Spider-Man: For Better or For Worse?
This Week's Reading List: Amazing Fantasy 15 and Amazing Spider-Man 1-5.
Okay, so here we go. It's a little tough to read these with even an ounce of objectivity. Any Spider-Man fan worth his salt probably owns or has owned anywhere from two to five copies of these stories in one way or another over the years. The first ten issues of Amazing, coupled with Amazing Fantasy 15, have been reprinted in many different forms. I myself have owned them from Marvel Tales, two versions of Marvel Masterworks, and the first Essential Spider-Man volume. These stories have been around forever and I know I've read them all several times. This is the first time in a long time, however, that I've read them seriously, so I guess there's that.
The first thing that has to be said is that these stories do not stand the test of time in several ways. The biggest problem I have with them is the sheer amount of wacky, spur-of-the-moment crap thrown in here. Did you know that just about any nut with a ham radio and a spider can figure out the “frequency of spiders” so that he can send a message to Spider-Man? Spider-Man's “spider instinct” (the proto-Spider Sense) is abused frequently in these stories, as is Peter Parker's scientific ability. I feel a little bad getting on the story for that, as a pro-mechanical web-shooter fan like myself kind of has to accept that Peter magically has the ability (at 16 or 17!) to create these fantastic web-shooters all by himself, but being able to create an all-purpose “anti-magnetic inverter” to beat the Vulture? Come on. And don't even get me started on Spider-Man climbing out of a JET PLANE to catch a SPACE CAPSULE! Oh, well. First issue craziness, I suppose.
Plot-wise, these issues are standard villain-of-the-month fare. This makes perfect sense for the time--books were judged on an issue-by-issue basis, and the “every issue is someone's first comic” doctrine is clearly in evidence. As such, the plots are repetitive, generally speaking, especially once the issues move to one 20+ pager per issue (with #3) instead of two shorter stories per issue. What interests me is the fact that already there is real continuity in the series. The Flash Thompson-Liz Allen crowd is introduced on the first page of Amazing Fantasy 15, and they play an important role in each story for Peter, lending a definite verisimilitude to his life as a high-schooler and offering readers early signs of real change in the character. It's interesting to me that Liz Allen was willing to go on a date with “Puny” Parker as early as #4, as I don't really remember her showing much interest in him until after he and Flash have their gym fight in issue #8. Anyway, the little threats that Peter tosses at Flash start right away, and they actually will have some pay-off next week in issue #8. I think that, rudimentary and simple a device as it is, that kind of story progression with the minor characters, the soap-opera aspect of the character, is handled far better here in the early days of Spidey than it is currently. Except for F'N Spider-Man, can you recall a single supporting character in Spider-Man's life other than May and MJ (both of whom are effectively gone as of now because of the Back in Black storyline, yet another “Spider-Man ON THE EDGE!” story) in the last 8 months? Especially in Amazing? Felicia Hardy has shown up in Sensational, but she can't do much, as she was always a romantic interest for Peter, and all of those have been effectively neutralized since 1991 or so.
As far as the villains themselves go, Doctor Octopus is a clear stand-out all around, the Tinkerer is a clear dud. I have to laugh at the Chameleon's low-tech execution and at the so-called “genius” displayed by Doom in #5. The one who really surprised me, honestly, is the Sandman, whose powers were used very imaginatively from the very beginning. At one point, he hits Spidey with his waistline! The canvas bag capture at the end was hard to take, but the Sandman's powers, like so many of the characters so far, were not well defined at the beginning, and it would really be a bit unfair to criticize the books for the conventions of the time.
Or would it? I guess that's the question. Everyone calls these stories “classics”, but by many of the standards of modern comics reading, they fall flat. The dialogue is poor, the art is inconsistent (sorry Steve), the characters' powers are vague, Spider-Man himself grows new powers when the story calls for it... At the same time, these stories have real heart, and that means a lot to me. They were clearly written for children, and as such, they succeed in hitting the target for their intended audience. I don't feel that the modern books hit “the target” for their intended audience. All the modern books seem to do is generate “events” that “matter”, and that's what seems to sell books these days. Of the three main Spidey books currently on the market, only PAD's F'N Spider-Man has anything approaching the “heart” I'm talking about here, and it sells the fewest copies. Of course, he did bring in that confusing Spider-Man of 2211 and the “evil Uncle Ben” storyline, and it wouldn't surprise me to find out that that drove readers away. It made sense in the end, but on an issue-by-issue basis? I don't think any of the Spidey books have been compelling in the last two years. How sad.
Anyway, let's check my Spidey-Standards set last week against this week's reading list:
1) Spider-Man stories were better then than they are now. If by “better” I mean “They truly entertained their target audience,” then yes, check. If by “better” I mean “Superior dialogue and story logic, more compelling plots,” then no, not really. Certainly these were denser stories, but they feel squeezed, like Stan and Steve hadn't really “grown into” the 21-page format yet.
2) Spider-Man's supporting cast is essential to good Spidey stories. Check. They're all in prototype form, but they're here, and they're developing. That's more than you can say for the modern day.
3) Peter Parker is not just a secret identity. Check. The Peter stuff is essential to the stories and makes Spider-Man more than just another costume.
All right, that's it for this week. Up next week will be Amazing Fantasy 16-18, Amazing Spider-Man 6, and Untold Tales of Spider-Man 1 and 2! Until Spider-Man forgets how to do science stuff, Make Mine Marvel!