This was another comic book that I bought in a 3-Bag bundle from a department store or a toy store. The new creative team on MARVEL TEAM-UP, Chris Claremont and John Byrne, had first worked together on IRON FIST, the recently-cancelled martial arts super hero series. Before it went away, they had begun a subplot involving Danny Rand being stalked for his power by a masked individual. The creators were invested in both the story and Danny Rand in general, and so they chose to take two issues of TEAM-UP to finish up that storyline, incorporating Spider-Man as a guest-star. This sort of thing happened a lot in the 1970s: the abandoned storylines of a cancelled book would be picked up and tied off in another series. It’s part of what gave Marvel its reputation for having tight continuity, which was appealing to some. And certainly, it was more satisfying to the readers than never knowing how a given situation resolved itself.
MARVEL TEAM-UP had charitably been a series of inconsistent quality since its inception. Part of that was baked into the premise: it was a naked cash-grab series intended to pair the popular wall-crawler (and occasionally the Human Torch) with other Marvel heroes in largely stand-alone stories that didn’t carry a whole lot of weight or importance. While there had been a few regular creative teams, just as often the book was written or drawn by whoever might have room in their schedule for another 20 pages. This started to change under previous writer Bill Mantlo, who created a sprawling (though occasionally incoherent) saga that spanned half-a-dozen issues and involved guest-stars from across the Marvel U. Bill treated TEAM-UP as a real book, not just a throwaway assignment, and Claremont and Byrne, who came after him, followed suit. They mostly did two-parters so as to have enough space to tell a meaty tale, even though this often required them to bring a third hero into their stories in order to justify the rotating masthead that was part of the appeal of the series–a new team-up partner every month.
It didn’t hurt matters that, at this point in their respective careers, Claremont and Byrne were ideally paired. Byrne’s artwork was appealing, his fight choreography was spot-on, and he had an innate sense of storytelling that would lead him to becoming a writer in not too long as well as an artist. Claremont was adept at letting John do what he did best, then adding his own flourishes–primarily when it came to characterization and the inner lives of the characters–in his dialogue. They were an effective partnership during this period, one that was simultaneously crafting X-MEN stories that are now looked back upon as classics. Their work on IRON FIST had been similarly strong, but they weren’t able to overcome the fact that the martial arts craze had run its course, nor pivot strongly enough into making the series a super hero title quickly enough to pull in readers who hadn’t been following it. But it was a really good book, a bit of an overlooked run these days.
This issue opens with Iron Fist in training, attempting to hone his fighting edge which has become blunted in his time outside of K’un-Lun. He’s doing this because twice he’s been accosted by a mysterious martial artist who has attempted to steal the power of Shou-Lao, the iron fist itself, from him. While his skills might be enough against an ordinary opponent, this guy is a master martial artist with skills in the same league as Danny’s own. But his workout is interrupted by the arrival of photographer Peter Parker, who has been assigned by Daily Bugle editor Robbie Robertson to take some photos of Rand’s living space for a Sunday feature. But when Danny goes to let Pete in, they find a parchment tacked up on the door. It’s a challenge from Iron Fist’s attacker, one he chooses to respond to. Parker, sensing an opportunity for a Team-Up story, slaps a spider-tracer on Danny’s car, then follows him in his red and blues.
After a brief interlude with Misty Knight, Danny’s cop girlfriend who has gone undercover to bring down a mob leader–the same mob leader who is backing Danny’s attacker–Iron Fist finally reaches the park where the showdown is meant to happen. He expects to find his old teacher, Lei-Kung, the Thunderer, as the fighting style of his opponent matched that if Lei-Kung. But the man who appears calls himself the Steel Serpent, and reveals that his is the disgraced son of Lei-Kung. He was supposed to be the one to claim the dragon’s power, but he was instead disgraced and exiled. Iron Fist has no qualm with him, but he intends to take what he sees as his by right–and that means flattening Iron Fist and stealing Danny’s chi. As the fight begins, Spider-Man crouches in the treetops, taking photos and attempting to figure out the plot. Eventually, though, as Danny continues to get the worst of things, the web-slinger launches himself to the attack.
Now, you might think that Spider-Man, who possesses the proportionate strength and speed of an arachnid, wouldn’t have any trouble taking on a single martial artist. And normally, you’d be right. But in the 1970s, Spidey’s power level was considered a bit more human than in later years, and so he really can’t lay a glove on the Steel Serpent. What’s more, by entering the battle, Spidey has disrupted Danny’s concentration and the formal rules of the challenge. Now, anything goes. Spidey gets clobbered pretty quickly–almost as though he wasn’t a part of this story at all when it was first conceived–and then Iron Fist and the Steel Serpent get down to the nitty-gritty. Both combatants are evenly matched. But at a certain point, the Serpent seizes a momentary advantage and is able to grapple with Danny, And true to his advertizing, the Steel Serpent proceeds to suck the Chi right out of Iron Fist’s body, leaving him a limp rag doll.
At this point, Misty Knight arrives to pull Danny’s fat out of the fire, having learned about the duel in her undercover role. She succeeds in driving the Steel Serpent away with a zap-gun that she’s packing for no discernable reason–the Serpent has what he was after, so he’s got no further interest in Iron Fist anyway, nor in sparring with Misty. And as Misty turns to check on Iron Fist’s condition, the useless Spider-Man finally picks himself up. Does he go after the Steel Serpent/ No! Because he’s just a guest-star here, just an observer and helper. And so, as the issue wraps up, Misty cradles Danny’s dying body, and we are To Be Continued. The next issue blurb promises the introduction of the Daughters of the Dragon, which was the name given to Misty and her partner Colleen Wing when they operated solo. So they’re going to be trying to put this all aright next time–and Spidey will probably be around to get thrown into trees and knocked on his backside some more, and generally be a non-factor.
The letters page this time out includes a correspondence from Mike W. Barr, who would go on to be a writer and an editor primarily at DC Comics and who is best remembered as the co-creator of BATMAN AND THE OUTSIDERS as well as the hardcover graphic novel in which Damien Wayne is conceived. Barr was an Iron Fist fan, it seems.