Sep 14, 2020
The Thing boxes for the fate of the planet in Marvel Two-in-One Annual #7
Back in the day, both Marvel and DC Comics had what were known as team-up books. DC’s books were The Brave and the Bold which starred Batman (which was discontinued to make way for Batman & the Outsiders), and DC Comics Presents which featured Superman. Over at the House of Ideas, you had Spider-Man in Marvel Team-Up and The Thing in Marvel Two-in-One.
Round one goes to DC for better titles.
Over the years, there have been attempts to resurrect the concept with mixed results, the most recent being Marvel’s twelve issue Two-in-One series, starring the Thing and the Human Torch in adventures happening right before the proper return of the Fantastic Four. I think it was a mistake on Marvel’s part to end the series when they did; its last issue shipped more copies than West Coast Avengers’ fourth the same month, so it still had some legs.
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With the recent announcement of the return of Marvel Team-Up, it made me think about the old comics in my collection. Recently, I’ve been looking at those vintage periodicals more and more rather than buying the new stuff, and I came across a true gem. I present to you: Marvel Two-in-One Annual #7, from 1982.
Our story opens with the ever-lovin’ blue-eyed Thing in what appears to be a heroic pose. What super villain is he about to threaten? Why, no one at all. It appears Ben is posing for the pleasure of Alicia Masters, the blind sculptor and his long-time love interest.
In the current comics, the pair recently got married, and it’s about damn time. Between those happy nuptials and Spider-Man and Mary Jane Watson back together, it seems Marvel editors realized comic book fans in general aren’t offended by married characters… around the same time that, over at DC, Superman and Lois Lane are on their way to being separated, and Catwoman kicked Batman in the metaphorical balls and left him at the altar. Why can’t both comic companies be good at the same time?
Alicia and Ben’s alone time is interrupted by the appearance of an alien, which means it’s Tuesday in New York in the Marvel universe. It turns out said alien is Proja, promoter supreme. He represents a fighter and he’s heard of the Thing’s exploits and wants to arrange a match.
But Ben’s having none of this, and he assures Alicia he’s not interested. Proja says there’s no hard feelings and offers one of his hands in friendship. But Proja isn’t taking “no” for an answer and tricks Ben, which suggests Proja is an intergalactic Don King. The pair disappear, much to Alicia’s dismay.
But Proja isn’t done. Proja proves he’s a busy man—alien, whatever—when he scoops up some of Earth’s mightiest heroes… and Doc Samson. He skipped the Vision because he was a synthetic being. Raciiiist! The heroes—and Doc Samson—find themselves in some sort of super-gymnasium.
Thor notes that he thinks they ain’t on Earth any more, while Sasquatch inner monologues his man-crush for the God of Thunder. Wonder Man says it looks like a movie set, but Ben says you can’t fake that used gym smell. While some of the gang check out the equipment, Namor claims they’re “prattling like old women”. If the comic devolved into everybody beating the shit out of Namor, I would have had no problem with that.
The Prince of Atlantis, without even thinking about whether or not they’re on a space ship, punches a hole in the wall and they find out they’re in another dimension. Score one point to Thor for proving he’s not just a guy in a funny hat, but take that point away for Goldilocks being unable to use his hammer to get them home. The Hulk demands to know where their jailer is, and if I recall correctly, this was the period where Bruce Banner was mentally in control of the Hulk’s body, which after some ten years of “Hulk smash!” was a pretty refreshing change of pace.
They gang doesn’t have long to wait for their host appear.
It turns out he’s the Champion. He tells the heroes (and Doc Samson) that he’s honored them by picking them above all others to engage them in combat, explaining that he’s gone from world to world, challenging each planet’s heroes in a quest for sport and glory. The heroes’ response is to dog pile the Champion, and I like how Colossus, the most inexperienced guy in the room, isn’t sure if this is the right move and Doc Samson is probably thinking that maybe they should, you know, reason with the guy first. I give Doc Samson grief, but I appreciate how writer Tom DeFalco, in juggling all of these characters, is in fact attempting to give them character. It’s all for naught however (the dog pile, not DeFalco’s literary efforts), as the Champion explains he’s an elder of the universe and wielder of the Power Primordial.
He says the gang has to fight him, otherwise he might use his powers against Earth, and they realize they have to go along with this game…for now. Notice the bottom right panel; who’s that guy between Samson and Hulk? Is that Colossus? Did the colorist make a boo-boo? In the old days, if a fan spotted a gaffe like that they could write in and point it out, then supply a good explanation for why it really wasn’t a mistake, and be awarded a No-Prize. Me? I think when Colossus is terrified, his metal skin turns flesh-colored. I can imagine Stan Lee giving me a No-Prize from above. Excelsior, Stan.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, Reed and Sue are at Alicia’s apartment, while the Human Torch is scouting around for any trace of the Thing. I’m thinking Reed just sent him out to give Johnny something to do. Reed starts using his Kirby-esque super-science equipment to find a trace of his orange rocky sidekick.
