Simultaneous Silliness and Sincerity in Marvel Two-in-One 1

by Patrick Ehlers

This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!

Patrick: Does writer Chip Zdarsky leverage humor to find pathos, or does he exploit genuine emotion for comedy? It’s almost impossible to tell. Zdarsky often rides the line between celebrating the absurdity and celebrating the sincerity of his characters and his stories. Marvel Two-In-One somehow achieves both simultaneously, giving the reader a sad, almost Venture Brothersian look into the loneliness and ennui of the last remaining members of the Fantastic Four, while never letting go of the inherent weirdness of these characters. It’s a stupendous feat of writing, emboldened by Jim Cheung’s reverent artwork.

The issue begins during a Johnny Storm existential freak-out. Mind you, it takes a second to put that together. We’re at the Gibson Speedway and Johnny takes a turn too fast, wordlessly crashing into the outside wall, totaling his car. He walks away, harmlessly wreathed in flames, because, y’know, that’s what he does. It’s a stoic depiction of a man robbed of his family, and as we learn later in the issue, his purpose. Cheung presents the action in the classic nine-panel grid, and letterer Joe Caramagna fills the panels with commentary in tailless radio balloons. All of this implies a sort of clinical, journalistic analysis of what’s transpiring. But that doesn’t stop Zdarsky from blowing up the moment with some tongue-in-cheek references to the actors that have played the Human Torch in the widely-panned Fantastic Four films.

Jordan is Michael B. Jordan, who played Johnny in the 2015 movie; Evans is Chris Evan, who (before landing the role of Captain America) played Johnny Storm in both 2005’s Fantastic Four and 2007’s Rise of the Silver Surfer; and Underwood refers to Jay Underwood, the actor who played Storm in the not-actually-released Fantastic Four film from 1994. This is maybe little more than a cheeky breaking of the fourth wall, but in the context of Johnny’s possible suicide attempt, the reader is forced to consider what this does to the weight of the scene. Johnny’s life isn’t hard despite the comic book silliness around him, but because of it.

The same is true for The Thing. Ben Grimm attends a ceremony for an award named in honor of Reed Richards. The presenter describes the Richards as “lost to us now, their journey through the cosmos at an end.” That’s a particularly poetic turn of phrase, and it plays over scenes of the Four on some of their classic adventures — returning from space, battling Namor, even raising Franklin and Valeria. Zdarsky and Cheung present this as a sort of comic-book-explainer, but as the camera zooms out on the next page, we can see that these panels are just slides projected onto a screen behind Ben Grimm. These are his memories, but they’re also still images within Ben’s world. Obviously, they’re still images in our world too — marrying the reader’s experience of Ben’s past to his own.

Later, Ben is haunted by the weight of some of his memories and Cheung and Caramanga continue to insist of the comic bookiness of his experience. Ben is focused in on Sue’s instructions to stick with Johnny, and help him get through whatever difficult times lie ahead. Reed and T’Challa are talking about…something, but his speech balloons are truncated, as though the memory is cropped from an actual page.

Johnny and Ben struggle to survive their own histories, and that’s a lot of what we’ve been seeing from these one-offs and series branded with “Marvel Legacy” banner, but Zdarsky and company seem focused on more than just the adventures they lived through, but the way readers experienced those adventures. That’s part of what makes a Spider-Man cameo and a Doom heel-turn feel so natural here — it’s pure comics: silliness and sincerity at once.

(Unrelated Side Note: I think this is a terrible title for this series. First of all, I can’t tell if it’s “Two-In-One” or “2-in-One.” Second, should that “Marvel” really be part of the title? It makes it sound like some kind of anthology series, right? That’s doubly true when you match it with the 2-in-1 part of the title — both Drew and I assumed this was some kind of random fun pairing of two characters a la A+X. The cover puts both “The Thing” and “Human Torch” right on the cover, so it’s clear that editorial wasn’t 100% on the title’s ability to convey the contents. Why not just call this thing “Fantastic Two?”)

The conversation doesn’t stop there. What do you wanna talk about from this issue?

