Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

17 April 2006

Essential Super-Villain Team-Up, v. 1 (and only, hopefully)

Collects: Giant-Size Super-Villain Team-Up #1-2, Super-Villain Team-Up#1-14 and #16-17, Avengers #154-155, Champions #16, and Astonishing Tales #1-8 (1970-80)

Released: September 2004 (Marvel)

Essential Super-Villain Team-Up is a book filled with more misnomers than any Marvel TPB. The eight issues of Astonishing Tales are not so astonishing; Super-Villain Team-Up is generally Dr. Doom trying to figure out what to do with Namor the Sub-Mariner, who at that point wasn’t really a villain, super or otherwise; the Avengers don’t really avenge anything; and the Champions would be lucky to win a co-ed softball league. And really, only one of the two issues of Giant-Size Super-Villain Team-Up is all that large, and that’s because they made the reprints in it too intrinsic to remove easily. The only thing “essential” about it is if you want to read about Dr. Doom’s first, unsuccessful attempt to take over the world with a contaminant in the atmosphere. (He’s successful in the graphic novel Emperor Doom.)

For the most part, this is a Namor / Dr. Doom team-up / death battle book. But it’s difficult to get around the thought that this essential is a thrown-together pile of Bronze Age detritus. Part of that reason is because Supervillain Team-Up went through so many changes — artists and writers came and went more often than trains at the station. Five different writers and eight different pencillers. Jim Shooter even wrote and penciled this book — although not on the same issue — before he became Il Duce of Marvel. None of them hit on a successful concept for the title. Trust me, it’s nigh impossible to base a comic book on the chemistry between Dr. Doom and Namor. Are they allies? Friends? Enemies? No one knows, or perhaps given the number of writers Super-Villain Team-Up had, it’s more accurate to say everyone knew but no one agreed. There’s no sexual tension, and you get the feeling both of them were there only for the paycheck. They just micro-communicatored their performances in.

The most interesting part of the book is Doom’s statecraft, so obviously that one is jettisoned fairly quickly. If you were of a particularly Byrnesian turn of mind, you might proclaim the lead in this essential to be a Doombot, and I can’t blame you. Although he does manage a notable coup by getting Henry Kissinger to agree to American non-interference in Latveria, that’s only going to go scare away the law-abiding American superheroes. The X-Men, for example, would probably tell Kissinger to smooch their H. superior asses.

But Doom has two major problems he never overcomes: he has succumbed to the Fallacy of the Unbounded Middle, and he can’t keep control of Latveria after he steps over his borders. On the first count, Doom seems to believe that Latveria (or occasionally Latveria / Atlantis) is a large enough base to conquer the world. Did he learn nothing from other insane despots of the century? You conquer by diplomacy first. Find Latverian enclaves in neighboring states and annex them. Say you only want one more tottering Central European monarchy, and the U.N. will believe you, just like everyone believes the glutton who only wants “one more chip,” who then inhales the entire bag into his esophagus.

And my God, they must hate him in Latveria. Every time Doom leaves the country or takes a nap, Crown Prince Rudolpho and his followers — and these are enough followers to overcome Doom’s robots — take the castle. Or maybe it’ll be the Red Skull ruling Latveria this time when Doom comes home. Or the Doomsman / Andro, a robot Doom himself created. That’s how screwed up this Doom is: he doesn’t have enough people trying to take over his powerbase, so he essentially creates another rebelling group to make it more challenging.

Namor mainly is trying to wrap up plot threads that survived his first book, which ended in September 1974 with #72. When Super-Villain Team-Up began a year later, Namor was in a different costume — a much better one, mind you — because his gills are inoperable (Sub-Mariner #67). Namor’s hanging out on Hydrobase, with human scientists mutated into Amphibians by *ahem* Dr. Hydro (Sub-Mariner #62). When Namor’s not on Hydrobase or arguing with Doom in Latveria, he’s in Atlantis, mooning over the Atlanteans, who are all in suspended animation (Sub-Mariner #67-8) after having nerve gas explode in their faces. You can applaud the diligence with which these subplots are pursued — especially since in a decade, Chris Claremont would be crapping out X-Men danglers like a slot machine spits out quarters after a jackpot — but unfortunately, all these subplots are boring. The Amphibians are boring and interchangeable, Hydrobase is just another place in the Marvel Universe, and Namor’s gill deficiencies are resolved with a single Doom potion. The suspended animation of the Atlanteans gives Namor a motivation, but it’s dull too. One might think that this is because Namor himself is dull, but I would never say that. Imperious Rex!

This is only the second time I’ve missed color in an essential. (Ditko’s Strange Tales landscapes in the first Essential Dr. Strange truly needs color, even if you have to Crayola it in yourself.) Namor’s costume looks so sharp on the cover, it seems a shame not to see it in its full glory. The Amphibians and Tamara, last of a red-skinned race, lose some of their weirdness in black and white. (And with Tamara, that’s dangerous; she’s wearing a costume that you might expect from a down-in-the-heels exotic dancer with a cowgirl theme, complete with stars over her breasts, a belt of silver dollars, and an extremely short skirt. Forget her real skin color, give her a cap pistol and a cowboy hat, and you’re all set with the “riding bareback” jokes.)

You don’t often find a comic-book title with three hyphens, but here we have Giant-Size Super-Villain Team-Up. And that’s really the nicest thing you can say about it, unless you were clamoring for reprints of Sub-Mariner #20 and Marvel Super-Heroes #20. No? I’m not surprised. This book also features the introduction and origin of the Shroud, who is quite possibly Marvel’s second most popular blind superhero. He’s also just as affected by his blindness as Daredevil is, so unless you’ve seen his origin and learned his eyes were burned out with a branding iron, it’s very easy to forget he’s blind. There’s a reason why he’s forgotten in a world when even the Cobalt Man has fans.

And that’s the rub, really. This book has more Doom than you can shake a fist at, but it’s filled with second-rate stories and third-rate characters — the Circus of Crime appears, but their big scheme is don’t upset Doom, for heaven’s sake. They even shoehorn a Deathlok plot point into issue #4 and never reference it again. It’s full of whiplash characterization and one-damn-thing-after-another plots. In some series, in some contexts, that’s not bad; it gives the story a sense of movement and changeability. For instance, I’ve always admired that in the best aimless “Hulk smash!” stories in the early #200s. But here, it’s just painful. Super-Villain Team-Up was forgettable, in the end. Fortunately, this essential does collect all of Super-Villain Team-Up (even the final two issues, a surprisingly good Red Skull / Hatemonger two parter, published a year and a half after the rest of the series), so you don’t have to worry about whether it gets better in the issues not collected.

Super-Villain Team-Up never gets better. In a world where Namor has had three series, where Iron Fist cries out for revival every few years, and where someone expects Silver Surfer to be good this time, no one has dredged Super-Villain Team-Up from the depths. Thank goodness.

Grade: D-

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