Monday, September 24, 2007

Marvel Team-Up #74

"It never fails. The world could be ending tonight, and we'd still have a full house. Hm -- What's that noise from Belushi's dressing room?" - Gilda Radner, commenting to herself prior to performing in a 1978 episode of "Saturday Night Live," which is soon to be disrupted by the Silver Samurai and his goons, in Marvel Team-Up #74 (Marvel Comics, Issue Date: October 1978).

It is 1978, and Peter Parker plans to take Mary Jane Watson for a Saturday date to a taping of NBC's "Saturday Night Live." At that time, the program had been on the air but a few years, and the cast was comprised of Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, Bill Murray, Laraine Newman and Gilda Radner, all of whom make appearances in the issue, along with SNL producer Lorne Michaels. Delays have made Parker and Watson late to the taping, and as they arrive, they find they must sit in the balcony. As they proceed to their seats, a brute of sorts brushes past Parker, whose spider sense begins to tingle:

Parker and Watson find their seats. The episode's guest host is, if you can believe it, Marvel Comics empresario Stan Lee with musical guest Rick Jones, a fictive musician who exists only in the Marvel Universe. (Potential musical guest Dazzler would not be created by Marvel for another two years.). Lee references his duties and position in his monologue, which draws praise from an NBC page (who is thereupon attacked by an anonymous henchman):

The bare bones plot is driven by the existence of a mysterious ring, which Belushi mistakenly receives in his fan mail. The ring, it seems, has magical properties which make it an object of interest for the Silver Samurai, who arrives at the taping with goons in tow knowing only that a member of the cast possesses the ring. (One ring to rule them all?) As the taping progresses, Parker becomes Spider-Man to investigate the assault of the page. The cast then joins Spider-Man as he fights the Silver Samurai and his men. Morris dons a Thor costume as the melee ensues while Newman dresses as Ms. Marvel (ruses which temporarily distract the anonymous thugs long enough for them to be defeated). Murray even disguises himself as one of the henchmen in an attempt to ascertain their intent and mission:

As the battle rages towards a climax, Belushi, as his character Samurai Fatubua, duels the Silver Samurai, who finds insult in the actor's portrayal of the ancient Japanese warrior. Before the villain can be captured, he wrestles the ring from Belushi. Wielding the ring and using its power, the Silver Samurai teleports to safety, though Spidey predicts that "[h]e'll be back, probably when I least expect it, too." Everything is tidily resolved:

Written by Chris Claremont, the issue was also penciled and edited by Bob Hall, inked and colored by Marie Severin, and lettered by Annette Kawecki. (Hall did not respond to an email seeking comment on the issue - see the update at the end of this post for the email sent to me by Bob Hall on this isssue.). Interestingly, Marvel Comics would try a similar trick several years later with the Avengers and David Letterman (then on NBC):

What is bizarre about the fact that Lee is the SNL guest host is that his presence establishes that Marvel Comics, the corporate enterprise, exists as a company within the Marvel Universe. Put another way, in a world where superheros exist, fight, and frolic, consumers still, apparently, buy comics about superheros - and not fictitious ones, either. (In Alan Moore's Watchmen, comic book readers follow the exploits of pirates instead of costumed superheros, about whom they can read in the newspaper.). Not only do customers purchase comics, but apparently, they do so in such numbers to make Marvel a successful enough company that Lee is invited to appear on a nationally televised sketch comedy show. Pre-meta meta, anyone?

Of course, if "Saturday Night Live" and its various players exist in the Marvel Universe, then my earlier speculation about the Human Torch proves true. Last week, I reviewed Fantastic Four #285, in which Johnny Storm a/k/a the Human Torch is emotionally affected by the death of a thirteen year old boy who set himself ablaze in an attempt to become like his hero. That story took place in 1985 during the crossover debacle that was Secret Wars II, a full eight years after Dan Aykroyd parodied cheap Halloween costumes. In that post, I wrote:
And was such a tragic accident truly as unforeseeable as Johnny Storm's grief suggests? Certainly, if the Marvel Universe is anything like our own, then children injure themselves using certain products in an attempt to emulate television and cinema. This should not be a surprise to a hero who regularly visits outer space, fights aliens and monsters, and generally sees death and destruction on a rather frequent basis. After all, was it not eight years before this issue appeared that Saturday Night Live parodied cheap Halloween costumes and "a bag of oily rags and a lighter" sold as a "Johnny Human Torch" costume?
Thus, Marvel Team-Up #74 confirms that SNL and the Fantastic Four exist in the same universe, which means that Storm would have been aware of Aykroyd's gag (which went unreferenced in FF #285, despite Storm's acting as if the accident was unforeseeable).

