Sunday, June 30, 2013

1981: Marvel's Two Writing One part VII: The Kirby Crackle Conclusion

By Jef Willemsen (

In the seventh and final part of this retrospective, Ralph Macchio and Mark Gruenwald bring it all back home... If you live in Attilan, on Hydrobase or the bottom of the Atlantic, that is...

Issues # 71 and 72 marked the end of the Macchio/Gruenwald cooperation, but they left on a high note by resolving the plight of doctor Henry Croft and the other Hydro-Men from back in issue # 64. Mr. Fantastic and the Inhumans finally managed to confirm that their mutation into amphibians was indeed caused by the sacred Terrigen mists.

"It's an airquake"

... An air...quake? Ah, only in Attilan. 

Yes, this was before John Byrne took over the main Fantastic Four title and had the Inhumans relocate to the Blue Area of the Moon. Attilan was still on Earth, nestled somewhere in the Himalayan mountains. Here, Mr. Fantastic and the Inhuman scientists succesfully crafted a cure that restored Croft to normal.

This gas was basically an anti-Terrigen potion, which potentially made it very dangerous to the Inhumans should it ever fall in the wrong hands...

Meet the wrong pair of hands...

Phobius, Helio and Gronk, in their first appearance, were sent by their shadowy master Maelstrom to... procure... a sample of the anti-Terrigen compound. Helio, incidentally, was the one responsible for creatin those pesky airquakes.

They made their move when Ben and the others were on Hydrobase to cure the 500+ Hydro-Men, Women & Children. Maelstrom's Minions attempted a quick smash 'n grab, but weren unable to escape with their prize, getting overpowered and taken prisoner by Ben, Karnak and Gorgon. The cannister seemed lost at sea...

Until it grew fins and swam off.

"And when Attilan falls, the world itself shall soon learn the might of Maelstrom!"

So, just who is Maelstrom?

Well, as issue # 72 revealed, he's about the Kirbiest Kirby character without Jack Kirby's actual involvement.
  • He is the son of an Inhuman father and a Deviant mother (both races created by Kirby).
  • He is surrounded by a permanent 'plume of bioluminescence' (basically Kirby crackle)
  • He is into wearing pointless, crazy looking headgear (like the ones uncle Jack loved to draw)
  • And then there's this guy...

Meet Deathurge, another of Maelstrom's associates. Whenever he appears, someone is about to die... Mainly because he's the one doing the killing. Maelstrom sent him to Hydrobase to end the lives of Phobos, Helio and Gronk before they could be interrogated. Basically, he's a thinly disguised Black Racer clone from Kirby's early 70s DC magnum opus New Gods.

"Now I mount my skis... and ride the night!"

Some people find Kirby's scripting clunky, unpolished and silly... But how can one not love lines like that? The man's writing shared the same explosive, high octane 'what the heck?' factor as his art. It's poetry, really. Oh, wait... We're still doing Marvel Two In One, right?

Having his minions killed, didn't prevent Maelstrom from getting discovered. His hiding place was a bit obvious after all... the undersea caverns beneath Attilan's former location in the Atlantic ocean. There, the master geneticist had discovered minute trace particles of Terrigen mist that he cultivated and used in his experiments... and even sold to Doctor Hydro, the creator of the Hydro-Men.

Maelstrom wanted to use the anti-Terrigen gas to destroy Attilan to avenge the fate that befell his father Phaeder. He'll tell you himself...

Banishing an immoral geneticist from a society that ritually exposes perfectly healthy children to mists that cause wildly unpredictable, deforming and sometimes lethal mutations? Yeah... That makes sense. 

Incidentally, the name 'Phaeder' may sound fancy and Inhuman, but it's either pronounced 'Fader' or 'vader', which is Dutch for 'father'... So, in true Marvel tradition, the man's name is a bit on the nose. It's also the reason why Dutch audiences weren't all that surprised when Darth Vader was revealed to be Luke's, well, vader... at the end of The Empire Strikes Back... Heck, he'd been called that for close to two movies at that point.

Getting back to the story... Right before he recounted his own origin to the ailing Phaeder, Maelstrom had used his defense systems to knock out Ben, Karnak and Gorgon who thought they had entered the base undetected. He had them all chained up and ready for genetic experimentation and vivisection when Black Bolt showed up to save the day. 

"Hey you guys... Don't ask me how, but the three stooges are back"

While Black Bolt took on the Kirby Cracklin' Crazy, Ben and the other Inhumans had to fight Helio, Phobos and Gronk again. Or, rather, their clones. Just like Mister Sinister would clone his Marauders after they died, Maelstrom had pre-made sets of his minions ready to go. 

