Monday, May 28, 2007


Spider-Man: For Better or For Worse?

This Week's Reading List: Amazing Spider-Man 7-9 and Untold Tales of Spider-Man 3-4

Okey-dokey, here we go. UTSM 3 and 4 fit right into the gaps of ASM 7, 8, and 9, so I won't be discussing each story on its own this week. Let's take a look at the good in ASM and then the good in UTSM, shall we?

It's interesting to actually read these issues of Amazing slowly and deliberately, because these are some of the first comics I ever owned. Waaaaaay back in 1978, Pocket Books released a couple of paperback sized Amazing Spider-Man collections, reprinting Amazing 1-13. I had the second volume, which started with #7. So when I say that I go way back with these stories, I mean that I go about as far back as I can go. The first twenty pages or so in that old paperback actually have crayon-colored gutters because, one day, I got so bored with the white space on the pages (Pocket Books spaced the art strangely because of the difference in size between a Silver Age comic and a standard paperback book). It's probably important to note, too, that I watched the 60's Spider-Man animated show (“Spider-Man, Spider-Man, does whatever a spider can...”) as a kid, and that show had all the trappings of the early comics. So I must come forward and admit that the Daily Bugle, J Jonah Jameson, Betty Brant, Aunt May, Flash Thompson, and the whole original crew were in my brain as “what Spider-Man is supposed to be” since before I could read. Holy crap, does that feel funny to type. How biased does that make me toward the classic set-up, in the end, that I was probably still in diapers when I started on this strange journey with Spidey?

For anyone who's interested, I still have that Pocket Books collection in my house, but it is no longer mine. It belongs to my daughter, who is also still in diapers and who also can't read. How do you like them apples?

Anyway, ASM 7 and 8 stand out in my mind as obvious improvements to the Spidey formula. Ditko's art starts to evolve here, as the characters lose some of what I think of as the “sharp, skinny look” (which resurfaces in the 80's with Ron Frenz's early stuff) and gain a bit of the “soft, puffy look.” Compare Spider-Man's physique on the cover of, say, Amazing #2 and then look at Amazing #32 to see what I mean. He really started to bulk up even during Ditko's run. Anyway, I digress.

The main plots of these two issues are standard but reasonable. Both involve a tight inter-weave of the Spidey and Peter sides of the story, such as when Spider-Man actually falls for the first time in ASM 7.

QUICK DIGRESSION (tm): This is a key moment that really hasn't come up enough as he's gotten older: Spidey cannot fly. He doesn't float. I think that sometimes, readers and creators forget that while Spidey looks weightless and graceful in the pictures, he's supposed to be moving quite fast. If he lets go of that webline, he's going to fall. We all know this, of course, but I don't think about it, much. In my brain, Spidey is often swinging as though underwater, and he would only slowly drop toward the ground. I have to confess that the falling scenes in Spider-Man 2 really bugged me, and I really thought they didn't make sense for the character (especially with how far he fell). Having reread Amazing #7, I'm thinking now that my judgment was too harsh on those.

And... we're back! The interweave between Spidey and Pete, such as the fall and the sprained arm, the Living Brain and the “Who is Spider-Man?” answer is just great. The stories here acknowledge and demonstrate that Peter Parker is not a disguise or even a “secret identity” (read: plot device), but that Peter Parker is the story. Sadly, the first appearance of Electro is not as well produced as the other two. Once again we have a villain with no real motivation and vague powers (“I can control any device that operates with electricity!”--um, isn't he in control of pretty much everything, then, even in 1963? It's a good thing he didn't fight Iron Man!). It is kind of funny to see what a pathetic leader Electro is when he releases the federal prisoners. What's really terrible, though, are the recycled reactions of the people on the street as they respond to the latest Daily Bugle accusations. There are two separate versions of this in the issue, and they read almost identically. It just seems sloppy to me, as if this issue had been more of a stock issue than others.

The Untold Tales issues basically serve to smooth out and deepen the sub-plots of the other three issues. Where Peter and Betty end Amazing 7 hiding behind a desk in the Bugle office, he actually asks her out in Untold Tales 3. Aunt May notices the absence of Peter's glasses (broken in ASM 8) in UT, etc. These moments are interesting from a fanboy perspective, but more important to me is the more natural progression of relationships. Peter and Betty are a couple by the time she goes to Pennsylvania with Doc Ock in ASM 11, but we never really see them together on a date or anything. We see that in UT, and I have to admit that it makes the classic ASM issues much more interesting and emotionally satisfying to this modern reader. The brief cameos by high-school Harry and Gwen, along with Norman, are amusing but add nothing to this issue. One last thing to note about UT is the introduction of Jason and Sally, who become more important to the ongoing storylines in UT as time goes on. They don't do much here (although Jason's unfunny pranking of Peter serves to cast Flash in a slightly more sympathetic light), but we'll be dealing more heavily with Jason and Sally in the next few weeks.

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

1) Spider-Man stories were better then than they are now. With the notable exception of ASM 9, which was merely okay, I'll give this one a check for the week. In both the classic and the modern issues, by the way, we have a “done-in-one” main plot that still has clear, interesting, continuing sub-plots. More modern writers would do well to keep up with this. BTW, yes, I'm consciously ignoring “Spider-Man Tackles the Torch!”, as it is such a weird little piece that I'm not sure what to say about it. It's interesting to look at it as a “kick-the-dog” story from Spidey's perspective, where he plays a little bit more of the jerk on the Torch's turf while complaining about Flash and the gang on his own.

2) Spider-Man's supporting cast is essential to good Spidey stories. Excellent work on Betty, especially, in UT, but the supporting cast is well used in each issue. I especially love the boxing match with Flash in ASM 8. The daffy expressions on his face as Peter clobbers him (while trying to hold back) are just too funny to me. And then convincing everyone that Flash is Spidey--great humor. Notice that having other characters around allows Spidey to be funny without just being a punster or a wisecracker. Yes, I'm talking to you, Mr. Bendis.

3) Peter Parker is not just a secret identity. See... everything above. Check.

All right, that's it for this week. Up next week will be Amazing Spider-Man 10 and Untold Tales of Spider-Man 5-8! Until Spider-Man magically knows crap about all spiders, Make Mine Marvel!


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