Marvel’s Two-in-One: The Thing & the Human Torch is basically a very extended set up for the inevitable return of the Fantastic Four, with Reed and Susan Richards having been lost in the multiverse ever since the end of 2015’s epic Secret Wars (mammoth review here).
This is a title that relies heavily on nostalgia – but that’s not a bad thing when utilised effectively.
With the Fantastic Four mythology having been expelled to the wilderness for a long stretch of time, having Ben Grimm and Johnny Storm brought back together actually hits the right nostalgia chords.
Marvel Two-in-One #1 is an engaging, endearing piece of storytelling that does a number of things effectively. Firstly, it works as a character piece for both The Thing and the Human Torch, exploring their situations in very sympathetic, human ways, showing us how lost both former heroes are in the absence of their old family and their old superhero team.
Johnny is essentially on a reckless bender, not far off a death-wish. Meanwhile Grimm is reduced to attending formal events in a tuxedo and making speeches. This story very effectively establishes its bittersweet, listless vibe, and as we see what Grimm and Storm are like now we immediately become wistful about the old days.
Chip Zdarsky‘s story plays to this overtly, throwing in retro flashbacks to old Fantastic Four imagery, as well as a recorded message from Reed Richards (from beyond the grave, as it were) and a key flashback to the events just before Secret Wars.
That latter inclusion in the story – Grimm remembering Susan’s last words to him on the ‘raft’ during the catastrophic final ‘incursion’ that led to Secret Wars – is a stroke of genius. Not just because I have a massive soft-spot for the Secret Wars story and the event leading into it, but because it effectively reminds of where we are, how we got here, and why Grimm cares so much about Johnny’s situation.
Two other elements in just this first, opening issue also help raise both the stakes and the quality: key appearances by both Spiderman and Doctor Doom. Spidey’s appearance is effective, giving Grimm a timely reminder of his old life and also alerting him to Johnny’s situation.
Meanwhile, any appearance by Victor Von Doom is guaranteed to improve any comic book. In this instance, the newly returned – and apparently good-guy – Doctor Doom arrives to give Grimm knowledge of a crucial McGuffin (the ‘Multi-Sect’) that Reed has hidden somewhere. This is a great scene. I’m not sure yet what we’re supposed to make of this new Doom and his apparent change in outlook, but I’ve been waiting for Doom ever since that iconic ending to Secret Wars and wondering what the post-Secret-Wars Doom would be like.
The Doom we’re seeing here is intriguing: and, as ever, there’s the sense he’s up to something that we’ll only really piece together some time down the line.
As an opening issue, this is genuinely a superb piece of storytelling: it effortlessly balances nostalgia with new story developments and sentiment with intrigue. With one eye on the past, we also feel like we’re moving forward.
There is a definite sense, however, that we’re also inevitably maneuvering towards a return or restoration of the Reed, Susan and the children to the mix and a restoration of the Fantastic Four – though how we’re going to get there is, at this point, a mystery. One would assume that Grimm and Johnny using the ‘multiplane’ to access other realities is the key.
Jim Cheung‘s art and Frank Martin‘s colors also render this book a visual pleasure, with not a dud touch throughout.
We get into slightly odd territory in Marvel Two-in-One #2 when Johnny talks about “Fantastic Four comics” still being published, depicting Reed and Sue trapped in another dimension and Johnny and Ben going to rescue them – which he acknowledges in dialogue is what he and Ben are trying to do right now.
It’s a fun warping of the 4th Wall, but it’s also a tad disorienting – referencing a Fantastic Four comic within a Fantastic Four comic and referencing basically the same storyline.
Everything about this continues to be fun though. And it’s clear that Ben has lied to Johnny about there being a way to save Reed and the others – just to improve his state of mind and restore a sense of purpose to him (although we must suspect the lie will turn out, later on, to be true). And the nostalgia vibe so effectively mined in the first issue is continued here, with Ben taking Johnny to the site of “our first adventure” (from Fantastic Four #1): specifically Monster Island.
