Saturday, 16 June 2012

Essential Marvel Team-Up volume 1

Marvel Team-Up was launched in 1972 and ran for 150 issues (and seven annuals), finishing in late 1984. As the title suggests, it featured team-ups between Marvel characters who didn’t normally meet. Spider-Man was the lead in nearly every issue, though there were a few exceptions. For the sake of completeness, I’ll include details of who was in those issues in these reviews. First some background and thoughts on the concept as a whole.

The idea of a team-up comic was nothing new as over at DC Superman and Batman had started teaming up regularly in World’s Finest back in 1954, then from 1965 onwards The Brave and the Bold began featuring team-ups between Batman and a huge variety of stars. Superman briefly got in on the action in 1970 when World’s Finest temporarily dropped Batman in favour of rotating guest stars. Ironically it switched back to the Superman/Batman teaming only a few months before Marvel Team-Up #1 hit the shelves.

Marvel Team-Up was the first successful spin-off series for Spider-Man (after the abortive attempt with the magazine format Spectacular Spider-Man) but has a “Marmite” reputation amongst Spider-Fans due to the basic concept. On the one hand team-up comics can be fun, they give readers the chance to see the regular hero interacting with both old favourites and obscure characters they’d otherwise never have met, and the rotating nature of the title means that nearly everyone can find some stories to enjoy. On the other hand the single issue format can be quite limiting, and the multi-part stories can struggle to find ways to juggle the various guest stars, and more generally you don’t get much character development because the stars & their supporting casts were (usually) also featured in ongoing titles and big changes were not going to happen in a side title. There’s a further problem for Marvel. Over at DC characters interacting across titles was historically rare and indeed most of the heroes tended to be based in different cities, further reducing the scope for casual encounters. Consequently exceptions that brought heroes together such as Justice League of America or the team-up books became more special precisely because the characters otherwise wouldn’t meet. However the Marvel universe from the 1960s onwards had been built around regular interactions across titles, with team-ups in regular books increasingly common and most characters operating in the same city. In such an environment is a special team-up book necessary?

Personally I come down on the side of liking Marvel Team-Up, at least for its time. There’s a great sense of fun in the basic concept and I enjoy that, and it gave exposure to characters I might otherwise never have encountered. The series was kept aligned to the regular Spider-Man series so there was a much tighter grip on continuity than in the equivalent DC series, whilst the writing and art is usually to the standard of the other Spider-Man titles (not least because they so regularly drew from the same talent pool, although Team-Up did offer the only run on Spider-Man by Chris Claremont). It’s an enjoyable pleasure and the guest stars help to keep Spider-Man from the danger of over-exposure that a more regular second title might have brought (but more on those when we get to the relevant volume). And often it allowed Spider-Man to have adventures of a more science-fiction or fantastical bent than in the regular titles, thanks to the guest stars.

Essential Marvel Team-Up volume 1 contains the first twenty-four issues of the title. However it doesn’t contain Giant Size Spider-Man, which is instead included the relevant volumes of Essential (Amazing) Spider-Man (well except the issue that’s a rights mess). In general the Giant Size title is more a spin-off of Team-Up than of Amazing, but not completely and there’s always been a debate amongst fans and editors over where it should appear in ongoing reprint runs.

Leaving that to one side, these issues are mainly written by Gerry Conway and Len Wein, although the first issue is by Roy Thomas, and the art is mainly by Ross Andru and Gil Kane, with one issue by Jim Mooney and three others by Sal Buscema. Virtually all of them had significant runs on the regular Spider-Man books either during or after their Team-Up work so it’s clear this was not considered a mere throw-away title for try-outs or to allow creators with spare time on their hands to get a credit or two. (Well at least at this stage – that opinion may have changed in later years but we’ll see if and when we get to them.)

Given the nature of the book, here’s a run down of the stars of each issue.

