It’s Super-Blog Team-Up time again — when a ragtag squad of comic book bloggers all tackle the same subject at the same time! This is our fourth go-round (and for links to our first three forays, click here) … and hard as it may be to fathom, it’s taken us this long to address the most obvious Super-Blog Team-Up topic of all — Team-Ups!
Since the Super-Blog Team-Up crew decided to concentrate on bizarre team-ups, I immediately flashed on the strange tale of The Thing teaming up with … himself?
I have an obscure affection for Marvel Two-In-One — a second-tier book Marvel team-up book. Mostly this is down to the book staring one of my favorite Marvel characters — Ben Grimm, also known as the Thing, the soft-hearted rock monster from the Fantastic Four. I’ve previously reviewed the very first issue of Marvel Two-In-One (where Ben battled yet another thing — the Man-Thing), and in a moment of madness I even reviewed the entire one-hundred issue run of Marvel Two-In-One in a single, frantic post. So I suppose it is a kind of comic book kismet that I return to this series, to review not one, but two issues featuring this strangest of team-ups.
That’s right, two issues … because this team-up is a two-part story, albeit one that went fifty issues between installments!
The first tale appeared in 1979’s Marvel Two-In-One #50 — “Remembrance Of Things Past!” with script and art from John Byrne. Back before series were rebooted every dozen issues, even middling books like Marvel Two-In-One might be expected to reach a 50th or even a 100th issue, and publishers usually made a big deal about those landmark anniversary numbers. The half-century issue of Two-In-One was no exception, with one of Marvel’s most talented creators delivering a high concept tale where the Thing of the present traveled back in time to meet his prior self, with predictable results.
Predictable, because John Byrne aspired to little more than the conventional Marvel Comics fist opera here, though it was one with additional dimension thanks to its rumination on the past, and a theme appealing to our inborn desire to change our fates.
The tale began with a familiar Fantastic Four trope as Mr. Fantastic attempted to cure his friend Ben of the cosmic disorder that turned him into an orange rock monster in blue bathing trunks. Reed’s formula worked — but the twist was that it has no effect on Ben’s current form, though it would have worked on Ben immediately following his original transformation. This was a fresh take on why the many attempts by the world’s smartest man fail to cure Ben of his condition, and it also acknowledged that Ben’s appearance had changed over the years, from the lumpy orange monster of Jack Kirby’s original design, to the more craggily-defined superhero he would later become.
a look at some original pencils & inks from Marvel Two-In-One #50
Man-of-action that he was, Ben concluded that time should be no barrier to a man who had a time machine! If Reed’s serum would only work on the Thing he used to be, Ben decided the only course of action was to administer the cure to the original version of himself!
It’s actually not so bad a plan, in the Marvel Comics scheme of things, but of course Ben can never be cured, at least not for long. Franchise requirements would never allow it, and besides, stories where Ben is convinced he’s become human again — only to suffer some cruel or ironic reversal — are as integral to this character as Lucy snatching the football away from Charlie Brown.
So what’s at stake here is not whether or not Ben’s plan will succeed, but rather what kind of gut punch our hero will suffer as our hero has his hopes dashed this time. Byrne kept the story simple: Thing goes back in time; Thing meets Thing; Thing fights Thing; and Thing has his heart broken … but Byrne also managed some nice characterization, particularly in how the contemporary version of the Thing differed from his original incarnation, not only in terms of appearance, but in his attitudes and speech patterns.
Ben was a bit of a hot-head himself, of course, but compared to his original version, he’s a U.N. Envoy. Ben gets credit for at least briefly trying to reason with himself …
… but it’s not long before talking time yielded to Clobberin’ Time!
Ben eventually overpowered his original self, and administered Reed’s cure … which worked! Eager to return to the present, and experience the cure for himself, Ben bolted back to the future before his original version came around.
Ah, but here comes the gut punch.
By traveling to the past, Ben didn’t change the present. Instead, he created an alternate reality. Or something like that.
That Ben so casually accepted his fate was not remarkable. After all, he’d seen this movie before … but more importantly, Ben had come to accept his condition. Long before the X-Men were out and proud of their mutant origins, the Thing had embarked on his own journey of self-actualization, evolving from his Hulk-like origins to the loveable lug who knows its what’s on the inside that counts.
This is a theme more thoroughly explored in the inferior follow-up to this tale, in 1983’s Marvel Two-In-One #100 — “Aftermath,” also scripted by John Byrne, but with pedestrian pencils from series stalwart Ron Wilson.
This was the final issue of Two-In-One, and Byrne elected to ret-con himself, revealing that Ben didn’t exactly create an alternate reality, after all.
That’s some Grade-A mumbo-jumbo, but it worked for me. It’s above my pay grade to try to make sense of the nature of time and space in the Marvel Universe (and whatever the rules may be, the rumor is they will change in a big way come 2015). Ben, too, gave Reed’s revelation little thought, but when he checked up on his old self, Ben was shocked to discover that something had gone very, very wrong.
