Thursday, September 25, 2008

Team-ups, temporary alliances and unlikely partnerships

The 1970s were the golden age of team-up books. DC had already been showcasing Batman in The Brave and the Bold, teaming up with various other heroes, for some years. In 1978, they added DC Comics Presents, featuring team ups with Superman. Over at Marvel, Marvel Team-up, almost always with Spider Man, started in 1972. Marvel Two-in-One with Ben Grimm (the Thing from the Fantastic Four) started a year or so later.

Why use these specific characters to headline the team-up books? Well, at DC, the decision was obviously based on popularity. Superman and Batman were their hottest properties, so books featuring them would sell well. And it was fairly believable that they would team up often with other heroes. Superman was so powerful you would often wonder why he needed help, but his Boy Scout personality meant he could work smoothly with most DC good guys. Batman in the late Silver Age was scary to the bad guys, but perfectly capable of making friends—or at least allies—with other heroes.

At Marvel, popularity was probably the determining factor as well. But Spider Man and Ben Grimm both also have qualities that make them ideal for starring in team-up stories. Both have strong personalities and senses of humor. Both characters “play well” with others and aren’t overshadowed by more physically powerful allies.

Another strength of the team-up books was that their storylines were always separate from the regular Superman/Batman/Spidey/FF books. Nothing in them violated continuity, but you could read any of these books independent of the main titles and still get a complete story. Regardless of what multi-part epics might be taking place in Detective, Action or Amazing Spider Man, the team-up books would remain a world of their own. Since most of the plots were wrapped up in a single issue, they gave you a nice little superhero fix whenever you needed it.

Marvel Two-and-One #24, for instance, opens with the Thing at Stark Industries West Coast facility, helping scientist Bill (Black Goliath) Foster test some new equipment. (Ben, of course, is the guinea pig—tossed into a pressure chamber to see how well a new space suit design works). When a thief floods the facility with knock out gas in order to loot valuable technology, Ben and Goliath work together to thwart him. They end up fighting the villain’s deadly “crime tank.”

The story, written by Bill Mantlo and Jim Shooter and drawn by Sal Buscema, isn’t groundbreaking in any way. But it tells the story well and gives Ben some nifty one-liners. It’s fun to read, which is all that is expected of it.

The same can be said for Marvel Team-up #13. Spider Man stumbles across Captain America fighting a horde of AIM agents. Spidey jumps in to help, but as soon as the battle ends, the two heroes are teleported up to the SHIELD helicarrier. Bringing up Spidey along with Cap was an accident and a rookie SHIELD agent tries to arrest the webslinger. Nick Fury puts a stop to that, allowing Spider Man and Cap to work together in stopping the Grey Gargoyle from sabotaging a guided missile test at Cape Kennedy.

This one was written by Len Wein and featured the always wonderful art of Gil Kane. Once again, there’s nothing particularly special about the issue other than it was just plain entertaining. The bit where the overeager SHIELD guy tries to arrest Spidey is priceless, as is a scene a few pages later where Nick Fury lays a patriotic guilt trip on Spidey to get him to agree to help. The action is well-handled and it’s all perfectly satisfying.

Over at DC, Batman and Green Lantern work both against each other and together in The Brave and the Bold #155. An earthquake rocks Gotham City and Batman soon deduces an alien criminal is responsible. Meanwhile, Green Lantern is assigned by the Guardians to capture the same crook for trial before the Guardians. This puts the two heroes at odds—Batman wants the villain to face Earth justice, while GL is determined to bring him to Oa. There’s some detective work that takes them both to another planet and it all leads up to a nice twist at the end involving the crook’s possible innocence.

Written by Bob Haney and with Jim Aparo’s dynamic artwork, this is once again a story that is simply fun to read.

Finally, we come to a story written by Cary Bates and drawn by Joe Stanton. In DC Comic Presents #10, Superman is thrown back in time by an enormous explosion while saving Paris from a terrorist threat. He ends up in World War II. Suffering from amnesia and unaware he has superpowers, Superman hooks up with Sgt. Rock and Easy Company. At first, Rock and the others suspect he might be a Nazi infiltrator, but he eventually regains his memory in time to secretly use his powers to save his new friends. Then, after faking his death to explain his sudden disappearance, he returns to the present.

The plot here is a little contrived—it’s hard to do an “amnesia” plot without obvious contrivance. But tossing Superman and Sgt. Rock together is a nifty enough idea to cause us to forgive this. Once again—at the risk of sounding like a broken record—it’s a just plain fun issue.

So that’s the simple truth—the various team-up books of that decade were not ground-breaking. They didn’t introduce innovative storytelling techniques. They didn’t change the face of the industry. They just used the established characters and backgrounds of their respective universes to tell enjoyable stories. And sometimes, that’s more than enough.

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