Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Storytelling Engines: Super-Villain Team-Up

(or "Seeing The Forest For The Tree")

'Super-Villain Team-Up' is one of those series that just never seemed to die in the memories of its fans. It only lasted 17 issues, one of which reprinted old stories from 'Astonishing Tales', but it proved surprisingly enduring in terms of its following, to the point where getting the whole saga collected in 'Essential' format seemed perfectly natural. On looking at it, it's not surprising that it developed a cult following that blossomed in the current climate of fandom; the whole book is ahead of its time.

The first thirteen issues form a single storyline, a massive (if occasionally rambling) epic battle of wits, wills, and egos pitting Doctor Doom, Namor the Sub-Mariner, Attuma, and the Red Skull against each other, with guest stars galore caught in the middle. It featured a tie-in with the Avengers title, introduced a new hero (the Shroud, who never really caught on) short, if this had been published just five or six years later, it would have been a mega-crossover.

But it's not until issue #14 that you actually see the storytelling engine for the series. Since the first thirteen issues are taken up with one big story, you don't really understand the potential the series has until the second story starts, a two-issue affair in which Doctor Doom and Magneto go head to head. Another two-parter teaming the Red Skull with the Hatemonger rounds out the series (and probably provides its best story; it's an intrigue-filled tale with double and triple-crosses galore, and a real pip of an ending), and further expands the storytelling engine to its true extent just as the series gets canceled.

Which is a shame, because you don't see the potential of the comic until right at the end. The big brawl between Doom, Namor, and their respective allies and enemies is great, albeit a little crazed at times. But 'Super-Villain Team-Up' isn't about the alliance between Doom and Namor, or their subsequent war. It's a series about two existing villains in the Marvel Universe, and their respective machinations bringing them together either as allies, or as enemies. The tone,
a cynical and sharp blend of suspense and dark comedy, serves to highlight the underbelly of the Marvel Universe in a series that doesn't need to show things from the heroes' perspective (even if, as one of the limitations of the series, the bad guys can never really "win".)

All things considered, it's unsurprising that the series recently made a comeback (in the limited series 'Super-Villain Team-Up: MODOK's Eleven'.) Comics fans seem more ready than ever for an edgy, amoral look at the seedy underside of the Marvel Universe, and the storytelling engine to SVTU barely got to scratch the surface of such an idea. 'MODOK's Eleven' might seem like a departure from the Doom-centered original series, but it's actually just taking the series' central premise and running with it in a way the original never got to.

(As an aside, this column marks the 52nd 'Storytelling Engines' column, and its one-year anniversary. And, of course, it winds up being a few days late. (Stupid head cold.) But the column has stayed more or less on time since its inception, a fact which I feel that I can be at least a little proud of...and I'd like to thank everyone who reads the column and offers feedback, whether here on my own site or on 'Comics Should Be Good'. I probably wouldn't have made it through a full year without knowing that people were reading and enjoying the series; every time someone said, 'This is fun to read', you gave me the inspiration I needed to do another week. Writing purely for your own pleasure and the pleasure of your audience is made all the more satisfying by kind words and engaging opinions; thanks very much to everyone who offered me yours. Now to do another 52, only in reverse order and not nearly as good!)


Chuck G. said...

Hi John,
As a writer myself, your Storytelling Engines series has been a joy to read and full of inspiring ideas. Your latest column has brought back a lot of memories for me. I used to love Super Villian Team-up back in the day. My favorite story was the cross over with Doom and Magneto and The Champions where Doom inhaled his own nuero gas. Those issues are long gone, but the story has stuck with me for thirty years. Now that they're out in Essential I'll probably pick that up.

Here's to another year of these excellent coulmns!

Teebore said...

Great work! Keep 'em coming!

Anonymous said...

How would you compare this to DC's various supervillain team-up efforts over the decades?

Or to the newer incarnation of the Suicide Squad, for that matter?