Friday, 8 November 2013

Essential Super-Villain Team-Up volume 1

Essential Super-Villain Team-Up volume 1 contains the Dr. Doom stories from Astonishing Tales #1-8, followed by Giant-Size Super-Villain Team-Up #1-2, Super-Villain Team-Up #1-14 & #16-17 (#15 reprinted Astonishing Tales #4-5), plus crossover storylines in Avengers #154-156 and Champions #16. Astonishing Tales was yet another anthology, this one from the early 1970s and its initial issues featured Dr. Doom and Ka-Zar. The Champions was a brief lived superhero team of the mid 1970s that teamed up the likes of the Angel, Ice-Man, the Black Widow, Hercules, Ghost Rider and Darkstar. Bonus material includes the cover of Marvel Super-Heroes #20 (an anthology series which combined try-out new material with reprints from the Golden Age) and a two-page spread omitted from that issue's story when it was reused in Giant-Size Super-Villain Team-Up #1.

The Astonishing Tales stories are written by Roy Thomas, Larry Lieber and Gerry Conway, and drawn by Wally Wood, George Tuska and Gene Colan. Giant-Size Super-Villain Team-Up is written by Roy Thomas and Larry Lieber, and drawn by John Buscema, Larry Lieber, Frank Giacoia and Mike Sekowsky. The regular size Super-Villain Team-Up is written by Tony Isabella, Jim Shooter, Bill Mantlo, Steve Englehart and Peter Gillis, and drawn by George Tuska, Bill Everett, George Evans, Sal Buscema, Herb Trimpe, Keith Giffen, Jim Shooter, Bob Hall, Carmine Infantino, and Arvell Jones. The Avengers issues are written by Conway and Shooter, and drawn by George Pérez and Sal Buscema. The Champions issue is written by Mantlo and drawn by Hall. That's an awful lot of creators, not helped by the first issue of the regular size series having three pencillers on a single issue. The first issue of the Giant-Size is also complicated by incorporating amended reprints of Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner #20 and Marvel Super-Heroes #20 into the actual narrative. Because of this long list some of the labels have been placed in a separate post.

The Astonishing Tales stories come from an attempted revival of the double feature book in the early 1970s, but I don't know if there were any other series of the type at the time. Within these eight issues we get a number of stories with the oddity of the lead character being a villain, yet we don't get many defeats. Instead we see Doom first face off an attempted overthrowal by the pretender to the throne of Latveria with the aid of an alien, whilst also facing an experiment going wrong and releasing an android with his own mind patterns on the country. Subsequent issues see Doom facing off an invasion of Latveria by the Red Skull and his allies the Exiles, a group of ex-soldiers from all the Axis powers seeking to establish the Fourth Reich, or trying to raid vibranium from Wakanda only to be seen off by the Black Panther. But even this latter story leaves open the question of which ruler has won - Doom who escapes unharmed or T'Challa whose kingdom is devastated by an earthquake caused by Doom's mining. The final issue sees Doom attempt to rescue his mother's soul from the clutches of the Devil but fails to defeat her captor's champion. (At this stage Marvel tended to portray various demons, most obviously Mephisto, as being the actual Devil/Satan without always depicting him consistently across series. In later years they'd back away from this idea but at the cost of sowing chaos across some characters' continuity - Ghost Rider can be particularly tricky.)

The series is brief but manages to fill out most of the details about Doom such as why he wears the mask, his past relationship with Valeria, his seizure of the throne of Latveria and the fate of his mother. We don't get an actual flashback to the infamous accident that scarred his face or a reminder of his quest for power but this is probably to the advantage as the details we are given come woven into ongoing stories, rather than taking up the first issue with loads of details a good chunk of the readership would already know. With only eight issues and each instalment just ten pages long there isn't much time to explore things in too much dept, but Doom emerges with his dignity and power intact. That said it's hard to deny that this strip's appearance here is largely filler material to make up the page count as Doom doesn't actually team up with any other super-villains in these stories. Issues #4-5 may have been reprinted in Super-Villain Team-Up #15 but the issues show a confrontation not an alliance between Doom and the Red Skull. Still without their appearance here we probably wouldn't have got to see these stories at all.

Onto Super-Villain Team-Up itself. As ever with a team-up title here's a list of the banner stars in each issue, though formally naming them on the cover doesn't start until issue #3 and the earlier issues have the stars at the top of the intro pages.

