Friday, 11 July 2014

Essential Marvel Two-in-One volume 3

Essential Marvel Two-in-One volume 3 carries issues #53-77 and annuals #4-5. Most of the issues are written jointly by Mark Gruenwald and Ralph Macchio with a few by one or the other solo; the last few are by Tom DeFalco with one of his plots scripted by David Michelinie. One annual is plotted by Allyn Brodsky and scripted by Michelinie, the other is both written and drawn by Alan Kupperberg. The other annual is drawn by Jim Craig and Bob Budiansky whilst the regular series art is mainly by a mixture of John Byrne, George Pérez, Chic Stone, Jerry Bingham and Ron Wilson, with individual issues by Michael Nasser, Frank Springer and Alan Kupperberg. And yes, a separate post is needed to carry some of the labels. Bonus material consists of a diagram of the Project Pegasus complex that originally appeared in issue #53 but is placed at the very end of the volume here.

Per the usual for team-up titles, here's the rundown on the titled guest stars in each issue:

53. Quasar
54. Deathlok
55. Giant-Man [formerly Black Goliath]
56. Thundra
57. Wundarr
58. Aquarian
Annual 4. Black Bolt
59. The Human Torch
60. Impossible Man
61. Starhawk
62. Moondragon
63. Warlock
64. Stingray
65. Triton
66. Scarlet Witch
67. Hyperion
68. Angel
69. Guardians of the Galaxy
70. ?
71. Mr. Fantastic
72. The Inhumans
73. Quasar
74. Puppet Master
Annual 5. Hulk
75. Avengers
76. Iceman
77. Man-Thing

This is very much a list drawn from the obscure end of the Marvel universe, even if there are some big name exceptions including Marvel's then biggest TV star on a tour of guest appearances. But ever more so the series is a Thing solo title with guest stars rather than a genuine series with two heroes in one book. Indeed such is the dominance that issue #70 doesn't actually have a guest star, with a question mark on the cover and the nearest to fulfilling the role being the Yancy Street Gang who only show up for a few pages at the end.

Storywise we have a mixture of one-off issues with a guest star of the month and longer multi-part sagas that bring together a variety of heroes and even villains in rotation. One such example comes in the first six issues which comprise "The Pegasus Project" saga. This story sees Ben going to join the security service at the energy research facility and getting caught up in a multi-facetted plot undertaken by Dr Thomas Lightner, the younger half of Blacksun. Also working at the centre are Quasar and Black Goliath, the latter of whom is persuaded to change his name to "Giant-Man". (It takes Ben to point out that "Goliath" was a bad man and, more obviously, that it's clear he's black so there's no need to say it, in a subtle mini-backlash at the 1970s trend for giving numerous black heroes and villains the prefix "Black" in their name to the point that even the pre-existing Aquaman foe Black Manta was revealed as black.) The storyline manages to juggle in extra co-stars through a combination of occasionally giving the villain second billing and by building up the character of Wundarr to the point where he's transformed into the powerful, but about a decade out of date, hippie Aquarian. In general the individual chapters in the saga manage to bring enough diversity to keep them interesting but overall the story seems a little loose because Wundarr/Aquarian is rather detached from the rest of the events until the climax whilst the overall plot to sabotage and destroy the facility is somewhat pedestrian in its execution, even though it's at the behest of Roxxon, the regular Dastardly Evil Corporation, who want to maintain an energy monopoly. At the time the story was originally published the oil crisis was at its height so the story may have had more impact at the time, but nowadays the public focus in energy research is more on cutting emissions than replacing oil and so some of the impact is lost.

Another mini-epic sees the Thing and Starhawk first fight and then ally with "Her", formerly Paragon, and Moondragon as Her is on a quest to find the body of Adam Warlock. The story even resurrects Warlock's body, though not his soul, and also wraps up several loose ends from Warlock's adventures such as the real reason why he had expanded in size to the point where the Earth was smaller than his fingernail, how he soon shrank down, why the Soul Gem only began stealing souls when it did (and, implicitly, just why only one of the six Soul Gems had been seen to work on souls; however in the 1990s the point was solved by renaming them the Infinity Gems), the fate of Counter-Earth and the final encounter between Warlock and the High Evolutionary which was only predicted and never previously shown. The story also introduces an alien race headed by Sphinxor who are moving planets on behalf of the unseen powerful entities known as "the Beyonders" - that name being used four years before Secret Wars. Fortunately all the revelations are confined to a single issue but I wonder what Marvel Two-in-One readers who had never followed Warlock's adventures made of such a continuity heavy issue. The earlier issues are, fortunately, structured in such a way that readers less familiar with Her or Starhawk or Moondragon can share Ben's discovery whilst those who had read their past adventures can enjoy the story on a different level as it tidies up continuity. This tale was left out of Essential Warlock volume 1 and earlier reprintings of Warlock's saga, perhaps because of space, perhaps because only the third issue is directly relevant, but it doesn't feel a great loss and in any case the original publication was about three or four years after that series had ended.

