Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Essential Marvel Team-Up volume 4

Another volume of Essential Marvel Team-Up has now been released, slowly closing up one of the gaps in the overall Essential programme. Volume 4 contains issues #76-78 & #80-98, plus Annuals #2 & #3. As previously predicted, omitted is issue #79 which contains a team-up of Spider-Man and Red Sonja, a character Marvel no longer holds the rights for. (However the issue has had a few other reprints and I'll come to it in a special post.) As bonus material the volume also includes three original covers used when some of these issues were reprinted in Marvel Tales.

Writing-wise, the issues in this volume cover the end of Chris Claremont's run and the start of Steven Grant's, with fill-ins by Bill Kunkel, Alan Kupperberg and one plotted by Marv Wolfman & scripted by Roger McKenzie. The annuals are by Claremont and Roger Stern. The art is more mixed with the main artists being Sal Buscema, Mike Vosburg and Carmine Infantino, but there are many other contributors including Alan Kupperberg, Howard Chaykin, Jeff Aclin, Don Perlin, Bob McLeod, Gene Colan, Michael Nasser, Rich Buckler, Pat Broderick, Tom Sutton, Mike Zeck, Jimmy Janes and Will Meugniot. One annual is drawn by Kupperberg and Buscema, the other by Herb Trimpe. Because of all these credits I've created a separate post for the non-regular creator labels.

As per usual here's a full run down of the stars of each issue:
76. Spider-Man and Dr Strange
77. Spider-Man and Ms. Marvel
78. Spider-Man and Wonder Man
80. Spider-Man and Dr Strange and Clea
81. Spider-Man and Satana
82. Spider-Man and the Black Widow
83. Spider-Man and Nick Fury
84. Spider-Man and Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu
85. Spider-Man, Shang-Chi, the Black Widow and Nick Fury
86. Spider-Man and the Guardians of the Galaxy
87. Spider-Man and the Black Panther
88. Spider-Man and the Invisible Girl
89. Spider-Man and Nightcrawler
90. Spider-Man and the Beast
91. Spider-Man and Ghost Rider
92. Spider-Man and Hawkeye
93. Spider-Man and Werewolf
94. Spider-Man and the Shroud, Master of Darkness
95. Spider-Man and Mockingbird
96. Spider-Man and Howard the Duck
97. Hulk and Spider-Woman
98. Spider-Man and the Black Widow
Annual 2. Spider-Man and Hulk
Annual 3. Hulk and Power Man & Iron Fist

Well we finally get a team-up with the Invisible Girl, the only one of the main Fantastic Four left out before, and there's appearances by the Beast from the X-Men/Avengers (and later on other teams) and the Hulk, but otherwise this is very much a tour of the less well known part of the Marvel universe even if Spider-Woman and Howard the Duck had a high profile in their heyday.

Whilst Spider-Man has invariably been Marvel's premier solo hero for most of the past fifty years, there's never been such a clear candidate for the number two slot in all ages. It's interesting to see which heroes get especial promotion in any particular period and the tail end of this volume sees one hero actually taking Spider-Man's place as the header feature. This was the age of the Incredible Hulk TV series, which even all these years later is still Marvel's only real success with live action television, and so it's not surprising to find the Hulk was being pushed more prominently. At the time it also helped to nibble away at the problem of Spider-Man being overused. However the same charge could be applied to the Hulk - in the same month issue #97 came out (cover date September 1980) he also had his own title at issue #251 plus his own annual #9 plus an appearance in Marvel Two-in-One annual #5 plus he was a cover feature in that month's Defenders #87 plus he had a reprint title Marvel Super-Heroes #91 plus the Fantastic Four reprint title Marvel's Greatest Comics #92 carried a Hulk/Thing clash plus he and Spider-Man shared Marvel Treasury Edition #27 containing reprints. The Marvel Team-Up annual came out two months later and things were a little better - "just" the Hulk's own title #253 plus Defenders #89 plus reprints in Marvel Super-Heroes #93. Now it's true Spider-Man already had a lot of titles, with Spidey Super Stories and reprints in Marvel Tales expanding his number of appearances on the newsstands, but that wasn't necessarily the best path to follow.

