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.