W I D E A W A K E
BRONZE-AGE FLASHBACK: Marvel Two-in-One 74 (April 1981)
February 25, 2004
LESS THAN HEROES UPDATE!
Hi there, true believers! Production on the LESS THAN HEREOS trade paperback is just about complete. The book is on schedule to ship in June from TOP SHELF PRODUCTIONS. As you may know by now, the collection features the first four issues of THRESHOLD, with artwork that has been revamped and updated by yours truly. In addition, you'll see an all-new introduction based on "The Walking Tour" but completely rescripted and redrawn. Plus there's an 8-page solo story starring Mr. Malevolence with new script edits and newly updated art! I've created new end papers and spot illos for the book; I've expanded and (with remarkable assistance from my editor, Dianne Pearce) throughly revised my essay on hereos and aging. Dianne's insights and recommendations have really turned my ramblings into a coherent essay that tackles this controversial topic. But wait, there's more! Matt Wagner and Dean Haspiel have both contributed oustanding pin-ups exclusively for this collection. I'm simultaneously blown away and humbled by just how cool these amazing artists rendered the LTH cast! The collection, originally listed at 128 pages, is now a full 152 pages. To preorder, be sure to visit Top Shelf and then kick back and have a few snacks.
The following review was originally published in mid-December 2003 as my second "Retro Review" for Underground Online. I'm writing new retro reviews for UGO as time permits, but will also be featuring the reviews here at the SGC site, usually with a few revisions and clarifications, and with an approximate 4- to 6-week lag time, proving that everything old is, um, old again. With that said, let's begin...
Welcome to another journey through the vaults of the Marvel universe of yesteryear, holiday style, where Bronze-age goodies from the Island of Misfit Comics are rediscovered for the first time. Stepping into the gift wrap this week is:
Marvel Two-In-One, no. 74 (April 1981, street date December 1980)
Writer: Mark Gruenwald
Penciller: Frank Springer
Inker: Chic Stone
Editor: Jim Salicrup
True story: I used to think that if I could be any hero or villain in the world of comic books I'd opt to be the Hulk. Bullet-proof green skin, the ability to go smashy smashy on anything that got in my way, and a member that would make Marky Mark's Boogie Nights apparatus look like a flesh-colored Lite Brite peg. Not a bad day at the office. Then last week I read, in what its cover proclaims to be a SPECIAL X-MAS ISSUE!, Marvel Two-in-One (MTIO) 74, starring The Thing and the Puppet Master. At that point I realized I wouldn’t want to be anyone specific in the universe Marvel, provided I could snag an invite to the Fantastic Four’s 1980 Christmas Eve party. I’ll explain why in a moment.
The impetus for MTIO 74 centers around a long-time FF villain, Phillip Masters, a.k.a., the Puppet Master, who is being paroled two days before Christmas, 1980. On the day of his parole he receives a Christmas card. He places the card into a satchel along with his meager possessions and is escorted from the island penitentiary to a dock on New York’s Lower East Side. Quickly, Masters retreats to his former puppet workshop and is shocked to discover a problem concerning the radioactive clay from which he is able to sculpt puppets that facilitate his control over the minds and bodies of his sculptees. Unfortunately, as does happen on occasion when dealing with clay of a radioactive nature, the raw material has become “all soft and runny.” A quick check of the handy Geiger counter reveals that the clay has lost its radioactive properties. Depressed but not defeated, Masters contemplates returning to petty theft so as to raise the necessary funds that will enable him to fly to a mountainous Balkan village to obtain a new supply of radioactive clay. I was quite skeptical regarding this rather flimsy plot point; however, upon making several phone calls to various Los Angeles travel agencies, my crack team of assistants soon learned that Balkan villages are well known for three items:
- Bavarian pretzels
- Radioactive sculpting clay.
The writer and editor had obviously researched this story with strict attention to detail; therefore, I decided to continue reading.
Undaunted by his financial distress, Phillip recalls the card within his satchel. To his dismay it is a somewhat taunting Christmas card from Ben Grimm. However, always one to see the sunny side of the egg, Phillip soon hatches a cunning plan and crashes the party, bearing nothing more for his hosts than the sight of his shiny bald head and Mick Jaggeresque lips. At first suspicious of Phillip’s unanticipated appearance, the FF, at the urging of Alicia (Phillip’s daughter), allow him to participate in the holiday merriment. Franklin Richards, freakish son of Reed and Sue who has only aged but one or two years since the 1974 Christmas issue of MTIO (see last week’s review), is easily cajoled by Phillip into helping his plan of clay acquisition. You see, when you are invited to a Fantastic Four Christmas party you are guaranteed a present. Them’s the rules. This fact is spelled out quite clearly on page 8 of the story when Franklin offers to give one of his many Christmas presents to Phillip (who is without a present). Phillip declines, naturally, but having cast out hook and worm, waits for the slow-on-the-uptake trout named Franklin to bite. And bite he does, stating, “But you have to have a present. It’s Christmas. Don’t you want anything?” Without a moment’s hesitation, Phillip requests a round trip flight to Europe. And guess what? The FF concede. Which is why I want an invite to the FF’s next holiday bash. I figure I could score me some bootleg Rush concerts on CD or a vintage ROM Spaceknight action figure, but I seem to be sinking into a quagmire of holiday-inspired digression on which you may blame the eggnog.
