This is supposed to be a high point for team-up titles in general and Marvel Team-Up in particular.  This was the year that Chris Claremont and John Byrne worked on the series, which led in turn to their magical pairing on Uncanny X-Men. In retrospect, these issues reveal the limitations of a team-up title more than the possibilities.

            Before Claremont and Byrne were paired together, they each worked on several issues separately.  John Byrne partnered with writer Bill Mantlo on a short run that began with Marvel Team-Up Annual #1 at the end of 1976.  Chris Claremont then took over and teamed with artist Sal Buscema for a couple of issues.  Finally, Claremont and Byrne worked together for 12 consecutive issues (#59-70) and one last coda (#75). 

            The Mantlo-Byrne team begins with a fairly prosaic story in Annual #1. Spider-Man and the X-Men are brought in separately to investigate an energy experiment that went awry.  They’re defeated; the villains explain their plan; the heroes then escape and defeat them.  There’s little about this story that’s original or enlightening.  I suppose there’s something unique about the first meeting between Spider-Man and the all-new X-Men but that’s not enough to carry the story on its own.  It’s a little bit interesting that Mantlo uses the Hindu gods as villains but he has them possess ordinary scientists so it’s more of a half-hearted attempt.

            Fortunately, the stories improve from there.  Mantlo sets up a series of obstacles that prevent Spider-Man from getting home to New York.  He’s sidetracked first by a Hulk rampage in New Mexico and later accidentally sent to the Blue Area of the Moon.  The way in which one story leads into the next is a lot of fun.  It’s not quite a rollercoaster but it is a bit of a carnival ride.  Unfortunately, it’s annoying that both Hulk and Woodgod constantly refer to themselves in the third person.  One feeble-minded hero might be interesting.  Two is aggravating.  More notably, the stories are innocuous and inconsequential. We know that anything important will happen in Spider-Man’s own title.  It’s a problem that has dogged many a team-up title, including Mark Waid’s most recent attempt to re-start The Brave and the Bold. 

However, John Byrne’s art is a bright spot.  It’s already polished.  And it’s occasionally brilliant as on a splash in which a delirious Spider-Man hallucinates miniature versions of his rogues’ gallery.

            The Claremont-Buscema team is an awful mess.  Claremont’s stories are uninventive and formulaic.  A villain-or two- commits a common crime like robbing a bank or an armored car.  One hero is tracking the criminal.  Another hero stumbles onto the crime accidentally.  They fight, make up and team up to defeat the bad guys.  I know that comic book writers used to compare work-for-hire to playing in someone else’s sandbox but Claremont didn’t have to take the metaphor literally.  The plots are about as interesting as a HeroClix scenario.  They’re less interesting than watching a kid play with their toys as the child might actually surprise you. 

Finally, Claremont and Byrne are paired together.  Claremont and Byrne give us a pretty good tour of the Marvel Universe.  They alternate between kung fu and the cosmic (an adventure with the Super-Skrull, Human Torch and Ms. Marvel is followed by one with Iron Fist and the Daughters of the Dragon).  They pair Spidey off with established veterans and bright newcomers (founding Avengers Yellowjacket and the Wasp appear in the first story while the first American appearance of Captain Britain occurs a little bit later).  And they manage to balance human concerns with godlike wonder (Spider-Man squares off against the Living Monolith with Havok and Thor).  Byrne shows excellent range as an artist, depicting urban landscapes, aerial dogfights and hand-to-hand combat. 

The stories are a marked improvement over the previous issues and not just because of John Byrne’s art.  Claremont expands his horizons as well.  He begins to experiment with two-issue stories, allowing more room for plot twists and cliffhangers.  And he brings weight to the stories by focusing on the guest-stars more than Spider-Man.  We know that Spider-Man won’t die, break up with his girlfriend or lose his job at the Bugle in a secondary title.  But we don’t know that something essential won’t happen to a guest star.  A minor character might very well be killed off or lose his powers.  This intensifies the stakes in a story, bringing greater conflict and drama.

Individually, the two-part stories work well.  However, read in sequence, Claremont’s new formula eventually becomes repetitive.  It might have been nice if they had alternated the pace of their stories a little more (there are a couple of one-shots guest-starring Tigra and the Man-Thing near the end of the run).  It definitely would have been better if Claremont had occasionally shifted the focus back on Spider-Man.  He feels like a secondary concern in his own title, continually caught up in other people’s adventures.  At times, Team-Up starts to feel like an advertisement for other comics.  “Hey, check out Ms. Marvel or Iron Fist in their own titles!”  Claremont also makes the mistake of completing abandoning Spider-Man’s supporting cast.  Sure, they’re not going to play a significant role.  But without them, he stops being Peter Parker.  He’s just another hero with a smart mouth and a mask.

Marvel Team-Up can be pretty good.  But it’s never great.  

