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Vengeance of the Molecule Man!

Longbox Graveyard #114

Welcome to another installment of The Dollar Box, where I look at comics with a cover price of a dollar or less. After previously spotlighting issues of Strange Tales (1966), The Amazing Spider-Man (1963), and the Silver Surfer (1968), this month I look at modern comic book — Marvel Two-In-One #1, from the futuristic year of 1973!

This issue carries a cover price of .20, and while it won’t require a bank loan to acquire today like those other books I’ve covered, you should still expect to pay $30-$40 for a copy in decent condition. To be fair, Marvel Two-In-One #1 isn’t a terribly significant issue — there are no first appearances or lasting pop culture influences in this book. But it is a solid Bronze Age comic book tale, told by two masters of their craft, and it has more than a little sentimental value for your humble narrator.

Marvel Two-In-One #1

Marvel Two-In-One grew out of a two-part run in Marvel Feature, copying the success of Marvel Team-Up, where Spider-Man was paired with a guest-star-of-the-month for what was usually a single-issue adventure. For Marvel Two-In-One, the headlining character would be Benjamin J. Grimm, better known as The Thing of the Fantastic Four, an outsized personality more than ready to step from the ensemble of his original book and star in adventures of his own. Two-In-One would never be as popular or successful as Marvel Team-Up, but the book had its moments, and in its hundred-issue run would feature work by John ByrneGeorge Perez, and a young Frank Miller.

Author Steve Gerber spent little setting the tone and format for the new book — though as was often the case with Gerber, he didn’t take an easy route. The cover of the book promises “Monster vs. Monster … while a world trembles!” and most readers would have been happy to see Ben and his inaugural co-star, Man-Thing, pound the stuffing out of each other for nineteen pages. But Gerber wasn’t interested in what was easy. He wasn’t even interested in superheroes throwing punches at each other, and so that awesome action promised on the cover amounts to a scant half-page in the finished story, as the Thing punches through the Man-Thing, and comes away with a fist-full of slime and an appreciation of his foe’s hellish existence.

Marvel Two-In-One #1 Panel 1

What do we get for the rest of the issue? Characterization!

Later authors of Two-In-One would tie themselves in knots contriving to bring their characters and bad guys together, but Gerber goes right at it, having Grimm get a mad on after reading tales of a “Man-Thing” stealing Ben’s good name in the Florida swamps.

Marvel Two-In-One #1 Panel 2

Two pages later and Ben’s on a southbound bus, still fuming.

Marvel Two-In-One #1 Panel 3

Now of course it is ridiculous that Ben would ride a bus to Florida to reclaim his naming rights from Man-Thing …but in a Steve Gerber world populated by talking ducks and an encounter-group masquerading as a superhero team called The Defenders, this kind of behavior was perfectly sane. More important — it was human, and it was in writing the human dimension of his characters where Gerber excelled. Steve looked past the orange rock monster in blue trunks and saw the insecure man within, and with this deft bit of characterization preyed on that man’s insecurities to both set up his story and give us affectionate insight on our hero.

With Ben lost in reverie, the action shifts to some distant planet, where the Molecule Man breathes his last, but not before inspiring his son to seek vengeance on the Fantastic Four. A new Molecule Man emerges from a bath of pseudoscientific radiation, now able to extend his control over matter itself to living flesh. Molecule Man skips the bus, instead turning his own cells into “living magnets” that will draw him to wherever the Thing may be, and is surprised to find himself in a Florida swamp, and even more surprised to run into Man-Thing, who curiously follows the villain as he stalks away in disgust.

From there it remains only to get Ben into the action, again in the most direct way — Ben intimidates his bus driver into making an unscheduled stop, and jumps from an overpass right into the path of the Molecule Man.

Marvel Two-In-One #1 Panel 4

It’s all very pat, and more than a little weird, sounding almost like one of the Say What?! features at StashMyComics. But Gerber makes it work, charming us with Ben’s cranky speechifying and keeping the story moving fast enough that we don’t really have a chance to raise an objection.

Ben doesn’t stand a chance against a foe who can control the building blocks of matter. So quickly does Molecule Man gain the upper hand that he elects to transform both Thing and Man-Thing back to their original human forms, that they might be “naught but impotent observers” while he destroys the Fantastic Four.

All of which gives Ben Grimm and the Man-Thing’s alter-ego — Ted Sallis — a chance to talk for a page or two. They recap their origins in a non-expository way, though Ben soon grows tired of talking, saying Ted talks almost as much as Reed Richards, and grouchily warning Sallis that he’d better shut his trap, saying, “I like ya too much to wanna feel I gotta knock yer teeth out to keep my sanity!”

Before long the Molecule Man is back, his plan to kill the rest of the Fantastic Four undone by his malfunctioning wand, but he picks a proxy out of the crowd in a nearby town, transforming an innocent bystander into a Mr. Fantastic look-alike, then stretching the poor soul’s body until it snaps in half. It’s a shocking bit of violence, out of character with the rest of the story, but it is vintage Gerber, who delighted in flipping from surrealism to realism from panel to panel, never afraid to raise the stakes or splash some blood if it drove home the depravity of his bad guys (a year later, Gerber would have racist Sons of the Serpent scumbags burn an old man to death in a tenement building in the pages of The Defenders).

