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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The Stunning Conclusion!

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Post-Graduate Studies #13

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 1
by Professor Matthew Bradley

Marvel Two-in-One #59 (January 1980)
The Thing and the Human Torch in
"Trial and Error!"
Story by Marv Wolfman and Ralph Macchio
Art by Chic Stone and Al Gordon
Colors by Ben Sean
Letters by Irving Watanabe
Cover by Bob Budiansky and Chic Stone

Ben is reading a Thomas/Chan Conan newspaper strip when Johnny provokes a needless quarrel, then suggests he “live up to [his] rep as a big-hearted slob” by buying a broke Torch burgers at McDonald’s—gee, thanks.  En route, they encounter a runaway horse that makes a car swerve into a hydrant, which Ben seals while Johnny saves the unseated rider and puts Wyatt Wingfoot’s bronco-busting lessons to good use.  Cowboy manqué Norman Dunsell, joined by fiancée Deena Jasper, has a list of four goals to accomplish before he turns 30 on their wedding day a week hence, but ducks into the subway while she’s asking the F2 to keep him out of mischief, explaining that the only other goal he has told her is to be a fireman.

Conveniently, Norm tackles that one next, sneaking into a firehouse and donning a uniform just as an alarm summons the crew to a fire at one of the Twin Towers, where it doesn’t take long for his utter unsuitability for the effing job to manifest itself.  Playing a hunch, Johnny flies in to do the ol’ thermal-vortex routine, helping not only the real FDNY but also Ben, who—too heavy for their ladders—climbs the side of the building to rescue Norm from his own rescue of an innocent civilian, now lucky to be alive, no thanks to him.  Inexplicably interested in seeing the wedding through, Deena requests further help, but Ben and Johnny beg off to fight the fire and then check out a robbery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where, naturally, Norman is playing detective.

Using intel bought from a stoolie, and irresponsibly leaving the actual guard bound and gagged, Norm liberates his gun and confronts the crooks (“the vile fruits of a permissive society!”), fast discovering another job that doesn’t suit him and becoming a hostage as our heroes arrive.  After he accidentally extricates himself, the crooks cave in fear of the F2 and the sappy couple departs, with Deena allowing that “We all have to express ourselves at times, I guess,” and Norm noting of the unspecified fourth goal that “I get the feeling it’ll be the easiest one of all!”  Picking up the crumpled list he discarded, Ben sees that the last of the “Things I must become by age 30”—each of which is preceded by the initial article “a” excepting, oddly enough, “cowboy”—is “husband.”

The “Gruenwacchio” team of Mark Gruenwald and Ralph Macchio made an immediate splash in MTIO with their six-part “Pegasus Project,” which coincidentally ended with our undergraduate curriculum.  One or both writers worked on every issue through #74, and these posts will cover the remainder of that run, perhaps the book’s best since its inaugural Steve Gerber heyday.  Alas, it kicks off the 1980s with a dog that suffers from the absence of an actual antagonist, and which poor Ralph merely scripted from a plot by Marv Wolfman (a byline that will immediately lower the morale of those with memories of his tiresome tenure on #25-38), with indifferent artwork by penciler Chic Stone—who would go on to ink #72-89—and Spider-Woman survivor Al Gordon.

The tagline “The World Trade Center—Ablaze!” evokes retroactive sadness, especially for those who were in NYC on 9/11; my coworkers and I watched the North Tower burning in the distance from the roof of our midtown building.  “These firemen are the bravest men I’ve ever seen!” says Norm, but if you want a real tribute to the FDNY, check out Marvel Team-Up #75, on which the Claremont/Byrne Dream Team ironically collaborated with Macchio and Gordon.  I’m sure any real first responder would piss all over this depiction of civilians endangered by his Catch Me If You Can imposture, and for all you young’uns, Ben calls him “New York’s answer to George Plimpton” after the writer whose NFL tryout was related in the book (and 1968 film) Paper Lion.