1. Spider-Man and the Human Torch
2. Spider-Man and the Human Torch
3. Spider-Man and the Human Torch
4. Spider-Man and the X-Men
5. Spider-Man and the Vision
6. Spider-Man and the Thing
7. Spider-Man and the Mighty Thor
8. Spider-Man and the Cat
9. Spider-Man and the Invincible Iron Man
10. Spider-Man and the Human Torch
11. Spider-Man and the Inhumans
12. Spider-Man and the Werewolf
13. Spider-Man and Captain America
14. Spider-Man and the Savage Sub-Mariner
15. Spider-Man and the Ghost Rider
16. Spider-Man and Captain Marvel
17. Spider-Man and Mister Fantastic
18. The Human Torch and the Hulk
19. Spider-Man and Ka-Zar: Lord of the Hidden Jungle
20. Spider-Man and the Black Panther
21. Spider-Man and Doctor Strange
22. Spider-Man and Hawkeye
23. The Human Torch and Iceman
24. Spider-Man and Brother Voodoo

Okay that’s a good mixture of the traditional big names, some of their supporting characters, a handful who were titleless in this period and some of the brief flash in the pans from the early seventies. Most of the characters I recognised but I had to check to discover that the Cat is actually a young Tigra, and not as I thought a predecessor of Hellcat. The Werewolf and Brother Voodoo are completely new to me.

This is one of the dilemmas for any team-up book, especially when there’s only a single issue of story available – just how much detail should be given as to who the characters are? And without reading a lot of Marvels at the time, it’s hard to guess just how much exposure some of the characters had. Sure some of these characters need no introduction, but which ones and who? Within the stories the approach is generally taken that when a character is one of the bigger names Spidey is already familiar with then the story proceeds as normal, but when he’s meeting a character for the first time he is usually surprised by what he discovers over the course of adventures, such as Brother Voodoo’s seemingly instant travel or the Ghost Rider’s head being a real flaming skull. Unfortunately the narrative presentation of these stories doesn’t always preserve the same sense of mystery for the reader and we’re presented with the characters (and sometimes their supporting cast) straight up. Now it may well have been in the case in 1972 that nearly every Marvel reader knew the Ghost Rider’s story and instantly understood who Roxanne Simpson, so perhaps this complaint only arises in hindsight, but it does weaken things a little. It might have been better to tell more of the story from Spider-Man’s perspective and really make the guest star a mystery, but that might have been more confusing. On another level some of the status quo twists aren’t explained so well – issues #17 & 18 take place at a time when the Fantastic Four have broken up, but very little background is given as to why this is.

The Human Torch is the most frequent guest-star in this run, appearing in no less than a quarter of the issues, and even taking Spidey’s place in two of them. And a recurring theme throughout all his appearances is that each time he’s still moping over Crystal. Okay they may have been a big item and “Marvel time” is slow, but really there comes a point where it’s time to move on. Now it’s possible this had already happened in Fantastic Four and we’re just seeing some sloppy continuity in Team-Up, but reading the latter on its own and seeing the same thing on every appearance just makes the Torch seem over obsessive.

Issue #23 is one of the Spideyless issues, featuring the Human Torch and Iceman, but what really caught my eye Spidey-wise is that this came out the same month as Giant Size Spider-Man #1. Did somebody at the time say “Hang on, three new Spider-Man comics in one month is overexposure, let’s ration the character”? If so it was quite a brave move, especially considering how in later years such caution would be tossed to the wind (and for that matter at the time Batman was appearing in two solo titles, two team-up books and a group book, whilst Superman had even more once the Superboy and “Family” books are considered). Alternatively they may just have been thinking more about giving the Human Torch extra exposure and reckoned that Spider-Fans would be more accepting in a month with two other new books.

Speaking of Giant Size, Team-Up #23 actually follows directly on from #1 of that series, with Spider-Man having initially spotted the robbery, but handing the affair over to the Human Torch before flying off in a cameo. Reading Team-Up without Giant Size one gets a brief feeling of missed events, but no more so here than in other issues that reference guest appearances, such as #12 in San Francisco which leads into an appearance in Daredevil. I’m inclined to accept the Essential editors’ judgement (especially as if they had included Giant Size Spider-Man #1 they may not have had room for Team-Up #23 anyway!).

