WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for Marvel Two-In-One #1 by Chip Zdarsky and Jim Cheung, in stores now.
Johnny Storm has a death wish.
In the opening pages of Marvel 2-in-One: The Thing and the Human Torch #1, he crashes a stock car in the final lap of a race. Driving too fast, Johnny overheats the engine and hits the wall. The vehicle explodes into a ball of flame, and he emerges unscathed, every bit the swaggering superstar playing to his fans.
It may seem like another day in the life of the young adventurer, but the Human Torch is in turmoil. Even his pal Spider-Man has noticed, and has made his way to the Fantastic Award gala to inform Ben Grimm that Johnny is morose. He stops short of calling the brash young man suicidal, but voicing his concerns, Spidey hands Ben the keys to a warehouse that houses the former contents of the Baxter Building, which was sold when Parker Industries went bankrupt. He urges the Thing to take the Fantasticar, to seek out Johnny, and to help the young man deal with his emotions.
Of course, Johnny isn’t the only one in distress. Ever the working class hero, Ben is uncomfortable giving the speech at the banquet. His loving tribute to his missing comrades presents the Fantastic Four as a family first, explorers second, and lastly as heroes. Tinged with nostalgia, Ben presents a précis of everything that made Marvel’s first modern title so special. Longtime readers of the Fantastic Four will mist up at his memories of comics’ first family.
In this first installment of “The Fate of the Four,” writer Chip Zdarsky and artist Jim Cheung weave a tale of loss, survival and family ties.
Sitting in his old chair at the warehouse, Ben reads an old newspaper and recalls the glory days of the Fantastic Four. As he is doing so, he flashes back to the failing life raft during the incursion that ended the multiverse in Secret Wars. He sees Sue imploring him to look after Johnny as the craft disintegrates. “He looks up to you more than you know… I’m his sister, you’re his rock,” she cries.
A familiar figure breaks his reverie as Doctor Doom teleports into the warehouse to offer Grimm a device he has stolen, and has failed to analyze, ostensibly because only the Thing can activate it. It is revealed to be a holographic projector that has been programmed to relay a specific message depending on the circumstances of Reed’s demise.
Richards’ recording urges Ben and Johnny to keep exploring, and points the way to a hidden device “that cannot fall into the wrong hands.” The Multisect is a machine that can access the multiplane, “a nexus for seemingly infinite universes. It is hidden at the site of the Fantastic Four’s first adventure, Monster Island.
Ben takes the Fantasticar out of storage and goes off to find Johnny, who would rather not be reminded of the past. But there’s more to the Human Torch’s sorrow than his grief over the loss of his family: Storm is also losing his powers, a development that has triggered the hero’s current identity crisis.
To get the lad out of his funk, Ben tells Johnny about the message, and hints that Reed and the others may still be alive.
All of this happens under the watchful eye of Doom, who is monitoring the pair “Oh Benjamin… A lie? Really?” asks the knowing Doom, “Why would you say such a thing?”
Zdarsky, Cheung, inkers John Dell & Walden Wong, and colorist Frank Martin have delivered a timeless Fantastic Four story that not only hints at the team’s return, but also opens the door for Doom to revert to his villainous ways (if he hasn’t already). As much as it’s a tale of Johnny and Ben dealing with the loss of their teammates, it is also a story about Victor von Doom’s obsession with Reed Richards, and the Richards clan as a whole.
In some ways, Reed and Victor are the Yin and the Yang of the Marvel Universe. The return of the FF, and the restoration of Doom as a villain would certainly restore a certain equilibrium to the House of Ideas. However, we know that Victor von Doom, like Richards is too complex a character to fit into a tidy category like “hero” or “villain.” He is not only Reed’s intellectual equal, he’s also Valeria Richards’ godfather, and the two share a mystical connection.
That Doom knows more than he is letting on is fairly certain. After all, he is one of the few characters in the Marvel Prime universe appears to fully remember the events of Secret Wars. If he does know Reed, Susan and the kids are out there, reconstituting the multiverse, it may well be that his is the hand that is guiding Valeria back to our universe on the last page of Marvel Legacy #1.
Doom’s manipulations may also extend further than is immediately obvious. Although he is clearly using Ben to get to Reed’s secret, could it be that he is also manipulating Johnny? After all, he once “cured” the Human Torch of his inability to flame-off by channeling his extra energy to his sister Sue, thus helping her birth Valeria.
If he is indeed siphoning off Johnny’s energy, is it part of his plan find the Multisect, or is it part of his effort to bring back Valeria and other members of the Richards family? Or is there more to this scheme? If Johnny’s energy helped bring her into this world, could it help bring her back?
Marvel 2-in-One #1 is more than a nostalgia trip. Sure, it reminds us of why we love the Fantastic Four, but it also feels like the beginning of a new chapter for Marvel’s first modern heroes. Zdarsky nails the family dynamic, which is the most crucial element in a good FF story. He plays a pragmatic Ben off an impulsive Johnny, gives us a self-conscious Reed who thinks of everything—and blames himself for it—and a Susan who thinks about everyone else—and keeps it all together.
This is the classic Fantastic Four formula, in all the best ways. If the team is indeed returning, as strongly hinted here, then Zdarsky is firmly in the pilot’s seat, and this is a promising start. Marvel 2-in-One truly earns its Legacy banner.