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Doctor Strange vs. Dracula!

Longbox Graveyard #164

Super-Blog Team-Up returns with a Doctor Strange-driven look at magic in comics! Now, Halloween was last week, so I’m a couple days late for Dracula, but with his movie out this week, I’m right on time for Doctor Strange … and it’s always time for Bronze Age Marvel here at Longbox Graveyard. So let’s jump right in as Doctor Strange battles Dracula, Lord of Vampires!

Tomb of Dracula #44

This two-part crossover began in Tomb of Dracula #44, smack-dab in the middle of the classic run by Marv Wolfman, Gene Colan, and Tom Palmer. I’ve sung the praises of Tomb of Dracula here at Longbox Graveyard before (twice!) — it really might have been the finest Marvel comic of its age. And one of the reasons the book worked so well was that writer and editor Marv Wolfman largely kept Dracula and his tales sequestered from the rest of the Marvel Universe. While Drac would encounter Spider-Man and Thor in other titles, Marv jealously guarded the door of Dracula’s own book, ceding to editorial pressure to more closely connect Tomb of Dracula with the Marvel Universe only through crossovers with otherworldly and supernatural characters like Silver Surfer, Brother Voodoo, and (in our case) Doctor Strange!

The first part of the tale, written by Marv Wolfman, opened with Strange mourning the death of his faithful manservant, Wong, beneath the flashing fangs of a vampire!

Tomb of Dracula #44 by Wolfman, Colan, and Palmer

Just look at Gene Colan’s smokey pencils, beautifully illuminated by Tom Palmer’s perfect inks! There’s never been a better team for supernatural comics storytelling!

But this wasn’t just any vampire — this was Dracula, the Lord of Vampires, as Strange discovered when his sorcery allowed him to experience Wong’s final moments.

Tomb of Dracula #44 by Wolfman, Colan, and Palmer

Harnessing the fathomless powers of the All-Seeing Eye of Agamotto (which then, as now, could do about anything the writer needed it to do), Doctor Strange tracked the “life-patterns” of Dracula from the scene of the crime to Dracula’s lair in Boston.

Tomb of Dracula #44 by Wolfman, Colan, and Palmer

I love how Colan’s “camera” pushes in on Dracula, starting with his open coffin, then Dracula in repose, and then Dracula alert to Strange’s intrusion. Looking at this sequence, did you “see” Dracula’s eyes snap open between the last two panels? That’s the magic of comics, boys and girls — like Scott McCloud noted, comics are as much about what you don’t see between the panels as what you see in the panels themselves.

After that? Well, it’s on!

Tomb of Dracula #44 by Wolfman, Colan, and Palmer

But this battle between Dracula and Strange wasn’t the usual Marvel Comics Fist City beat-down, and it wasn’t even a garden-variety Doctor Strange ectoplasmic duel of ghosts.

No, to battle Dracula, Strange invoked the “Images of Ikonn” to delve into Dracula’s “passions and fears,” taking Dracula back to the moment his mortal self fell on the battlefield in a cavalry duel with Turkish invaders.

It’s kind of dirty pool, to be honest.

Tomb of Dracula #44 by Wolfman, Colan, and Palmer

For a couple panels, there, we could almost sympathize with Dracula, and this was intentional. Marv Wolfman considered Dracula the “protagonist” of Tomb of Dracula, rather than the hero, but as readers we still needed to get on board with Dracula, and moments like this served to humanize him. We see Dracula as a mortal terrified of his pending (un)death, we see his noble sacrifice in defense of his homeland, and can kind of feel bad for him … but it doesn’t take much for Dracula to revert to form, showing the dark side of his noble nature with his incredulity that this conflict originated with the death of “… a mere hireling … a cretinous menial … a whimpering domestic.”

(Don’t take a job with Dracula, folks).

Taken aback by Dracula’s sudden recovery — and reluctant to use his “more potent magics” for fear of rendering Dracula incapable of restoring Wong to life — Doctor Strange was quickly mesmerized by Dracula.

Mesmerized … and slain!

Tomb of Dracula #44 by Wolfman, Colan, and Palmer

How’s that for a vintage Marvel shock ending? Doctor Strange is dead? Say it isn’t so!

Fortunately, we needn’t wait even one week to see how this one turns out … the tale continued in Doctor Strange #14!

Doctor Strange #14

While this issue was written by Steve Englehart (who firmly put his stamp on the story, as we shall see), the book was illustrated by the self-same team of Colan and Palmer, and also edited by Marv Wolfman, resulting in an unusually coherent crossover, at least by Marvel standards.

The issue opened with Dracula gloating over his fallen foe, casting Strange’s body into a dungeon, where he might rot until rising, three days later, as Dracula’s undead slave.

Doctor Strange #14, by Englehart, Colan, and Palmer

But in his arrogance, Dracula didn’t reckon that Doctor Strange might be “no stranger to death,” as we learn that Strange escaped death by leaving his body instants before Dracula killed him at the end of last issue. But now, Strange was trapped outside his body, in astral form, with only three days to concoct a solution to his dilemma.

So what did Strange do?

Why, he thought, of course!

Doctor Strange #14, by Englehart, Colan, and Palmer

But all the thinking in the world didn’t solve Doc’s trouble. After trying to distract Dracula with visions and spells — and nearly catching Dracula out in the daylight — Strange was still a helpless, disembodied spectator when Dracula returned three days later. But Dracula was taking no chances, and in an odd reversal of roles, he sought to put a final end to the undead Doctor Strange with a stake through the heart!

Doctor Strange #14, by Englehart, Colan, and Palmer

Right on cue, Strange rose as a vampire, and we finally got some fist-and-fang action, as Dracula battled with a thing that was not-quite-Strange: Doctor Strange’s body, given in to dark vampiric impulses, while Strange’s conscience was helpless to intervene.

And it didn’t take long for Dracula to gain the upper hand against a Doctor Strange reduced to bestial impulses.

Doctor Strange #14, by Englehart, Colan, and Palmer

I love it when Drac calls someone a “clod.” If your boss calls you a clod — or “cretin,” another favorite — then he’s probably a super-villian

It’s when Dracula had Doctor Strange on the ropes that something intriguing and even a little profound occurred. When Dracula asserted himself as “Lord” while strangling the life from Strange, from the depths of his possessed soul, Doctor Strange called on the power of the Christian god to save his life!

Doctor Strange #14, by Englehart, Colan, and Palmer

It’s a bold turn of events, and something Steve Englehart didn’t shy away from — he once featured God Himself in a Doctor Strange story, then authored a bogus fan letter to deflect scrutiny — but what’s most interesting to me about this moment is what it asks about Doctor Strange’s own spirituality.