Otherwise most of the stories last for just one issue, with the exceptions of issues #1&2, #3&4, #5&6, #9-11, #16-17 and #19-20 – in other words Gerry Conway predominantly gives us multi-part tales whilst Len Wein’s contributions here are mostly single issue stories, but there are exceptions to both rules.

How the rotating guest stars are handled varies considerably – one tale uses the Torch in both parts, the two other two-parters both end their first issues as though everything is settled, with Spider-Man discovering in the second part that things aren’t so fine. The Tomorrow War three parter combines both imagination and silliness, with Iron Man’s armour knocked offline after the first part but the Human Torch just drops out at the end of the second because his break-up with Crystal makes him reluctant to join Spidey in meeting the Inhumans (even though Crystal doesn’t actually appear).

The Torch being an idiot aside, the Tomorrow War is my favourite story in this volume. It has imagination and scope, and I can’t believe Amazing would have carried such a sci-fi tale. In fact this story came out at the same time as The Night Gwen Stacy Died and the contrast between the two could not be clearer. Each goes in its own direction, but offers a strong read nonetheless. The Tomorrow War may have its leaps of logic and silly science, like many of the tales, but that doesn’t matter when it flows fast enough that such points go unnoticed.

Not all the stories are so great though. My least favourite is the Human Torch and Iceman team-up which succumbs to the old cliché of two heroes fighting over a misunderstanding then teaming up to fight a common foe. In general the stories here avoid such a simplistic approach and so the exception really stands out. I’m also not too keen on seasonal stories as they often wind up with the heroes acting irresponsibly out of character, such as the debut issue where instead of taking Sandman straight into custody, Spidey and the Torch allow him to visit his mother, and he then escapes down a sink while their back is turned. Whilst it allows for a rematch in the following issue, with the added bonus of the rest of the Frightful Four thrown in for good measure, it also makes the heroes ridiculously trusting. Sadly Christmas stories do this sort of thing all too often.

The aforementioned rematch brings its own problems, as we never actually see Spider-Man come under the Wizard’s control – the sort of critical story detail that can be worryingly ditched when an issue is trying to cram in too much. This is part of the reason Spidey is rendered unconscious in issue #4, leaving it up to the X-Men (minus the Beast) to wrap things up. Issues #3&4 also feature a rare story that builds directly on events in Amazing as Spidey suffers after-effects from the enzyme he took from Morbius. Unfortunately it means we get another appearance by the vampire, and even though he’s captured this time no attempt is made to cure him or at least restrain him.

Most of the other stories are just general entertainment, telling a one-off tale that brings two heroes together for an adventure but they don’t really stand out in hindsight. An exception is issue #8, the team-up with the Cat, against a new foe called the Man-Killer, reflecting the feminist movement. I don’t know which is more awkward – a man depicting feminists or black superheroes that come across a little clichéd (such as Brother Voodoo in issue #24) – but there’s something uncomfortable about each, especially coming from the early 1970s.

Are there any obvious heroes missing? The one who springs most readily to mind is Daredevil – but that team-up was covered in his own title during this run (#103). Otherwise we get three of the Fantastic Four – would it hurt to have given the Invisible Girl an issue as well? And would another encounter between Spider-Man and the Silver Surfer (they first met in issue #14 of the Surfer’s original book) have broken the restrictions on not overusing the character? Beyond that there’s probably half a dozen Avengers past & present who could be suggested, plus various other characters now forgotten, but in general these first twenty-four issues give a pretty good introduction to the major Marvel stars as well as some of the minor ones.

One of the advantages of a title where few major developments happen is that it’s very hard to tell a really damaging story. Every poor to awful tale can soon be forgotten and so isn’t really that bad overall. My least favourite story is the two parter team-up with Ka-Zar and the Black Panther to fight Stegron the Dinosaur Man and his army of dinosaurs, but it’s hardly a story that could damage either Spider-Man or Marvel Team-Up for a long time.

All in all if you enjoy seeing heroes coming together this is a good book. If you prefer ongoing character development you may be better off skipping it. For me I enjoy it as a pleasure, a nice interlude from the intensity of the contemporary Amazing and a chance to give Spider-Man some very different adventures from the norm.

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