Views: 553

Comment by Figserello on September 18, 2011 at 10:01pm

I remember these extremely fondly.  I never read them systematically, but just a few here and there.  Isn't the one where Spidey fights an old Conan/Kull villain who makes NY into a medieval funpark part of this run?  That was a good one, in extending the canvas.  Were the X-men the guests there too? 

 

So there were only a dozen or so of the Byrne/Claremont pairings?  Even if the stories themselves don't add up to a great run, they did help to remake Marvel NY in a more modern style, and highlight the interconnectedness of the heroes' lives there.  Young readers loved that.

 

In the Mantlo tribute magazine, they say that team-ups were hated by the writers but lapped up by the readers.  The format does have its restrictions unless the writers are very clever.

 

Perhaps the Project Pegasus issues of Two-in-One got around the limitations of team-up comics most successfully, as all the issues occurred in the same location, and there was a built in reason for the variety of heroes to interact.

 

I have almost finished the "DC Comics Presents" Showcase with late 70s Superman team-ups published at the same time as these MU Team-ups, and much of what you say above could be said about the Superman team-ups.  It would've been hard not to fall into the traps you specify.  At least both series were fun comics at their best.  There is a lot of writer/artist turnover in them too.  I'm hoping to write a short bit on them soon, although I've already written about DCCP 1-3 quite a bit.

 

I'm looking forward to rereading the Marvel Team-ups someday.  I've had the idea of reading ASM, PP Spec SM and Marvel Team-up in conjunction with each other, to see how they stack up, but that'd be a big project.  Maybe 10-12 Essentials by the end?

 

I like the idea of the retro-reviews too.

 

 

Comment by Chris Fluit on September 19, 2011 at 11:38am

I like the idea of the retro-reviews too.

 

Thanks.  I enjoy doing them every now and then.

Comment by Rich Steeves on September 19, 2011 at 1:18pm
I was just about to cite the Project: Pegasus run of MTIO as an example of team-up done right!
Comment by ClarkKent_DC on September 21, 2011 at 3:24pm

I miss Marvel Team-Up and other team-up magazines. 

 

I have to admit, I never felt like I had to buy it every month, mostly because there was an air of disposableness about it. It mostly was filled with just-good-enough stories and just-good-enough art, and the decision for me each month mostly rested with who the guest star might be in any given issue.

 

But, as Chris points out, the Chris Claremont/John Byrne pairing was an attempt at an upgrade. I'm particularly fond of the Spider-Man/Red Sonja issue, (#79, March 1979) not only because somehow Claremont found a way to make the impossible happen (Red Sonja? Really?), but because the story opens with the narrator telling us that it's the winter solstice, December 22, 1978 -- which so happened to be the very day I bought and read that comic!

 

On the other hand, Claremont stumbled a bit with the Spider-Man/Captain Britain team-up (#65, January 1978). The way he brought the two together was that the housing service at Empire State University matched Peter Parker with a new roommate -- one Brian Braddock. That was just too much for readers to swallow, and I recall Claremont being very defensive in an explanation on a subsequent letters page. He described how a friend of his once traveled to Europe and met a mutual friend of theirs. If such a coincidence could happen in life, Claremont said, then what he wrote in his story could possibly happen, too. He didn't seem to get the difference between a coincidence that happens in life and an event concocted by a writer to smooth along his story.

 

A better one was Spider-Man and Thor (#70, June 1978). There's a blurb on the cover declaring "The Marvel Bullpen proudly presents this month's outstanding achievement in comics art!" For my money, it well delivered on that promise.

 

Comment by Oric on October 31, 2011 at 9:42pm

I also have fond memories of MTU - it was a way to check out other characters whose comics I could not access or afford to buy.  I especially liked Spidey's team up with the Beast vs Professor Power, with Moon Knight and Shang Chi and his team up with FF that introduced Karma and vs Gladiator (or was that in the FF?).

Comment by Figserello on October 31, 2011 at 10:24pm

I think Clark has identified the RE Howard tie-in issue that I was thinking of.  For some reason I really like it when mainstream costumed heroes get involved in classic sword and sorcery stories in a fantasy setting.

 

I am looking forward to reading these in order some day.  I read Byrne's first Captain America issue a week or so ago, and it was like putting on a favourite coat you find at the back of the cupboard.  It would be very hard to subjectively assess these comics from my 'golden age' now, but to be fair to Byrne, back then he seemed to be doing a lot of things right ...

Comment by Figserello on October 31, 2011 at 10:31pm

I was very happy to get both parts of the Captain Britain team-up recently.  One part was in the original comic, and the concluding part was in the reprint from much later in the 80s.  My problem was that Captain Britain seemed to lose his Sceptre and Amulet forever by the end of the story, which didn't bother anyone.

 

I get Claremont's point about coincidences. A friend of my wife spent a pleasant few hours talking to a stranger on a plane to Holland, and towards the end of the conversation asked his new Dutch friend where the address was of the contact  - a friend of a friend - he'd been given in Holland.

 

The Dutch guy on the plane beside him was the contact he'd been told to look up in Holland...

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