Saturday, June 30, 2007

SM:FBFW ASM 20-21, UTSM 23, '96, '97

Spider-Man: For Better or For Worse?

This Week's Reading List: Amazing Spider-Man 20-21 and Untold Tales of Spider-Man 23, '97, and '96

Okey-dokey, here we go. Well, ASM this week features one sci-fi story and one comedy romp, and that's okay by me. Stan and Steve were not only having fun with the book, but they were really showing Peter growing into his role as Spider-Man. Both of these stories are done-in-one jobs that make for great reading.

First up is the first appearance of the Scorpion. In what I've always considered interesting misdirection, the shadowy stranger following Peter at the end of ASM 19 turns out to be working for J Jonah Jameson--not for any nefarious purpose, but simply because Jameson wants to know Parker's secret to getting such awesome Spidey pics. Jameson gives up on that, however, when he decides that one Doctor Stillwell can create a super-being more powerful than Spider-Man. Now, when I read this story as a kid, I swallowed that last idea easily. This time, however, I have a little more difficulty accepting that such a feat would be a) as scientifically marvelous as Jameson's reaction would indicate, and b) obviously dangerous. There are plenty of super heroes stronger/more powerful than Spider-Man. Now, we know from ASM 10 that Jameson wants to ruin Spider-Man because JJJ is jealous of him. Fair enough. I can certainly see Jameson hiring someone of sufficient power (like Luke Cage, once he comes along) to try to humiliate or scare off Spider-Man, but to create a super-being on his own? This, from the man who so strongly dislikes costumed heroes? Nope, I don't believe it. I believe the Spider-Slayer thing, because Dr. Smythe simply puts his invention in JJJ's hands--JJJ doesn't commission it. But I don't believe Jameson's short-sightedness on the Scorpion issue. I guess it's just part of that whole inconsistency problem that comics have and that seems so obvious in retrospect.

Anyway, the science-gone-wrong aspect of the story is fairly cliché, even if it is well executed. The real crux of the issue is Spidey's reaction to getting so quickly trounced by the Scorpion. For one of the first times, he is clearly beaten but requires no outside inspiration to pull himself together. That Betty is in danger provides a sort of time-pressure, but Spidey just jumps right back into the fray, and this time he fights smart. He figures out the Scorpion's obvious weaknesses and uses his own unique strengths (agility and speed) to defeat them.

ASM 21 is more of a comedy pitting the Torch against Spidey before they both team up to fight the Beetle. In my mind, the best part of the issue comes when Peter, who has been warned away from Dorie Evans by the Torch, decides to make a play for the Torch's girl as Spider-Man. The specific wording of the whole thing comes across as a bit old-fashioned and sexist, but when taken in the spirit of the day and the intentions, it really shows Peter as being both good-natured and proud enough to not take crap from the Torch. I'm not sure that Spidey would previously have reacted this way. He might have chosen to do nothing or he might have taken it too far, but I'm not sure that he would have found such a balanced response.

There's only one standard issue of UTSM this week, and it features the first chronological appearance of the Crime Master. What we're starting to see on this book is a wrap-up of all of the UTSM-specific sub-plots. This issue involves the Crime Master's “zombie-like” henchmen controlled by a special kind of computer chip. At the end of the issue, the chip is put to good use to bring Betty Brant's mother out of her coma. It makes me wonder if Mrs. Brant still has the chip in her...! Anyway, a fair issue.

Time-line-wise, UTSM Annual '97 comes first. This is a terrible issue featuring the debut of a new super-villain named Sundown, who also appears in ASM Annual '97 when he gets out of prison “years later”. The story is pretty weak, I'm sorry to say, but the art by Tom Lyle is abysmal. Lyle's young Spider-Man looks exactly like his adult Spider-Man, and the whole thing is just awful. Yech.

UTSM Annual '96, on the other hand, is a real joy to read. Essentially, Spidey asks the Invisible Girl out to dinner to get under the Torch's skin, so the Torch decides to get back at Spidey by siccing Namor on him. Yeah, that ends well. Another delightful comedy issue here, this one featuring art by Mike Allred. I'd say more on this, but Busiek plays on the same issues that Stan did in ASM 21, and he plays them so well that the comments apply equally well to his work. In this case, reading the UTSM stuff at the same time as the ASM stuff actively diminishes this story. It's like drinking a really good chocolate milkshake right after you've eaten really good French silk pie--too much chocolate at once. Better to spread it out, I say.

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

1) Spider-Man stories were better then than they are now. Eh. About the same. A decent “straight” story with the Scorpion, two “fun” issues (we don't get enough of those, that's for sure), a mediocre crime story, and one abysmal failure of an annual.

