Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Post-Graduate Studies #15

The MU campus is mostly unused right now but
from time to time, our Professors will drop in for Summer courses.
This Week:
The Gruenwacchio Run, Part 3
by Professor Matthew Bradley

Marvel Two-in-One 69 (November 1980)
The Thing and The Guardians of the Galaxy in
Story by Mark Gruenwald and Ralph Macchio
Art by Ron Wilson and Gene Day
Colors by George Roussos
Letters by John Costanza
Cover by Ron Wilson and Gene Day

An early-rising Ben makes breakfast for Sue and Franklin so that he can ask her advice about Alicia, and is rightly told he’s jumped to conclusions regarding the “other man.”  Before we deduce that MTIO has been rebranded as My Love Vol. 3, Starhawk beams down to warn of the latest “grave danger to your world”:  about to return to the 31st century, Vance Astro vanished, with Drydock’s tracking devices evidently sabotaged by the responsible party.  Encountering his 16-year-old 20th-century counterpart “would cause untold damage to the course of time,” so after enlisting the FF’s help (“We are alerting your era’s other champions, as well.  If you learn anything, contact us on frequency 12-G”), Starhawk hies away.

Meanwhile, in Saugerties—and how often do you get a chance to write that?—adult Vance has in fact “jumped ship” in search of his past self, whom he unnerves by popping out from behind a tree in true stalker fashion.  Although convinced that “This guy’s weird!,” the teen is intrigued by “The Major’s” detailed knowledge of his life and prediction that he will one day be famous; as they walk and converse, “a dark grey fog begins to swell ominously behind them…”  Back at the Baxter Building, Reed’s various sensors all point toward that southbound fogbank, now about to engulf the Bronx and endanger air traffic, so with an Avengers Quinjet graciously granting dibs, the Fantasti-Car splits up and Ben plunges in, flying on instruments toward the fogbank’s center.

There, V31 has just revealed his future history, explaining that he’s trying to prevent it and seeks to elicit a promise that V20 will never become an astronaut, but he comes on too strong, and V20 freaks out, fleeing into the fog just as Ben lands.  Spotting V31, Ben empathizes, yet warns that when he gave his past self a curative serum, he merely created an alternate world that did nothing for him; undaunted, V31 says he’ll help probe the cause of the fog if Ben reciprocates with his mission.  Cue one-panel cameos by “other champions” Spidey, DD, Shellhead, Storm, Aquarian (“I am the way and the light”—sheesh), and Captain Marvel as they cope with the pea-souper, then V31 arrives at his parents’ house, where he’s greeted by…his Jovian teammate, Charlie-27.

Naturally, he was expected, but Charlie don’t surf—uh, agree to let the Vances palaver, duking it out with Ben for the heavyweight title while sending the others to pursue him into the fog; V31 makes like his boyhood hero, Captain America, by using a trash-can lid to spoil Yondu’s control of his “Yucca [sic] arrow” until the thermodynamic Martinex forces him to cool down…literally.  Ben shucks Chuck and spots the Vancicle (who fears a fatal crack in his “copper life-suit”), only to be felled by the Centaurian archer, and with both immobilized, the GOTG quartet beams up to Drydock, rejoining Nikki and Starhawk.  Yet the mist persists, and a defrosted V31 explains that this brief encounter triggered V20’s psionic powers, just as a 1,000-year space flight did with his.

They beam back down chez Astrovik, where V31 tells V20 only he can dispel the fog, but again, he comes on too strong, his PK demo merely goading the frenzied lad into dispersing the GOTG.  It’s up to Ben, of all people, to be the voice of reason, calming him with thoughts of Cap and the good he could do; cue “Here Comes the Sun” as an angry Arnold asks who gave V31 the right to mess with his son’s life.  He answers by unmasking just before they return to Drydock for their temporal journey, positing to a perplexed Nikki that “I probably should have guessed my suit had some sort of regenerative capacity….Until now, though, I never had a strong enough reason to want to risk testing it,” leaving Ben to introduce Stretch to “the newest super hero on the block!”

No trilogy this time, so we’ll have to settle for a Guardians one-off and the two-part resolution (spoiler!), after almost eight years, of the amphibians subplot begun in Sub-Mariner #61.  I was ready to be delighted over a full-on GOTG appearance to bookend Starhawk’s in the Her saga, which a two-page remedial lettercol—afforded by the newly expanded format, as was a 21-page story—tells us was the first thing Gruenwald ever plotted for Marvel, hence his solo script credit; put on hold to avoid simultaneous space epics in MTIO and Fantastic Four, it was reactivated to give Pérez a head start on “The Serpent Crown Affair.”  But my hackles were already up when the cover billing promised an adversarial reunion with said former allies:  “The Thing Battles…”

John Carpenter’s The Fog is a personal favorite, so I wondered if the tag’s erroneous reference to a “strange, mysterious, killer FOG!”—which, in fact, kills nobody—might be capitalizing on the film, released about six months earlier.  In any case, look, I’m as big a fan of tying up loose ends as the next guy, probably bigger, yet I think Gruenwacchio, who specialize in such closure, may have taken it too far here.  They not only declaw the longtime bugbear of a catastrophic meeting between Vances—and I’ll offer a proverbial cheer-within-a-jeer for Ben’s invocation of #50 as a time-paradox precedent—but also remove a key element that made him so compelling, i.e., being trapped in a copper-foil suit, except under the very special circumstances of Marvel Presents #7.

“Very special” is a phrase that does not spring to mind when addressing the Wilson/Day artwork, which as usual is aggressively average at best, and for some reason, Ron seems to love placing Ben in the kitchen with drippy things on the, uh, splash, e.g., making pizza in #40 or pancakes here.  Especially disappointing for this fan of Our Pal Sal’s definitive Guardians is their version of Charlie, who looks more thuggish than jovial.  On the asset side, Gruenwacchio handles V31 better than some, nailing his dilemma (“I must have gone mad from the unendurable isolation three times!  And the last time, I went so crazy that my psionic powers came to the surface!  Nobody should have to suffer as I did—not even me!”) and interaction with Ben, a kindred spirit.

Marvel Two-in-One 70 (December 1980)  
The Thing and the Yancy Street Gang in
"A Moving Experience"
Story by Mark Gruenwald and Ralph Macchio
Art by Michael Netzer and Gene Day
Color s by George Roussos
Letters by John Costanza and Irving Watanabe
Cover by Keith Pollard and Joe Sinnott

We’ve had some interesting variations on the usual “The Thing and [fill in the blank]” billing, e.g., replacing “and” with “vs.,” pitting Ben against himself, and even having him “Alone against the Mystery Menace!,” but I think this is unique:  “The Thing and—?!”  Revisiting this, I had absolutely no recollection who either “?!” or the bad guys were, so I steadfastly resolved not to look ahead and spoil the surprise…until I opened it up and the splash page did it for me with its “The Thing and the Yancy Street Gang!” header.  Nice goin’, guys, especially since it would’ve been a bit of a surprise, with our nominal guest-stars not even introduced (if you can call it that, when they’re mostly tiny silhouettes) until story page 13.

Villains Shellshock and Livewire were a bit of a surprise as well, not least because the former, or at least the hand representing him, inexplicably appears to be African American on the otherwise acceptable Pérez/Sinnott cover (complete with “No shots?  No school” street-sign PSA echoing a curious LOC).  Actually, even a full-page reveal of S&L would probably still have left me going, “Who?,” since Gruenwacchio seems to have set a new standard for dredging up Obscure Heavies We Never Needed to See Again.  Excavated from FF Annual #5—which for some reason needed not one but two footnotes—they weren’t even primary villains, merely minions of Psycho-Man, although starting in Power Man #24, Livewire had a desultory side gig with the Circus of Crime.

Look, the Thing/YSG team-up in #47 was a cute change of pace but no masterpiece, and surely not an idea that cried out to be revisited, which is sadly par for the course in this consummate dog of an issue—where’s Coco when we need her?  Ditto the numerous errors (e.g., “whose the wiseguy!?,” “Gene Autrey,” “marshmellows”), while the lettercol ’fesses up that it was Pablo Marcos and not Gene Day, also implicated here, who inked #68, to which I respond with a hearty “Whatever.”  I hope I’m as willing to suspend my disbelief as the next guy, yet Mark and Ralph earn a gold medal this time in Exposition Clumsily Camouflaged as Implausible Dialogue, with S&L filling several panels by telling each other what they both already knew about their origins.

