On “Vengeance of the Molecule Man!”, by Steve Gerber, Gil Kane, and Joe Sinnott

There’s something of the world before the meteor fell about the Marvel Comics of the mid-Seventies. That’s an unfortunate comparison where Jim Shooter and his tenure as the company’s Editor-in-Chief is concerned, because it casts him in the role of a great epoch-destroying mass of world-killing space rock. And yet the truth is that, whatever might be said in favour of his regime, Shooter did impose a uniformity of storytelling standards and ethical values which greatly diminished the variety of form and content in the company’s comics. The degree of the homogeneity which he insisted upon can and has been vastly over-exaggerated, of course; his time as EIC saw Marvel promoting a mass of work from the likes of Sienkiewicz and Miller and Simonson too. But much of the oddness and variety of the Marvel line was undeniably lost during his years in charge.

But the world of a time before an extinction event can seem to have been anything other than an improbably strange place to those who think only in terms of what came afterwards. We all have a tendency to view the past in the light of its supposed evolutionary relationship with the present day. What was then, so the logic goes, leads directly to what is now, and what exists now is always, at its core, the same basic phenomena as it always was, only more so. That tree in the back garden was obviously once a smaller tree, that new car in the neighbour’s yard is clearly the descendant of far less technologically complex and yet still fundamentally similar vehicle. Underneath all that difference, so the presumption goes, is an essential set of qualities which persist and, in doing so, mark out the relationship between constancy and change in the progression from what was to what is

And so it’s easy to read a comic such as 1974’s Marvel Two-In-One #1 and regard it as being a direct ancestor of the present-day superhero tale in a straight-forward and linear sense. That’s certainly what I’ve always done. It seemed logical to assume that if everything that might be considered anachronistic were to be stripped from Vengeance Of The Molecule Man!, for example, whatever remained would share a common core of qualities with a modern-era book. Strip out the trope of the two superheroes fighting each other before combining against a shared enemy. Snip away at the fascination not just with continuity, but with the close detail of it. Remove the device of the omniscient narrator, the flashbacks, the thought-balloons, the omnipresent exclamation marks, and the habit of characters explaining their own actions to nobody but themselves, and there’d it’d be; the spine of a typical mainstream cape’n’chest-insignia comic book of 2012. All it would require would be a touch of deconstructionism and a splash of the widescreen school of storytelling before being pushed back out into the marketplace, born again.

But what’s left of Marvel Two-In-One #1 after such an analytical exercise is something that’s in many ways very much not a direct ancestor of the present-day super-book. For Steve Gerber’s script presents a take on the idea of the protagonist and hero which would be almost unthinkable in the comic-books of 2012. In the character and behaviour of the Thing, Gerber merged the role of hero and anti-hero in such a particular fashion that a reader used to the stories of today finds themselves cut loose from their moorings. This Benjamin Grimm is a largely loathsome bully; irrational, ignorant and anti-social. Yet it’s clear from the story that the reader is expected to take his part from the off, and there’s no signs in the narrative at all that this is meant as a challenge of any kind to the idea of the Marvel superhero. As a portrayal of an almost-entirely unadmirable character occupying the position of hero, it leaves recent challenging portrayals of the superhero as n’er-do-well in the shade. Those few recent pages presenting John Stewart as a self-seeking and apathetic anti-statist, or those defining the Batman as a sexual obsessive bordering on mania? Gerber’s issue-long depiction of the Thing as a brute and a fool who still somehow deserves to be unconditionally associated with the role of “hero” outdistances them all.