A classic Ben-Moment as the Thing, noting that “old Benjy was a kid once hisself,” pokes a hole in the compacted hydrant to give the locals an improvised sprinkler, and a fun sight gag as a guy walks by the museum reading a Daily Bugle with the headline, “Austin New Suspect in Chaykin Murder.”  Setting aside Norman’s insufferability and the issue’s pervasive mediocrity, at least I can say that in page 7, panel 3, for example, the Thing really looks like the Thing, and that unlike certain other writers (yeah, I’m lookin’ at you, Jim Secret Wars Shooter), Macchio has an actual grasp of the Ben/Johnny dynamic.  So perhaps “dog” is too harsh a word for an admitted change-of-pace tale, even if “Next:  Back to reality with…the Impossible Man?!” doesn’t bode too well.

Marvel Two-in-One 60 (February 1980)  
The Thing and The Impossible Man in
"Happiness is a Warm Alien!"
Story by Mark Gruenwald and Ralph Macchio
Art by George Pérez and Gene Day
Colors by Roger Slifer
Letters by John Costanza
Cover by Bob Budiansky and Joe Rubinstein

The splash is one of several cleverly conceived pages, investing a mundane event like Ben’s workout with drama via a low-angle shot emphasizing the massiveness of the “multi-ton press” under which he crouches.  Before leaving to meet Sue for dinner at the Top of the Sixes, Reed goads Ben into smashing the press, which a chagrined Thing soon realizes was a way to release his tension over the opening, one hour hence, of “Alicia’s first big-time sculpture show” (at this late date?).  Why even Ben would fall for such a timeworn trick by now is beyond me, yet it does segue into a brief but nice reminder that their friendship dates back to college—complete with a look at some of the memorabilia decorating his living quarters.

As Ben hits the shower to “clear out the ol’ cobwebs,” they do a High Anxiety (1977) on page 5, divided into a dozen panels precisely recreating shots from Hitchcock’s legendary shower scene in Psycho (1960), evidently the subject of a new documentary.  In this case the intruder is, natch, our guest star, the Impossible Man (“Greetings, Earthman.  I come in peace”), provoking Ben’s rejoinder, “Whatta ya tryin’ to do, drive me psycho?!”  Impy, who has just seen Alien (1979) for the fifth time—tying in with the title, “Happiness Is a Warm Alien!”—cons the Thing into letting him tag along as a purple and green top hat, on the condition that he “stay a hat all night,” which promise he nominally keeps while transforming into a coonskin cap, Mickey Mouse ears, et alia.

This actually works to Ben’s advantage as he and Alicia—whose lack of reaction to the “sight” of Impy puzzles the Poppupian—take Yancy Street en route to “SoHo’s famed Yates Gallery,” where as the “eyes in the back of [his] head,” Impy deflects a gang-thrown brick with the Thing none the wiser.  In the converted warehouse, Mr. Fogarty introduces Alicia to the assembled highbrows as “the new first lady of the neo-realistic movement in modern sculpture.”  A center spread that covers most of pages 14-15 shows the gallery dominated by granite figures of, among others, the Sandman, Ultron, and the Wizard, while getting it all down for posterity are Messrs. Pérez, Gruenwald, and Macchio, who are seeking a “plot for issue sixty [which] is late…again!”

It is, however, the faux caterers who concern us at the moment, for they are in fact Ben’s old foes “Handsome” Harry Phillips, Bull Brogin, and Yogi Dakor, who quietly assume their positions by the effigies of, respectively, Dr. Doom, Blastaar, and Diablo, into which—with “special powers of mind that Yogi developed during his long incarceration”—they begin to transfer their life-forces.  Meanwhile, Alicia pronounces this “the happiest day of my life” when the warden allows stepfather Phillip to attend, so of course the Puppet Master is immediately suspect after the three figures attack Ben.  Luckily, that doesn’t last long, nor does his determination not to damage her work by fighting back when she avows, “They mean nothing to me…nothing compared to you!”