Does Doctor Strange believe in the Christian god, or is He just another deity in the Rolodex, to be invoked like Cyttorak or Vishanti? In his moment of greatest extremis, it is the Christian god that Strange turns to for salvation. Is Strange a man of faith, or is he just happy to use the best tool at hand?

Either way, that cross-like burst of light sure did the job …

Doctor Strange #14, by Englehart, Colan, and Palmer

Strange’s body and soul become one again even as Dracula is sent down to defeat, but Englehart implies that the will and even the cruelty required to overcome Dracula’s evil doesn’t come entirely from the divine force Strange invoked — that the “… true Dr. Strange would find no pleasure in his (Dracula’s) pain … that his tormentor (Strange) has been touched with Dracula’s own evil …” This conclusion points to an (ahem) strange duality, with the power of God getting Strange back on his feet, but Dracula’s own dark power of evil being the special sauce that let Strange finish the deed and kill Dracula for all time.

(Or at least until the next issue of Tomb of Dracula!)

And with Strange’s (and Wong’s) souls miraculously restored through Dracula’s death (could Drac have died for their sins? Nah …), that brings this tale to a close, and with it this installment of Longbox Graveyard!

It’s been awhile since I posted here, and it feels good! I hope to make this a more regular occurrence — please let me know what you think of this story and Steve Englehart’s Strange cosmology in the comments section below!

But, before you go — it took the awesome power of Super-Blog Team-Up to wake Longbox Graveyard from its Odinsleep … assuming you view this as a welcome development, please pay your thanks forward by visiting these other Super-Blog Team-Up articles, all looking at some form of “Strange” Magic!

Super-Blog Team-Up: Magic!

NEXT: #165 I Shopped At An Amazon Brick And Mortar Book Store


Was Daredevil Marvel’s Only Crime-Fighter?

FOOM #13 was all about Daredevil!


That Gene Colan cover is the coolest bit about this issue, but there are a few nuggets, if you look for them.

For example, there are several character reference sheets for Daredevil and his supporting cast from the immortal Wally Wood:

Matt Murdoch Character Design by Wally Wood

Daredevil character design by Wally Wood

Karen Page character design by Wally Wood

Foggy Nelson, and DD baton designs by Wally Wood

There was also this quote from Marv Wolfman, offering insight on what distinguished ol’ Hornhead from his Marvel brethren, circa 1976:

(Daredevil) is — as far as I can tell — Marvel’s only crime-fighter. All the other characters have other shticks that they do: Spider-Man isn’t so much a crime-fighter; he fights super villains. Half-the-time I’m not even quite sure why, or what the super villain has done. For instance, there’s a three-part story running now with Dr. Octopus and Hammerhead, but so far as I can tell, no one’s committed any crime. It’s just that they’re super villains, that a good enough reason to stage the issues. Thor fights the Asgardian characters and everything else. The FF fight space monsters or creatures or earth-shaking menaces. Most of our super-heroes tend not to actually fight crime. They fight other things connected with it.

So, Daredevil, being, in a sense, Marvel’s only crime-fighter, you can do slightly different-type storylines; in fact you almost have to … Secondly, Matt Murdoch is one of the few, I think, intelligent adults in the Marvel universe, who actually has to work for a living. Peter Parker is only a part-time worker because he’s basically a student … Tony Stark is a multi-millionaire. Most of our characters don’t have to work to support themselves. Matt, on the other hand, would be in serious trouble if he weren’t being paid for the legal work he does. So, Matt is of interest.

Marv goes on to comment about how the book originated as a shadow of Spider-Man, but had neither the supporting cast nor the villains of that book. It is an interesting look at a character during a time that no one could recognize as being the end of an era for Daredevil. The last issue listed in this magazine’s then-up-to-date Daredevil index is #134 … three issues after the first appearance of Bullseye, and twenty-four issues before Frank Miller would join the book with issue #158, and finally propel Daredevil to the ranks of Marvel’s A-list books.

See you back here next week for another FOOM Friday!

Reopening The Tomb of Dracula

Longbox Graveyard #70

It’s hard to believe it’s been a year since I last cracked open the door to the Tomb of Dracula. My original examination of this seminal series yielded a slight disappointment, and as was the case with my long-delayed Master of Kung Fu review debuting here earlier this month, I’ve hesitated to return to Tomb for fear it would not live up to my memories. But I needn’t have worried — this second trip into Dracula’s Tomb was better than the first, reaffirming my affection for this unique Marvel Comics series.

Sometimes it just takes awhile before a book finds its way. In my review of the book’s first two dozen issues, it wasn’t until #23 that I thought Tomb started to get traction, when series maestro Marv Wolfman settled into his second year on the series. After experimenting both with single-issue stories and a multi-part Doctor Sun min-epic, Tomb of Dracula found its footing with a series of small and personal stories that showcase the strengths of this series.

Just as martial artist Shang-Chi could not compete with wall-crawlers or super-soldiers (and his series developed a new approach to fighting and action to compensate), so too was Dracula fighting an uphill battle compared to the villains of the Marvel Universe. Dracula is a terrifying and ancient evil, but he isn’t the world-shaking menace of a Doctor Doom or Galactus.

As headlining Marvel villains go, Dracula’s closest contemporary might be the Red Skull, but Dracula would never enjoy the Skull’s visual, action-packed opportunities to express his villainy. It just didn’t play for Dracula to run the usual Marvel bad guy play book — to rob a bank, attack the Baxter Building, or threaten to conquer the world (though Dracula would try to do that, in time).

Instead, Dracula would express his evil in deeply personal ways — by torturing his enemies; by corrupting youth and innocence; even by attacking faiths and beliefs.

Issue #26 opens a three-part tale revolving around “The Chimera,” an ancient artifact granting immense power for good or evil. Witnessing his father’s death at the hands of mysterious agents who would claim the artifact for their own, the Chimera falls to David Eschol to protect. A bookish Talmudic scholar, Eschol is immediately in over his head, uncomprehending of the evil forces converging upon him — Dracula chief among them. Disoriented after the attack that kills his father, David falls into Dracula’s web through a “chance” encounter with Shiela Whittier, Dracula’s mortal love interest introduced in issue #23, now acting as Dracula’s thrall.

In short order, Whittier delivers David to her master.

His sense of reality overturned, David’s first encounter with Dracula would also be a test of his faith.

Here are high stakes indeed — the power of God over evil, the relationship between free will and faith — cast front and center by Dracula’s cold assurance that it is his destiny to rule the human race. For all his faith, poor David is no match for Dracula, and would surely have met his death at Dracula’s hands were not all three characters abruptly captured by mysterious agents at the end of the issue.

