Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Open Forum: Greatest Team-Ups Ever

Comics have thrived on team-ups, the chance meeting of two dynamic characters to battle menaces too overpowering for either of them individually. The Seebelow* contributors opine upon their favorite crossovers ...

I’ve never been a huge fan of team-ups, which are usually forced and unnatural pairings meant to drive up sales of a less popular hero by sticking him on a hastily conceived mission with a better-known character. I made an exception, though, for Marvel’s 1970s series Super-Villain Team-Up, a surprisingly well-executed book that rather caught my fancy at the time.

was appealing right from the start, because as everyone knows, villains are always more interesting than heroes. It also benefited from featuring as its central character Dr. Doom, my all-time favorite super-villain and the original big poppa of Marvel mischief-making.

And I’ve always been mildly intrigued by the notion of villain team-ups; it’s hard enough to find friends who share your interest in, say, bowling or model railroads, so how do people like the Hillside Stranglers, who shared a mutual love of torturing prostitutes to death, ever get together? Add to this the fact that some issues were written by the always-entertaining Steve Englehart just before he jumped ship to DC for a while, and you’ve got a pretty entertaining stew going.

It was a stroke of genius to team up Victor Von Doom and Prince Namor. Both were Fantastic Four villains with rich and elaborate histories and special reasons to hate on the FF; Doom (rightly) blamed Reed Richards for tampering with the experiment that cost him his beautiful face, and Namor had a bone on for Sue Storm. Better still, the two of them, like most genuine aristocrats, were rampaging egomaniacs who couldn’t begin to fathom why they couldn’t get what they wanted; Doom was totally unwilling to admit that Reed Richards might be as smart as he was, and Namor could never, er, fathom why Sue would go for a nebbishy braniac like Reed instead of a manly hunk of sea-brawn like himself. The two came together as part of an elaborate scheme against the FF, but almost immediately began plotting against each other for no immediately discernable reason other than that they’re two huge jackasses who would plot against a fire extinguisher if their beds were in flames. Throw in that they soon got involved with the murderous Dr. Lemuel Dorcas, who held the title of Marvel super-villain with the stupidest name until the appearance of Turner D. Century, and it all made for a read that was way more enjoyable than it had any right to be.

Eventually, as all good teams do, it started to fall apart. Namor got traded to the Seattle Mariners and was replaced by the Red Skull, who was just as big a star in the firmament of Marvel villainy as was Dr. Doom, but whose Nazi motives were entirely incomprehensible to Vic. “Fuck this guy,” you could almost hear him say under the metal mask, and he was gone by the 16th issue, replaced by the Hate-Monger, who, in his secret identity as Adolf Hitler, still holds the title of worst super-villain of the 20th century. It just wasn’t any fun without the two explosive egos of Doom and Namor to carry the title, and the last few issues were a slog. But boy, was it fun while it lasted.

Wolverine is constantly being pitted against enemies far more powerful than himself and left to rely on his staggeringly terrible table manners and shiny cutlery to stab his way out of any trouble. Spider-Man is frequently overlooked as an
ything except a sticky photojournalist in his pajamas when he is actually one of the smartest scientists on the planet with super human strength, agility and resilience.

Jim Owsley has taken these two characters who are so often mishandled as simple caricatures and wove around them a story that is not only believable and realistic given the circumstances, but features absolutely zero ninjas. I think we can all recognize this as an oddity for the late 80s. The action of the story is little mor e than a backdrop to some pivotal character development for Peter Parker.

Peter doesn't kill people, and Wolverine is a certifiable lunatic with little regard for human life. They meet in East Berlin on the trail of some KGB assassins. At first, each thinks the other is a commie agent, but then Logan gets laid and it all g ets sorted out. They team up to fight some Red Scare baddies. In the end, Logan's lady turns out to be behind everything and for reasons that I'm sure only make sense to a female KGB assassin who just had sex with a cigar smoking Canadian Tribble, she asks Wolverine to kill her. Because he just had sex with her, he agrees.

At this point Spidey arrives, cops an attitude and battles Wolverine for the right to not kill her. It's a great fight, and they eventually discover what we should have known all along, that they're actually a pretty even match. Even the rather typical Peter Parker emo trip at the end of the book is handled well and it becomes a pivotal element in the development of Spider-Man's character.

