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Fool’s Gold

In this week’s guest blog, Milo Miller of Hero Tomorrow Comics tells us of the secret origin of his comic book hero, The Apama … and his own secret origin, as well, which involves Steve Gerber, the Man-Thing, and a certain fool-killing vigilante. Take it way, Milo!

I’ve always considered myself a comic book reader. Collector? Not so much. I’ve got tons of comics — a lot of Bronze Age gold that by all rights should be getting ready to pay for college, finance my next feature film, or — at the very least — purchase a jet pack (or two.)

Hulk 181, Spidey 129, Giant Size X-Men. They’re all there & then some; bought ‘em right off the racks.

Amazing Spider-Man #129

 

Spidey 129!

Then my twin brother and I read them to shreds of course. It’s not like I cut out the value stamps, right Paul? But I might as well have — creased covers, broken bindings, an inevitable grape jelly stain. Ughh.

In the film I co-wrote, Hero Tomorrow, a comic shop customer asks the proprietor — “Is that a comic book or a napkin?” and I regretfully have to admit here, “Yes, my writing does include many autobiographical elements.”

Hero Tomorrow

Hero Tomorrow

But mostly those books took such an incredible beating because I just loved the stories, the storytelling. And to be honest those landmark books we always picked up — fabulous first appearances, amazing origins, big premiere issues — aren’t all that indicative of the comics I was most attracted to.

My favorite books lived in the shadows; low-selling, anything-goes straight-up weirdness where creator’s often seemed to challenge an audience to follow on a trip that would inevitably end badly (at least from a commercial perspective.) Given the choice I would always take Mister Miracle over Superman, the Creeper over Gotham’s Dark Knight, Luke Cage over Peter Parker’s alter-ego.

It’s those pre-Star Wars books that led me to co-write my own retro/throwback/homage comic Apama The Undiscovered Animal: the story of a Cleveland-born Hungarian ice cream truck driver who unlocks the spiritual force of the most savage beast man has never known.

Apama #1

But it wasn’t only inspiration those Bronze Age beauties provided; they also presented the opportunity for me to meet & ultimately join forces with someone who would become one of my best friends, partner-in-crime, and greatest creative collaborators.

Because the day I met Ted Sikora at the University of Akron I told him all about one of the favorite books in my own longbox graveyard. And things were never the same.

Ted and I were taking a Video Production course together. I was a slumming English Major; he had just left Accounting to take some Advertising & Media classes. We both started talking comics almost immediately —- that uncanny geek-sense pinging as soon as we were in close proximity. I had drifted away from comics to a large degree; I still frequently visited my own accumulation but had lost the thread in the early eighties and hadn’t been actively buying new books in a long time.

Ted on the other hand was —- and still is — a life-long collector, a bag & board guy who hasn’t missed an issue of Amazing Spider-Man since 1975.

So in my desire to make a keen impression on a new acquaintance I played my trump card early in the conversation. “You’ve probably never heard of him but my favorite character of all-time is a guy named The Foolkiller.”

Foolkiller #1

Now Ted surprised me. Because, of course, he knew who the Foolkiller was. Unknown to me he’d made an appearance in Amazing to begin with and -— more shocking to me -— Ted told me there was a new Foolkiller mini-series that had just started hitting the racks.

After class that day Ted and I booked over to a local shop and attacked the longboxes with a vengeance. I picked up some of the other Fookliller appearances -— the afore-mentioned Spider-Man, two-issues of the wonderfully idiosyncratic Omega, a Defenders story. And I also purchased the first two issues of the current mini-series. Just like that, I was back in the game.

And I got Ted to purchase two of the greatest comic books of all-time: Man-Thing #3 & 4.

Man-Thing #4

Ted and I have been friends ever since. After graduation we co-wrote the script for our award-winning indie film Hero Tomorrow which Ted would direct to much acclaim. The film is a comic-shop romance with a super-hero twist about a struggling comic book creator who is desperately trying to break into the industry by promoting his original creation Apama. Apama is the “undiscovered animal,” a creature shrouded in mystery, a crypto-zoological puzzle that puts Bigfoot to shame.