Issue #30 finds Dracula bound and humiliated, taunted by an mysterious voice and put in his place with a right cross from a righteous cross …

But Dracula is not alone in his torment. Through the power of the Chimera, Shiela and David are tortured, too, with poor, doomed Shiela in her mind finally receiving her heart’s delight.

These intimate and emotional assaults act like a kind of burning fuse, raising the stakes for Dracula’s inevitable escape, when he takes his revenge in an especially personal fashion.

But something is happening to Dracula, as he allows that he’s having feelings for Shiela Winters, even as he dismisses the notion that his foes can gain power over him by threatening her. The extent to which Shiela has come to command Dracula’s heart is obvious by the issue’s end, when Shiela has smashed the devilish Chimera statue to bits, and quits the scene on David Eschol’s arm, leaving an uncharacteristically impotent Dracula in her wake.

I can’t determine whether it’s more satisfying to see Dracula get his revenge or his comeuppance, a unique characteristic of Tomb of Dracula, and an aspect that I think is grounded in the personal nature of the series. The stakes are just so different here from other Marvel books, owing to Marv Wolfman’s rich characterizations, and Gene Colan’s flowing pencils, in top form here communicating grounded and emotional action.

And so closes the three-part “Chimera” arc, but now Tomb of Dracula is truly starting to simmer. These characters will all be heard from again, and subplots I’ve not mentioned here will also boil over as Dracula tracks down the mysterious nemesis who captured him. This is a solid tale, and a sample of better things to come, as the Tomb of Dracula storytelling DNA really starts to mature.

I will resolve to return to Dracula’s Tomb before another year gets behind me!

  • Title: Tomb of Dracula
  • Published By: Marvel Comics, 1972-79
  • Issues Rescued From The Longbox Graveyard: #26-28, November 1974 – January 1975
  • LBG Letter Grade For This Run: B
  • Read The Reprints: Longbox Graveyard Store

NEXT WEEK: #71 Guide To Comic Books On Instagram

Marvel Two-In-One Times One Hundred

Longbox Graveyard #63

Sometimes you go back to old comics series and are pleasantly surprised (Godzilla), sometimes you are disappointed (Deathlok), and sometimes you see them in an entirely different light (Ms. Marvel).

And sometimes you get exactly what you expect, which means my decision to collect and read every issue ever published of Marvel Two-In-One might rightly be termed a suicide mission. I love Ben Grimm, but you have to really love the Thing — I mean, really really love the Thing — to maintain your enthusiasm through the full hundred-issue run of this largely-forgotten comic.

it’s two — two — TWO Things in one Two-In-One!

The premise of Marvel Two-In-One was simple — follow the format of the better-known Marvel Team-Up, which featured Spider-Man with a guest star of the month slugging it out in (mostly) forgettable stories that were (mostly) told in a single issue. Along the way, afford some spotlight time to the lesser characters of the Marvel Universe to keep those trademarks fresh and maybe see if a character sparks with the audience. These team-up books were pure newsstand fodder, with high impulse-buy appeal and limited continuity between issues (and it is interesting to note that Marvel’s team-up books wound down with the rise of the more discriminating Direct Market era, with Marvel Team-Up ending in 1985, and Two-In-One breathing it’s last in 1983).

Always a hind-tit book in the Marvel line, this series had all the liabilities of a team-up book — fractured continuity, rotating creative teams, and awkward story situations as Ben and his co-star was shoe-horned into one crazy situation after another. Add to this Marvel’s propensity to wrap-up cancelled series in their team-up books and you have a recipe for some pretty foul issues … but in Ben Grimm you also have one of Marvel’s best characters, and the series occasionally rises to memorable heights when grouchy Ben plays off of his partner-of-the-month. There were select issues by superior creators on this book, with Steve Gerber, John Byrne, Bill Mantlo, George Perez, and the team of Marc Gruenwald and Ralph Macchio doing good work, but there were also some disappointing stretches, like Marv Wolfman‘s curiously bland tenure on the book (I normally quite like Wolfman), and consistently sub-par efforts from Tom DeFalco and penciller Ron Wilson, who unfortunately illustrated the majority of the series.

None of these are truly great comics, and my survey is additionally hampered by eliminating some of the better titles from consideration. I didn’t review the two-issue run in Marvel Feature, where Two-In-One got it’s start, nor did I consider the seven Marvel Two-In-One Annuals (of which #2, by Jim Starlin, is a minor classic, featuring Spider-Man and the Avengers, wrapping up the first great Warlock/Thanos storyline). I also stop my examination with Marvel Two-In-One #100, rather than continue into the following Thing series, which I recall was a bit better overall.

Marvel Two-In-One Annual #2 … disqualified!

No, this review is all Two-In-One, all the time, warts and all, and in ranking the books below from best to worst I graded entirely on my own subjective scale. I don’t expect a lot from Two-In-One, but I do hope for fun and (mostly) coherent stories, with good chemistry and some snappy repartee between Ben and his co-star, hopefully at the center of a one-and-done tale with plenty of action. A sense of humor is a plus (but also a peril if the jokes fall flat). Mostly I want Ben saying “cripes” and referencing his dear Aunt Petunia, comparing bad guys to the Yancy Street gang, hollering that it’s Clobberin’ Time and exclaiming about revolting developments.

And so here we go … my capsule reviews of every issue of Marvel Two-In-One, ranked from best to worst!

Above Average

#1 Man-Thing in “Vengeance of the Molecule Man” by Steve Gerber, Gil Kane, and Joe Sinnott. Gerber was a real craftsman, and even in a lesser story such as this he manages some nice characterization for Ben Grimm. He even makes it seem convincing that a hot-headed Thing would hop a bus to Florida to smash Man-Thing in the mouth for taking away his good name! The confrontation promised by the very groovy cover is long-delayed and over in a page but this is still a fun and fast-paced 1970s comic book story.

For a full review of this issue, be sure to read my Dollar Box column!

And to read the entire issue online, visit the always-groovy Mars Will Send No More!

#10 Black Widow in “Is This The Way The World Ends?” by Chris Claremont, Bob Brown, Klaus Janson. Fast-moving espionage tale where Ben and the Widow each get to do their thing — Ben using strength and brawn, Natasha her wits and agility — to thwart a terrorist attempt to flood the East Coast by detonating a doomsday bomb. It’s not an easy thing to team two characters of such wildly differing power levels. Good characterization for both heroes, and Natasha has to take down an old flame. Adequate Bob Brown pencils made crisp by Janson’s inks.

