Friday, 17 July 2015

Essential Marvel Two-in-One volume 4

Essential Marvel Two-in-One volume 4 contains issues #78 to #98 & #100 and annuals #6 & #7. (Issue #99 is a team-up with the licensed character Rom and thus unavailable here.) The writing is mainly by Tom DeFalco with some by David Michelinie, David Anthony Kraft and Jan Strnad with the final issue by John Byrne. One annual is by Doug Moench, the other by DeFalco. Most of the art is by Ron Wilson bar a few issues by Alan Kupperberg.

As this is a team-up title, here's the usual list of the titled guest stars in each issue:

78. Wonder Man
Annual 6. American Eagle
79. Blue Diamond
80. Ghost Rider
81. Sub-Mariner
82. Captain America
83. Sasquatch
84. Alpha Flight
85. Spider-Woman
86. Sandman plus a back-up with the Impossible Man
87. Ant-Man
88. She-Hulk
89. The Human Torch
90. Spider-Man
91. [None billed but this issue supplies the volume's cover so have a guess]
92. Jocasta
93. Machine Man
94. Power Man and Iron Fist
95. The Living Mummy
Annual 7. [None billed]
96. [None billed]
97. Iron Man
98. [None billed]
100. Ben Grimm

Note the increasing number of issues not promoting a second star towards the end of the series; a sign of where things would eventually go. These stars are once again taken mostly from the more obscure side of the Marvel universe but with some exceptions and some attempts to build up their profiles.

This period of the title sees an initial drift back to the book's roots as a team-up title first and a Thing series second. There are a few times when the book gets used to either wrap up left-over matters from another series or else make significant changes to one of the guest stars. An example of the former comes in issues #92 & #93 which serve as a two-part tale that seems to be more about giving Machine Man one great final adventure following the cancellation of his own title (whose last issues were written by DeFalco) than about advancing the events in the Thing's life. It brings Machine Man into conflict with Ultron and introduces him to Jocasta for the first time, forming the basis on which DeFalco would later build the brilliant Machine Man limited series set in 2020 and often reprinted (including twice in the UK in the back-up pages in Transformers). In all this the Thing feels a bit like a spare part, at times relegated to a hypnotised state as a mindless minion of Ultron whilst the focus is upon Machine Man and some of his supporting cast such as mechanic "Gears" Garvin and psychologist Peter Spaulding, or upon Jocasta as she seeks to find a purpose in the world and make friends, both human and mechanical. It's a good tale but it's also one of the last examples of how team-up books could often get conscripted into sorting out things when a regular series bit the dust.

A rather odder development comes with the appearance of Spider-Woman in the final part of the volume's only real epic. A succession of issues see the Thing and Namor the Sub-Mariner then Captain America and Giant-Man (Bill Foster) battling Modok and Aim, with the Thing being infected by an experimental virus but a cure being obtained. Meanwhile Giant-Man is slowly dying of radiation poisoning but declines his one chance of a cure in favour of saving Ben's life. Ben in turn goes searching for the one expert on radiation who may be able to cure Bill - Walter Langkowski aka Sasquatch of Alpha Flight. The search leads to the Canadian wilderness and a battle with the spirit Ranark in which the rest of Alpha Flight get drawn in as the battle rages across much of Canada. But it's too late for Langkowski's treatment to have an effect and so Bill heads for Los Angeles to tie up his affairs with the Thing in tow, where they join with Spider-Woman in battling a new Atom Smasher who replaced the foe who gave Bill the poisoning in the first place. Salvation ultimately comes for Bill but at the cost of Spider-Woman's special immune system that makes her invulnerable to poisons, drugs and gases. It's a nice moment to see one hero sacrifice part of their powers to help another but it's very odd to remove a key power of a hero with their own title in what is, from their series's perspective, a throwaway guest appearance. Spider-Woman's series was still going at this time, having reached issue #42, and that should have been the place for this to take place in. But instead the issue has been treated as such a throwaway that it's not even included in Essential Spider-Woman volume 2. A development that does make more sense here is that of the Blue Diamond, as the Second World War hero, who has been little seen in the present day, gets a radical makeover at the hands of Shanga the Star-Dancer, and the two head off together.

Both the annuals see new characters introduced but one tale has more of an impact than the other. The first annual included here sees the debut of the American Eagle, a rather minor and somewhat stereotyped hero in an adventure that also sees Ka-Zar and Wyatt Wingfoot caught up in a battle with Klaw. The last annual is more spectacular, with no specific guest star billed but instead the Thing is one of many strong heroes kidnapped for an intergalactic boxing match with the Champion of the Universe, an Elder devoted to physical fights. Doc Samson and Namor the Sub-Mariner both drop out in training whilst Thor is disqualified and the Hulk is dismissed when he reverts to his mindless savage form. Then in succession Sasquatch, Colossus and Wonder Man fail leaving it down to the Thing to try to achieve what no other being has ever done - last more than two rounds in the ring with Champion. It's a tough battle with just about all the Marvel heroes watching. It leads to a fun follow-up in the regular series as Ben lies injured in hospital with a horror of a nurse who blocks most visitors whilst outside many old foes decide to take advantage of the situation and attack a vulnerable Thing yet the other heroes stand in their way and eventually both sides resort to uniting their forces. This may be one of the earliest times all the Marvel heroes got together to battle a veritable legion of villains and yet little is made of it as it's mostly played for laughs. But whilst the battle is raging there's a strong serious and moving moment inside the hospital as one old foe finds his way to Ben's room.