Giant-Size 1. Doctor Doom and the Sub-Mariner
Giant-Size 2. Doctor Doom and the Sub-Mariner
1. Doctor Doom and the Sub-Mariner
2. Doctor Doom and the Sub-Mariner
3. Doctor Doom and the Sub-Mariner
4. Doctor Doom and the Sub-Mariner
5. Doctor Doom and the Sub-Mariner
6. Doctor Doom and the Sub-Mariner
7. Doctor Doom and the Sub-Mariner
8. Doctor Doom and the Sub-Mariner
9. Doctor Doom and the Sub-Mariner
10. Doctor Doom and the Sub-Mariner
11. Doctor Doom and the Red Skull
12. Doctor Doom and the Red Skull
13. Doctor Doom and the Sub-Mariner
14. Doctor Doom and Magneto
(15. Doctor Doom and the Red Skull - reprinting Astonishing Tales #4-5)
16. The Red Skull and the Hate-Monger
17. The Red Skull and the Hate-Monger

As can be seen from this list the overall approach to the series was rather different from the format of Marvel Team-Up and Marvel Two-in-One where the guest stars rotated virtually every issue. Instead the first half or so of the run is about the only time in the Bronze Age that I'm aware of when Marvel successfully launched a "buddy book" title of two pre-existing characters. (Marvel Team-Up was initially going to be a regular Spider-Man and the Human Torch series but rapidly switched to the rotating format, which was then adopted from the outset for Marvel Two-in-One. The Champions was originally going to be a duo of the Angel and Ice-Man, but during conception it morphed into a more general team title, albeit one that selected characters to fill various boxes.)

However it's quickly clear that this series wasn't exactly a conventional teaming. Neither the Red Skull nor Magneto actually team-up with Doom in the issues in question but instead battle with him, and much of the rest of the first sixteen issues (including the Giant-Size) are devoted to the strained relations between Doctor Doom and the Sub-Mariner as the former tries to recruit the latter to his scheme to conquer the world, rather than actually showing the two engaged in this plan. Part of the problem, as Doom eventually realises, is that the Sub-Mariner is primarily an anti-hero seeking the advancement of his undersea kingdom and only attacks the surface world in anger for perceived actions against Atlantis. Back in the early issues of Fantastic Four the Sub-Mariner was a wandering loner whose kingdom had disappeared and he did take on a more villainous role, even teaming up with Doctor Doom to take on the Fantastic Four. But the character had come a long way since then and a series that tries to recapture the spirit of Fantastic Four #6 just isn't going to work without major alterations to at least one of the characters. That's probably why new directions are announced for both issues #4 & #10, and then issue #14 brings another, though the end of the issue announces it's the end of the series. I'll come back to that claim in a bit. In the meantime the main bond forced between Doom and the Sub-Mariner are the-then recent alterations to the latter's body chemistry making it impossible for him to last out of water, especially when the life support suit he's wearing in the early issues begins to fail. Doom's supply of a cure results in Namor being honourbound but it's an uneasy process.

In the course of the alliance Doom and Namor face a number of both heroes and other villains, most of whom have previously clashed with at least one of them before. Early on they clash with Andro, the android from Astonishing Tales, and later on the Latverian legitimist pretender and the Red Skull. Namor's past conflicts soon bring Attuma, Tiger Shark and Dr. Dorcas, then later Krang. We also get a brief visit to Latveria by the Circus of Crime. The Fantastic Four also come into conflict with Doom over attempts to save the Sub-Mariner from being honourbound into the alliance. The Avengers crossover involves further conflict with Attuma but also brings a couple of encounters for what I think are the first time in the modern era - Namor and the Whizzer, and a fight between Doom and Iron Man. Finally in the original run we get a clash with both Magneto and the Champions. This brief team has often been mocked in hindsight for its unlikely combination and being located in Los Angeles - a famous line by the Angel in later years was "Do you know how hard it is to find supervillains in Los Angeles?" - but here they come across as reasonably competent, if beset by personality disputes. The more surprising portrayal is Magneto who initially seeks an alliance with Doom, proclaiming them to both be "homo superior". It's a reminder that Magneto hasn't always been the militant mutant superiority fighter he's best known as, and for many years was a more generic would-be world conqueror.

We get a few new creations such as the Symbionic Man, but the most significant is the Shroud. A mysterious figure in a dark costume with an origin that combines elements of Batman's (young boy sees his parents shot by a street criminal, vows vengeance on all crime and trains himself accordingly) and Doom's (makes his way to a Himalayan cult where he learns more but has his face burned in the process). It seems Steve Englehart wanted to write Batman but at this point he was at the wrong company, though all that would change the following year. Apparently he was actually drawing on the Shadow rather than Doom, but then again rather a lot of fictional characters have acquired special skills and magic from near mythical places in the Himalayas.