In this reality, it seems, not having a Thing has led to the end of the world!
It started off innocently enough, with the cured Ben Grimm opening a bar, and the Fantastic Four carrying on after filling out their roster with a certain Web-Head.
No explanation was offered for why the Silver Surfer failed to exist in this reality, but it had grim consequences for humanity …
… and so we learned that this world was the decayed husk of an Earth drained dry by Galactus, where scattered tribes of humans scrambled to survive, a potentially interesting concept rendered sterile by Ron Wilson’s generally uninspired pencils.
Diving back into continuity, Byrne told us that because Ben wasn’t The Thing in this world, he never had a fateful fight with the Human Torch, and the Torch never flew off in a huff, and thus never encountered the amnesiac Sub-Mariner, who never recovered his memories, and so never freed Captain America from captivity, and so in the absence of his arch-enemy, this blighted wasteland was ruled by … the Red Skull (phew!)
The Skull commanded a New York that to 21st-century eyes is sadly more remarkable for having any trace of the World Trade Center at all than it was for having those buildings crowned by a Nazi flag …
… and so Marvel Two-In-One #100 was basically an issue of What If?, Marvel’s imaginary story series dedicated to obscure wouldas and shouldas. And, yes, these are all imaginary stories, but some are more imaginary than others, and I always had a hard time getting on board with these kinds of stories when they so obviously “didn’t count.”
But at least the Red Skull got to chew the scenery a bit, rejecting Ben’s account of alternate worlds …
… before falling prey to his own Dust of Death, when Ben casually blew it back in his face (now why didn’t Captain America ever think of that?). The Skull’s grisly end also confirmed that the Red Skull’s face is actually a mask, beneath which was … a skull.
In this universe.
It’s all a bit bloated (and a double-sized issue, as well), and frankly a disappointment for the concluding issue of Marvel Two-In-One, as the potentially-interesting character study of Ben examining his path-not-taken yields only the usual fisticuffs.
In due time the bad guys were put to route and Ben returned home, leaving his other half behind to begin the work of rebuilding a shattered planet.
Only when he returned to his present did Ben reflect that he might be better off a monster than a man, a realization sadly made muzzy by the fact that trading places with his human self must also land him square in the midst of a post-apocalyptic hell-on-earth.
And so ended Marvel Two-In-One — not with a bang, but a whimper, and a sense of missed opportunity. It’s always dangerous to expect too much of these action-spectacle superhero comics, but I could have done with more characterization as Ben got to know his other self, and less speculation on what a world without Alicia Masters is like. Our hero, after all, is the only thing that really “counts” in this imaginary tale, and the wisdom he takes back from that alternate dimension surely deserved more than a four-panel denouement.
But that’s my own personal obsession — I often wonder what I might tell myself, were I to go into the past and meet my younger self. I always come around to some generality, like telling myself that “it’s all going to work out,” because notwithstanding Reed Richards’ fuzzy understanding of alternate realities, I wouldn’t want my younger version to do anything to change where my life has taken me. Sure, there have been hard times I would have liked to avoid, but I wouldn’t want to do anything that might endanger my meeting my friends or my wife, or having my children … and I sure wouldn’t want to create a future where there’s no Longbox Graveyard! So maybe, like Ben, I shouldn’t think too hard about these things …
… and maybe I should get off my soap box in time for you to enjoy these other fine Super-Blog Team-Up articles about the strangest team-ups of all time!
Super-Hero Satellite: Super Man and The Masters Of the Universe
Longbox Graveyard: Thing Vs. Thing
Superior Spider-Talk: Spider-Man and RazorBack!?
The Daily Rios: New Teen Titans/DNAgents
The Middle Spaces: Super Hegemonic Team-Up! Spider-Man, Daredevil & ‘The Death of Jean DeWolfe
Chasing Amazing: Across the Spider-Verse: A Once in a Timeline Team-Up
Retroist: Doctor Doom/Doctor Strange
Mystery V-Log: The Avengers #1
In My Not So Humble Opinion: Conan The Barbarian And Solomon Kane
The Unspoken Decade: Two Wrongs Making A Right: Punisher Meets Archie
Flodos Page: Green Lantern And The Little Green Men
Between The Pages: World’s Finest Couple — Lois Lane & Bruce Wayne
BronzeAge Babies: When Friends Like These ARE Your Enemies
My Super-Blog Team-Up pals have gone to great efforts to bring you some fun superhero reading, so I hope you’ll check them all out — and tell them Longbox Graveyard sent you! Then please join me back here in a week, when I kick off a month of Halloween at Longbox Graveyard with a review of the best darn Zombie Jughead story you are ever going to read!
NEXT WEEK: #137 Afterlife With Archie
Read my column about The Thing — Marvel Two-In-One Times One Hundred!
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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 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 Byrne, George 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.
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.
Two pages later and Ben’s on a southbound bus, still fuming.
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.
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).
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 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!
IN THREE WEEKS: #115 The Purge!
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