Saturday, December 29, 2007

Well, they did it. (OMD Spoilers)

The marriage is officially kaput. For now. Probably the most disappointing thing about all of this is how bad the writing has been. JMS has said (I believe so, anyway) that he didn't like the idea behind "One More Day" and from the way he wrote it, I believe him. I've also never bought into the idea that Peter and MJ are somehow "fated" to be together, so Mephisto talking about their love being "holy" and all that crap just falls flat.

That said... Anyone who believes that the marriage is dead is kidding themselves. The end of OMD sets things up perfectly to make sure that MJ and Peter not only get back together, but that they need to get back together. Harry's alive (and divorced from Liz, apparently). That in and of itself should prove that this story is not going to last. Harry Osborn did nothing but screw up his life every chance he got. If he's really been alive all this time, it means that he's just had more time to screw up his life. He's going to end of in a situation where he's "better off dead," if you know what I mean.

Add to that the fact that things between BND Peter and MJ are "frosty" and it's very, very clear that their relationship is far from done. It is my firm belief that BND is designed more to reinforce the marriage and its need to move forward (as in children) than it is to "end" the marriage. The one thing that will last from all of this is that Peter's identity will be secret again, and that's fine with me. Talk about a genie that needed a bottle... there it is.

I may be right, I may be wrong, but as bad of a story as "One More Day" was, it seems clear to me that its purpose is NOT to serve as a cop out. If it is just a cop out, just a crappy way to rid themselves of the marriage, then I'll be more than disappointed--I'll be surprised.

One more note, specifically to Marvel: If people buy more Spidey books starting with "Brand New Day", it's not because of the marriage being gone--it's because with good writing, the Spidey books might actually be readable again.

Eric

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Happy Holidays, etc.!

BTW, I hope everyone out there has a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, et cetera. I'm spending the holidays with relatives, and I hope that all of you guys are also lucky enough to spend this time with loved ones. I further hope that you'll be receving plenty of Spidey comics for Christmas. (My daughter and I splurged on the final fifty issues of Spider-Girl, so we'll have fun reading that over the next few weeks.)

In any case, thanks for reading. Be safe, and I'll see you next Sunday.

Eric

SM:FBFW ASM 96-98

Spider-Man: For Better or For Worse?

This Week's Reading List: Amazing Spider-Man 96-98

Ah, the famous pill-popping drug saga to which the Comics Code of the time would not give its seal of approval. Good times, good times. For the next sixty issues or so of ASM, btw, I'm going to be moving in and out of my trusty volumes of Essential Spider-Man. They're handy in terms of packing in a lot of material, but it's pretty sad to try to read these stories without color. This week, for example, I pulled out my old copy of Marvel Tales 191, which reprints ASM 96-98 in glorious full-color so that I could get the full effect of this story.

These issues are yet another set that have some real personal connections for me, and I feel that it's only fair to reveal those before I go on. I've had several good friends and relatives pretty much destroy their lives through drug and alcohol abuse. It scared me very badly when I was younger--it scared me enough that I've never actually tried an illegal drug and I'm more than a little shrill in my objection to them. Even when I first read this story back in 1986, I knew that Harry was getting into the same kinds of things that people I cared about had already used to screw up their lives. Yeah, the heroin-thing from Green Arrow is probably a more accurate depiction of abuse and withdrawl, and the “pills” thing in ASM is kind of pathetically vague, but there's a power to this story nonetheless. Ultimately, what I'm saying here is that I'm a sucker for this story, so if this review isn't entirely objective... deal with it.

Okay, so here's the plot: Mary Jane treats Harry like crap and comes on to Peter. Peter's hung up over Gwen, who's in London. Harry gets jealous of Peter and starts taking drugs. Meanwhile, Norman Osborn becomes the Green Goblin again. Instead of fighting the Goblin and just beating him down, Peter gets the Goblin to look at Harry's predicament (he's almost comatose because of an overdose of “drugs.”). The Goblin personality retreats, leaving only Norman Osborn. The end.

(Quick question: Does anyone know what exactly Harry was taking? The Harry Osborn Wikipedia entry has it listed as a “cocaine overdose”, but I don't remember anything about this particular drug being cocaine. Any info would be very welcome!)

So let's get the bad stuff out of the way right away, shall we? This story hits you over the head with it's anti-drug message. These three issues are pretty much a PSA that you get to pay for. Stan doesn't bother with subtlety here, but you know what? Given that this was pretty much the first instance of drug abuse being shown in a comic, I don't blame Stan for being very explicit about what was “good” and what was “bad” about these situations. Parents would have had a field day with this comic had it been the least bit vague or ambiguous.

The drugs themselves are almost comically vague by today's standards. We don't know what kind of high Harry's getting--it's just a bottle of pills. The drug dealer is pathetically unthreatening, because the only person he ever threatens is Peter who, of course, is in no danger whatsoever. However, the dealer is shown to be an opportunistic guy with no morals who's in it for the money. Again, the kids reading this comic back in the day needed clarity and simplicity for this issue, and they got it.

As far as the story itself goes, this three-parter is pretty good. Sure, it has all the amnesia cliches you can think of, but that's an unfortunate necessity to having the father of the main character's best friend be the arch-foe and still maintaining the concept of secret identities. Still, the Goblin is presented as a credible threat who is still harder to defeat because Peter doesn't want to hurt him (that old chestnut is getting a bit old in the Spider-Man series, as well, but that's an issue for another day).

The drug part of the story is, I think, well constructed considering the time and the novelty of the idea. Harry's insecurities appear suddenly and with surprising force, but they don't seem wildly inconsistent with the character. The serious consequences of drug abuse, the pervasiveness of the problem, and a brief run-down of the stereotypical beliefs of many people in regards to the issue are all handled in a way that a younger reader can understand. When I read it, I hear the same commitment to fairness that I often hear in Stan's social commentary. This is definitely workable.

It's the soap-opera that's interesting to me as I read it now. For the first time, I'm reading this story in context, and it makes it especially entertaining. Mary Jane comes of as a bit of a bitch, in my opinion. The way she dumps Harry and hangs on Peter goes beyond my idea of “party-girl” good taste. I'm honestly surprised that Peter will even consent to talk to her after this. (Think about it: his best-friend's girlfriend puts the moves on him in front of the friend? And he himself is vulnerable over the apparent demise of an important relationship? Who does this red-headed hussy think she is?) Of course, after the crap-fest to which we are about to be treated in the next four issues, everyone probably gets amnesia and forgets what a ho MJ is.

Anyway, let's check my Spidey-Standards against this week's reading list:

1) Spider-Man stories were better then than they are now. Written for the time? Yep. Still readable and interesting today? Yep.

2) Spider-Man's supporting cast is essential to good Spidey stories. Without Harry as the victim of drug abuse here, the whole storyline would lose power. MJ provides adequate impetus for Harry to start drugs, and Gwen provides the happy ending. Yep, pretty essential.

3) Peter Parker is not just a secret identity. I'm not sure there are any Peter-exclusive skills that Spidey really needs in these issues. However, the whole secret identity tension thing goes up a notch when Norman's involved, you know?

All right, that's it for this week. Up next week will be Amazing Spider-Man 99-102! Until Harry Osborn is a better character in the movies than in the comics, Make Mine Marvel!

Eric

Monday, December 17, 2007

SM:FBFW ASM 90-95

Spider-Man: For Better or For Worse?

This Week's Reading List: Amazing Spider-Man 90-95

We wrap up the current Doc Ock storyline this week before moving on to a two-parter featuring Sam Bullit, evil DA candidate. Three one-offs follow in which Spidey faces the Prowler, the Beetle, and more terrorists in Britain all while he searches for Gwen, who moves there after the death of her father. Oh, yeah. George Stacy dies right at the beginning this week. Let's check it out.

First, Peter uses his knowledge of chemistry to whip up a special chemical that jams the brain impulses that control Doc Ock's arms. Hooray for chemistry! Peter actually uses his brain for once. I have to say that there is less science in these old Spidey comics than one might hope. Anyway, these mess up Doc Ock's arms... and then the old Parker luck comes in. Ock's flailing arms crush a chimney, which in turn threatens to crush a little boy. George Stacy saves him, but is crushed himself. Dying, he reveals that he knows Spidey's true ID and he asks Peter to take care of Gwen. Sob.

I must say that I thought I would be more touched by Stacy's death than I actually was. I always liked the idea of the George Stacy character. I imagine that he would have made an excellent surrogate father for Peter. Unfortunately, George Stacy was not developed as he might have been. Even for the standards of the time, he was an inconsistent character who sometimes seemed to know Peter was Spider-Man, and sometimes didn't. I'm not entirely sure what purpose his death served other than someone saying, “Hey, let's kill George Stacy. He hasn't done anything useful for a while, and it'll provide friction between Peter and Gwen so we don't have to marry them yet. After all, we can't kill her...”

Then comes another anti-bigotry story where Spidey faces off against Sam Bullit, evil DA candidate. Taken for what it's worth, this isn't a bad two-parter. Sure, the message is pasted very clearly in every panel, and Gwen very conveniently (and inexplicably) trusts this guy who was disliked by her father, whom she is mourning. However, there's good street-level Spidey action + a fight with Iceman in ASM 92. More importantly, the Bullit character is actually taken down by JJJ and Robbie, who don't take kindly to his rough treatment of Peter Parker. This is another nice touch, where a political candidate is taken down by political means. It makes JJJ and Robbie useful characters beyond banter, and it keeps every issue being about Spider-Man punching a problem until it goes away.

Then... The Prowler thinks Spidey killed George Stacy and they fight until they don't. The Beetle kidnaps Aunt May. Terrorists kidnap an American in London. And the whole time, Gwen is very sad over her father while Peter can't comfort her truthfully because she blames Spider-Man and swears she hates him. The ten-year-old in me was screaming at the page the entire time, “Just tell her you're frakkin' Spider-Man, idiot! Explain what really happened! God, soap operas would make so much more sense if people just told the truth every once in a while!” But, of course, Peter says nothing, so Gwen goes to London. Peter follows, but he can't show his face because Spider-Man already showed his. Mask, not face. You get what I mean.

(BTW, I consider that little tidbit about the secret ID [Peter can't be seen in London 'cause Spidey's there] to stretch even my generous suspension of disbelief over secret ID's. Peter Parker can't visit Gwen because Spider-Man is in London? And Peter's the ONLY New Yorker currently in London? If Peter were remotely serious about Gwen, wouldn't he have considered that she'd have to find out about his double identity if they got married? Ugh. I have to say that DC handled this much, much better with the Clark-Lois marriage.)

