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BRONZE-AGE FLASHBACK: Marvel Two-in-One 8 (March 1975)

January 14, 2004

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Retro Retro

The following review was originally published in early December as my first "Retro Review" for Underground Online. I'm writing a new retro review for UGO each week, 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...

Three Wise Men, and a Couple Not-so-Wise Men...

It is the holiday season. Unless you抮e living in a vacuum this statement should be obvious. But in case you do live in a vacuum (and really, if you must live within a vacuum I recommend either the Hoover 5000 Series or the Dirt-Devil with patented Suck-o-Matic grips), let me remind you that the holiday shopping season is approaching faster than Pauly Shore抯 lifetime achievement award.

I don抰 read comics.

Okay, that抯 not entirely true. I抳e read about 10,000 comics since I first started collecting in 1977. Initially a Marvel zombie, I eventually sought out other publishers, including many indy publishers. I liked indy comics so much I decided to become an indy publisher. However, after a year or two of self-publishing, I found myself less and less interested in reading new comics. This was, perhaps, partially conscious and partially subconscious on my behalf. Consciously, the ever-escalating cover price of new comics was forcing me to choose between buying comics created by other people or using my hard-earned cash to publish my own stories. Subconsciously, I wanted to avoid being influenced by current writers and artists. Furthermore, I have close to 1,000 Bronze- and Silver-age comics in my collection that I haven抰 (mainly through lack of time) yet read. With so much unread material in my possession, I decided to narrow my collecting habits to the era of comics that I love best, namely, the Marvel books of the swinging �s (with occasional deviations in the �s and [very] early �s). As an individual who writes about comics, the �s era is fascinating insofar as assessing the art, writing, characterization, dialogue, social commentary, and themes of yesteryear are concerned. It is an era that depicts a clear departure from the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby-driven titles of the Silver age (while still attempting to mirror those formulas), and it often illustrates a portrait of a company that was, whether intentionally or unintentionally, spiraling into uncharted territories with little or no navigational control.

Long-time collectors are well aware of the gems from Marvel抯 Bronze era (such as Starlin抯 run on Captain Marvel, the Byrne/Claremont X-Men stories, Miller抯 Daredevil, Shooter抯 epic Avengers tales, and the Englehart/Brunner Dr. Strange classics, among others). In this column I抦 not going to waste time discussing that which you likely already know about. Rather, I抦 hoping to seek out and explore the lesser known tales of the Bullpen抯 bygone era, stories that likely have slipped through the cracks over the years or were never out of the shadows to begin with. Tales that, hopefully, you haven抰 yet discovered, or have read so long ago that they are distant, forgotten memories, waiting to be rediscovered, will be reevaluated by yours truly.

This column will be a time capsule of sorts, opened to reveal a handful of nuggets from a kinder, gentler, though not necessarily smarter, era of comics.

With the aforementioned holiday season in mind (you know, deck those halls and mistletoe and ho ho ho and presents for pretty girls), I抳e decided to visit a few stories circa the 1970s Marvel universe (back when it was still a solar system) Christmas season.

As a reviewer as well as a fan and reader, I like to keep in mind a credo I once read by an industry pro (it may have been John Byrne or Jim Shooter, though time has eroded my memory somewhat). The philosophy is that every comic book is someone抯 first exposure to comic books. Under this dictum, publisher抯 assume the responsibility of making the product accessible to all readers, including those who have never read comics before or even heard of the characters for that matter. So I tend to read and review comics using a tabula rasa criteria. Sure, I know who Ben Grimm is. I know that the Rick Jones was first introduced in the pages of the Hulk. I know that Captain America has undergone tons of identity crises over the years. But what if I knew none of these things? What if I抎 never read a comic book before in my life? What would I do if suddenly confronted by a man of stone and a dead biker whose skull was ablaze (and I don抰 mean of glory)? With that in mind, let抯 slip into the Currier & Ives lithography of�br />
Marvel Two-in-One, no. 8 (March 1975梥treet date December 1974)
Writer: Steve Gerber
Artists: Sal Buscema and Mike Esposito
Editor: Len Wein

Long before writer Michael Fleisher found what I consider to be the perfect mix of action, suspense, characterization, and horror in the pages of Ghost Rider (see the 1970抯 Ghost Rider series, issues 31-50 for example), our flame-headed demon cum super-hero/vengeance seeker bounced around the House of Ideas, from his own confusing adventures to guest appearances in titles such as Daredevil, The Champions (in which he was a regular cast member), Marvel Team-Up, and Marvel Two-in-One. The latter two series were produced mainly to showcase various Marvel heroes, pairing them with Spider-man (in Team-Up) and the Fantastic Four抯 Thing (in Two-in-One), respectively. It was during a time when 揾orror� was being reintroduced into comics after a lengthy congressional ban forbidding such material. Marvel抯 rapidly tapped into the horror market, and Satan himself soon became a recurring character in the pages of horror titles such as Ghost Rider and the short-lived Son of Satan, among others.

Which brings us to our story.

You may be asking梐side from Miller Genuine Draft and a Twister mat, what can possibly bring together two characters as diverse as Ghost Rider and The Thing? The answer, of course, is the irreverent Steve Gerber. Gerber produced a unique volume of work for the House of Ideas during the �s, handling everything from the mainstream Defenders and Daredevil, to the off-beat and macabre Man-Thing and the one-of-a-kind fowl with a foul attitude, Howard the Duck (a series that would later become a George Lucas feature film, and let抯 be honest梐s bad as it is, the HTD movie remains superior to both Star Wars Episodes I and II).