2) Spider-Man's supporting cast is essential to good Spidey stories. Much of Spidey's supporting cast in these issues is the super hero community, which is the same state as today's comics (although if Dan Slott's FCBD issue, “Swing Time” is any indication, that may be changing! Yay!).

3) Peter Parker is not just a secret identity. Well... This week, he pretty much is.

All right, that's it for this week. Up next week will be Amazing Spider-Man 22-24 and Untold Tales of Spider-Man 24-25! Until Iron Man and Reed Richards become super villains, Make Mine Marvel!


Sunday, June 24, 2007

SM:FBFW ASM 17-19, UTSM 19-22, -1

Spider-Man: For Better or For Worse?

This Week's Reading List: Amazing Spider-Man 17-19 and Untold Tales of Spider-Man 19-22 (as well as -1).

Okey-dokey, here we go. While there's not a ton to talk about this week, we do have the first major three-part story in Spidey history with 17-19, and it's one of my personal favorites. UTSM gets back into the swing of things a bit, and we get some spy action (and, chronologically, our first Wolverine guest appearance!) with Richard and Mary Parker.

Okay. ASM 17. A classic issue that has just about everything one could want from a Spidey story. It's something of a stand-alone story in that its basic plot is resolved in the issue, but so many sub-plots continue that it's basically a “to be continued” story. Let's see, we've got the Green Goblin, the Human Torch, Aunt May in trouble, Betty jealous because of a secret ID mix-up, Flash Thompson blissfully unaware that he's just set up the Peter Parker fan club... yeah, it's got everything. The Goblin is used well (especially in light of his UTSM appearance described in last week's blog) and he serves as a worthy villain. The Aunt May thing was, at the time, very fresh, where they actually pay off the “she's so old and frail” idea that they'd been harping on since the beginning. The Torch is a great counterpoint to Spidey, and I'm definitely looking forward to the trade of Dan Slott's Spidey/Human Torch series here in the near future.

ASM 18 is the least of the three issues this week, but it serves something of a Back to the Future II role that it can't really escape. Honestly, I don't entirely buy Spidey's reasoning here (that he can't fight because he might be hurt, and Aunt May needs him) as his running away in this issue seems to prolong the fights instead of shortening them. At the same time, that's kind of the point of the issue, so I'll let it go. Jameson's perma-grin in this issue is hilarious. Plus, this issue features the first appearance of Ned Leeds, who, despite his super-villainous ending, serves an important role in the next few issues. Betty has been really worried about Peter's “dangerous job” and she's been seeing him with Liz Allan. Does she sit on her ass and wait for him? Do the writers string her relationship with Peter along? No! They let it grow, change, and break. It's natural. It clears the way for other girls. It shows consequences of stories that have made the book what it is. It's natural. This is where the Spider-Man story really started to mature into something larger than it had been, and it's key to understand that the combination of the Goblin archenemy relationship and the Peter-Betty break-up is an excellent example of how Spider-Man books should be: natural, unpredictable, and exciting.

Spider-Man has gone through change in the last fifteen years, but the big red reset button of continuity has been abused far too many times, and that's one of the biggest problems with the books and with comics in general right now. Some people argue that comics have to provide the “illusion of change” so that readers feel like things are happening, but the early issues of Spider-Man provided real change that didn't undermine the character. Can anyone point to any real changes in the last fifteen years, other than Civil War, that haven't been retconned out of existence? (And don't think that the monstrosity that is everything about Civil War is going to last any longer than Quesada's editor-in-chiefship, for better or for worse.)

ASM 18 also starts to build Aunt May as a tougher old broad than what we've seen, she gives her “Parkers are tough!” motivational speech to Pete, which inspires him to become Spider-Man again. We also see Flash Thompson ONCE AGAIN dressing up as Spider-Man and getting his ass kicked, as though getting captured by Doctor Doom in issue 5 weren't enough to teach him to not pretend to be a super hero. Sloppy writing on Stan's part here to not even mention the Doom/Issue 5 thing.

Anyway, then comes ASM 19, which, as a reprint in Marvel Tales, was the comic that sealed the deal for me a comic collector way back in the day. I bought that issue of Marvel Tales at a KOA campground in Saugatuck, MI, because the cover picture of Spider-Man was used as art in the 60's Spider-Man cartoon, and that reintroduced me to the joys of the Lee-Ditko Spider-Man. I mention this just for the sake of mentioning it. I have deeply fond memories of this issue.

And, for the most part, it holds up. The Enforcers are quickly devolving into the most glorified punching bags in the Spider-verse, and, if memory serves, they disappear here for quite some time. The Sandman is used interestingly here, where we find out that using his sand powers is actually tiring, and he allows himself to be captured by two uniformed cops. Putting limits on these characters' powers makes them interesting and usable--something many writers forget. Again we see the Spidey-Torch relationship and more of Ned Leeds, who I've always hated, despite his importance to the changing Spidey story. Some parts of the story are silly, but this is an excellent end to the first three-parter, and it deftly mixes action and soap-opera.

