Over the next month Mark is going to share his thoughts on what he considers to be some of the “Lost Gems” of the Spider-Man comic book universe. These are some of Mark’s favorite stories that aren’t likely to appear on any “best of” lists.
This entry looks at Marvel Team-Up #65-66 by Chris Claremont and John Byrne.
Marvel Team-Up is one of those series that seemingly everyone remembers, it clearly has had an impact on both the Spider-Man universe and the Marvel Universe at large, especially when you consider the number of team-up books that have followed in its footsteps. And yet, if you ask a person about their favorite MTU story, I’m willing to wager many would be hard-pressed to come up with one, not because it was a terrible series but because very few of the arcs were truly distinguishable from each other — with a few notable exceptions.
For me, Marvel Team-Up #65-66 arguably stakes a claim as the greatest MTU story ever published. It’s a historical arc, as it marks the very first U.S. appearance of Brian Braddock, aka Captain Britain, who, as his name indicates, had only previously appeared in a comic published exclusively in the United Kingdom, as well the world’s introduction to the supervillain Arcade. But it’s also an immensely fun and thrilling read, created by two comic book masters in Chris Claremont and John Byrne (obviously well before I soured on Byrne) whose run on MTU is totally underappreciated in its own right.
Considering the historical significance of this storyline, along with the iconic creative tandem who worked on it, you’d think this two-parter would be placed on a pedestal among comic book fans, but a simple Google sleuth would yield very few confirmations of this assumption (outside of a few written by yours truly).
Actually, in isolation, the first part of this arc, MTU #65, is fairly pedestrian outside of it being the first U.S. appearance of Braddock. It features many of the token Marvel Team-Up-isms – an appearance by Spider-Man (since MTU was basically his book) followed by the introduction of the Marvel second banana du jour (usually a relatively new character or someone Marvel was trying to push in some other series or venue). From there, the two heroes typically have some kind of conflict before finding themselves in a scenario where they need to join forces for the greater good.
Despite its predictability, Claremont and Byrne do work in a few fun twists on Spider-Man conventions. For one, they put a new-ish spin on the old “Parker Luck,” when Brian, a new Empire State University student from the U.K. is forced upon Peter because the school is looking to cut back on boarding costs for its international students. Peter is initially wary of the arrangement due to his comings and goings as Spider-Man, but becomes further dismayed when he discovers that Braddock is actually a superhero himself. Double bonus points for how Peter is able to determine Brian is Captain Britain — by using the same logic (i.e., it can’t possibly be a coincidence that Captain Britain shows up in the U.S. for the first time the same day Peter is introduced to a mysterious new exchange student from Britain) that so many supporting characters have failed to apply to Peter/Spider-Man over the years (how come Peter is never around when Spider-Man shows up? Oh well, let’s get back to enjoying our beverages at the Coffee Bean).
Also, Claremont really has a knack for scripting Peter’s inner-monologue in terms of capturing the never-ending onslaught of conflict that comes with how he haphazardly balances his life as a superhero and a regular person. It’s a shame that he never got a prolonged run on Amazing Spider-Man scripting the Web Slinger, but considering how Claremont went on to have one of the most iconic runs in comic book history on Uncanny X-Men, I guess it’s safe to say that he did okay for himself.
Still, where the story really starts to shine is in MTU #66, when Spidey and Captain Britain have both been captured by Arcade and are forced to escape his theme park of hell dubbed “Murderworld.” The two initially find themselves inside giant pinballs, as they are walked around a giant cabinet filled with spikes, knives and other instruments of extreme discomfort.
The entire action sequence is rendered beautifully by Byrne, who demonstrates why he was one of the very best of the business during this time period. Arcade’s deathtraps are both visually menacing and unique, and Byrne’s layouts are also a joy to look at, whether it be a two-page spread introducing the pinball cabinet, or page a few moments later that has an almost fun-house quality to it in how it plays with the dueling physical struggles of Spider-Man and Captain Britain.
Arcade is also a well-conceptualized villain. While the reader doesn’t see him do much beyond sitting behind a control panel, Arcade manages to combine the cerebral creativity of Mysterio (Murderworld actually reminds me of a setup from one of my very favorite Mysterio stories which may or may not be showing up in this series VERY soon!) with Kraven the Hunter’s desire to study and stalk his prey. There are a number of instances where Arcade could have just quickly killed off either Spidey or Captain Britain, but he prefers instead to toy with them. That might come across as a bit Bond villain-esque (or as Scott Evil would say, “just shoot them”), but it adds a level of unpredictable fun to the story. It also adds a few layers of depth to the villain. Arcade may be a hired mercenary, but he still has to do things *his* way and he has a certain, twisted code that he abides by. He’s as curious as the reader as to whether or not the two heroes he’s captured can escape Murderworld. And when they inevitably do, he tips his hat to them and promises to win the rematch.
Meanwhile, Claremont and Byrne show that Spidey and Captain Britain’s escape was as much a product of luck as anything else, adding legitimate intrigue to Arcade’s next appearance (which I believe came in a Claremont/Byrne issue of Uncanny X-Men).
Outside of a Super Nintendo game from the early 90s starring Spider-Man and the X-Men, Arcade has rarely been associated as a “spidey villain,” but this issue instantly vaults him up the list as one of the better rogues to be introduced during the Bronze Age era (a period best known for stooges like Cyclone, Grizzly, Mindworm, etc.). Again, it’s a surprise that the character wasn’t used more during this era, but I guess only Claremont felt comfortable using Arcade.
After only releasing a very few number of Marvel Team-Up issues on its Marvel Unlimited app, Marvel recently uploaded this two-parter and a couple of other renown MTU issues. But I continue to argue that MTU #65-66 is the very best the series has to offer — a solid Spider-Man script, a unique new villain, a historic team-up partner and masterful artwork.