And kudos to artist Ron Wilson for riding the crazy Jack Kirby vibe. Reed inner monologues that the power levels he’s reading are from somebody more powerful than Galactus. Hey, Proja was the one who showed up in the apartment, not the Champion. What if it’s Proja who’s the real baddie here? What if he’s secretly feeding the Champion all his power and propping him up? Or what if he really is the Champion?
Spoilers: he ain’t. But that doesn’t upset me, and I’ll explain later.
Elsewhere, the X-Men have come up empty in searching for Colossus, and hey, this might be the one and only time somebody used Kitty Pryde’s original code name: Sprite. It’s like DeFalco was reading everybody else’s comics at the bullpen and taking notes. You know, like a professional. Storm asks if maybe somebody like Magneto is behind this, and Kitty’s freaking out like Colossus isn’t a guy who can turn into living steel. If I have any issue with this part of the story, it’s that none of the X-Men even suggest that the Soviets might have wanted their “comrade” back, or maybe the feds showed up and deported him. If I think there’s any downside to having an team of international superheroes, it’s whether or not their green cards are up to date.
Back at the inter-dimensional gym, everybody is working under the instruction of their personal trainers. Banner-Hulk inner monologues about how he has to hold down his temper, lest Stupid Hulk return, while Thor points out that he can’t really put down his hammer for more than a minute. The more I think about this, the happier I am Walt Simonson got rid of that plot device during his epic run on Thor’s title a few years later. All the same, you’d think said plot device would disqualify Thor from the match.
Doc Samson is going toe to toe with a training machine, and thinks he can science his way out of it when he’s told he has to dodge and parry. This… goes about as well as you expect.
Doc’s trainer figures he’s no fighter, so he’s sent home. Namor refuses to get his hands dirty, and he too is disqualified. I’m… not entirely sold on Namor’s characterization here. I get that Tom DeFalco is trying to portray the Sub-Mariner as arrogant, but if the fate of Atlantis were on the line, I think Namor would be ready to throw down. Me, I would have disqualified Thor because of the hammer and kept Namor. Meanwhile, Colossus isn’t sure of the stakes, but his trainer points out that with two heroes already eliminated, it doesn’t bode well for their planet. And on that foreboding note, Peter Rasputin decides if the more experienced heroes are playing along, he better do the same. After all, he’s fighting for himself, and Mother Russia and Kitty, his fourteen year old girlfriend.
Nope, not making that up. Peter and Kitty had a bit of chemistry going on until some editor finally realized that maybe the slightest hint of impropriety between an underage girl and an adult male might, you know, look bad, and that was shut down. You’d think that sort of thing would have been nipped in the bud, but X-Men writer Chris Claremont was kind of a comic book industry rock star at the time, so he got away with a lot. Don’t believe me? Go Google “Chris Claremont mind control”. But after you read this article, mkay?
Elsewhere in the gym, Sasquatch talks about how much he’s looking forward to the fight, saying how he used to be a football linebacker. Looks like I’m not the only one who owns a complete set of The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe.
Man, I used to love poring over those. I especially remember the technical manual that said Wolverine’s claws were bionic. God damn retcons…
Wonder Man isn’t too thrilled with being here. It turns out this is during the time he quit being an Avenger to pursue an acting career. Okay, Simon, then act like you want to be here. And then we get to the Thing, who turns out to be pretty good at this whole boxing thing. Man, it’s like this whole comic is about him and the rest of the gang are just supporting characters or something.
The fights are promoted, with ads and stories running in the worlds’ newspapers and magazines. On the day of the fight, the Fantastic Four and Avengers are just hanging out and chillin’ with each other. She-Hulk wonders why she wasn’t picked, and Iron Man suggests the Champion might be a male chauvinist… which turns out to be pretty much true, but that isn’t addressed until years later. But I think in this case, it was simply the writer and editors feeling the potential backlash of portraying a huge male beating up a woman might be somewhat counter-productive to sales.
The first match is almost underway, and the Champion’s first contestant is Thor.
Remember what I said earlier about swapping Thor and Namor? I take it back. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the genius of artist Ron Wilson. “My Asgardian raiment has been transformed into this unseemly garb!” But at least The Champion let you keep your winged hat there, Thor. Lucky us.
While the Fantastic For and Avengers pretty much do jack-all, the X-Men are being more proactive, as Cyclops and Wolverine attempt to break into the impenetrable dome surrounding the ring. Neither optic blasts or claws are able to break through ,and you know, it’s kind of weird now to look back at a time when Wolverine plays such a minor, ineffective role in a story that involves the entire Marvel Universe. Man, how times change.