The following morning--Christmas morning 1980--the Thing pilots an FF Pogo Plane and transports passengers Puppet Master and daughter across the Atlantic Ocean, arriving seven hours later in the Balkan mountains. The trio check into a local lodge and, exhausted from their long day’s journey into blight, decide to call it a night. Several hours later, Phillip sneaks out in search of sweet, delicious radioactive clay and is confronted by a pair of large automaton toy soldiers. At this point the tale starts to get a little weird.
At dawn the next day, Ben and Alicia--visibly upset by the lack of Starbucks coffee shops in the Balkan shopping district--begin a search for the now-AWOL Phillip. They hunt in vain throughout the day and eventually meet Bova, a talking cow who is the product of genetic acceleration. Bova lives in a cozy cottage with Mordred, a once-powerful magician who, following demonic possession, was left a bit dimwitted and now plays with children’s toys; word to the wise: don’t bother asking Mordred to explain Memento. It ain’t gonna happen.
The weather turns bad, so Ben and Alicia elect to spend the evening. Unfortunately, Domino’s Pizza cannot guarantee delivery to Bova’s residence in 30 minutes or less due to inclement weather. This causes Ben, who was never one to shy away from a good cut of beef, to begin seeing Bova in a new light. Fortunately for Bova, Ben realizes that without tenderizer she’d likely be tough and stringy, and he settles instead for a warm glass of calcium-filled homogenized liquid (and I’m pretty sure it’s not from one of Bova’s udders, even if she could answer in the affirmative to the question: "Got Milk?").
Later in the evening, Ben is nestled all snug in his bed, while visions of New York strip steaks dance in his rock-like head. He is roused from his sleep by Phillip, and finds that both he and his one-time arch nemesis have been reduced to the size of Micronauts (or G.I. Joes, depending on your toy reference preference). Life quickly turns from bad to worse as Ben realizes he’s going to miss the Macy’s after-Christmas sale (he’d been fancying a leather G-string and a ball of yarn). Meanwhile, Mordred’s toys have come to life not unlike a certain snowman once popularized by a hit single and an animated television-special that featured the voice talent of the late Jimmy Durante. If you’ve already guessed that Mordred is unconsciously animating his toys to attack Ben and Phillip, give yourself an extra slice of Christmas goose and take a seat on Santa’s lap. If you hadn’t yet figured it out, you might as well ask Santa for a furnace to accompany the big 'ol lump of coal you’re gonna find in your stocking on December 25th.
Needless to say, Mordred is eventually awakened from his slumber, the threat of the toys soon ends, and Ben and Phillip are returned to scale. As the story concludes, Phillip shows the weak-minded Mordred how to animate toy soldiers via force of will, a task at which Mordred easily succeeds. (Perhaps Mordred can one day use his talents to help George Lucas write a decent prequel to Star Wars: A New Hope.) The Puppet Master’s intentions in helping Mordred are genuine (see next paragraph), but given that Mordred has such a unique power, a power that can be manifested through dream sleep, I can only pray he’s never exposed to the films of Adam Sandler or David Spade. The repercussions of such high-octane nightmare fuel could be devastating to the entire cosmos.
Any talk of MTOI 74 would be incomplete without specific comment upon the efforts of its creative team: The issue is chock full of nice touches by its author, the late Mark Gruenwald, and artists Frank Springer and Chic Stone. Mark and Frank capture the essence of the FF as a family from the opening splash page (in which our heroes are shown leaving Bloomingdales, their arms overloaded with gifts and other holiday items) to snippets of dialogue containing genuine humor and emotion (e.g., Alicia [to Ben]: I nearly died of embarrassment when you yelled “It’s clobberin’ time” in the toy department!). Phillip’s dialogue, in particular, runs the gamut from comic-book silliness (“Hah-Hah! I’m free! Let the word beware for the Puppet Master is once more at large!”) to more humanized passages, such as, “I was much like Mordred as a child, alone, different from others--I began to treat people like the puppets of my youth. Perhaps if Mordred learns, now, to treat dolls like people--he will not follow the lonely path I did.” Gruenwald ends the tale on a clever albeit understated joke between Ben and Phillip that is better read than explained within this column, so check it out for yourself.
Frank Springer and Chic Stone’s visuals manage to hold my interest--not an easy task given my own personal bias against Springer’s work (a bias perhaps best explored in a future column). And while their combined talents pale in comparison to such MTIO artists as George Perez, John Byrne, Jerry Bingham, and Ron Wilson, the Springer and Stone team actually seems to excel in this specific story. Frank incorporates a wide variety of angles and layouts in his pencils, and Chic provides a much-needed, crisp and smooth delineation that nicely compliments the breakdowns.
Incidentally, this was Gruenwald’s final issue of MTOI (he continued to script Thor, among other books, afterward), and it’s a nice, lighthearted chapter to a run that included (in collaboration with writer Ralph Macchio [not to be confused with the karate-chopping pipsqueak of film]) many epic-length masterpieces one might not have expected from a "team-up" book such as MTIO.
Twenty-three long years after its original date of publication, MTIO 74 remains a fun diversion from finding the perfect gift for schizophrenic Uncle Larry, homicidal cousin Betty, or any other dysfunctional family members you might find yourself shopping for this holiday season. It also demonstrates how easily super-heroes can be bamboozled into catering to the wishes of sub-par villains in the name of St. Nick. Stuff this one in your stocking to read on Christmas day, or any time you need a bit of harmless holiday cheer.
Next week: More LTH updates, and other assorted diversions.