The plot?  If I must.  Sigh™.  This issue of My Love—er, MTIO—opens as Ben buys a cherry ice en route to Alicia’s, then helps the kids who accidentally knock it out of his hand with a softball that rolls under a car.  Subtle thought by Lift-Rack Ben:  “Sure wish I could handle my problems as easy as I can handle those kids!”  Still in mufti and as yet unidentified, S&L lurk about outside her building with sinister intent while inside, amid credulity-challenging dialogue (“Uh, Alicia, it’s me—Ben!”  “That voice!  It is you—Ben!”), he learns that, gasp, the guy he saw her with is not his replacement but her art dealer, Mr. Burge, who does a fast fade as Ben reveals the idea he has cooked up to solve their security problem, i.e., to have Alicia move into the Baxter Building.

“Don’t look now [ha ha?]—but that’s the blind broad,” quoth Livewire as they exit reunited, and soon Reed takes a break from “photographing…empty stretches [ha ha?] of sub-space” (because I guess everybody needs a hobby) to let Ben pitch the idea to his teammates.  Looking strangely sinister in DC defector Mike Nasser’s rendition, Reed intones, “Alicia, you may not be a member officially…but you’ve always been one of us,” not to mention the caretaker; gooble gobble!  “I thought you hated all this mushy stuff,” Johnny tells the elated Ben, apparently unaware of the retitling, and the next day, a suited-up S&L initiate the lucrative “little capers” they hope to pull after breaking jail, wielding, respectively, a “special shootin’ iron [and] high voltage [sic] lariat.”

Kayoing and replacing the movers as Alicia follows by cab, they dislodge Ben, riding shotgun on the back, as the van “takes several…two-wheeled turns”—doubtless doing wonders for all of that valuable statuary (which, BTW, they may have fun trying to fence)—before zipping into a body shop.  Hilarity ensues when he lands in a pile of garbage, contested by a purse-wielding bag lady, and is rejected by the cabbie due to the resultant stink.  This forces the couple to hoof it on, you guessed it, Yancy Street, whose denizens begin plotting deviltry while Ben spots a remarkably similar van dripping fresh paint and disables it Cap-style with a manhole cover, whereupon S&L emerge for a fight lasting six pages, rather than the two panels necessary to mop up these clowns.

Ben saves a couple from being crushed by a hotel sign shot down by Shellshock, then cleverly lets Livewire’s lethal spurs shred the amorphous blob—apparently inspired by Paste-Pot Pete—with which Shellshock has engulfed him, before Livewire shocks him long enough to take Alicia hostage, forcing Ben to replace the truck’s wheel.  Justifying their nominal co-star status, and befitting their “he’s our victim” policy, the YSG short-circuits Livewire by pouring a bucket of water on him from a rooftop, thus freeing Ben to crush Shellshock’s heater and down him with a patented “plink” of his rocky finger.  In the aftermath, the couple unwittingly follows the NYPD to the station in a van now emblazoned, “The Thing Is a Butt-Head”; consider my thigh slapped.

Marvel Two-in-One 71 (January 1981)  
The Thing and Mister Fantastic in
"The Cure!"
Story by Mark Gruenwald and Ralph Macchio
Art by Ron Wilson and Gene Day
Colors by George Rosussos
Letters by John Costanza
Cover by Ron Wilson and Joe Sinnott

Ben brings Reed to Attilan, where Triton reveals the good news/bad news scenario:  as “it was indeed Terrigen Mist that metamorphosed the Hydro-Men,” there is a strong chance that Reed and the Inhuman scientists can cure them, yet it means that “my race’s most precious secret—has somehow fallen into the hands of an outsider.”  Their conversation is rudely interrupted by another “airquake” (briefly invoked back in MTIO Annual #4) that topples a bank of machinery, requiring a Ben-tervention to save the oblivious eggheads.  Noting that the quakes have lessened in severity, Triton takes Ben to visit Crystal, who is with child, and Pietro, shortly joined by “Attilan’s answer ta the Blues Brothers,” Gorgon and Karnak.

Cue a fun and well-drawn two-page digression as Gorgon and Pietro trounce Ben and Karnak in a rousing match of inertia-ball, “kinda like full contact air hockey,” then back to business in the Citadel of Genetics.  The brain trust—including Nadar, quintessentially Kirbyesque in story page 8, panel 2—isolates the Anti-Terrigen Compound, successfully tests it on Croft, and checks him for side effects before synthesizing the A-T-C in bulk.  Nadar cautions, “It is a secret that could subvert and destroy Inhuman society as we know it,” a justifiable concern, for the lab is under surveillance by a hazily glimpsed villain who not only is the source of the quakes but also sends his minions Phobius, Gronk, and Helio to “acquire” the compound from “our ancestral enemies.”

Chapter Two finds the Pogo Plane landing on Hydro-Base, where Ben, Reed, Triton, Karnak, Gorgon, and Croft are greeted by the artificial island’s governor, Joe Jennings, and new resident Stingray.  With the gym refitted into a regeneration center, the 500 amphibians line up by lottery to enter the tube and receive the blessed A-T-C, a process projected to take some 17 hours.  Ben, given an inertia-ball for practice, persuades the Blues Brothers—sent by Black Bolt to guard the A-T-C as Triton and Reed administer the cure—to get a game on with Stingray, since “we’ll still be in earshot,” but absent “one ’a yer whacky indoor courts, we’ll haveta modify the game a bit.  Heh-heh,” said modification emulating football, and naturally benefiting the Grimm/Gorgon duo.

In Chapter Three, Helio (long-haired “lord of the air” and its quakes), Gronk (a pale-yellow hulk who controls his body’s adhesion), and Phobius (a shrimp who instills fear) surface and head for the gym, brushing off Reed and Triton as they fill a canister with an A-T-C sample.  Dimly aware of the hubbub, the guards belatedly spring into action, faring badly at first as Helio downs Stingray, while Gronk clobbers Karnak and engulfs Ben’s fist:  “Leggo, ya overgrown Gumby!”  Yet coming full circle, our heroes use inertia-ball skills to subdue and capture the minions, with Stingy’s “forward lateral” nailing Phobius as he swims out to sea with the sample, but unnoticed, the self-propelled canister makes its way to their master, revealed in the last panel as Maelstrom.

This is my final entry’s nominal showpiece, but even as a longtime champion of Mr. Fantastic, I don’t find Wilsinnott’s cover a promising start.  Too busy.  Hideous colors.  The tag “Holocaust on Hydro [sic] Base!” was presumably chosen for alliteration, yet the use of “Holocaust” seems questionable, although Ben does equate Dr. Hydro’s mist with Zyklon B.  As for “Introducing: The Minions of Maelstrom!”—not that we knew who he was then—the mag has alternated lately between ancient villains who weren’t terribly interesting (e.g., the Terrible Trio, L&S) and new villains who weren’t terribly interesting (e.g., Serpent Squad 3.0), with the MOM sadly living down to the expectations created by the cover, even visually by lacking the Pacesetter’s panache.

But credit where it’s due to Ron and Gene for a high-calorie splash that accommodates a ton of exposition and striking visuals in one impressive page:  pensive Ben and Triton in the foreground at left, watching Reed and the Inhuman scientists working on Croft below, with intricate Attilan cityscapes and Himalayan peaks seen through the windows in the background.  Put that in your pipe and smoke it till it burns, Mike Nasser!  Kudos, too, to Gruenwacchio for Triton’s ensuing exchange with Ben, which leads into a legitimate Hydro-Men recap—the plotline having been on the back burner since #64—while offering effective character nuance, e.g., Ben’s explaining that any apparent coolness toward Croft was due to the interruption of his personal plight with Alicia.

While being scrupulously fair, I’ll allow that the pro-Wilson lettercol hype (“When it comes to portraying the sheer power of Bashful Ben Grimm, Ron is in a class by himself”) isn’t totally unjustified; capturing Ben’s heft and might are among his better qualities, so we just have to hope that the inker isn’t having an off, uh, Day when it comes to the finer points.  During the cure, Reed tells Ben, “we sometimes forget that there are other ways to aid humanity than simply battling super-powered malcontents.  I find this just as fulfilling,” to which he replies, “Aah, gimme a good malcontent any day.”  And after Ben jokes, “Maybe Stretcho’s holdin’ a pep rally or somethin’,” Gorgon deadpans, “Your levity surfaces at odd moments.”  It’s good stuff, Hilts...

