BHOC: MARVEL TWO-IN-ONE #30

Time has moved on and the wheel has turned for the character a little bit, but it can’t be overstated just how popular the Thing was during the 1970s. He was just behind Spider-Man in terms of his draw power, the Wolverine of his era. And unlike Wolverine over the past few decades, if you wanted to read a story with the Thing in it, you generally needed to be buying FANTASTIC FOUR. There’d be an occasional guest-appearance in another title here and there, but nothing like the world tour that Wolverine has been on since the 1980s. To tap into this popularity, Marvel launched MARVEL TWO-IN-ONE, a sister title to the steady-selling MARVEL TEAM-UP, with the big difference being that, rather than Spider-Man (or the Human Torch for a bunch of its earliest issues) MTIO would feature other characters from across the Marvel Universe paired up with Ben Grimm. This wound up making him one of the most connected super heroes in the Marvel stable in terms of how many weird characters he got to meet. (In the 1970s, nobody shied away from using the monster characters in team-up books, nor even some licensed characters such as Doc Savage.)

This particular issue is another book that I got out of a 3-Bag in a local department store, Two Guys. And it’s an interesting outing in that it is situated both in the middle of an extended storyline (Deathlok had been brainwashed to kill then-President Jimmy Carter at his inauguration, but the Thing stopped him–and he’d been looking for a way to deprogram the renegade cyborg ever since) and represented the opening chapter of its own four-part epic. Writer Marv Wolfman eschewed the self-contained style so prevalent in MARVEL TEAM-UP for much of its tenure to lean into the strength of the serial narrative that was Marvel’s bread and butter. And in this particular four-parter, he had a secondary mission that he was trying to accomplish as well.

That secondary mission involved reimagining the character of Spider-Woman. See, a number of months earlier, animation studio Filmation began work on a cartoon series that would eventually hit the airwaves as TARZAN AND THE SUPER 7. The eponymous seven other characters were all home-grown super heroes, each of whom would star in their own segments of the program, with Tarzan as the ever-present lead. One of these characters was going to be called Spider Woman. Whether this was an attempt to snake some popularity from the male web-slinger or not depends on who you ask (but it sure seems like a foregone conclusion.) In order to block this once folks at Marvel became aware of the production, EIC Archie Goodwin and artist Sal Buscema hastily jammed out their own Spider-Woman concept, which was rushed into print in an issue of MARVEL SPOTLIGHT. Their Spider-Woman was intended to be only a one-off character, simply created to secure the right, and in that they succeeded–when the cartoon hit the airwaves, Filmation’s Spider Woman had been rechristened Web Woman

Web Woman

Because she was intended to be only a throw-away concept, Goodwin and Buscema didn’t put a whole lot of thought into Marvel’s Spider-Woman. She was a HYDRA assassin who learned by the end of her singular adventure that she wasn’t human at all–rather, she had been born an actual spider that was evolved into human form by the super-geneticist the High Evolutionary. But she served her purpose and all’s well that ends well, right? Well, as it turns out, no good deed goes unpunished. In part because it was the debut of a new character with a recognizable name, the issue of MARVEL SPOTLIGHT featuring Spider-Woman sold incredibly well–it was a bit of a small phenomenon. And of course, this led to the immediate thought that Marvel would be crazy not to roll out an ongoing Spider-Woman series to capitalize on this. The problem being that pretty much everything that had already been established about Spider-Woman was not conducive to her being an ongoing character. So some back-thinking needed to be done.

The person who took up this challenge (or was handed it–I’m not certain which) was writer Marv Wolfman, who was then also writing MARVEL TWO-IN-ONE. Given Spider-Woman’s popularity in her debut, and as a way of both broadening her as a character as well as capitalizing on the interest in the character to sell some issues, Marv brought her into the series in this multi-part saga, and began the complicated process of unwinding aspects of her origin and backstory and replacing them with material better suited to an ongoing heroic character. So when this issue opens, Ben and Alicia are in London. They’ve brought Deathlok to a specialist whom Reed Richards thought would be able to deprogram him. But as they sightsee, they’re in attendance when a pair of criminal treasure hunters set off a bomb at Westminster Abbey in pursuit of a strange silver plate, the portion of a map. The Thing reacts to the explosion, getting involved in the situation, but he in turn is attacked by Spider-Woman, who is still working for HYDRA.

HYDRA gets away clean–though Spider-Woman suffers from some ambivalence. Her memories about the revelation of her true origins as a mutated spider have been erased from her memory by HYDRA’s technicians, making her once more a malleable pawn. They’re also attempting to figure out how to duplicate her powers–and for some reason, somebody in the HYDRA high command figures that Alicia Masters might be a good person to test their serum out on. So Spider-Woman is sent out on a mission once more, to snatch up Alicia from right under the Thing’s nose. Ben, of course, isn’t at all happy about his girlfriend being stolen away, and so a running battle/chase takes place across London, with the dogged Thing in pursuit of the retreating Spider-Woman and her blind cargo.

The fight, of course, involved the Thing scaling Big Ben–because how could he not?–and a confrontation above London Bridge. But before any resolution can be reached, both Spider-Woman and the Thing are felled by a detonation set off by the two treasure hunters, and limply, they fall into the Thames below. And that’s where this issue is To Be Continued: with the Thing and Spider-Woman possibly drowning, and with Alicia the captive of HYDRA, soon to be the subject of their experiments. Things would only get crazier from here–but I didn’t wind up reading the next two issues until several years later, so you’re going to have to take my word for that, I’m afraid.

