Spider-Man on Saturday Night Live

So, by way of a long introduction, for a while now I’ve been thinking about posting some commentaries about some of the entertainments I own, particularly comics. While I hardly buy them lately, I have hundreds of them here, and I also have this blog… and it might be worthwhile sitting down to offer up some notes now and then, particularly on some of the lesser known items.

We’ll see how much more I feel like pursuing this idea, in time, but for now let’s open up the issue that has been the most persistent in demanding a post such as this… let’s open up Marvel Team-Up #74.

Spider-Man and the Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time Players!

I have no idea what Belushi is saying here, to his unseen antagonist, Marvel C-list villain The Silver Samurai.*

I don’t even remember how I stumbled on this one originally. The issue is cover dated October 1978, so I was barely post-natal when it first went on sale… I only acquired a copy long afterward, when somewhere-or-other I saw this cover online and decided “…y’know what, that has to be worth a look.”

It definitely is. This is not a Great Work, but it’s fun and kitschy in something of a comfy old sneaker way. For those who want an executive summary, my super-condensed verdict is that the issue almost measures up to the cover. That’s basically my feeling about the work as a whole: in basketball terms, it’s a shot that falls cleanly through the basket, but doesn’t quite rise to the level of a play-of-the-day slam dunk. Which is okay.

Frankly I think this is one hell of a cover, after all. (Possibly the work of interior artists Bob Hall and Marie Severin?) The cover probably does get into slam dunk territory, at least; I mean, take a look. The original cast of Saturday Night Live, fronted by John Belushi in his “Samurai Delicatessen” get-up and about to throw down in a duel… as Spider-Man swings in from behind to yell “Belushi you crazy lug, this ain’t a skit!” Stop and think about it. That’s pretty fantastic. Add in the promise of Stan “The Man” Lee, and that delightfully way waaaay retro “Still only 35¢” starburst? This cover is a magnificent work of pop-art, really, and you could probably buy the issue just to frame and hang on your wall and get excellent value for your money.

n.b. I don’t recall what I paid for my copy, precisely, and the issue is currently out of stock at my usual source Lone Star Comics. But I’m sure I paid no more than several dollars, and probably less, which would compare very well with the growing number of dreadful five dollar comics Marvel is releasing these days.

By contrast, this is an honest work of craft, for better and for worse. Bob Hall’s art is quite good; the storytelling is strong and most of the likenesses are satisfying, although he never quite seems to capture Bill Murray. I can’t help wondering whether a wackier art style might have helped resolve what feels, throughout the issue, like tension between “straight” superhero story and zany farce… but, this impression is from the perspective of more than 30 years on. From that same perspective, meanwhile, I think it’s really a credit to the creators how well the story holds up.

Part of this is, realistically, also a credit to the subsequent success of SNL and certain of its 1978 cast, in particular. But MTU #74 is also just a satisfying, accessible little tale. It mostly feels like a very good effort from a competent writer… on which basis I’m not really sure what significance to attach to Chris Claremont’s role as author.

Frankly, my sense is that Claremont’s reputation has risen and fallen by such extremes over the past 30-some years that I have no idea what contemporary opinion would see in this story. A tossed-off effort that, penned by a master, was inevitably still very good? A sad portent of future decadence? A lucky outing by a briefly overrated hack? No idea. You’ll have to look elsewhere for an evaluation of Chris Claremont.

But, in evaluating MTU #74, his involvement as author may at least shed some light on one or two of the issue’s many points of interest. It might explain a little of the extra “zip” that the story possesses, frequently if inconsistently. I suspect it may also explain the presence of Lorne Michaels, who receives not only a couple of scenes but (go back and look) his name on the cover. Otherwise this baffles me. I know who Lorne Michaels is, but I can’t say I would ever care whether or not he was present in a Saturday Night Live story, especially a wacky action-oriented romp with Spider-Man. Did people feel differently in the 1970s? Or was Michaels’ inclusion in the story (and on the cover) just a bit of sideways “fan service,” because hey, we’re doing this project together and hanging out and now we’re all buddies after all? I believe that Claremont has indulged pretensions to being part of a celebrity in-crowd, over the years, so I can’t help wondering if he had some acquaintance with Michaels and enjoyed name (and likeness) dropping, here.

On the other hand, maybe it was indeed just a general, “hey, we’re all cool” enthusiasm. When I read this issue I can’t help thinking it represents a brief, last flickering of Marvel as something hip and contemporary before American comics vanished into the direct-market insularity of the later 1980s. Difficult to say, especially from my point of view. I do recall that a few years later, an issue of The Avengers sent the team to David Letterman’s show. While I don’t think Avengers #239 quite measured up to MTU #74, it’s nonetheless tempting to see these and, say, 1984’s “Assistant Editors’ Month” as last passes at the Lee-era “Bullpen” Marvel with its half geeky fan-club, half truly popular-culture phenomenon, vibe. Subsequently lost amid crossover events, speculation, grim-n-gritty, etc.