"While I know your every strength and weakness, you know nothing of mine!"

Sheesh, he's not kidding...

"Black Bolt... I heard what that creep said, you gotta go after that rocket!
I can handle high britches here!"

Brave words Ben, but what you're best at is hitting stuff... and kinetic energy only makes Maelstrom stronger. Still, he gave it the old college try while the king of the Inhumans flew to intercept the rocket, only managing to disarm the device mere moments before it reached Attilan.

Meanwhile, Maelstrom was knocking the stuffing out of the Thing... Until Ben finally started to use his head to defeat the villain. Well, technically, he was thrown head first into the tubes that contained the anti-Terrigen concoction, but still...

"Here's mud in yer eye, Mally!"

Conveniently enough, the formula used to cure the Hydro-Men also affected Inhumans ánd Deviant-Inhuman hybrids like Maelstrom. Robbed of his powers and aware Black Bolt stopped the missile, he beged his father's forgiveness before ordering Deathurge to kill him. As his body turned black, his father quietly died as well. In the end, Gorgon used his mighty hooves to bring the base down around them...

 "By the time the escaping mini-sub reaches the mainland, all is still beneath the waves once more. Still and dark and peaceful... Like a tomb."

And with that, the Gruenwald/Macchio collaboration on Marvel Two In One officially ended. Mark Gruenwald would write issues # 73 and # 74 that saw Ben team up with Quasar and fight the Puppet Master who had turned evil despite his change of heart back in # 60. While certainly entertaining, these tales would prove inconsequential to the greater whole of the Macchio/Gruenwald cooperation.

After making their debut on the title with the well loved Project: Pegasus saga, they wrote a year's worth of stories that, while certainly not as well known as their initial outing, were every bit as grounded in and inspired by the rich tapestry of the Marvel universe.

What's even more interesting: Macchio and Gruenwald continued the trend established in their first storyline. Marvel Two In One didn't rely on any 'stunt casting'. No popular heroes with their own titles stopped by as a gimmick to prop up sales. Who we got were types like Thundra, Moondragon, Hyperion, the Guardians of the Galaxy, even a rechristened Paragon...

Yet, picking these virtual unknowns allowed the duo to tell stories that really had lasting impact on the Marvel universe. Take their first post Pegasus arc: it introduced Her in # 61, brought the High Evolutionary back to life, revealed the existence of the Beyonders ánd gave Counter Earth a proper send off in # 63... In other words, Macchio and Gruenwald used Marvel Two In One to really play with the many proverbial toys in the publisher's sandbox, without fear of having to put them all back.

But Gruenwald and Macchio also seemed to have a distinct purpose in mind for picking these specific characters. They weren't 'just' there to fill 22 pages with loud colors and even more colorful fight scenes, their tales were intended to tell personal stories and resolve whatever dangling plots from other books they felt needed adressing...

This notion resulted in the Serpent Crown trilogy, issues # 64 through 66, which was based on two danglers: whatever happened to the alternate Earth Serpent Crown after Vision tossed it into the ocean in Avengers # 154 and the fate of Dr. Hydro's accomplices the Hydro-Men, from Sub-Mariner # 63. Using plotholes to create new tales is the mark of a true storyteller.

'Orphaned' characters like Thundra were lovingly taken in, fleshed out and eventually given a worthy send off. It was the first time the Femizonian had a proper character arc, and one that felt organic to the character and their established history. And, to a lesser degree, so did sending the Guardians of the Galaxy back to the future where they belong. 

Even back in 1980, it was obvious comics were cyclical in nature and any major changes would ever be permanent. When Gruenwald and Macchio broke up Ben and Alicia, no one was convinced it would last. But at least the duo tried to make it interesting by having Ben break up with her out of fear for Alicia's safety. That's a very different and far less self pitying reason than his usual "you only love the Thing... Not Ben. And if you could see me, you'd leave me'.

So that's Marvel Two In One during the time two of Marvel's mainstays wrote it. Mark Gruenwald went on to write classic runs on comics like Captain America, the Squadron Supreme and Quasar, often using characters from his Two In One days. Gruenwald died in 1996 from undiagnosed congenital heart disease.Ralph Macchio mainly worked as an (executive) editor until his retirement from comics in March 2011.

What they leave behind is a body of work that, certainly in the case of Marvel Two In One, is enjoyable... to the Nth degree.

1 comment:

  1. Jef, this might by my series of yours yet. This was really informative and full of detail. It fleshed out Two-In-One for me, which is a book in which I've never really had any interest. So thanks for enlightening me!



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