It’s no secret that I have a lot of Spider-Man “blind spots,” but when it comes to Spidey “B” titles that have been off my radar for the bulk of my reading existence, Marvel Team-Up stands on its own. While I understand that Team-Up is the first official ongoing Spider-Man “B” title, the series was launched in 1972, nearly a decade before I was born, and concluded in 1985, two years before I picked-up my first ever Spider-Man comic book. I have vague memories of catching some of these Team-Up stories in the late 80s as part of the Marvel Tales reprint series, but none of these issues made an impact on me as a young reader where I wanted to go out and read more stories about Spider-Man pairing off with a random hero du jour.
Of course, years later, the “team-up” structure is alive and strong via the pages of Avenging Spider-Man/Superior Spider-Man Team-Up, and I think this is a worthwhile concept for an ongoing because it exposes readers to other heroes and villains from the vast Marvel Universe and these stories have a tendency to be quick-paced and light-hearted, making them easy to check-in and check-out of at any given point in time. I much prefer that format to what Marvel did with all the Spider-Man titles in the 1990s when the stories would flow from one to the other, creating a “weekly saga” that was impossible for my 14-year-old wallet to keep up with.
But even with my current appreciation for Avenging/Superior Team-Up, I still haven’t done a whole lot to eradicate this blind spot from my field if vision. Then, a few months ago I discovered a trade paperback collection of Marvel Team-Up stories from the late 1970s from the writer/artist team of Chris Claremont and John Byrne.
Wait a second, THE Claremont and Byrne tandem that is responsible for some of the GREATEST comic book stories of all time during their storied run on Uncanny X-Men?
Yes, before they became comic book gods creating iconic storylines like the “Dark Phoenix Saga” and “Days of Future Past,” Claremont and Byrne worked together on Marvel’s Spider-Man “B” title (it might have even been considered a “C” title at that point considering Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man had been released).
With all the posts I’ve been making the past few weeks related to the 50th anniversary of the X-Men and Avengers this month, I thought it was essential for Chasing Amazing to honor the Claremont/Byrne tandem via Marvel Team-Up. And the storyline I chose is relevant to the theme to boot (and also probably the best arc in the TPB I just picked-up): Marvel Team-Up #69-70 stars Havok (an X-Man), Thor (an Avenger) and the Living Pharaoh/Monolith (a villain who first appeared in Uncanny X-Men #54).
Whenever the “best Spider-Man writer” names get brandied about by the people who care about that kind of stuff, Claremont is rarely ever mentioned, probably because he would go on to be so tightly associated with the X-Men franchise, and because the stories that emanated from the Marvel Team-Up series have never been regarded as being highly consequential to the Spider-Man/Marvel universe. But I really enjoyed Claremont’s voice throughout his run on Team-Up. He manages to balance Spider-Man’s sense of humor, crummy luck and noble/heroic nature in a way that stands up to some of the better writers who ever tackled the character. And the fact that he can accomplish this characterization in what amounted to a bunch of throwaway stories makes Claremont work all the more admirable.
For example, in Team-Up #69, Peter is investigating a break-in at Empire State University and once he finds another Marvel hero in peril in Havok, he immediately dons his Spider-Man attire and attempts to save the day, no questions asked. But of course, this being Spider-Man, things never come easily for him. We have a scene where Spidey gets trapped in his own webbing while trying to apprehend the Living Pharaoh and then he manages to double down on his misery when he accidentally punches the villain into Havok’s cosmic power source, leading to the Pharaoh’s transformation into the monstrous Living Monolith.
So in attempting to be the hero, Spider-Man has managed to make things 100-times worse. That’s more or less every Steve Ditko/Stan Lee Spider-Man story in one sentence. Claremont captures this 60s formula with some choice Spidey one-liners, including on where he compares the Pharaoh’s costume to something that would be found in “Star Wars 2” or “The Wiz” (remember kids, this comic pre-dates Empire Strikes Back by a couple of years). These references might feel dated now, but the jokes still landed for me during my 2013 reading.
Byrne, for all the criticism he gets as a human being, is a really, really good artist. Outside of a few exceptions, I am a sucker for a classic Spider-Man look and Byrne delivers some great spreads, including two fantastic splash pages of a terrifying Living Monolith – one that closes out Team-Up #69 and another to kick off Team-Up #70. Byrne would come back to pencil Spider-Man in for the “Chapter One” series and then for 18 issues during the Amazing Spider-Man reboot in the late 1990s.
Probably my favorite sequence of the arc, and a great example of why the team-up format can really be a lot of fun when handled by a good writer who understands a range of different characters, is Thor’s arrival in Team-Up #70. The Norse God shows up in the nick of time to save a free-falling Spider-Man and then calmly tells him that he has Spidey’s back for all the help he provided the Avengers when they were fighting Thanos (during the Marvel Two-In-One Annual I spotlighted here). Thor then proceeds to do battle with the Living Monolith, providing Spider-Man with the time he needs to use his brain to rescue Havok and save New York City from this monster.
I know this really shouldn’t be a big deal, but I love that Thor references the Two-In-One battle with the Avengers and Thanos. Those nods to continuity and prior events go a long way in making the story I’m reading come across as important. I imagine if I was reading this for the first time in the 70s and I didn’t know what Thor was talking about in that scene, I’d want to seek out that Two-In-One annual post-haste. Granted, these two Team-Up issues haven’t really stood the test of time in the “legacy” department, but that Two-In-One annual certainly has, and I’m all the better as a Spidey fan now for being able to point to Spider-Man’s first interaction with an Avenger after he saved their bacon against Thanos.
And while this arc may not be a part of any “top Spider-Man stories” list, bigger things were certainly ahead for Claremont and Byrne. On the final page of issue #70, Marvel editorial announced that Claremont and Byrne would be taking a short break from Team-Up in order to start their epic run with Uncanny X-Men #108. The rest, as they say, is history, and X-Men fans certainly enjoyed the spoils of victory with the poaching of that creative tandem. But, as a Spider-Man fan, I can at least tell all my X-Men friends that while you might have gotten Claremont and Byrne at their best, we got them first.
All images from Marvel Team-Up #69-70: Chris Claremont, John Byrne & Ricardo Villamonte
The Claremont/Byrne run still holds a special place in my heart. The issues that they worked on together (#59-70) are the best in the whole MTU run IMO. I remember reading these as a kid when they came out and liked them much better than what as going on in ASM and Spectacular at the time.
I’m afraid neither Spider-Man nor X-Men fans can take the first credit on Claremont/Byrne – their first collaboration was even earlier on Iron Fist, starting from Marvel Premiere #25 in October 1975 and carrying over into Iron Fist’s own title . Their first joint Marvel Team-Up work (they’d both already contributed separately) came 21 months later when Iron Fist was winding down before being fused with Power Man.
(Around the time the pairing broke up on X-Men they returned to Team-Up for a back-up Black Panther story in issue #100. I’m not sure if that or Days of Future Past came last in their work.)
It’s a pity Claremont’s never had an regular stint on one of the other Spider-Man titles as he may have worked wonders (or alternatively had a big off day). However I did get a little tired of the way Spider-Man in these stories is often remembering Gwen Stacey in a way he hadn’t for some years – similar to the way Claremont’s X-Men later kept on remembering Phoenix all the time (one of Byrne’s criticisms).
So, the best Spider-Man stories of the mid and late 1970’s occurred outside of the pages of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN and SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN?
I’d agree with that.