It’s easy to forget the degree to which the concept of what is and what isn’t a hero in fiction has been discussed and debated and codified over the past thirty-five and more years. With the unforeseen and phenomenal commercial success of 1977’s Star Wars came George Lucas’s proselytising about Joseph Campbell’s theories of the Hero’s Journey, and that perhaps more than anything else helped create a climate in which academic debate about the role of character types and mythic structure became more and more of a mainstream concern. This expansion of the degree to which the writing of popular fiction has become as much a theoretical as a practical concern, a mass as well as niche interest, has steamrollered to the point at which we’ve even ended up with an education system which, for ill and good, teaches such concerns as a given in the curriculum. We’ve even got a host of TV shows, from Sherlock to House, which are at their root meta-fictions concerned with debating with their audiences about how far a character can diverge from known and accepted templates and still occupy the role of hero as well as protagonist. It’s a process which has resulted in a culture which carries an incredibly precise, distinct and common definition of what is and what isn’t a fictional hero. Little of this was anything other than a concern for a comparatively small number of academics and creators in 1974. Yet our fictions are now so often precisely framed in terms of Campbell and Vogler and McKee, and a thousand other how-to-do texts, that it’s incredibly hard to recall a time when the phrase “hero’s journey” could refer to nothing more than the question of how a character might travel from here to there in a story.

Steve Gerber’s take on the character of the Thing in Marvel Two-In-One #1 is one which it’s hard to imagine appearing in a mainstream comic-book today without a great deal of context being given to help the reader come to the supposedly right understanding of things. Yet Gerber presents his readers with what passes as a celebration of a bully in Vengeance Of The Molecule Man!, and it’s hard to spot any sign of irony in the comic at all. The victims of the Thing are there for us to laugh at, Ben Grimm himself an apparently admirable man. As such, it’s hard to see Marvel Two-In-One #1 as any kind of comment on the absurdity of the superhero book’s heroic idea at all. If this is satire, then it’s satire that’s so impossibly controlled that it seems inseparable from that which we’d assume would have to be its target; the kneejerk association of the super-hero with moral superiority.

Grimm’s behaviour in the first half of Marvel Two-In-One #1 is determined by his fury that another super-creature is apparently using his code name as part of its own. Grimm’s solution to this is not to discover more about the creature from his fellow super-people, or to even try read the magazine which has informed him of this matter. Instead, he heads off to the swamps in order to find and beat up his apparent challenger to the title of ‘Thing’. It’s hardly the only unheroic and genuinely despicable behaviour on Grimm’s part in the story. On two separate occasions, Grimm reveals himself to be the kind of thug who’d today be shown occupying the role of antagonist. In the first, he starts destroying a store upon discovering a Time front-cover there given over to the Man-Thing. The shop’s middle-aged owner is quite understandably terrified, begging Grimm to stop while asking what it was that he’s done “to offend” the superhumanly strong figure before him. But Grimm’s not touched by the man’s terror or decency, and he’s not finished with nothing but a spot of shop-wrecking to his name. He then leans into the middle-aged storekeeper while shouting and waving a great rocky clenched fist at him.

It’s an entirely ugly scene which ends with the sight of a shattered man asking God why, after running “a honest business here for forty-one years”, he should have had Grimm sent to him. Yet the relevant caption describes The Thing as having been merely “somewhat petulant”, and it seems hard to sidestep the assumption that Gerber found all of this rather amusing, and that he expected his readers to feel the same.

Whether he intended these first few pages of the story to be constructed as they were, or whether that reflected the choices of penciller Gil Kane working from his plot, Gerber had every opportunity to add some ethical context to this scene in his script. Instead, we find a similarly repugnant situation arising just six pages later too. “Now, do I haveta lean on ya – or can we cooperate?” he growls at a bus driver when he’s told, with a polite apology, that “regulations” don’t allow the vehicle to stop whenever and wherever The Thing wants it to. Again, Grimm leaves a clearly terrified and blameless man behind him, and neither script nor sub-text ever refers to the matter again. Gerber, whose superhero satires in the likes of Man-Thing and Howard The Duck always contained an obvious moral context, here simply presents us with an egoistic and violent Benjamin Grimm, and expects us, it seems, to associate with him without thinking.

Vengeance Of The Molecule Man! does close with Grimm experiencing a considerable measure of pity for the Man-Thing. But it only occurs after he’s discovered both something of the fate of the man who became it and the mindless nature of the creature itself. It takes an astonishing degree of suffering to inspire this particular Thing to recognise any kinship at all with another character, and in this case his sympathy seems to be mostly inspired by his sense that the Man-Thing is “the only guy on Earth unluckier’n’me.”

