Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Essential Marvel Team-Up volume 2

We come now to the second volume of Essential Marvel Team-Up, containing issues #25-51, plus Marvel Two-in-One #17, which contains a crossover issue. The later title doesn’t need much introduction – it was quite simply the Thing’s equivalent team-up book. There’s not much more to say about it really. The entire run of Marvel Two-in-One has been reprinted in four Essential volumes bar two issues featuring licensed characters Marvel no longer have the rights for. Watch out for the same problem hitting future volumes of both Essential Marvel Team-Up and Essential Spider-Man.

The stories in this run are written by a mixture of Len Wein, Gerry Conway and Bill Mantlo, whilst the art is mainly handled by Jim Mooney and Sal Buscema, with one issue drawn by Ron Wilson. Mantlo and Buscema also produced the Marvel Two-in-One issue included here. Mooney’s art is good but Sal Buscema’s art has always been amongst my favourite Spider-Man work – at least when he’s not inked by Vince Colletta who inks four Mooney and six Buscema issues. Bashing Colletta’s inking has become something of an easy sport so I’ll qualify this by saying that yes he may have inked a lot of rush jobs against the deadlines over the years, and those issues may have been particularly bad because of the circumstances they were under, but his work here is a ten issue ongoing stint, not odd emergency fill-in jobs. And looking at the Spider-Fan database entry for Colletta it seems this was one of only two regular stints on Spider-Man, the other being a brief period on Amazing in the 290s, interrupted by crossover storylines. Considering how prolific Colletta was in the industry, make of that what you will.

As per usual, here’s a run down of the stars of each issue.

25. Spider-Man and Daredevil
26. The Human Torch and Thor
27. Spider-Man and the Incredible Hulk
28. Spider-Man and Hercules
29. The Human Torch and Iron Man
30. Spider-Man and the Falcon
31. Spider-Man and Iron Fist
32. The Human Torch & the Son of Satan
33. Spider-Man and Nighthawk
34. Spider-Man and Valkyrie
35. The Human Torch and Dr. Strange
36. Spider-Man and the Frankenstein Monster
37. Spider-Man and Man-Wolf
38. Spider-Man and the Beast
39. Spider-Man and the Human Torch
40. Spider-Man and the Sons of the Tiger
41. Spider-Man and the Scarlet Witch
42. Spider-Man and the Vision
43. Spider-Man and Dr. Doom
44. Spider-Man and Moondragon
45. Spider-Man and Killraven
46. Spider-Man and Deathlok
(Marvel Two-in-One 17 – The Thing and Spider-Man)
47. Spider-Man and the Thing
48. Spider-Man and Iron Man
49. Spider-Man and Iron Man
50. Spider-Man and Dr. Strange
51. Spider-Man and Iron Man

Compared to the first volume, this mix is weighted more towards the less well-known end of the Marvel universe. Five of the guest stars are new to me – the Son of Satan, the Frankenstein Monster (well his Marvel incarnation at least), the Sons of the Tiger, Killraven and Deathlok. In the case of the last two the issues do give us some of the background on both the guest star and the future Spidey has found himself in (more on this later), but the others are presented straight up. Once again I have no idea how well the average Marvel reader in c1975 would have known these characters so I’ll let that pass.

As in the previous volume we get a few issues with the Human Torch taking Spidey’s place – and all of them came out in the same months as Giant-Size Spider-Man, once again showing either a desire to promote both heroes or a wise restraint in not over-exposing Spider-Man by using him too much in any given month. Such restraint lasted until almost the end of the period covered by this volume when Amazing Annual #10 came out with new material in the same month as either Amazing #159 & Team-Up #48 or #160 & 49 (the annual doesn’t have a date on it so I’m guessing from its placement in Essential Spider-Man #7), giving us for the first time three new Spider-Man stories in a single month. And this volume finishes one month short of (cover date) December 1976 when Peter Parker the Spectacular Spider-Man began, bringing three regular Spider-Man titles a month. I’m thus looking at the very last period when Spider-Man was limited to one regular & one team-up book a month. Issues #28-37 were written by Gerry Conway whilst he was finishing his stint on Amazing so I’m also looking at about the last period where just one writer handled the character.

