned.)

    The other thing that jumps out at me with regard to Aunt Petunia is how Byrne takes very urban characters created by Jewish guys (like the FF and Superman) and removed from them any trace of urbanism or Jewishness, pursuing an imaginary “rural American” ideal that mainly comes from television. I don’t think it’s any sign of deliberate prejudice on his part, but his personal tastes don’t always gel with the roots of the characters.

  2. [...] Fantastic Four aficionado, Chris Tolworthy, comes to the rescue with this second guest post in quick succession to his last, here! [...]

  3. petinui may not have age due to the spirits stopping it plus marvel slididng time line plays fast and lose so she like the regular marvel characters age stops because marvel does not want their characters to be too old

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