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6 comments on “Simultaneous Silliness and Sincerity in Marvel Two-in-One 1

  1. I’m not sure if you’re serious about questioning the title. Marvel Two in One was the Thing’s ‘solo’ book for a while, an anthology of all his team-ups back in the ’70s. It ran 100 issues, so it was at least mildly popular. This time it seems his team-up will be with Johnny.

    I haven’t followed Doom since Secret Wars. I was surprised by the statement, “I hope your nostalgia gives way to a future.” It seemed rather kind towards someone he has always loathed.

    I was also surprised by Ben’s ‘lie’ at the end. It made me go back and reread the issue to try to figure out if there was some clue I missed (and that Doom missed, also). It doesn’t set the series up for happy times if it’s really a lie – that’s one you don’t come back from when it’s found out.

    Was he lying? Why? Does he think that is the only thing that Johnny will be able to latch on to to get off his butt and live again?

  2. I haven’t read Howard the Duck yet, but of all of Zdarsky’s other work, this may be my favourite. At least, it will be if the quality remains this high.

    It isn’t just the sincerity, it is the focus on a sense of emotional realism. Ben and Johnny feel real. Zdarsky almost got there with Peter Quill, but so many little touches really make this work

    The best part is, of course, Ben lying to Johnny at the end. That’s the moment where things truly came together. You can understand why Ben is selling a fantasy, to give something for Johnny to live for. But you can also see that something very wrong is going to happen. I’ve wanted the Fantastic FOur back for some time – unlike most of Marvel’s other changes, getting rid of the Fantastic Four seemed only to be subtractive, especially when Infamous Iron Man didn’t fully work. But now it is a shame that they are. THe fact that this story has to end with Ben accidentally telling the truth feels much less interesting than fully exploring the lie. It is a brilliant moment, a powerful dramatic device and something I can’t wait to see play out. If Zdarsky can keep this level of emotional realism and fully explore what the lie does, I will be so happy.

    Also, the idea of showing what happened behind the scenes of Secret Wars 1 by literally having Reed and T’Challa’s dialogue from Secret Wars 1 being cut off while we focus on Sue is a brilliant visualisation of the idea. Props to the team for such a fantastic use of form

  3. Maybe I read it differently: It was so surprising to me (and Doom) but so believable to Johnny (it seemed), that I wondered if something else happened off panel that made him think that the others were alive. I thought that was a possibility and it was meant to be put out there that Ben now KNEW.

    • I think the lie worked so well for Johnny because he was desperate. He so desperately wanted to hear that, that Johnny would uncritically accept such a lie from Ben. Johnny is in such a dark place, he would accept any light, no matter how false. We are surprised and Doom is surprised because it is a massive lie. It is a very dangerous lie to tell that could blow up in Ben’s face and it doesn’t feel like something Ben would usually do.

      And yet, it makes perfect sense why Ben thinks that is what is needed. That is what the moment felt like to me. A massive and surprising turn with dangerous possible reprecussions, that also felt entirely like a reasonably thought out pan to reach out to a man in as dark a place as Johnny

      • Other than here: Has Johnny been doing that badly since Secret Wars? In Zdarsky’s Spider-Man book he seems like the Johnny of old.

        And I didn’t talk about this earlier, but: The first page, to me, was not a good first page. I chuckled at the references to the Torch actors, but I had two problems with it: 1) it didn’t ring true as to a car race. It just felt wrong. 2) Why should anyone care about the Torch being on fire. That’s his thing. He lights himself on fire, why do we care if he’s on fire in a car?

        Anyway, I still liked it, but the first page really worried me. It was a pretty big swing and miss I thought.

        • I don’t think any other book has been showing that dark side, but no other book has been laser focused on Johnny. This book represents our first look since Secret Wars behind the curtain, so it isn’t a surprise we only find out about this now. Though wouldn’t be surprise dif Spectacular Spiderman has hinted at it, since it is the same writer.

          With the car crash, I don’t think we are supposed to care about him being on fire. THe risk is more about the crash – he isn’t invulnerable. And more importantly, I think the problem is recklessness. THe fact that Johnny is doing something that reckless is a real sign of concern. He has always been reckless, but never that reckless. And the fact that his recklessness is now extreme is a rela sign of concern.

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