I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.
When I transitioned away from reading kid-friendly comics about a wealthy boy with an oddly misshapen head into the rough-and-tumble world of of superheroes, one of the things that captured my attention most forcefully was the interconnectedness of all of the stories. Unlike the way it’s perpetrated now, it didn’t mean that buying multiple titles was required to understand a particular storyline. Instead, everything simply felt like it was part of a whole. Characters would make offhand references to what other heroes were up to, with handy asterisks guiding the reader to a caption that explained exactly which pulse-pounding monthly mag contained the titanic tale in question. There was the strong sense that all these adventures were happening concurrently. Reading a single issue was a little like reading just one article in the daily newspaper. Yes, it was complete unto itself, but to understand the workings of the world properly, at least leafing through the rest of the paper was a good idea.
Of course, the stories also sometimes overlapped. If Spider-Man was swinging home for his latest scrap with Electro or Doctor Octopus, and he spotted Captain America having a tough time, dropping in to lend a hand was the cordial thing to do. This approach was especially common at Marvel Comics, which became the biggest publisher in the field in no small part to positioning their two-fisted tales as part of an overarching, universe-spanning narrative.
When I became a beginner-level Marvel Zombie, the publisher had two different series devoted exclusively to stories centered on superheroes coming together to face down a common foe. The more prominent of the two was Marvel Team-Up, which gave the company’s flagship character, the amazing Spider-Man, an opportunity to collaborate with other super-powered vigilantes and the occasional coterie of comedians. That series never particularly appealed to me, for whatever reason, and most of the covers from around the time I started collecting Marvel strangely ring no bells. The other title devoted to daring, devastating duos, on the other hand, was something I anxiously sought out every month.
From the very beginning of my collecting, I had a clear favorite character: bashful Benjamin J. Grimm, the ever-lovin’ blue-eyed Thing. The rocky powerhouse from the Fantastic Four was funny and tragic, shrewd yet easily duped, curmudgeonly but a big softie at heart. On the “good guy” side of the fence, he stood (and still stands) as the finest creation to emerge from the incredibly fruitful, if ultimately badly fractured, partnership between Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the architects of the Marvel Age of Comics. Beginning in the mid-seventies, The Thing was the regular star of Marvel Two-in-One, sharing the burden of heroism with a endlessly cycling collection of guests.
The team-up titles were generally viewed as inessential, perhaps even out of continuity. There was a recognition that these were just roughly tossed together stories. The intent was little more than to see how a fun, unexpected pairing might unfold. More cynically, the individual issues served to give a promotional boost to a character whose own title was soft in sales, or maybe even to briefly highlight a character who would otherwise be in danger of being forgotten about altogether. The main creators on Marvel Two-in-One when I started reading were writer Tom DeFalco and artist Ron Wilson. They took a slightly different approach, finding ways to make the series feel like it was telling a bigger story, or at least was part of the bigger story being told across the line. Sub-plots involving The Thing’s relationship with his girlfriend, the blind sculptress Alicia Masters, were prominent, including a few shifts that were fairly significant, including a span in which she briefly moved in with him at the Fantastic Four’s headquarters, the towering Baxter Building. The hero sharing the masthead might change from issue to issue, but there were still ongoing stories, and the Thing had to deal with his own continuing problems.
It wasn’t just the presence of The Thing that pulled the seemingly disparate issues together. There was also the harrowing tale of Bill Foster, the second person to stride into battle under the name Giant-Man. As an after-effect of the earlier storyline the “Project Pegasus saga,” Foster was slowly dying of radiation poisoning, and the Thing’s anguished efforts to save his friend’s life were interlaced throughout the stories. It all culminated in an issue that altered the powers of Spider-Woman, a surprisingly significant change to happen in the pages of Two-in-One considered she had her own ongoing series at the time.
Marvel Two-in-One plainly gave me everything I wanted. My favorite character was giving me a tour of the varied smorgasbord of the Marvel Universe, and the stories were significant enough that they were clearly pieces of the epic narrative that, at that point, had been going on for nearly twenty years. There was also a lot of clobberin’, which held its own appeal to the ten-year-old version of me.
Fantastic Four by Stan Lee and John Buscema
Contest of Champions by Bill Mantlo and John Romita, Jr.
Daredevil by Frank Miller
Marvel Fanfare by Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum and Paul Smith