Also, if you're into that kind of thing, Wolverine murders like two hundred people and uses his nose to solve mysteries.

Jon Morris: DC COMICS PRESENTS #27-29
An unfortunately overlooked classic from what was admittedly a typically poor example of the Bronze Age team-up book (none of which were exactly beauty contestants either). It introduced the villainous Mongul, derided at the time for being nothing more than a Darkseid knockoff, but unsaddled - unlike Darkseid - with the "Ultimate Evil in the Universe" sobriquet. This meant that Mongul had all the menace but none of the inertia of his near-likeness, making him the actual, active threat Darkseid could never be.

So this fast-paced three-parter not only introduces a heavy-hitter bad guy, but also sees Superman fighting against Warworld - a battleship bigger than most suns - pits him in a dirty knockdown/drag-out against The Martian Manhunter, makes hostages of Superman's entire supporting cast, and ends with Superman attempting to pierce the veil of the afterlife itself and throwing soupbones with the Spectre in order to rescue Supergirl from the clutches of death. On top of all that, writer Len Wein actually had Superman tackle a few of the occasional moral dilemmas inspired by his powers and responsibilities. Top notch Bronze Age storytelling, even if it rarely gets its due.

Seriously, go read Superman vs Muhammad Ali. Neal Adams art, Denny O'Neil in one of the few stories he ever wrote where Superman gets treated with respect and not that weird "WTF do I do with this guy" manner O'Neil usually managed (Sand Superman? Really?).

Both Superman and Muhammad Ali come off well, you get a rather breezy story involving alien invaders, the former Cassius Clay claims superiority as Earth's defender in the face of an alien invasion fleet because Superman's not even from Earth and in the end, even the evil alien's champion (the aliens are actually called The Scrubb!) is convinced, by Muhammad Ali's and Superman's respective heroism, to turn against his corrupt leaders. Plus Muhammad Ali figures out who Superman really is, putting him in a club that included John F. Kennedy for "real life people allowed to know who Superman is in the comics." This story doesn't take itself too seriously, is a fun read, and has a pretty solid fight sequence between Superman and Muhammad Ali on a red sun planet where Supes does okay but gets whipped, as we would expect.

Batman vs The Incredible Hulk: Batman gets turned into paste. NEXT.
Okay, so that's not how it went. But you have to hand it to Len Wein, Jose Garcia-Lopez and Dick Giordano: they took a gamma irradiated bat eat and made one hell of a nice green silk purse out of it. The idea of Batman fighting the Hulk in any significant way was so ridiculous in 1981 (this was before Batman became a walking plot device) that the story tackles it right up front: the first confrontation between Batman and ol' Jade Jaws consists of Batman praying he isn't going to get turned to pulp or have his back broken (not for another decade or so, Bats, don't worry) before finally managing to gas the gamma goliath.

The real action in this story, however, involves the Joker working feverishly to cure The Shaper of Worlds, a cosmic level Marvel entity with no real imagination but the power to reshape reality. When the Joker manages to trick Batman into helping him convince the Hulk to provide enough gamma rays to cure the Shaper, we get Joker as king of reality, a surreal series of pages beautifully illustrated by Garcia-Lopez and Giordano and we get to see the Hulk with floppy clown shoes and Batman with a red clown nose. Trust me, the entire book was worth it for that one scene. That, and Batman angrily decking the Joker for letting the Hulk go in alone to face an out of control COSMIC ENTITY WITH THE POWER OF A GOD and then running in to make sure the Hulk doesn't have to die by himself. It's actually a really good read. I left out where Bruce Wayne tries to help cure Bruce Banner. Bruces bonding! All in all, this should have sucked, but Wein and the talented artists pulled one out.

Austin: The Question #17
Denny O'Neill's 1986 reinvention of The Question is still a controversial subject among big fat dweebs like me and, probably, you. Ayn Rand enthusiast and bona fide artistic genius Steve Ditko invented the faceless mystery man, like he invented so many of his characters, as a one dimensional mouthpiece for his Objectivist rantings. Denny O'Neill wanted a mouthpiece for his own beliefs, however, which were sharply at odds with Ditko's. Lucky for him, then, that DC had purchased Ditko's creations from Charlton comics lock stock and barrel, and as a grand old man of the company, O'Neill could pretty much do what he wanted with any of 'em. Or he could have if it wasn't for that meddling hippie Alan Moore, who was writing the Charlton Characters into a magnum opus that would kill most and leave the rest unrecognizable. Since DC wanted to keep all their cash cows healthy, they convinced Moore to tinker just enough to avoid instant confusion and so his version of The Question became Rorschach of the upcoming truly shitty looking blockbuster, Watchmen.

