Friday, 20 September 2013

Essential Marvel Two-in-One volume 1

Given the success of Marvel Team-Up, it's not surprising that another team-up title was launched less than two years later, even if the series was first tested in the pages of the last couple of issues of Marvel Feature. But it's interesting that the character who headlined the series was none other than the Thing, rather than a hero with their own solo series. Still this offered the opportunity for a little more development than Spider-Man got in Marvel Team-Up.

Essential Marvel Two-in-One volume 1 contains the try-out issues Marvel Feature #11-12 then issues #1-20 & #22-25 plus Annual #1 of the regular series, and also Marvel Team-Up #47 and Fantastic Four Annual #11; both of which carry crossovers with the main series. Issue #21 is missing due to the guest star being Doc Savage who Marvel no longer has the rights for.

The Marvel Feature issues are written by Len Wein and Mike Friedrich, and both are drawn by Jim Starlin. The main series is primarily written by Steve Gerber and Bill Mantlo, with other issues and/or plots from the likes of Chris Claremont, Roy Thomas, Roger Slifer, Len Wein, Jim Shooter, Marv Wolfman and Tony Isabella. Both the Two-in-One and Fantastic Four annuals are written by Thomas, whilst the Team-Up is by Mantlo. The art is by a mix, with Sal Buscema drawing the most, including the Two-in-One annual, Ron Wilson drawing the next largest and also the Team-Up, and other issues by Gil Kane, George Tuska, Herb Trimpe, Bob Brown, Arvell Jones, Marie Severin and Pablo Marcos. The Fantastic Four annual is drawn by John Buscema. Because that's such a large number of credits, I've created a separate post to carry some of the labels.

As per usual for team-up titles, here's a list of the guest stars in each issue. Note that the Thing was a headline character in every issue so there's no need to list him each time.

Marvel Feature 11. The Incredible Hulk
Marvel Feature 12. Iron Man
1. The Man-Thing
2. The Sub-Mariner
3. Daredevil
4. Captain America
5. The Guardians of the Galaxy
6. Doctor Strange
7. Valkyrie
8. Ghost Rider
9. The Mighty Thor
10. The Black Widow
11. The Golem
12. Iron Man
13. Power Man
14. The Son of Satan
15. Morbius
16. Ka-Zar, Lord of the Hidden Jungle
17. Spider-Man
(Marvel Team-Up 47. Spider-Man)
18. The Scarecrow
19. Tigra
(Fantastic Four Annual 11. The Invaders)
Annual 1. The Liberty Legion
20. The Liberty Legion
22. The Mighty Thor
23. The Mighty Thor
24. Black Goliath
25. Iron Fist

The absence of issue #21 is slightly noticeable because it's followed up on in the next couple of issues as the Thing and the Human Torch seek medical treatment for a man wounded there. As a result it's now slightly unfortunate that issue #23 includes the caption "2-in-1 #21 wherein Tom Lightner became temporarily merged with his own father in a freak time-fusion accident. Where were you? -- Arch." However other than this the absent issue is reasonably self-contained and so we're not thrust into the second part of a conflict without the first.

The series starts out heavily focused on the classic Silver Age characters but as time goes on more and more newer characters and teams appear (and for the record I consider the Invaders a newer team even if many of the individual characters had appeared back in the Golden Age), including many from the horror titles Marvel had so much success with in the early 1970s. Note that there are none of the X-Men, a reminder that there was a time when they weren't all prominent across the Marvel line. But also it's telling that outside of their annual none of the rest of the Fantastic Four are billed guest stars and so we don't get any issues that frankly could have been told in that title.

But also it seems clear that the Fantastic Four was still the title in which all the major developments in Ben Grimm's life happened. This is most obvious towards the end of this volume when Ben is suddenly back to being an ordinary human and wearing a special exo-skeleton to resemble his previous rocky form. However this is only explicitly shown in the Invaders/Liberty Legion storyline in the two annuals and issue #20. In the rest of the issues in this period there's no clear indication as to whether he's an ordinary human in the exo-skeleton or his more traditional transformed self. In issue #25 he may be attending a baseball match with Alicia, but traditionally she's been drawn more to his rocky form and so for all we know he may be wearing it to please her. Ben's relationship with Alicia is similarly not really developed here and she largely appears just to set the scene, much as Peter Parker's relationships aren't actually developed in Marvel Team-Up.

This is actually quite a disappointment as the resulting title is once again an add-on for a lead character rather than an opportunity to allow one who didn't have their own solo title to thrive and develop. A character appearing in a team-up book and a team title may be an odd combination but it would be a way of spreading them around without the overexposure of also having a solo series, which is why a Fantastic Four member was a better choice than, say, Captain America, Iron Man, Thor or the Hulk, all of whom had both solo and team titles. But given the dynamics of the Fantastic Four it's probably not possible to have one of the members additionally starring in anything more than an add-on series, a lesson probably true whether we consider this series, the 1960s Human Torch tales or the Thing's 1980s solo series. Either the additional series would remain purely a set of extra adventures or the character development would be uneven or the character would have to be taken out of the Fantastic Four for a time.