The humor in the film comes from the creator’s inability to see that while characters based on bats, spiders and wolverines have an instant connection with an audience, one based on an animal that doesn’t exist fails to resonate.

In the film his girlfriend makes him a costume based on his creation for a Halloween party and in no time he’s out on the streets of Cleveland “fighting crime.” (I use the quotations since there is very little fighting and even less crime in the actual film).

For a micro-budget indie the film was very successful. We played a lot of festivals across the globe and it was at the post-screening Q&A’s that we kept hearing the same thing, “What’s with this Apama character?”

We didn’t need further incentive -— we’d each been dreaming of taking a crack at doing a comic since we were kids. And so began the ongoing series Apama The Undiscovered Animal.

The book has been getting some great reviews and the Volume 1 Collection of Issues 1-5 just got picked up by Diamond Distribution. It’s something I’m really proud of and captures many of the fun Bronze Age elements I grew up loving.

Apama #1-5

But enough about Apama; I’m running out of time and I’ve still got to tell you about two of the greatest comic books of all-time: Man-Thing #3 and 4!

I originally traded for beat-up copies from my old neighborhood pal Tim Engleman. He’d colored in the eyes of most of the characters with ballpoint pen for some reason. Paging through it today it strikes me as slightly unsettling; as if the detective investigating a rash of local serial killings will extract this from my accumulation to a thrilling declaration of “we’ve found our man!” Thank God Tim also was kind enough to scrawl his name across the cover as well, giving me at least a shot to slip the hangman’s noose.

I suspect the trade involved sports cards of some kind or maybe an early Blue Oyster Cult album that I was still too young to get into.

Regardless I felt I had won big.

Steve Gerber is (for me) the quintessential Bronze Age talent and -— backed up with some fantastic art by Val Mayerik — nowhere does his quirky poetry and off-the-wall storytelling come into more thrilling focus than this frantic tale of the Foolkiller.

The cover is wonderfully apocalyptic -— attacking alligators, flaming wreckage, a swamp filled with screaming survivors that look like they just woke up in Hell. And it only gets better from there.

Man-Thing #3

My favorite aspect of The Man-Thing in general is simply the jaw-dropping audacity that the character could carry a book. He -— it —- is everything a protagonist shouldn’t be: reactive, mostly passive, barely possessing a consciousness. In the best stories -— like these issues -— the ‘most startling swamp creature of all!’ sort of just shambles on stage as an after-thought, appearing to fulfill some sort of Comics Code mandate for minimum page appearance for a title character.

After the man-muck-monster ties up loose ends from last ish in some action-packed first pages the tale really starts cooking. A couple of bikers from the Skullcrushers —- also hold-overs from Man-Thing #2 -— hit the road after making peace with Richard Rory, the lifelong loser of the supporting cast. There at the bottom of page 11, in the distance we can just make out a figure standing boldly in the middle of the road.

Then, on the page turn after a couple of ads, we’re introduced to what is, frankly, an incredible example of visual storytelling and what can happen in the synergy between writer and artist.

Foolkiller!

Our first good look of the Foolkiller -— a perfect low-angle shot of a confident and dashing character -— part pirate, part cavalier, all WTF — is accompanied by a brilliant statement of purpose: “They come. All the days of their lives have led to this moment. It was ordained long ago in Heaven that this day they would meet -— the Foolkiller!”

In these next couple of pages every panel is a home run. This “Holy Warrior” stops the two cyclists with a purifying blast -— the “energy of the just and righteous” -— that is so over-the-top and devastating in effect that it can only be the weapon of a madman.

Gerber makes it clear —- even through the satire and absurdity -— that every great villain is a hero in his own mind; but Mayerik’s close-ups leave no doubt —- this guy is friggin’ nuts!

“Sometimes I fear,” FK muses, “that when my killing of fools is done -— only I shall be left alive.” Gerber is firing on all cylinders; the entire issue if full of these incredible, dead-pan hilarious observations. The voice of the character is so strong right from the rip I couldn’t help but be drawn to him. And then when he hands out his calling card demanding his future victims repent, ah brilliance!