Thus reassured, Ben bashes “Blastaar” and “Doom” together, shattering them and knocking out their, uh, masters, whereupon “Diablo” takes Alicia hostage.  Impy saves the day when he sees the fakir hiding in the wings and innocently tries to draw him out (“You’re missing all the fun”) by turning into a water balloon that bursts on his head, destroying his concentration long enough for Ben to down him with a dismissive “Plink!” of his finger.  His loneliness exacerbated by the joyfully reunited lovers, the sole survivor of the planet Poppup, who has essentially contained all of his “community-brain” people within him since Galactus consumed their home in Fantastic Four #175, forms his own mate by becoming two, departing Earth to find a world of their own…

Per the lettercol, “We just hope that you’re as pleased by the new art combo of Perez [sic] and Day as we are.  George had long expressed an interest in having Gene apply the finishing inks to his breakdowns, and when the opportunity arose to team the two of them [in #56], editor Roger Stern jumped at the chance.”  Ironically, this “new art combo” would only briefly reconvene in #64, even if Day—who had previously inked Alan Kupperberg’s pencils in #49—does remain on board through #71.  Speaking of teams, this also reunites Gruenwacchio, although amusingly, the armadillo replies to a query (in the same LOC from Bruce Weintraub) about the mechanics of their collaborations by saying, “all we could get out of them was that a typewriter was involved!”

Excavating ancient villains is always a dicey business, and the Three Stooges—uh, Terrible Trio, although they are not identified as such here—certainly haven’t been missed since they faced Johnny and Ben in Strange Tales #129.  But Gruenwacchio, known for their mastery of Marvel lore, unsurprisingly handle it effectively.  With so much else going on in this issue, heavyweight villainy would unbalance things; the explanation for their significant power-up is kinda sorta plausible, by comic-book standards; and while they themselves are, visually, “a big nothing” (as Dad used to say), the fact that they are able to command simulacra of three relative big-leaguers enables us to have our cake and eat it too with this literal, if not figurative, appearance of majors.

Like the last issue, this one is clearly a lark, yet so exponentially better done that I found myself enjoying it despite my mild aversion to Impy, and even there it serves the purpose of getting him gracefully offstage until, I believe, a backup story in #86.  We get standbys “the idol o’millions,” the Yancy Streeters, and “clobberin’ time!,” plus potshots at pretentious art critics; Alicia seems suitably nonplussed when one states, “the genre of superhuman misanthropy and megalomania is of particular relevance in our egocentric society.”  This, at least, is a welcome one-off before the next major arc (evoking the Piranha Brothers, comic-Ralph asks, “I mean, how could we ever top that six-part Project Pegasus story?  It had everything—drama, humor, irony, pathos, satire—”).

Marvel Two-in-One 61 (March 1980) 
The Thing and Starhawk in
"The Coming of Her!"
Story by Mark Gruenwald
Art by Jerry Bingham and Gene Day
Colors by Ben Sean
Letters by Joe Rosen
Cover by George Pérez and Terry Austin

On Pier 17, three workers haul a huge cocoon out of the East River, then flee in fear as it glows and releases a barely glimpsed humanoid form that says, “My metamorphosis is complete.  My destination is near.”  That turns out to be Alicia’s SoHo loft, where Ben is enjoying a candlelight dinner after a performance of “Mozart’s Magic Fruit” at the Met, and understandably assumes that the gorgeous golden female—revealed in a full-pager on 6 as she bursts through the skylight—has hostile intent.  But clobberin’ time is deferred as she decks the Thing with a Terrax-worthy blast, then explains to Alicia (her actual quarry), “I have no name, but there is one worthy of christening me—and I need you to help me find Him.”

“Goldengirl”—a nod to Susan Anton’s 1979 SF film debut—blows a resurgent Ben through the wall, depositing him on a terrace (“I would not permit the object of your misplaced affections to perish”), then restores the damage and whisks Alicia off to Central Park for a chat before he gets back.  Those who recognized the cocoon will be unsurprised to learn that Her, that is, she, is the erstwhile Paragon, who was created by, and destroyed, the evil scientists of the Beehive in Hulk Annual #6 before retreating therein.  Believing that her purpose is to mate with her predecessor, creating a perfect race, she became his physical counterpart, and knows that Alicia was “among the last to see [as it were] Him” when he “left Earth for a home in the stars” way back in FF #67.