Curiously both the issues with the Hulk as first named hero actually feel more like part of the second heroes' series with far more emphasis on their set-ups and supporting casts than the Hulk's. The Spider-Woman issue falls during her bounty hunter era when Michael Fleisher was writing the regular title and sees her chasing criminal smugglers in the American south west with the Hulk intervening in battle with a mad scientist. It doesn't add a great deal to either character and it's a pity that Spider-Woman's sole appearance in Marvel Team-Up should be in an issue without Spider-Man as their encounters in her own title didn't really allow for a good old fashioned working together. Annual #3 is similarly dominated, this time by Power Man & Iron Fist as the Heroes for Hire are engaged to transport and guard a package which the Hulk is tricked into stealing. To add to the numbers we also get an appearance by Machine Man, who in his other identity of Aaron Stack is part of a team from the package manufacturer's insurance company. Fortunately the greater space in the annual allows space for all the elements to breathe. There's even a tiny cameo by Spider-Man who swings by Power Man and Iron Fist as they wrap up a previous assignment, but realises they've handled it on their own. The Hulk also co-stars with Spider-Man in Annual #2 where he's recruited by a Russian agent to prevent the creation of an anti-matter bomb that could wipe out the United States and trigger a destructive world war. All these appearances give the Hulk exposure but also expose just how limited his character can be. Bruce Banner is wandering across the United States, transforming into the "savage Hulk" when stressed, and reverting when calmed down by one means or another, but there's no great meat to the character. When he's portrayed as a rampaging dumb brute he's at his least interesting and the main interest in stories is either how Banner will take pre-emptive action against him or else how those around the Hulk react. If handled well then a succession of regular slots in Marvel Team-Up would work for a time in showing how other heroes work with and against the Hulk's rampaging brute form, but after a time it would have eventually tired and I'm amazed the Hulk's own title lasted as long as it did before other personas were brought to the fore.

As for the more regular star of the book, the Spider-Man stories can be broadly split between the two regular writers. The end of Claremont's run includes two multi-part epics that draw in lots of characters and put some of them through the wringer. Grant's run is primarily made up of single issue stories though he does connect the Werewolf & Shroud issues (#93-94) and then set the Mockingbird issue (#95) almost straight after them. Claremont's work shows some advances from his earlier issues, and in particular there are no further references to Gwen Stacey, which had always felt rather forced in his earlier issues after some five years of Spider-Man not constantly being reminded of her all the time. We also get another rare supporting case member who débuts within the pages of Marvel Team-Up, although she has often been forgotten since.

As noted when I previously wrote about issues #80 & #81, this run sees yet another woman in Peter's life in the form of Cissy Ironwood. Additionally there are strong hints during the four parter with the Black Widow that suggest that her temporary alter ego of "Nancy Rushman" could get something going with Spider-Man. Considering that this era of Spider-Man (corresponding to Amazing #187-209, i.e. mainly Marv Wolfman's run, and Spectacular #25-#47, i.e. mainly Bill Mantlo's first) is already awash with women, containing the final break-up with Mary Jane Watson, the brief affair with Betty Leeds, the introductions of Marcy Kane, the Black Cat, Debra Whitman and April Maye (although not all these made it very far), plus a rather close encounter with Dazzler all within the other two titles, then either Peter is more of a ladies' man than at any other point in his history or else we have the consequences of poor communication between writers. I suspect part of the problem may be down to Chris Claremont having structured his stories around Peter having a regular girlfriend - most of Cissy's appearances involve things actually happening on or after dates between her and Peter - and then finding there was none to fill the role. Annual #2 is focused on her father's background in building destructive weapons, but very little more is revealed about Cissy herself. The relationship between her and Peter is quite close, as shown most notably by his reaction when she's attacked by the werewolf Doctor Strange, but also very fast as seen from comments about how they've only recently started dating. Given her father's work in multiple field of physics, is her attraction to Peter due to his vague resemblance? Quite a few women are drawn to men who resemble their fathers. After her father's death in the annual, Cissy disappears and I'm struggling to remember if she was even mentioned again outside of the odd back-up feature in later annuals that name checked the various women in Peter's life. It's very hard to assess the relationship because we don't get to see the build-up to when they started dating - the only hints given are a comment Cissy makes about how her friend was wrong about Peter and another where she says Peter asked her out - or for that matter the detail of any split. Nor is it clear just where precisely these issues fit into the overall chronology of Peter's life, a particular problem given just how crowded this period is, so we have no idea if he was on a direct rebound from Mary Jane or Betty or if instead he had been single for a while or if he was in what we now call open relationships or what. It's also hard to assess just how understanding she is about Peter's constant disappearing or the other baggage in his life. What we're left with are just glimpses of a relationship rather than anything substantial.

As for the adventures themselves, we get two four-part epics although the first is split in two with two other issues placed between it. The story is focused on Doctor Strange's battles first with his old enemy Silver Dagger and Marie LeVeau, with help from both Spider-Man and Ms. Marvel, and then as a consequence Strange winds up transformed into a werewolf. The second half of the story sees Spider-Man working with Strange's romantic interest and disciple Clear and his servant Wong to try to restrain and cure him, when they receive further the crucial help from Satana, the Devil's Daughter. It's a particularly intense story but it really feels like Doctor Strange's story more than anything else, with Satana brought in for the concluding part to give closure (in as far as any Marvel character can obtain closure) by killing her off at the end. Curiously the second part (issue #77) provides the cover that's used for the whole volume but it's not terribly representative of the story as a whole. Still it's a striking image by John Romita Junior, one of his earliest pieces of Spider-Man work, and Ms. Marvel has risen to prominence once more in recent years so it's unsurprising to see it used here.