#13 Power Man in “I Created Braggadoom!” by Roger Slifer/Len Wein, Ron Wilson, and Vince Colletta. Ben and Luke battle a big, stupid, green monster, and still find time to slug it out with each other not once, but twice. Luke gets to say, “Christmas!” but Ben fails to declare “Clobberin’ Time!” Sweet two-page spread of Braggadoom knocking down a bridge. Nice bit of characterization when Ben makes reference to nails on a blackboard, and Luke replies, “Where I went t’ school, Grimm — they didn’t HAVE no blackboards!”

#50 (Old-School) Thing in “Remembrance Of Things Past!” by John Byrne and Joe Sinnott. Anniversary issue sees the Thing going into his own past, to cure an earlier version of himself, and getting into a predictable Thing-On-Thing beatdown. Basic fist opera fun by John Byrne.

#53-58 “Project Pegasus,” by Gruenwald, Macchio, Byrne, and Sinnott, then George Perez and Gene Day for the second half. Two-In-One only nominally maintained the guest-star-of-the-month format for this six issue run where Ben provides security to the government’s high-tech energy research project. The extended continuity allowed the book to feel more like a regular Marvel comic of its day, with continuing subplots and a master villain pulling the strings. A solid sequence of books where Ben is written strongly — his sarcastic patter while passing through Pegasus security at the head of issue #53 is especially on-target and serves notice that something special (by Two-In-One standards, at least) is in the offing.

if Marvel does a map, you KNOW it’s a big deal!

#6 Doctor Strange in “Death-Song Destiny,” by Steve Gerber, George Tuska, and Mike Esposito. A vintage (weird) Steve Gerber story, with a cosmic harmonica, a disappearing face, a giant rat, and some nice bits when Ben returns to his Yancy Street childhood stomping grounds. Plus a Jim Starlin cover! The tale continues with Valkyrie in issue #7 — “Name That Doom,” by Gerber, Sal Buscema, and Mike Esposito, when that same harmonica destroys the world in a story that reads very much like one of Gerber’s Defenders of that era, where this story would ultimately conclude.

#3 Daredevil in “Inside Black Spectre!” by Steve Gerber, Sal Buscema, and Joe Sinnott. Even more vintage Gerber weirdness, in a tale where Captain America beats a slave to death, and Hitler blows his brains out before a live audience. Ah, Steve, you are deeply missed!

get hip, schweinhunds!

#45 Captain Marvel in “The Andromeda Rub-Out!” by Peter Gillis, Alan Kupperberg, and Mike Esposito. This is a ridiculous story … but it is a well-told ridiculous story, with a good point of attack and a fast-paced narrative that forgives a plot and villain that escaped from the third season of Star Trek. Plus, I have a soft spot for Captain Marvel … and it’s bizarre to realize that per Marvel continuity (which the characters themselves call out) that the last time Marv and Ben met up before this weird story was when they were fighting Thanos for the fate of the solar system in Marvel Two-In-One Annual #2.

#43 Man-Thing (and Captain America) in “The Day The World Winds Down” by Ralph Macchio and John Byrne. A lesser cosmic cube story, but still fun, with Ben thinking with his fists and an entirely unthinking Man-Thing briefly claiming the Cosmic Cube while Captain America is at his patriotic, speechifying best. John Byrne just makes everything better … read this issue at Mars Will Send No More and see if you agree!

#51 Frank Miller in “Full House — Dragons High!” by Peter Gillis, Frank Miller, and Bob McLeod. Of course Frank Miller isn’t the guest-star — there’s a fist-full of Avengers here, and Nick Fury too — but Miller is clearly the star, elevating a forgettable story above the average Marvel Two-In-One standards with an energetic pencilling job that provides a glimpse of the glory years to come. His full-page layout of Ben’s traveling poker game is particularly clever. The story is some muddle involving the Yellow Claw.

#2 Sub-Mariner in “Manhunters From The Stars” by Steve Gerber, Gil Kane, and Joe Sinnott. Ben inherits custody of man-child Wundarr, trades punches with Namor, smashes a robot, and doesn’t know what to make of the Sub-Mariner’s flower child cousin, Namorita.

#37 Matt Murdoch in “Game Point!” by Marv Wolfman, Ron Wilson, and Pablo Marcos. Ben is set up and goes on a bus-smashing rampage in downtown New York and Matt Murdoch defends him at trial in this nice change-of-pace story. Pablo Marcos was one of the few inkers who could wring better-than-average results from Wilson’s pedestrian pencils, and it shows here. Interesting to note that Ben’s self-esteem is so low that he is more eager to convict himself than the kangaroo court set up to judge him.


#5 Guardians of the Galaxy (and Captain America) in “Seven Against The Empire” by Steve Gerber, Sal Buscema, and Mike Esposito. Our heroes travel into the future to battle the Badoon. Plenty of action and Cap gets to be a literal living legend, coming from the past to inspire and lead in a future where he is a fabled hero of myth. Events had a sense of scale and permanence not common to team-up books.

#29 Shang-Chi in “Two Against Hydra” by Marv Wolfman, Ron Wilson, and Sam Grainger. Ben enjoys a business vacation in London, and has a nice romantic exchange with Alicia before getting pulled into a contrived battle with Shang-Chi, which is appropriately amusing. The ruminating Shang-Chi is a good foil for Ben, and their scenes together are brief but effective and in character. There are HYDRA goons a-plenty for the two heroes to smack around.

#64-66 Stingray, Triton, and Scarlet Witch in the three-part “Serpent Crown Affair,” by Mark Gruenwald, Ralph Macchio, George Perez, Jerry Bingham, and Gene Day. A less-successful attempt to capture some of that Project Pegasus mojo with another extended arc that features some of the characters and threads from that earlier run. The story climaxed with Ben placing the Serpent Crown on his head, but resisting its power and dashing it to pieces, kind of the Marvel Universe equivalent of smashing Sauron’s ring.

Ben Grimm, ringbearer?

#15 Morbius in “The Return of the Living Eraser” by Bill Mantlo, Arve Jones, and Dick Giordano. A bloodthirsty Morbius tries to suck the blood from everyone in sight while Ben alternately smacks him around and teams up with the “Living Vampire” to fight one of the all-time ridiculous villains — the Living Eraser. Morbius is appropriately angsty and tormented, while Ben just seems disgusted by the whole affair. A typically-dependable effort from the typically-dependable Bill Mantlo.

#28 Sub-Mariner in “In The Power of the Piranha!” by Marv Wolfman, Ron Wilson, and John Tartag. Ben teams up with a strangely level-headed Namor to fight the bloodthirsty Piranha. A fairly forgettable story is kicked up a notch by a truly creepy villain.