Marvel Two-in-One 72 (February 1981) 
The Thing and The INhumans in
"The Might of Maelstrom"
Story by Mark Gruenwald and Ralph Macchio
Art by Ron Wilson and Chic Stone
Colors by George Roussos
Letters by George Costanza
Cover by Ron Wilson and Chic Stone 

Assured by Gorgon that the MOM, held in a device neutralizing their powers, are not among “the 1,124 Inhumans of the Great Refuge,” Reed goes to cure the last 100 Hydro-Men.  The MOM remain silent, yet despite receiving the A-T-C in his lair (accessible via a subsea crater) and ordering flunky Falon to have 10,000 liters synthesized, Maelstrom says, “There is but one price for failure for any of us.”  He sends “master punisher” Deathurge, who resembles a cross between Blacksun and the Wraith, to mete it out; like “a two-bit Silver Surfer,” he rides a flying lance that penetrates solid matter as easily as he does—also letting blows pass through him—and silences the MOM, leaving them carbonized on the outside.

After his effortless escape, Reed determines that his victims also represented unauthorized use of Terrigen Mist, heavily guarded in a great vault beneath the Citadel of Genetics, but is surprised to learn from Nadar that Attilan was once an island, excavated from the Atlantic before being relocated to the Himalayas three decades ago.  Pledged to help the ex-Hydro-Men return to the U.S., which could take days, Stretcho sends Ben, Gorgon, and Karnak in a borrowed mini-sub to investigate the site of Old Attilan, and in just which crater do you suppose they find themselves?  Aw, somebody told.  Karnak senses an opening that leads to a gigantic, air-filled cavern, where they find evidence of habitation, and are felled by “a barrage of mind-jamming hypersonic rays.”

Meanwhile, back on Hydro-Base:  “This is Reed Richards.  I must speak to Black Bolt.”  Okay, pal, but don’t be too surprised if the conversation’s a little one-sided!  Speechless at the news, ha ha, BB weighs how to handle this new threat to his people as Maelstrom (“ever-present plume of bioluminescence” and all, in case you were wondering what that was swirling around him), who needs fresh meat for his experiments, prepares to have the captives carved up, and then visits his frail, bedridden father, Phaeder, recapping their history in one of those implausible “As I’m sure you will recall…” speeches, as in #70.  Dudes, why not just present the flashback as a flashback, rather than asking us to believe that one character will drone on, telling another what both knew?

Conflict between the Houses of Agon and Phaeder came to a head over a century ago, when the Council of Genetics expelled Phaeder for conducting forbidden experiments, but the wily traitor fled, an apparent suicide, after fashioning and aborting a genetic replica.  Craving vengeance, he passed his knowledge on to his son, and upon learning of Attilan’s relocation, they set up shop in the cavern, where traces of Terrigen they discovered in ancient vaults gave Mally his “ability to siphon kinetic energy.”  Confirming that he had provided Dr. Hydro with the mist, he is alerted to an intruder just as Karnak breaks loose, having detected the stress point in his restraining device, and the intruder is revealed as the “son of Agon, enemy of my father”; cue grudge match.

Ben, Gorgon, and Karnak have their hands full with apparent clones of “the Three Stooges,” just the nickname I considered for the MOM; “there’s a whole army of these guys crawlin’ outta the woodwork,” thinks Ben, but we only get glimpses, and so are spared the dubious pleasure of that visual.  “My power feeds on yours,” Mally gloats, holding BB in a standoff, but it gets worse:  he has launched a missile with an A-T-C payload (clearly, his “synthesists” were working overtime) at Attilan to “turn your race into powerless humans—ripe for the conquering!”  Gorgon’s hooves having scattered the Stooges, Ben urges Black Bolt to fly after it while he handles the ten-foot “stringbean,” who also turns Ben’s own power against him, knocking him right through the wall.

Weakened by battle, unwilling to risk an uncontrolled scream, BB uses the last of his strength to redirect the rocket in the nick of time, so that the A-T-C will safely diffuse in space.  Ben nails Maelstrom with a test tube of A-T-C, stripping him of his powers; after witnessing his failure in a nearby monitor and apologizing to Dad, who conveniently breathes his last a moment later, he summons Deathurge to do his duty.  As our heroes are on their way out the door, Gorgon creates a shockwave to collapse and flood the cavern, forestalling future Terrigen mischief, yet as they head back to the surface, the final panel reveals a “gotcha” shot of tubes labeled with the names of Maelstrom, Helio, Falon, Phobius, and Gronk, obviously clones who will emerge another day.

Although what I’m calling “the Gruenwacchio run” (i.e., the issues written by Gruenwald and/or Macchio) lasts for two more months, those are “or” rather than “and” stories, making this the last of their “Two-in-One Twins” collaborations.  So it’s fitting that they would end with yet another multi-part tale that ties up long-dangling plot threads, although its hasty conclusion raises almost as many questions as its answers, suggesting that a trilogy might have been in order.  And while I’ll take the writers, letterer, and editors to task for the usual howlers (e.g., “cannister,” carried over from #71; confusing “skunk” with “skulk”; “bring Attilan to it’s knees”), I’ll also commend them for using the frequently confused “apprise” and “appraise” properly, both in the same issue.

This time, Wilson is inked inside and out by old hand Chic Stone, which doesn’t seem to make a big difference, although the splash page is worrisome, with Reed inexplicably sporting Lemmy-sized mutton chops and Karnak looking like a poor man’s Batroc.  In page 11, panel 2, Reed’s hair is back to normal, Professor Bradley-style gray temples and all (poor “Karny” never really recovers), but his blocky face typifies Ron’s sub-Trimpe style.  There are, however, grace notes such as a noble and pensive Black Bolt in page 15, panel 7 (above) and two interesting effects by colorist George Roussos on Maelstrom’s face:  shown purple and bisected as it borders the flashback on page 16, and ominously lit with black, red, and sulfurous yellow as he exults in page 22, panel 5 (below).

Whether you consider the news good, bad, or neutral is up to you, but Maelstrom & Co. will all be back at various times, a prospect already being dangled in the lettercol, where a “Credits Due” box again thanks “the irrepressible Paty, who designed and colored Mally’s costume and stealthy Steven Grant who provided conceptual input at the mutagenic master’s creation well over a year ago.”  Serpent Squad redux, anyone?  This is lacking in the nuances I savored last time, but I’ll always welcome an appearance by the Inhumans, who make a better showing than Reed (far less actively involved than the cover of #71 suggested), even if Karnak’s Silly Putty face in page 18, panel 5 seems stretched horizontally like a movie that’s being shown with the wrong aspect ratio.

Apparently, later stories—some by Gruenwald—not only bring back the villains as foes for the Avengers and MTIO regular Quasar, but also retcon Maelstrom’s mother as a Deviant and his father as having supplied technology to the future High Evolutionary, Magneto, Arnim Zola, the Jackal, and the Enclave (the founders of the Beehive and creators of Him, aka Adam Warlock).  Mally himself says, “Dr. Hydro was but one of many whose experiments I sponsored in return for the data from their results.”  Conversely, Croft and Jennings are never heard from again, their “normalization” feeling curiously underplayed; Stingray vanished in between issues, and the fate of Hydro-Base resident Tamara Rahn, unseen since Avengers #156, will be unresolved for years.

Marvel Two-in-One 73 (March 1981)  
The Thing and Quasar in
"Pipeline Through Infinity"
Story by Ralph Macchio
Art by Ron Wilson and Chic Stone
Colors by George Roussos
Letters by John Costanza
Cover by Ron Wilson and Joe Sinnott

We join Ben and Quasar in medias res, floating in a cold void between worlds before they materialize in a swamp and flashbacks reveal why.  Following Thundra’s lead through an abandoned subway tunnel, they had invaded the underground H.Q. of the group bent on destroying Project Pegasus, only to be teleported away by a strange beam, and now make their way to a rocky precipice overlooking an oil-drilling complex where, incredibly, dinosaurs are used as beasts of burden.  Attacked by familiar flying “skimmers,” they hold their own until the enemy deploys gas grenades, but before succumbing to their effects, Ben grabs and downs one skimmer, buying the wounded Quasar time to crawl into the underbrush and pass out.