(Lest someone else raise it, in the late 1990s there was a reboot that cut the line back to two main titles, which for the first nineteen issues had the same writer, Howard Mackie. However there was also a “untold past & present adventures” book called Webspinners by rotating creative teams, and a major-at-the-time limited series, “Chapter One”, by John Byrne which retold Spider-Man’s early days. So one way or another Howard Mackie was not in quite the same position as Gerry Conway.)

The Human Torch has also improved a little since the first volume and is no longer moping about Crystal. However that doesn’t stop him from being silly at times – in particular during the two-parter with the Sons of the Tiger the Torch drops out of the story midway through the second part to go on a date, even though the villains haven’t yet been defeated. This isn’t the only example of jerkdom, with Nighthawk giving the Meteorite Man (formerly the Looter) enough benefit of the doubt to declare him an ill man rather than a criminal and refuse to carry on, for which the Valkyrie berates him. Now some of this may be down to the difficulties of juggling the cast across multi-parters but other stories such as the Frankenstein Monster/Man-Wolf, Scarlet Witch/Vision/Dr. Doom/Moondragon or Iron Man/Dr. Strange multi-parters approach the problem without making the characters irresponsible jerks who desert early (although Iron Man still comes across as a jerk the first time he appears in both his stories here).

Whilst Gerry Conway’s contributions are mainly single parters (in contrast to his earlier run in the first volume), Bill Mantlo tells just one single issue story in his first issue (#38) and then gives us a mixture of multi-parters with the same casts or else takes Spider-Man on a grand journey. Both Conway and Mantlo also start using the series to build up and develop Spider-Man’s mythology, in particular bringing back three of the most forgotten Ditko-era villains – the Looter (who here changes his name to the Meteor Man), the Big Man and the Crime-Master. The latter two aren’t the dead originals but rather their offspring each seeking vengeance on Spider-Man without realising that the other is their lover. It’s generally a good story until the denouement as I find it hard to believe that they didn’t guess each other’s identity. (There’s also a possible continuity error in that they both blame Spider-Man for their fathers’ deaths rather than respectively the Kingpin and Frederick Foswell, the original Big Man, but I can believe precise details of each’s downfall weren’t widely circulated.) The other major development here for the Spider-Man stories is the introduction of Captain Jean DeWolff, one of Spider-Man’s first allies in the police force (although when researching for this piece I was surprised to discover she was used rather more sparingly than I expected) and later to be the centre of one of the most memorable storylines (but that’s some way off in the Essentials). Her debut is a strong story as she takes on both the mysterious Wraith and the sexist assumptions of many of the police force, including her recently retired father. It’s also notable as a story in which a villain comes to trial incredibly quickly, whilst DeWolff is left in post for future use. On a sadder note it’s hard to read the story of how the Wraith’s mind and body were destroyed on a road but he was later healed without wishing that such a thing could happen in the real world for writer Bill Mantlo. (LifeHealthPro: Tragic Tale has the full sad story.)

The greater degree of continuity also gives us the first “epic” storyline in Team-Up as Spider-Man is cast through time for no less than six issues. We get a four parter in which various heroes and villains are drawn back through time to Salem in 1692 when the hysteria of a frightened population (and the malice of children?) led to many innocents being killed for suspected witchcraft. In my country the incident is not well known so it was pleasing to find the storyline takes time to explain the background rather than blindly assuming familiarity (although I’ve no idea how much is accurate historically or how much is either down to Mantlo or Hollywood). The first time I read the story I enjoyed it immensely, though on repeated readings it becomes ever more clearly a tale to bring together several different characters for a grand battle and one might also question the taste in having Cotton Mather, the witch hunter, be a pawn of the fictional entity the Dark Rider. Still there’s ambition in the story and it’s one of a type that could not have appeared in Amazing. The ending is one of the most downbeat as Spider-Man rushes back to Salem only to discover he’s too late to save many innocents from being hung.