So, basically, Gwen cries for five issues. Gwen cries at the funeral, she cries in her apartment, she cries in her car, she cries in London... And half the time, she's crying because Peter isn't treating her the way he should. This girl has lost whatever spirit Ditko might have once infused in her. I have to admit it. I think that many of us who love Gwen (and I'm one of them) love her in large part because she was such a cypher that we could project all our pre-adolescent fantasies on to her and they stuck. She never contradicted them. And ultimately, that's not what makes a good character.

Anyway, let's check my Spidey-Standards against this week's reading list:

1) Spider-Man stories were better then than they are now. No, not really. In fact, I think they're worse this week. The Doc Ock ending is cool, but the Bullit story is just too shallow and obvious. Bullit is a cartoon, Gwen acts more than illogically, and while the JJJ take-down is awesome, that doesn't save the whole story. In fact, this whole week is just filled with cliches. That's the real problem here.

2) Spider-Man's supporting cast is essential to good Spidey stories. George Stacy, JJJ, and Robbie keep this category from falling into the dregs with Gwen. Still, it's a wash this week.

3) Peter Parker is not just a secret identity. A great deal of what Spider-Man does this week is because of things he knows or is as Peter Parker. So Peter is once again a key element in the stories, but I'm coming to see that the scientist part of Peter still went woefully underused even in Stan's day.

All right, that's it for this week. Up next week will be Amazing Spider-Man 96-98! Until the cool term “spider-tracer” is changed to something bland like “micro-dot”, Make Mine Marvel!

Eric

Sunday, December 9, 2007

SM:FBFW ASM 84-89

Spider-Man: For Better or For Worse?

This Week's Reading List: Amazing Spider-Man 84-89

The Schemer, the Kingpin, the Black Widow, the Flu, Doctor Octopus. Not a bad line-up for a run of Spidey-issues. There's something old, something new, etc. Again, these comics are not the absolute best Spidey comics ever created, but it's clear that the quality of a so-called “average” Spidey story used to be much higher than it is today.

We find Spidey hanging upside-down in the snow, reading about the Schemer. No wonder Spidey gets the flu as often as he does--spandex and freezing temperatures don't mix, boy. Anyway, it's hard for me to take this story seriously for a couple of reasons. First, the Schemer has clearly seen too many James Bond films. The car, the weird get-up... Second, I know who the Schemer is and how the character is abused in the future. Plus, the idea of him dressing up in old-people stage make-up just makes him... kinky, and not in a fun way.

However, that doesn't change the fact that these are action-packed stories with lots of twists and turns in the plot. I'm not sure that the revelation of the Schemer's true identity would have been particularly interesting to anyone back then, as Richard Fisk was only introduced at the beginning of this arc. If they'd mentioned him in the last Kingpin arc and had just now paid it off, it might have been a little better... (Add to that the fact that Richard looks all of 12, and it's like finding out that the mastermind behind the latest episode of The Brady Bunch is... DUM DUM DUM... Cousin Oliver!)

Then comes a rather forgettable issue featuring the Black Widow slinking into her sexy new 70's get-up. She really isn't “a female copy of” Spider-Man in the vast majority of ways, but this story wants us to think she is. Anyway, to even the odds a little, Stan gives Spidey the flu. Anyway, the most interesting parts of this issue are (surprise!) the soap opera, as Peter's exploits as Spidey are really starting to cramp his lifestyle. The kooky thing is, it's pretty believable. The lack of a steady cast to whom he must constantly lie (and the inconsistent treatment of Peter's various jobs) in recent years has largely removed this issue from the books. (And don't start in on the unmasking, as you know that's going away after Christmas.) Still, Peter would be lying to everyone he knows all the time, and he'd seem like a real jerk. Can you blame his friends for thinking he's flaky?

By the start of ASM 87, the flu has Peter knocked on his ass and pretty much delirious. As he told himself in a dream back in ASM 11, viruses are about the only thing his Spider-powers can't handle. He should listen to himself. Anyway, there's no villain this issue--just the flu. It mind-controls him into revealing his identity to his closest friends. Luckily, they remember that Peter tried this schtick back in ASM 11 (through a story Harry heard), so they maintain their aura of gullibility +12. Hobie Brown is brought in as an NPC to help ensure that the damage done by the flu (who was possibly working with Mister Measles) is undone. Gwen is concerned; her father smokes his pipe and acts both sage and high at the same time. Same as it ever was. These two issues together are the weakest of the bunch this week, but they still keep the story moving forward.

And then... Doctor Octopus. Moreso than any “classic” Spidey-villain (and by “classic” here I'm talking what might have been considered classic as of ASM 88--a villain from the first thirty issues or so, maybe), Doc Ock is Stan's go-to guy. “Hey, Jazzy Johnny,” Stan might have said, “we lack powerful punch and pizazz in our soon-to-be subsequent Spidey story! Let's get Doc Ock in there for no reason other than he's cool!” I mean, where's the Sandman? The Scorpion? The Looter? Okay, I'm stretching. The truth is, Stan used the classic villains often enough, but except for the Goblin, Doc Ock tops them all, and he does here, as well.

The Chinese and terror angles on the first Doc Ock story are strange to read, given today's political situation. What really turns me on with these stories--WAIT! There! Did you see it? I never say “turns me on” in that context. Stan's Sixties Slang has infected me! AAAAGH!

Seriously, Gil Kane is one of my top three Spidey pencillers of all time, if he's not my #1. He has absolutely dynamic layouts, smooth storytelling, and his Spider-Man...! His Spidey is muscular but lean, and he does something with Spidey's face and eyes that, while I can't describe it, is very, very clearly the “Gil Kane” Spider-Man, and it's probably my favorite version. Seriously. Look at the number of times his characters break the frames of the panels, the perspectives he uses without going overboard into Kirby territory... Sigh. Gil Kane Spidey. It's like Heaven, only drawn better.

Anyway, let's check my Spidey-Standards against this week's reading list:

1) Spider-Man stories were better then than they are now. The Ock issues are above-average, the two stand-alones are below-average, and the Schemer is average for the time. Compared to today's Spider-Man stuff, this is definitely better.

2) Spider-Man's supporting cast is essential to good Spidey stories. Yes, they are, but I'm starting to see why they felt like they needed to kill Gwen. I still think she could have run back to London instead of getting chucked off a bridge, but hey...

3) Peter Parker is not just a secret identity. He has nothing to do with anything in the Doctor Octopus issues, the flu in the middle two, and nothing to do with the Kingpin, either. Don't worry, though. Peter's science know-how will come into play big time next week.

All right, that's it for this week. Up next week will be Amazing Spider-Man 90-95! Until Marvel constantly makes changes to Spidey and reverses them when the wind shifts, Make Mine Marvel!

Eric

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Star Trek TNG: Before Dishonor [SPOILERS]

BTW, I have to add that I almost forgot to post this week's SM:FBFW because I spent my Sunday evening reading Before Dishonor, the new Star Trek TNG book by Peter David. I mention this because it appears that they're actually doing things--story things, character development things--with the Star Trek novels now. I knew that Riker had moved on to the Titan, but I wasn't aware that they'd be allowed to do things like SPOILER KILL KATHRYN JANEWAY. /SPOILER

That alone was worth the price of admission. Not my favorite PAD book or TNG book by any stretch, but it was serviceable enough. If you're a PAD fan, a Spock fan, a Voyager fan, or a TNG fan, you should check out this novel.

SM:FBFW ASM 78-83

Spider-Man: For Better or For Worse?

This Week's Reading List: Amazing Spider-Man 78-83

Okay, the hits just keep happenin' this week, cats! We start out with the conflicted two-part origin of the Prowler, then we move on to a string of villains of the month including the Chameleon, the Kangaroo, Electro, and the Schemer. I have to say right up front that these next couple of weeks may make for short blog entries, Spider-philes, because Stan gets in a bit of a rut through the eighties and nineties. Not a horrible, “Oh, God, why am I reading this?” rut, but just a “okay, ready for the next issue, now!” rut.

To start off this week, though, we have the two-part introduction of the Prowler, a.k.a. Hobie Brown, who is one of the many African-American superheroes who was created to be a second-stringer, and the story makes it really hard to decide what was going through Stan's head. On one hand, there is a really strong anti-racism theme that runs through Amazing Spider-Man. Hobie Brown's boss, Mr. Clark, complains to Hobie that he's “had it with [Hobie's] type” (ASM 78; 14, 8), which, by itself, might mean a lot of things. Jameson's reaction, however, is to threaten that Clark had better “shut [his] big yap” or JJJ will “do it for [him]!” (ASM 78; 14, 8). Given that Jameson is shown repeatedly to be powerfully and consciously anti-bigotry, the only conclusion to draw here is that “[Hobie's] type” is African-American. I take the time to describe the scene for those who aren't actually reading along with the blog (most of you, I'd assume) and to demonstrate how oblique many of the references to race are in this book. They're there, sure, but they can be a little roundabout in getting mentioned.

On the other hand, there's the set-up of Hobie Brown as a second-rate Peter Parker. He's young, inventive, and tired of being pushed around. All of that would be great, except that it's yet another example of a black character who is designed as a lesser copy of a white character. The whole time I was reading this, I couldn't decide if I should take it as, “Well, certainly there are many young minority men in Hobie's position, where they have more potential than society recognizes, and some of them might certainly turn to costumed crime if such a thing were 'the thing to do' (as it is in Marvel Manhattan)” or if I should be reading this thinking, “Oh, so a black Peter Parker would have just turned to crime and needed a white hero to explain to him that it's a mistake.”

Let me say this before we go any further: I am not an expert on race relations. I'm really NOT interested in hosting a discussion of the treatment of African-Americans in Marvel comics on my blog. If anyone posts anything about it, I'm going to ask that we move the discussion to the ever-excellent Spider-Man Message Board so that Erik! and Comp can moderate the thread. So, to summarize: I'm just throwing out my questions about the race issue here. I don't want to moderate a discussion of it. If someone wants to have that discussion, I'm happy to head over to the SMB as a participant. Fair enough?

