Monday, August 27, 2007

Storytelling Engines: Marvel Two-In-One

(or "You Can Pick Your Friends, But You Can't Pick Your Family")

For an idea as difficult to write for as the "Team-Up" engine (spotlighted previously in Marvel Team-Up and The Brave and the Bold), comic books that revolve primarily around their central character teaming up with a spotlighted super-hero every month sure do seem to get a lot of play. This week, we're looking at 'Marvel Two-In-One', another book in which a notoriously anti-social hero (although by this point, Ben Grimm, the Thing, has been seriously de-fanged and is more "grumpy" than "anti-social") teams up every month with a different super-hero, forcing the book to come up with reasons every month why super-heroes just happen to keep bumping into the Thing. And, of course, it also has to maintain continuity with the Thing's own title...

But hang on. The Thing doesn't have his own title. Oh, sure, he's a member of the Fantastic Four, and the writer of 'Marvel Two-In-One' has to maintain continuity with that series. But there's a whole different dynamic at work when maintaining continuity between a team book and a solo book than there is between two solo series. A team book revolves around the team, not necessarily its individual members; with four people in the Fantastic Four, each with their own private life and developments as well as the need to tell stories about the entire team, there's a lot less pressure on the writer to make sure important developments in the life of Ben Grimm happen in the FF's own series. In fact, some writers might welcome the chance to let the Thing's life happen in the Thing's title so they can focus on Johnny, Reed and Sue; just keep up to date on the big things, add a few footnotes now and then mentioning important developments in MTIO (which has the bonus of boosting sales of the spin-off to boot), and their job is done.

Of course, it helps that Ben Grimm's life is relatively "big shake-up" free. 'Marvel Two-In-One' didn't do anything like break up the Thing's relationship with long-time girlfriend Alicia Masters, or cause him to leave the Fantastic Four. Indeed, the storytelling engine of MTIO, with its emphasis on team-ups, guest stars, and fast-moving stories precluded the series from getting any momentum with its lone stable character. (Except, of course, that it gave him a side job as security director for 'Project: Pegasus', which served both the storytelling need to give him a supporting cast and location distinct from his 'Fantastic Four' appearances, and the storytelling need to give him an excuse to bump into numerous other comic book characters on a regular basis.)

Eventually, after one hundred issues, this book metamorphosized into a 'Thing' solo series, just as 'Marvel Team-Up' turned into 'Web of Spider-Man'. Without the anchor of having to put rotating team-ups into the book, suddenly the Thing's personal life took center stage and gave him plenty of room to develop his character. However, the attempts to develop a storytelling engine for the Thing conflicted with his position in the Fantastic Four, and he virtually vanished from the FF series until his solo series folded thirty-six issues later. Which is a not uncommon fate for characters on solo books who are also in teams--sooner or later, something happens to their life in their solo book that makes it hard to keep them in a team. That's why there are always a few members of any super-team that don't have their own series; because while it's nice to not have to worry about every member of the team and their personal life, sometimes you just want toys of your own to play with.

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