Gerber was not one to shy away from lofty issues including those concerning Heaven and Hell. He brought to Marvel dozens of unique and cosmic concepts and was never simply going through the motions insofar as storytelling is concerned. If I can define his writing in one word it would have to be: unpredictable. If I can define it in two words: unpredictably bizarre.

Which, again, brings us to our story.

I抣l cut to the chase since I know you are anxious to run to Starbucks and purchase a horde of gift cards for your friends and loved ones. The guest villain of this issue抯 tale is an old-school Marvel villain桾he Miracle Man (no relation to a U.K. character later brilliantly scripted by Alan Moore). On Christmas eve, 1974, he (Miracle Man, not Alan Moore) decides to ascend into Godhood by recreating the birth of Christ. To do this, he must put into motion a few tasks that are worthy of his moniker. First, he creates a new North Star. Second, he immaculately conceives a new Christ child through the soul of a deceased Cheemuzwa Indian. Third, he converts the Konohoti Indian Reservation (and its inhabitants including long-time FF costar Wyatt Wingfoot) in Arizona into a new Bethlehem. Its populace becomes the Bethlehem townsfolk, and several Indians become new Wise Men on their way to witness the immaculate birth. With me so far?

Meanwhile, Ghost Rider is riding through the Arizona countryside doing a lot of soul searching. A lot of questions swim through his mind: Am I still Satan抯 pawn? Will Satan return my calls? If I get Satan a self-help book, will he read it? Thousands of miles away in the Baxter Building headquarters of the Fantastic Four, Reed Richards spots the new North Star and decides to investigate. However, Ben Grimm, realizing his friend Reed should be spending the holidays with his wife and son, elects to investigate on his own. He flies to Arizona and lands next to the Ghost Rider (spotting GR抯 flaming skull from the air), who has already investigated New Bethlehem and been thrown out by the as-yet unrevealed villain, Miracle Man.

Together, Ben and Ghost Rider meet up with the Three Wise Men and borrow the wardrobe of two of this trio of fine fresh fellows. Our dashing heroes approach the manger. Interestingly, the flaming head of Ghost Rider does not burn through the cloth covering his skeleton face. I suspect this is due, in part, to the Miracle Man, who no doubt elected to dress his Wise Men in flame-retardant gowns (not unlike many �s parents who made their children wear flame-resistant feetie pajamas). MM apparently feared one of the trio would either play with matches or, perhaps, step too close to a firefly. Eventually a fight between heroes and villain ensues and a few explanations are given, including this magnificent quote by the man of Miracles:

搮if I could bend the cosmos to my will, create a star梚f my child were hailed as the Messiah梩hen I would be absolute by definition! Correct?�br />
Yes, with enough Milwaukee抯 Best and an ounce or two of pure Columbian I think we抳e all felt that way from time to time.

Ultimately, MM is defeated and taken away by three Cheemuzwa Indian spirits (who were, surprise, the Three Wise Men). The fourth spirit, now an immaculately birthed newborn, is left in the care of Wyatt and an unnamed Indian squaw. (The trio would later star in a made-for-TV holiday special with Jason Robards, The Teepee Without a Christmas Tree.)

I guess in Gerber抯 mind it all made sense. There is a lot to digest in these 19 pages; perhaps too much. Miracle Man抯 possession of the Konohoti reservation might easily have comprised the better part of an individual issue of Two-in-One (or one of Steve抯 other titles) had he chosen to develop it thusly. Furthermore, the Miracle Man抯 own abilities and inabilities seem without clarity, that is to say, what he can and cannot do is not entirely spelled out in black and white, leaving the reader to ask such deep philosophical questions as, 揝o what can this guy do and not do, anyway?� As an antagonist, however, his goal is certainly lofty (and original) to say the least. While most of the Marvel stable of villains of the era were seeking financial gain, MM抯 aspirations were much higher and closer in scale to, for example, Thanos. Buscema and Esposito offer a workman-like job on the art, which includes many scenes featuring Sal Buscema抯 patented Facial Expression No. 101, 揗outh Gaping in Stunned Amazement� and Facial Expression No. 102, 揗outh Gaping in Stunned Anguish� (both of which are surprisingly similar in their execution).

As holiday tales go, the story is rather devoid of Christmas cheer. Readers who are looking to have your cockles warmed are advised to look elsewhere. One is not left with feelings of good tidings and chestnuts roasting over an open fire. Nonetheless, I cannot help but appreciate Steve抯 handling of the book抯 title character, bashful Ben Grimm. Ben抯 insistence that Reed celebrate the holiday is touching (especially when one considers the personal conflicts the Richards family was undergoing in the pages of Fantastic Four at the time). Likewise, the camaraderie displayed in the FF抯 living room shows more touches of human emotion than many of today抯 more 搒erious� comics would allow. An innocent mistletoe kiss between Johnny Storm and Medusa. A gag scene involving an over-decorated tree. Blind sculptress Alicia Masters� exuberance regarding the holiday despite her handicap. These are the classic touches in this story that harkens to the Silver age while solidifying its place in the Bronze age. A classic? No. Far from it. But nonetheless a solid attempt at uniting two otherwise distinct characters while simultaneously adding a bit of holiday flair along with a uniquely new idea.

Next: A look at a somewhat warmer and fuzzier holiday tale starring the ever-lovin� blue-eyed Thing and the Puppet Master.

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