#40 Black Panther in “Conjure Night,” by Roger Slifer, Tom DeFalco, Ron Wilson, and Pablo Marcos. Some nice character bits mixed in with the action, as Ben makes pizza for his pals, then sits in on a middle school class taught by T’Challa, here maintaining a secret identity as a black studies teacher. Some adequate vampire-fighting action as Ben and the Panther investigate a series of kidnappings in the black community. Earns points by avoiding the usual pitfalls of Marvel tales examining “ethnic” stories — this is just Ben and the Panther in an urban superhero story.

#41 Brother Voodoo in “Voodoo and Valor,” by David Kraft, Ron Wilson, and Pablo Marcos. Concludes the previous issue’s story, as Ben and Brother Voodoo travel to Uganda to punch it out with Idi Amin’s zuvembis (!). Bonus points for degree of difficulty in handling Brother Voodoo in a team up at all, and here he’s handled pretty well.

“perhaps I shall destroy them for sport”

#4 Captain America in “Doomsday 3014” by Steve Gerber, Sal Buscema, and Frank Giacoia. Ben and Wundarr go to the zoo, animals get loose, and Cap springs into action. Sets up the Guardians of the Galaxy story in the following issue. Gerber nicely writes Sharon Carter, who reminds everyone she’s a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent and goes along on Cap’s half-cocked recon mission to the future.

#9 Thor in “When a God Goes Mad,” by Chris Claremont & Steve Gerber, Herb Trimpe, and Joe Giella. Some nice characterization for Ben, but Thor spends most of the story as a zombie in thrall to the Puppetmaster, and boy, this art is not easy on the eyes.

#60 Impossible Man in “Happiness is a Warm Alien” by Gruenwald/Macchio, George Perez, and Gene Day. A disposable but nicely-drawn episode where the shape-changing Impossible Man accompanies Ben to a society event — some nice sight gags as the Impossible Man masquerades as an ever-changing hat and we get to see Ben in a tuxedo, too!

#20 Liberty Legion in “Showdown At Sea” by Roy Thomas, Sal Buscema, and Sam Grainger. A borderline incomprehensible WWII-era story continued from previous annuals and staring the eternally limp Liberty Legion. Rises to “average” thanks to a disembodied Nazi brain for a villain, who buzzes about Manhattan in a flying Swastika. For reals!

#75 The Avengers in “By Blastaar — Betrayed!” by Tom DeFalco, Alan Kupperberg and Chick Stone. Double-sized issue. A war in the negative zone disrupts Ben Grimm’s card game. Ben and the Avengers slug it out with Annihilus, Blastaar, and the Super- Adaptoid. A serviceable tale but we’ve seen these big superhero-in-space epics done before and better. Despite the expanded page count there are too many characters and too many subplots to give Ben and his guest stars needed spotlight time.

#26 Nick Fury in “The Fixer and Mentallo Are Back” by Marv Wolfman, Ron Wilson, and Pablo Marcos. Wilson is only as good as his inker, and Marcos does his best here, in a story elevated just a little by the requisite S.H.I.E.L.D. gadgetry, and a nice bit of continuity for fans remembering the bad guys from Nick Fury’s Strange Tales run. Nice camaraderie between veterans Fury and Grimm.

#77 Man-Thing in “Only The Swamp Survives,” by Tom DeFalco, Ron Wilson, and Chic Stone. A minor gem of a story from Tom DeFalco’s otherwise dire run on Two-In-One. Not a lot of Man-Thing in this tale, but we do get Ben being a test pilot, and a prolonged flashback of a pre-Thing Ben Grimm fighting in World War II with Nick Fury and the Howling Commandos (which has surely be ret-conned out of existence by now?)

#22 Thor in “Touch Not The Hand of Seth!” by Bill Mantlo, Ron Wilson, and Pablo Marcos. A convoluted bit of hooey about Egyptian death-gods and personal vendettas that Mantlo somehow makes work, with bonus points for Doctor Donald Blake handled in an (almost) interesting fashion.

#69 Guardians of the Galaxy in “Homecoming,” by Gruenwald & Macchio, art by Ron Wilson and Gene Day. Vance Astro meets his younger self and sets off all kinds of chaos in the time stream. Decent, but a bit on the expository side and Ben is as much a witness to events as a participant.

#19 Tigra in “Claws of the Cougar!” by Bill Mantlo, Sal Buscema, and Don Heck. Frankly it’s a crappy story but Tigra extends my patience and at least there’s a Jack Kirby cover, swarming with cosmic dots.

#61 Starhawk in “The Coming of Her,” by Mark Gruenwald, Jerry Bingham, and Gene Day. A female version of Adam Warlock is awakened and all heck breaks loose. A wobbly tale but it tenuously ties into the Thanos cycle, has a cameo from Moondragon, and features decent art from Jerry Bingham, who drew the cover of one of the first comics I ever authored.

#47 The Yancy Street Gang in “Happy Deathday, Mister Grimm,” by Bill Mantlo and Chic Stone. Bill Mantlo could write anything Marvel threw at him, and make it interesting, including this lesser tale of Ben returning to his old neighborhood and getting ambushed by robots. Builds to an extraordinarily anti-climatic villain reveal in the final panel.

#21 Doc Savage in “Black Sun Lives” by Bill Mantlo, Ron Wilson, and Pablo Marcos. I loved Doc Savage as a kid, but he was never really suited to comic-books. Still, this force-fit crossover with the Marvel Universe works better than you’d expect, with parallel narratives between separate stories merging at the end for a brief and unlikely team-up. Once again, Bill Mantlo rises to the challenge of an impossible premise and makes it work.

#62 Moondragon in “The Taking of Counter-Earth,” by Mark Gruenwald, Jerry Bingham, and Gene Day. Continues the lesser “Her” cosmic storyline from the preceding issue, most memorable for a politically incorrect panel where Ben takes Moondragon across his knee. Sure, she’s a pain in the neck … sure, every Marvel fan of the 1970s wanted to see this happen, but, well … Oh, all right!

#89 Human Torch in “The Last Word,” by David Anthony Kraft, Alan Kupperberg, and Chic Stone. Ben and Johnny take on a goofy but intriguing cult leader. Reads like a lesser Steve Gerber tale but has its moments.

#73 Quasar in “Pipeline Through Infinity,” by Ralph Macchio, Ron Wilson and Chic Stone. A sorta-sequel to Project Pegasus, where Ben and Quasar discover that the Roxxon oil company is enslaving the denizens of alternate earths in their insatiable quest for oil. Features cavemen and dinosaurs and should have been more stupid fun than it was, diminished by lackluster pencils.