Marvel Two-In-One #1 Panel 5

Ben is taken aback by this murder, and things start to happen fast. Possibly for no real reason other than that he is running out of pages to complete his tale, Gerber has the Molecule Man change Ben and Sallis back into their monster forms, just in time to throw a couple punches at each other, before putting paid to our villain when he loses the handle on his wand.

And then it is over, with Ben stalking off to next month’s unrelated adventure with the Sub-Mariner, and Man-Thing returning to his swamp, bereft of identity or even memory of his brief reprieve. Marvel Two-In-One #1 is an admittedly slight tale, thin on action and thus not taking best advantage of penciler Gil Kane’s skills, but I still like it, mostly for Gerber’s ear for dialogue, masterfully expressed through our rough-hewn hero. A comics writer of rare intelligence, Steve Gerber always brought his A-game, even when he was making it up as he went along, and his work is among the best produced during the “anything goes” period when Roy Thomas took over from a distracted Stan Lee as Marvel’s Editor-In-Chief.

Marvel Two-In-One #1 Panel 6

Marvel Two-In-One #1 isn’t the greatest book of its era — its not even among the best books Steve Gerber would ever write — but I do think it’s the top single issue of Marvel Two-In-One, whatever its faults (and here is my review of the other ninety-nine issues of Marvel Two-In-One!). But for one of my favorite writers, writing one of my favorite characters, kicking off one of my favorite “guilty pleasure” superhero series, I find it irresistible, particularly given my own fleeting personal experience working with Steve Gerber. Should you find it in a dollar box of your own, I hope you will give Marvel Two-In-One #1 a shot …and if you can’t find a copy of your own, a little bird tells me you can take a peak over at the always-groovy Mars Will Send No More site!

This article original appeared at StashMyComics.com.

IN THREE WEEKS: #115 The Purge!

Panel Gallery: Holy Hannah!

John Carter, Warlord of Mars

Longbox Graveyard #38

John Carter comes to the movies this week, completing an odyssey stretching back one hundred years, beginning with publication of A Princess of Mars in 1912.

Created by Edgar Rice Burroughs — and vastly less successful than that author’s Tarzan of the Apes — the John Carter series has nonetheless fascinated geeks like me for a century, giving birth to the “sword and planet” genre, and having its bones mined by dozens of science fiction books and films to follow, most notably Return of the Jedi, where the whole first act owes more than a little to the airships and savage desert races of Burroughs’ Barsoom.

John Carter has remained in print these past hundred years, first as a serial, and later reprinted as a series of eleven novels. It was in the Science Fiction Book Club editions from the 1970s that I first encountered John Carter, and I still have those battered low rent hardbacks on my shelf today, mostly because of the classic Frank Frazetta covers …

… and some pretty special black & white interior art, too.

Those covers and (especially) those interior drawings set the look and feel of John Carter for me, the tale of an ex-Confederate adventurer from Virgina who is mysteriously transported to Mars, where he is caught up in a whirlwind of swords, radium pistols, flyers, princesses, wild beasts, and the savage Green Men roaming the dead sea bottoms of Barsoom. It’s not great fiction — unlike Robert E. Howard’s Conan series, I find little joy in Burroughs stiff, neo-Victorian approach to storytelling — but it is great world-building, right up there with the creations of J.R.R. Tolkien and Frank Herbert.

On the eve of the movie’s release, it’s fruitless to speculate on it’s success — the tale will be told at the box office this weekend. But it doesn’t look good. Tracking numbers are weak and the knives are out for the film and the studio that greenlit the $250 million dollar production. For my part, I expect to like the picture (and I did — sort of — see the end of this post for my brief movie review). I respect director Andrew Stanton — I thought Wall-E was brilliant — and the footage released onto the web by an increasingly nervous studio adequately satisfies my fanboy expectations.

The marketing has been tepid, with the studio distancing themselves from the term “Mars” for crazy reasons; likewise they have steered clear of the story’s post-Civil War period roots, probably spooked by the failure of last summer’s Cowboys & Aliens. John Carter seems doomed to be another Scott Pilgrim Versus The World — a genre film that audiences like, but for which the audience was too small to sustain a franchise, which is a real shame, because Burroughs’ Martian saga is broad and rich enough to sustain several feature films.

But I’ll take what I can get.

In 1977 the notion that I would some day get a John Carter movie — in a summer that will also bring me a Batman, Spider-Man, and Avengers movie — was more fantastic than John Carter slicing up a whole legion of the synthetic men of Mars. Three decades ago, the closest I could get to a John Carter movie was Marvel’s John Carter, Warlord of Mars comic series, and I bought every issue (and three annuals, too).

And boy oh boy did they stink!

I stayed with the book to the bitter end out of some misguided loyalty to the property but this run was terrible — terrible art, terrible storytelling, terrible design. Even the colors were terrible. And that the book was so poor despite the heartfelt efforts of some quite talented pros — like Marv Wolfman, Gil Kane, and Chris Claremont — points out how hard it is to get this story right (and simultaneously increases my respect for Frank Frazetta, even as it makes me that much more nervous for the movie).

