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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