#86 The Sandman in “Time Runs Like Sand!” by Tom DeFalco, Ron Wilson, and Chic Stone. Rather than go all fist city, Ben and the Sandman settle their differences over a beer. A potentially rich concept but the creators didn’t seem to know what to do with it — the story gasses out after fifteen pages, and half of those were filler telling Sandman’s origin. Backup story with Mr. Impossible is appropriately disposable.

#92 Jocasta in “This Evil Returning!” by Tom DeFalco, Ron Wilson, and “A. Sorted” on inks. Ben returns from Egypt and begins a two-part adventure resolving the fate of Jocasta — the Bride of Ultron — after she was booted from the Avengers. Some nice gags as Ben navigates the Cairo airport, and this otherwise-slight tale kinda-sorta gets to the soul of poor lost Jocasta.

#42 Captain America in “Entropy, Entropy!” by Ralph Macchio, Sal Buscema, Alfredo Alcala, and Sam Grainger. Ben and Cap make a good team — they have the mutual-respect-of-veterans-and-living-legends thing going on. Sets up the tale in the superior issue #43, where John Byrne comes aboard.

#68 Angel in “Discos and Dungeons,” by Gruenwald/Macchio, Ron Wilson, and Gene Day. Silly fun, as Ben and the Angel are kidnapped and thrown into a dungeon of doom, lorded over by The Toad (who just wants some respect), and financed (off-stage) by Arcade, a lesser X-Men villain that I always enjoyed. Ben wears a John Travolta disco suit on the splash page.

#100 Ben Grimm in “Aftermath,” by John Byrne, Ron Wilson, Frank Giacioa, and Kevin Dzuban. A sequel to Byrne’s much-better story in issue #50, and there might as well have not been fifty issues between the two for all the impact those issues have on this story. The Thing visits his alternate-earth self and sees what became of the world after Ben was cured of his superpowers — it’s kind of It’s A Wonderful Life by way of The Omega Man with the Red Skull standing in for Mr. Potter (and not as fun as it sounds). A double-sized issue for the last number in this run, but doesn’t provide any closure for the series.

#63 Warlock (sort of) in “Suffer Not A Warlock To Live!” by Mark Gruenwald, Jerry Bingham, and Gene Day. Wraps up the lesser cosmic trilogy of “Her,” which suffers a bit for being a big fake-out. A virtue of this run is the insight offered into the High Evolutionary, who proves an intriguing character, even if Ben does bring him down a peg by calling him “Handle Head” in this or the preceding issue.

#34 Nighthawk in “A Monster Walks Among Us!” by Marv Wolfman, Ron Wilson, and Pablo Marcos. A decent twist on the misunderstood monster trope. Again we are let down by Wilson pencils that Pablo Marcos can do little to rescue — the monster would be more effective if he weren’t so ridiculous-looking (or purple).

#93 Machine Man in “And One Shall Die!” by Tom DeFalco, Ron Wilson, and “D. Hands” handling the inks. The conclusion of the Jocasta story from #92. Ultron chews the scenery and Jocasta comes to a bad end. She probably deserved better.

#96 A whole pile of superheroes in “Visiting Hours!” by Tom DeFalco, Ron Wilson, and Mike Esposito. Comical episode where Ben is confined to a hospital bed and seemingly every superhero in New York turns out to protect him from his low-rent Two-In-One rogue’s gallery. Nice appearance by Sandman, who continues his bromance with Ben begun in issue #86.

#88 She-Hulk in “Disaster at Diablo Reactor” by David Anthony Kraft, Alan Kupperberg, and Chic Stone. The plot about a threat to a California nuclear reactor is forgettable, but the issue is worth reading to watch She-Hulk go coo-coo for Coca-Puffs, sexually harassing Ben and driving her pink convertable like a crazy person. Concludes with She-Hulk savoring a potential jailhouse assault on Ben

Below Average

#52 Moon Knight in “A Little Knight Music” by Steven Grant, Jim Craig, and Pablo Marcos. Nice banter between Ben and Moon Knight — Ben wants nothing to do with him, but Moon Knight patiently wins him over. By this point we can practically guarantee that if Ben shows up in a tuxedo, he’s going to burst out of it in a panel or two, and this tale does not disappoint.

#94 Power Man & Iron Fist in “The Power Trap” by David Anthony Kraft, Ron Wilson, and Ricardo Villamonte. Luke and Danny play a video game and apply it to life lessons, or something like that. Ben and Luke slug it out, but it falls well short of their meeting back in issue #13.

#48 Jack of Hearts in “My Master … Machinesmith!” by Bill Mantlo, Chic Stone, and T. Blaisdell. Chic Stone drops his brush in favor of a pencil with middling results. I remember Jack of Hearts being kind of a big deal back in the day but now I just can’t see it. His friends do him no favors letting him out of the house in that costume.

Jack of Hearts … not a good look, pal

#38 Daredevil in “Thing Behind Prison Bars” by Roger Slifer, Ron Wilson, and Jim Mooney. Continues the tale of Ben framed for running amok from issue #37, but the clever change-of-pace of Marv Wolfman’s original story gives way to the usual superhero fist opera.

#99 ROM in “Sshsss,” by Bill Mantlo, Bob Hall, and Kevin Dzuban. Yes, the title of this story is a sound effect! Bill Mantlo was the original ROM scribe so I assume this tale is on target for that character, but never being much of a ROM fan I really can’t judge. Interesting bit at the end where Ben firmly declares he prefers being a monster to his human form.

#74 The Puppet Master in “Christmas Peril!” by Marc Gruenwald, Frank Springer, and Chic Stone. A reformed Puppetmaster crashes the Fantastic Four’s Christmas party, bums a flight to east Europe, and then everyone gets chased around by giant toys. Yeah, it’s not so great, but it has Bova in it and I like freaky cow-headed women. Too much information?

#12 Iron Man in “The Stalker in the Sands!” by Bill Mantlo, Ron Wilson, and Vinnie Colleta. Potentially interesting pairing of Ben and Iron Man is undermined by a poor villain in Prester John, plus this issue is from the unfortunate “Iron Man has a nose” period, which is distracting.

all-out ACTION as you’ve never seen it before … because Iron Man has a NOSE!

#59 The Human Torch in “Trial and Error,” by Wolfman/Macchio, Chic Stone, and Al Gordon. Ben and Johnny have a couple nice scenes together, but the plot — about a guy who wants to scratch silly things off his bucket list before he get married, like being a cowboy or a fireman — is as weak as it sounds. New York’s Twin Towers are a prominent location.

#30 Spider-Woman in “Battle Atop Big Ben!” by Marv Wolfman, John Buscema, and Pablo Marcos. Was delighted to see John B’s name on the mast-head, but this was one of John’s lesser efforts, and the tale afforded little opportunity for Ben to interact with Spider-Woman, who is a mind-controlled pawn of HYDRA in this story.