The other epic involves the Black Widow operating under the delusion she is a school teacher called "Nancy Rushman" and pursued through New York by agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Spider-Man gets involved to help her, as does subsequently Shang-Chi the Master of Kung-Fu and Nick Fury, as they uncover a plot by the Viper and the Silver Samurai to crash the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier headquarters into Congress during a speech by the President (Jimmy Carter, going on about the oil crisis in rather pronounced form to remind us all how serious it is and how the country and world must make tough choices) and wipe out the entire US government. It's a good saga that combines action, espionage and a personal element, with strong hints that "Nancy Rushman" and Spider-Man could be an item. Sadly when the Widow is fully recovered she breaks the news to Spider-Man that whilst "Nancy" and he may have had something going, she is not her and it won't be happening. The two team up again at the end of the volume to tackle the Owl, but there's no hint of mention let alone regret about what almost was.

The only other multi-part tale involves the latter part of Spider-Man's visit to Los Angles as a follow-up to his visit there in the pages of Spider-Woman. Spider-Man first teams up with the Werewolf, who is much changed from their previous encounter, to fight the latter's old foe Tatterdemalion. Spider-Man's presence attracts the attention of the mystical Dansen Macabre who hypnotises him into capturing the Shroud. Unfortunately both parts of the story fall into the tap of treating Spider-Man almost as an interloper on private feuds and don't give us the greatest sense of involvement. Upon Spider-Man's return he runs into Mockingbird, the new identity for the character previously called the Huntress (in the time since her last appearance, DC had used the name for a rather more prominent character of their own) who is fighting corruption in S.H.I.E.L.D. Once again, the tale has Spider-Man almost needlessly intruding upon other people's affairs. It's also unusual to use Marvel Team-Up as the place to launch a new identity for a character.

The rest of the volume is taken up with a variety of individual team-ups, some of which work rather better than others. The encounter with Howard the Duck is very much in the spirit of Steve Gerber's run on the character, complete with a strange villain parodying a piece of modern American society and the duck commenting on the absurdities of it all. Here the villain is "Status Quo", a campaigner who speaks out against all the latest fads and stirs up crowds to act against them, attracting massive media attention, until Howard points out that Status Quo is "An opportunist -- media hyping your way into the national consciousness for your own selfish ends!" - or in other words an example of one of the latest fads! This forces Status Quo to stand down and rethink his approach. We also get to see Howard naked (no, not *that* sort of naked) - notoriously Howard was forced into trousers and a modified design due to complaints from Disney about intellectual property infringement with Donald Duck. Getting Howard's trousers off in one way or another can sometimes be a sign of a subtle gesture against Disney. Of course now that Disney owns Marvel can the duck finally drop his trousers and revert to his original look? It's often said that Howard generally only works when written by Gerber, his late creator, but this issue is a rare sign of another writer (Alan Kupperberg) getting pretty close.

The other stories are much of a muchness, but continue to show how Spider-Man can so easily work with most heroes, whether he's familiar with them such as the Invisible Girl, or has to be persuaded by their Avengers credentials, such as the Guardians of the Galaxy. Being single parters with only seventeen pages apiece there isn't too much room for grand developments, but they offer some good encounters with no real stinkers. The encounter with the Beast offers some fun dialogue between the two, as well as a strong scientific story that is convincing as drawing them both in. There's the odd weaker tale such as the encounter with Wonder Man, but Marvel Team-Up has always been a series that could easily shrug off the odd weak issue and move on.

As the fourth volume in the title's history we see the series well and truly established and not really experimenting that much beyond giving the Hulk a couple of turns in the title slot. Otherwise the book had settled down into a familiar pattern but still offers plenty of diversity from the wide range of heroes who team up with Spider-Man. There may be a few times when Spidey seems a little incidental to the series or else put in a role that any hero could have performed, but as always it's made up by the chance to see him in situations that are different from the norm in his own series, with an increased emphasis on science fiction and magic. This volume is very much quintessential Marvel Team-Up and will be enjoyed by those who enjoy the basic concept of the series and dismissed by those who don't. The issues come from a period in Spider-Man's history when there were a lot of bold developments in his other two titles, so when read next to those issues it's actually an advantage to be able to switch gear and relax with these tales.

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