One of the few recurring sub-plots in the early issues involves the discovery of Wundarr, an alien adult who has spent his whole life to date inside a rocket. He has both incredibly enhanced strength and the knowledge & emotional outlook of an infant. Stories see the Thing, Namorita and others looking after him and tying to explain the world around him to him. He disappears after issue #9, along with writer Steve Gerber. After a few writers on one or two issues it's not until issue #15 that Bill Mantlo becomes a permanent feature until near the end, barring an issue by Roy Thomas to finish up the story from the annual after that overran. All this suggests a title in a degree of flux, and there are other signs that editorial didn't always know what they were doing. The boxes at the end of a number of issues also point to editorial chaos by promising things in the next issue that don't appear. Issue #8 ends promising the next issue will feature "one of the most-requested team-up sagas of all" - the Thing and Iron Fist. Instead issue #9 brings Thor and Iron Fist doesn't appear until #25. Issue #14 promises the next issue will feature Ka-Zar but that doesn't happen until #16 and instead in the meantime we get Morbius. Issue #11 promises "The Most Unexpected Team-Up of All!!! The Thing and -- Who?" I seriously doubt this was meant to apply to Iron Man. And issue #16 ends with a declaration that the story continues in Marvel Team-Up #47. In actual fact the story continues in Two-in-One #17 and Team-Up #47 is the second part of the crossover. When combined with the fact that the regular artists on the two series seem to have swapped titles for the crossover and the Two-in-One opening reads as though it's the next part of the continuing saga in Team-Up then it seems somebody got the order of publication muddled up when planning the crossover and hurriedly switched the two parts round to compensate. A similar thing happens with the annual crossover - issue #19 announces the appearance of the Liberty Legion in "Giant-Size Two-in-One #1 on sale June 22nd!". Instead the story begins in Fantastic Four annual and June 22nd actually saw a Marvel Two-in-One annual, with the Giant-Size format now abandoned. None of this detracts from the readability of the volume but it does hint at a somewhat haphazard approach to the title that doesn't always engender confidence that it has a clear direction.

The result is a set of stories that are largely a collection of individual tales in which the Thing and whichever guest star take on various villains. Now this criticism can be made of almost any team-up series but many manage to overcome it in various ways, whether by presenting particularly dramatic adventures, or by showing some big developments in the lives of one of the guest stars or even just by having a good strong lead to base the series around. And after reading this volume I've found myself to not be a particularly big fan of the Thing. In this era he's largely progressed beyond the tragedy of being trapped in his rocky body, now being rather at ease with it and there aren't any real developments in his life here. He just goes through a succession of adventures that are mostly inconsequential to all involved.

That's not to say there aren't some dramatic stories though or that the villains aren't memorable. New foes include the Mortoid, a robotic assassin, the Sword of Judgement terrorist group, including their leader Agamemnon, Braggadoom, a monster produced by an accident of genetic engineering, Volcanus, a man hoping to use volcanic energy to make him all powerful, the Cougar, a criminal who can transform into a cat-man, Sky Shark, a Nazi pilot and engineer, and Slicer, his ally from Japan, the Devourer, a monster from amongst the Egyptian deities, and General Chonga, a renegade warlord from the island of Kaiwann in east Asia. However many of the foes encountered in these stories come from other series, often those featuring one or other of the banner heroes. Starting with those previously seen in the pages of Fantastic Four we see foes such as Kurrgo, the Molecule Man (who is confusingly replaced by his near identical "son", an artificial construct with the same powers who gets killed off in his first appearance), the Miracle Man, the Puppet Master and Prester John. Then beyond there we get Thanos and his henchmen the Blood Brothers, originally from Iron Man but at the time staring in a major epic in Captain Marvel, the Leader, from the Incredible Hulk, the Dakkamites and the Badoon, both alien races from the original Silver Surfer series, the Enchantress, the Executioner and Seth, all from Thor, the Black Spectre, Nekra Sinclair and the Mandril, all tying into a storyline in Daredevil though the latter two debuted in Shanna, the She-Devil, Kaballa, from the Golem's strip in a revived Strange Tales, Kthara, from the Son of Satan's strip in Marvel Spotlight, the Living Eraser and the Hijacker, both from Ant-Man/Giant-Man's strip in Tales to Astonish and Kalumai, from the Scarecrow's strip in Dead of Night. The crossover with Marvel Team-Up see the Thing and Spider-Man fight Basilisk, who had previously battled Spider-Man, Captain Marvel and Mr Fantastic in a couple of earlier Marvel Team-Ups. Meanwhile the annual crossover with Fantastic Four pits up a variety of Nazi foes including the older Baron Zemo, from the early issues of the Avengers, and then various foes first seen in the Invaders, such as Brain Drain, Meranno, also known as U-Man, and Master Man.

But the adventures themselves are mostly routine. The Invaders/Liberty Legion encounter does stand out a bit because it involves two trips back in time to 1942. Unfortunately it falls into a problem that a lot of Marvel time travel stories suffer from, in that it's not entirely clear just what the rules of time travel are and whether the past can be altered or not. Some stories follow a rule that the past is fixed and travel back in time only creates an alternate timeline. Others act as though the past can be changed, with consequences in the present, or even use the time travel to establish involvement in a key incident in history. Here we get examples of two of these, as Mr Fantastic deduces that the reason Namor and Captain America have never mentioned meeting the Fantastic Four during the war is because it was "a different time continuum". However the Four's encounter leads to the infamous moment when Captain America and Baron Zemo fight and the latter is hit by the adhesive that seals his hood to his face. Including that moment itself feels like excessive continuity for the sake of it, as part of Roy Thomas's great project to integrate the Golden Age comics into the Marvel universe and tie them in with everything that the Silver Age had already established. But it adds to the confusion and leaves one wondering if there was ever really a threat at all.

The rest of the series gives us a good sample of Marvel in the mid 1970s and it's nice to go straight from a team-up with a big name hero like Spider-Man to an ultra obscure one like the Scarecrow, showing the flexibility on the format. And both the writing and art are at least confident or even very good, especially Sal Buscema's work. But I just feel the problem is one has to really, really like the Thing in the first place for this series to work as otherwise it's just a set of add-on adventures that fail to take advantage of being the sole book with "the Thing" on the cover. Since the series lasted one hundred issues (now collected in three more Essential volumes), it's possible later issues managed to address some of the problems but here at the start this is a rather disposable series.

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