As a captive Ben is taken to the central Watchtower, Quasar is dragged to safety by a native tribe whose chief, Tonah, explains that they learned English from those who use them as slave labor, and begs him to lead their revolt.  Despite the dinosaur legion Tonah has in readiness (the Marvel Database asserts that this “Dinosaur World,” Earth-78411, was the setting of Devil Dinosaur), Quasar is dubious until he sees how badly oppressed they are when a patrol enters their village, seeking the fugitive.  Meanwhile, “mercenary, adventurer, entrepreneur” Bennett Pittman tells Ben that he runs this Roxxon Oil complex and works for the New York-based Nth Command, which seeks to sabotage alternative energy sources, such as Project Pegasus, on Roxxon’s behalf.

With the Nth Projector’s access to alternate realities, they can “exploit the untapped resources of virgin planets” to ensure a steady supply of fossil fuel, projected by Nth Adaptors to “counterpart pipes” in their New Jersey refineries.  Unsurprisingly, Ben rejects a lucrative offer to join up, and has been marked for death when Quasar and Tonah launch a tyrannosaurus-and-pteradactyl (sic) attack that decimates the opposition, one of whose helmets is mislabeled “Roxon.”  Ben breaks free, uttering the issue’s second “It’s clobberin’ time!,” and is joined by Quasar, comparing notes as they pursue Pittman, who escapes to New York and, as a fail-safe, teleports the projector with him, stranding our heroes as Tonah et al. finish destroying everything but…that pumping station.

Eureka!  Quaze has Ben close the valve, realigning the adaptors into Nth H.Q. so that once it’s reopened they can ride the petroleum wave home, enclosed in a protective photonic bubble; he’s set the circuitry to shut off the flow after seven minutes, giving them enough time to, uh, mop up the enemy.  With the viscous flood ruining all their projectors, the Nth Command is finished, so having seen the handwriting on the wall and been told “Roxxon doesn’t take these sort of failures well,” Pittman decides to take the coward’s way out and allow himself to drown.  But Ben plucks him from the oil, since—per Quasar—“it’s going to be almost impossible to tie this operation in with Roxxon directly.”  Says Ben, “Ya got some answerin’ ta do before sayin’ sayanara [sic]…”

Each of the Twins gets a solo effort before we’re through, and this is Ralph’s, with the Wilstone art team carried over from #72; ironically, it will be Mark who goes on to write all but one of Quasar’s 60-issue 1989-94 series.  The former Marvel Man-Boy had, of course, been rebranded in Incredible Hulk #234, but Gruenwacchio popularized and set him up as the security chief for Project Pegasus.  Like #67, this is a story that could probably be enjoyed as a stand-alone, yet builds on the whole Nth Command/Projector plotlines they’d been nurturing since Day One, and basically resolves them, since the interest-free Pittman heads into oblivion—no loss—while the Nth Command won’t resurface until the long-forgotten (at least by me) Captain America #288-9.

Although not a total dick, Ben’s a bit condescending to Quasar after the collegial relationship they’d previously established in this very mag (“Lemme handle the jokes, pal,” “I need you ta tell me that?!”), yet has some otherwise nice lines:  “Hey, Pittman—I hope yer runnin’ ta check out Roxxon’s disability benefits.  ’Cause when I git done with ya, yer gonna need ’em!,” and my favorite, “I don’t plan on windin’ up as a dipstick.”  While the artwork is largely functional, Ron cuts loose with some nice spectacle, e.g., the void on the splash page; the complex in page 3, panel 2; the dinosaur cavalry charge on pages 12-3.  Overall, it’s not a bad little story, but holy cats, did they even stop to consider what an environmental nightmare that flood of oil would be?

Marvel Two-in-One 74 (April 1981)  
The Thing and the Puppet Master in
"A Christmas Peril!"
Story by Mark Gruenwald 
Art by Frank Springer and Chic Stone
Colors by George Roussos
Letters by Michael Higgins
Cover by Frank Springer

Ben, Alicia, and the Richardses return from last-minute Christmas shopping, delayed by Reed’s “work on the nucleonic pulse engine,” and Alicia urges Ben to “get into the spirit of the season” by sending a card to her stepfather, Phillip.  Said Puppet Master is being paroled from Ryker’s Island when it arrives on December 23, and doesn’t open it before returning to his undisturbed Lower East Side workshop, only to discover that his supply of radioactive clay has decayed.  So it seems like the last straw when he reads the card; he takes it as an attempt to mock him (and not without justification, since we can see it reads, “May you get what’s coming to you in the year ahead”), but it also sparks the idea for an audacious scheme.

At the FF’s Christmas Eve bash, the Aquarian—largely unseen since inexplicably asking a deer for directions in #64—is reunited with Jeannine O’Connell, his former therapist and Quasar’s current fiancée.  Uninvited guest Phillip has no gift under the tree, but after declining Franklin’s kind offer to pick one of his, Masters admits there is just one thing he wants:  a chance to revisit his birthplace…which is also the only source of the clay.  So, with Ben’s hearty “Bah, humbug!,” they and Alicia take the Pogo Plane on an impromptu Christmas Day vacation to Transia, “a tiny kingdom bordering Romania nestled in the Balkans,” yet having snuck out of the inn at night to dig at the base of feared Wundagore Mountain, Masters is dwarfed by two huge wooden soldiers.

Seeking him on Boxing Day, the couple is directed to “the cottage of the mystery woman of the mountain,” who naturally turns out to be Bova, recapping her history with the High Evolutionary and how the now-childlike Modred became her ward (points to “Set-It-Straight Salicrup’s” note explaining that they recall meeting the H.E. but not the ex-mystic, due to his mind-wipe in #33).  They’re forced by a blizzard to stay over, and during the night, Modred—who thinks “that man with orange rock skin…looks like a bad man!”—dreams, his latent mystical power activating his toys.  Also tumbling out of their chest is Phillip, so before you can say “Jack and the Beanstalk,” he awakens Ben and they realize they have shrunk, leaving everyone else appearing to be giants.

Ben swiftly intuits who’s responsible, and Masters—having pocketed a small amount of clay just before his capture—says he can compel Modred to cooperate if he gets close enough to sculpt a puppet, but an army of toys stands between them, leading to one of MTIO’s more offbeat battles.  Ben propels Phil to a perch atop the dresser, where he fashions an effigy by hand, yet it only controls conscious actions, so Ben rouses “Mody,” whose shout summons the, uh, ladies.  Made aware (two pages later) of our heroes’ tiny presence, they explain to Modred that “different” is not the same as “bad,” and order is restored; the next morning, the storm over, the visitors depart after Masters tells Modred, “Dreams can be real in the daytime, too…if you wish hard enough.”

It seems apt that Mark ends the run—“the Two-In-One Twins bid sayonara, and ask all you good people out there to check out Thor for our current whereabouts”—with a “Special X-mas Issue!”  Speaking of which, the lettercol also helpfully identifies all but one of the guests at the Baxter Building Christmas party on page 6, e.g., such usual suspects as Johnny’s inamorata du jour, Lorrie Melton, and mailman Willie Lumpkin.  The less obvious include Sue’s old friends Bob and Carol Landers with their daughter, Audrey; Walt “Stingray” Newell and his wife, Diane (née Arliss, Tiger Shark’s sister); sometime roommates Annie Christopher and Namorita Prentiss, the Aquarian’s erstwhile guardians from his Wundarr days; and Quasar’s father, Dr. Gilbert Vaughn.

A missed opportunity there for Masters and ex-Wundarr to mend fences after their altercation in #9, yet when Gruenwald observes of Modred, “Now it is a child’s mind that rules this body of a man,” all I could think was, is this book required to have a resident man-child?  Mark keeps the Continuity Quotient up by contributing to the mythos of Wundagore Mountain and Transia; he’d already established in Spider-Woman #12 that Mr. Doll, uh, got wood for the Brothers Grimm from Pietro and Wanda’s adoptive dad, local boy Django Maximoff, but I think this is the first we’ve heard that the indigenous clay unsurprisingly gave Phillip remarkably similar abilities.  By throwing Bova and Modred into the mix, he makes it feel as though all roads lead to Wundagore.

