This one I had to buy! And not only because it came with a very reasonable $1 price tag. As I was digging through the bins of Marvel Team-Up at my local comic book store, this one jumped out at me. Because along with Spider-Man, the issue featured Devil-Slayer, perhaps the most obscure Marvel character ever. Of course, at this point, being an obscure character doesn't mean much in the Marvel Universe: Marvel could hire Keanu Reeves to play Devil-Slayer, and make a billion dollars on what turns out to be a culturally transformative film, and it would surprise no one. But back in 1981, presumably writer JM De Matteis got a call from Jim Shooter who said something like "next month, Devil-Slayer" and De Matteis had to come up with something. (Although presumably it has something to do with the fact that De Matteis was writing The Defenders, who Devil-Slayer was a member of).
And that "something" went something like this: Spider-Man is beating up muggers, when he suddenly gets sick...and dies. And sees Uncle Ben! In Heaven! Well, that is a dramatic first two pages, and it just gets more dramatic when a figure unknown to Spider-Man shows up out of nowhere and starts stabbing everyone in heaven. It turns out, (and we are only on page 4 now, right after a bubblegum ad), that heaven was actually full of disguised lizard people and that Devil-Slayer was rescuing Spider-Man from a lizard man cult. And that he needs Spider-Mans help to rescue a lost statue from a temple of the Spider-God. Spider-Man is a bit put off by Devil-Slayer's brusque and violent ways, but he goes along with the whole thing, letting Devil-Slayer teleport him across the world to an ancient Chinese temple where he finds the statue. Then, in the comic's denouement, it turns out that it wasn't Devil-Slayer all along: it was one of the lizard people. Using Spider-Man as a patsy! And they have The Defenders captured! Luckily, Spider-Man frees The Defenders and they quickly defeat the lizard people--all is right, until Spider-Man passes out! The teaser for the next issue says that the story will be continued, in some way, as Spider-Man will be teaming up with King Kull, since many of Marvel's barbarian comics were in Marvel continuity.
And lets get into that: Marvel Continuity. In general, Marvel Team-Up was light fare: combine Spider-Man with a Marvel B or C lister, fight a themed villain, and don't think too much about it. The reason I bought this, other than the cheap price, was that it seemed like the purest escapism possible, a way to have a drifting, dreamy 20 minutes on a lazy afternoon. But while the plot above seems like it would lend itself to that, being a whirlwind of fisticuffs and plot twists, I can't actually read a Marvel comic book with a lazy eye. I know that De Matteis was the writer on The Defenders at the time. I know that he would later write one of the best Spider-Man stories ever, Kraven's Last Hunt. I have even read his autobiography. I can view the comic from an external knowledge of where Marvel Comics was at the time: trying to reign in many trends of the 1970s, including many supernatural comics, in place of more self-contained and less adult stories. While reading this comic, I can actually put together an outline of what type of conversation Jim Shooter and De Matteis had for this issue. Even in the midst of a silly and seemingly thrown-together plot, I am left thinking of all the ways this story could connect to other parts of the Marvel Universe, as well as the external effects of popular culture at the time.
William Blake famously said "If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite." But sometimes I think the opposite is true. What would happen if I were to encounter this story, with no knowledge of Marvel Comics, or at least only a passing familiarity? What would I think if I found this story in someone's guest room, buried in a magazine rack with old National Geographics? What if I read this story, alone, and was able to enjoy it in its glorious finitude? Would I appreciate this story more, or less, with no background? It is a thought experiment we can't actually do, to imagine something free of all associations.