Of course nothing can go straightforward in a comic book, so naturally they find trouble on Monster Island in the form of Mole Man and a coterie of monsters. That whole affair is actually very funny, but when Doom shows up we know this sequence isn’t about comedy relief. Doom – whose new look, by the way, is awesome – continues his antagonism with Ben, but doesn’t expose Ben’s lie to Johnny.
The end sequence, which is another nostalgia-fest, has Ben recounting an old story of Reed and Doom from before even the Fantastic Four days – another terrific sequence that hits all the right notes and again prods at our nostalgia for the FF/Doom mythology and its decades-long history. We end with Ben and Johnny apparently discovering the McGuffin (the ‘Multi-sect’) that will allow them to access the multiverse in search of Reed and Sue.
Marvel Two-in-One #3 sees Ben taking Johnny on a mission to find out why his powers are diminishing. While probably less interesting than the first two issues, this chapter benefits from some comedic quality and a good guest appearance by Hercules.
We learn that both Ben and Johnny’s powers are in fact diminishing, due to their separation from Sue and Reed – apparently, the quartet’s respective powers are linked to each other’s, meaning that Ben and Johnny really do need to find their counterparts soon.
In fact, the really interesting part of this chapter is the encounter between Doctor Doom and the Mad Thinker, which is where the intrigue lies: and in which we learn that the Mad Thinker is cooking up a sinister plan of his own to deal with the absence of Reed Richards.
Marvel Two-in-One #4 is essentially what I want in a comic book like this: lucid, engaging art, a compelling adventure, and good characters. In this issue, Ben and Johnny (and Rachna – a new friend we’ve picked up along the way), cross into one of the parallel worlds in their search for Reed and Susan. What they find is this world’s Reed Richards – and a lot more.
This is top-draw comic-book/sci-fi fun all the way through: I’m a sucker for well-done parallel worlds.
In this instance, we get to meet this reality’s Wolverine, She-Hulk and Beast (as well as Reed Richards) and it’s all fun stuff. Given that we also had a guest appearance by Spiderman (‘our’ Spiderman) at the start, this is a guest-heavy installment, but it’s all enjoyable. We also get nice little tidbits, like the fact that the Skrull ‘Secret Invasion’ scenario is currently playing out in this reality (even though it happened in ‘our’ reality years ago).
We also learn that this reality’s Doctor Doom intervened to save the world from Galactus – by becoming this reality’s Galactus. That’s a hell of a concept. A stroke of visual genius in this book is how the style of art shifts into different color tones and a more retro feel when Hank McCoy starts telling Ben and Johnny the story of how Doom saved the world from Galactus: it’s a brilliant visual way to distinguish the present-tense narrative from the past-tense recollection. Valerio Schiti and Frank Martin deserve a lot of credit for the stylised way this book is presented in general – and this visual tone/style shift is the best example of why.
Chip Zdarsky is also getting to run a fun title with fun concepts, good storytelling and a really delicate, respectful handling of characters. This really is a fun series, with a great concept – having Ben and Johnny jump from parallel world to parallel world in search of their friends is something that has a lot of mileage to it.
In Marvel Two-in-One #5, we stay in this same parallel earth and learn more about its end-of-the-world predicament: Doom (Galactus) has already eaten the rest of the universe (yeah, I know – just go with it) and is heading back for Earth. Most of the drama here consists of this world’s Reed Richards, who has given up on trying to save the world, being convinced to rally everyone one last time to take action to save the planet from Doom/Galactus.
Admittedly, a lot of the character motivation and depiction here is sketchy and doesn’t make much sense.
Nevertheless, it’s a very fun read, and again wonderfully illustrated and coloured. We get to meet this world’s Susan Richards and there are also some surprise developments here: in particular, ‘our’ Doctor Doom (the newly Good Guy Doom who’s been filling in for Iron Man, that is) shows up, revealing that he’s been ‘tail-gating’ Ben and Johnny on their multiversal excursion. Again, some of this feels like scattered, lazy writing – but it’s fun, so it’s difficult to complain too much.
Plus, I really, really like this Good Guy version of Doom or ‘Iron Man Doom’, so I like him showing up.