Other than the whole race thing, this is a middling two-parter. Several issues about the Prowler have always stuck in my craw. First, he designs much of his stuff to duplicate Spider-Man's powers. That's fine. But he's in no way a match for Spider-Man. Not even a little bit. Spidey should never, ever, ever have trouble with the Prowler. We're talking an untrained inventor who climbs walls using claws. Any Hand ninja is ten times the fighter Hobie is, and Spidey fights them by the dozen. Second, the “cliffhanger” of Peter in JJJ's office not knowing what to do isn't half as interesting as the following splash page of Peter falling out the window of JJJ's office. They should have ended the previous issue with that happening and Peter thinking, “And without my web-shooters, I have no way to save myself!” or something similar. Finally, I am a little tired of the on-again, off-again Peter-Gwen thing. In these issues, Peter has seen her talking with Flash Thompson, who's back for a bit, and he naturally assumes that she's two-timing him, so he acts like a jerk to her. Of course, we know she's talking to Flash because she's concerned about Peter, and Flash has known him for years. Ugh. Spare me.

Then comes another “flashback” issue for me. ASM 80, featuring the Chameleon, was reprinted many years ago in the Children's Press kid's book Spider-Man: The Secret Story of Marvel's World-Famous Wall-Crawler by Roger Stern. My library had this book, and I checked it out often. It was a good little summary of Spidey's then-current powers and history. I always wondered why they chose this particular story. The Chameleon is a boring villain, and this is a completely run-of-the-mill impostor story. At the same time, it's not a bad story, and it is done-in-one. Buscema's art has vastly improved over his earliest Spidey outing, and the ending, where the Chameleon chooses to be Peter Parker and that gets him caught, is moderately interesting. I did like reading this story in context, finally. The sub-plots made more sense to me in 2007 than they did back in 1983. (It should go without saying on this blog that the overall story still does make sense, and that is key to comics being accessible to new readers.)

After that... the Kangaroo. He lived with them (kangaroos) in Austrailia long enough to know how to jump like them and box like them, so now he's a super-villain. I kid you not. Yech. The only interesting thing about this story is that when Peter leaves a web-dummy upstairs in Aunt May's house, she actually discovers it, freaks out, and faints. Heh. I just wish she would have died at this point, since we're still dealing with Aunt May, the stupidest old biddy in the world!

The Electro story that follows is average in every way. Remember this. It's not a great story, it's only a serviceable one. And yet, because Stan has the story-engine in place, because we're given a little soap-opera, a little plot, angst, decent art, and a lot of action, the story comes through. These are the stories that Marvel has lost. These are the stories that keep readers going for that one- or two-month stretch where the writers are uninspired. These are also the stories that make others seem really cool but still connected. Give us more of these, Marvel, instead of some of the dreck you foist on us, and you'll have more consistent sales.

Lastly this week, we have the Schemer. He isn't that interesting of a villain, but he gets tied into Kingpin story very early on, and that makes the stakes high enough for me to care. Gwen is put in danger, Peter saves her, he's misunderstood... Again, this is entertaining enough that I went right ahead and read the next issue because I wanted to know what would happen... but it's still just a good Spidey issue. Better than the Electro one, but this is clearly a build-up story, not a climax. You know what? I'd take more of these if Marvel were actually capable of producing good Spidey stories month-in and month-out. Oh, well. We'll see what Brand New Day has in store for us here in the not-too-distant future.

Anyway, let's check my Spidey-Standards against this week's reading list:

1) Spider-Man stories were better then than they are now. This week's books were completely average Spidey-stories for the time, but they made me want to read the next issue. Even the Kangaroo made me look forward to the following issue because I have faith in Stan that the next issue will be better.

2) Spider-Man's supporting cast is essential to good Spidey stories. The soap-opera sustains us even when the plot does not. So says Eric.

3) Peter Parker is not just a secret identity. Nope. Spidey is definitely Peter Parker, even in these average issues. Many of Spidey's decisions and tensions come directly from Peter's life. They are not separate (nor should they be).

All right, that's it for this week. Up next week will be Amazing Spider-Man 84-89! Until a stupid clone of Thor (created by Reed Richards and Tony Stark, no less) kills off Black Goliath for no good reason, Make Mine Marvel!

Eric

Sunday, November 25, 2007

SM:FBFW ASM 73-77, MSH 14

Spider-Man: For Better or For Worse?

This Week's Reading List: Amazing Spider-Man 73-77, Marvel Super Heroes 14.

We've got three basic storylines here this week: The finale of the ancient tablet, the return of the Lizard, and a one-off from Marvel Super Heroes. I'm sorry to say that the quality of the stories goes steadily down as we work our way through the list, but it does start pretty high.

First and foremost, the tablet storyline. This is, as mentioned last week, an absolute classic run of page-turning excitement. While Man-Mountain Marko might not be the classic villain that Stan's hype wants him to be, he serves well enough for these stories. He reminds me of Johnny Cash, but surlier. In any case, what's really happening here is that happy convergence of storylines that happens every so often in good serial storytelling. A couple of different plots are brought together, the stakes are raised, the clock is ticking, and readers are treated to awesomeness--especially those readers who've been with the book for a few months at least and are interested to see what's up with the tablet.

Ultimately, the secret is revealed, and the guilty are punished through no help of Spider-Man's. It is interesting to see just how powerless he really is to stop anything here. Even though Silvermane doesn't “win” in the end, Spider-Man fails to regain the tablet, to save Doc Connors, to stop Silvermane before he can use the tablet, and to rescue Martha and Billy. I mean, he does eventually break down their door, but not until all the gangsters run in fear of what's happened to Silvermane. This, I think, illustrates an important point in several different types of Spider-Man stories that really makes him relatable as an “everyman” character: things happen in his book that are bigger than him. Not just a little bit bigger, not “bigger” in the philosophical sense. We're talking bigger in every sense.

A few years ago, Paul Dini and Alex Ross did their whole set of big DC Universe stories, and the first one was about Superman trying to end world hunger. In the story, IIRC, Superman's efforts are essentially foiled by human greed. When he delivers grain shipments, the dictators of certain unnamed countries poison the shipments to maintain control over their people. The message, as I recall it, is that not even Superman can conquer the human heart--we have to do that ourselves. It's a good story. It's an interesting take on the questions that inevitably come up when considering someone of Superman's power, questions that find an alternate answer in Alan Moore's Miracleman. However, it's ultimately a hollow answer, because Superman allows the problem to be bigger than him. He takes the high ground of “I can't rule the world, I can't be a dictator.” Several stories show the downside of this in alternate universes. Even the Miracleman world, a utopia with super powers for everybody, has its negative sides (namely, that no one who lives in such a world is really human anymore). However, the key here is that Superman allows the problem to be bigger than him. If Superman ever decided to rule the world, he could. There'd be logistical problems, sure, but he could.

Spider-Man can't. Spider-Man cannot make himself bigger than these problems. Bendis drives this home often in Ultimate Spider-Man, where Spider-Man is clearly a sixteen-year-old kid fighting the very adult problems of organized crime. I don't always like the way Bendis handles it, but there is a strong sense in that book that Spidey is in over his head, and it makes him relatable. Sure, he's super-strong and can stick to walls, but in a world of Hulks and Captain Americas, he's just one more guy doing the best he can, and sometimes his best just isn't enough. That is so big for the character, and it separates Spider-Man from many, many other super heroes. Sure, Superman, Batman, Thor, they might come up against a problem that they allow to be bigger than them, but it's always for a special issue: the Christmas issue, or the standalone by some big-name. With Spider-Man, it happens all the time, and there's no real moral to it other than, “You're not big enough to fix things by yourself.”

Anyway, then comes the two-part Lizard story that's pretty much non-stop action. For me, at my age (32), this is boring. Sure, it's another good example of how to take a villain like the Lizard, who could be taken down by the FF or the Avengers at any time and is dangerous enough that, in the “real” world, he would be, and make the story into a compelling Spidey story. Spidey can't fight at full power because he promised he wouldn't hurt Dr. Connors. However, the lack of soap opera, the weak art by John Buscema (who would become a much stronger and more dynamic artist in later years, so don't hate-mail me about my dig at JB), and the one-note story all drag this down. Oh, yeah. If the Lizard gets really thirsty and dehydrated, he turns back into Curt Connors. If the plot calls for it.

The one-shot from Marvel Super Heroes is actually set around ASM 50, judging by the hair styles, and my God, I wish it had stayed there. Spider-Man is controlled by the super-voodoo of the Sorcerer, who makes him fight a big rubber robot. Then the Sorcerer's doorbell rings, and he's defeated. I kid you not. Poor Ross Andru art, pathetic story... no thanks.

Anyway, let's check my Spidey-Standards against this week's reading list:

1) Spider-Man stories were better then than they are now. The tablet story is better, the Lizard story is an average comic for the time, and the Sorcerer story wouldn't have made the cut for Tangled Web, if that tells you anything.

2) Spider-Man's supporting cast is essential to good Spidey stories. Well, except for the corny dialog (again) and Peter being more that ga-ga over Gwen (“She must have taken a double dose of pretty pills this morning!”), yeah, the soap opera helps the tablet story. It especially helps if we count Martha and Billy for the sake of argument. However, the other three issues lack it enough that it might as well not be there.

3) Peter Parker is not just a secret identity. Meh. He pretty much is in these issues, but the stories paid their Peter dues last week, so we'll take it for the climax of the tablet tale.

All right, that's it for this week. Up next week will be Amazing Spider-Man 78-83! Until Bendis wastes yet another Ultimate version of a character as he did with Ultimate Silvermane (and Ultimate George Stacy, and Ultimate Jean DeWolff, and...), Make Mine Marvel!

Eric

Sunday, November 18, 2007

SM:FBFW - The Rant

Spider-Man: For Better or For Worse?

This Week's Reading List: None.

First things first: This is a rant. This was originally the scorekeeping post, but it really wasn't about scorekeeping. The problem is, I'd read it and re-read it, and it still said what I think. I couldn't just delete it. So I moved it to this post. Sorry if you're getting tired of just reading my thoughts as opposed to Spidey happenings. In any case, this is a rant, you're welcome to disagree, and I'd be happy to discuss any of this with anybody who posts. Just don't spit in my eye over this, as it is, after all, my blog, and I'm not interested in fighting. Discussing, yes, arguing, possibly, but fighting? Insulting? No thanks. That's what Newsarama is for.

Look, here's the deal. I am not really enjoying the current crop of Spider-Man comics. JMS just... doesn't get the character. Not all of his stories have been bad, but he doesn't. Quesada doesn't get the character. Paul Jenkins started strong, I thought, and then it devolved into a sticky-sweet nostalgia trip that was boring. Peter David, one of my two favorite authors of all time (tied with Stephen King), did a run on FNSM that seemed to me bound and determined to push fans away in droves--I enjoyed it, but it's hard for me to imagine the casual reader picking up a book about the time-traveling Spider-Man 2211 and thinking, “Hey, all right! NOT the guy I wanted to buy!”. Mark Millar should never be allowed near Spider-Man again. Sacasa... I just never, ever cared about his stuff one way or the other. Kaare Andrews and Reign... Look, Dark Knight was cool for Batman, but Batman isn't Spider-Man. There have been mini-series, and some of them were maybe good, but I got burned too bad buying all the Spider-crap in the 90's. If I'm buying a mini at this point, I'll buy it in trade or digest, and I probably won't care.

