(aka: You got to know when to hold ‘em…)
by KC Carlson
Marvel Two-In-One was born in the era of horrible Marvel titles (like Giant-Size Man-Thing (ahem) and Giant-Size Super-Villain Team-Up, aka Marvel Triple-Hyphen). It was actually a spin-off of Marvel Feature, better known for the first appearance of the Defenders in its first three issues in 1971-72 and then a quirky but forgettable Ant-Man and Wasp series. Marvel Feature’s last two issues, #11 & #12, starred the Thing. First, he took on the Hulk in one of a series of their memorable battles (written by Len Wein), and then he teamed with Iron Man in #12 (written by Mike Friedrich). Both issues were illustrated by Jim Starlin and Joe Sinnott. They sold so well that soon after the Thing was spun-off into his own series, called Marvel Two-In-One.
Well, not exactly. In each issue of this new series, the Thing (aka the ever-lovin’ blue-eyed Ben Grimm) was paired with another Marvel character ala the very popular Marvel Team-Up. Since that great title was already taken, and the great title barrel was near-empty, we were stuck with Marvel Two-In-One — I guess meaning that each issue would always have two heroes in it, one of whom would always be the Thing. So why not Marvel Thing ‘n’ One? Wow, I am so not good at this…
MTIO was a fun book of varying quality. The vast majority of the issues were simple done-in-one (or two) issue stories, featuring plots which were often inconsequential. For long periods of time, the series did not seem to have a regular writer. On the other hand, the series was home to one of the better multipart storylines of the early Marvel Universe — The Project Pegasus Saga (MTIO #53-58), revolving around the sinister Serpent Crown — and one of the Annuals (#2) was a climactic part of Jim Starlin’s original Thanos storyline — a classic Thing/Spider-Man pairing featuring the Avengers and a surprise last-minute guest star.
Marvel Two-In-One was effectively the Thing’s first solo series — he just had a lot of friends stop by. A lot of the charm of this series revolved around the many friendships that the one-time depressed loner character developed over the years. The man who thought that he didn’t fit in anywhere was actually the best friend of most of the Marvel Universe.
THE GAME IS AFOOT
Six of his good friends stopped by Marvel Two-In-One #51 (May 1979) in what would be the first in a recurring string of stories in which Marvel characters got together “after hours” — kicking back and playing poker. Eventually, it got tagged by fans the “Floating Super-Hero Poker Game”, and it was an eagerly anticipated (yet totally random) part of Marvel storytelling throughout the 1980s and beyond.
In this issue, the other poker players are Nick Fury, the Beast, Ms. Marvel, Wonder Man, New York D.A. Blake Tower (a popular supporting character of the era mostly seen in Daredevil), and Avengers “butler” Jarvis. From this story, it’s obvious that the game (usually said to be monthly) has been going on for some time, but in this particular get-together, Ms. Marvel and Wonder Man are first-timers.
In what would turn out to be an in-joke of almost every subsequent poker story, the game would inevitably be interrupted by some nefarious super-villain no-good-ery — and the heroes would have to rush off to save the day. This issue, they leave Jarvis and D.A. Tower behind. I wonder what they had to talk about.
FLUSH WITH SUCCESS
Over time, more than 50 Marvel characters would be depicted in random poker stories published in many of Marvel’s major titles. Popular characters who made appearances include Wolverine, Captain America, Spider-Man, Sub-Mariner, Iron Man, Cyclops, Dr. Strange, Hawkeye, Hercules, and even Impossible Man and Squirrel Girl. All of Ben’s teammates in the Fantastic Four have participated at least once. When the Wasp showed up for a game, Jarvis had to provide a “cheat sheet” for her, as she had never played poker before [Marvel Two-in-One #75].
Generally, the poker groupings are made up of characters and friends from the Avengers and Fantastic Four rosters, but many X-Men have also played over the years — especially Wolverine, who seems to have an ongoing poker rivalry with the Thing. The games are usually organized either by Ben or Jarvis.