Issue #3 has a particularly dramatic moment when Betty Dean, Namor's original romantic interest, sacrifices herself to save Namor from being shot by Dr. Dorcas. Given the character's long term significance, she's dispatched rather suddenly even if she had only made a dozen or so new appearances since the 1960s revival of the Sub-Mariner. There are some other odd moments relating to women. We're occasionally reminded of Doom's loss of Valeria, but a really odd moment comes in issue #7 when he goes to a peasant's house and asserts droit de seigneur ("right of the lord") - which isn't fully spelt out here (Doom merely states he has "absolute right to the company of any woman in the land") but it was the purported feudal right of lords to bed virgins on the estate. There's no historical evidence that such a custom existed in medieval Europe but that wouldn't necessarily stop Doom. However it seems completely out of character for him to be pursuing such lust with any random woman and feels like a clumsy attempt to reinforce the character's wickedness. But Doom doesn't need to be shown asserting such rights to achieve that.

More curious is a moment in issue #6 where it's revealed that Doom has conducted a peace treaty with the United States that gives him greater protection from US based heroes who are now at risk of causing international incidents. The treaty is personally concluded with none other than Henry Kissinger. I presume that in the mid 1970s there weren't Republican watch groups who would pounce on portrayals in media and publicly attack companies for "misrepresenting" their side. But the whole incident feels a little clumsy again as it leads to rants by the Fantastic Four about appeasement and Kissinger's realpolitik. It's hard to escape the conclusion that these issues (#6-7), published in early 1976, was being used by Englehart for naked political soapboxing. It's also amazing that he could get away with it, but 1976 was the Year of The Three Editor-in-Chiefs at Marvel and amidst such turbulance oversight standards were presumably not the best.

Overall the initial run of the title takes a rather bizarre concept and does its best to try and make it work. Some of the issues have ambiguous endings and Doom sometimes triumphs over other foes. But in general it's very hard to base a series around villains and even harder to do so when one of them doesn't easily slot into the role the title implies. The series came out in a period when the length of regular sized Marvel comics shrank from nineteen to eighteen and then seventeen pages per issue so the stories fly pretty fast. But it's hard to escape the idea this series never really had a clear idea of what it was for or where it was going, hence the two new directions and the eventual shift away from the Doom/Sub-Mariner relationship to a more general Doom and a rotating guest star title. However it was too little too late and it's easy to see why issue #14 ends with "This is the last issue of Super-Villain Team-Up".

Yet somehow despite the series announcing its ending in 1977, three more issues came out, one per each of the following years. I'm not sure why this was but as issue #15 is a reprint, it's probable it was a rush job. Maybe it was a fill-in to take the place of a delayed title at the printers at a time when publishers were fined if the presses went empty. Alternatively the issue was on sale in August 1978 which seems to be the exact month the effect of the "DC Implosion" hit the newsstands with a dramatic cutback of the number of DC titles - was Marvel rushing some extra books into print to capitalise on the released marketshare? Presumably the issue sold well enough for someone to give the title another chance, but this time going for a more general team-up of villains. So six months later issue #16 appeared in early 1979... and then nothing for over a year before the story was concluded with the publication of issue #17. Was this a monumental production delay, was the revived series never properly scheduled or was it just being printed as and when gaps in printing were looming?

The final two issues tell a brief story that seems to be motivated more by tying up an obscure part of Marvel continuity than with actually doing anything major with the Red Skull. We get the tale of how the Skull and the Hate Monger are running a Nazi island in the Caribbean - it makes a difference from the Latin American jungle I guess - where they're using technology to create a new Cosmic Cube whilst fending off the interference by agents of Mossad and SHIELD. However there's a twist as the Hate Monger is none other than Adolf Hitler.

Part of the story's purpose is to tidy up Marvel continuity with the revelation that Hitler is occupying a clone of his original body with his mind having been projected out when he was "killed" in the Berlin bunker at the end of the Second World War by the original Human Torch. In the 1950s Marvel had created this alternate take on Hitler's death and it may have seemed a great idea at the time but it now seems rather crass. They then made an alternative version of this crassness in 1963 when a Fantastic Four issue ended with the revelation the defeated and dead Hate Monger had been... Adolf Hitler. At the time the idea of Hitler having survived the war was a fairly popular idea in fiction (and Marvel was ignoring its 1950s stories altogether) but again it can seem to trivialise one of the most evil men real history has thrown up. It would probably have best to have just dismissed the original Hate Monger as one of Hitler's doubles. But instead we now get a tale teaming up Marvel's most prominent Nazi with the real world's greatest Nazi. The story itself is tame, show how the Skull fends off the attack but also out double-crosses the Hate Monger, trapping the latter inside the new Cosmic Cube which is in fact merely a prison.

The story allows the Red Skull to put Hitler the man behind him whilst still pursuing Hitler's goals and philosophy. But the Skull didn't need such a moment - Hitler could have been left dead and the Hate Monger dismissed as an old double of Hitler. If a confrontation and continuity tidy was needed, this would have allowed the Skull to establish himself as the supreme heir to Nazidom without the crass treatment of the founder. Overall this story is rather dissatisfying and a pretty low ending for the series. It had never really found a direction and by this point it was just Super-Villain Team-Up in name only.

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