That's my gut-reaction to the 616 stuff over the last four years or so, plain-and-simple. No, I haven't gone back and reread much of it. No, I didn't read it all that carefully the first time, most of it. You know what? That's a sign, Marvel. That's a big, freakin' sign that something is wrong with your comics. I have been a Spidey-fan since before I could read. Spider-Man got me in to comics (a Marvel Tales reprint of ASM 19 and Amazing Spider-Man 247 were the first comics that went into my collection). I haven't missed an issue of Amazing since 251. I went to all the movies on opening night. I used to look forward to visiting my cousin in Ohio because they got the 60's cartoon there and I could watch it. I have VHS copies of all the Nicholas Hammond episodes. (No, you can't have any, so don't ask.) I am the biggest Spider-Man fan I know (personally) and I don't care about your Spider-Man comics anymore, Marvel. Buy a clue!

“Back In Black” was a joke. “One More Day” is even worse. Why are they doing this to us? Seriously! Why? Maybe--maybe--”Brand New Day” will solve the problems, but if they do something cheesy with the marriage, I'm going to be mad. Mad enough to stop buying the books? I don't think so. I know I should vote with my wallet, with my dollars, but when you haven't missed an issue in twenty-four years, it's hard to stop, you know? That doesn't matter. The basic facts are there: The books just aren't good. Reading over these old books has convinced me more than ever that the current crop sucks and should simply be plowed under. Why do I believe this? For a couple of reasons:

1) I can enjoy the old stuff and still see its limitations. Ditko's art is in a class by itself, literally. I like it, I've grown up with it, I think it's cool, but it's certainly not modern in style. Still, I enjoy the stories. Don Heck's Spidey work is, in my opinion, sloppy, but Romita's stuff has power, and Mooney's stuff is more than tolerable. No, I'm not sure it'd pass muster today in terms of style, but in terms of energy, composition, storytelling? Hell yeah.

2) I want to like the new stuff. Every single frakkin' time Marvel does another damned reboot/revamp/relaunch thing with Spider-Man, I really do read it with an open mind. Not a tabula rasa mind, you understand, but an open one. I want to enjoy Spider-Man. I try to enjoy Spider-Man. The material fails me.

3) Ultimate Spider-Man. I think Bendis has lost it on his Marvel stuff these days, to be honest, but when this book came out in 2000, I was absolutely floored. I originally bought it for the sake of completeness: “Oh, well, I'll buy this for the ten issues it lasts.” I loved it. So did everyone else. It was a perfect mix of classic and modern... for a while. Then Bendis did the Ultimate version of Monkey Sex on it. (For info on “Monkey Sex” in this context, read THIS, among other things. I don't entirely disagree with this then-current review). The problem is, one does NOT do “Monkey Sex”--a complete and utter change in direction and tone for a series--with a book like Spider-Man. No, no, no. What was a great mix of classic and modern suddenly became the crazy effing kaleidescope of Brian Michael Bendis' acid trip vomit. Carnage, Bendis? Friggin' CARNAGE? CLONES? Where's the damned supporting cast? Why the hell did you kill Gwen? What the hell is happening in this book now? Can anyone tell me? Is there a secret identity to keep anymore? GAAAAAAHHHHHH!**

See? That's my point. I. LOVED. Ultimate Spider-Man. Loved it. And then, because he can, because no one at Marvel has any kind of a vision of what a monthly comic should be month-in, month-out, Bendis started tripping out and it started to suck. And it has continued to suck.

Why? Because absolutely no one who has managed Spider-Man for the last ten years has understood the concept of the story engine. (Please note I said “managed” and not “written.” Peter David understands the story engine. He's just not editing Spider-Man books.) Oh, they might get it intellectually, but none of them understand that what we readers want it a reliable story engine every single month. Spider-Man is a brand name. Spider-Man is a thing in and of itself. There are things that Spider-Man is, there are things that Spider-Man is not, and no one at Marvel who controls the work done on Spider-Man understands the difference anymore. (Tom DeFalco understands, but as much as I love his current work on Amazing Spider-Girl, his last Spidey run also did not work any more than anyone else's.)

I remember reading an interview with or essay by Frank Miller--whose current work I also cannot stand, BTW (I tell you simply in the interest of full disclosure)--a while back where he talks about working on Daredevil. And he talks about what Daredevil stories are, and what they aren't, and how his editor shut him down more than once because the story he gave her was “a Batman story” and not a Daredevil story. That confused me at the time, but I think I get it more, now. See, the Daredevil story engine is not the same as the Batman story engine. When people buy Batman they want a Batman story, and when they buy Daredevil they want a Daredevil story. The Batman engine is more popular than the DD one, but that doesn't make one better than the other, and there are DD fans who don't like Batman and vice versa. Different strokes for different folks, you know?

The first... thirty issues or so of Ultimate Spider-Man were “Spider-Man” again. The story engine had been tweaked for Y2K, but what was old was new again, and it was working, working, working. It was working in a way that NO Spider-Man ongoing had worked in many years, even then. And then Bendis started throwing away the series' potential just as the 616 writers had, but worse. He offed Captain Stacy with no development. Jean DeWolff. Gwen Stacy (minimal development for a maximum-importance character). The whole damned supporting cast. SHIELD showed up constantly. In Spider-Man. Once again, that “Spider-Man” feel that so many of us had been missing--that the whole industry had been missing, judging from the sales--had disappeared.

By the by, “Monkey Sex” is okay for Powers. It really is. Powers is Bendis' baby (with Oeming, of course). He can do whatever the hell he pleases with it. If Bendis wants to turn Powers from a super-film-noir into 2001 and Greek mythology, that's is just peachy-keen with me. I know that he's writing for himself and that I'm along for the ride. I totally dig that, no complaints.

“Monkey Sex” is not okay for Spider-Man. “Sins Past” is NOT okay for Spider-Man. Constant SHIELD appearances. Living in Avengers Mansion. Killing every supporting character in sight. “Back In Black.” “One More Day.” “The Clone Saga.” “The Gathering of Five.” All of it. NOT OKAY. It's just not.

Many of you reading this (all five of you, for all I know) may disagree with me. I'm ranting, I know, and I reserve the right to clarify anything in this post. I also fully admit that I may not cite my sources particularly well here. You know what? I don't have to. This is one fan's gut reaction to what he sees as the long-term degradation of one of his favorite storytelling institutions. I'd call it unreasonable, but the old books and the good new ones (the first 30 issues of USM, as I said) can get me stoked again just like I was ten and dying to bike to the comics store. Marvel has lost it, Spider-Man has lost it, and I'm not sure if it's ever coming back.

The scoresheet from last week shows that Spidey comics weren't always good. It shows that they were often mediocre. Of course they are. Of course they were. They're serial storytelling, and sometimes a writer or an artist just needs to get the issue done whether it's good or not. (Not Bryan Hitch, but most others.) That's okay. The storytelling engine that we all knew and loved fed something inside us, and we took the blah meals with the great meals, and we had very few stinkers.

We had many more good meals than bad back then, and that's just not the case anymore. I suspect that the coming weeks, especially after Gwen's death, will fill me with blah stories or stinker stories. I don't have a great deal of optimism over the seventies' material. That's okay. If it's bad, it's bad. I don't think it'll be that much worse than today.

All right, that's it for this week. Up next week will be Amazing Spider-Man 73-77 and Marvel Super Heroes 14! Despite my usual sarcasm about the state of the current books (sarcasm which, according to the score this time, is generally justified), Make Mine (old-school) Marvel!

Eric

**("Brendis" typo fixed!)

Sunday, November 11, 2007

SM:FBFW Scorekeeping 1

Spider-Man: For Better or For Worse?

This Week's Reading List: None.

First things first: I'm going to try to put a bit of a scoreboard up in this post. If anyone has trouble reading anything, please post a comment to let me know ASAP. I'm no web-guru and I don't know how much I can get away with.

Okey-dokey, here we go, folks. A scorekeeping week. This week we're taking a look back at the past twenty Spider-Man: For Better or For Worse posts, both at the actual Marvel Spidey-content and at the blog itself. It's a little hard for me to believe that it's been twenty “official” posts since I started this little experiment, and it's gratifying that people are reading and commenting. Thanks to everyone for your time and interest. That's right, all five of you.

Here's a clip from the spreadsheet I use to track my personal ratings data from each week. I rate each post Better, Same, or Worse than current Spidey comics, with “current” being a flexible term that sometimes means the last few months, the last few years, 616, Ultimate, whatever. Anyway...

I think the results speak for themselves. Despite the differences in writing and art styles, time periods, creative teams, storytelling trends, etc., Spider-Man stories from the sixties were just plain better. (The Busiek stories from the nineties, unsurprisingly, were also better than the stuff we've got today, but they were awesome in so many ways that have already been explained in these columns...)

Let's look back at the introduction to this blog and see what statements might prove relevant to this week of reflection.

Spider-Man comics are not as good as they used to be. Nope, they aren't. Look at the scores above. In the 60's, at least, they were weirder, but they were also more fun, more engaging, and more accessible to the new reader.

What is wrong with comics, and Spider-Man comics in particular, that so many long time fans have dropped it? Why are more fans not joining the hobby? I'll gripe about this next week.

For many people, the comics that are “the best” are the comics they grew up with, and once they grew up, the comics weren't as good. I haven't gotten to the 80's yet, but I still tend to agree with this idea.

I also wanted to keep myself from “glossing over” periods in Spider-Man history that were worse than the modern day, because part of my motivation was exploring that concept, that “Spider-Man books are not as good as they used to be.” I'd be thrilled to be proven wrong, and I wouldn't be surprised to hear my opinions change as I go through this little diary/blog/podcast experiment. You know, I thought my opinions might change, and they have. I actually believe that Spider-Man comics suck MORE now than I did when I started this. Stan's Spidey stuff, whether grittier with Ditko or more action-packed with Romita, are just plain fun. Yes, there are dry periods, but this old stuff, where I know who dies and who doesn't, where I know much of the basic story already, keeps me turning the pages and moving on to the next issue. Today's stuff... not so much.