Meanwhile, Ben races to the Baxter Building and, with neither his teammates nor the Avengers available, seeks “some kind of doohickey” to locate Alicia.  Lamenting his lack of attention to Reed’s instructions, Ben finds and activates “the frammistat [he] uses to monitor cosmic activity on Earth,” yet the incoming blip turns out to be not Her but Starhawk, who establishes his bona fides by citing Ben’s meeting with his fellow Guardians of the Galaxy in #5.  He had sensed “an immense disruption in the local fabric of space” while preparing to depart after Korvac’s defeat, fearing he was reborn; “unfortunately your device has somehow interfered with my perceptions,” so Ben agrees to turn it off, since Starhawk wants to satisfy his curiosity, even if it’s not Korvac.

Meanwhile, Moondragon has also sensed Her and, parking her craft in the Hudson, approaches the women’s bench.  Evading “a sphere of containment,” she tells Her that, “Ironically, I am one of a mere handful of beings on Earth who can aid you in your quest,” then recaps Adam Warlock’s ( Him) death at the hands of Thanos and his burial “on his adopted planet, Counter-Earth,” in MTIO Annual #2.  Noting—and not without justification—that “Death does not mean to our kind what it does to yours,” Her wants to dig Him up and have a go at it, on which journey Alicia asks to join them, sensing “something momentous,” but first has to contact Ben, who turns up just as Her says “This one [pace Mantis] cannot permit such an imperfect being” to tag along.

Moondragon raises her ship from the river as Her deals summarily with the “interlopers,” sealing Ben under cement from which he is released by Starhawk, who knows Moony from the Korvac fiasco and tries to stop her “crummy flyin’ submarine.”  Faring no better, he is flung “half way ta Jersey,” and after the impotent Ben—who cannot hear her “I’m going voluntarily!”—realizes he cannot bring them down without endangering Alicia, he fishes Starry out of the Hudson.  “Jeez, givin’ artificial respiration to an Arcturan mutant wasn’t covered in my Boy Scout Handbook,” he frets, but his efforts are successful, and vowing to “track ’em down…clear across the galaxy,” he swears, “if Alicia ever makes it outta this one, she’ll never get in danger ’cause of me again!”

As a longtime Pérez fan, I was initially disappointed to see that the Pacesetter had been replaced by Bingham for this “cosmic trilogy” (a solo Gruenwald effort), but then reassured by pleasant memories of Jerry and Gene’s heroic holding action during the concurrent death march of the Black Panther’s strip.  I’ve long felt that certain writers have earned proprietary rights to certain characters, even if they didn’t create them, and this three-parter is virtual one-stop shopping that borrows not only Steve Gerber’s original Guardians of the Galaxy, but also Jim Starlin’s Titans and adoptive Warlock.  Yet while I won’t go so far as to say that Mark has set himself up to fail, he is walking a very high wire indeed, so he’ll need to have some good art providing a safety net.

Part one is a pretty mixed bag, a mishmash of MARMIS and set-up full of expository flashbacks, and I have a sneaking suspicion that said MARMIS was included solely as an excuse for some allegedly crowd-pleasing action.  For myself, I would have found it a refreshing change of pace if our little cosmic quintet—whose interests do not, in fact, actually differ—had come together peacefully and formed a kind of “Fellowship of the Thing.”  Despite some good lines and his success at deploying Reed’s “frammistat,” poor Ben serves as little more than a punching bag in his own book here, repeatedly humiliated by Her, and of course it’s always worrisome when the guest star doesn’t show up until page 16, but I guess I owe this one the courtesy of an open mind.

The artwork is, after all, somewhat disappointing, not bad but hardly soaring in the way I’d hope a self-proclaimed “cosmic” story would merit.  Her looks sexy, albeit generic, her Orphan Annie eyes giving her a vacuous appearance, yet Bingham’s rendition of the ever-challenging Thing is admittedly satisfactory; he also does well with Moondragon in page 17, panel 4 and page 18, panel 1 and Starhawk in page 30, panel 5.  Except in the title, “The Coming of Her!,” she is not referred to as such, but it’s eminently logical given her backstory (with one of the Editor-Jims, presumably Salicrup, incorrectly footnoting Adam’s leave-taking as FF #66), and while I was no more impressed than my colleagues by her debut, her eventual return was a foregone conclusion.

