Spider-Man: For Better or For Worse?
This Week's Reading List: Amazing Fantasy 16-18, Amazing Spider-Man 6, and Untold Tales of Spider-Man 1 & 2.
First and foremost, a bit of explanation. It is my intention to basically move from the 60's to the 2000's in the order the books were published. Within reason, I will keep the books in continuity. What this means is, if Spectacular goes for three or four issues in a row where each issue clearly takes place one right after the other, I'll finish that run before going back and reading the concurrent Amazing issues. The whole point of this little exercise is to see how Spidey comics have changed over the years. What I'm not going to do is read every page of Spider-Man material in Marvel Chronology order. I'm not going hunting for three pages of flashback and make sure to read them in-between page 9 and 10 of Amazing 28. As a general rule, comics will be read in the order published, allowing for issue-to-issue continuity to guide me.
The big, glaring exception to this will be Kurt Busiek's work on Spider-Man. Namely, Amazing Fantasy and Untold Tales of Spider-Man. Why? Two reasons. First, the books were not meant to be “flashbacks.” They're meant to be “missing issues.” I think it'd be cool to read them that way. I know I have gotten more out of my Ditko-era Spidey stuff over the last decade because of Busiek's embellishments, and I mean to take them as Busiek intended. (This rule may be applied later to other non-flashback stories set in the “past.” We'll see what comes up.) Second, Busiek's 90's Spidey work transcends anything else published about Spider-Man for that entire decade, and it deserves special treatment. Nuff said.
Okay, so I went back a little bit in Spidey continuity to read Amazing Fantasy 16-18, which are set in-between Amazing Fantasy 15 and Amazing Spider-Man 1. While I'm not a huge fan of the painted art, especially for issues that are supposed to take place in-between two Ditko issues, Paul Lee does a good job keeping the characters recognizable as their early Ditko counterparts. These issues don't do much in terms of advancing storylines, but they do a fantastic job fleshing out characters who were little more than caricatures at their introduction. Jameson, in particular, is given a little bit more of a reason to start his anti-Spidey crusade when his astronaut son, John, is bumped off an episode of It's Amazing! so that the show can feature Spider-Man. It's a little thing, but it makes Jameson come across as a little bit less of a cartoon when he accuses Spider-Man of sabotage at the end of Amazing Spider-Man 1. Spider-Man himself is given a bit of character here, too, as he is shot at for the first time and discovers the uses and limitations of his Spider-Sense. I've seen scenes like this before (there was a Superboy TV series tie-in comic that had Clark freaking out the first time he was shot, not knowing it wouldn't hurt him), but Busiek handles it well here and it really contributes to a sense of Spidey's growth as a character. He's much less sure of himself in AF 16 than he is in ASM 1 or 2.
It's a testament to both Busiek's retro style and Lee and Ditko's improving writing that Amazing Spider-Man 6 holds up as well as it does after that. The intro of the Lizard does almost everything right and it does it better than the previous five issues. Peter isn't a brilliant enough scientist as a high school student to come up with the Lizard formula, but working from Connors' notes, he can create an antidote serum. Okay. His relationship with Betty finally starts to take off as he tries to ask her on a date, only to be interrupted by JJJ. His fight with the Lizard puts him up against a foe of superior strength and power, requiring him to think. That some parts of ASM 6 are cheesy--the “man wasn't meant to tamper with nature” B-movie theme, or the corny dialogue spouted by various bystanders--isn't really a problem. The book is a product of its time, and the core elements of the story are not hampered by this. I must say that it's amusing how often Spider-Man villains seem to “threaten the world” and “only someone of Spider-Man's power can stop them” when Reed Richards or Thor or somebody could take out the Lizard without even thinking. Spidey villains usually work better if they have slightly less grandiose plans.
Untold Tales 1 and 2 do much the same job as Amazing Fantasy 16-18, except they do it better. The fantastic art by Pat Oliffe and Al Vey captures the Ditko feel of early ASM perfectly, and Busiek does a real number on a character or two who appear for mere panels in Amazing. Sally Avril (who ignores Peter for the “dreamboat” Flash Thompson in Amazing Fantasy 15) will go on to be a big supporting player in Untold Tales, for example. It's interesting for me to see more timid interactions between Peter and Betty as he tries to ask her out in each issue but can't seem to make it because of JJJ's rantings. The dialogue, in particular, does a good job of capturing the feel of the 60's book without descending to the same level of cheese. Finally, they introduce Captain Stacy, retroactively inserting him into Spidey continuity circa Amazing 6, which is great. I'm a big fan of all the Stacys.
Ultimately, what all of these issues--Amazing Spider-Man 6 included--do that seems to be sorely lacking in many modern interpretations of Spider-Man is that they recognize that his story is less about guilt than it is about responsibility. The movies, in particular, seem to miss this. As Busiek notes (through Peter) in AF 18, even if Uncle Ben hadn't been killed, Peter would still have the responsibility to use his powers for the benefit of humanity. It took the guilt over Uncle Ben's death to wake Peter to that fact, but Uncle Ben's death did not create that fact.
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. Well, most of this week's list comes from the 90's, but all of Busiek's Spidey work from the 90's is head-and-shoulders above today's stuff (and above the rest of the 90's dreck, too). ASM 6 was a decent Spidey story, but it smacked of B-movie sci-fi conventions.
2) Spider-Man's supporting cast is essential to good Spidey stories. Check. Untold Tales did wonders for the supporting cast, and Jameson rides along in ASM 6.
3) Peter Parker is not just a secret identity. Check. Peter's understanding of his responsibility to Tiny (who needs math help) shows that it's not just the “super” powers that bring responsibility.
All right, that's it for this week. Up next week will be Amazing Spider-Man 7-9 and Untold Tales of Spider-Man 3-4! Until Spider-Man has pseudo-Wolverine bone claws, Make Mine Marvel!