Friday, 6 June 2014

Essential Marvel Two-in-One volume 2

Essential Marvel Two-in-One volume 2 contains issues #26-52 and annuals #2-3. Many of the regular issues are written by Marv Wolfman; others are by Roger Slifer, Tom DeFalco, David Anthony Kraft, Ralph Macchio, Peter Gillis, Alan Kupperberg, Bill Mantlo, Mary Jo Duffy, John Byrne and Steven Grant. The art is by a mixture of Ron Wilson, John Buscema, Ernie Chan, John Byrne, Bob Hall, Alan Kupperberg, Chic Stone, Frank Miller and Jim Craig, with both Kupperberg and Byrne each writing & drawing a single issue. One annual is written by Wolfman and drawn by Sal Buscema whilst the other is written and drawn by Jim Starlin. With so many creators a separate post is invariably needed to carry some of the labels.

As is standard for team-up titles, here is the list of the guest stars in each issue.

26. Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.
27. Deathlok
28. Sub-Mariner
29. Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu
30. Spider-Woman
31. Mystery Menace
32. Invisible Girl
33. Modred the Mystic
34. Nighthawk
35. Skull the Slayer
36. Mr Fantastic
Annual 2. Spider-Man
37. Matt Murdock
38. Daredevil
39. The Vision
40. Black Panther
41. Brother Voodoo
42. Captain America
43. Man-Thing
Annual 3. Nova
44. Hercules
45. Captain Marvel
46. Hulk
47. The Yancy Street Gang
48. Jack of Hearts
49. Doctor Strange
50. The Thing
51. Beast, Ms. Marvel, Nick Fury & Wonder Man
52. Moon Knight

Once again we have a mixture of big names who've been around since the early Silver Age and some of Marvel's newer 1970s heroes but also some imaginative steps have been taken to provide co-stars, whether they're a one-off monster in issue #31, Daredevil's alter ego in his day job as a lawyer in #37 or long-time supporting characters the Yancy Street Gang. Part of this is driven by a great use of ongoing storylines, with the first two-thirds of the volume taken up by a succession of multi-parters that flow well from one issue to another, handling the guest cast in a variety of ways. But also the Thing's character seems to have been slightly refined, and so Ben Grimm now much more likeable, making it easier to enjoy his adventures. Whereas Marvel Team-Up has tended to be a reasonably equal pairing of Spider-Man (or occasionally the Human Torch or the Hulk), Marvel Two-in-One is now working much more as a Thing series with guest stars coming in an out. There are, however, some exceptions to this.

Annual #2 begins with a caption that states: "Wait!! Don't read this story until you check out Avengers Annual #7, now on sale." Yet in all the many reprinting of the issue that I'm aware of (and that's quite a lot), this is the only one to appear without the Avengers annual by its side. There was a five year gap between this volume's publication and that of either Essential Avengers volume 8 or Essential Warlock volume 1, both of which carry the Avengers annual. Consequently we have here just the very last part of not only the story of Thanos's assault on the stars but also of Jim Starlin's whole Warlock saga and one of the most memorable of Spider-Man stories in which he is the catalyst for saving the Earth. But amidst all this the Thing is somewhat lost, despite being the regular star of the series. Here he's reduced to a virtual sidekick for first Spider-Man and then Thor, and doesn't directly contribute to the final outcome. It's as though he was only used so as to provide a spaceship to bring Spider-Man to the battle and then to be a piece of cannon fodder to drive home how powerful Thanos is when Spider-Man briefly chickens out. Perhaps this is an inevitable consequence of the annual not being handled by the regular creative team, or of being the conclusion to a wider saga. Either can be a perfectly workable approach on their own, but when combined they produce an issue that feels heavily like an intruder upon the series.

A rather smoother use of the series to end storylines from elsewhere without just taking over the book comes in issues #35 & #36, which see the wrapping up of the saga of Skull the Slayer, the star of a very brief 1970s Marvel series that I've never come across before. Skull the Slayer told the story of an ex-soldier and three somewhat reluctant companions who flew into the Bermuda Triangle and found themselves in a land of dinosaurs, aliens and cavemen. The wrap-up here feels quite natural, with Ben drawn into the events as he test pilots a plane on his way back from the UK and flies into the warp in the triangle. At least it feels natural from reading Marvel Two-in-One - I'd be interested to hear the perspective of Skull the Slayer fans as to how smooth a flow they found the resolution in another series.

