Many of my oldest comics came from my middle school sci-fi club. The teacher was an old comics buff who welcomed the opportunity to save on storage costs by giving away old issues. So two of the first comics I owned were Marvel Team-Up #117 and Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man #31. The two were wildly different – one a strange opening chapter in which Spider-Man and Wolverine fight robots dressed as Roman legionnaires and the other a melodramatic final act featuring a team up with the White Tiger, the reveal that the Jackal had a clone, plenty of death, and a killer amoeba created from Spider-Man’s cells – but I reveled in reading and rereading both of them. Though many of the ideas that stuck with me were pretty silly or hardly original, some straight-up repeating older issues, they were brand new to me and I still remember these issues fondly.
With its latest revival of Marvel Team-Up, the House of Ideas seems to be reaching, admittedly in somewhat different ways, back to the kind of reckless imagination that those Bronze Age originals held.
The clearest example of that starts right on the cover. This is a flip book, a comic with a beginning at both ends and a conclusion in the middle! Each half tells the story from one of the lead character’s perspectives, leading them to the climactic moment that sets the arc in motion. It’s hardly the first time that something like this has been attempted, but it is charming as all get out and it supports the parallelism of the story well, likely better than simple crosscutting would have. As if that weren’t enough, that final reveal takes us deep into the well of classic genre stock plots for an absolute classic. There’s tremendous fun and excess in this comic that’s been missing from Marvel for a long time and it gives you that back without surrendering the tighter, more natural plotting of a modern superhero yarn. You can’t underestimate the power that has and, if I’d found this comic in one of those long boxes stashed underneath the iMacs all those years ago, I’d have probably loved it.
However, while the fun of it all is somewhat infectious, Marvel Team-Up doesn’t do much else to break through to its readers. Eve Ewing’s writing is sturdy, getting us quickly where we need to be with a fair dose of personality along the way, but the characters are asked to be broad contrasts rather than natural outgrowths of their current characterizations. The story definitely serves Spider-Man better than Ms. Marvel, and so does the dialogue.
While Kamala’s interplay with Bruno is charming and establishes the dynamic they have in this story well enough, Kamala isn’t quite feeling like herself, even at the story’s start! It’s not hard to see Kamala struggling to keep up with her commitments, but Ewing’s plot immediately makes her downcast and defeated, robbing readers of an introduction to the pep and optimism that keeps Ms. Marvel going and has endeared her to readers. Kamala can lean towards feeling bitter and resentful at times and the script actually seems to play this up, having her read in a dig at her superhero cred when Bruno tries to convince her not to endanger herself (another moment that doesn’t ring true and carries some complicated politics with it). In fairness, Ewing did last write Ms. Marvel in the final issue of her previous solo series where she was similarly exhausted, so I suppose you could chalk it up to lingering distress, but it feels less like continuity and more like the plot forcing her to answer Spider-Man’s anxieties. There’s also a lot of awkward teenageisms that make Kamala’s half a little more awkward to read.
There’s a number of generic challenges for our heroes and some comparatively dead air that’s harmless enough once but more noticeable when you see it from two different perspectives. The fact that the two narratives only meet at the center means that the portion where Spidey and Ms. Marvel are both on the scene needs very careful staging to not repeat itself. Unfortunately, as the issue goes on, the less convincing this quality becomes. The tropey writing is probably most apparent in the sudden appearance of a powerful bomb when a small electric device or computer virus probably would have served much the same function in-universe but would have lacked that dramatic oomph.
Things are best when Ewing focuses on the relationships between characters. Elements such as Bruno’s excitement over Dr. Rosario or the doctor’s fondness for Peter feel good and full of life even when quips lack for wit or characters’ self pity fails to draw sympathy. My earlier comment about how much I would have loved this in middle school rings true because it’s very similar to the structure and tone of an episodic superhero cartoon series.
