BHOC: MARVEL TEAM-UP #53

This was yet another issue of MARVEL TEAM-UP that I wound up getting from my buddy Donald Sims during the last two years of grad school at some point. I definitely wound up with the better end of the deal in this instance. Because in just a few months, the prices on any and all appearances of the All-New, All-Different X-Men skyrocketed in price on the back issue market–for a good long while, UNCANNY X-MEN #94 was going for $25.00, a ridiculous sum for a book that recent. But such was the appetite from fans who discovered the X-Men later on in the run. Not only did this issue of MARVEL TEAM-UP feature an extended stealth appearance of the New X-Men, but it was also illustrated by an artist who would inextricably be linked with their success, John Byrne. This was the first time he’d gotten to draw the X-Men in a printed comic.

And why are the New X-Men in this issue of MARVEL TEAM-UP? Well, writer Bill Mantlo was attempting to make TEAM-UP feel more like the rest of the Marvel line, and that meant extended storylines and issue-to-issue continuity. The New X-Men had teamed up with Spidey in the then-recent MARVEL TEAM-UP ANNUAL #1, so even though that adventure was a one-off, Mantlo decided to tie it into the ongoing continuity of the title. It was also a good excuse to get the web-slinger way out west, where he’d need to be in order to encounter both the Hulk and Mantlo’s creation, Woodgod. Woodgod had turned up in a single issue of MARVEL PREMIERE, but Mantlo clearly had further ideas for him, and so chose to feature him in two issues of TEAM-UP. But somebody clearly thought that Woodgod wasn’t enough of a sales draw, as in violation of TEAM-UP protocol, the Hulk wound up headlining alongside Spider-Man for two issues in a row. Honestly, that was probably a smart play.

The issue opens on the aforementioned Hulk leaping around in the midwest. He’s come across what seems to be a deserted town, and after watching it for a while and seeing no puny humans milling about in it, he decides to claim it for his own. But when he heads into the town, and finds an overturned truck, the Hulk rights it–and a dead body falls out, one with no obvious indication of cause of death. The Hulk isn’t much of a deep thinker, though–so it’s probably just as well that at that very moment he is attacked by Woodgod, who has himself been holing up in the town. Woodgod is similarly childlike, but he’s obsessed with death, which he calls “Scream”, and he assumes the Hulk is responsible for whatever wiped out that one driver and everybody else in the little village.

Meanwhile, Spider-Man and the X-Men are flying back to New York from their adventure in the Annual, and they move into the airspace of the same town. When they do, they find themselves being buzzed by flying craft manned by men in hazmat suits–which seems pretty hostile. But these are the X-Men they’re targeting, and Cyclops is able to easily blast the missiles fired at them with his optic blasts (in a panel swiped by Byrne from Neal Adams.) In the aftermath, the good guys are able to listen in on broadcasts from the fliers’ base, and learn that the area had been a quarantine zone of some sort–but one that’s been already breached by the Hulk and Woodgod. Smelling a story that J. Jonah Jameson would pay good money to run, Spidey asks the X-Men to drop him off here, and so Banshee escorts the web-slinger to the ground below. Why the rest of the X-Men go merrily on their way at this point after almost being shot out of the sky must be chalked up to the fact that this story was already crowded enough with super-heroic players, and leave it at that. And hey, they were used to being hated and feared, right?

Back on the ground, within the quarantine zone and in the midst of the dead town, the Hulk and Woodgod continue to mix things up in spectacular fashion. This was early on in Byrne’s professional career as a comic book artist, and he swipes compositions a few times in the course of this issue, I presume because he didn’t yet feel confident in his own abilities. But his battle sequences are already well-choreographed, and he’s able to depict the wide range of characters in this story all beautifully. It was clear that this newcomer was going to be somebody to keep an eye on. The inking by Frank Giacoia is perhaps a bit sharper and less fluid than what readers would become used to over Byrne, but it serves the pencils well here. Giacoia was one of the best, most faithful inkers in the business, and it was only his lack of speed that prevented him from having a steady run on any given title for too long. In any event, teh fight between the Hulk and Woodgod wraps up when the Hulk is jolted by a falling power line, the end result being that he transforms back into Bruce Banner, in whom Woodgod has no interest.

Elsewhere, Banshee conveys his web-suited passenger to the ground before cutting out himself. As Spidey begins to investigate, he comes across more of the same manner of craft that tried to take out himself and the X-Men now firing upon Woodgod. He doesn’t know what’s going on, but he understands that the men in the hazmat suits are working for the government, and he steps in to give them a hand when Woodgod proves too much for them to handle. This gives him the opportunity to find out what’s going on. Apparently, 36 hours ago, a local farmer wound up breaking open a cannister of deadly nerve gas, and this is what caused everybody in the town to die. Spider-Man gets extremely lucky here, in that in the Annual adventure he was coming back from, he’d been permeated with a radiation-blocking agent, one that he presumes has protected him from the nerve agent that is still in the air.

But the uneasy conversation is broken as Woodgod resumes his attack–and Spidey sees Bruce Banner’s unconscious figure further inside the town. Spidey’s still not certain who is in the right and the wrong here–where did that cannister of nerve gas come from in the first place and how did the farmer get it? But he’s not about to be a punching bag for the satyr-like Woodgod. Unfortunately for the wall-crawler as the issue comes to a close, Bruce Banner awakens, and almost instantaneously transforms into his incredible alter ego. The Hulk recognizes Spider-Man, and not as a friend–so as the story goes To Be Continued, Spidey finds himself caught in the middle between two opponents.

The letters page for this issue is interesting on two fronts. First off, its led off with an editorial box in which writer Mantlo clarifies just what Woodgod is talking about when he makes reference to “Scream”, something that Mantlo says assistant editor Jim Shooter didn’t think was clear within the story itself. Mantlo and Shooter would go on to have a contentious relationship after Shooter succeeded Archie Goodwin as editor in chief in a few months–Shooter claimed that Mantlo was sloppy in his plotting, and ultimately Mantlo was forced to leave Marvel and seek work elsewhere. So this is an indication that the difference of opinion between the two men went back some time. The other thing of note here is a letter from Fred Hembeck, the fan cartoonist who would eventually make a career out of doing humorous takes on the various characters at Marvel and DC. He’s perhaps best remembered these days for his long-running strip in MARVEL AGE. Hembeck was a fan of Mantlo’s work, and kept up a correspondence with the writer for several years–Mantlo ran one of Hembeck’s illustrated letters in an issue of IRON MAN not all that long after this. The pair would eventually collaborate on an issue of PETER PARKER, SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN during Assistant Editor’s Month.

One thought on “BHOC: MARVEL TEAM-UP #53

  1. I was intrigued by Woodgod’s potential at this point. That awful Hulk two parter that eliminated anything interesting did away with that but at this point I was happy to see the character. That and Jack Of Hearts horrible backstory in a mini are the only two times I can ever remember being completely disappointed in a story by Mantlo…

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