Marvel Two-in-One 62 (April 1980)
The Thing and Moondragon in
"The Taking of Counter-Earth!"
Story by Mark Gruenwald
Art by Jerry Bingham and Gene Day
Colors by George Roussos
Letters by Joe Rosen
Cover by George Pérez and Joe Sinnott
Mark, Mark, Mark.  If you feel you absolutely must use a MARMIS as the engine to set your trilogy in motion, well, it’s a time-honored device, and I shall restrict myself to a mild grouse, but when you squander two-thirds of your story pages (then still 17) in part two on largely repeating the same beats, I call that an undue liberty.  Here’s how it all plays out:  Starhawk is still recovering from his near-drowning when a cabbie—who thinks him drunk—delivers him and Ben to the Baxter Building, where out of Reed’s “showroom” of ships he selects the Skrull saucer commandeered way back in FF #2, believing that “we’ll need…its pre-Harkovian hyper-drive if we have to travel beyond your solar system,” and pilot Ben assents.

A recap is, naturally, folded into that and the concurrent journey by the distaff contingent aboard Moondragon’s ship, identified—for the first time, I believe—as Sensia, just as the ex-Paragon is now referred to, even by herself, as “the one called Her!”  Yet when they reach what should be their destination, opposite our orbit on the far side of the sun, they discover that “Counter-Earth has vanished!”  They seek answers in the lunar H.Q. of its creator, the High Evolutionary, as Her alters Alicia’s dress into a spacesuit, then bypasses an automated stasis ray by blasting through a titanium floor beneath her, smashing through the moon’s hull into space, and doubling back to blow open the docking-area hatch…which would really play havoc with the internal atmosphere.

Sprawled on the floor of the “nerve center,” they find the lifeless H.E., so of course they’re then interrupted by the arrival—undetected by a distracted Moondragon—of Ben, who’s now ready to add murder to the mistaken kidnapping charge, and Starry.  Mayhem ensues as a dogfight breaks out between “cosmic gladiators” Her and Starhawk, which takes an unexpected turn when Aleta, “the aggressive female counterpart who shares his corporeal existence,” displaces him.  Moony’s “chance to show Her that I am her peer—by defeating the Thing in physical combat” goes about as well as you’d expect, with Ben noting that his rocky hide precludes pressure points, and even turning her over his knee, before Alicia detaches “her sound-stifling helmet” and calls a halt to it.

It’s not until page 19 that, as Gruenwald puts it, “the cosmic-powered combatants lay aside their pointless conflict,” formerly known as “Mark’s MARMIS,” but what happens next makes it all worth the wait for a true Warlock fan.  Per Jim Starlin, what happened to Gamora in between her craft’s destruction by Drax in Warlock #15 and her death in Avengers Annual #7 “was supposed to be Warlock #16, which never happened,” due to his Gerry Conway-inspired exit from Marvel, yet alert readers know that there was one piece still missing from the puzzle.  The ancient hermit who predicted in his abrupt last issue that Adam would watch his loved ones die also foretold his causing the High Evolutionary’s death, and we saw the other aspects of that prophecy come true.

Moondragon detects the H.E.’s spirit still floating about, and pooling their powers, Her channels it back into his corporeal form, which “I thought I had lost…for good this time.”  Ben noted that when “last I saw him, he was fit ta take on Galactus” in FF #175, and he says that soon after, his crazed “son” burst in to accuse him of destroying the planet and its 4 billion inhabitants, despite the “tranquil sphere” appearing on the view-screen.  A despairing Adam fled, believing that his Soul Gem slew the H.E., who luckily had integrated into his armor the evolutionary accelerator that transformed him into his “ultimate form as a being of disembodied intelligence,” as it did in Tales to Astonish #96, a “shimmering apparition” nicely recreated by Jerry and Gene on page 22.