#95 The Living Mummy in “The Power To Live … The Power To Die …” by David Anthony Kraft, Alan Kupperberg, and Jon D’Agostino. Alicia is possessed by an Egyptian hat and it’s off to Egypt to battle a maniac and watch the Living Mummy shuffle through the story. A typically screwed-up later Two-In-One story, but memorable because DAK writes a couple crisp lines for Ben, and Alicia spends most of the issue swooping around in an Egyptian slave girl outfit, and she looks kind of hot.

whoa, Alicia … hubba-hubba!

#67 Hyperion in “Passport to Oblivion” by Mark Gruenwald, Ralph Macchio, Ron Wilson & Dave Friends. The Thing misunderstands Alicia, feels sorry for himself, and kind of walks through a story that is more about a frustrated romance between Hyperion and Thundra than a Ben Grimm team-up.

#33 Modred the Mystic in “From Stonehenge … With Death!” by Marv Wolfman, Ron Wilson, and Pablo Marcos. A murky story that wraps up the storyline that saw Ben and Alicia visiting England, concluding with their memories of the last several issues being wiped from their minds (it would be a cheap shot to suggest the reader might be afforded the same dignity). The tale is rescued a bit by decent characterization for Modred, who pulls off a scene or two in battling a group of elementals entering our world through Stonehenge.

#71-72 Mr. Fantastic and The Inhumans in “The Cure” and “Might of the Maelstrom” by Gruenwald/Macchio, Ron Wilson, and Gene Day/Chic Stone. A leaden and confusing two-part tale with Reed Richards curing the captives of Hydro Base with a Terragen-mist derivative that ropes in a dull Inhumans villain for some forgettable action. Heavy continuity employed to answer questions no one asked in the first place.

#24 Black Goliath in “Does Anyone Remember … The Hijacker?” by Bill Mantlo, Jim Shooter, Sal Buscema, and Pablo Marcus. A thoroughly by-the-numbers superhero effort, answering it’s own question with a forgettable villain.

#31 No real guest-star, though Spider-Woman continues her appearance from the previous issue in “My Sweetheart — My Killer!” by Marv Wolfman, Ron Wilson, and Sam Grainger. Alicia is turned into a giant spider creature by HYDRA, and Ben must reluctantly fight her. Ehh.

#23 Thor in “Death on The Bridge to Heaven,” by Bill Mantlo & Jim Shooter, Ron Wilson, Marie Severin, and Pablo Marcos. Continues the Thor tale from the previous issue, overstaying its welcome. Marie Severin is credited with an “assist” on this issue which I think is limited to spot help on certain panels — I couldn’t identify a page that seemed especially her style.

#32 Invisible Girl in “And Only The Invisible Girl Can Save Us Now,” by Marv Wolfman, Ron Wilson, and Pablo Marcos. As Wolfman continues his run the book has become a team-up series in name only. The Invisible Girl appears briefly at the end of this tale to subdue Alicia, who has become a giant spider-creature. I’m sure this continuity seemed like a good idea at the time, but it works against the novelty value of seeing Ben teamed with a fresh new character each month.

#27 Deathlok (and Nick Fury) in “Day of the Demolisher!” by Marv Wolfman, Ron Wilson, and Pablo Marcos. Pretty much everything touched by Deathlok’s troubled continuity turns to mush, and this story is no exception, as Deathlok is brought into our time and forced by the Fixer and Mentallo to attack Jimmy Carter at his Inauguration. Ben and the Fantastic Four put a stop to it, but there’s scant opportunity for Ben to interact with Deathlok save by pounding on him a time or two. Cameo appearance by the Impossible Man …

this explains a lot about Carter’s presidency

#98 Franklin Richards in “Vid Wars,” by David Michelinie, Ron Wilson, and Frank Giacoia. A plot-heavy contrivance where Ben and Franklin after transported to a world that mimics a popular video game, and Franklin’s game-playing savvy proves critical to the resolution. The video game stuff has not aged well.

#81 Sub-Mariner in “No Home For Heroes!” by Tom DeFalco, Ron Wilson, and Chic Stone. Tom DeFalco writes crappy expository superhero dialogue, but it kind of works for Subby and MODOK, who is here working on some kind of biological weapon.

#78 Wonder Man in “Monster Man!” by Tom DeFalco, David Michelinie, Ron Wilson, and Chic Stone. One of those sure-to-be-lame stories where the supervillain dupes our hero into an ambush on a movie set with a promise of fame and riches. You know … even Doctor Doom couldn’t pull that one off, and this issue’s villain is just a narcissistic movie producer (aren’t they all?). Decent characterization for Wonder Man.

#44 Hercules in “The Incredible World of Brother Benjamin J. Grimm,” by Marv Wolfman, Bob Hall, and Frank Giacoia. A forgettable team-up with the Thing and Hercules against gods and monsters is enlivened by a framing device where Ben narrates his tale to a pack of restless kids.

#87 Ant Man in “Menace of the Microverse,” by Tom DeFalco, Ron Wilson, and Chic Stone. The less-interesting Scott Lang Ant Man pursues a shrinking Ben into a microverse where he is just fine, thank you, hanging out with the leggy queen of the microscopic realm. Our hero wears armor and fights in an arena but it’s all very by-the-numbers and Wilson’s pencils are especially perfunctory here.

#25 Iron Fist in “A Tale of Two Countries” by Marv Wolfman, Ron Wilson, and Sam Grainger. Marv Wolfman starts a not-terribly-distinguished run on Marvel Two-In-One with a tale of Ben and Iron Fist battling an island full of martial arts maniacs (that isn’t nearly as exciting as it sounds). Awkward art from Ron Wilson doesn’t help. At least we learn that Ben is a N.Y. Jets fan.

#35 Skull the Slayer in “Enter: Skull The Slayer And Exit: The Thing” by Marv Wolfman and Ernie Chan. Guest artist Chan is a good fit for the barbarians and dinosaurs on offer here, but Skull the Slayer is a hopeless character, with a tedious supporting cast that I wanted to see fed to the thunder lizards. To be fair, this was one of those cases where Two-In-One was used to wrap up the story from a cancelled book, which is never ideal — and for a compelling case why Skull deserves our respect, read this excellent post from Diversions of the Groovy Kind. And you can read the whole issue over at Mars Will Send No More!

