Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Know When to Hold 'em; Know When to Fold 'em.

Frankly, I don't know why Ben Grimm even bothers trying to host poker games. Something will always happen to interrupt it--usually just when he has a great hand.

That's what happens in Marvel Two-in-One #75 (May 1981). The rest of the FF are gone for the weekend, Alicia is off at an artists retreat and Ben has the Baxter Building to himself. He invites the Avengers (along with Jarvis) over for some poker.

But it's not to be. Over in the Negative Zone--the anti-matter universe that is accessible through a Reed Richards-invented portal--stuff is happening. The two most powerful beings in that reality, Annihilus and Blastaar, make a deal. The two need each other to conquer Blastaar's home planet. In the best villain tradition, Annihilus plans to back-stab his ally afterwards. The two celebrate their new alliance by watching a Lovecraftian horror eat a few captives.

One of these captives is Nyglar, Blastaar's wife. Blastaar rescues her, but still remains allied with Annihilus. Nyglar knows her husband is setting himself up for a fall, so decides to send out a distress signal, hoping that someone will be able to stop the impending invasion of her home planet.

A receiver in the Baxter Building picks up the distress call just as Ben has drawn a full house.

What follows is a great space opera adventure story. The script is by Tom DeFalco and the strong, clean art by Alan Kupperberg and their talents mesh perfectly.

But there's another strong element to the story. The distress signal is about events happening exclusively in the Negative Zone. It involves nothing that threatens the Earth or the heroes. Is it something that they should get involving in? The ensuing discussion is short, but the points made are all trenchant and reasonable.

Ben, though, isn't going to ignore anyone who needs help. When he decides to go into the Negative Zone to look around, the others agree to go along as well. The power packs that protect them from the radiation of the Negative Zone will last seven hours, so they have that much time to save a planet and then get back home.

As I said, the story is great space opera. A synopsis of the plot wouldn't do it justice. The heroes confront the Blastaar-Annihilus army and there are fights, captures, escapes, double-crosses & triple-crosses. In addition to that army, Annihilus also controls the Super-Adaptoid, the Mad Thinker's android who has the powers of all the major Avengers. The Adaptoid was tossed into the Negative Zone after a recent encounter with Captain Marvel.

The whole thing is a boisterous super-hero romp, but there's some deeper emotions here. The concern that the Avengers are in a situation they shouldn't be in hangs over everything. The fate of Nyglar is tragic and drips with irony. And when Blastaar manages to beat Annihilus to the draw in who betrays whom, the story takes yet another tragic turn.

The battle culminates when Ben takes on the Super Adaptoid. Remember that the android has the power of many Avengers and after his last appearance also has Captain Marvel's powers. Ben is simply out-powered. But Ben also never gives up. It's a character trait that is probably in danger of becoming an overused cliche in regards to Ben, but when the writing is strong (as it is here), the reader finds himself shouting "Go, Ben!" with complete sincerity.

But when the dust clears, Blastaar has won--wiping out Annihilus' army and gaining control the powerful comic control rod. The heroes return home with the realization that they would have been better off sticking to poker.

This is one of my favorite Two-in-One stories, demonstrating that a super-hero tale can deal with real emotions and metaphors for real life situations (when should a super-power stick its nose into another country's business?) without losing its sense of fun or its sense of wonder.

Well, we've followed Ben and the heroes on an epic adventure. Next week, we'll go along on another epic adventure with.... Bugs and Porky?

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