Is it possible that fans like me pretty much just remember the good stuff or the great stuff and forget all of the idiocy in between? Yes, it is. However, the gaps between good stretches of story were smaller then than they are now.

Spider-Man is not about guilt, he is about responsibility. Peter Parker is allowed to be happy (sometimes), and he is allowed to try to have a life. Jeez, is this true. Stan's Peter is a player extraordinaire! Every girl wants him. You know what? It's awesome. Sure, he has problems, and they help keep his stories interesting, but the comics used to be fun, too. They used to be about escapism and thrill-seeking. How many Spider-Man stories in the last ten years would you classify as “thrilling”?

My major complaint about Spider-Man through the 90's and the 2000's is the complete lack of a sense of hope. Another major complaint I've developed is best explained by John Seavey, who runs a blog about various story-engines: The Spider-Man story-engine is gone. I liked that story-engine. I liked the product it produced. If Marvel would stick with it, they'd have more consistent stories. (Not necessarily better, but certainly more consistent, and, to my mind, more marketable stories.)

BTW, the Hobgoblin is the best Spidey villain since Norman Osborn, and his stories were better written. Sorry, Stan, but Roger Stern did you one better with the Hobgoblin issues. And to all of you fans who disagree with me, tough. I still like the Hobgoblin.

All right, that's it for this week. Up next week will be... an angry rant about current Spidey comics! Until we get the movie's emo-Peter in the comics, Make Mine Marvel!

Eric


Sunday, November 4, 2007

SM:FBFW ASM 68-72

Spider-Man: For Better or For Worse?

This Week's Reading List: Amazing Spider-Man 68-72.

Okey-dokey, here we go, folks. All the Lee/Romita/Mooney team can offer us this week is... an action-packed page-turning* saga of crime, greed, and desperation! Holy cow, did they knock it out of the park this week as the Kingpin searches for a mysterious tablet. Lots of done-in-one A-plots with compelling, to-be-continued B-plots means quick reading and gratitude that I didn't have to wait 30 days for the next installment each time as I do here! Let's get it going!

*Thanks to Stu The Disgruntled Geek over at the ever-popular Spider-Man Message Board for applying this particular phrase to this particular era of Spider-greatness.

All right, first we have the famous “Crisis on Campus” issue. The story here is very smart, mixing social commentary with soap opera with super-hero/crime stuff. This, like “Escape: Impossible!” is a fantastic Spidey story that can be read by itself but also does a great job of advancing several storylines. What's really interesting to me, though, are the racial issues in the, er, issue. Several times, Peter or some other caucasian is called “Whitey”, while Joe Robertson is called an “Uncle Tom” because he works for J. Jonah Jameson. Meanwhile, Robertson, Parker, and Gwen all have moments to shine where they all basically declare that the only thing that really matters is the choices a person makes, what he does with his life. I have to agree, and I've always really liked reading Stan's “racism” issues/scenes because that's my take on it, as well. Certainly Randy Robertson's “soul-brother” friend Josh takes the attitude of “they're white so they're wrong”, and that kind of prejudice (on any side) is just worthless--and dangerous. I seem to remember another scene at some point where someone says something to Jameson about keeping “one of them” (Robbie) on staff, and Jameson basically rips into the guy for being such a pathetic racist. None of this is to say that Marvel doesn't have its own problems with race, but the basic idea being advanced in this issue is one that I can really get behind.

After that, the issues all blend together in my mind because I read them all in one sitting last night. I thought to myself, “Well, I'll just read two!” Then I'd get to the end of one and want to read the next. This happens to me a lot with modern comics, but I tend to believe it's because the stories are so damned decompressed (and yes, I'm looking at YOU, Bendis!) and they just don't read well on an issue-by-issue basis. I've actually stopped buying the single issues of all the Ultimate books and moved on to the trades, simply because I couldn't ever remember, month-to-month, what was happening in any of them. It wasn't so bad when Ultimate Spider-Man was coming out bi-weekly almost, but then that book just got a bit old and boring. (And they killed Gwen Stacy. Again. And I was honestly too mad to keep paying the same kind of attention.)

That said, the fact that these issues all blend together in my mind doesn't mean they weren't good. On the contrary, I kept reading. I felt that wonderful compulsion to keep reading that one only gets when the story reaches a certain critical mass. Certain things stand out to me: Spidey losing it with Jameson and threatening him in our first big “Spidey goes too far!” storyline. Of course, this one made sense all the way around, and it serves as yet another reminder that Peter is nineteen at best and he's not really ready for the burden of being a public figure (as Spider-Man). I don't generally like those stories, but they're generally gimmicks. It's not here, so I'll go with it.

The Kingpin is awesome, as always. The Quicksilver fight falls into much the same category as the Medusa issue, but it's not as lame, and it's one of those not-too-often seen power mix-ups (basically Spidey fighting the Flash) that would have been really cool when one was ten. The Shocker issue is an okay use of a second-stringer, but not on the level of “Escape: Impossible” or the recent Mysterio two-parter.

Through all of this weaves the Peter/Gwen get-together/break-up cycle, which honestly doesn't bother me the way that it seems to bother other reviewers. I remember being nineteen and being in a serious relationship (with my future wife, I might add). We fought over petty crap and I was really scared of commitment, so we had a ton of little tiffs and “breaks” and ultimatum-filled arguments for a good two years before we got married and did many of the same things behind closed doors. Add in the burden of one of you being Spider-Man, with all the problems and lies that go along with that, and it's a wonder the two of them didn't just break up. That Peter and Gwen obviously have fallen hard for each other at this point is indisputable, but the pressures on their relationship would make anyone crazy. Keep it comin', Stan.

Let me just add that Captain Stacy is kind of a jerk. When Gwen complains to him that Peter is being called a coward, he asks something to the effect of, “Are you afraid they might be... right?” He doesn't bother to defend his potential son-in-law whom he must know is Spider-Man at this point, and he doesn't comfort his only child. Instead, he just sits back, smokes his pipeweed, and thinks “I know something you don't know...!” He should hang out with Silver Age Superman for a while. (See superdickery.com if you don't get the reference.)

Anyway, let's check my Spidey-Standards against this week's reading list:

1) Spider-Man stories were better then than they are now. I actually wanted to read the next issue, so yes.

2) Spider-Man's supporting cast is essential to good Spidey stories. Once again, the things that makes one want to read the next issue are the ongoing storylines--that's all supporting cast, people.

3) Peter Parker is not just a secret identity. Well... this week he kind of is. I'm not sure that Spider-Man has much to do for which the Peter Parker side of his skill sets (science, personal relationships, etc.) are really necessary.

All right, that's it for this week. Next week will be a scorekeeping week, which means we'll actually review the last twenty posts worth of stuff and look at the tally for whether Spider-Man books of the past used to be Better, the same, or Worse! Until the Kingpin is assassinated Caesar-style (but not really--psyche!), Make Mine Marvel!

Eric

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Buffy Season Eight TPB I

Just a quick note--I just bought Buffy The Vampire Slayer Season Eight, Volume I: The Long Way Home, and it's awesome. Excellent story, character, dialogue, everything. If you like fun comics, do not miss this one. The link above takes you to Amazon to buy it, but I'd recommend your favorite local comic shop.

I'd write a review, but it's Halloween and there's just not time. The short version is... AWESOME. BUY NOW.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

SM:FBFW ASM 66, 67, Ann 5, SSMM 2

Spider-Man: For Better or For Worse?

This Week's Reading List: Amazing Spider-Man 66, 67, Amazing Spider-Man Annual 5 and Spectacular Spider-Man (Magazine) 2.

Okey-dokey, here we go, folks. Up this week are a quick little Mysterio yarn and two longer pieces. Nothing this week rises to the level of last week's awesomeness, but neither does it fall to the levels of dreck we've had to suffer through.

The Mysterio two-parter in ASM 66 and 67 is yet another example of a good use of a second-string villain. At no time is Spider-Man actually in that much trouble, really--it's a question of beating Mysterio quickly and then it's a question of “how am I suddenly six-inches tall?” ASM 66 does a better job with the urgency question, even if it's a flimsy reason. Mysterio, appearing on TV, freaks out fragile, pathetic Aunt May, and Peter rushes off to beat him in time for May to catch the Beverly Hillbillies later that night. Honestly, it's the super-hero version of going out to yell at your neighbor for his stupid, barking dog so that your kid can go to sleep, and it serves the story well. There's a real sense of surface urgency that adds to the tension of “hey, I'm fighting the Angry Stunt-Man again!”

ASM 66 also outshines its successor in the soap-opera department. Not only does it use Aunt May in a halfway-decent manner, but it also reunites Peter and Gwen. Hooray! 67, on the other hand, has maybe two pages TOTAL of soap-opera and another 18 pages of Spidey versus giant Mysterio hand. To add insult to injury, the two pages include a clear “prelude to the next issue” scene between Joe “Robbie” Robertson and his son (in which Robbie calls his son both “my outrageous offspring” and “man-child” in a clear attempt to practice his fantasy play for MJ) and a final panel in which Spidey thinks that the protest below couldn't possibly have anything to do with... Spider-Man! Yawn.

Next up is Amazing Spider-Man Annual 5, where Peter fights the Red Skull and some Algerians in order to clear his parents' names. Other than the fact that seeing Spidey fight Muslims reads a little differently in today's world, not much goes on here. I will say that it's interesting to see Spidey fight the Red Skull for two reasons: First, the Skull expects Spidey to be a push-over, which is a nice reminder that Spidey is still, in many ways, a young New York local without much of a rep outside the city. Second, it's always interesting to see a crossover between heroes and villains in books (occasionally). The art here is disappointing, but it's an okay done-in-one Annual story.

Then comes “The Goblin Lives!” in Spectacular Spider-Man (Magazine) #2... and it's disappointing. Sure, it's great to see the original Goblin, but this whole story basically boils down to this: The Goblin has two psychedelic pumpkins. The one he uses on Spidey weirds Spidey out for a minute. The one Spidey uses on him causes him to freak out and forget his own name. Honestly, that's it. There's the whole “remembering his identity” set-up. There's the “dinner with Norman” scene that is clearly ripped-off by Spider-Man (The Movie). There's the fight. None of it is bad, but since the ENTIRE issue is self-contained, too much time is spent in set-up and wrap-up with the cosmic reset button pressed at the end. Plus, Jim Mooney's art here is just not as good as it was in his last couple of issues of Amazing. Given that this issue must have been exciting for anyone wanting to see Spidey vs. Goblin, it's a let-down.

