Quick! How many good Spider-Man villains can you think of that originally appeared in Marvel Team-Up? Um... Stegron, the Dinosaur Man. Professor Power. (Not classic villains by any means.) Arcade. D'Spayre. (Not usually thought of as Spider-Man villains, are they?) The Orb? The Basilisk? The Man-Killer? You see the point.
The trouble with Marvel Team-Up was that most of the writers expended their energy on forming the team of heroes and not on the villain involved. Actually, as team-up books go, this series did better than most. It benefited from an entertaining Chris Claremont/John Byrne stint on the title. The underrated Bill Mantlo put together a good run as well.
Gerry Conway, however, often seemed to approach the book as if it was an unwanted homework assignment. He never seemed to develop a flow, giving the title a herky-jerky issue by issue feel that often lapsed into self-parody. (Gerry was also burdened with the editorial policy at the time that required every third issue to feature the Human Torch rather than Spider-Man. And he was the regular writer on the Amazing Spider-Man at the same time, as well. Which one would YOU put most of your efforts in?)
Some of the dopiest Spider-Man stories of all time were written by Gerry in his time on Marvel Team-Up. There's the one where Hercules hauls Manhattan Island back into place, the one featuring the Frankenstein Monster, Man-Wolf and the villainous Baron Ludwig Von Shtupf (which, I must confess, is one of my favorites, really). And then, there is this one, Marvel Team-Up #31.
Let's face it. Sometimes the dopiest stories are the very best ones of all. Meet Drom the Backwards Man in...
"I'm taking this one down, because if what I was told is true...I won't remember any of it in the morning." So, begins the tale, narrated by Peter Parker himself. The true storyteller, of course, is Gerry Conway, with rather undistinguished pencils and inks by Jim Mooney and Vince Colletta. And now, our story.
Peter is having an early breakfast in a diner when Iron Fist kicks a thug through the glass door of the establishment. Never having met Iron Fist before, Pete can't tell the good guy from the bad. All he knows is "this David Carradine look-alike" (I'm sure it is unnecessary to state that David Carradine starred in the TV show "Kung Fu" back in the 70s) who is "screaming like Ka-Zar" easily dispatches the thug and his knife, then calmly departs, ignoring the counterman's demands of payment for the door. Peter, hoping for pix for Jonah Jameson, changes to Spidey and follows. He comments on his hands being battered from pummeling a wall in Amazing Spider-Man #141 (which just barely places this story back in those innocent days before any clone had made the scene), then seems unaffected by the injury for the remainder of the story.
Meanwhile, both Spidey and Iron Fist are being watched by a man dressed in blue boots and tunic with gold tights, glove, and ammunition belt. The first words out of this mysterious character's mouth are, ".Kniht I gnitseretni tsom evorp lliw siht...HHHA" Then he follows the two heroes, thinking of all the energy he needs to survive, of the energy he received from arranging for Iron Fist to battle the thug, and of all the energy he can absorb if can arrange for TWO heroes to fight. (And, luckily for us, his thoughts come out forwards so we know what those thoughts are.)
To accomplish his aim, the villain shoots a laser beam that severs Spider-Man's web, causing the Web-Spinner to land on Iron Fist's back. Fortunately, for the bad guy, when Spidey decided to "follow" Fist, he decided to swing on his web right above him. Iron Fist strikes back, shattering a lamp post with his feet. And, that old stand-by of team-up issues begins again; the unnecessary super-hero battle. Much as Spidey tries to reason with him, Iron Fist won't listen. The Web-Head must fight back, thinking, "With any luck he'll have a glass jaw, but if he doesn't, it's bye-bye Spider-Man", which gives an excessive amount of credit to Iron Fist's destructive abilities, don't you think?
Meanwhile, in the shadows, the man we now learn is called Drom the Backwards Man (and does this mean his real name is Mord?) absorbs the energy from the fight.
Spider-Man finally ends things by webbing up Iron Fist. For his part, Fist finally listens to Spider-Man's explanation that his fall was not an intentional attack, then snaps the webbing to show he could have freed himself if the explanation proved to be false.
The two heroes decide to talk. They go to a sandbox in Battery Park for their conversation. Drom follows, thinking, "I need their energy to sustain my present temporal state", then proceeds to USE energy to create a four-armed creature out of the playground sand. The monster immediately knocks Iron Fist flat. Spider-Man counters by covering it with webbing, then dodges the laser blast which Drom fires from behind. He fires webbing at Drom but the webbing decays and turns to dust before it ever reaches the villain. Stunned by this, Spider-Man is easy prey for Drom's laser gun.