Penciler Frank Springer’s byline is usually cause for alarm, yet perhaps it’s that “seasonal spirit” making me say that he and Chic don’t make too bad a team here, with some fun stuff like the splash page showing Reed’s pliable arms wrapped serpent-like around a tower of gifts, although Franklin seems a little off-model in his otherwise heart-tugging scene on page 8.  They’re at their worst with the Puppet Master, whose appearance not only is inconsistent, but also looks at times (e.g., page 6, panel 1) as if his teeth are about to shoot suddenly from his mouth, Alien-style.  It’s interesting that no mention is made of Masters’s benign appearance in #60; I guess I’ll overlook Ben’s casual homophobia (“Some of those dames make Doc Doom look like a blushin’ pansy!”).

Nice moment in page 18, panel 3 as Ben cracks open the door to Mody’s room and, in ECU, says “Uh-oh” at the sight of the oncoming march of the wooden soldiers (“Where the heck are all these toys comin’ from?  This kid’s really spoiled!”).  Mark upholds the tradition of unusual co-stars, whose predicament offers ample comedy, as when Ben is endangered by Bova’s posterior, plus another memorable shot in page 27, panel 5 of the tiny Thing dwarfed on Alicia’s hand.  He is quite reasonably concerned about what mischief an aware Modred might create, yet Masters, whose puppets were his only childhood companions, argues, “perhaps if Modred learns, now, to treat dolls like people instead, he will not follow the lonely path I did”; “Happy Holidays to All.”

In Two Weeks...
Professor Tom sheds light on
The Bizarre X-Men!

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Post-Graduate Studies #14

The MU campus is mostly unused right now but
from time to time, our Professors will drop in for Summer courses.
This Week:
The Gruenwacchio Run, Part 2
by Professor Matthew Bradley

Marvel Two-in-One 64 (June 1980)
The Thing and Stingray in
"The Serpent Crown Affair!
Part One: From the Depths!"
Story by Mark Gruenwald and Ralph Macchio
Art by George Pérez  and Gene Day
Colors by Carl Gafford and Ben Sean
Letters by John Costanza
Cover by George Pérez and Gene Day 

I’ve divided up the run so that each post contains an arc of some significance, and this time, right out of the sea gate, we get “The Serpent Crown Affair.”  Not be confused with that earlier and, frankly, better Pérez-drawn story encompassing the crown, Roxxon, the Scarlet Witch and one of the Hyperions (Avengers #141-4 and 147-9), it features the same old Serpent Crown but a brand-new Serpent Squad, the third and least interesting to date.  Like the trilogy immediately preceding, it builds on many a story that came before, starting with Ben’s vow in #61 that Alicia will never again be endangered because of him, on which he tries to deliver by proposing a trial separation, tearfully but stoically accepted by the sightless sculptress.

Kicking himself for making her cry, Ben seeks a confidant at the Baxter Building, but as Stretcho agrees, a late-night visitor arrives:  Walter Newell of the Pacifica Institute of Oceanography, who was referred by Namor and introduces Dr. Henry Croft.  Learning of the Hydro-Men, Newell had been struck by their resemblance to Triton—encountered in Sub-Mariner #31—and seeks the aid of the Inhumans.  While Reed gets a cell sample, we jump to the first of two “Pegasus Project” follow-ups as Thundra, having vowed to probe her shadowy ex-employers, returns to Kowalski’s Gym, only to be confronted by wrestling manager Herkimer Oglethorpe’s newest protégé, the Squadron Sinister’s Hyperion, last seen (to vigorous derision) in the hilariously awful Thor #280.

Then, following an inner call to NYC, the Aquarian spots a deer and thinks, “I shall ask it to see if I am heading in the right direction,” a question that seems more suited to his childlike Wundarr days, or has he developed some Dr. Dolittle power of which I’m unaware?  Back at the Baxter, it seems the mutagenic Terrigen Mist is indeed responsible, yet since it exists nowhere outside of Attilan, the Inhumans are equally, uh, mist-ified and elect to examine Croft themselves.  Citing a meeting with his “manufacturers” (of what?), Reed asks Ben to fire up the Pogo Plane and give the boys a lift, meeting Triton halfway off the coast of California, but they’re running ahead of schedule, and when Walt spots a suspicious offshore oilrig near San Francisco, they take a look...

So the splash, as it were (helpfully captioned “Thus it begins”), is page 16, halfway through the issue, an admittedly impressive shot of the derrick.  Certain that there are no oil deposits nearby, Newell goes into Stingray mode, Ben amusingly riding him like a surfer with poor Croft bobbing aboard the Pogo Plane, yet no sooner have they gotten the brush-off from Roxxon’s crew than an underwater explosion ruptures a support column.  Volunteering Ben to bolster it, Walt rises via glider-membranes to the observation platform, but with nothing to brace himself against, he can’t catch enough wind to create a counterforce and keep the tower from buckling, so he dives under to investigate the source of the explosion, leaving the chagrined Grimm to improvise a repair job.

Our heroes are then attacked on two fronts as the shockingly ungrateful roughnecks literally pile on Ben, who scatters them handily, while Stingray encounters a Thunderball-style army of scuba divers, who apparently created the crevice into which two of the columns are sinking.  Electro-blasts and “a good old fashioned left hook” carry the day, but the triumphant Newell is shocked by a “strange throbbing sound” and off-panel menace.  Up top, Ben is equally surprised by the emergence of, first, an unconscious Stingray, who is hurled out of the water to land right in his arms, and, second, a small submarine from which emerge those seemingly responsible, “the deadly new Serpent Squad,” including Anaconda, Black Mamba, Death Adder, and Sidewinder.

We’re back to full-strength Gruenwacchio for the duration of this post, inked throughout by Day, and those who had begun to despair of seeing Ben properly drawn in his own title will share my relief at a brief return by Pérez, whose Thing is about as Thingy as it gets, e.g., page 15, panel 2; page 16, panel 1; page 30, panel 2.  Fittingly, it’s a Grimm’s Greatest Hits issue:  “I’m the ever lovin’, blue-eyed Thing, idol of millions!,” “What in the name ’a my Aunt Petunia is goin’ on,” “Wotta revoltin’ development this is!,” and, naturlich, “it’s clobberin’ time!”  And despite my preference for time-tested villains over potentially dull new ones, the Pacesetter seems to have co-created these in his Salem’s Seven mode, at least making them colorful and visually arresting.

It’s perhaps unfair to criticize this for the slow start common to the first part of so many a trilogy, yet it should be noted that some of these seeds aren’t harvested until after it’s done, and of course the crown isn’t even invoked here.  I’m glad to see somebody addressing the amphibians’ plight, with which Reed should’ve been familiar from visiting Hydrobase in Super-Villain Team-Up #7, and I’ve long had a soft spot for Stingray, who never made the big time but always looked cool, as shown to good effect on the cover and in page 19, panel 5.  I like his characterization:  “It’s funny…I’ll probably never tell anyone—but this is when I feel most alive…this is when I know I was born to be Stingray!” and, after defeating those divers, “Not bad for a part-time super hero.”

Marvel Two-in-One 65 (July 1980)
The Thing and Triton in
"The Serpent Crown Affair
Part Two: Serpents from the Sea"
Story by Gruenwald and Macchio
Art by George Pérez and Gene Day
Colors by Carl Gafford
Letters by John Costanza
Cover by George Pérez and Gene Day

The splash page’s partial recap is quickly followed by an info dump (out of Ben’s earshot) as Sidewinder tells the squad what they already knew, but we did not:  “this is a bogus drilling operation set up by Roxxon Oil merely to disguise its search for the Serpent Crown…which Roxxon has trained and outfitted the four of us to find and bring to them.”  They got a little overzealous with the explosives meant to unearth it, so Anaconda sneaks up and puts the squeeze on Ben, distracting him long enough to take the hors de combat Newell hostage.  Threatening Walt with Death Adder’s venomous claws, they flee the doomed derrick, shackling Ben to a support beam in such a way that breaking free would tear out Stingray’s arms.

