Marvel Two-In-One (The 1970s)

January 28, 2017
Other Titles

Marvel Two-In-One (The 1970s)

Issues covered:
Marvel Showcase #11 - #12
Marvel Two-In-One #1 - #58
Marvel Two-In-One Annuals #1 - #4
Year: 1973-1979
Writer: Various
Art: Various
Rating: ***

Marvel Feature was a showcase title for characters who didn't have their own titles, and began with the debut of The Defenders, before they were spun out into their own book, and then started running stories with Ant-Man. For issues 11 and 12, it featured The Thing with guest stars (The Hulk and Iron Man), and then the following issue the bi-monthly was retitled without notice to "Marvel Two-In-One", a showcase of team up stories for Ben Grimm.

The comic was so popular that it ran for eight-and-a-half years, becoming a monthly title from Issue #16, and clocking up 100 issues before being replaced by a Thing solo title. Sadly, however, most of the praise the title gets is reserved for its 1980s run, and the issues produced during the 1970s are, at least for the first few years, an inferior product from Marvel.

The artwork is often scrappy and rushed, or just plain muddily inked and coloured. Even when John Buscema gets to do pencils for a single issue, the inking fails to bring out his true talents. Yet worse, often the book feels like it's a third rate concern, given as a testing ground for inexperienced creative personnel. The main penciller on the book, working on 21 of the regular issues covered here, was Ron Wilson. Wilson had been a professional comicbook artist for less than three years, and while some blame must be given to the inkers who failed to bring out his best, it's also notable that one particular issue was excused in the letters column as being an overnight rush job to meet a deadline. 

It's not that Wilson's pencils are awful, but when this period of Marvel had the likes of John Buscema and Jack Kirby on staff, it shows how low in priority the book was held that it was passed to someone so relatively inexperienced. (Although Jack Kirby was not especially valued by Marvel after his '76 return to the company, and his own books weren't selling). Not that experience always counted for everything... Marv Wolfman had a sizeable writing run on the title, only to produce a tale set in an England where no one spoke like any English person who ever lived, and Alicia was transformed into a giant spider monster.

In truth, the constant passing between creative teams harms the book further. Roy Thomas was due to come on board the title but could never fit it in his schedule, and so 14 of the regular issues were written by Bill Mantlo, one of Marvel's weaker writers of the period. And, with the 1970s having a reduced page count of 18-19 pages per story, telling a narrative with a beginning-middle-end was even harder than ever. As a result, a huge number of the early tales seem to fizzle out, and the book benefits far more from multi-issue storylines. (Once more giving readers short shrift is the fact that a couple of said stories finish in other titles). Ultimately the 58 regular issues covered here tell just 26 separate stories, with the final six issues one big, multi-part "Project Pegasus" tale.

What doesn't help is that, rather than being at the centre of the Marvel Universe, Ben's title is frequently used as a dumping ground for the narratives of discontinued titles (Guardians of the Galaxy, Skull the Slayer...) or as a promotional tool for lesser-known Marvel characters, often connected with 70s Marvel's obsession with horror titles (Son of Satan, Scarecrow...) Perhaps most strikingly of all, it also acts as a showcase for Marvel's "progressive" black characters of the period, most of which now read as uncomfortably patronising, from Black Goliath to Brother Voodoo. Even the usually racially sensitive Ben warns Black Goliath against fighting a radioactive foe, with "one punch from him and ya can say good-bye to yer tan."

There's a serious problem with continuity when the title begins, one unsatisfactorily resolved. While the book should, by its nature, be throwaway and light-hearted, it can't be overlooked that first Ben and then Reed lost their powers in The Fantastic Four title, which isn't referenced for some time in Two-In-One. Later teams get better at this, as the break up of the Fantastic Four in 1978 is integrated into the storyline. Speaking of the Fantastic Four, then a couple of issues see them as the "guest", which is something of a stretch (no pun intended) when other issues see them as regular supporting cast. Altogether, Reed and Johnny put in 13 appearances each, while Sue clocks up 9.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the title, certainly in its earliest issues, is that Ben acts like such a jerk. A random sample of storylines will see him punch Power Man to "prove" that he's not tough enough to join Ben on a mission, or complaining that people are staring at him on a train for his appearance, seemingly oblivious to the fact that he's just damaged the station and yanked the train back along the tracks. As part of the Fantastic Four, his grouchy humour and cynicism act as a counterpoint to Reed's exposition-based dialogue, but as a solo act it just comes across as a guy being downright rude to strangers he meets, and the character is nowhere near as lovable. 

It's not that a solo Ben title couldn't work - and, indeed, from around Issue #40 it does - it's just that so few of the writers seem to have a real handle on his character and are unable to render him in more than one or two dimensions. The guy depicted in the first few issues is just a one-note quip machine with a bad attitude, and, more often than not, a sitcom-stupid aggressive thug who is... well, rude. Anyone who had read Ben's adventures in the FF for over a decade before this title started would know there's more to him than that. Earlier issues rely on comicbookish insults (in the worst sense of the phrase) like "scaly shins" or "bozo breath"... it's left to Captain America, guesting in Issue #42, to pull Ben up on his "hick" routine.

This is not to say that the title is always BAD. Although a strange kind of showcase as many of the issues feature Ben being humiliatingly beaten by fourth-rate villains, the title does improve considerably throughout the run covered here, and from around the #40 mark it becomes a title that can justifiably be held in some affection. In fact, if this overview was a coverage of just the first thirty or forty issues, the overall rating given above would be one star lower.

Of note is that there's a very slight shift towards a less family-friendly dynamic in some issues. The very first issue has Ben saying "porno", while a later issue, pictured left, has Ben being offered cannabis in a school. All of this to say nothing of the Grapplers, female supervillain wrestlers who take on Giant Man (nee Black Goliath) and regret that the stun blast they fired into his stomach wasn't aimed lower, bringing tears to his eyes. (As Giant Man is able to grow to almost unlimited sizes, it's perhaps best not to think too closely about this particular development).

The best issues are the Project Pegasus tale, and a John Byrne issue, giving him chance to write two members of the FF a year before he got to work on the main title. Fannish and indulgent, his "Ben meets himself as he was before FF Issue #3" tale is nevertheless compelling. Overall, this is a comic book that begins almost as an afterthought, and emerges as a title that finally begins to fulfil its promise. A separate article covers the remainder of the title in the 1980s.

It Started On Yancy Street (Part Two):

It's so long been established that Yancy Street was Ben's birthplace that it's often misremembered as this being the case from his inception. However, not only did the Lee-Kirby issues not state that this was the case, they even went some way to suggest quite the reverse.

Although the Thing was the target of the gang's ridicule, the rest of the FF would also take abuse if they walked down the street, and it appeared that it was simply a rough neighbourhood that hated the FF for comic relief, rather than any developed backstory. In 1964 Ben states that he's never actually seen the gang, much less alone been a part of it, and it's only in 1972 where Ben gives a vague indication that there may be more to it than there appears.

Such elements appear to have been misunderstood by writer Steve Gerber, who with Issue #6 gives us Ben returning to his roots with Mrs. Coogan, a Yancy Street resident who was like "a mother" to him.

In assessing that this was the origin of Ben growing up on Yancy Street, then I must offer up the proviso that I've yet to read every single Marvel comic that featured Ben before this November 1974 issue, from guest spots in titles like The Avengers and The Incredible Hulk, to support roles in Daredevil or The Silver Surfer. However, it hadn't been referenced in The Fantastic Four to this point, and, pending an updated conclusion, this would almost definitely appear to be the issue where this revised backstory originates.

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