Between issues #86 & #96 the Sandman is taken forward light years. Having only just escaped from his last mess when he accidentally merged with Hydro-Man into a giant mud monster, the Sandman is now reassessing his life, starting with a drink in a bar where he declines to fight when the Thing turns up. Instead they just sit and talk, realising how they have much in common, and we learn a lot about the Sandman's life before the explosion that gave him his powers. It's a very sympathetic look at a villain who is given a second chance and his freedom by the Thing and doesn't disappoint - when he shows up at the hospital it's to deliver cigars and beer. The nurse might not approve but these issues have done much to make the Sandman a more sympathetic and human character and show there is a chance of redemption. The character has had quite a mixed handling over the years but it's here that he stepped up and it also reflects well on Ben in his handling of the situation.

There aren't too many other recurring villains or themes throughout the volume with most issues being a done-in-one conventional team-up. A few exceptions pop up, starting with a team-up with Wonder Man on the set of a rather dire television series called "Monster Man!", based on the Thing's exploits but sufficiently changed for legal reasons. The show is being manipulated by Xemnu the Titan, with the producer Ted Silverberg left searching for new material to rip off. He shows up again when he seeks revenge on the Thing with a dire monster movie but things get out of hand when the dinosaur special effects prove more realistic than anyone realised, forcing the Thing and Iron Man to clean up with Tony Stark using his business interests to mop up the aftermath. Otherwise it's a run of one-off tales including a confrontation with the Ghost Rider who has now become a separate personality from Johnny Blaze and is getting out of control. Easier to control is the Impossible Man who has now reproduce, forcing Ben to find ways to keep the whole Impossible Family entertained whilst he finds a new home planet for them.

There's a visit to a world in a micro universe where Ben has been taken to champion the ruler Pearla against Zorak of the Lizard People and only Ant-Man, now a role fulfilled by Scott Lang can save him. Back at normal size Ben gets hired to protect Los Angeles from a terrorist called Negator - and also fend off the advances and demands of the She-Hulk in her most flirtatious mood yet. David Anthony Kraft enjoys revisiting another aspect of She-Hulk's first series when he pits the Thing and the Torch against the cultist the Word and his daughter Ultima. There's also a battle with Sardeth the Sorcerer at a mediaeval recreation fair, with Spider-Man showing up to help and irritate the Thing. Elsewhere Ben gets caught up in some chaos as a rich eccentric inventor goes on the run with the Thing trying to help him but Power Man and Iron Fist have been hired to recover him for a company. Ben also finds himself visiting Egypt twice, including an encounter with the Living Mummy in which they battle the ancient High Priest Nephrus - who has transformed Alicia into his bride.

The last couple of issues in the volume veer away from the traditional approach of the series, with an issue that's more of a solo story in which Ben and Franklin Richards meet a video game inventor and get transported to a dimension where the elements of the video game come to life. The Tron influence is all too clear but fortunately the art doesn't try to accurately depict the world - there's nothing that dates faster than computing. The final issue sees Ben return to what he thought was an divergent timeline created by his attempts to cure himself of being the Thing at an earlier stage in his life but finds instead it's a pre-existing alternate timeline which has collapsed into a dystopia ruled by the Red Skull and it's down to Ben and his counter-part to save the day.

The final story addresses a minor subplot about whether or not Ben is better off being the Thing or not, with an earlier issue seeing Reed Richards privately speculate that the reason successive cures have always been unsuccessful is because Ben is secretly scared Alicia prefers him as the Thing and would reject him in human form. The visit to the alternate world has an effect and the last page show Ben deciding overall if he could pick between human and Thing form he'd pick the Thing. His relationship with Alicia remains much the same throughout the volume, with a brief period where she moves into the Baxter Building to be safer - only to find that with all the madness in there it's anything but safe.

This volume concludes the whole series as it was replaced after this by a solo Thing title, suggesting it was felt the team-up format had had its day. As this was the first of Marvel and DC's four main team-up titles to end it's arguable that it was killed too soon but it's certainly the case that much of this volume is more conventional team-up than the adventures of the Thing and an ever changing set of guest stars, insofar as the distinction was made. This volume maintains the general fun of two heroes working together that team-up titles always bring but it's not as strong or as coherent as some earlier periods. Still overall it offers lots of good individual adventures and makes for a strong collection.

1 comment:

  1. Great summary! I happen to be reading this volume now. I read a few issues of the series as a kid. I loved this series along with Spidey's MTU. I decided to read the entire series via the Essentials.

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