The downbeat nature continues in the next two stories as Spider-Man is transported into the future, first to encounter Killraven in 2019 and then Deathlok in 1990. The Killraven story shows promise but is limited by comics in this era having just 17 story pages an issue. However we do get a good quick tale as Spidey and Killraven take on agents of the Martians. Spidey then teams up with Deathlok to again take on the terrors of tomorrow. Of course 1990 is now a long time ago, as is 2001 when the Martians invaded in the Killraven stories. Did nobody at Marvel foresee that real time might catch up on them? (Perhaps not. Despite having been around since the 1930s Marvel was not in a good state in the 1970s. Gerry Conway has stated that at the time he believed there wouldn’t be a comics industry in a few years time and this view may have been widespread.) Or has Spider-Man arrived in alternative timelines? In the stories themselves Spider-Man does wonder this, especially when Deathlok has no knowledge of him, but it’s left ambiguous. However when he returns to the present day his memories of the two futures fade (and a similar effect happens to Killraven and Deathlok) so he never has the chance to do anything about them. His memory also fades in the aftermath of his and Daredevil’s fight with Drom, the backwards man. Whilst the trick is on this occasion harmless, I’m not generally keen on convenient memory losses that can effectively negate adventures.

However there is one adventure that might have benefited from being told in a more abstract form, and that’s one of the most infamous issues of the entire Team-Up run, #28’s “The City Stealers” in which Spider-Man and Hercules take on robots and their mysterious master who tow Manhattan island out into the Atlantic Ocean in order to ransom it for two billion dollars. At the end of the story Hercules single-handedly tows the island back to its rightful place! It’s so hard to accept this story that even Editor Roy Thomas asks in the closing caption about the damage to bridges and tunnels! We also never find the identity of those behind the robots. And I’m not sure how much two billion dollars in 1974 is worth in today’s money, but if you have the ability to tow islands around, surely there’s far more money to be made from legitimately selling that ability to countries who want to expand their living space? Having said all that it is a one-off story that can be easily forgotten and it has to be admitted that the Marvel Hercules is a very difficult character to handle. Marvel basically take the Hercules of legend as a real character who really did perform all those amazing labours, but that means writers have to find things for him to do that match up to those legends. Towing an island is probably comparable to briefly holding up the heavens but it feels very out of place given the character is more normally portrayed as having strength comparable to the likes of Thor and the Hulk. But perhaps this was a last hurrah to the sillier side of the Silver Age when heroes’ strength levels repeatedly yo-yoed depending on the story. However it might have been better to put a spin on the whole story by having it told in flashback by Hercules in a bar over a barrel of ale. That way the more outlandish elements could be considered embellishments (although I don’t know if the Comics Code of the day allowed heroes to be shown drinking). All that said this is a silly issue but not such a terrible one that it deserves a reputation as one of the worst Spider-Man stories of all time. The beauty of Marvel Team-Up is that very often the silly issues can rapidly be forgotten.

The rest of the stories are generally much of a muchness, though we get the earliest example of a Spider-Man title crossing over with another book (at least the earliest the Essentials have collected) when he and the Thing team-up to fight Basilisk in both Marvel Team-Up and Marvel Two-in-One. Basilisk is a rather forgettable foe and very much out of Spider-Man’s league anyway so it’s perhaps not the most dramatic encounter for such a landmark event, but the crossover itself is well handled, not least because the same writer handles both titles and so the Team-Up continuity at least flows naturally – I have no idea how well continuity with Two-in-One is handled. The art is a little messy as the Team-Up issue is drawn by the regular Two-in-One artist and vice versa – it’s most likely that someone got the schedules confused and assumed the issues would appear the other way round, so they were simply inverted for publication.

Overall the second volume is stronger than the first, especially once Bill Mantlo arrives and the stories start to become more epic, whilst never losing their basic charm. The basic concept of the title means that at times it’s just one-off, never to be mentioned again, stories but here it feels more than that, like a title standing firm and doing more than just trading off Spider-Man’s name on the cover but instead treating us to its own unique set of tales.

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