Anyway, let's check my Spidey-Standards against this week's reading list:

1) Spider-Man stories were better then than they are now. I'd say about the same. Some interesting experimentation, but not a lot of payoff. Kind of like the whole Ezekiel storyline. (I'm not saying that in a bitter way, either. The good is balanced out by the bad, so it's decidedly so-so.)

2) Spider-Man's supporting cast is essential to good Spidey stories. They're the most interesting parts of these stories, but they're in short supply. Meh.

3) Peter Parker is not just a secret identity. Well, he's not, but... Fine. We'll give this one a big “check'er-oonie”, but that doesn't make this a good week.

All right, that's it for this week. Up next week will be Amazing Spider-Man 68-72! Until Marvel brings back Peter's parents, but like Ash in Alien, they turn out to be ROBOTS, Make Mine Marvel!

Eric

Monday, October 22, 2007

Gwen Stacy Retrospective - With Scans!

Anyone who's enjoying my blog needs to check out this Gwen-centric series by Julio Barone. I'm only reading it up to the issues I've already blogged, but it's an interesting take that definitely goes into more depth than mine!

Keep it up, Julio!

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Great Deal for Spider-Man or Spider-Girl Subscription!

Venom posted this on the Spider-Girl board and Jeffers provided the online info, but here's the short version: Go to this link, choose a worthy school, and you can subscribe to any of the Marvel Adventures books (Spidey, Avengers, or Fantastic Four) or Amazing Spider-Girl for only $20 for 12 issues! That's What's even better is that the school gets 40% (or $8) of the price!

I haven't done a post on it yet, but if you aren't reading Amazing Spider-Girl, you should be. It is the spiritual successor to DeFalco's excellent 80's run on Amazing Spider-Man, and it's possibly Marvel's best month-to-month read. It's good in trades, of course, but it's one of the few books on the stands that doesn't feel like it's written for trades. Fantastic serial storytelling. Besides, the Hobgoblin (Roderick Kingsley) is one of the big villains. How cool is that?

SM:FBFW ASM 62-65, SSMM 1

Spider-Man: For Better or For Worse?

This Week's Reading List: Amazing Spider-Man 62-65 and Spectacular Spider-Man (Magazine) 1.

BTW, don't get too excited over a Saturday post. I'm still just trying to post once a weekend, but it's one of those Saturday nights where I have nothing better to do then post, so here you go. ;-)

Also, I've added a little bit of Java to the site so I can track traffic. If it gives anyone any trouble, let me know. I hate sites that take a long time to load, especially because of some stupid plug-in.

Okey-dokey, here we go, folks. Wow, wow, wow. Last week was so “meh” and this week... Again, it's so easy to see sometimes what the appeal was to kids back in the sixties. This week's books are just jam-packed with excellent action, fantastic fights, and dynamic character interaction! See, it's issues like these that remind me why I'm bothering with this crazy project in the first place (the reading, not the blog): These five issues are head-and-shoulders above any Spider-Man book published in the last year. Yes, they're a little cheesy. Yes, they're full of sixties weirdness. Yes, the art is old-fashioned much of the time. None of that changes the fact that each one of these issues tells a full story's worth of plot and excitement, does interesting things with the supporting cast, and puts Spidey into situations that aren't tired.

Okay, it starts out weak with the Medusa issue. Still, this little guest appearance does serve to tie Spidey in to the larger Marvel framework, so that's okay. It's also got good use of supporting characters like Harry and Gwen, and it really builds the “Return of the Green Goblin” plot, which must have been great for sales.

Then comes a strange little experiment in Marvel publishing history: Spectacular Spider-Man Magazine 1. This black-and-white magazine features excellent Romita pencils and fine Jim Mooney inks (possibly pencil finishes as well--I'm not sure). (Let me throw in here that I have noticed Jim Mooney's work in this volume of Marvel Masterworks for the first time. I'm not sure I ever gave him much thought before--I've seen his work now and again--but he is a better Romita-substitute than Don Heck. He has nice, clean lines and solid penciling, as well as inking, skills.) For more info on the publication history of the Spectacular name, check out its Wikipedia entry.

The story itself is a long done-in-one about a NY mayoral candidate who creates an underworld threat against himself to cement his reputation as a fearless crusader against crime. Spider-Man, of course, gets in the way, uncovers the plot, and undoes the candidate. It's not the single best Spidey story ever, but as a magazine that may have attracted some readers that weren't regular Amazing fans, it covers all the bases of the Spidey mythos. More importantly, it is a more “mature” story, more science-fiction/social commentary than “comic book villain-of-the-month,” which would presumably make it more palatable to an older audience. It's not a bad issue at all, and it's interesting to me that the story clearly does have a social critique angle without seeming unduly heavy-handed or super-specific in its execution.

There's also a little “Origin of Spidey” back-up that is clearly the template for the 1960's Spider-Man cartoon version of the origin. A great many of the lines and scenes in the origin episode of the cartoon are taken directly from this version. It feels weird reading this because it's so close to the cartoon. Of course, over the last couple of issues, I've noticed several pictures of Spider-Man in the comics that were obviously lifted by the cartoon. Since I saw the cartoon first, decades ago, there's a bit of a chicken/egg thing going on in my brain.

Okay, then comes a two-part Vulture story starring one of my least-favorite characters of all-time: Blackie Drago. Before these two issues, I would have said that the only good thing to come from Blackie Drago is his daughter, the Raptor, who is a villain in the Spider-Girl universe. However, these issues do something so right with a pathetic usurper like Drago that they deserve a special place in Spider-Man history: they allow the original version to beat the crap out of the pathetic usurper. Toomes, the old Vulture (who was presumed dead BUT never died on-panel) comes back and publicly humiliates Drago. This fight also serves to set Toomes up as a more credible threat than before, so that when he fights Spider-Man above the city, there is real suspense.

During both of these stories, Gwen discovers that Peter didn't really betray her and her father, and she tries to find him, to no avail. Yes, it's an old plot device, but it's used well enough here. Honestly, I think that originality is a little overrated in serial fiction, as most plots are a rehash of some other plot. What's more important is execution, and here the old chestnut is well-executed. There's also the Norman Osborn sub-plot, so that's okay, too, I guess.

Finally, JJJ and Robbie are put in danger by the fight between the two Vultures. Again, this illustrates one of those unrealistic things about serial fiction that readers should simply learn to live with: There's no way that so many super fights would happen this close to the Daily Bugle building and never next to, say, the Daily Globe building or the Empire State Building. Except, of course, that the people the readers care about don't work in any of those other places, they work at the Bugle, so that's where the jeopardy is. Also because of this, writers should give up their constant and boring attempts at “realistic” detective fiction, having characters in the story suddenly go, “Hey, Spidey's always around the Bugle--he must be a Bugle staffer!” or somesuch. The real cause of such strange geographic anomalies is outside the story, and thus should be given a wide berth by the majority of writers.

Anyway, Spidey is captured at the end of 64, which leads into one of the best done-in-one Spidey stories I've ever read: “The Impossible Escape!” Spidey is in jail and has to get out, but there's a jailbreak. The jailbreakers take George Stacy hostage, so instead of simply mopping the floor with these normal cons, Spidey has to work around them. This is a wonderful use of situation to change the level of threat posed by a non-major bad guy, and Spidey books should do it more often. One doesn't always have to have a newer, bigger, stronger bad guy to fight. Instead, a writer can either weaken the main character or present him with some other, more important objective that makes the basic objective more difficult. Spidey having to go all ninja-style on these cons is great, great fun to watch, as is George Stacy's competent handling of his role as hostage. All the way around, this is a shining example of the potential of post-Ditko Spidey. Bravo.

Anyway, let's check my Spidey-Standards against this week's reading list:

1) Spider-Man stories were better then than they are now. Except for the gratuitous Medusa issue, yes. They're old-fashioned, but the basic foundation and execution of the story ideas and pacing are light-years ahead of, say, “One More Day.”

2) Spider-Man's supporting cast is essential to good Spidey stories. Well, duh. Again, nearly every hostage or civilian-in-trouble role goes to a Spidey regular, which ramps up the action. Also, the constant tension in Peter's social life gives even the “boring” parts something to do.

3) Peter Parker is not just a secret identity. You bet he's not. Every single part of these issues, except for the villains themselves, is really about Peter, and not Spider-Man, and that's how it should be.

All right, that's it for this week. Up next week will be Amazing Spider-Man 66, 67, Annual 5 and Spectacular Spider-Man (Magazine) 2! Until Spidey continuity is honored better in his daughter's book than his own, Make Mine Marvel!

Eric

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Power of Comics Downloads

At this thread on the Spider-Man Message Board, I ask some questions about downloading comics. I'd love any extra responses from readers here!

Monday, October 15, 2007

SM:FBFW ASM 56-61

Spider-Man: For Better or For Worse?

This Week's Reading List: Amazing Spider-Man 56-61

BTW, sorry for the late post, but my whole family is currently sick with random viruses, and this weekend was a bit on the looney side.

Also, on the podcast front, the general lack of interest from everyone in the world sort of nixes that idea. That's okay--less work for me.

Okey-dokey, here we go, folks. An ignominious end to the Doc Ock storyline leads into a pointless guest appearance by Ka-Zar, a fight against the new-and-improved Spider-Slayer, and finally a three-parter featuring a mystery villain called “The Brainwasher” who happens to be a large bald man whose muscle looks like fat. More importantly, we're introduced to one of the great Spidey supporting characters of all-time, George Stacy, and Peter and Gwen really start to become a couple.

The first two stories here are hogwash, pure and simple. The “Spider-Man Gets Amnesia” story is one of the dumber things I've read so far in the Spidey saga, and I find it hard to believe that there will again be such an anti-climactic end to such a great beginning. With the radioactivity in his blood disrupted by the “Nullifier,” the machine that stops both scissors, radioactive decay, and gunpowder from working, Spider-Man spends an entire issue thinking the same thought over and over: “I know what I'm doing is wrong, but I must trust the arch-criminal who's telling me to fight the Cold War US Army!” Please. Then, when Spider-Man realizes the deep stupidity of such a thought at the last minute, and Doc Ock is taken away, Who-Am-I-Man is attacked by Ka-Zar because a) Mr. Zar just happened to be in town, and b) J Jonah Jameson, whom Mr. Zar immediately distrusts, tells Mr. Zar to “get Spider-Man!” So Tarzan and Who-Am-I-Man fight, and WAI-Man falls in the water. More comic-book science: Water apparently reverses the effect of disrupting radioactive decay, and so WAI-Man realizes who he is--Spider-Man!