The Squadron Supreme are big poker fans, as well as the Great Lakes Avengers (or whatever their names are this week). The latter play poker constantly, because — at least in the Marvel Universe — “there’s nothing else to do in Wisconsin.” After Flatman wins a poker tournament, they rename the team the Great Lakes Champions. (That doesn’t last long.) New Mutant Cannonball appears to be a poker hustler — he’s claimed twice to have never played before, yet ended up winning big both times.
‘CAUSE EV’RY HAND’S A WINNER AND EV’RY HAND’S A LOSER
Other memorable poker game gatherings include one with the Thing, the Human Torch, and Spider-Man where Aunt May made cookies [Spider-Man/Human Torch #5]! One of the more solemn get-togethers occurred in the wake of Captain America’s death [Fallen Son: The Death of Captain America #2]. Some games are for pretty high stakes: One of Spider-Man’s webshooters was in the pot in Wolverine (2nd series) #73.
Usually, the games are either at Avengers Mansion or the Fantastic Four’s headquarters, but under different circumstances, games have also been played at Ben Grimm’s apartment and at “secret” Avengers HQs. The biggest poker game ever (over 30 players) was held at Ben’s penthouse apartment, a tournament that took up all three floors. The match took place after Ben’s bar mitzvah celebrating 13 years as the Thing [The Thing (2nd series) #8].
There is also apparently a yearly “public” poker game with proceeds going to charity. The game is No Limit Texas Hold ‘Em. In the initial outing [Spectacular Spider-Man (2nd series) #21], the Kingpin crashes the game — setting up a one-on-one showdown with Spidey!
Other poker games in the Marvel Universe have been depicted over the years. Bruce Banner said that the MU geniuses (himself, Tony Stark, Reed Richards) used to play regularly — and that Dr. Doom would occasionally sit in [Incredible Hulk (2nd series) #465]! Howard the Duck was once involved in a poker match with the Thing, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Man-Thing, and a couple of other monsters (Fin Fang Foom?), but that one turned out to be just a bad dream [Howard the Duck v.3 #1].
A couple of other notes about that first depicted poker game in Marvel Two-In-One #51. It’s no surprise that D.A. Blake Tower was in attendance, as it was illustrated by Frank Miller (inked by Bob McLeod), who may have had Tower on the brain. By sheer coincidence, the Floating Marvel Poker Game made its first appearance in the very same month (in fact, shipping on the very same day!) that Miller began his now legendary stint on Daredevil with issue #158 [cover date: May 1979]. I wonder which story was drawn first? Also, MTIO #51 was written by Peter Gillis, best known for his groundbreaking cult series Strikeforce: Morituri, currently being reprinted by Marvel.
SHARK OR DONKEY?
Another interesting thing about re-reading MTIO #51 is that Gillis managed to tie this issue into no less than six other Marvel series, each carefully documented in footnotes. Yes, notes are an “ancient” form of storytelling, but for those of us who were “reading the Universe” back then, they were a godsend. It’s certainly a lot different than reading today’s self-contained stories — designed for the trade, with no references to anything else — but you usually need to have read years worth of continuity to even begin to understand most of today’s stories, and you have to do your own research. In comics, the more things change, the more they do not stay the same. Except, not always for the better. All I know is, I would buy a collection of Marvel’s Super-Hero Floating Poker Game stories (like that’s gonna happen!) long before I would ever buy a collection of the dismal Fear Itself or the current Justice League series.
While largely inconsequential, the Super-Hero Floating Poker Game stories have been very popular with readers, giving fans the opportunity to see their favorite characters in a behind-the-scenes situation. There was something inherently and poetically “human” about seeing these characters kicking back with a beer and some salty snacks after saving the universe (again). These days, with more and more godlike depictions of superheroic characters, there just aren’t enough poker stories.
I guess the gods don’t play poker. And they don’t seem to like each other much, anyway. Maybe nowadays the gods just stay home alone and play poker online.
KC CARLSON: Doesn’t play much poker, but has played cards in every major airport in America. He spent a lot of time on the road going to comic conventions — and often getting stranded — in another life. You haven’t lived until you play Hearts all night in Denver with other comics folks — and then show up in San Diego as the sun is coming up.
Disclaimer: KC Carlson blah blah blah Westfield Comics has no idea blah blah blah not responsible for crazy people.
Classic comic covers are from the Grand Comics Database.