UTSM's stories in this week's run are a bit run-of-the-mill in terms of overall “WOW!” factor, but they work much better than last week's in tying into and enhancing the ASM issues. Betty, who comes off as rather shrill in ASM (“Oh, how I long for Peter!” turns quickly to “Ned's hot!”), is developed well here. We see her notice Liz Allan and Peter together a couple more times, and we see Peter, distracted by a super villain or his aunt's health, blow her off once or twice. I had to keep reminding myself about how clumsily her arc was executed in ASM because UTSM provided an excellent bridge between issues. There's also more set-up with Jason, but I honestly don't care a bit about his storyline. I wish we'd see more of Batwing and Tiny.

UTSM -1 is an interesting little spy story focusing on Peter's parents when they were agents of SHIELD. Personally, I've never dug the SHIELD-Parker connection, but whatever. The best thing about this issue is the fantastic art from John Romita, Sr. While it lacks the flash of modern artists, the storytelling is clear and the art is rock solid all the way through. I've never been the most enthusiastic Romita, Sr. fan, but you can always count on him for solid work, and even in 1997, he had the chops. The gratuitous appearance of a pre-Adamantium Logan is a little much for me to swallow, but whatever. I suppose it's better than having the Parkers rescue Agent Red-Shirt or something.

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

1) Spider-Man stories were better then than they are now. Sweet God, yes they were. UTSM is, almost by its very nature, low key, but it continues to do the “prequel” job of enhancing the original stories, and it does it well. ASM is still cheesy, still silly, but more full of heart than it had really ever been. This is definitely a book on the upswing.

2) Spider-Man's supporting cast is essential to good Spidey stories. Are they ever. The whole “Spider-Man: Coward!” story arc depends on the reactions of all the supporting characters, and several of the supporting characters are developed and deepened through this story. Best of all, their development inspires development in Spidey above and beyond the “Uncle Ben died because of me” thing that is so overused. I maintain that his uncle's death was the wake-up call for Peter, that it's a prime example of “Great Power & Great Responsibility,” but that it is not the main motivating force behind Spider-Man.

3) Peter Parker is not just a secret identity. Boy, he sure isn't. Without Peter Parker's problems, Spider-Man wouldn't have done two-thirds of what he does in these issues. Notice that he is not JUST Spider-Man--Peter has to have a separate life for the stories to be really good.

All right, that's it for this week. Up next week will be Amazing Spider-Man 20-21 and Untold Tales of Spider-Man 23, '97, and '96! Until Jameson is used better in Daredevil than he is in Spider-Man, Make Mine Marvel!


Tuesday, June 19, 2007

SM:FBFW ASM 15-16, Ann 1, UTSM 15-18, SE

Spider-Man: For Better or For Worse?

This Week's Reading List: Amazing Spider-Man 15-16, Amazing Spider-Man Annual 1, Untold Tales of Spider-Man 15-18, and Untold Tales of Spider-Man: Strange Encounter.

Sorry for the late post this week. I just finished up another school year and got to dive right in to my daughter's third birthday party and everything that went along with it. Crazy, crazy, craziness. I hope this extended post is worth the wait.

Okey-dokey, here we go. I know it's a huge list this week, but I just kind of started reading and didn't stop. Well, obviously, I did stop, but I didn't stop when I thought I would. Honestly, it's getting to me a little bit how little Amazing I'm reading with all of the UTSM interludes, and I wanted more Lee/Ditko action. Well, I got it. I'm not sure it was worth it.

First and foremost, let's deal with ASM 15 and 16. The former introduces Kraven the Hunter, who is working with the Chameleon. Kraven is a bit unique among Spidey villains in that he isn't out to steal stuff or to dominate the world. He just wants to beat Spider-Man to prove that he is the best. That this eventually drives him crazy actually makes sense, given the character that Lee writes. The issue itself is a bit silly, as many of these old stand-alone, villain-of-the-month ASM's were, but we're given a credible reason why Kraven can stand toe-to-toe with Spider-Man (a jungle potion), at least, which is more than one can say for many later appearances of Kraven, where the potion goes unmentioned. It's enough that many folks (okay... me) forget that Kraven actually did have super-human strength and stamina. The Chameleon is pathetic and more of an intrusion into the story than anything else.

The latter ASM issue crosses over with Daredevil and features the Circus of Crime. The issue serves as little more than a Daredevil showcase, and it's entertaining, I guess. It definitely does a good job of showing enough of Daredevil's supporting cast and his set-up that a kid might get interested in the other book and pick it up off the stands. I guess Marvel's “not talking to me ever again,” though, because I didn't find it to be the greatest story of all time, or whatever. You gotta love Stan's hyperbole. In the end, though, both of these stories just mark time between ASM 14 and 17, because there is NO greater Spider-Man villain for the first 40 issues of the series than the Green Goblin.