It seemed like a good idea at the time. Marv Wolfman was one of the finest comic book writers of his day, and in the letter page editorial introducing the first issue, Wolfman says all the right things — how he’s loved the series since he was a boy, how he’s always wanted to do John Carter at Marvel, how Gil Kane was his perfect pick for penciller. He knew the books well enough to spot a multi-year gap buried between paragraphs at the end of A Princess of Mars in which to set his series, and he launched the book with an ambitious, twelve-part epic called “The Air Pirates of Mars” that showcased all the many weird races, landscapes, and creatures of Burroughs’ Mars.

But sometimes the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Wolfman never really made Barsoom his own — the humorless, first-person narration Burroughs uses is tiresome in the original books, and when Wolfman brings that style to the comic page it is positively deadly, offering little insight to the stoic John Carter while encumbering each page with a wall of words.

So, too, do Gil Kane’s pencils fail to impress. I’m massively indifferent to Kane, but even his most ardent supporters will find little to like here, in page after page that seem a tangle of red bodies and snarling faces. A John Carter artist must be a designer as much as a storyteller, and Kane was either incapable or totally disinterested in developing the look of John Carter’s world — his panels are almost entirely bereft of memorable architecture, costume design, or technology. There’s practically nothing about these pages that tells us we’re on Barsoom aside from a few extra limbs on the fauna.

all the parts are here, but I’m not feeling it

I re-read the series for this review and was appalled at how bland, dull, and lifeless were Burroughs’ creatures and characters when transferred to the comics page. In being so faithful to Burroughs, the series did Edgar a disservice, who even in 1977 was in need of an updating, but instead of cutting to the heart of Burroughs’ Barsoom — and giving us stories of romance, friendship, and loyalty — we get a kind of joyless Burroughs pastiche that fails by leagues to compare with the images that the novels conjured in my imagination.

Wolfman departs after a dozen issues, and Chris Claremont does a bit better job as scripter. In Claremont’s first issue, John Carter is poisoned, and presumably killed, so Claremont dismisses the first-person narrative form, and the series is better for it … for all of half an issue, then Carter is back telling us nothing and the book is all grinding gears again. Like Wolfman’s tale, Claremont’s “Master Assassin of Mars” story arc is too long, and not helped at all by a second-rate effort from artist Rudy Nebres as the book runs out the string.

I scoured the series for pages worth scanning, but couldn’t find much, aside from the splash page of a Dave Cockrum single-issue story, when Deja Thoris finally looks at least a little bit “incomparable” …

… and a dynamic page from a young Frank Miller, just finding his way as an artist at Marvel.

You also can find a few more decent pages over at the always-cosmic Mars Will Send No More … it’s too bad Alex Nino didn’t score a full-time gig on this book!

But really, this series is better left forgotten. For lifeless scripting, uninspired pencils, anachronistic storytelling, and utterly failing to deliver on the promise of Burroughs’ rich Barsoomian mythos, Marvel’s John Carter, Warlord of Mars earns the first failing grade on the idiosyncratic Longbox Graveyard report card. I’ve loaded my copies aboard a barge, set it aflame, and floated it down the River Iss … and am crossing the fingers on all four hands of my Tars Tarkas action figure that the great John Carter fares better in his feature film debut!

UPDATE: I’ve seen the movie now (in IMAX 3D no less) and while John Carter gets more things right than wrong, the things it does wrong pretty much kill it. I am stunned that Andrew Stanton (director of Wall-E) would get the heart and sentimentality of this story wrong, and it is deadly. Instead of focusing on the warm emotional relationships between John Carter, Tars Tarkas, Sola, Woola, and Dejah Thoris, we get a complicated story where a Thern conspiracy and a well-intentioned but boring Edgar Rice Burroughs framing sequence crowds out screen time that would have been better devoted to core character development. The movie looks good, the Green Men are great, and I was fine with most of the casting (I thought the smart and resourceful Deja Thoris was an especially welcome revision). But the movie races along at a breakneck pace, too strident, too shrill, too eager to please, and ultimately a confused muddle of names and places and pointless details that just distance us from the heart of the story. The film looked like it needed another month in the editing bay (and maybe there will be a better cut on home video some day), but the damage is done. This film was doomed out of the gate by Disney’s catastrophic marketing campaign and with the movie underdelivering in it’s opening weekend (pending only some massive international box office), poor John Carter is going to be one-and-done. I’m disappointed and not a little depressed that this franchise has been smothered in the crib. It could have been great … but now it goes on the shelf with other promising misfires like Firefly, Rocketeer, and Scott Pilgrim. Pixar got the story wrong! Who’d a thunk it? So sad.

  • Title: John Carter, Warlord of Mars
  • Published By: Marvel Comics, 1977-1979
  • Issues EXILED From The Longbox Graveyard: #1-28, June 1977-October 1979
  • LBG Letter Grade For This Run: F
  • Read The Reprints: Amazon

NEXT WEDNESDAY: #39 Barsoomian Beat-Down!

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