Lurking in the story is Starhawk of the Guardians of the Galaxy, alongside his wife Aleta who has been merged with him, but there isn't too much more revealed about them. The whole team of Guardians appears in a later issue as Major Vance Astro tracks down his younger self, in the hope of convincing him to not become an astronaut and thus get trapped in space for a millennium. As we saw in the last volume, Ben is all too aware of how futile this can be, but the Major wants to at least spare one incarnation and succeeds, albeit at the cost of triggering his younger counterpart's mutant telekinetic powers. In later years the younger Vance would go on to be variously the Thing's sidekick, a founder member of the New Warriors and an Avenger but there's only a slight hint of all at that here.

The other epic in the volume is "The Serpent Crown Affair" in which the president of Roxxon seeks to acquire two parallel universe versions of the Serpent Crown and take over the country. It's a relatively tame story that only comes together in the third and final part and is also interrupted by other plot threads such featuring the likes of Thundra and Hyperion or the plight of the Hydro-Men, humans mutated into amphibians. Consequently this team-up with Stingray, Triton and, later on, the Scarlet Witch, feels rather slight and inconsequential even though it once more plays a role in tying up past continuity. Sub-plots in these issues later blossom out as Thundra finds herself teamed with Hyperion (of the Squadron Sinister) and steals an "Nth-Projector" in the hope of travelling to an alternate version of her world which has survived. Meanwhile the plight of the Hydro-Men is followed up in a later two-parter where Mr. Fantastic undertakes the research to produce a cure whilst Ben, some of the Inhumans and Stingray play games and get caught in a plot by the mysterious Maelstrom to steal the chemical that will reverse the effects of the Inhumans' Terrigan Mists that grant them their powers. Another issue follows up on the "Nth-Projector" and Roxxon as the Thing and Quasar travel to a world where dinosaurs and cavemen exist side by side and where the corporation is tapping a new supply of oil.

This attention to detail with plots and ideas flowing from one issue to another helps to make the bulk of these issues a strong coherent whole and it's easy to see why many consider this to be the golden age of the series. However there are still low points, particularly with the two annuals that are equally forgettable. One of them is a mundane team-up with Black Bolt of the Inhumans to take on a power enhanced Graviton. The other sees the Stranger bring together the Thing and the Hulk, the latter at the height of his fame due to the television series, in order to save the universe from the Greek god Pluto. (Surely he should be called "Hades"? All the other Greek gods are depicted with their Greek not Roman names.) Neither are good examples of the series as a whole, just random team-ups.

The regular issues have a mixture of returning and new foes, with first appearances by a number of them starting with the Grapplers, a group of female wrestlers. Consisting of Titania (a name used by a number of different characters over the years), Letha, Poundcakes and Screaming Mimi, now best known as Songbird. Then there are the Serpent Squad, initially consisting of Sidewinder, Anaconda, Black Mamba and Death Adder. Or there's  Maelstrom's and his minions Gronk, Helio, Phobius and, seemingly more powerful than any of the others, Deathurge. Making their first appearances here after featuring in other series are a number of foes. Naturally a good number were originally seen in Fantastic Four, such as Klaw, the Terrible Trio, consisting of Bull Brogin, "Handsome" Harry Phillips and Yogi Dakor, or the ex-minions of the Pyscho-Man Shellshock and Live Wire. A trip into the Negative Zone brings the first encounter between Blastaar and Annihilus. Coming from other series are Nuklo, previously seen in Avengers, Solarr, who first appeared in Captain America, the Toad, hailing from X-Men, and the Super-Adaptoid who debuted in Captain America's strip in Tales to Astonish. And it seems no Marvel series would be complete without the Circus of Crime, first seen in this incarnation in the early days of the Incredible Hulk but they've since been retconned as the successors to a group first seen in the 1940s Captain America Comics. Indeed it may be their appearance here that first makes that connection. Not all issues have a clear foe with some instead presenting a problem, such as the one where the Thing and the Human Torch have to mop up after a man determined to live out all his childhood goals before he turns 30. Elsewhere a test flight goes wrong and Ben crashes in the Man-Thing's swamp where he dreams of working with Sergeant Fury and his Howling Commandos during the Second World War - a surprising reference for 1981 as it would make Ben considerably older than he's normally portrayed as.

Also developed well is Ben's relationship with Alicia as he gets more concerned about the danger to her, resulting in a temporary break-up and then after reconciliation she agrees to move into the safer confines of the Baxter Building. Issue #74 is a Christmas special in which her stepfather the Puppet Master is released from prison and manipulates Ben and Alicia into taking him to a new supply of radioactive clay to make his puppets from; however after an encounter with Modred, whose mind has regressed to childhood, the Puppet Master sees the error of his ways and seeks to reform.

By now this series is firing on all pistons though at times the guest stars are either interchangeable or simply superfluous, leaving the book as very much the Thing's show. There are no issues where he's temporarily replaced by another big name hero, which is more than can be said for Spider-Man in Marvel Team-Up, and instead we get a strong string of adventures that flow well from one to the next. There's a clear desire to tidy continuity in some of Mark Gruenwald's co-authored stories but apart from the Warlock issue it never feels as though the series has been hijacked just to address obscure points. Instead we get a solid run of one good Thing after another.

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