Not knowing what to make of all the activity he has observed from a distance, Croft sends out a mayday while, chez Kowalski, Hype says that after regaining his memory (and meeting Thundra) in Avengers Annual #8 he “settled down, deciding to stay here for awhile and make something of myself.”  A fight over who gets to retain Herkimer’s services ends when he proposes a “merger,” but—Bwuhahaha!—Hyperion thinks, “Everything’s going according to plan.  Now it’ll be easy to turn her over to my Roxxon employers.”  Orchestrating an unorthodox escape, Ben pert near drowns himself by stomping through the floor of the platform, sliding down the pole, and freeing it from the seabed, allowing him enough leverage to snap their bonds and reascend to the surface.

There, Ben finds not only Croft but also Triton (another belated guest-star entrance, on page 17), who spotted the plane while circling in search of the no-shows and “was just about to [emphasis mine] attempt a rescue…when you surfaced.”  Aware that the crown “could conceivably enslave every living being,” Triton leads an aqualung-equipped Ben to the crevice, scattering the squad like a living torpedo just as Anaconda has excavated it.  Ben’s concern over Death Adder’s claws seems oddly misplaced, since I doubt they could penetrate his hide; meanwhile, up against a wall of rock, Sidewinder teleports—excuse me, “dimensionally displaces,” or “sidewinds”—himself to safety just as Triton is charging him, leaving our dazed Inhuman with Excedrin Headache #65.

Double-teamed Ben is held in Anaconda’s deadly coils while Black Mamba enters the fray to offer a final “moment of ecstasy,” projecting an “ebon phantom” that manifests itself as Alicia and tears off his mask.  But the revived Stingray saves the day, separating Ben from the Serpents with an electro-burst and aiding Triton against Death Adder.  Yet it’s all for naught:  Sidewinder reaches their flying sub with the crown in hand, launching a depth charge at Triton as a parting shot, and although Stingray valiantly detonates it prematurely, enabling them to survive by riding a shockwave that buries the other Serpents in a rockslide, Ben’s relief at seeing the pair surface alive is tempered by the knowledge that “we blew it big this time, guys”…and the crown is gone.

Not a great Pérez/Day cover—too busy—but I sure do like that color scheme, and it’s nice to see Triton get prominent billing, if not pride of place inside or out.  Knowing this to be George’s last issue (excepting the odd cover), I was set to savor top-notch art one last time when a funny thing happened on the way to the oilrig, and although Mrs. Bradley didn’t raise any children stupid enough to say it’s bad, I was struck by a phenomenon that got me crunching numbers, which is rarely good.  After the splash, not one of the 17 pages to follow has fewer than 5 panels, with an average of 6.82, giving the Pacesetter’s customarily fine pencils a distinctly cramped feeling; I’d mind it less if I didn’t feel that, say, Ben’s escape could have been shown with greater economy.

It’s a curious phenomenon reminiscent of those occasions when Mrs. Professor Matthew is stuck in a phone conversation where the other party says, as I put it, “nothing—at great length”; strictly speaking, not a whole hell of a lot actually happens to advance the storyline in this chapter, yet it happens in such great detail that it barely fits on the page.  And I’m all for slipping in exposition on the fly, rather than stopping the story in its tracks for a formal flashback, but they really abuse the privilege with endless digressions that, in some cases, rehash the same info multiple times—is it verboten to assume that at least somebody read the damned previous issue?  On the plus side, our rocky protagonist is in rare form, provided by Mark and Ralph with such bons mots as these:

  • [to the Serpents] “You guys are a little late fer trick-or-treatin’, ain’tcha?”
  • [to Anaconda] “If yer so tough, howcum ya gotta have that circus’a horrors up here ta back ya up?”  (It doesn’t hurt that I knew George Baxt, who scripted Circus of Horrors.)
  • [of Stingray] “…he’s just some kinda ocean scientist-type…like Jack Cousteau on TV!”
  • “Save it fer the Golden Guide [a staple of my childhood, BTW] ta snakes, Sidewinder.”
  • “With my luck, I’ll probably go out with jellyfish in my shorts.”

They really nail his characterization, as when Ben is sucker-punched while musing that Stingray wouldn’t be in his present predicament “if I could’a taught the guy a few pointers”; Anaconda’s trash talk is impressive as well (“You’re all mine, brickman.  When I’m finished, there won’t be enough pieces to make a puzzle out of you”).  And even constrained by the tight layouts, George brings both power and a typically impressive level of detail to his work.  Highlights include the Herkimer’s-eye-view up at Thundra in page 14, panel 6; Triton’s entrance in page 17, panel 4; Sidewinder’s caped silhouette as he surveys the excavation in page 19, panel 1; Black Mamba’s “hypnotic gaze” in page 23, panel 3; and the death’s heads in “Alicia’s” eyes in page 26, panel 5.

Marvel Two-in-One 66 (August 1980)
The Thing and Scarlet Witch in
"The Serpent Crown Affair! 
Part Three: A Congress of Crowns!"
Story by Mark Gruenwald, Ralph Macchio, and Steven Grant
Art by Jerry Bingham and Gene Day
Colors by Bob Sharen
Letters by John Costanza
Cover by George Pérez and Terry Austin

“Would someone please explain what’s been going on?” asks Croft as the aquanauts surface; cue flashback, after which he and Triton resume their interrupted journey to Attilan, while Stingray volunteers to see this through.  Radioing the Baxter Building, Ben finds Agatha Harkness holding down the fort, and upon learning that they seek the crown—“an artifact of pre-cataclysmic Lemuria that enslaves one’s mind while granting great psychic power”—she breaks off to tap the firsthand expertise of her ex-pupil, the Scarlet Witch.  As “everyone who wears the crown [which Wanda held in Avengers #147] is forever mystically joined with it,” she traces it to D.C., and arranges to meet the boys at the Washington Monument.

Resisting the temptation to don it, Sidewinder delivers the crown to Hugh Jones, astonished to see another, hitherto invisible, appear atop his head.  Roxxon’s president explains that this one, native to our Earth, was placed on his head by “the original [i.e., Madame Hydra/Viper’s second] Serpent Squad,” later retrieved by an employee from the sewer where it wound up in Captain America #182.  The other, brought here from the Squadron Supreme’s world, was dropped into the Pacific in Avengers #154, and having formed his own squad to find it, Jones joins the two to become “the master of reality!,” revealed as more than a mere boast when—en route to their rendezvous with Wanda—Ben and Stingray see the populace of our capital frozen in their tracks.

The crown’s “malign emanations” lead them to the Capitol, where they find a scaly-faced Jones, “high apostle of the serpent-lord Set,” presiding over “the first Congress of the Crowns” on an inverted-cross altar, amid “ethereal manifestations of every being who has ever worn one of the two Serpent Crowns in my possession!”  These include sorcerer Thoth-Amon, who sported the Cobra Crown first seen in Savage Sword of Conan #40; Sub-Mariner friends and foes such as Paul Destine/Destiny, Lady Dorma, and Lord Naga; and President Nelson Rockefeller of the Squadron Supreme’s world (that’s Earth-712 to you, buddy).  Recalling the animated statues in #60, Hugh sends his faux Namor, Viper, Warlord Krang and the Living Laser against our heroes.

Wanda says she “will submit freely,” hoping to get close and unleash “a single soul-searing hex,” but he sees through the ruse, grabs her hands pre-emptively and, in a disturbing image, has two of the crown’s snake-heads bury their fangs in her temples.  A well-conceived double-spread on pages 22-3 shows the battle being waged on two fronts as Ben and Stingray play Whac-A-Snake while, in the center, Jones and Wanda’s motionless figures belie their fierce struggle on the astral plane.  Sussing both her plight and her importance to the outcome, Ben leaves Newell to his own devices so that he can help “Ms. Scarlet” by separating Jones from “this party hat,” only to have it revert him to human form…yet she senses that this opposition on the physical plane is the key.

