Marvel Two-In-One (The 1980s)

February 10, 2017
Other Titles

Marvel Two-In-One (The 1980s)

Issues covered:
Marvel Two-In-One #59 - #100
Marvel Two-In-One Annuals #5 - #7
Year: 1980-1983
Writer: Various, including Tom DeFalco (18 issues), Mark Gruenwald (13 issues) and Ralph Macchio (12 issues)
Art: Various, including Ron Wilson (27 issues)
Rating: ***

The 1980s run of Marvel Two-In-One shows the limitations of any rating system this site can use. Whereas the 1970s were frequently well below standard and only scraped an average mark by a fraction, the 1980s see a consistent, regular improvement... yet still not enough, overall, to make this anything more than an average book.

While there's a consistency at work here, and Ben's characterisation is, largely, far more on track, there may be fewer lows, but there's also fewer highs. The almost "car crash" nature of the 1970s issues added a kind of readability that many of these issues lack, so that while Alicia doesn't get turned into a giant spider-monster.... you also don't get to read an issue where Alicia gets turned into a giant spider-monster.

Speaking of Alicia, then while she becomes less of an imperilled character than in the 70s issues, there's still moments where she might find herself mind controlled into a bikini-wearing Egyptian Goddess who shows readers her buttocks, or, even more shockingly, almost the victim of gang rape. While Alicia is quite a likeable character, she was never really allowed to grow or develop into more than one or two dimensions, a charge that could, sadly, arguably be levelled at Ben himself. (A particularly stupid ending to one of the issues sees Ben cured of being the Thing and immediately beg to be turned back again in case Alicia won't love him anymore).

Perhaps the most lauded issue of the run is deservedly a tale where Ben and the Sandman meet in a bar, and the Sandman regrets his past life, deciding to turn straight. The 100th issue by John Byrne is also a high point, another virtual fan fiction where he reprises the "alternate Earth" of Issue #50, exploring what life would have been like without a Thing to repel Galactus. Also much-regarded is the seventh annual, a hugely biased delight which sees a superpowerful alien kidnap and defeat all of Earth's most powerful heroes... except for Ben, who refuses to quit even after three rounds of the worst beating of his life. The annual presented a nice image of "Ben as Balboaesque fighter with an unbreakable heart", but did, sadly, appear to further reinforce this stereotype as an unchangeable character motif. 

Although the rot had set in for some time, the longer the character ran, the more it became less about how formidable he was, and more about how durable he was. Readers weren't treated to Ben vanquishing foes, but taking a beating and refusing to give in, ultimately leading to situations such as the Hulk's descendant mocking Ben's best punch before easily KOing him (2012). Yet Ben's invulnerability was open to question even at the time: while this October 1982 annual showed a man who would never quit no matter what, two months later an issue of The Fantastic Four saw him KO'd with a single punch by Guardian. (As a point of trivia, then Marvel Two-In-One #96 asserts that, while the annual came out first, the FF issue took place beforehand chronologically).

This said, the 70s concept of Ben being a punching bag in his own title isn't always the case here, and he's often afforded more dignity. While many of the issues, particularly those written by Tom DeFalco, do tend to go in for repetitive "idol o'millions" style dialogue, Issue #94 sees him easily beat and humiliate Power Man. Ben's own concessions that he's now outclassed in strength by newer Marvel heroes like Sasquatch and Hyperion do at least see him enter such battles with pride, and give more than a courageous account of himself, often outlasting foes through sheer force of will.

One notable change is the frequent return to single-part stories. Of the 42 regular issues covered here, 34 separate stories are told, given more room to breathe when the title returned to 20+ page stories with Issue #69. The art, while rarely spectacular, is several leagues above the general standard of art that made up the first three or four years of the title. Ron Wilson is the main artist, pencilling just under 60% of the regular issues, while Chic Stone is the most prominent inker, with 18 issues. Chic's inking does, sadly, look somewhat antiquated in the 1980s, as a man who finished 11 of the 60s issues of The Fantastic Four before Joe Sinnott came along and revamped the look of the title.