#82 Captain America in “The Fatal Effects of Virus X,” by Tom DeFalco, Ron Wilson, and Chic Stone. Despite the title, MODOK’s Virus-X isn’t fatal so much as it gives Ben a temporary case of the uglies, which gives him an excuse to go all woe-is-me-I’m-an-orange-monster again. DeFalco is especially expository here — there’s actually a panel where MODOK’s chamber is being flooded by seawater, and MODOK says, “Aayyeee! The frigid waters of Antarctica — flooding the chamber!” Thanks for clearing that up for us. Cap kicks some butt and don’t-call-me-Black-Goliath (Giant Man) acts like a loser.

#76 Iceman in “The Big Top Bandits,” by Tom DeFalco, David Michelinie, Jerry Bingham, and Chic Stone. Has a Marvel Universe trip to the Big Top ever NOT resulted in an encounter with the Circus of Crime? Worst … supervillains … ever!

#14 Son of Satan in “Ghost Town” by Bill Mantlo, Herb Trimpe, and John Tartag. Another suicide mission by author Bill Mantlo, as he tries to make sense of Ben Grimm and Daimon Hellstrom in a ghost town adventure. Mantlo deserves a lifetime achievement award for making the best of a bad hand with these Two-In-One assignments.

#83-84 Sasquatch and Alpha Flight in a two part story by Tom DeFalco, Ron Wilson, and Chic Stone. Without John Byrne at the helm, Alpha Flight is kind of … boring. And not just in a relentlessly decent, good-hearted Canadian way, either.

#85 Spider-Woman in “The Final Fate of Giant-Man,” by Tom DeFalco, Ron Wilson, and Chic Stone. The Bill Foster Giant-Man nearly dies of audience indifference; doesn’t. Features giant robot gorillas and Spider-Woman is kind of foxy but still a hopeless issue.

#18 The Scarecrow in “Dark, Dark Demon-Knight” by Bill Mantlo & Scott Edelman, Ron Wilson, and Mooney-Adkins. A continuity-heavy story featuring The Scarecrow (later known as Straw Man), who previously appeared in Dead of Night #11 and Marvel Spotlight #26. Ben was always a poor fit for these supernatural stories and this issue is no exception.

wanna bet, Bozo?

#17 Spider-Man in “This City — Afire!” by Bill Mantlo, Sal Buscema, and Mike Esposito. Gets off to a confusing start, continuing Spider-Man’s story from previous issues of Marvel Team-Up, while itself being a continuation of a forgettable issue of Two-In-One. Sal Buscema dutifully reproduces Ron Wilson’s terrible Allosaurus in a flashback scene. Kind of fun watching Spidey try to deal with a volcano emerging from the Hudson River.

#49 Dr. Strange in “Curse of Crawlingswood,” by Mary Jo Duffy, Alan Kupperberg, and Gene Day. Ben is cast in a gothic mystery — with a creepy town, a shadowy mansion, and a woman with a haunted past — but it just doesn’t work. Dr. Strange is at best a remote presence.

#80 Ghost Rider in “Call Him … Monster” by Tom DeFalco, Ron Wilson, and Chic Stone. Ghost Rider appears to have fully surrendered to his Satanic side and really cuts loose by violating the vehicle code, and laughing “Ha Ha Ha” (no, really, he goes “Ha Ha Ha”) just to prove he means it. Is there no bottom to his fiendish depravity?

#39 The Vision (with as much page time given to Daredevil and Yellowjacket) in “The Vision Gambit” by Roger Slifer, Ron Wilson, and Pablo Marcos. A wordy and convoluted story where the Mad Thinker uses a hypnotized Ben Grimm to battle the Vision.

#16 Ka-Zar in “Into The Savage Land” by Bill Mantlo, Ron Wilson, and Dan Adkins. The usual Savage Land dinosaur hi jinx, featuring the most poorly-drawn Allosaurus of all time.

#97 Iron Man in “Yesterdaze!” by David Michelinie, Ron Wilson, and Jon D’Agostino. Film Producer Ted Silverberg wasn’t boring enough the first time around back in issue #78, so he’s back — and this time he’s menacing Ben and Iron Man with holographic dinosaurs. Tony Stark is off his game by failing to score with Bo Derek in her makeup trailer.

#46 Hulk in “Battle In Burbank,” by Alan Kupperberg, and Chic Stone. Kupperberg both writes and pencils here, and somehow manages to make a dull Thing/Hulk issue. It would be enough to let the two pound each other for twenty pages but instead there’s a tired plot revolving around Ben’s jealousy over the success of the Hulk television show, and by the time the (entirely inadequate) action begins, we just want it to be over. Decent cover, though.

#36 Mr. Fantastic in “A Stretch In Time,” by Marv Wolfman and Ernie Chan. Continues the tale from issue #35 with more dinosaurs, and more Skull the Slayer, but now the action shifts to the present day and Mr. Fantastic gets to wrestle the stray Pterodactyls that pursued Ben and company back from the prehistoric past. Giving Skull the Slayer a single issue of Two-In-One was a dubious decision, and spinning him out into a second issue was a capital crime. Read it at Mars Will Send No More!

#91 No guest star in “In The Shadow of the Sphinx,” by Tom DeFalco, Ron Wilson, and Jon D’Agostino. The Sphinx is supposed to be silent and enigmatic but this version bores us with his origin story, wrestles with Ben, then flies away in a pyramid. Whee.

#90 Spider-Man in “Eyes of the Sorcerer” by Jan Strnad, Alan Kupperberg, and Jim Mooney. A Renaissance Faire wizard is possessed by evil spirits and runs amok. Even before the guy in the bad beard starts flying around, Peter Parker keeps forgetting he’s on a date with the forgettable Debra Whitman.

#79 Blue Diamond in “Shanga, The Star-Dancer,” by Tom DeFalco, Ron Wilson, and Chic Stone. Tom DeFalco turns in the worst story of his execrable run, pitting Ben against an outer space ballerina who twirls around and reminds everyone how superior she is. Senior citizen Blue Diamond throws one punch and has a heart attack. Worst-Guest Star-EVAR! Blue Diamond is changed into a diamond creature (IRONY!) and then leaves Earth with Shanga, hopefully plunging directly into the sun.

straight into the heart of the sun, please!

#70 No guest star at all in “A Moving Experience,” by Gruenwald & Macchio, with art by Mike Nasser and Gene Day. No one for Ben to team with, crappy bad guys, and inferior art make for the poorest issue of Two-In-One … and believe me, if it’s worse than a Tom DeFalco issue, it must be one for the ages!

Phew! There you have it … and thanks for sticking with me through the longest Longbox Graveyard to date! Do you agree with my assessments, or have I been too tough on the bashful, blue-eyed Thing? Have I unjustly excoriated your favorite issue of Two-In-One? Sound off in comments, below … where every missive receives an answer, and it’s always Clobberin’ Time!

NEXT WEDNESDAY: #64 Guide To Comics Bargains On eBay

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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