Back in 1972, Marvel’s most iconic character got a second solo title. With a twist. It was called Marvel Team-Up and featured Spider-Man (and sometimes Human Torch) meeting and fighting crime with a variety of guest stars, both famous (X-Men) and obscure (Werewolf by Night). This stories acted as fun standalone superhero adventures while also introducing readers to the wider Marvel Universe in a pre-Wiki era.
Ultimate Marvel Team-Up was launched by Ultimate Spider-Man writer Brian Michael Bendis and his editor Ralph Macchio (He didn’t act in Karate Kid.) to introduce important Marvel characters to the Ultimate Universe without taking time away from Spider-Man’s personal stories in Ultimate Spider-Man. The book also was a showcase for a smorgasbord of comics talent, who normally wouldn’t draw Spidey, the month’s guest star, or even set foot in the Marvel Universe.
The artist for Ultimate Marvel Team-Up was three time Eisner winning cartoonist Matt Wagner, known for his work on indie comics Grendel and Mage. He continues to be characterized for his pulp style storytelling and expansive double page spreads, which work well with Spider-Man’s web-slinging across New York City in this issue. Ultimate Marvel Team-Up #1 is the only Marvel comics fully drawn by Matt Wagner. (He colored one Wolverine issue and wrote a short story in the 1996 Savage Hulk graphic novel.) It is a real treat to look at even if some of Bendis’ jokes fall short and his snapshot panels are wasted on a hackneyed mutant as racism metaphor.
Ultimate Marvel Team-Up #1 was a one and done story and a semi crossover with Ultimate X-Men. It featured the first Ultimate Universe appearance of long time Wolverine foe, Sabretooth and was a published a couple months after Wolverine’s own debut on the last page of Ultimate X-Men #1. However, Brian Michael Bendis writes Wolverine as much less of a sociopath than Millar did in the first few issues of Ultimate X-Men, and his characterization is similar to how Chris Claremont wrote him in his first issues of Uncanny X-Men. Wolverine is angry, violent, and a loner, but he desperately doesn’t want to go back to working for the Canadian government (or Weapon X as was revealed later) and wants to start a new life.
The plot of Ultimate Marvel Team-Up #1 is simple and breezy with no previous Spider-Man, X-Men, or Wolverine reading experience needed. Basically, Wolverine is traveling to New York to start a new life among the humans when he is ambushed by Sabretooth and a cadre of Weapon X goons. He gets on a train and gives them a slip, but runs into Sabretooth near Midtown where Spider-Man is doing a nightly patrol. There is a bloody battle royale, and Spider-Man swings in and gets Wolverine out of harm’s way from the police and Sabretooth. The in-between bits involve anti-mutant bigotry, and Spider-Man acting neurotic about the possibility he’s a mutant.
Bendis uses Ultimate Marvel Team-Up #1 to address the question of whether Spider-Man is a mutant or not using a fellow “solo” hero, Wolverine, as a sounding board for him. I give him kudos for going beyond the simple fanboy explanation of Spider-Man’s powers came from radiation (or an attempt at replicating the supersoldier serum in the Ultimate Universe), not an X-gene so he’s not a mutant, who are born with their powers. However, with the exception of a “talking points” type debate over whether mutants should have rights (Substitute the word “LGBT”, and it wouldn’t be out of place at American dinner tables or cable news shows in the 2000s.), Bendis dances around serious issues to have Spider-Man just spaz out about gaining extra limbs like Jeff Goldblum’s character in The Fly. But after some Midtown NYC superhero mayhem (in the trademark Marvel way) featuring bottle throwing and epithet calling, Spider-Man and Wolverine have a nice, short chat about what it means to be a mutant along with some good natured ribbing about Spider-Man’s age, Wolverine’s smell, and the moral grey area Wolverine represents.
This conversation is a short lesson in privilege through the exaggerated metaphor of superheroes as Wolverine asks him if he is being chased down by the government (through the Sentinel program), getting called “Mutie”, or knows how he got his powers. Spider-Man’s answer to these questions show how good he’s got it relative to Wolverine and the other mutants even if he does get a bad rap from the Daily Bugle. He might get chased by police, but at least, the government isn’t systematically hunting down his people. Colorist JC uses a bright background for Spider-Man’s moment of realization.
But how does the rest of the story fare? It’s typical superhero fare with an extra side of blood and collateral damage. Bendis doesn’t really flesh out Sabretooth’s character beyond having him hunt down Wolverine for the government with a team of extras from Luc Besson films. (Kind of like in the X-Men film, but with less snow.) There is also the question of Spider-Man’s humor, which is always important in these team ups. In the early going, Bendis goes with some jokes there were stale even when Stan Lee was writing Spidey. But he and Wagner finish strong with Peter Parker going the “little brother copying badass big brother” route and styling his hair like Wolverine and calling Flash Thompson “Bub” in a purposefully bad parody. Wagner’s drawing of Peter with way too much hair gel is definitely chuckle worthy.
Even if most of Ultimate Team-Up #1 is fisticuffs, Matt Wagner adds some clever touches, like making Wolverine much smaller than Sabretooth when he lunges at him. (Tiny Canadian power!) Even if he turns the “camera” away from Wolverine and Sabretooth’s slashes to keep the comic kid friendly, Wagner throws some martial arts moves in Wolverine’s repertoire like an awesome leg sweep takedown of some of Sabretooth’s goons. He also draws close-ups of Wolverine and Sabretooth’s noses, teeth, and feral eyes to capture their animal nature contrasted with the teeming civilization of New York. Without the pressure of a monthly deadline, Wagner draws the multitude of crowd scenes in this comic with painstaking detail making it feel like Sabretooth, Wolverine, and Spider-Man’s have an effect on actual people. Spider-Man actually intervenes when Sabretooth’s compatriots accidentally shoot random civilians as they try to nail Wolverine with the perfect head shot.
Ultimate Marvel Team-Up #1 introduces a more traditional version of Wolverine to the Ultimate Marvel Universe. He is gruff and violent, but actually wants to co-exist with humans and leave his dark past behind. In a later filler arc of Ultimate Spider-Man, Bendis would explore the comic potential of a Wolverine/Spider-Man team up, but he looks at the more serious implications of being a mutant in the Ultimate Universe while also making Spidey kind of geek out around him. Even if Sabretooth is a fur coat wearing punching bag and some of the jokes don’t land, it is a rare privilege to see comics legend Matt Wagner put Spider-Man through his acrobatic paces and use the full comics page (or two) to its storytelling potential.