Foolkiller!

Issue #4 has the Foolkiller’s origin which just ups the wacky ante even higher. Born ‘a cripple’ Ross Everbest’s father was killed on the day of his birth during the final days of WW2 while his mother perished as a military nurse in Korea on another of his birthdays -— ‘cut down by a commie bomb!’

Confined to a wheelchair Ross studies the art of war and worships all things military. Which one might think would result in a great tactical mind, an ability that would translate to a strategic advantage in combat but nothing could be farther from the truth. The Foolkiller’s escapades are marked by missteps, mistakes, and operative failure—- he is nothing if not an incredibly violent screw-up.

Everbest discovers his true calling when he’s miraculously healed at a revival meeting. Becoming a soldier in the service of the Almighty he realizes he must be an active agent against the fools -— ‘criminals … protesters, dope pushers … mocking the Lord and the military.”

origin of the Foolkiller

Add in a betrayal, a corpse encased in a glass shrine, and a strong sense of environmental consciousness to the murderous mayhem and you’ve got classic Gerber. There are so many great little elements along the way -— Foolkiller’s mobile HQ in a the back of an ACME moving truck, a ‘red herring’ sports car, Rory being on the killer’s hit list for playing “blasphemous” music while a disc jockey in Ohio.

And then, within pages of his introduction, the Foolkiller is dead. (By his own hand, of course.) “What a lousy way to die … even for a killer …! But maybe it’s poetic justice … sort of … even if we never know what the rhyme was.”

You can take the Punisher, Wolverine, Deadpool —- any of those characters who have followed that twisted trajectory from hyper-violent take-no-prisoner psychopath to the side of your kid’s lunchbox; I knew I’d found the unstable, rage-fueled killer for me. To this day I think Foolkiller missed his shot at the big time by not more than a degree or two, missed the refrigerator magnet, beach towel, and action-figures and wound up in semi-obscurity instead, buried -— not too deeply —- in many a longbox graveyard.

Punisher lunch box

Punish a PBJ today!

Thanks to Paul for letting me pinch-hit this month; it was a lot of fun. Originally I had contacted him in hopes of getting some promotional attention for the Apama Vol 1 release. But given the opportunity I found myself unable to resist the urge to waltz through some of my own tombstones if you will.

Maybe that says more about our book than any amount of shilling I could do otherwise.

Thanks, Milo, for bearing your swampy soul! Truly, you are a child of the Bronze Age! I urge my readers to check out The Apama … and visit them on Facebook, too. Tell them Longbox Graveyard sent you!

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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!

Super Tuesday: Get Down, America!

As one of the more Mickey Mouse campaigns in American Presidential history thankfully concludes today, Super Tuesday looks back on an era offering real choice (and a real animal!), with the 1976 White House run of Steve Gerber‘s Howard the Duck.

Howard’s campaign was a genuine grassroots effort. I don’t recall Marvel running house ads for the campaign, but it got play in the letters column of Howard the Duck. An energetic and entrepreneurial Steve Gerber spearheaded the creation and fulfillment of Howard campaign packages for fans sending a few bucks to his address.

It’s hard to imagine today’s Marvel comics allowing a creator to run their own licensing program through the pages of one of their comics (and it is doubly ironic in the case of Howard the Duck, who would later become the subject of a bitter legal battle between Marvel and Steve Gerber).

But in 1976 it was a different world, and Howard invited us to “Get Down, America,” with a platform that offered little in specifics but was still attractive when contrasted with the Carter and Ford campaigns. Alas, Howard’s run came up short (though opinions differ on whether he received a few write-in votes), and America, as history has recorded, did indeed fail to Get Down.

To my international readers … please pardon this partisan interruption, and rest assured we Americans will be even happier than you when this whole thing is over. And to my domestic readers, get out there and vote, early and often!

TOMORROW AT LONGBOX GRAVEYARD: Panel Gallery: Nick Fury By Steranko

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.

