Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Essential Marvel Team-Up volume 3

Now we come now to the third volume of Essential Marvel Team-Up, containing issues #52-73 & #75, plus Annual #1. Note that issue #74 is omitted due to the guest-stars being the Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time Players from Saturday Night Live, and Marvel presumably no longer has the rights to publish them. As bonus material we get Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entries for the Black Widow, Captain Britain, Havok, the Living Monolith, the Silver Samurai and the Stranger, plus a gallery of covers from Marvel Tales #193-199, #201-207, #235-236, #255 & #262-263, all of which reprinted stories contained in this volume (some with new covers, some with the originals) plus Giant-Size Spider-Man #1, presumably because the cover states “...in the tradition of our smash-hit Marvel Team-Up mag!” The entries and covers are interesting to see but I suspect they’re only here because the volume was initially prepared to include issue #74 and by the time it was discovered unavailable the page count had already been committed to, requiring filler material.

This run includes the last few issues of Bill Mantlo’s run on the book, though he returns even here for a fill-in, and then the bulk of the volume is written by Chris Claremont. Whereas Mantlo, Gerry Conway and Len Wein have all had notable runs on other Spider-Man titles this is Claremont’s only significant work with Spider-Man. In addition we get a few fill-in issues by both familiar hands like Mantlo and Conway, and new writers Gary Friedrich (his only credit on a core Spider-Man title) and Bill Kunkel (one of only two credits, the other’s a later issue of Team-Up), plus Ralph Macchio scripting one of Claremont’s plots, clocking up a rare writers’ credit (though in the late 1990s he edited the core titles) and the annual is plotted by Claremont and his then-wife Bonnie Wilford, and scripted by Mantlo. The art is mainly by Sal Buscema and John Byrne, the latter doing his very first work on the character, with three fill-in issues by Dave Wenzel, Jim Mooney and Kerry Gammill.

Here’s the by now familiar run down of the stars of each issue.

52. Spider-Man and Captain America
Annual 1. Spider-Man and the X-Men
53. Spider-Man and the Incredible Hulk (and Woodgod)
54. Spider-Man and the Incredible Hulk (and Woodgod)
55. Spider-Man and Warlock
56. Spider-Man and Daredevil
57. Spider-Man and the Black Widow
58. Spider-Man and Ghost Rider
59. Spider-Man and Yellowjacket and the Wasp
60. Spider-Man and the Wasp
61. Spider-Man and the Human Torch
62. Spider-Man and Ms. Marvel
63. Spider-Man and Iron Fist
64. Spider-Man and the Daughters of the Dragon
65. Spider-Man and Captain Britain
66. Spider-Man and Captain Britain
67. Spider-Man and Tigra
68. Spider-Man and the Man-Thing
69. Spider-Man and Havok
70. Spider-Man and Thor
71. Spider-Man and Falcon
72. Spider-Man and Iron Man
73. Spider-Man and Daredevil
75. Spider-Man and Power Man

Note also that unlike the previous Essential volumes there are no issues without Spider-Man. Giant-Size Spider-Man was long over and, as I discussed in my review of Essential Spider-Man 8, this was a period when earlier restraints on using the character were being eased, with a third regular series launched plus new stories in the annuals, crossovers with other titles and so forth (and also a live-action TV series). Spider-Man was becoming ever more a phenomenon, but with that could come the risk of over-exposure and stilted development due to separate writers. However at this stage there doesn’t seem to be much impact on Team-Up, perhaps because the general format left it mostly immune.

However there are several multiple part stories, including a mini-epic as Spider-Man is transported first to the Nevada desert, then to New Mexico and finally to the Moon in a succession of tales as he joins with the X-Men, the Incredible Hulk, the mysterious Woodgod and finally Adam Warlock. Woodgod is almost the only one of the characters in this run whom I didn’t recognise, either from the earlier Team-Up issues or from being big name Marvel stars (or usually both). The only other ones are the Daughters of the Dragon (apparently their appearance here was the first time they were billed under that title; more normally they are part of Iron Fist’s supporting cast). Woodgod is especially confusing as I don’t really understand what “Scream” is or know his origin to get the various references to it. Also a little confusing is the team-up with Captain America which is an epilogue to a storyline in his own title that saw Cap and the Falcon battle monsters in another dimension, and now return home. It’s at once both a fill-in issue and an intrusion from another title (and curiously the author, Gerry Conway, wasn’t writing Captain America at the time – it was Jack Kirby’s last run on the series).

