Monday, April 16, 2007

Storytelling Engines: Marvel Team-Up

(or "This Is A Bit, Right?")

Looking at Marvel's venerable title, 'Marvel Team-Up', from the perspective of the 'Storytelling Engines' series is almost a bit cruel on the face of it. After all, the concept of this series of columns is to ask, "What ways does this particular set of ideas, characters, and settings make it easier for a writer to come up with new story ideas?" If you look at 'Marvel Team-Up' from that perspective, it's a nightmare that should send any writer screaming for the hills.

For starters, the central concept is neatly encapsulated in the title. "Team-Up." Every issue of 'Marvel Team-Up' must feature two characters who do not regularly team up with each other, meeting and fighting a villain of some sort. An unwritten rule of the series is that the team-up can't be the same from one issue to the next--only in the very beginning of the series did it feature the same two heroes from issue to issue (Spider-Man and the Human Torch). So if a writer wants to do multi-part stories, he or she has to add a new super-hero to the "rolling team-up" each issue. (One four-part story featured the Scarlet Witch, the Vision, Doctor Doom, and Moondragon, for example.) Oh, and with a few exceptions, most every issue featured Spider-Man as the anchor of the book. So, to sum up the storytelling engine:

Spider-Man, a notoriously anti-social, lone wolf superhero, must every issue find some excuse to meet another superhero, team up with him/her to fight a villain, and either wrap up the story within one issue or involve another superhero by the beginning of the next issue. And it's all "in continuity", so it must dovetail with the events in his own series (plural, by the time 'Marvel Team-Up' wrapped up.) As well, of course, as dovetailing with whatever's going on in the continuity of his guest star.

At this point, the perverse unworkability of the concept becomes the storytelling engine; as readers, we're essentially spectators as much to the writer's attempts to meet the challenge above as we are to the story he or she eventually comes up with. Part of reading each issue of 'Marvel Team-Up' is seeing the pairing on the cover and wondering, "How are they going to pull this one off?" From simple team-ups like the Human Torch or Daredevil to complicated ones like the Black Panther or Killraven to absolutely absurd ones like the Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time-Players (sadly not reprinted yet, but I await it with bated breath), we the audience are almost participating in a bet with the writer.

Which doesn't make it an easy storytelling engine to write for, but certainly an entertaining one to read.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think you seriously underestimate the lasting impact that Marvel Team-Up has had on Spider-Man, however.

Yes, Spider-Man began as a lone wolf (spider?) character, often shunned and abrasively anti-social as a result, but Marvel Team-Up continued the trend begun by his friendship with The Human Torch to transform him into one of the best team players of the entire Marvel universe.

If you take a look at the Spider-Man of the past two decades, you will now see a character who can get along with almost any other superhero (even when that superhero doesn't get along with him) and with many supervillains.

In many ways, Marvel Team-Up as a title is responsible for transforming his old character tag of "defensive loner" into his current character tag of "compassionate and tolerant of the quirks of other people" (although being tolerant does not keep him from making wisecracks about them!).