Still, the book sets up what looks to be a really enjoyable arc and takes advantage of the flip book format. I love how the stories mirror eachother, not just in content and the struggles that our heroes are going through but in how they’re laid out to the reader. Each page reflects upon its opposite number and it’s clever without demanding to be noticed or appreciated. The story leans on the familiar a bit too much, but, if this well is nearly dry, that’s because its been reliable and good for countless stories before this one. That is to say that it’s ok if Marvel Team-Up plays it a little safe in issue #1, as long as it gets a little more specific in subsequent issues.
Though you can technically start at either end, the flow of the story and a single editorial caption suggest you should start with Kamala and I find the story reads more cleanly if you do.
Joey Vazquez handles the art for this issue, colored by Felipe Sobreiro. The book has a simple, angular style that highlights the classic Spider-Man dynamism and conveys the weird craziness of Ms. Marvel’s powers in a way I haven’t really seen before. Vazquez also proves equally adept at drawing the spiky hair of skinny white boys and the sociable
swaggerfulness confidence of Randy Robertson and Dr. Rosario. The energy of poses and the sharp certainty of the lines helps to give the issue an immediate sense of youth and excitement, two traits that are very much on the character’s minds.
And Sobreiro hammers this perception home with background colors that frequently seem fresh out of an 80s party (which aren’t really done justice by the previews used in this article). Hot pinks and electric cerulean tones lurk behind the more realistic drudgery of everyday life, springing into vibrant Spider-Verse action alongside our heroes’ alter-egos. Explosive action lines and exuberant gradients of Ben-Day dots complete the feast of comic book excess that donning a mask begins. One of my favorite effects that Sobreiro employs is a forceful magenta outline behind his figures in moments needing emphasis. It’s surprisingly natural, helps give the characters depth and definition, and looks lovely.
Despite this overall pleasing aesthetic, it feels as though something was off with the production of this issue. Though Vazquez’s style is pleasing and suitable to the tone of the book, he also has routine trouble with perspective and background detail is present in some scenes, intentionally omitted in others, and forgotten save for the simplest shapes in too many. One problem whose significance will likely vary for different readers is that Kamala doesn’t really look like Kamala Khan. None of the features of Kamala Khan are present in most panels and her nose and eyes feel almost too small for her face. It’s a subjective matter – god knows superheroes rarely look the same between artists – and I almost didn’t want to raise it but its interesting because Kamala also has an entirely different mother in this issue!
That’s a bit of an exaggeration. Though I had trouble recognizing this Muneeba Khan, with more Americanized clothes, increased height, and different facial features than I remembered, she has apparently been depicted in these ways before, if rarely all at once. The one thing I can’t find any precedent for is her grey hair, which has been black from her first appearance up until The Magnificent Ms. Marvel #1. I didn’t recognize the character at first and she actually looked more like Aunt May to my eye. I would have thought it another instance of parallelism, but its Randy who plays this part in Peter’s story, with May nowhere to be found. Bruno’s arm and leg braces are also missing in one panel, but they’re miscolored out of existence about 50% of the time they do appear.
The whole thing is very unusual and makes me wonder if there was complication behind the scenes, perhaps unexpected challenges with the flip book format. I don’t want anyone to think that these issues sink the book, far from it, but they are noticeable and pull down the sense of overall quality.
Marvel Team-Up #1 really goes for it. It’s big, bombastic fun with plenty of great visual tricks and clever narrative gimmicks that bring back that feeling of reading comics as a kid. It’s a smart way to bring back a Marvel Comics classic and a solid lead in for a plot that’s been done to death but is enjoyable just about every time. And I mean when was the last time you saw a book with two sideways splash pages?! Unfortunately the demands of the format hold it back, leading to inconsistent characterization, uneven pacing, and formulaic developments, as well as possibly explaining the slew of visual quirks that a close look will reveal. Nevertheless, it does what it sets out to do and presents a tempting offer to come back next month. As long as subsequent issues are able to delve into the intriguing scenario and put their own spin on the characters and the familiar plot, this will wind up being a really fun ride, but, for now, it’s off to a joyous but uneven start.
Marvel Team-Up #1 is currently available in comic shops from Marvel Comics.