10 thoughts on “BHOC: MARVEL TWO-IN-ONE #30

  1. Very interesting read. I have fond memories of those Two-in-one issues. However, I think you’ve misunderstood the story in this issue a bit. The two guys searching for the silver plate and setting of explosions were not Hydra agents- they were simply two would-be thieves trying to track down a hidden treasure, and finding themselves caught in the crossfire between Ben and Hydra.

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  2. I can attest to the popularity of Ben Grimm back in the day. Once, when I was a kid, my Mom offered to pay for subscriptions to two Marvel comics, and I chose The Amazing Spider-Man and Marvel Two-In-One. My two favorite heroes in the 1970s were Spidey and the Thing, and I was over the moon when Jim Starlin featured them together in the classic M.T.I.O Annual #2. Boy, that was great stuff!

    When I hear that modern fans are surprised at Thing’s popularity back then, I’m reminded of an online interview with musician Sting that I read a few years ago. In the comments section a young person wrote: “Huh. I guess in the 1980s, Sting was big or something.” Gleeps! Around 1983/84, you couldn’t turn on a radio/TV without hearing/seeing the guy, or even go the movies (Dune). So, yeah, he was a thing.

    And in the Bronze Age, so was Ben Grimm.

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  3. The matter of Thing’s popularity during the Bronze age is intriguing. My impression is that the span between the Lee/Kirby and the Byrne eras represented a low point for the FF title (I could be WAY off base here) so I’m curious what fed into his enduring popularity.

    I guess I don’t have a firm grasp on what contributes to a character gaining or losing popularity in general. There are some characters like Spider-Man and Batman that are somehow evergreen. Other properties (X-Men, FF, Cap, Thor, Iron Man) can be top of the charts in one era and be on the verge of cancellation the next. And then there are others who have gotten several swings at the bat and have never connected (Alas, poor Ka-Zar.)

    Obviously, compelling character beats in a well-written story is a factor. Character design matters. I want to say “elasticity of the character’s core concept” without 100% being able to articulate what that means. But there also seems to be some intangible cultural zeitgeist that favors certain characters over others.

    Did the Punisher thrive because a Mike Zeck comic launched during a tough-on-crime era in which Americans are obsessed about its Vietnam vets? Does that same character struggle during an era in which people are reconsidering the code of conduct of our military overseas or the degrees of brutality used (and misused) when engaging crime and communities?

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    1. I’d say popularity depends on many factors interacting – the character itself, the audience, the market conditions, the state of the medium, quality of the writing, etc. Batman did badly in the early 1960’s, when many factors went against him. The Thing is (Hollywood) ugly, grouchy, and likes fighting. At the start of the Bronze Age, that combination didn’t have a lot of competition, and his particular still-heroic version of it hit a sweet spot with appeal to audience, and what was allowable by the prevailing standards. The Punisher didn’t become wildly popular until many years after his introduction, when the reading audience had gotten older, and “grim-n-gritty” was the order of the day. When he first appeared, he was just too far at the margin of mainstream comics to be a big hit, even though that character type was very successful in men’s-adventure genre novels (he’s basically a knock-off of The Executioner, which was extremely popular at the time and is almost forgotten today). He’s faded now as Kewl Gunz are out of fashion. Wolverine (who is also Hollywood-ugly) took the grouchy and likes fighting traits up several notches, and with older readers and gritter stories, it was then him in the sweet spot of audience appeal.

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      1. Executioner/Punisher are a good example of how a character who breaks new ground may end up losing out to someone who wasn’t the first but does it better.

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  4. I got that issue of Marvel Spotlight introducing Spider-Woman, mostly out of curiosity but also a bit of misgiving as early on when I took a strong preference for Marvel over DC in the early ’70s, one of the reasons was that I hated the idea of so many knock-offs of a popular character, ala Batgirl, Supergirl, Superboy, etc. But now here was Marvel doing Spider-Woman??? I hadn’t previously read about that specific cartoon, although I had read that Marvel created Spider-Woman purposely to prevent another company from doing so. Anyhow, while I thought that first Spider-Woman story was rather peculiar, I was happy that they made her powers distinct from Spider-Man’s and, more importantly, that she had no real link to Spider-Man other than the similarities of their names. But then, not too much later, came Ms. Marvel & She-Hulk, who were more clearly knock-offs of Marvel’s Captain Marvel and the Hulk. Sort of strange about Ms. Marvel, though, in that Captain Marvel wasn’t one of Marvel’s big-sellers, although, of course, there was the company name connection. I learned to live with it, although I was happier when Carol changed her costume — ok, yeah, it did look much sexier and I was in my mid-teens! Her current costume, as the current Captain Marvel, is much better and more appropriate. Still attractive and quasi-militaristic without appearing too obviously out to arouse adolescent boys.

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    1. I feel pretty similarly about knock-off characters.

      That said, we have to remember that Toro appeared in Human Torch #2, less than a year after the Human Torch was introduced. So this type of character has been a part of the medium from the earliest days even at Marvel.

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