In a desperate gamble, Wanda allows the serpent-god to swallow her whole, the abrupt end of their “psychic tug-of-war” disorienting Jones and enabling Ben to tear off the crown, which then forces him to put it on, yet he is impervious.  “My skin musta been too thick for the snake ta get through to my brain!,” his restored humanity having been a mere hallucination, although a freed Wanda posits that the crown-linked Jones, now barely alive after the forced separation, felt him unworthy.  Victorious for the moment, Ben advocates getting the crown far from the politicians (“’specially durin’ an election year”), but as the Scarlet Witch reminds him and Stingray, until a permanent solution can be devised that will keep it inaccessible, “There will be other Joneses…”

Till now, the “Serpent Crown Affair” (which, in classic forest-for-the-kelp style, I didn’t think of as a riff on The Thomas Crown Affair, a film I didn’t like in either incarnation) hasn’t had all that much to do with the titular headgear.  MIA in part one, it was the nominal object of the exercise in part two, yet really served as more of a MacGuffin than anything else, and takes center stage far too close to the curtain ringing down, which I consider poor plotting.  Speaking of which, “Two-in-One Twins” Mark and Ralph thank, among others, “the irrepressible Paty [Cockrum], who helped us come up with the names and powers of the all-new Serpent Squad….[and] stealthy Steven Grant for some eleventh-hour plot assistance on the conclusion” in their lettercol.

Great cover by lame-duck Pérez and Austin…except for the words.  “Deadlier than Watergate!”  Uhm, could somebody remind me of what the body count was for Watergate?  “More shocking than Abscam!”  Just shy of my 17th birthday, as I was at that time, I doubt I was terribly shocked by, or even aware of, Abscam, but at least that’s topical.  And as much as I love Ben’s “revoltin’ development” catchphrase, this is not the place for it.  Inside, for all of their vaunted mastery of the Marvel Universe, Gruenwacchio makes a major gaffe by having Ben say of Wanda, “I don’t even know the lady”; they battled Ultron together just prior to her brother’s wedding, and the mutant siblings had a MARMIS fight with Ben and the Torch as far back as Strange Tales #128.

The Pacesetter is a tough act to follow, but Bingham (whose only other issue is #76) does better than on the prior trilogy, the crown—too late for George, alas—lending itself to imaginative layouts.  On page 6, Wanda’s vision draws her into a “swirling void,” with a “multidimensional serpentine entity entwined about myriad astral Earths,” revealing an image of the monument inside its “ever-widening maw.”  Visually, this chapter recalls the Lovecraftian “The Spawn of Sligguth!” from Marvel Premiere #4; Sidewinder looks cool, emerging from a moonlit Potomac clutching the crown in page 7, panel 3, as does his dimension-slithering effect (Bob Sharen also makes effective use of reptilian green for the crown-wearing phantasms and Wanda’s astral self).

Despite his zingers at the government’s expense (“A fat lotta good takin’ over Congress would do ’em!  No one listens to those clowns anyway!,” to which Wanda replies, “The crown merely grants power not intelligence!”), Ben’s heart is ultimately in the right place:  “This joint’s not up for grabs—so here’s one fer good ol’ Uncle Sam!”  But Stingray’s “part-time” status may be overdone here, e.g., “Too much information to digest—I’m a scientist not a super hero!” (Damn it, Jim!), “I guess being a weekend super hero doesn’t cut it in something this serious!”  Overall, notwithstanding my pacing concerns, the finale is easily the most interesting part of the trilogy, yet I still feel that, in the immortal words of Professor Gilbert’s father, “It should’ve been more.”

Marvel Two-in-One 67 (September 1980)  
The Thing and Hyperion in
"Passport to Oblivion!"
Story by Gruenwald and Macchio
Art by Ron Wilson, Gene Day, and "Friends"
Colors by Various
Letters by John Costanza
Cover by Ron Wilson and Joe Sinnott

Ben brings the crown, safely wrapped in a steel ball, to Pegasus, where he is warmly greeted by Quasar; leaves it in a magnetic stasis field, with strict orders that nobody touch it until Reed can check it out; reveals that Jones is being observed in an asylum; gets a gloomy prognosis from Giant-Man; and admits he’s “sorta lost track of” Thundra.  At a Metro Bank branch fronting for the Nth Command, the new wrestling partners learn they are not so different after all, each promised a return to his or her homeworld, however seemingly inaccessible, for services rendered.  Nth Project director Albert DeVoor introduces himself and Professor Abner Doolittle, whose portable Nth Projector is able to send matter to other realities.

Doolittle explains that (stay with me here) when “the male-dominated planet of Machus” merged with Femizonia, it created a divergent reality, and “We can send you to the alternate world that was not invaded…”  She’s skeptical—hell, so am I—but becomes a believer when Dr. Erwin’s transdimensional viewer shows her the unmistakable sight of home.  Meanwhile, Ben returns to the Baxter Building for his overdue heart-to-heart with Reed, who counsels that Alicia should be allowed to choose her own lifestyle, danger or no, yet as he approaches her SoHo loft to say he’s reconsidered their separation, he sees her leaving, laughing arm-in-arm with an unidentified man; assuming “she’s awready written me off,” Ben dumps his flowers into the trash and mopes away.

When Thundra requests a demo, Abner obligingly has himself transported to her homeworld, but it’s all a ruse:  having observed the operation of the projector, she sends DeVoor and Erwin after him and steals it, threatening Hype with the same if he interferes.  Racing ahead of her escape into an adjacent subway tunnel, planning to take the data and device to the FF, he proves himself “faster than a speeding bullet,” yet avows that “I go for you in a big way.”  As an Nth Command scavenger squad follows in a jet-powered vehicle, Ben comes home, his thoughts turning to “the only other gal that [sic] ever went fer me,” and no sooner does he “wonder what she’s been up ta?” than she bursts up through the pavement with Hyperion, whose reputation has preceded him.

Cue the quasi-MARMIS, although Hyperion’s motives are mixed at best:  determined to get her to transport them to “one of my world’s dimensional alternates—rather than one of her own,” he nonetheless wants “this temperamental knock-out with me—no matter what the price.”  As he dukes it out with Ben, she battles the Nth team, escaping an electrified titanium steel net before learning that the projector is about to self-destruct, forcing her to use it immediately.  Imparting what little she knows of the Nth Command to Ben, for whom she professes her love, Thundra activates the device, and as she fades away, Hyperion plunges into the aperture (“Don’t pull a disappearing act without me!”), leaving Ben to lament that he “lost two women inna same day...”

Ron Wilson, who penciled the book desultorily for years (#12-41), begins the rarely interrupted second TOD that rounds out its run, with Day here getting a little help from unspecified Friends.  “Rampaging Ron” is reasonably competent at drawing the Thing, which is exceedingly fortunate in light of the number of issues bearing his byline, but in general his work is pretty aggressively average, which contributes to the resounding “meh” I give this story.  It’s kind of a coda to two different multi-part sagas, “The Pegasus Project” and “The Serpent Crown Affair,” and as such it seems like a quintessential Gruenwacchio outing, with all of the positives and negatives implied, one that tries—with mixed results—to be entertaining in its own right while tying up loose ends.

In both epics, Roxxon was revealed to be pulling the strings, yet despite Hyperion’s reference in #65 to his “Roxxon employers,” this issue never overtly connects the dots to stress that they were behind the Nth Command as well as the Serpents.  I’d love to say that Hype is a masterpiece of characterization who has undergone a complex evolution since his introduction in Avengers #69, but I’d be lying, and the two disastrous recent appearances cited above suggest to me that Marvel simply didn’t know what to do with the guy.  So it’s perhaps no surprise that this tale feels like an attempt—however clumsy—to hustle him and Thundra offstage, which seems to have been successful since, if I’m not mistaken, they won’t be seen again until 1986 and 1987, respectively.

The otherwise okay Wilsinnott cover is noteworthy, replacing the usual “The Thing and [fill in the blank]” billing with “…vs. Hyperion,” touted as “the Battle You’ve Been Waiting For!”  Not sure if you were, although I suppose that with Hype being Marvel’s answer to Superman, it’s one that had to happen sooner or later, but we certainly waited for two-thirds of the issue to see them even on the same page.  A recent lettercol pointed out that unlike MTU, this mag’s title does not promise that the stars will “team up,” merely that the two of them will appear in some capacity in one issue; I presume that being the formal guest as recently as #56 (billed as “The Thing Battles [emphasis mine] Thundra”) precluded our favorite Femizon here even if she’s the natural choice.