The other big surprise – which admittedly strikes as very odd and random – is Ben and Johnny coming across Norrin Rad (the Silver Surfer) apparently living on a farm with Emma Frost. It’s a very weird twist: I don’t know that I’ve ever seen Norrin Radd and Emma Frost have anything to do with each other ever – I’m almost certain there’s no comic book out there anywhere that has ever shown Emma Frost and the Silver Surfer interacting (I could be wrong). I suppose, on a basic level, it’s partly meant to highlight the very different sets of relationships and life-stories that exist on a parallel earth.
What we build up to, at any rate, is the arrival of Doom/Galactus – which is, of course, our big cliffhanger.
In Marvel Two-in-One #6, Doom/Galactus has arrived and an apocalyptic showdown ensues. It’s nice to see this world’s Reed and ‘our’ world’s Doom working together on the science and actually seeming to acknowledge there’s something that feels right about it.
This series generally does a really good job of really tapping into the decades-long mythology and pathos of the Fantastic Four and of Reed and Doom in particular.
There’s a slight feeling of absurdity to the image on page 4 of the giant Doom/Galactus being attacked by a fleet (led by Susie): but it does look damn cool and it also evokes (deliberately perhaps) one of the great Secret Wars covers from 2015 – and anything that reminds of the 2015 Secret Wars is, by definition, something that’s going to make me happy.
There’s also something absurdly fun about having ‘our’ Doom be part of a team going up against a giant Doom/Galactus.
In fact, much of this has an absurd flavour to it – nothing more than seeing Emma Frost transformed into what I’m going to call the Reverse Galactus: literally giving life back to the Cosmos instead of devouring.
This whole story is very poetic and big on the potent imagery – though if you try to critically analyse it too much, you’ll give yourself a headache. Best to just enjoy it for what it offers.
And what it offers is a fair bit: big ideas, engrossing imagery and flawless art execution, lots of big characters, great dialogue.
And, you know, I really would love to see a comic series one day of Emma Frost as the Reverse-Galactus and the Silver Surfer as her Herald. It’s an insane idea: but that’s what we end up with in this parallel world – and now I’ve been shown the concept, I want to see a whole series of this!
Perhaps when the Allreds are done with their current Silver Surfer title (the Dawn Greenwood series, which I love), they can consider the Emma-Galactus/Silver-Surfer alternate reality as fertile ground?
Probably not – but I wish such a thing were possible.
At any rate, even with its absurdities, this is really a fun, quality comic-book – and it wraps up this particular adventure, while leaving more intrigue in place for subsequent instalments.
Marvel Two-in-One #7, #8 and #9 are unfortunately a drop in quality: they see the team move on to another world, this one a version of Battleworld where they’re captured by twisted versions of Doctor Strange and Spiderman and made to fight in the arena.
This is where the series loses its quality-level unfortunately, but it has some charms – particularly any given piece of Doom dialogue. They get trapped in that reality and #8 doesn’t have a great deal to recommend itself, but it does bring the Mad Thinker back into the mix at the end.
Unfortunately, #8 and #9 feel like a descent into cliche and mediocrity. Battleworld isn’t anything like as interesting or enjoyable as the Doom/Galactus world, the absence of Doom shows how much he was bringing to this series, and having the Mad Thinker form a new Fantastic Four with himself as Reed Richards is something that, in theory, could be really interesting, but in reality just feels silly and gimmicky.
Without question, the arc in the first half of this series was much, much better than the arc in this second half.
Marvel Two-in-One #10 sees them finally get off Battleworld (and not a moment too soon), with the Mad Thinker’s plot coming to nothing. We do, however, get an appearance of sorts by Susan Storm and the first implication that the missing Fantastic Four members are alive – which they obviously are, otherwise this whole series would be pointless.
No doubt we’re building up to Susan and Reed being discovered and the Fantastic Four being reunited: and that’s what this whole series has been about.
The drop in quality from around #7 onwards, however, indicates things are being stretched out beyond the point of maximum quality. But, even for the first arc, it’s worth reading this series – or at least those first few installments.
There’s a lot to enjoy here: there’s a great spirit to it, and it always looks and tastes great. But I’m about ready for some proper Fantastic Four: and some Valeria Richards.