The other multi-parters demonstrate another formulaic feature whereby the banner guest star in the first issue is usually incapacitated for the bulk of the second issue, sometimes with their fate as a driving element of the plot either to motivate characters to save them (as with Havok or Iron First) or to motivate other characters to act out of revenge (as with Yellowjacket’s seeming death spurring on the Wasp). A notable exception is the two-parter with Captain Britain. Chris Claremont and Herb Trimpe had created the character for Marvel UK the previous year and with this story they unleashed him onto the American stage. I assume Marvel UK didn’t have much Stateside distribution back then as the first part is an extended scene setter that devotes no less than four of the seventeen pages available to telling his origin. Unfortunately the actual threat in the story just doesn’t seem an appropriate vehicle for introducing such a character as we get a second part in which Spidey and Captain Britain fight their way through new villain Arcade’s giant fun house.

The Captain Britain two-parter also brings up one of the bigger clichés of comics that is a bugbear of mine whereby heroes and their alternative identities both show up in strange cities and countries without everyone deducing their alter egos. True on this occasion Spider-Man does rapidly realise that Captain Britain is Peter Parker’s temporary roommate Brian Braddock, but others don’t, despite the fact that the Maggia have Braddock on their long list of fifty suspects and hire Arcade to kill him just in case, who instead goes for the real thing. Just to add to the risk, Brian/Captain Britain’s girlfriend Courtney Ross has been captured and brought to the United States without the connection leaping out to her or others. Now it’s true this is a limitation of the medium as readers want to see the familiar heroes in action in their usual costumes, which probably rules out the otherwise obvious solution of having an “away” identity with a different costume and different emphasis on the powers to limit the risk, but within the narrative it’s never really properly addressed one way or another.

There are, however, occasional exceptions such as Spider-Man and the X-Men’s adventure in Nevada in the Annual, where at the end Professor X uses his powers to block the memories of the civilians and thus preserve everyone’s identities. It does, however, see a little clanger where Spider-Man talks too freely in front of the X-Men about his problems explaining his sudden absences to Mary Jane Watson. Okay Professor X himself is a powerful telepath and probably already knows Spider-Man’s identity (and just about everything else) by default, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s shared the information with the other X-Men and I would expect Spidey to be more careful than to give his girlfriend’s name away. However what slips on the one part is made up in another as we get what I think is the first ever explicit confirmation that Daredevil is able to identity Spider-Man out of costume by recognising his heartbeat, even if on this occasion he has to rush out before discovering Spidey’s civilian name. It’s a point that later writers would return to.

Another point I found familiar in a different sense was the large number of times Spider-Man explicitly remembers the death of Gwen Stacy once Chris Claremont takes over the writing. Readers of Claremont’s later X-Men work (and/or John Byrne’s latter day criticisms of Claremont – see for instance Byrne Robotics : FAQ : What’s the story behind the return of Jean Grey?) will be aware that after Jean Grey/Phoenix was killed off she was repeatedly referenced and remembered by the characters, to the point where it went beyond natural grief. In general up to now the Spider-Man comics had avoided excessive references to Gwen, other than when the story specifically called for it (for instance the Clone Saga or the various returns of the Green Goblin) so the sudden increase in casual references really stand out as an exceptional turn. Chris Claremont is probably the Team-Up writer with the longest run who has never worked regularly on the other Spider-Man titles and so one can only but speculate as to what he might have done had he had the chance to write one of them, especially given how successful the X-Men became on his watch. Would he have turned in an equally memorable run? Or would it have been another example of an-otherwise comics legend coming unstuck and turning in a run that everybody just couldn’t wait to finish? Or would it have been somewhere in between, perhaps limited by the strains of multiple titles, multiple authors and not always sympathetic editors? We’ll probably never know.

However we have had the opportunity of seeing both Sal Buscema and John Byrne draw Spider-Man many more times over the years and can compare their work. Buscema may have been limited here by being a fill-in king with all the problems that rush jobs can bring but it’s certainly competent and more than holds its own. John Byrne’s contributions are all in the regular assignment category and we’re looking at work very early in his career, before he became a bankable name on first the X-Men and then the Fantastic Four. Here he contributes both a dynamism and a quick handling on the rotating guest-stars and this makes the action stand out.

Overall this third volume of Marvel Team-Up shows a title that by this stage had settled down into a stable format. As ever it wasn’t the place for major advancements in Spider-Man’s life, though some of the guest stars do have their own developments such as Adam Warlock reversing the curse of his body having grown so much due to the universe expanding at different rates that he dwarfed the Earth, or the Man-Thing being restored to freedom after the events at the end of his first series. We also get a few further developments of other characters, such as Jean DeWolff, who is at this stage probably the nearest thing the series has to a specific supporting cast. But, as ever, the purpose of Marvel Team-Up was to showcase Spider-Man with other heroes and take him to places he would or could never go to in his regular titles. Indeed considering the many intense events in those books during this period (the issues here are parallel to Amazing #163-186 and Spectacular #1-24) Team-Up offers a welcome respite, a chance to enjoy a different style of adventure and a tour round very diverse parts of the Marvel Universe. It meets those aims extremely well.

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