ASM Annual 1 shows up at this point, and even though I had to read some other UTSM stuff before this, I'll address it here, since it's Lee/Ditko. This story is near and dear to many Spider-Fans' hearts; it certainly is to mine. I had this issue in an old, over-sized Marvel Treasury Edition featuring reprints of ASM 6, 35, and Annual 1. The introduction of the Sinister Six is a tour de force of action and variety. For someone with limited experience with comics--say, a six-year-old--this is literally one of the coolest issues in existence. It's not a bad thing to say that, and it's not meant as an insult. It is, however, limiting, and a little disappointing, honestly, to find that this story doesn't make a lot of sense. Let me address my complaints in a brief list:

  1. Spider-Man loses his powers. I hated this storyline in Spider-Man 2, I hate it here. Why does this happen? What causes it? Why has it not really happened since? Who knows? At least in Spider-Man 2, it served a purpose (kind of), becoming a metaphor for how ineffective one is when one doesn't know what one wants or values. In ASM Annual 1, Spidey loses his powers and... it's a good reason to show “guest stars” like the FF or Captain America asking each other “Hey, where's Spidey?”* He goes to fight Electro anyway, deciding that he'd better try, since May's and Betty's lives are at stake. And... poof! His powers are back. Again, why? It's just not effective, and it lends little real drama to the story.*All of these characters, incidentally, appear in their own magazines! Buy them now! (This issue is also annoying because it is a giant advertisement for everything else published by Marvel.)
  2. Aunt May is inconsistent. (Not incontinent, as I just accidentally typed. That's not shown on panel. Inconsistent.) On one hand, she's shown as the wise old woman, genuinely concerned and observant in regards to her nephew. This is the beginnings of the character who would later give speeches about “Parkers are tough!”, who would join the Gray Panthers, etc. Then, not ten pages later, she's telling Betty how polite and well spoken Otto Octavius is. Seriously, how dumb is she? Pick one--reasonably intelligent mother-figure, or bat-shit crazy old lady--but don't give us both.
  3. The villains are defeated too easily and not taken seriously. This is a common problem in any story where the villains decide to team-up against the hero, because “he barely defeated us alone! Together, we're more than a match for him!” Generally, that would be true. Each of these villains has been worth at least a full-length story by himself, and each of them is defeated by Spider-Man in three pages, maybe four (although with a nifty splash page each, which is cool). He barely even has to try. Why, then, should he be afraid of Electro or the Vulture ever again? He didn't just escape them--he beat them and got them apprehended!
I don't mean to pick on the story, but these are features that, IMHO, go above and beyond 1960's silliness in comics. Despite my deep love and affection for this book and the memories I have of reading it OVER and OVER, it's a real letdown to this 31-year-old fan, while much of the Lee/Ditko run is NOT a letdown.

UTSM, I'm sorry to say, has dipped a bit in overall quality over these issues, but I think it's turning itself around as of the last issue, which features both the Headsman and the Green Goblin. This week, we're treated to Betty's super-powered creep of an ex-boyfriend, Gordon, who is apparently stronger than the Scorpion, which really shouldn't be possible as a Spidey villain at this point of the mythos. And who would waste a super-power process like this on a nobody like Gordon? Anyway, Spidey wins. Big surprise, I know. (That's not a criticism of Spidey winning, but it is a criticism of the fact that that's all that really seemed to matter in that ish.) The next issue is a relatively typical Spidey story told from the atypical viewpoint of the pre-ASM appearance Mary Jane, who had been retconned into knowing Spidey's true identity. I never liked that retcon, personally, and this issue seems to rely heavily on Gerry Conway's Parallel Lives GN, which I also didn't like. Still, it's cast development, and that's okay, I guess.

UTSM 17 features Hawkeye in an appearance that doesn't seem to jibe with ASM Annual 3. He meets Spidey, Spidey helps him out of his abusive relationship with the Black Widow (where she's abusing him), Hawkeye knows it, and yet... he doesn't seem to remember Spidey personally when Spidey is first considered for Avengers membership. Hmm. At the same time, I know Busiek loves Hawkeye, so maybe I'm missing something. A little help here, readers? The story itself is relatively unremarkable to me.

It's UTSM 18 that starts an upswing, IMHO, because this issue does several things right, especially for an “Untold Tales” series. First, it clearly plants itself right before an issue (ASM 17) with several clues. Second, it provides just enough back story for the issue to “follow” (again, ASM 17) that fans who've read the “following” issue feel all cool for being able to go “oh, so that's where the idea for the Spidey fan club came from!” Third, it clearly relates Untold continuity (the Headsman) to classic continuity (the Green Goblin) and it does so in such a way that it enriches the classic continuity (the Goblin comes out of UTSM 18 looking like a real bad-ass, thus ramping up excitement in ASM 17). I thoroughly enjoyed this issue.

