It all began in 1940 with MARVEL MYSTERY COMICS #8. That’s when the original Human Torch, who starred in his own magazine, and Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner, who also starred in his own magazine, met and fought for the first time. This was the first super hero team-up in the history of the fledgling genre and the four-color funnybook world would never quite recover.
Now, fifty-some years later, we have team-ups and crossovers all the time. In a way, the frequency of the phenomenon has made it less special. On the other hand, the readership (a group that definitely includes yours truly) loves to see how different heroes interact with one another, and so we’re only getting what we demand.
Marvel once had two books solely devoted to team-ups, one with Spider-Man (MARVEL TEAM-UP) and one with the Thing (MARVEL TWO-IN-ONE). Even though I’ve written both titles, I was not sorry to see the books’ cancelation with issues #150 and #100 respectively. Without regular monthly teamings, team-ups in Spider-Man’s and the Thing’s other titles suddenly became special again.
I’ll say this for Spider-Man and the Thing. They certainly tended more often than not to “team well” with other heroes. The two of them, each in his own particular way, have personalities that worked well with at least ninety percent of the folks they shared adventures with. I think their distinct senses of humor were a big factor. Spider-Man, in my opinion, worked better with down-to-earth comrade-in-arms – folks in his league as far as power level. When he teamed with folks like Thor, Warlock, and the Guardians of the Galaxy, his co-stars generally had to act like underachievers power-wise in order to give him something to do. This is not to say a good story mixing power levels can’t be done. The Spider-Man/Dr. Strange teaming in the second SPIDER-MAN ANNUAL is proof that the offbeat can work…sometimes.
The Thing worked well with high power and cosmic types as well as the down to earth Captain America and Spider-Man level guys. He was pretty good with most guest stars, though I preferred him in science fictional rather than supernatural contexts. His meetings with Son of Satan, Modred the Mystic, Brother Voodoo, and the Living Mummy were not among TWO-IN-ONE’s finest match-ups, at least in my opinion.
I don’t think sense of humor is mandatory for being a good “team-upper.” I’d give Captain America and Wolverine, neither of whom is noted for their one-liners, both high marks for their teamability. Cap is best in down-to-earth situations, but he also manages to hold his own in science fictional scenarios, alongside guys like Thor, Quasar, and the Guardians of the Galaxy. I usually don’t like to see Cap in supernatural situations, but it can on rare occasions work.
As for Wolverine, he’s been with the X-Men on other worlds, in mystical skirmishes, and in down-to-earth firefights with conventional armament and works pretty well in all. While Cap’s no-nonsense, straight-arrow personality makes him treat everyone with respect (till they prove unworthy of such), Wolverine’s laconic, scrappy personality rubs most everybody the wrong way at first, making his meetings with most everyone interesting. Either fellow works well with a wide variety of personality types.
Some of Marvel’s worst team-ups are by no means Marvel’s worst character. They simply have limited contexts in which they work well. In this category I’d include the Punisher, Ka-Zar, Dr. Strange, Man-Thing, and most of our macabre heroes. They each operate in their own corners of the universe, and don’t move easily into the mainstream without aesthetic dissonance. For instance, taking Man-Thing or Ka-Zar outside their usual habits (the swamp and the jungle) diminishes their uniquenesses, so only characters who can work in their contexts team with them well. While the Punisher works in other contexts than mean streets, he doesn’t work with super-powered guys as well as Nick Fury does, for some reason. The thought of the Punisher meeting the Silver Surfer is aesthetically repugnant, as far as I’m concerned.
The Punisher doesn’t mix easily with a broad spectrum of characters. But there are a number that he fits in well with: Spider-Man, Daredevil, and Moon Knight, for instance. This month the Punisher meets Captain America for the second time (the first was way back in CAP #241), in a four-issue limited series. It should be good. For two guys on the same side of the law, their ideological differences couldn’t be greater. Cap’s supreme respect for life coupled with his belief in the redemption of evil-doers makes a high contrast with the Punisher’s disregard for life and his belief that criminals are beyond redemption. They’ll make horrible teammates but great sparring partners.
I’ve never felt that Marvel’s supernatural heroes work all that well with our mainstream superheroes. Spider-Man and Dracula? Doesn’t work for me. On the other hand, the Ghost Rider, while supernatural, has very physical powers and a very physical vehicle. Consequently, I don’t have a problem with him meeting various mainstream super heroes.
So what are the common factors that make a good team-up match of heroes? In my opinion, there are three main things:
- Similar power levels. If the power levels are two disparate, it makes it hard for the two heroes to both have something to do at the same time in the same place. If their powers are identical, of course, it could also get boring, but I don’t believe any two heroes’ powers are identical, and teaming them up is a way to explore subtle nuances between their powers. For instance, the Thing and the Hulk are both strong, but who’s faster? Who’s the better fighter? Who has more endurance?
- Similar methods of operations or character motifs. Like with heroes of roughly comparable power, heroes who are in the same ecological niche – two cosmic heroes, for instance, or two creatures of the night – enable readers to learn the underlying differences beneath the superficial similarities. For instance, how does Wolverine’s heightened senses differ from Daredevils?
- Dissimilar personalities. I love character interaction between opposite character types, the more dissimilar the better. Wisecracking Spider-Man and grim Punisher – yes! Straight-laced Captain America and womanizing Paladin – yes! Noble Thor and easy-going Hercules – yes! I think you get the drift.
Now I’d like to give you my list of top ten favorite team-ups of Marvel past. I’m sure your list would be quite different from mine – and that’s one of the things that make team-ups so darn much fun. You will notice many of the above factors coming into play in my selections. In no particular order…(drumroll please)!
- Spider-Man and the Human Torch
- Thing and the Hulk
- Nick Fury and Wolverine
- Captain America and Hawkeye
- Power Man and Iron Fist
- Black Panther and Daredevil
- Quasar and Makkari
- Doctor Strange and the Black Knight
- Sub-Mariner and the Hulk
- Punisher and Daredevil
Gee, that was fun. I think I’ll do it again. Okay, here then is a list of ten team-ups that haven’t happened yet that I most look forward to seeing. (Some of them have met, but none have been involved in a full-fledged team-up tale.) Another drumroll…
- The Shroud and Cloak
- Hercules and Gilgamesh
- Iron Fist and Karnak
- Black Widow and Elektra
- Professor X and Moondragon
- Hyperion and Gladiator
- Wolverine and Tigra
- She-Hulk and Thundra
- Ka-Zar and the Black Panther
- Vision and Machine Man
Wow, that was hard to narrow down to ten. Tell you what, people. How about sending in your top ten lists of team-ups past and future. Maybe we’ll be able to persuade brand-spanking-new MARVEL AGE editor Steve Saffel to clear some space to run the results in a future issue. Till then, may all your teams be up.