Marvel Two-In-One #51
For years, I’ve had a vague but persistent memory of one of the first Marvel comics I ever read. All I could remember was that it started with a load of random heroes (who I didn’t know as a kid) playing cards together at night; that one of them was Beast; and that they all jumped in the Fantasti-Car halfway through the story to go off and take care of a load of bad guys.
After decades - and as part of my trawl through some of the lesser-known works of Frank Miller - I’ve recently stumbled across it again with Marvel Two-In-One #51. And to my surprise, it’s actually much better than my hazy memories gave it credit for.
Written by Peter Gillis (who I don’t know as a writer, but who turns in a really fun story here), the issue starts with Ben Grimm arguing with a security drone on the roof of Avengers Mansion, insisting that he hasn’t got time to look for I.D. due to some kind of “emergency”.
The emergency, of course, ends up being that he’s late for a card game, which sets up a fun ‘downtime’ scenario for the Avengers and Nick Fury of the type that we’ve seen in a lot of classic comics.
I love the dingy, slightly seedy vibe of the cramped room that they play in, which Miller emphasises in a beautifully-designed page that gives us glimpses of the key characters as they play (as well as a line each to flesh out their personalities a little for the uninitiated), all built around a smoky and atmospheric central image.
While all this is going on, though, there’s a criminal plot playing out at a secret SHIELD facility, which we see interspersed with the beginnings of the card game. I love the little moment between The Thing and Wonder Man here - a great mixture of humour and weirdness:
As the subplot involving the bad guys hots up, though - and Fury starts to realise exactly what they’re after - the issue kicks into high gear. The heroes jump into the Fantasti-Car and fly into action, only to be confronted with their enemy in an awesome giant panel that spreads across both pages, takes place on multiple planes of perspective, and almost encapsulates a little mini-story in its own right.
These two pages would be worth the cover price alone (as well as the great splash panel, that final image of Beast bouncing off the Fantasti-Car is just great, and is one of the few images that stuck in my mind from my first reading, what must be around 30 years ago).
The big brawl plays out pretty much as you’d expect, with some great early-era Miller art (this was May 1979, so almost exactly the same time has his debut on Daredevil) giving us some wonderful fight choreography and action moments.
But Gillis plays his part too, putting together a fun fight in which every character gets a moment to shine, and the banter flows freely between the characters to keep things light.
It all culminates in a very enjoyable (if slightly cheesy) denouement in which the villain finds his exits blocked on every side by our heroes, and Fury finds himself unable to resist dropping some clumsy poker metaphors into the conversation.
As the final page brings things to a close, we see the heroes return home as dawn breaks, and they find themselves thwarted by lack of sleep as they attempt to resume their card game.
Again, it’s a slightly cheesy moment, but the story gets away with it due to its sheer charm and likeability.
I feel like this is a real hidden gem of Marvel’s 1970s era - a great little story that throws together a slightly random bunch of characters, gives us an enjoyable taste of all of them (both on- and off-duty), zips along at a fair pace and is illustrated by one of the industry’s all-time top talents. It captures the essence of what a Marvel comic should be, for me: fun, irreverent, exciting, colourful and silly. If they made big-budget Marvel movies in the '70s, this is what they would look like.
My only question is how I ever read it in the first place: I can only assume Marvel UK featured it as a reprint in some annual (that’s how I usually came across the 1970s Marvel issues I read as a kid in the early '80s), but I can’t find any record of them having done so. It’s a bit of a mystery.