But I don’t know. It could just be that the appearance of Lee, himself, in this story misleads me in that razzle-dazzle way that Lee has. In any event I think there’s quite a bit in his few panels worth examining from the perspective of MTU #74 as cultural artifact.

Again, I may simply be letting the old Smilin’ Stan magic sweep me away, but it feels like Lee’s appearance herein is also a kind of last gasp, in its way. Having only gotten into comics a dozen years after this issue, and therefore basically never knowing Lee as anything but an old man, I see this vigorous Lee in his prime dancing and cracking jokes on SNL… and I think, “this was probably just about the last gasp of lunches-at-the-Playboy-club, swingin’ Stan, wasn’t it?” At any rate the last moment when, even though this story is fictional, this kind of 70s-swinger Stan was still loosely plausible—rather than being openly 100% tongue-in-cheek, as with his appearance in Mallrats. I presume that this was, nonetheless, always mostly fake; I’ve never heard even a hint of Lee being unfaithful to his marriage of nearly 70 years. And, of course, glibly pretending to be big-time and slick is sort of what being Stan “The Man” Lee is all about…

Along these lines, in looking through this issue I noticed that Lee’s remarks in these two panels, alone, could provide for an extensive digression…

Says Stan "I'm the guy who runs Marvel Comics."

Um, really, Stan…?

…and y’know what, why not? So. “I’m the guy who runs Marvel Comics.” Wow. Where even to begin?

First of all, factually, this is blatantly inaccurate. I’m pretty certain that Stan Lee has never “run Marvel Comics” as a business, an important point to which we’ll return in a moment. There were times, granted, when Stan was “running” Marvel Comics—indeed, there were a few times when Stan almost was Marvel Comics—editorially. But I believe those times had come to an end by a good decade before this story’s publication. By 1978 I think Stan had little direct involvement at all with Marvel as a creator or publisher of comics, and was (as would fit perfectly with his appearance here) well into his transition to the role of ambassador-at-large to Hollywood, media and the general public. Part of that role involved, of course, being the public face of Marvel Comics, and—while acknowledging again that this scene is fictional—simplifying the more complex details of this status by saying “I’m the guy who runs Marvel Comics” is exactly the kind of thing Stan Lee would do.

That said, in other contexts, Stan Lee also repeatedly and emphatically said exactly the opposite. It’s amusing to imagine Jack Kirby standing up from the SNL audience, and loudly addressing Lee: “Oh, really, you run Marvel Comics, do you? Because every time I’ve brought up the ways in which Marvel Comics has ripped me off over decades, you’ve insisted that you don’t have any say in what the company does…” But, of course, by 1978 Kirby had long resigned himself to Lee’s evasions, and in this case the artful dodger wouldn’t even have worked up a sweat. After all, “that’s just a story, someone else wrote it!” Anyway.

Otherwise, returning to the story in this pop-culture artifact, I’m not sure how much there is to add to my earlier summary. I did notice, in reviewing the issue during this post, that you can get as far as the title spread—four (and five) pages into the story—and it still seems like the interior may meet or exceed the gung-ho weirdness promised by the cover. In this one giant panel, in addition to Peter Parker, Mary Jane, the cast of Saturday Night Live and Stan “The Man” Lee, we get a completely left-field cameo of Statler and Waldorf from The Muppet Show and “special musical guest, Rick Jones.” No kidding! At this point you think, “they’re throwing everything but the kitchen sink into this one!”

Except that, from the very next page, Claremont seems to pull back sharply from that level of absurdity and never quite return. Stan’s few scenes basically play out independent of everything else going on. Rick Jones (a longtime Marvel utility character whom you would expect to get some kind of part, here, if he’s formally present) is never heard from again in the whole issue. Instead, things mostly settle into alternating scenes of a relatively serious hostage-drama plot, and SNL-cast hijinks that intersect with the dramatic plot in ways that are just about surreal… except more surreal-WTF  than surreal-awesome.

Still, I should emphasize once more, this is a very satisfying comic, especially if you are not (as is the case here) intentionally looking to pick it apart. The cover is the best thing about MTU #74, but it’s still well worth opening up and reading.  The art and story do their job, and have several moments when they rise above that standard; my favorite may precede an insanely surreal sequence in which Dan Aykroyd readies fellow cast members to prank a gang of armed killers. With the SNL cast armed with no more than spare costumes and a fire extinguisher. Even with Spider-Man on your side, this is just plain deranged. Yet one must acknowledge, in this one exchange, Aykroyd seems to have more self-awareness than Spider-Man if nothing else…

Spider-Man asks 'are these crazy costumes necessary,' and Aykroyd points out the obvious.

Mad Dog Mulcahy, Killer Colonel of the Crimea: 1… Spider-Man: 0

Zing.

* But I like to imagine that he’s saying something like “Gimme a break, pal, you ain’t the first drug-induced hallucination I’ve faced down and you ain’t nearly the scariest. BANZAI!!”

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