Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Omitted material: Marvel Team-Up 74

Time for another little diversion from the Essentials to consider an issue that was left out due to Marvel no longer having the rights to publish the guest stars. Today it’s the turn of Marvel Team-Up #74, in which Spider-Man teams up with the Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time Players from Saturday Night Live. The specific members are Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, Bill Murray, Laraine Newman and Gilda Radner – i.e. almost the original team but by this stage Chevy Chase had moved on and been succeeded by Murray. We also get appearances by SNL‘s producer, Lorne Michaels, plus the edition’s presenter is none other than Stan Lee! Rick Jones is mentioned as the musical guest but I can’t actually spot him on panel. We even get cameos by a couple of old men called Statler and Waldorf.

As you might guess this is a rather different issue of Team-Up from the norm, with a great emphasis on slapstick and celebrities. Was this just a one-off story that allowed Spider-Man to tap more deeply into the SNL audience demographic? Or was it an unsuccessful pilot for a proposed Saturday Night Live comic? Marvel has often gone beyond superheroes (and equally often found itself pushed back to them) and it seems surprising that they would go to all the trouble of licences just for a single issue.

I’m aware that whilst Saturday Night Live has become a firm part of America culture since it began back in 1975, it’s not so well known in other countries, perhaps because the humour and focus is heavily domestic. I don’t know if it’s ever actually been screened in the UK, although a few videos and DVDs have been released here over the years including the complete first season. So in quick summary it’s a late night comedy & variety sketch show, with the bulk of the material performed by a regular cast of comedy actors (dubbed “the Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time Players”) but with each edition hosted by a special guest celebrity. There are a variety of recurring themes and gags that have helped build the show’s cult status, including the regular line at the opening (and story title) “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!”

And herein lies the major problem with the issue (written by Chris Claremont and drawn by Bob Hall). If you’re familiar with Saturday Night Live, especially this particular era (the issue went out at about the end of the third season) then many of the scenes, jokes and gags will be familiar. However if you don’t have that familiarity then a lot of this stuff can go over your head. (And the issue probably did circulate outside the US – pence copies were printed for the UK, though I don’t know if Marvel UK’s weekly Spider-Man title ever reprinted this story.) For example when Peter Parker leaves his seat to go and change into Spider-Man a camera zooms in on him and adds the caption “Super-hero in his spare time!” To a regular SNL viewer this is just the familiar practice of randomly adding any old caption to any old audience member. However to the unfamiliar reader this scene could be another case of Marvel’s awkward presentation of itself in the comics – is this Peter being identified because his identity is clear in the comics? It’s best to try not to think about it.

(And indeed for much of Spider-Man’s history Marvel Comics and its staff generally don’t appear in the stories, bar the odd crowd cameo, although such appearances have a long history in other titles, going right back to Fantastic Four #10 when Dr. Doom dropped in on Stan Lee and Jack Kirby as they planned the next issue.)

Otherwise the story is one of chaos behind the scenes on a live performance, and the struggle to keep this from appearing on the air, as the Silver Samurai and a bunch of thugs search for a power ring that has accidentally wound up on John Belushi’s finger thanks to a smudged mailing address. With Belushi regularly playing a samurai on the show this leads to the inevitable fight, but in the meantime Spider-Man and the other cast members have to round up the various thugs, helped by the show’s costumes including various other superheroes like Ms. Marvel and Thor, and so they can trick the thugs into thinking they’re facing the real things. It’s also unusual in that the issue sees the villain win by obtaining the ring, which is part of a teleport device, and escaping without being followed up immediately in the next issue.

1978 was a year that saw several of the more notorious comedic or silly Spider-Man issues with this issue coming out a couple of months after the Big Wheel debuted in Amazing and a month before the Hypno Hustler in Spectacular. The clear intention was to try and boost Spider-Man’s standing in modern pop culture but looking at these issues now they can seem excessively silly. Being in Marvel Team-Up allows the issue to get away with more fun than usual and there are some good moments, but overall this is not a “lost classic” whose absence from the Essentials is bitterly regretted.

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