Excavating arcane Marveliana is, of course, a Gruenwacchio trademark, but again, it’s handled in a curious way here, with neither DeVoor nor Doolittle footnoted or acknowledged in any way; is that deliberate downplaying, which threatens to defeat the purpose for all but those with really long memories, or editorial sloppiness?  I got a little bit of a woody from DeVoor, the corporate heavy from one of my favorite Bronze-Age arcs, Fantastic Four #160-63, who certainly knows a little something about alternate realities.  Doolittle, not so much, although I certainly recalled his days as “Brother Wonderful” from Jack Kirby’s “Night People” arc in Captain America #201-4, and it’s to the credit of Wilson, Day et al. that they capture his distinctly Kirbyesque appearance.

Worst Dialogue of the Month:  “Ben, Alicia may not be able to see…but she isn’t blind.”  Hard-to-buy coincidences include Ben asking after Foster just as he’s walking up behind him, arriving just in time to misconstrue—I presume—Alicia’s exit, and just happening to speculate regarding Thundra’s current activities about 0.8 seconds before she literally pops up.  She and Hyperion visit the bank in matching trench coats, presumably hoping to be inconspicuous despite his mask, but by a colorful costuming coincidence, identical yellow boots and red leggings peek out from beneath; he asks for “the manager…Mr. Nth” (eliciting an audible “Seriously?” from this reader), yet since DeVoor introduces himself by name moments later, security seems a trifle lax.

Lots of loose ends left dangling at the rushed fadeout, e.g., the fate of the three Nthers stranded in Thundra’s reality, and in case you forgot or were wondering, since it’s not footnoted here, the Machus-nations culminating in the merger were recounted in Fantastic Four #151-3.  The respective fates of Thundra and Hyperion, who go into the aperture together but do not come out the same way, are naturally outside the purview of this professor.  Thundra, who tells Ben that “You have shown me the nobility in the weaker sex,” looks conspicuously good in her close-up in page 6, panel 3, and conspicuously bad in page 11, panel 1, presumably a result of the tag-team inking that also leaves Hyperion looking like a Mad magazine refugee in page 11, panel 5 (above).

Marvel Two-in-One 68 (October 1980) 
The Thing and The Angel in 
"Discos and Dungeons!"
Story by Gruenwald and Macchio
Art by Ron Wilson and Pablo Marcos
Colors by Glynis Wein
Letters by John Costanza
Cover by Ron Wilson and Dave Simons

True story:  among the colorful characters populating my life is a conductor named Joe, who sometimes brings his dog Coco to work and gives her the run of my morning train, where she’s been known to hop up on an aisle seat next to a passenger.  As I usually sit on the aisle myself, I had never been accorded this hoped-for honor before.  Yet just after I finished reading this, moved over to the window to close my eyes for a few moments, and slapped this down on the adjacent aisle seat—while literally thinking, “Man, that story was a real dog”—Coco jumped up and gave my micro-review her seal of approval by sitting on it (as well as the open wallet displaying my monthly pass; her version of punching my ticket, I guess!).

So I’m not gonna argue with Coco, yet ironically, much as I love the myriad complexities of the Marvel Universe, it was with a sense of some relief that I anticipated a simple done-in-one, free from the baggage the last year’s worth of issues carried.  That relief turned to apprehension when I saw the tag (“It begins in a disco—but ends in a dungeon of doom!”), and utterly evaporated when I opened to the splash page, which confirmed my worst fears with not only the actual title, “Discos and Dungeons!,” but also the stomach-churning image of Ben in a white tux making like Travolta from Saturday Night Fever.  Both here and in Dazzler’s February debut in X-Men #130, they acknowledge that disco’s already dying, so why on Earth do they so often use it as a milieu?

Seeking to take his mind off Alicia, Ben has come to the newly opened Zanadu (sic) Zone with Johnny, whose face on the splash, at the hands of Wilson and Day, looks so misshapen that he appears to have been hit by a truck.  Providing another distraction, Warren Worthington III and main squeeze Candy Southern arrive; as Johnny takes her out on the dance floor, Warren warns him that Candy—who calls him “Warry,” which seems out of character—has “got this fixation for blonds.”  This is unintentionally humorous because Ron and Gene’s art is so, well, artless that the two are distinguished largely by parting their wavy golden locks on different sides, and I can perhaps be forgiven for thinking that it was our formal co-star, and not Johnny, on the splash.

I thought from the get-go that the Thing and the Angel made for an odd pairing, and when Ben says over drinks at the bar, “I ain’t heard much’a ya since ya left New York,” it epitomizes a curious phenomenon.  Gruenwacchio goes from forgetting Ben’s pre-existing acquaintance with the Scarlet Witch to implying a friendship with the Angel that I’m not sure is, uh, Warren-ted.  I mean, okay, the FF and X-Men crossed paths a couple of times in the ’60s, mostly in connection with Reed and Sue’s wedding, and I’m not gonna take the time to research it thoroughly, but I recall no precedent for them being BFFs; later, it will become clear that it’s purely an auctorial convenience, since Ben is merely collateral damage, Warren having been the villains’ true target.

The plot, in all senses, is set in motion when they slip Warren a Mickey and the entire lavatory to which he and Ben repair, with a distinctive “A” monogram on the wall unit dispensing sleeping gas as well as towels, is pneumatically lifted to the roof and whisked away via helicopter.  You got it, kids, the whole damn thing was just a set-up to entrap Warren, next to whom Ben is woken by a mechanical toad—excuse me, frog (clue?)—dropping from his face into one of the bubbling acid vats below our pinioned heroes, who are hanging by their ankles and slowly descending.  A protracted escape eats up three pages as they snap or wriggle their arms/wings loose, swing from their chains to knock over a vat, and then are challenged by a miniature robotic Magneto (clue?).

All they need do, for his unnamed Master’s amusement, is escape the castle alive, which is easier said than done as Ben falls through a trapdoor into a spike-filled pit, from which he pulls himself after digging his fingers into the side and encountering another toad—excuse me, frog (clue?)—while Warren negotiates a trio of razor-sharp pendulums.  He uses his wings to deflect a wave of additional, explosive toads—excuse me, frogs (clue?)—into a door, allowing ingress to a gallery filled with suits of armor, leading Ben to observe, “There’s somethin’ awfully familiar about this place.”  They are, of course, robots, and after a suit-able clobberin’, the Mini-Magneto summons them to his Master’s presence just as Ben realizes they’re in Dr. Doom’s old castle (from FF #5).

Said Master is revealed as, gasp, the self-described Terrible Frog—excuse me, Toad-King, the Evil Mutant and onetime Magneto minion whose retinue includes not only the whittled-to-size version of his own former master but also, per Ben, “a kewpie doll what looks like the Scarlet Witch,” and no, I would not care to speculate on what he does with the latter when the kids are asleep.  Holding court atop a gigantic mushroom in an artificial swamp, he has set himself up as an assassin “with the help of a financier” (clue?), while seeking revenge on those who humiliated him, Warren’s “flamboyant lifestyle” making him the easiest target.  It would be superfluous for me to point out how ill-suited he is for his new profession, as the script does so a few pages later.

Robotic flora (e.g., vines, lily pad, cat-tails, seaweed) notwithstanding, the battle is about as brief as you’d expect, after which he reverts to standard whiny-mode, especially when patron-of-the-assassins “Mister A” (clue?) calls in his marker, threatening to put Toad’s legs on the menu.  But it seems that all he ever really wanted was a little respect and attention, so Daddy Warrenbucks, who “can’t help but feeling [sic] a little sorry for him,” offers to pay off his debts and bankroll the castle’s conversion into an amusement park.  At the grand opening of Murderworld—excuse me, Toadland—the Angel enthuses over “how happy he was greeting his guests,” while Ben, whose head appears shrunken, observes that “he could’a at least given us a coupla free passes!”

The usual boneheaded errors include Warren’s “this lance weighs a ton,” while brandishing what is clearly a sword, and the Toad’s “Watch as my fearsome feet vanquishes the ponderous Thing,” leaving me unclear as to whether he and/or the editors are confusing “feat” and “feet,” or need to brush up on their subject-verb agreement.  Just to add insult to injury, the pages are printed out of sequence (10-11-13-14-12-15), at least in my copy, while Ron and Gene leave the Toad looking especially woebegone, even by his standards, in page 16, panel 7.  He joins a small fraternity of supposedly rehabilitated villains who Weren’t Really All That Bad After All; like Hyperion and Thundra, he stays offstage and, I presume, unlamented till the mid-’80s.  Sit, Coco!  Bradley out.

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