It’s not that Gerber’s presented the Thing as an anti-hero either. Doing so would’ve required the portrayal of an iniquitous society which, to a greater or lesser degree, might explain and justify Grimm’s behaviour. Instead, everything which we see of society and its members in Vengeance Of The Molecule Man! is peaceful, social and endearing. There’s quite literally nothing about it that might be legitimately rebelled against. Today, behaviour such as Grimm’s would be the cue either for the formulaic hero’s journey to kick in and a humbling to begin, or for a satire attacking whatever it is about society that might at least in part explain the Thing’s behaviour. At the very least, Grimm’s conscienceless actions and beliefs would be signed up in the form of an extreme comedy, amusing simply because the rules of how such stories work simply aren’t being followed. Nothing of the sort is to be found here. Gerber was plainly operating in a context where the aforementioned conventions were far less compelling and constraining than they are today. Put simply, his commonsense assumptions concerning the business of storytelling aren’t in several significant ways our own. A superhero who’s neither bright nor savvy, sympathetic or compassionate, hero or anti-hero, and who shows empathy only to the victims of the most extreme of misfortune? A superhero who’s outraged by the murder of “an innocent Joe – fer nuthin’ – ‘cept ta feed yer ego!”, but who can’t tell when his own ego is leading him to scare his fellow citizens half to death? In the context of the time, it was obviously, and strangely, a credible and convincing portrayal, but now?

As such, Marvel-Two-In-One #1 isn’t even in its essence a direct ancestor of the comics of today. The super-people are there, but neither they or the story itself work as it at first might appear that they do. Instead, Vengeance Of The Molecule Man! is something quite different, an evolutionary branch which, for all its apparent familiarity, failed to help sustain the tradition it belonged to where the antics of such supposedly heroic superheroes were concerned. Today it reads as a callous business, as the product of a quite different culture, and it’s a shock to realise that a writer whose work is as humane and apparently familiar as Gerber occupied a time which was in some ways quite different to ours. Rage and self-pity rather than empathy and civic duty are the supreme virtues for Gerber’s Thing, and the comic’s message does seems to be that we shouldn’t pick on those whose circumstances are considerably worse than ours. Everyone else, from storekeepers to bus drivers, might still be considered fair game. It’s a bizarre theme and a bizarre moral, but then, the past usually is a bizarre place, when we care to look at it in its own terms rather than those of the present day.

It might be said that there’s a long tradition of super-people behaving incredibly badly in the name of causes which just don’t justify their actions. The fascistic “futurist” Cyclops of Second Coming and the super-brained creators of the Thor clone in Civil War immediately come to mind. But they were at the very least given reasons for what they did, justifications which they could express in order to defend what their choices, and the harm that their actions caused was at least in part referenced if not closely attended to. But The Thing in Marvel Two-In-One #1 has no conception at all that he’s a monster because of how he behaves rather than how he looks, and Gerber makes no attempt to assure us that he sees Grimm’s actions as being anything other than amusing and thrilling. In that at least, things haven’t just evolved, for better and worse, in the superhero book; there’s been a radical break with the past, and I’d be astonished if I just happened to have picked up by chance the only comic of the period which might be used to establish such a point.

When I decided to re-read Vengeance Of The Molecule Man!, I was quite sure that I was going to end up discussing a very familiar kind of story indeed. I was entirely wrong. What I thought would be a direct ancestor of today’s superhero books now seem like a distant cousin, clearly carrying a family resemblance and yet bearing some absolutely fundamental differences too. What once seemed so absolutely normal in the far-off and distant land of 1974 now seems, from certain angles, improbably strange.

“Vengeance Of The Molecule Man!” was most recently reprinted – to my knowledge – in Essential Marvel Two-In-One volume 1. It was first published in the January cover-dated first issue of Marvel Two-In-One. Like everything that Gerber, Kane, and Sinnott were involved with, it’s of course well-worth reading, no matter how… odd it might be at moments.

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Colin Smith is currently Q Magazine’s comics columnist and blogs at Too Busy Thinking About My Comics and on Tumbler.

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