Finally this week comes Untold Tales of Spider-Man: Strange Encounter, which does the exact opposite of UTSM 18 in almost every way. It's too bad, too, because Roger Stern provides the script here, and he's one of my all-time favorite Spidey writers. The dialogue reads like Mr. Stern felt he had too little to do, so he just kept adding words until they wouldn't fit anymore (although he gets the intro captions for Doctor Strange in the exact style Stan used, so that's a plus). It also just doesn't fit for some of the characters. One Liz Allan-centric complaint on Betty's part sticks out in my mind.

It's deeply unfortunate, IMHO, that Busiek's plot requires the use of amnesia for most of the cast. One of the best things about UTSM--and Busiek's “flashback” Marvel work (Amazing Fantasy, Marvels)--is that it felt like it really “mattered” to the Marvel issues surrounding it. When Spidey's appearance on It's Amazing! bumps John Jameson, causing resentment in Jonah, it makes ASM 1 a better story. Everything about UTSM 12, the Betty issue, makes everything about Betty Brant's situation and many of her actions much deeper. The fact that the entire story of Strange Encounter requires amnesia means that all of the character development in the issue is moot. It turns most of the story into something with the impact of a middling What If? Story. I'll grant that it's minorly cool that the whole caper, plus the amnesia, is what allows Flash and the gang to see Doctor Strange's astral form in ASM Annual #1, but as I think Busiek himself would attest, this is a minor point of continuity-explanation at best, and it does very little to make a character or a previously published story any better. The art on UTSM-SE isn't bad, but it isn't great, so all in all, this one-shot was a real disappointment, especially coming some time after UTSM folded. I remember being very jazzed for this one back in '98, thinking, “this'll be great to have all the magic of UTSM again, even for one issue!” The magic, for me, wasn't here. Oh, well. I'm still hoping for a Busiek-penned George Stacy epic someday.

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

1) Spider-Man stories were better then than they are now. Not really. I think I'm going to have to vote “worse” for this week, despite the near-perfection of UTSM 18. Corny dialogue, cheesy plots, a lack of Spidey continuity (the supporting cast is another thing entirely) between A stories... Meh.

2) Spider-Man's supporting cast is essential to good Spidey stories. Boy, are they ever. The Liz Allen-Betty Brant feud is heating up all over, and it's full of that delicious Spidey irony that makes it so sweet to read. To a large extent, supporting cast is about all we get in these stories that's worth reading. The death of Sally Avril continues to generate fall out, but there isn't much of a sense of any of the Untold stuff building toward a climax.

3) Peter Parker is not just a secret identity. The main thing you can say about Peter Parker as a character in these stories is that the secret ID aspect of him definitely adds complication to his life. Unfortunately, Spidey isn't heavily dependent on Peter as a character to do something important. Don't worry, though: He will be next week.

All right, that's it for this week. Up next week will be Amazing Spider-Man 17-19 and Untold Tales of Spider-Man 19-22 (as well as -1)! Until Aunt May is in mortal danger AGAIN and it drives a whole storyline, Make Mine Marvel!


Sunday, June 10, 2007

SM:FBFW ASM 13-14, UTSM 12-14

Spider-Man: For Better or For Worse?

This Week's Reading List: Amazing Spider-Man 13-14 and Untold Tales of Spider-Man 12-14

Okey-dokey, here we go. Not much to talk about on the ASM front this week. ASM 13 is the last of my Pocket Books memories, and it's just plain difficult for me to take Mysterio seriously, even in the stories of the time. He is a villain who is designed specifically to counter Spider-Man's powers, but once Spider-Man figures out the gimmicks, he trounces Mysterio. This issue features yet another JJJ “Spider-Man is a fraud/crook” thing that the whole town buys into until Spider-Man exposes the real fraud. I have to say that this element of JJJ is getting very old, very quickly. Not a lot of movement on the Peter/Betty front, either.

ASM 14 deserves a little attention, of course, as it features the first appearance of the Green Goblin. It's funny to me to see what an inauspicious start the Goblin got in his first story. He wants to be a crime lord, so he's going to take down Spider-Man. His plan? Lure Spider-Man out to New Mexico to get him with the Enforcers, who were just so effective against him even with an army of thugs backing them up. The bait? Spider-Man: The Movie. Obviously nobody showed Spidey the script to Spider-Man 3, or no amount of money would have gotten him out west. What really matters about this story is that the Goblin and Spidey are obviously good matches for each other, and the Goblin takes the defeat personally in ASM 17, where he next appears, and where his true obsession with Spider-Man begins. The Hulk is wasted here, except to put Spider-Man in “his place” in terms of power. Honestly, it does more for the Hulk than it does for Spider-Man.