In the Question #17, Vic Sage aka The Question is following a lead to Seattle. Hub City, Vic's home turf is apparently a plane ride sufficiently far from Seattle that he can read a dense, critically acclaimed graphic novel on the way, although not so long that he can actually think about what he's read, as we shall see. Or maybe Vic's just a big dummy, and not really a Zen monk on a personal quest to make sense of the universe after all, because although he recognizes Rorschach as a kindred spirit, he fails to realize that big R is a wrecked-up, doomed, paranoid psychopath and instead decides he "kicks ass." Whenever an object that should be pitied becomes admired, trouble is sure to follow. Sure enough, Vic decides to kick ass instead of follow his usual course of meticulous detective work unsubtly symbolizing his own introspective musings. In brief, The Question bulldozes in on the bad guys, is captured, and in the course of escaping, just about literally runs into Green Arrow, in one of my all time favorite closing Splash Pages. Ollie never looked so butch in that elfy-looking hooded doublet he was wearing back in those days. TO BE CONTINUED!

Consequently in the Question #18, Vic is held captive by a better-known mouthpiece for Denny O'Neill, and another one he didn't create but instead totally rewrote to fit his own uses. Green Arrow is pretty reasonable, altogether. Most of this issue is the two of them talking – The Question wants to be untied but Green Arrow doesn't know him from Adam Strange, and needs to be convinced that he's not just some small time hood. Finally GA is convinced by Q's incredible insights and so relents whereupon they go after the criminals, quoting Sun Tzu the whole way, and yes, Kicking Ass. Although the lesson of the last issue was 'if you blunder in like a bull in a china shop, yours is the ass that's gonna get kicked."

This Team-up is my favorite because it's full of metatextual hooha. Not only do we get the "Flash of Two Worlds" aspect of different versions of the same character colliding, but it brings up all kinds of stupid continuity nerd issues: Watchmen is published by DC in our universe, who publishes it in the DC universe? Is there a DC universe version of THIS comic, since it's published by DC, too? Is there an infinite regression of Alan Moores and Denny O'Neills writing comic books within comic books within comic books? Are we living in a universe written by a Moore or an O'Neill? All that happy horsecrap. Also, as I editorialized earlier, not only is O'Neill paying tribute to Moore's tremendous creation by writing it into his own pet project, he's taking the opportunity to deflate some of the more misguided hype around it. Lord knows how many fanboys I ran into around 88-89 who thought that Rorschach was the bees' knees and didn't see the limits and dangers of his point of view. I may have even fallen victim to some of that myself! Of course most of the blame, or credit maybe, for this goes to Moore himself for making the demented Rorschach such a powerful and appealing character that not even a whole chapter devoted to turning his rancid psyche inside out could fully demystify him – "The Abyss Gazes Also" probably validates his viewpoint as much as condemns it in the view of many readers. (Ask fellow Seebelower Leonard Pierce sometime about how Moore sets up political and personal conflicts in the Watchmen characters sometime – I double dog dare you!) But still, that's only half the story! The second half, where The Question and Green Arrow storm the evildoers' hideout is pretty good, if more conventional, stuff too. O'Neill knows that comics readers want action and plenty of it, and he writes a great sequence that's brilliantly illustrated by Denys Cowan, involving the two of them staking out the lair as they debate the merits of trust vs. suspicion and whether it's possible to recognize inner qualities or only outer. Then they shoot arrows, punch people and race snowmobiles while oversimplifying one of the greatest short philosophical works in history. Who could ask for anything more?

1 comment:

  1. "Plus Muhammad Ali figures out who Superman really is, putting him in a club that included John F. Kennedy for "real life people allowed to know who Superman is in the comics." "

    Wow. Not a good club to be in. Who else knew, John Lennon and Lou Gehrig?

    On a more serious note, if Moore didn't want fans to idolize Rorschach, maybe he shouldn't have made him the one hero who defies Veidt AND the most compelling narrator in the book.

    And I would love to hear how Moore sets up personal and political conflicts in the Watchmen characters sometime.