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?