UTSM rightfully ignores the silliness of those ASM issues and goes for some character pieces. In UTSM 12, we finally, finally, finally get a good explanation as to why this 18/19-year-old high-school drop-out is working as the secretary of one of the most powerful men in New York City. It turns out that Betty's mother, Mrs. Eleonore Brant, was his secretary, and that Betty learned the ropes from her over the years. This is very believable for me, as I've seen this happen in real businesses. When Betty's sinister boyfriend, Gordon, who is sure to turn up again in UTSM, smacks Mrs. Brant around, leaving her permanently brain damaged, Betty takes over for Jameson, receiving a generous salary in return because JJJ says she's “family.” This is the perfect kind of story for UTSM, as it answers some lingering questions and deepens the character. All of a sudden, it makes a ton of sense why Betty shows up at the hospital to help care for May, as she understands the need for that sort of support and offers it to Peter. A fine story.

UTSM 13 features the death of Sally Avril, who gives up her Bluebird identity only to rededicate herself to becoming Peter's superior in the photography biz. In a very teenagerish moment, she eggs Jason into running a red light, the car is struck by a truck, and Sally is killed. While Spidey blames himself for scaring her out of the Bluebird thing, wondering if she wouldn't have been safer at his side, the Human Torch is there once again to remind Spidey of the difference between responsibility and self-pitying egotism. Honestly, the story didn't do much for me, but it is good in concept, as Sally and Jason are some of the only members of the group who act recognizably 17. UTSM 14 is another Scorcher story that touches on the Osborn thing and continues the fallout of Sally's death. Not great, but not terrible, either.

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

1) Spider-Man stories were better then than they are now. So-so. Cheesy villains and plots in ASM, overly hasty deaths in UTSM. I wonder if Busiek knew the book's days were limited, as it seems that there was more that could be done with Sally. At the same time, this pretty much is her arc, so maybe he just decided to move it along. I just wish we could have seen more of her, as I like her more than Jason, personally. Except for UTSM 12, I'm not sure that any of these issues would really make me hungry for more if they were being published today, even if I were ten. This week, I'd say the material is about equal in quality to today's stuff, certainly not embarrassing.

2) Spider-Man's supporting cast is essential to good Spidey stories. The Betty issue is a stand-out, and UTSM is all about the supporting characters this week. Not a ton of supporting cast in ASM, and it hurts the issues. A little bit of Flash's unflagging loyalty to Spidey in 13, but nothing new or groundbreaking.

3) Peter Parker is not just a secret identity. In ASM, he is. In UTSM, he's almost the only identity this week.

All right, that's it for this week. Up next week will be Amazing Spider-Man 15-16, Amazing Spider-Man Annual 1, Untold Tales of Spider-Man 15-18, and Untold Tales of Spider-Man: Strange Encounter! Until Spider-Man chooses a whiny, pathetic MJ over the near-goddess Gwen, Make Mine Marvel!


(Sorry for the Spider-Man 3 rants. I saw it again this weekend and it just burns me up how bad it was. -ET)

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Read This So I Don't Have To Write It...

Check out this blog:

This guy is awesome. I'm not sure that much of the stuff he says is "new", but he puts a ton of stuff into the right words. Take, for example, his series of posts on the concept of a "story engine," which is"the setting of an open-ended series, the status quo of the [comic/TV show/book series/movie franchise/add open-ended series here]." The concepts, as he explains them, are not--cannot--be completely new. As I was reading his posts, I kept thinking, "I've thought that before! Just not in so many words!" And if I am thinking that, professional writers the world over have thought this stuff.

But Mr. Seavey has a knack for putting these things that you kind of already know into just the right words. Believe me when I say that the term "story engine" is going to be showing up in SM:FBFW posts very soon, because it hits the nail right on the head for what I'm trying to say about Spider-Man.

SM: FBFW: ASM 10, UTSM 5-8

Spider-Man: For Better or For Worse?

This Week's Reading List: Amazing Spider-Man 10 and Untold Tales of Spider-Man 5-8

A quick note on this post, since you may notice it's out of order: I actually write these a bit in advance so that I can post them regularly. If I have a light week at work, I might write three or four columns. With a heavy week, I might write none. But I can post a new one every weekend, right on schedule. This week, I posted the wrong one. Thanks to eagle-eyed reader Kurt Busiek (!) for calling me on it. I'd apologize for the confusion, but if posting out of order is what it takes to get the writer of the excellent Untold Tales of Spider-Man to comment on my blog, I may start reading the Schemer storyline right now!