Told of Adam’s death and burial, the H.E. thinks the quintet is sharing in his delusion until the view-screen confirms, “By the stars!  It is missing!  My world is missing!”  Investigating what took place “while I was disembodied and beyond caring about so trivial a matter as a single planet,” he picks up trace particles of a tell-tale radiation “leading right out of the solar system,” suggesting that Counter-Earth is literally being towed away.  As the High Evolutionary adapts his moonship’s engines for warp-speed capacity, locks onto the particle trail, veers out of orbit, and drops into hyper-space, Ben—persuaded by Alicia to accompany them—asks, “do even the six of us have the power to take on someone who steals planets like a flatfoot near an applecart?”

Alas, the gorgeously colored Pérez/Sinnott cover makes a promise that the Bingham/Day interior art, perhaps inevitably, cannot keep, with much of it, as epitomized by the woebegone Ben on the splash page, looking rushed and perfunctory.  There’s really nothing wrong with the layouts, which are actually pretty solid, it’s just that the faces often leave something to be desired, for which I suppose Gene bears a heavy responsibility.  They do rise to the occasion now and then, e.g., with very different but equally effective images of Moony in page 7, panel 2 and page 19, panel 5; the first, positively Starlin-worthy (my highest praise), shows her face heavily shadowed and incredulous at Counter-Earth’s absence, while the second reminds us of her physical beauty.

Way too much time is spent on competition between Her and Moondragon, who despite being born of man and woman is given to musings like, “She has a distressing habit of putting me in the same category as common humanity.”  It’s not restricted to the ladies, as Starhawk’s “Your willingness to waste your cosmic force ill becomes you, golden one” prompts a withering reply:  “What gives you the right to judge one infinitely more perfect than yourself?”  The timing is presumably coincidental, yet it’s interesting to juxtapose “the perfect love [despite never having laid eyes on her “beloved”] embodied by her genetic prototype,” into whose physical counterpart she remade herself, and the amoeba-like division of the Impossible Man and Woman just before.

There seems to be a whole lotta gender stuff goin’ on, e.g., “Starhawk has become a woman—even as I myself had once been a man!,” while Moony predictably answers Ben’s “I ain’t keen on tusslin’ with women” by boasting, “I am no mere woman, I am a goddess!”  I can’t recall if it was controversial at the time, and it’s been pointed out that Ben’s penchant for spanking dates back to FF #38, but it’s hard to argue when he says, “Accordin’ to some ’a my pals in the Avengers, ya had this comin’ to ya for some time now!”  Regarding those solid layouts, some of the best are those of humanoid figures dwarfed in the entrances to Reed’s spaceship hangar (page 3, panel 1) and the H.E.’s command center (page 11, panel 2), plus that aforementioned page 22.

Marvel Two-in-One 63 (May 1980)
The Thing and Warlock in
"Suffer Not a Warlock to Live!"
Story by Mark Gruenwald
Art by Jerry Bingham and Gene Day
Colors by Roger Slifer
Letters by Joe Rosen
Cover by George Pérez and Terry Austin

The trilogy ends as it began, i.e., as less than the sum of its parts, perpetuating both the gender debate (“Starhawk ol’ pal—I’ve seen weird powers in my life, but changin’ into a woman has to be—!”) and the cosmic pissing match (“Once again my power looks second-rate next to hers!,” s/he laments).  The conclusion is especially frustrating in failing to live up to its potential, with the prudent billing of Ben’s co-star as “Warlock?” on the aesthetically excellent Pérez/Austin cover reassuring me that they may not spit in Starlin’s face by bringing Him back to life.  For those of you rusty on your King James Bible, the title “Suffer Not a Warlock to Live!” plays cleverly on Exodus 22:18:  “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”

Nobody is happier than I to see the High Evolutionary back on, or perhaps I should say “in,” his feet, with the low-angle shot on that socko splash page emphasizing the grandeur of a guy who “[blows] up ta 20 feet tall just like that” on page 15, and faced Galactus as an equal, although I’ll insert a mild kvetch at the reference to him as “an angry god,” part of a systematic devaluation of that word.  The double-spread to follow suggests that while Jim has set the bar unattainably high, their promise of “the wildest cosmic adventure ever!” may not be all hype.  Bingham surrounds the huge view-screen—which shows Counter-Earth ringed by the tow-ships holding it in stasis fields—with floating heads, whose captions introduce our cast and economically provide a recap.