Average

#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

Gerber’s Baby

Longbox Graveyard #34

Last week I wrote about Steve Gerber’s Defenders, a 1970s comic that was as singular as it was strange. That book stuck with me as a kid, and partially inspired by Steve’s crazy work, I would go on to have a comic book writing career of my own. My time in comics was unsatisfactory in a lot of ways, but one of the highlights was working (however briefly) with Steve on his original creation, Sludge.

Having helped launch Image Comics, the Malibu Comics brain trust had first-hand evidence that an original superhero universe could carve out a chunk of a Marvel and DC-dominated market. In 1993 they decided to go for it in a big, splashy way with the Ultraverse, an all new, full-color superhero line co-created by some of the bigger name writers in the business, like Steve Englehart, Mike Barr … and Steve Gerber.

For my own part, I was pretty burned out as a comic book writer by the time the Ultraverse came around, and I wouldn’t have had the name value to participate in the launch even if I had been up to the task. But it was obvious that the Ultraverse was going to be the only game in town and I worked hard around the edges trying to land a book. Once the line matured and deadlines started to slip, I managed to secure a couple fill-in assignments for Ultraverse inventory stories.

One assignment was a two-parter for Rune, which I’ve already examined here on Longbox Graveyard. Another was a fill-in story for Steve Gerber’s Sludge.

There are folks who still remember the Ultraverse, but there isn’t a lot on the web about Sludge. Sludge was a corrupt New York cop named Frank Hoag who was killed after finally standing up to the mob, then rose again as the sewer-monster, Sludge. He lurked in the shadows, was virtually indestructible, melted flesh with his touch, and revealed his inner struggle through story captions demonstrating his torturous thought process.

Challenged by Malibu Editor-in-Chief Chris Ulm to create an original monster comic series, Steve Gerber said that the concept for Sludge came to him during an epiphany at the Arizona conference where the Ultraverse was born. Despite his past association with Man-Thing, Sludge wasn’t Gerber trying to out-do himself with another swamp monster, or an attempt to fill a certain niche in the Ultraverse line. From the outside looking in, it’s easy to jump to those conclusions, but for Gerber, at least, Sludge was its own thing.

Marketing challenges aside, anyone thinking Gerber would under-serve his own creation as “just another swamp monster” was barking up a very wrong tree. One of the things I learned from Steve was how the first responsibility of a creator is to respect his own work. If you go into a job thinking it is a lesser assignment or a knock-off or a joke or whatever, then you can’t possibly do a good job. More to the point — why are you wasting your creative time doing that kind of work?

Steve was completely locked in on Sludge, as he was with all of his work. He walled out the world, didn’t care if people thought the character was another Man-Thing, didn’t care if the book was selling well, didn’t care if the Ultraverse was going to stick or not. Actually, saying Steve “didn’t care” gives entirely the wrong impression. In my experience, Steve did care — passionately, deeply, maybe too much — about every aspect of his work. What I mean to say is that Steve did his best to keep those external and possibly negative influences from impacting the work. It was pride, and professionalism, sure, but it was more than that. I think it was a kind of idealism, all the more impressive for a writer who had been chewed up by a nasty fight with Marvel over ownership of Howard the Duck. Another creator might have expected Malibu to “pay for his divorce,” but Gerber seemed to put that earlier heartbreak behind him, and put the energy into his work.

Or maybe Steve just had a mature understanding that getting even ultimately doesn’t lead anywhere.

I first worked with Steve as the editor and writer of Ultra Monthly. The idea behind Ultra Monthly was that it was a news magazine from inside the Ultraverse — it told the story of the Ultraverse through news stories and “photographs,” relating only what an outsider would be able to divine about the super-powered derring-do of the Ultraverse. I guess it was kind of like Marvels, except that Ultra Monthly was a news magazine, and not a comic (and we didn’t have a couple guys named Busiek and Ross on board, either). Anyway, the point was to show a “street” level view of the Ultraverse, but it was also to promote the characters in the line, and that proved especially challenging for characters that lurked in the shadows of this new fictional world.