Okey-dokey, here we go. Well, it's not going to be a terribly long post this week, folks. With only one issue of Amazing to cover and four “treading water” issues of Untold Tales, I don't have much to say this week that I haven't said already.

Amazing Spider-Man 10 marks an important first in the world of Spider-Man: He fights a crime-boss, and the crime-boss is not super-powered in any way. The Big Man takes control of “the rackets” in a pre-Wilson Fisk era (although Fisk has “already” shown his face in Amazing Fantasy 17). I'm not sure if he's the first crime-boss in real-world Marvel history, but he's the first one we've seen in the Spider-Man mythos. Stories dealing with the hierarchy of the NYC underworld will dominate much of Spider-Man's life for many years to come.

Another important development here is Betty Brant's involvement with the Enforcers. I mention it for two main reasons. First, it's one of the first uses of a true, on-going sub-plot in ASM. This isn't a stock situation, like Aunt May being ill or worried, or Flash bullying Peter, or JJJ being angry at Spider-Man. Betty's situation, its consequences, and her reactions to it influence the Spider-Man mythos for decades. Without the break-up and conflict here between her and Peter, she never would have gotten together with Ned Leeds, who goes on to become one of the Hobgoblins. Second, this is one of the first times that a supporting character in Peter's world gets involved with the Spider-Man side of things and it has a real impact. Sure, Flash got caught by Doctor Doom and JJJ went to Florida, but those were done-in-one stories that had no real effect on anything. From ASM 10 forward, being acquainted with Peter Parker becomes increasingly dangerous.

Spidey's fighting style really starts to take shape here, as he has one of his first big multi-person brawls. Lee clutters some of the scenes with too much dialogue, IMO, but the dialog that does work, combined with some really fluid Ditko art, starts to develop Spider-Man as a unique super-hero in addition to already being a unique character in comics at the time. I've always loved the shot of Spidey zipping through a tire to dodge it.

A final note on ASM 10, which is reflected in this week's UTSM, Flash Thompson really starts to reveal a deeper character than we've seen. When Peter starts bragging that he knows who the Big Man is, Flash realizes what kind of trouble Peter might be bringing upon himself, and Flash tries to warn Peter off. While we've seen some decent behavior from Flash in UTSM, this was a real change in the original ASM, and it paved the way for Flash Thompson, stock bully, to grow into a more three-dimensional character.

UTSM didn't impress me as much this week as it did in the first four issues. It's still a good read, and it was a god-send in the Clone days, but I have to say I was disappointed not to be reading more Lee/Ditko work this week. Of course, UTSM serves several masters, and it's a delicate balancing act that doesn't pay off strongly every issue. What it did this week was two main things: First, it provided the kind of filling-in of details that fanboys tend to love so much. In one panel in ASM 10, we're told that the Big Man's gang goes on a crime spree. UTSM 5-7 takes place during that spree, and 8 features the fall-out from it. Combine that with a team-up with the Torch that allows Peter to show off his geekier side, and you've got some enjoyable plots. I also liked the Headsman, a villain using prototype Green Goblin hardware. I'm not sure I buy a psycho like Osborn using surrogates, but it's a minor quibble on my part. I'll happily take Busiek's characterization of Osborn, as it provides some interesting backstory for the Goblin. We also see Betty's deepening feelings for Peter, so that when she sobs about how he's “all she ever wanted” at the end of ASM 10, it's not quite as melodramatic and out-of-left field. Second, UTSM starts to really build up its own characters, namely Jason and Sally, who provide much of the plot for upcoming issues. Their set-ups in these issues were a little less than compelling to me, but I know that these set-ups pay off, so I'm willing to go with it for now.

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

1) Spider-Man stories were better then than they are now. Yes, in that they used supporting characters, had real sub-plots (not just merchandising or crossover ploys), and that they were fun. There have to be some happy-go-lucky stories now and again to give the “Peter's life sucks” stories some true weight. Still, not the most compelling week in Spider-Man comics reading.

2) Spider-Man's supporting cast is essential to good Spidey stories. Boy, is it ever. Just in ASM 10 we find JJJ, Flash, and Betty being essential to the story, and it's a pretty good one. Note the use of Flash and Betty in current F'N Spider-Man continuity, even if both characters are damaged goods in the present.

3) Peter Parker is not just a secret identity. Outsmarting the Wizard in UTSM 6 was funny, and Peter's love-life complications will mature him over the next few issues. Aunt May's blood transfusion in ASM 10 will come back to haunt them, and even this is superior to the current comics. Aunt May is once again on the chopping block in “Back in Black,” but the BIB story is yet another "Aunt May's in trouble" story, while the blood transfusion was one of the first. Combine that with the fact that this blood transfusion business isn't going to come back into the comics for another 12-16 issues or so, and we get some excellent use of continuity in a time when continuity didn't exactly rule.