He comes to in Drom's lab, strapped to a metal chair with what looks like a giant trombone mute hanging over his head. Drom speaks but Spidey can't understand him. "It sounded like you were playing a record backwards for a moment there." Drom has a device which reverses his speech so that Spider-Man can understand him. (And reverses Spider-Man's speech so that Drom can understand him?) Having done that, Drom tells his bizarre story.
"I am a victim of time, a freak of time", he begins. A few minutes after birth, "my infant form was somehow exchanged through time with my aged body, by means of a science I've never yet understood. Maybe some future scientist's experiment backfired...For 45 years I've lived my life in seclusion, existing in reverse, even to the words I utter, depending on conversion machines to make normal food edible to my reversed metabolism, depending on pure, human energy to survive." OK, forget about the fact that he probably would have starved long before he figured out how to make conversion machines for his metabolism and forget about trying to figure out how "human energy to survive" fits into this. He didn't and it does. Let's move on.
Drom, one of the more long-winded Spider-Man villains, continues. He talks of his "plunge backwards towards my birth". He says he needs energy to slow that backwards plunge, maybe even reverse it. He tells Spider-Man that he has placed him in his "metabolic disrupter" to break down his cellular structure and gain his energy. But just as he turns it on, Iron Fist breaks in. (How did Fist find them? Why, he feigned defeat by the sand creature and followed them, of course.)
Iron Fist immediately disarms Drom (with Spider-Man yelling, "Don't let him touch you, greenie. He's got the original pair of dishpan hands!"), and frees Spidey. Drom, doing his best Jim Morrison impression, yells, "Touch me!" because he knows he will absorb their organic energy as he did from Spider-Man's webbing. Spidey and Fist decide to knock him over the head with his mirror instead.
Whoa! Whoa! Wait a minute! His mirror? Where did THIS plot twist come from? Well, apparently Drom must have his mirror. As he says, "It's all I have to maintain an identity...without it, I'll fade...I'll be swept away in the chronal current." (Hah? What? Since when?)
Well, since now, because with his smashed mirror lying around him, "Drom seemed to lose his grip on reality", then regresses to infancy and beyond leaving nothing behind but his clothes.
As the two heroes depart, Iron Fist gets philosophical. "He must have had a very tenuous grip on time," Fist says ("spin controlling" like crazy in order to justify this "out of the blue" ending). "Without energy, without an image of himself, he lost that grip. In a way he never really existed, did he? A man proves his existence by growing, by progressing through life. Drom did the opposite and now he's only a memory." He leaves Spider-Man with this thought: "If a man ceases to exist, how long will his memory survive him?" So, Peter runs home to record the memory on tape. This is the narration we have followed throughout the tale. Suddenly, in the middle of a sentence, in the middle of mentioning Iron Fist by name, he pauses, thinks, "Iron Fist? Now why was I thinking about him?", lets the microphone slip from his fingers and sits, confused, trying to recall the recent past.
The Elephant Man this ain't. It's not Camus' "The Stranger" either. Still, what with an unknown act of fate causing Drom's lifelong ostracism from society combined with Iron Fist's overwrought musings on what constitutes life and memory and existence, a case could be made for this being Gerry Conway's commentary on alienation and prejudice in 20th century America. Enough to write a term paper on it, anyway, if you didn't feel darn silly doing it.
Now, I'd like to leave it at that but certain questions cannot be ignored. There is the obvious one, of course, as to whether either hero has any recollection of this first meeting. Did Pete listen to the tape again? Did Iron Fist remember? When they met for the second time, did they each think it was the first time? Did Iron Fist think it was the first time until Peter played him the tape? If Pete didn't recognize Iron Fist at the start, had apparently never heard of Iron Fist, how come he's asking himself at the end why he's thinking of Iron Fist? Lots of questions like that. But some other questions exist, as well. What happened to Drom's fancy lab and equipment? That didn't fade away too, did it? Why should the memories of the two heroes fade anyway? So Drom ceased to exist. That doesn't alter the past at all, does it? Even if Spidey can't remember Drom, he should be able to remember the fight with Iron Fist, shouldn't he?
In the letter page of this issue, the discussion dealt with the aforementioned Marvel Team-Up #28; Hercules towing Manhattan Island. One of the letters published was from former letter hack and current Spider-Man editor Ralph Macchio who called MTU #28 "one of the least pleasing team-ups of late". I didn't check a few issues ahead to see if Ralph had similar comments about Drom the Backwards Man. Hey, maybe he liked it. Maybe we can get Ralph to do a follow up on this story and answer all of those questions it left. ...Naw. Probably not. Who cares about all those questions anyway? This issue is just nutty enough to be alot of fun.
Had enough of oddball one-shot villains? So have I. The Original Green Goblin is next.