Since pursuing their mission on the planet’s surface would presumably leave them paralyzed as well, they “must first deal with the planet-thieves,” so “one who knows” identifies the command ship, and it’s at this point that things become a bit more, shall we say, variable.  Not for nothing have I long maintained that Ben—who elects to hold down the fort and keep watch over Alicia—is the most difficult Marvel character to draw, and by now I’m resigned to the fact that Jerry and Gene simply don’t do so very well, with him frequently looking misshapen, misproportioned, or just plain off (e.g., page 22, panel 1).  Yet the arrival of Starhawk, Her, and Moondragon aboard Ringship 1 in page 7, panel 4 is strikingly effective, a Dutch-angle shot…between an alien’s legs.

A battle with the oversized crew of what appear to be anthropomorphic reptiles ensues, yet just as the H.E., Ben, and Alicia are wondering how things are going, they are beamed aboard by the captain, who introduces himself as Sphinxor, one of the Prime Movers of Tarkus, and explains that he learned English from monitoring transmissions of sitcoms (uh oh).  And if his name or likeness rings a bell, it’s because “Sphinxor from the star system Pegasus” was a self-described “throwaway character” Starlin used to narrate Warlock’s history when his solo strip was all-too-briefly revived in Strange Tales #178.  So Gruenwald is, in effect, diving into Jim’s dumpster, but as we’ll see, what looks at first like a nifty in-joke will turn out to have serious ramifications.

Naturally, just as the H.E. springs up to Sphinxor’s height so they can see eye to eye, the others burst in, yet he halts them with a word, awaiting explanations.  The aliens “were contracted to move your planet by a race of beings called the Beyonders,” this first mention of whom is said to be notable, but they are largely outside my frame of reference.  Per SuperMegaMonkey, “Like a lot of Gruenwald stories, [this trilogy is] more about making sense of disparate events in the Marvel Universe than actually telling a story,” and indeed, Sphinxor’s flashback does make it seem suspiciously like one big continuity fix; he says that the Beyonders “became aware of [the planet] while you were collecting the extra-dimensional mass to build it” in Marvel Premiere #1.

So, he’s been a fly on the wall all along, preparing for the theft and working to undermine their expected impediment, “someone we’d never be able to make a deal with….Following [Adam’s] crucifixion, I fooled with his Soulgem [sic], unleashing the bauble’s vampiric appetites—a side effect you probably didn’t know about when you gave it to him.”  I’m unaware how, if at all, Starlin reacted to this, yet however glad I am to see the H.E. absolved of responsibility for that, having Sphinxor be indirectly responsible for so much of Adam’s trials and tribulations seems a bit presumptuous on Mark’s part.  Adam’s belief that he had grown to dwarf Counter-Earth (in Warlock #14) and, last ish, that it was destroyed are also explained as Sphinxor-created illusions.

“Figuring that he snuffed you, we simply set up our stasis-rings and took off with Counter-Earth in tow…we kindly refer you to the Beyonders” regarding their intentions.  His curiosity aroused, the H.E. reveals that he’d been trying to rectify a fatal instability in the core of the planet, which due to a shortage of raw material is the same size but only about 1% of Earth’s mass.  He agrees to let the delivery proceed on the conditions that he accompany them to meet the Beyonders, and that the others are allowed to do their business on the surface; when Sphinxor objects that turning off part of the stasis field would threaten the Beyonders’ “very strict time-table,” Ben threatens him with a clobberin’ until the quintet is permitted to teleport down near the three hilltop graves.

Having only ten minutes (or three pages) on the clock, Her “pours her power, her love, her very lifeforce” into the center grave, seemingly rewarded when “a red-and-gold splashed figure bursts forth,” an admittedly impressive visual in page 26, panel 4.  Yet she quickly realizes that she has failed, for the revived body is but a hollow shell, with Adam’s soul residing in the Gem, which a footnote informs us is “now in the possession of the extraterrestrial Gardener,” although his theft of it from the grave will not be revealed until next month’s Incredible Hulk #248.  With Warlock reinterred, Her sadly and silently departs, leaving Moondragon and Alicia to ponder the concepts of, respectively, godhood and “perfect love” before they all head home; “Finis,” and Bradley out.