Really, Marvel Team-Up #74 is less interesting as a narrative than as a relic and a bizarre cross-promotional item. One wonders how the cast reacted when the issue was inevitably delivered to 30 Rockefeller Plaza following its initial publication. Did they enjoy it? Were they awed by being in an actual comic book? Or did they pay it any mind at all? I found no reference to it in James A Miller and Tom Shales' Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live, as Told By Its Stars, Writers and Guests (not that the issue would be among the first memories to be recounted by anyone affiliated with the program). The issue would be less interesting, perhaps, if the 1970s era SNL were not still so much in the public memory and consciousness, so I suppose Marvel's marketing department made a good decision in making the cross promotional. It could have been much, much worse.

UPDATE (9/25/07): Bob Hall, the penciler and editor of this issue, was kind enough to respond today to my earlier email asking about the origin of the Spidey/SNL storyline. His response is intriguing enough to quote in its entirety below:
I have no idea how it started, maybe with Shooter, but it was probably Claremont's idea -- he was always full of ideas and had not yet found his niche as the richest writer at Marvel because of the X-Men .

I was an editor and assigned myself to draw, figuring it would be fun and that I might get to interact with the celebs. We did get to go to 30 Rock and watch rehearsals but clearly none of them had time to schmooze with lowly comic book types. We all shook hands with Lorne Michaels and I got to sketch the studio. Mainly, though, we talked with NBC lawyers. We were going to use the NBC symbol along with the usual Spider-Man logo in the upper left of the cover since we wanted to avoid featuring one Saturday Night player to the exclusion of the others. The lawyer went on and on about proper use of the logo and we (Claremont and Shooter if I remember right) couldn't figure out why. Then it hit me and I said, "I understand; I'm from Nebraska." The lawyer turned green -- literally -- but said, "Then you know what I'm talking about." As I explained to Shooter later, a staff artist named Jim Brown, who worked for public TV in my home town, Lincoln, Nebraska, had come up with exactly the same logo for the Nebraska ETV station at least a year before NBC (after most likely paying some agency a 100,000 to create the thing) started using the image. Shortly before we did the comic, Nebraska sued and NBC settled for something like a million bucks. Hence the paranoia.

I was not the best choice to draw the comic. Claremont was a TV fan and while I watched Saturday Night Live, that was about all. Claremont wrote something like "The Muppet Show meets Saturday Night, meets The Avengers." I was OK with the Avengers but the Muppet references were lost on me. Whats more, it was the 70s well before VCRs let alone the Internet. Getting useful reference was difficult to impossible, even for the Muppets. For instance, Chris wanted me to draw the two old guy puppets who sat in the balcony were critics of the show. I just couldn't find pictures of them and ended up, I think, drawing them from behind from verbal descriptions. I would have watched the show, but I had a play running off Broadway and I was there every night. The Network could not be bothered to send us more than a few old head shots of the Saturday Night cast.

As an editor, I should have fired me and hired someone who understood Chris's story adaptation and could draw at least some of it from memory. Marie Severin inked the thing and knew some of the references so that helped -- although we had very different styles. Actually, that was so early in my career, I don't think you could say I had a style at all, really.

The best part of the project was that someone engineered me and Shooter and some of the bullpen going to the premiere party for Animal House; I can't say if Chris was there. It was at one of the famous clubs but I don't remember which one. We went out in the alley with Belushi and presented him with the cover. Belushi passed a joint around -- so I can say I smoked dope with John Belushi. I did inhale, this was after all the 70's.
The two Muppet characters Smith references are Statler and Waldorf, who sit several rows behind Parker and Watson in the balcony of the SNL studio.

1 comment:

The League said...

Stan appeared in several issues of Fantastic Four, including getting turned down for entry to the wedding of Reed and Sue Richards, and even Superman editor Julie Schwartz appeared for an entire issue on Superman during the end of his run on the title.

DC, however, decided that they would make Julie pop between universes or some such trick...

Anyhow, a fascinating look into the outrageous adventures of 'ol Web-Head. How a 1970's-era SNL cast fits in with current continuity is a question of such epic proportion, the mind reels at the implications. Just as I wonder what Ronald Reagan must have thought when Rogue waved "hello" to him aboard Air Force One during the mid-80's.

Surely, however, Mr. Storm should be served with the appropriate papers.