Good lord, just reading the basic events there makes me want to cry. What saves the whole story from being completely useless is that we are treated to the reactions of Spidey's supporting cast, which could possibly make for more interesting stories later. It certainly ramps up the tension, as Harry breaks into Peter's room and finds a Spider-Tracer (although he misses the web-fluid and extra costumes somehow). We're also introduced to George Stacy during all of this, and I have to say that I really like him. I like the fact that this book can actually have a person over fifty who isn't boring, criminally insane, senile, or Jameson. (Okay, Joe Robertson also fits that, but he hasn't had much to do yet, having only appeared five issues before Captain Stacy.) It's also interesting reading his appearances and knowing that, of all the people who are close to Peter on a daily basis, it's George Stacy who figures out he's Spider-Man. I honestly wonder if he already knows or strongly suspects by the end of the Doc Ock caper. His little Stone-Age PowerPoint on Spider-Man is a weird thing to show to Peter on their very first meeting, I'd say.

Spider-Slayer attacks. Jameson isn't homicidal. Smythe is. Spidey gets the machine to OD on spider-pheromones or something equally stupid. When there's a giant, rampaging robot on the streets of Manhattan, why in the world don't a couple Avengers show up?

The Brainwasher story is relatively run-of-the-mill, and it also features much of Stan Lee's Mary Jane Watson talking, so it can be hard to read. (Secret: The Brainwasher is the Kingpin trying on a new name.) What makes the book increasingly hard to read, though, is Romita's sudden reliance on Don Heck as a finishing penciller. The book's art takes a dramatic downturn in quality. The layouts are more workmanlike, often relying on a simple four-panel structure, and the detail work becomes instantly terrible, although that may be Mickey Demeo's fault. The smooth, confident web-lines that Romita made sure we had now often do not connect properly, and the whole book now looks sketchy and unprofessional.

In addition, we are “treated” to the first of many misunderstandings between Peter and Gwen when Peter has to defend himself against a brainwashed George Stacy and Gwen assumes (without questioning) that Peter, who she thinks may be “the one,” just decided to beat on an old man. Ugh. It's clear to me that, without the more expert characterization Ditko provided, Lee and Romita are falling back on the easy melodrama of the romance comics Marvel once published. Still, it's Gwen, and I'm still in love with her on Peter's behalf, so I'll read it. Besides, at this point in the story, she's not a whacko slut suddenly jumping the bones of her beloved's best-friend's father. But I'm not bitter.

Anyway, let's check my Spidey-Standards against this week's reading list:

1) Spider-Man stories were better then than they are now. Meh. Not really. What these stories do well is present a one-issue main story that feeds into the next. I can see why a kid would drop his $0.12 on the counter once a month for this, no question.

2) Spider-Man's supporting cast is essential to good Spidey stories. Well, I like Doc Ock, I like the Kingpin, but I can't stand silly, silly stories. All I've got to look forward to in each issue is poorly drawn melodrama featuring my favorite supporting cast members, so Yes.

3) Peter Parker is not just a secret identity. Is a secret ID still important when he can't remember it? Well, the Parker persona adds a huge layer of interest to the Brainwasher story once his girlfriend's dad is BW'd, so yeah, I guess so.

All right, that's it for this week. Up next week will be Amazing Spider-Man 62-65 and Spectacular Spider-Man (Magazine) 1! Until Spidey forgets where he put all his Spider-Tracers, Make Mine Marvel!

Eric

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

To 'Cast or Not To 'Cast...

Would anyone reading this blog (all three of you) download a podcast of the episode(s)? Does anyone think that anyone NOT reading this blog would download a SM:FBFW podcast?

I originally thought about doing this as a podcast, but I thought I'd give the blogging thing a shot, first. Now that I'm doing this on a more-or-less regular basis, I'm reconsidering the podcast.

LMK what you all think.

Eric

PS - (UPDATE 10/12) I'm not suggesting that podcasting would be instead of blogging, I'm thinking about doing a podcast in addition to the blog. Just so there's no confusion. -ET

Sunday, October 7, 2007

SM:FBFW ASM 51-55, Ann 4

Spider-Man: For Better or For Worse?

This Week's Reading List: Amazing Spider-Man 51-55, Amazing Spider-Man Annual 4

Okey-dokey, here we go, folks. Well, well, well. Ask and ye shall receive. Last week I complained about annoying villains, boring issues, and noted that the soap-opera was on some kind of maintenance cycle. NOT the case this week. We have the first confrontation with the Kingpin and a fantastic extended stay by Alfred Molina himself, Doctor Octopus! We'll quietly consider the reading of Amazing Spider-Man 14--er, I mean, Amazing Spider-Man Annual #4, and then we'll call it a week.

Okay, first and foremost, the Kingpin. Wow. Especially for the sixties, he's a cold-hearted bastard. It also really impressed me that he seems to understand the nature of his position, even in his first appearance. While he's not the nigh-invincible super-mastermind he becomes later in Daredevil, he's still a bad-ass who fights and runs as the situation calls for it.

I really got into these issues. The Foswell/Jameson plots were excellent. I particularly liked that Foswell wanted back in the game, as I never really bought him going straight. The fight scenes were, as always with Romita, dynamic and easy to follow. Here's an artist that does pin-up quality pages without sacrificing storytelling.

Then comes a rehash of Amazing Spider-Man 14 and the back-up from Amazing Spider-Man 8: ASM Annual 4. Pairing a loser like Mysterio (seriously, he was a loser even back then!) with a super-genius like the Wizard has to be the mismatch of the year. That's like teaming up Hobie Brown and Reed Richards and then calling it an equal partnership. Still, there's some good action and some informative back-ups that would certainly have been appealing to kids in 1967 who may very well have missed the superior Ditko back-ups from ASM Annual 1. This issue doesn't hold up today, but I'll bet it was worth the money back then. Besides, the Aunt May line on the Coffee Bean Barn pin-up (“Cool it, sweetie! We don't want those cats to dig that we're hippies!”) alone is worth the price of admission, especially with her sinisterly pensive hand position.

Finally, we have a loooong Doctor Octopus story that isn't even done by the end of issue 55. These issues serve to illustrate the seeming paradox of good comics from the olden days: Good action, beloved characters, and a menacing villain, but a gimmicky plot, impossible situations, and crappy, crappy dialogue. Look, here's the good: Doctor Octopus is awesome here, and he really creates a sense of jeopardy just by being there. Romita takes the time to compose shots that amplify the sheer power and grace of Ock's arms, and it helps the story tremendously. Gwen and Peter really start hooking up, which is fantastic in my opinion, as I've always been a huge Gwen fan. Peter's science abilities and predilections are the source of much of his involvement, and his intelligence saves him from a Doc Ock-shaped bomb. Harry's being weird and paranoid, which is interesting, especially given future events, AND we get to see an Osborn bed-head! w00t!

Then there's the actual plot. Ock is going to steal a missile-deflecting super-device and sell it to the USSR or China so that he can have money to be a crime-lord. Whaat?!? As far as that whole idea goes, I refer you to the John Byrne-penned Captain America/Batman crossover where the Joker refuses to work with the Red Skull because, as he says, “I may be a crook, but I'm an American crook!” Ock may not be patriotic, but surely even he could have seen that giving the Soviets the advantage in the arms race would not have been good for business! Then, Ock boards at the Parker house, and Aunt May is too thick to recognize this arch-criminal. How she was ever made into a halfway useful character is beyond me. Based on the Stan Lee-version of the character, I wish she were dead, dead, dead. I keep hoping she'll die, even as I'm reading these old ones. Maybe they went back for the Masterworks versions and fixed it... and she's DEAD!

Then there's the “nullifier,” which stops ANY machine from working. Even guns. I wonder if switchblades work around this thing. Oh, it also stops RADIOACTIVITY from working, as it does when it messes with Spidey's mind and gives him--DUM DUM DUHHHHMMMM! AMNESIA! Oh, good lord, Stan. You're doing such a good job with some parts of this. Why make a weapon that stops anything one might call a machine? Would a screw still work? How about an inclined plane? Aren't those called “simple” machines? I can see it now: “I tried to stab him with my knife, but since it's a machine, he's not even bruised! Curse that nullifier!”

Even for a sixties' story, it still seems a bit on the hokey side, but the awesome fights and supporting characters give it the edge. Plus, I can't wait to see what happens! Will Spider-Man ever regain his memory? Hey, that makes me wonder--are marriages machines? They work or don't work! Maybe Quesada will use the nullifier on the marriage! It alters the non-radioactivity in Mary Jane's blood and turns her into Jackpot! Yeah! Someone get Stan on the horn--he's got to script this one, dad!

God, I hate sixties' dialogue.

Anyway, let's check my Spidey-Standards against this week's reading list:

1) Spider-Man stories were better then than they are now. Hokier, true, but better? Except for the Annual, yes.

2) Spider-Man's supporting cast is essential to good Spidey stories. Peter and Gwen, sitting in a tree... Yes.

3) Peter Parker is not just a secret identity. Considering he wouldn't have been at the nullifier's presentation if Professor Warren hadn't invited him along... Yes.

All right, that's it for this week. Up next week will be Amazing Spider-Man 56-61! Until Mysterio is killed and resurrected without half his head, Make Mine Marvel!

Eric

Sunday, September 30, 2007

SM:FBFW ASM 46-50

Spider-Man: For Better or For Worse?

This Week's Reading List: Amazing Spider-Man 46-50

Okey-dokey, here we go, folks. These books don't deserve a ton of individual discussion, but they touch on a couple of trends that have been going on at Marvel for years now, so that provides something useful.

First and foremost, what we have in these five issues is run-of-the-mill Spider-Man action. Perfectly serviceable, but completely uninspiring. I'd be very surprised if any of these issues have ever “made” a Spider-Man fan, or if any of them have ever been on a “best of” list of any kind (other than 50, which we'll get to). Again, we get a two-parter, but generally we're dealing with done-in-one villain-of-the-month fare with B-list baddies and minor issue-to-issue connections. The soap-opera is reasonably interesting, with Gwen apparently unconsciously aping MJ's style in her desire to be closer to Peter, and Pete and Aunt May finally moving out of the old house, but there's really not enough of it to deserve close scrutiny.