I don’t think I ever got a Sludge story into Ultra Monthly. Each creator had to sign off on anything I did with their characters, and Steve was adamant that Sludge was a legendary figure, like Bigfoot, and he just shouldn’t appear in the magazine. My pleas that Bigfoot was a frequent cover boy for the National Enquirer (and that, after all, I was just trying to promote Steve’s book) fell on deaf ears — Sludge appearing in the news, even fictional news, didn’t fit Steve’s concept of the character and he wouldn’t budge. The only people who saw Sludge were the guys he killed and the down-and-out bums who shared an alley with the monster. Sludge was Gerber’s baby, and Steve was true to his character even if it ultimately might hurt his sales.

I don’t know as Steve remembered me from Ultra Monthly, but when Malibu decided it was time to commission inventory stories to fill gaps when Ultraverse deadlines were missed, Steve didn’t object to my taking a crack at Sludge. But neither did he make it easy. As was the case with my Rune story, I first had to submit a concept, and later a full plot — more preliminary work than I would have done on a book of my own. To avoid conflicting with the book’s continuing continuity, I decided to do a flashback story about Frank Hoag’s earliest days on the police force. I wanted to find out what had turned rookie Frank Hoag into the corrupt cop we saw get gunned down by his mafia masters in Sludge #1.

I sweated over my plot, sent it into Malibu, and kept my fingers crossed. I still have the notes Steve sent back:

Notes for Paul O’Connor RE: Sludge Inventory issue “Shadow of a  Chance”

Too many liberties are taken with the character of Sludge rather than dealing with the difficulties the character presents.

Examples:

*Sludge is not driven by vengeance. Ever. He considers it a waste  of time. He could be driven by rage or anger (a thin but important line) or even by his selective urge to see justice done.

*Sludge’s recollections seem perfectly clear throughout the story. They wouldn’t be. His confusion doesn’t automatically go away when he thinks about the past. Another way should be found to do the flashbacks … Maybe they should come from Emily, and not Sludge — may not work either, just a thought.

A lot of time is spent describing the characters’ emotions in almost Wagnerian terms. While that is okay where Emily is concerned, Sludge doesn’t engage in much pathos or talk at length about his feelings (or anything else). Fire the guy walking around in the Sludge suit and put the REAL Sludge at the center of the story.

Think about it, mull it over, think about it some more.

Doing the math, I notice Steve was about my age now when he offered me that direction. I wonder if I would be as helpful to writers trying to work under my direction today?

Being as I was a hack writer who just wanted to get paid and get onto the next book, Steve’s notes drove me crazy. But I could respect the way Steve was protecting his creations. It was a message that stuck with me and I credit it as an early drop of water that started to erode the rocks I had piled atop myself in what was to date a miserable career as a writer and creator. I took Steve’s notes to heart, re-wrote my plot, received approval, and wrote the full script. It was my work, under Steve’s strict direction … so my story isn’t exactly a lost Steve Gerber Sludge script (for that you need to go here), but it is kinda sorta the next best thing.

the man himself!

My Sludge script was never published, though I’m sure I was paid for it. I don’t think it even had an artist assigned. Reading it again, after all these years, it seems to me a nice piece of writing, but not so great a comic book script. Too much of the action is internal, and too much relies on a fill-in artist being able to wring convincing and sometimes subtle emotions out of the characters. While it would have been nice to get another story into print, this tale really is better experienced in the mind — its unlikely the story would have been improved by pencils. I’ve put the script up for your review HERE — give it a read and see what you think.

I lost touch with Steve after submitting my script. We were never close — our relationship was limited to these few Ultraverse jobs — but I always liked Steve, and admired the man and his work. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Steve gave me a gift in that he helped me understand how hard it is to do quality work (a lesson Lorne Lanning would finish drilling into me during my years at Oddworld Inhabitants). Steve also demonstrated how to be professional and dignified as a creator, even if “all” you are writing about is a talking duck or a mucky sewer monster. I was saddened when Steve passed, both because I enjoyed his work as a fan, and because of our brief professional association. The comics world — and the world as a whole — was a better place when Steve Gerber was in it.

Thanks, Steve!

NEXT WEDNESDAY: #35 Beneath The Longbox Shortbox

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