There is more of an attempt to try for out-and-out humour stories in the 1980s run, with around a dozen of the issues covered here featuring such things as broad swipes at Hollywood television, or cameos from the Impossible Man and the like. While hugely variable in quality and success rate, these issues did seem even more throwaway and lightweight than the usual fare, even in a comic book that was, by its very nature, disposable entertainment.

With the "guest star" format, then the title tended to shift away from the more obscure or horror-based characters of the 70s and into more mainstream Marvel fare. Although the book was still not without its lesser-known highlights (Blue Diamond? The Living Mummy?) it generally featured characters like Iron Man, Captain America and - in an issue which was rumoured to be a Marvel Team-Up quickly used to fill a deadline - Spider-Man.

Speaking of guest stars, then the title does on occasion tend to forget the nature of its own set-up: often Ben will meet up with an entire team, and a meeting with the villainous Sphinx sees no guest star at all. In terms of the Fantastic Four, then Reed Richards gets quite a prominent role in the title, appearing in 24 of the 42 regular issues covered here, including an issue where he's the nominal guest. Although Johnny acts as the "guest star" of the book twice, he only manages to clock up 15 appearances, the same number as Sue. 

In terms of trivia, then sales figures, something notoriously hard to find, are given as statement of ownership in some of the 80s issues. For example, The October 1980 issue contained the statement given for the previous twelve months, which saw a monthly average of just over 343,000 copies printed, of which just over 177,000 were sold. While this might seem like a large quantity were wasted, sales of just over 50% were actually quite good for a title, and Ben's book compared favourably with the Spider-Man title Marvel Team-Up, which was only selling around 10,000 copies more, and usually at below 50% of its print run. However, both were some way short of the numbers of the larger titles, with The Fantastic Four selling over 244,000 (of just over a 456,500 print number) in the same period. What we can conclude from this is that while Ben was popular - and had sales figures that modern comics companies would kill for - he could only achieve around three quarters of the popularity of the more established, team-based title where he originated.

Lastly, UK readers might be familiar with some of the strips in this title from the inexplicably-named reprint comic "The Thing is Big Ben", which ran for 18 issues in 1984. Reprinting issues 92-100, often with a back up strip, it was an odd attempt to make the character seem UK-centric, and, as the Fantastic Four's own UK reprint title had been cancelled just the year before, an unusual choice. A summer special was also released, featuring the Stonehenge tale from Issue #33, as well as, for no apparent reason, 60s X-Men back up strips. After the title was cancelled, the strip became a back up feature in a UK Spider-Man reprint title. For whatever reason, American style comics were never enormous sellers in the British market, and a so-so comic like Marvel Two-In-One was unlikely to ever buck the trend.

It Started On Yancy Street (Part Three):

Although the Yancy Street Gang get to be the guest stars of another issue, there's surprisingly little discussed about Ben's relationship with the area in that particular tale. It's not until issue 94 that some new information is imparted, as Ben thinks to himself of "my old Yancy Street pal, Jerry Dean." 

Issue 98 has Ben practising a manoeuvre and exclaiming that "we useta call this the 'fake an' dodge' back on Yancy Street!" Finally, there's the most blatant reference, illustrated right, where Ben calls himself "Yancy Street's answer to Burt Reynolds!" 

It's a sign that by the 80s the idea of Ben being born on Yancy Street was an accepted lore, it being possibly long-forgotten that Ben spent the 60s talking about "Yancy Streeters!" as a pejorative. 

Marvel Two-In-One ended with its 100th issue, and was relaunched as a Thing solo title written by John Byrne and pencilled by Two-In-One regular Ron Wilson. The very first issue saw Ben's Yancy Street background fully explored for the first time, and become a vital part of his characterisation.

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