An issue that often gets some attention and scrutiny, but doesn't really deserve it, IMO, is Amazing Spider-Man 50. This is one of those classic, go-to Spidey plots that show up every five years or so, when the audience has recycled itself enough to make it a “new” idea for 80% of the fans of the day. The “Spider-Man No More” idea was done better back in Amazing 16-18, and it was more natural in its storyline evolution. What Amazing Spider-Man 50 has that the others didn't is that it's a clean done-in-one, easily reprintable issue that features very iconic Romita art. If Marvel had ever tried to make what you might call an “easy classic,” then this issue would be it. That said, I don't think it holds up terribly well in a long-term reading situation. Not bad, just blah.

And... we're done! At least, we're done as far as the typical round-up stuff goes. So let's take a second and look not at the individual villains themselves, but at the treatment of all these villains both in these issues and in their relative past and future. I was really surprised (shocked?) to see just what a bad-ass the Shocker was in this first appearance. Sure, Spidey beats him by webbing up his thumbs(!), but the Shocker proves to be a credible threat. He's also someone who has a) the brains to make his own equipment and b) the ingenuity to use that equipment to maximum effect. If he were to solve that thumb-trigger weakness, he'd really be a major street-level villain, if the presentation in this issue is to be believed. And yet... the Shocker is a joke character now, and has been for YEARS. Over in Ultimate Spider-Man, this character actually doesn't have a name, and he only ever shows up for Spidey to beat the snot out of him in three pages. Ultimate Spidey calls him “The Vibrator” on at least one occasion. I laughed when I read that a couple years back, but now I'm not so sure that Bendis is doing anyone any favors by treating the character that way. Ultimate Shocker could be a decent mid-level threat, providing some much-needed one- or two-parters in the Ultimate universe. Instead, he's a one-note joke that's already stale.

It's disappointing to me to see whole companies (not just Bendis, don't get me wrong) eliminating the concept of “B-listers” the same way the publishing industry has eliminated the concept of the mid-list author. You're either a star, or you're nothing in either case, and that's just silly. Nowadays, if you believe the hype, Ultimate Spidey (and 616 Spidey, for that matter) faces only three types of villains: Stars, SUPER-Stars, and Losers. The only real difference between a star and a Super-star at that point is the kinds of sales they generate. Story-wise, it's still hyped as “Spidey's greatest challenge!” Part of what makes the Kraven/Vulture story or the Shocker story work in ASM 46-49 is that these AREN'T world-shaking villains, but they are a challenge, and Peter's already got too much on his plate.

When every villain is a MAJOR challenge, the books get boring, the fights all become routine, and the villains that deserve Super-Star (or A-list) status have to be ramped up to impossible degrees of difficulty. Look at the female Doctor Octopus, who had a force-field. A force-field! Spider-Man could NOT hit her. When you look at her list of powers, she was essentially unbeatable, especially at a Spider-Man story level. She was a pathetic character that eventually had to be flushed, but it wasn't her fault--it was the fault of the kind of power-creep that lazy writing and editing brings.

Briefly, note the changes to the Vulture in these stories and the changes that would affect Kraven later. First, Stan and John unwisely replace Toomes with yet another evil thug named “Blackie.” Blackie is virtually guaranteed to be a failure as a character from the start because he's supposedly somehow MORE dangerous than the genius that invented the wings in the first place. The only thing that could make such a replacement interesting is the story of how unworthy of the weapons the replacement turns out to be, and the villain's struggle with his own inadequacy. So even back before #50, Marvel was falling prey to the kind of one-upsmanship that ruins characters. Second, Kraven actually was a threat back then. Yeah, okay, I'm not big on the “jungle potion” concept behind so many of his powers (Kraven's basically a super-B.O. Detector), but I'd forgotten why Spider-Man should ever have been afraid of Kraven, and these stories remind me when taken with a grain of salt for their sixties-ness. Again, though, Kraven is eventually turned into a joke--multiple times, even, by Zimmerman and Bendis, who each have their own takes on why Kraven is ridiculous. Bendis probably does more lasting damage to the character in the Ultimate book by making him into just another genetic freak in Ultimate Six. Congratulations, Marvel. Instead of figuring out a way to make the jungle aspect work and reinventing a character with a relatively unique concept (evil Tarzan), you once again turn him into a one-note joke who then gets his power the same way that everyone in the Ultimate universe gets their powers.

This problem isn't going to be solved, nor the questions answered, in one post, but I wanted to note this idea, because it's something that's been a drag on comics for far, far too long, and it's been a particular problem for Spider-Man's rogues gallery. It bears watching.

Anyway, let's check my Spidey-Standards against this week's reading list:

1) Spider-Man stories were better then than they are now. Meh. Better soap-opera, mediocre villains, many of the same mistakes modern comics make, just in a swingin' sixties' style.

2) Spider-Man's supporting cast is essential to good Spidey stories. The stuff that keeps ya comin' back for more in these is the soap-opera, but every storyline is in a gestation phase in these five issues. Nothing to write home about yet.

3) Peter Parker is not just a secret identity. I don't know. These issues made him seem pretty much like a basic alter-ego. Comments welcome here, especially.

All right, that's it for this week. Up next week will be Amazing Spider-Man 51-55 and Amazing Spider-Man Annual 4! Until the Shocker is renamed “The Vibrator”, Make Mine Marvel!

Eric

Sunday, September 16, 2007

SM:FBFW ASM 41-45, Annual 3

Spider-Man: For Better or For Worse?

This Week's Reading List: Amazing Spider-Man 41-45, Amazing Spider-Man Annual 3

Okey-dokey, here we go, folks. After several “milestone” posts, the Spider-Man saga seems to have settled into a bit of a groove. If my memories from being ten serve, the Stan Lee/John Romita, Sr. years provide a steady stream of entertaining, if slightly shallow and repetitive, Spidey-tales. That's certainly what we get this week.

On the super-villain front, we get two: the Rhino and the Lizard, while John Jameson gets mutated by space-spores and begins his quest to become the Jimmy Olsen of the Marvel Universe. I have to say that five issues in a row (six, if you count the annual) of Spidey fighting bricks gets a little old. “Oh, look! Spidey hurt his hand hitting that guy! Does Spidey have a chance of beating him like he did the last two?” Meh. It makes me wonder a little why Spidey was able to tire out the Rhino but not Jameson or the Lizard. On the other hand, having Spidey go up against villains like this means he actually has to think and use his scientific brain, which I'm always asking for, so I can't complain too much.

As for the supporting cast, Betty Brant returns... again... and she and Peter find that their romance is dead. Peter thinks of her as a sister now, apparently, and he couldn't be happier over her impending nuptials. Fair enough, I've had that happen. Mary Jane finally puts in an appearance, and... AAARRGH! Her mouth is full of Stan Lee Sixties Slang at its worst! Seriously, if she calls Peter “Dad” one more time, I think my head will explode. However much I may hate Mary Jane talking, I'll say two things for her as I read: First, she makes Gwen jealous, and I like that because I like Gwen. Second, it's interesting to look at her reactions to Peter with the ret-conned knowledge of his secret ID. Originally, I imagine, Stan planned for her to just be the most laid-back girl in the world--or possibly the shallowest. I'm a bit ignorant on Mary Jane's original conception, I'll admit. Still, it's pretty cool that so many of her reactions in these early issues jibe with the idea that she knew what Peter was doing and she was afraid to get to close to it.

One little bit in the stories that didn't seem to ring true to me was Peter's rather open-minded response to Harry's suggestion that Peter work for Norman. I would have at least thought that Peter's first response would acknowledge that he'd be working for the former Green Goblin, but he doesn't. Hm. Oh, well.

Annual 3 is a great all-star issue that answers several “what-if” questions without actually changing anything, and it's advertising in the Mighty Marvel Manner to boot. I'm sure that Marvel was getting all kinds of mail in those days asking why Spidey wasn't an Avenger, or when he would meet the Hulk again, or whatever. This story does a good job of showing why Spidey really wasn't ready for Avengers membership.

What really struck me during the reading of Annual 3, and then during the rest of the issues, was John Romita, Sr.'s art. First and foremost, it really lacks the personality and fluidity of Ditko's work, and that's disappointing for me. Second, and this really isn't an “art” issue, the stories immediately devolve into formulaic villain-of-the-month fare with some soap-opera thrown in. This isn't to say that the stories are suddenly bad, but there's a “fluff” feeling to the book with Romita that there wasn't for most of Ditko's run. Third, Romita has to have some of the cleanest, clearest storytelling on the planet. Virtually every panel with Spidey in it is pin-up quality, for good and for ill. It's stiffer than Ditko, as I said, but Romita's art works harder than anyone's I can think of, classic or modern.

I'm going to have to find some of his Marvel Tales reprints (or maybe some Essentials, even though they're black and white) for my three-year-old to read. Don't mistake me--I'm not insulting the art or trying to call it childish. It's the same thing I noticed with his work on the Richard and Mary Parker story in Untold Tales--Romita, Sr. understood how the eye moved over the page and he used that understanding to tell a story more clearly than just about anyone I've seen in recent memory. So, even though I miss Ditko's quirks, oddities, and depths, I look forward to giving Romita's clean, classic art the attention it deserves as I move through the Spidey-books.

BTW, I have to say that Foggy Nelson is a strange little man. In ASM 43, page 4, panel 6, when he gets frustrated by his client's behavior (client: Rhino. behavior: jailbreak), he declares, "I HAVE FELONIES!" This made me laugh out loud. I also had to smile at Matt Murdock's strange sense of generosity: "I wish Daredevil could go after [the Rhino] now--but the Web-Slinger deserves first crack at him!" (same panel) Yes, Daredevil is all heart.

Anyway, let's check my Spidey-Standards against this week's reading list:

1) Spider-Man stories were better then than they are now. You know, this is a tough one for me this week, but I think the answer is ultimately “yes.” The stories are reasonably self-contained, but the storylines are also clearly connected. We get supporting cast, character development, and plenty of action. That we also get shallower ideas than we did with Ditko is unfortunate, but ultimately every single one of these issues delivers a fun Spidey story. How many recent issues of Spider-Man can say that? (I guess we'll have to wait for Brand New Day to see if Marvel's going to put the fun back into Spidey.)

2) Spider-Man's supporting cast is essential to good Spidey stories. Well, they're here, but it's a little too much Mary Jane for me, as she's always been one of my least favorite characters. At the same time, almost every single fight Spidey suffers through in these issues is enhanced by a connection with or a complication from the supporting cast, so we'll give this a check, too.

3) Peter Parker is not just a secret identity. Science beats the Rhino and the Lizard, and heart keeps Spidey from luring the Hulk to Avengers Mansion. Yep.

All right, that's it for this week. Up next week will be Amazing Spider-Man 46-50! Until the Lizard accidentally clones himself from his tail, Make Mine Marvel!

Eric