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Greatest Spider-Man/Fantastic Four Stories: #5

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Dating back to the very first issue of Amazing Spider-Man, Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four have been intrinsically linked as allies, adversaries and frenemies. With the Fantastic Four starring in their own movie this summer, superiorspidertalk.com is taking a look at the 10 very best Spider-Man/F4 stories.

Here’s #5:

Marvel Team Up 100 03“Karma!” — Marvel Team Up #100 (published December 1980): script by Chris Claremont; pencils by Frank Miller; inks by Bob Wiacek

Your eyes do not deceive you in that Chris Claremont and Frank Miller — two of the most important comic book creators from the Bronze Age — joined forces to deliver a Marvel Team-Up story featuring Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four. 

But beyond the Claremont/Miller pairing — which predates their work on the iconic Wolverine miniseries by two years — “Karma!” is a fairly historic comic book on a number of levels. As the title says, it marks the very first appearance of the psychic mutant Karma, who would go on to be a founding member of the New Mutants (aka, the first X-book spinoff that truly signaled to the world that the mutant team were a force to be reckoned with). And years before Superior Spider-Man took the world by storm, Marvel Team-Up #100 was among the first (racking my brain to confirm if it was the VERY first, but I don’t want to misspeak) comics to feature a mind-controlled Spidey wreaking havoc within the Marvel Universe.

Lastly — and we’re not going to discuss this story within this post, but it’s worth mentioning all the same — the backup tale in Marvel Team-Up #100 is a memorable Claremont/John Byrne collaboration that marked the first time Storm and Black Panther were romantically linked together.

So, we got a great creative team, a somewhat important character first appearance and a plot premise that would later be recycled for one of the most controversial Spider-Man storylines of all time. But is Marvel Team-Up #100 any good?

Well, I wouldn’t have ranked it No. 5 on this list if I thought it was just meh.

It’s actually a tad disappointing that from a continuity standpoint the Spider-books rarely (if ever) reference this story because it’s a very good one and unquestionably one of the very best meet-ups of Spider-Man and the entire Fantastic Four team. The comic offers a little bit of everything: a unique and compelling new character whose allegiances are murky; a diabolical, but slightly misunderstand villain; plenty of instances where Spider-Man has to overcome great odds; and of course, dynamic action courtesy of Miller’s pencils, who was just in another stratosphere at this point in his career. 

Marvel Team Up 100 01Speaking to my last point, the impact of Miller’s art on this story cannot be overstated. With all due respect to Ross Andru, Keith Pollard and all of the other artists who were working on the Spider-books during the late 1970s/early 1980s, Miller’s renderings of Spider-Man in motion is a masterclass in dynamic storytelling, starting with the very first page when Spider-Man is fighting off Karma’s psychic, mind-controlling abilities and is digging his nails into a wall while sliding down. Miller’s sense of action and movement was a trademark of his landmark run on Daredevil in the late 1970s, though fans and critics have often credited inker Klaus Janson for how the finished art in this book looked (Miller reportedly would just sketch very rough breakdowns for each page, leaving the heavy-lifting for Janson). However, even without the Janson safety net in Marvel Team-Up #100 (though he does provide an assist with the cover), the book’s art feels so edgy and different from anything else that featured Spider-Man at the time. And once the Fantastic Four entered the fray with all of their fantastical, over-the-top powers, the book starts to truly visually shine. 

Claremont makes some very interesting choices for Karma in terms of characterization and creates a sense of misdirection within the story as it relates to who the actual antagonist turns out to be. She initially struggles to take control of Spider-Man’s mind, but we later learn that she only chose Spider-Man to be her psychic puppet because she had pegged him as a villain (after seeing one of the Daily Bugle’s headlines, ‘natch). Plus, her motivation for taking control of Spider-Man was to free her children who had been kidnapped by her uncle, an evil general who had fought during the Vietnam War, and her twin brother Tran, who also has psychic abilities. 

Marvel Team Up 100 02In a sequence that, in hindsight, debunks the entirety of the Marvel Universe’s reaction to the Superior Spider-Man era, when the mind-controlled Spidey confronts the Fantastic Four (who are attending a social gala where Karma’s children, uncle and brother are also present), Reed immediately picks up on the fact that there’s something “off” about the Wall Crawler. As a result, they mostly pull their punches (except for Ben, who coldcocks him) and after he’s subdued, they even go as far as taking him to the Baxter Building for some hot chocolate. They then confer with Professor Xavier and the X-Men (because you know Claremont had to work those guys into his story somehow) to confirm that there was a spike in psychic activity emanating from a mutant presence. So much for the entire world thinking Spider-Man had just gone over the edge and became a jerk. But I guess if you had characters react to Spider-Ock with calm logic, an entire storyline would have been nullified.

That aside, once Tran becomes aware of his sister’s presence, he shows off his (stronger) psychic powers by taking control of the entire Fantastic Four team, which leads to a great sequence of Spider-Man having to overcome a barrage of attacks from Reed, Sue, Ben and Johnny in order to hold the fort long enough for Karma to defeat her brother. 

Claremont’s script makes certain to sell the drama by having Spidey talk about the F4’s success in collectively taking down some of the galaxy’s biggest threats and how he’s a nobody compared to the foes they’ve defeated. It might seem a bit on the nose to have Spider-Man state his longshot odds so plainly, but this is a little device that has long worked well in superhero comics, especially Spider-Man. Think back to the great “Master Planner Saga” and Spider-Man’s inner monologue about overcoming the odds giving him the strength and resolve to lift up tons of steel. That may very well be the most famous moment in Spider-Man comics history, and while Marvel Team-Up #100 can’t hold a candle to the “Master Planner Saga” (as much as I enjoy this story), Spider-Man’s unbreakable spirit and never-yielding nature is an important part of the character. So it’s always great to see Claremont utilize these characteristics to make his story more interesting. 

Marvel Team Up 100 04Miller’s rendering of the Spider-Man/F4 fight doesn’t hurt the overall quality of the story as we get two pages of Spider-Man ducking and weaving all of the attacks, giving the reader a virtual ringside seat to the action. 

The story ends with a nice lingering look at Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four’s morality, as Karma uses her psychic powers to essentially make her brother disappear (presumably killing him). Spider-Man and the F4 emote a sense of shock and disgust at what happened, but are also resigned to the fact that what they just witnessed was a family matter between Karma, Tran and her uncle and thus they shouldn’t attempt to lecture the mutant about what was “right” or “wrong.” 

It’s a dark, shades of gray closing to a story that just feels so cerebrally different from any other Spider-Mann story from this era. Perhaps it’s just Miller’s involvement since he has a habit of adding a sheen of darkness to any comic book he works on. But certainly Claremont’s work on the X-Men during this time period would also indicate his own ability to tell a dour, anti-heroic story. Either way, it’s just a joy to be able to read a Spider-Man comic with this level of creative talent (both at the peak of their abilities, no less).

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