But that’s what happens when comic readers grow to like a character and voice their desire to see more of them through writing letters and buying comics featuring said character. It works out better that way rather than editors and writers trying again… and again… and again… to force a character down our collective throats.
The Champion teleports in, and I absolutely love the dialogue here between the two fighters:
It almost makes me wish Chris Hemsworth had spoken like this in the Marvel movies. Maybe the decision for him to speak in conventional English made him more relatable to casual moviegoers, but I think die-hard fans would have loved the thees and thous. The fight is on, and the Champion is schooling Thor. Thor responds by smacking the Champion and calling boxing a “formal charade”. Even the God of Thunder knows American boxing is a joke. The Champion has had enough of Thor using a foreign object, and dismisses him from the ring. Moving on, now it’s the Hulk’s turn, and…
Yeah, Banner ain’t even trying to go along with this boxing bullshit, but before he can get his big green Hulk-mitts on the Champion, he’s shown the door. Next is Sasquatch…
Next! Now it’s time for the Communist Kid, the Boxing Bolshevik, the Slugging Soviet! Let’s see how this promising prospect straight from the collectivist farm does against the Champion…
Okay then. Let’s see how Power Man does. Simon goes in and wow, I didn’t realize just how much of a whiner he was around this time. I remember when Brian Michael Bendis made Simon turn against the Avengers during his run, and later he became a pacifist, and I thought people were writing him out of character, but looking at this…
…makes me realize Wonder Man was always a little less than wonderful. He tears the ring up in a fit of pique and is disqualified. Hit the showers, loser. We get a scene where Reed, Sue, Johnny, and Alicia are sitting in the audience, and Reed explains that the reason they aren’t doing anything is they “tried everything” against the shield, and nothing worked. Personally, I think Reed’s got fifty on the Champion and wants to see Ben go down in the fourth.
All the bums are out, and now it’s time for the number one contender.
And as silly as all this has been, I love this panel. It kind of sums up why Ben Grimm has been such a popular character all these years; he’s the beautiful loser, the working class hero. Sure, the Hulk kicks his ass every time, but Ben doesn’t let that stop him from going toe-to-toe with the big guy. Ben doesn’t quit, and he doesn’t give up.
The Champion says he thinks his match with Ben will meet his minimal standards, and Ben asks if the big blue guy is gonna talk him to death.
Why no, Ben, that’s what fists are for. The Champion gets cocky, and Ben actually lands a shot.
Ben is the first fighter to make it to round two, and the fight is so brutal that the ring gets wrecked again. The ref is about to award the Champion a win by TKO, but then…
In round three, Ben takes it to the champ, earning his respect. Ben breaks some ribs and the Champion rewards our ever-lovin’ blue-eyed hero with the mother of all beatdowns. Regardless, Ben keeps on his feet until the end of the third, but the ref says he won’t survive a fourth and declares the Champion the winna! The Champion prepares to lay his judgment down on planet Earth…
Yeah, the Thing lost, but you didn’t beat him, Champ. Well, okay. You beat him. You beat him so bad this comic would be rated R for violent content these days. But Ben’s spirit isn’t crushed. The Champ is actually moved by Ben’s indomitable courage and decides that Earth will live. The Champion swears we’ll never see him again, and as he departs, the Thing is treated like the hero he is by his peers and we fade out.
Marvel Two-in-One Annual #7 is a terrific one shot story; it’s goofy fun and a reminder of why I used to love comics so much. On the one hand, it doesn’t take itself too seriously, but on the other, the message is clear in that like the first Rocky movie (and similarly with Creed), the point is not always to win but to not give up on yourself or those closest to you. It’s a simple message, but an important one. The Thing is portrayed as a true hero here, and at the time was considered one of Marvel’s most important characters. Sadly, Ben Grimm’s light began to dim during the ’80s as fans latched onto another cigar chompin’, trash talkin’ working class hero.
So, what was the aftermath? The Champion would show up a few more times, as Steve Englehart gave him a bit of backstory, making him a member of of the elder races of the universe. This was actually a pretty cool idea, giving the Silver Surfer a rogues gallery to fight in his new title. Then we discovered the source of the Champion’s great strength was not the “Power Primordial”, but rather a power gem which Thanos took off his hands pretty easily.
And then he got his ass handed to him by She-Hulk.
But by now, we find ourselves living in more enlightened times; the Champion handed She-Hulk her ass in their first meeting before she got her own back. The Champion has appeared elsewhere, but by this point the character is largely ineffectual. What else came of this? Well, the comic turned out to be the inspiration for an episode of “Dial ‘M’ For Monkey”, a backup segment featured on Dexter’s Laboratory.
To this day, I can’t read this comic without hearing Randy “Macho Man” Savage’s voice coming out of the Champion’s mouth.
I hope you enjoyed this nostalgic look back at a time when comics were a bit simpler and more fun. Peace out, y’all!