In superhero comics, whenever a major character goes away, there’s a tendency to almost immediately begin the countdown to their return. So it was after the death of Logan, so it has always been for Jean Grey -- and so it is for Marvel’s founding family.
The Fantastic Four left the Marvel Universe behind at the end of 2015’s Secret Wars, to help rebuild the multiverse from behind the scenes. Or at least, the Richards family -- Susan, Reed, Valeria and Franklin -- did. That meant two of the team’s founding members remained on earth: Ben "The Thing" Grimm and Johnny "Human Torch" Storm.
A couple of years down the line, Marvel Two-In-One picks up with those two characters, now estranged from one another. Following on from the surprise ending of Marvel Legacy #1 a few months back (and the recent Disney-Fox deal which could bring the Fantastic Four film rights back to the Marvel fold), it’s no surprise that fans are looking to Two-In-One to resurrect the team. Especially given the FF-style ‘2’ logo on the cover, and the fact that this issue is billed as the first part of "Fate of Four."
But Two-In-One, at least in this first issue, is not that story. It’s a comic about grieving.
Reed and Susan may not be, technically speaking, dead -- but for Ben and Johnny the end result is the same. As far as the two are aware, these are people they love, who they are never going to see again. And the dream of the Fantastic Four has gone with them.
In one of the issue’s most affecting scenes, The Thing visits a warehouse where all of the contents of the FF’s Baxter Building HQ -- from futuristic Kirby tech to his beaten old armchair -- have been put into storage. It’s a room full of painful memories which he has to sift through. For anyone who’s ever had to deal with effects of a loved one who has passed away, it’s a striking and recognizable human moment for a comic about two dudes who once went into space and turned into a rock monster and a person-shaped flame.
Most of the first issue is given over to showing us how the two characters are dealing with their grief. True to the four-element conception of the characters, The Thing is working through it in grounded, practical ways -- keeping it close to himself, continuing with his regular routine, and reflecting quietly -- while the Human Torch’s pain burns as brightly as Frank Martin’s coloring of his fire powers.
The comic opens with Johnny taking part in a stock car race, pushing his car so hard that it explodes. Flip the page, and Jim Cheung has him walking almost expressionless from the flaming wreckage. It’s a literally self-destructive act, an attempt to disguise one kind of pain with another -- a real-life way of mourning, pushed to superheroic extremes.
The interplay between these two old friends, whose different ways of grieving who have pushed them apart, is the heart of the story. On the surface, that might be a surprise coming from Chip Zdarksy, who made his name as the funniest artist and subsequently writer in comics, on books like Sex Criminals, Howard the Duck and Jughead. But his best work has always had this beating heart -- just look at the recent Spectacular Spider-Man #6, with Peter Parker’s face-off with J Jonah Jameson, or the surprisingly similar Howard the Duck issue which took two throwaway characters and told a story about them mourning the loss of their adoptive father.
Marvel Two-In-One isn’t as immediately affecting as either of those issues, but it’s a touching tribute to characters who are no longer with us -- even if all hints suggest that might not be the case for much longer.