This issue of MARVEL TEAM-UP was yet another book that I got from my comic reading grade school friend Don Sims. And it was a weird issue of MARVEL TEAM-UP as well, the concluding chapter to a four-part saga the rest of which I wouldn’t read for many years, and which is about as far afield from what a Spider-Man adventure should be about as is possible. If anything, it most resembles that sequence of Batman stories from the Golden Age in which the Caped Crusader would be projected into the past through hypnosis–though in theory the events in this story were considered to have definitively happened to the genuine wall-crawler.
MARVEL TEAM-UP also had rules, or seeming rules, and one of those rules appeared to be that each issue needed to have a different co-star along with Spidey. As far as writer Bill Mantlo was concerned, this meant that over the course of his four-issue epic, he needed to continually add additional super heroes to his burgeoning cast. Normally this wouldn’t have presented much of a problem, but this story takes place mainly in the past, during the Salem witch trials, so finding reasons and means through which other characters could suddenly enter the narrative strained credibility pretty much to the breaking point. Having already used the Vision, the Scarlet Witch and Doctor Doom, in this issue Mantlo brings in a real wild card character: Moondragon. Moony had been something of an adjunct to the Avengers during this era, so she wasn’t quite as out of left field as it might seem. But it’s still a wild stretch.
I don’t think I can easily summarize the opening three chapters of this adventure, so instead let’s begin at the start of this issue. Moondragon has been feeling a psychic call, one that has her standing out on the rooftop of Avengers Mansion where Iron Man finds her. This call, it turns out, is from the dim past, and manifests itself as a glowing pink portal. Stepping into this shimmering energy, Moondragon finds herself transported across both time and space, emerging in Salem, Massachusetts in the year 1692, where she finds the aforementioned quartet of heroes and villain laid out on a sacrificial altar, and at the mercy of the witch-hunter Cotton Mather and the sinister Dark Rider.
The Dark Rider is consuming the mystic energies possessed by Doctor Doom, and apparently he’ll gain even more of Cotton Mather sacrifices Spidey, Wanda and Vision while they’re hooked up to this contraption. Wasting no time, Moondragon attacks–and her power of the mind is sufficient to make the Dark Rider reel. While this is happening, Spider-Man, Vision and the Scarlet Witch recover their senses and join in the fight–and Wanda reveals that it was she who sent that pink swirly summons through time. Which seems a bit overpowered for what she would have been capable of at this point in her development, to say nothing of what we’ll see her do from this point onward in this story. But hey, it got Moondragon onto the board and fulfilled the need to run yet another logo below Spider-Man’s on the cover. So we’ll cut her some slack.
The back half of the issue is pretty much a free for all, depicted clearly and with impact if not especially innovatively by artist Sal Buscema. Sal was a real workhorse for Marvel in the 1970s, and his real talent was the ability to illustrate any story, no matter how implausible it might be, in the classic action-oriented Marvel house style. His work on this issue is dramatically fine but wasn’t going to win any awards, largely because the inking by Mike Esposito is functional but no more. Anyway, while Moondragon and the Scarlet Witch double team the Dark Rider, Spidey and the Vision attempt to break Doctor Doom out of the snow globe through which his sorcery is being leeched away. Once they do so, the Lord of Latveria joins the battle as well.
I should probably mention as well that Mantlo’s story in these four issues was inspired in part no doubt by the heightened interest in the occult that such films of the era such as the Exorcist and the Omen had created in popular culture. The Salem witch trials were the subject of plenty of television programs in this period as well–both from a historical and a fantastical perspective. Marvel in the 1970s was always close behind any pop culture trend. Anyway, so that the web-slinger can have some involvement in the climax, Moondragon borrows some of Spidey’s own mind-force to supplement her own power to at last lay the Dark Rider low, discorporating him. And that is that–Doctor Doom zaps out back to the present using technology built into his armor, and the Vision and the Scarlet Witch summon the time platform that brought them to this era in prior issues. (Why Wanda doesn’t just shimmering-pink-sphere them all back to the present is a mystery that must remain thus.)
Spider-Man, though, chooses to remain behind–he tells the departing three Avengers to send the time platform they’re using to return and pick him up in a bit. He’s still hoping to prevent the hanging of the accused witches, having never read any of the myriad Superman stories illustrating the fact that the historical past can never be changed. And indeed, after web-swinging into Salem (and lord only knows what his web-line was attached to that allowed him to swing that distance) he finds that he is too late, and the accused witches have already been hung and are dead. No win for the wall-crawler. This was also the set-up for the next couple of issues, in which Spider-Man attempted to pilot the time platform back to his own era, overshooting and coming into contact with first Killraven and then Deathlok in weird team-up stories before finally making it home. My memory is that this period was popular with the fans of this day, in part because there was some issue-to-issue continuity rather than an endless string of forgettable one-off stories. But this is still really weird subject matter for a Spider-Man story to be tackling.