As well as wrapping up some characters, the series also gave a heightened profile to some others in advance of their own titles. Both Moon Knight and Spider-Woman started out as villains but became heroes by the time of their own titles. Moon Knight had already made the shift by the time of his appearance here but is still an unknown quantity resulting in some tense dealings with Ben. Meanwhile Spider-Woman breaks off the shackles of Hydra by turning on them and siding with the Thing, and in the process she discovers that what she thought was her origin is in fact false, setting her up for her own ongoing title. And her appearance here slots into ongoing events quite well - reading a number of these issues multiple times from the differing perspectives of following both the host and guest stars, it's often the case that one is served rather better than the other and depending on which character has led one to the issue can wildly change the perspective on it. Here the storyline sees Ben combine a mission to get critical surgery for Deathlok (following earlier issues when Mentallo and the Fixer brought the cyborg back in time and controlled him with the aim of assassinating the US President) with a holiday with Alicia in the United Kingdom. Or at least what Americans think is the United Kingdom - the geography of London is reasonable if a little condensed but a lot of the locals speak as though they went to the Dick Van Dyke School of Accents and there's a slightly absurd subplot in which a former Nazi collaborator tries to recover wartime currency printing plates, as though the resultant notes would resemble those still in circulation. The scene subsequently shifts to leftover magic from Arthurian legends, but in fairness this was the time when Captain Britain was unleashed upon newsagents. All in all the saga puts Ben through the ringer, especially when Alicia is briefly transformed into a monstrous spider-like being and attacks him. Fortunately she is soon restored but in the meantime it's heartbreaking to see Ben attacked by her and unable to fully respond for fear of making it impossible to restore her.

Ben also encounters tragedy in issue #50 which sees the Thing on a quest to regain his human form by taking a solution back in time to when he was at an earlier stage of development. However his younger self doesn't quite realise what's going on at first, leading to the conflict, which provides the cover to the whole volume. The issue serves to tidy up some visual continuity related to Ben's developing form in the early years, but also brings up a great confusion about how time travel works in the Marvel universe. Here it's stated by Reed Richards that Ben's past is "immutable" and any attempt to alter history merely creates an alternative universe which has no effect on him. It's not entirely clear if this rule only applies to an individual messing with their own timeline or if it's a more general statement that time travel cannot effect history at all. Either way it's an interesting approach to explaining how fictional time travel works and the theory would be used to great effect in a very memorable Transformers storyline some years later (Target: 2006). The problem is that this is a rule that hasn't been consistently applied over the years, with many Marvel time travel stories either seeing a change to established history or else the time travellers wind up causing historical events to happen, examples of both of which can be seen in the first volume. Consequently a lot of Marvel fiction that uses time travel as anything other than a plot device to bring characters together has been highly confused because different stories have followed different rules and not all of them have stopped to spell out precisely which rules apply. As a result issue #50's importance has been diminished but it was nevertheless a brave attempt to bring order to chaos.

The other stories are a mixture, ranging from the fun such as issue #51's poker evening with the Beast, Ms. Marvel, Nick Fury & Wonder Man that gets interrupted by renegade army officer General Pollock's attack on S.H.I.E.L.D., to the rather forgettable such as annual #3 in which the Thing and Nova tackle the Monitors, an alien race who wiped out planets that do not meet up to their standards of perfection. It came out in the later stages of Nova's own title and is clearly a late attempt to boost the character's profile but it just sinks into the mire of overlong and forgettable annuals. Issue #44 is a team-up with Hercules in which he and the Thing tackle the monsters Y'Androgg, Krokarr and Manduu to free Zeus on Mount Olympus. Hercules is one of the more difficult characters to guest star because of the fantastic nature of his foes and exploits which can lead to rather outlandish tales, but here the problem is solved by having the adventure retold by Ben to children around a campfire, thus allowing for embellishments. Another fun tale comes in issue #46 as the Thing gets jealous of the Hulk's TV series and heads to Hollywood to get one of his own, only to wind up fighting a furious Hulk who has shown up to complain.

Other stories continue to offer a variety of threats and foes. In addition to those already mentioned, this volume sees foes from other series such as the Piranha from Sub-Mariner, the Jaguar Priest from Skull the Slayer, the Mad Thinker originally from Fantastic Four, Kinji Obatu who has now shed his identity of Dr Spectrum of the Squadron Sinister, first seen in the Avengers, the Cult of Entropy from Man-Thing now led by Victorious from Ka-Zar's strip in Astonishing Tales or Boss Baker the Skrull who lives as though he's a human 1930s gangster, originally seen in Fantastic Four. The series also creates some new enemies such as the elemental demons Fire, Aero, Hydro and Mud, or evolving the former leader of the Cult of Entropy into the Entropic Man. There's sorcerer Ennis Tremellyn and his slave Kemo, and ex-CIA mercenary Crossfire. The biggest foe introduced here is Machinesmith, although he would later be retconned into a pre-existing character. And there's even a daring move with a less than flattering portrayal of Idi Amin, the then dictator of Uganda, though others are the primary villains in that story. Then there's issue #34 when an ugly alien hatches from a rock and is confused. It tries to greet and help the humans, even rescuing children from a burning hospital. But then frightened parents shoot it dead. As Nighthawk says "Yeah, there's a monster here -- but who's the monster? Mister, who's the monster?" As well as various new foes, the series also introduces what would go on to be a significant new setting when issue #42 sees the first appearance of Project Pegasus, the advanced energy research facility that will go to play a big part in his life in later issues.

Overall this volume shows a series that has now found a distinctive niche. Although still not the primary series featuring the Thing, it has nevertheless managed to give the character a good range of adventures that stand on their own merits, making him more likeable than before whilst also giving an enhanced showing to many other characters. The clever ways by which storylines are allowed to run over multiple issues whilst bringing in new characters. The series is now functioning smoothly.

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