All right, that's it for this week. Up next week will be Amazing Spider-Man 11-12 and Untold Tales of Spider-Man 9-11! Until Spider-Man has organic web-shooters, Make Mine Marvel!


SM:FBFW ASM 11-12, UTSM 9-11

Spider-Man: For Better or For Worse?

This Week's Reading List: Amazing Spider-Man 11-12 and Untold Tales of Spider-Man 9-11

Okey-dokey, here we go. In ASM 11 and 12, we have more ghosts of my childhood, as these are also included in the Pocket Books collection I owned as a small boy. Apart from Amazing Fantasy 15, ASM provides the first real tragedy of Spider-Man's young career: the death of Bennett Brant. Bennett himself is, of course, a red-shirt among red-shirts. We find out in short order that his gambling debts to one Blackie Gaxton are the cause of some of Betty's troubles, and with a character as pathetic as him, where else is there for him to go except in a box? This death marks the first time that the Spider-Man persona clearly comes between Peter and a girl, for Betty blames Spider-Man (wrongly, of course) for Bennett's death. Even once she gets over that and realizes it wasn't Spidey's fault, she still can't stand the thought of Spider-Man, because he would remind her of Bennett. (I'm not really following the logic there, but there's not really a whole lot of logic in the Peter-Betty relationship, especially if one takes UTSM out of the mix. As far as I can see, Peter and Betty have never even kissed, but both of them moon over the other as though they were Romeo and Juliet.)

The fights between Spidey and Doc Ock are pretty epic, but in two out of the three, Spider-Man is seriously hampered somehow, first by a twisted ankle and then by a virus. I do find it interesting that, according to ASM 12, when Spidey gets sick, he reverts to having the proportional strength of a 98-pound weakling. Given the number of other times that Spidey's had to fight when he's sick, I guess that's one rule that just fell by the wayside. Anyway, at least Spider-Man doesn't resort to a gimmick chemical to beat Ock like he did in ASM 3. The stories seem to be moving away from that sort of ending, and I, for one, am glad. The final fight between Ock and Spidey ends in a stalemate because of a huge fire. Here we see some true nobility on Spider-Man's part as he tries to save his mortal enemy from the flames, but he is forced to flee. This sort of attitude on Spider-Man's part is, of course, an essential part of the character's goodness, and I just mark its clear introduction here.

Untold Tales again doesn't do much in terms of landmark issues here, but it does still tell interesting stories that are rich with characterization. It might have been a little too fanboyish for its own good, though. There's an interesting issue in this little run where Sally Avril, now running around as the gymnastic amateur super-hero “Bluebird,” threatens to reveal Peter's “secret” (that he takes the Spidey pictures for the Bugle). Instead of giving in to her blackmail, Peter brings his photos to school for show-and-tell, essentially. Flash and the gang immediately treat Peter like a local celebrity for the rest of the issue. This issue is essentially an answer to the fanboy question, “If Flash is such a big Spidey fan, why doesn't he think Peter's cool for always getting pictures of him? After all, Peter goes to the benefit in ASM 17 as a Bugle staffer, and it's no secret...” As a Spidey fanboy, the issue is amusing and interesting, even if Busiek has to hit the “reset” button at the end (because Flash still thought Peter was a big zero in the “next” issue of ASM), but I honestly wonder if any casual readers would care about this story.

For these issues, the villains (Lizard, Electro, Eel, and a Busiek creation called “Commanda”) are less than inspiring, but not embarrassing. I wouldn't mind seeing Commanda show up again, honestly, maybe as a Runaways villain, because her “distract my teenage opponent with my boobs!” tactic really would be effective against Chase, I think. Anyway, these issues move the Jason/Sally and Batwing storylines along, but they don't do much else. I am really looking forward to UTSM #12 (again), because it's an all-Betty Brant issue, and I loves me some Betty.

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

1) Spider-Man stories were better then than they are now. Check. Classic Doc Ock awesomeness, plus a good character death (Bennett Brant) in ASM trumps the serviceable UTSM stories.

2) Spider-Man's supporting cast is essential to good Spidey stories. In ASM, Liz Allen's crush on Peter starts clearly here, and it will cause him some trouble over the next couple of years. In UTSM, the Sally storyline bears interesting fruit down the line, and the Tiny subplot gets a little love. In both, what these minor arcs serve to do is to give the comics a sense of unity and verisimilitude. They also allow for things to change without changing things in Spider-Man's status quo, thus providing that “illusion of change” that serial stories like this kind of have to much of the time.

You know, that honestly makes me wonder if that's not actually one of the big problems in current comics: Maybe there are too many big events, and their repercussions are not adequately explored. Gwen's and Norman's deaths affected the book for years and years, and it was some time before something else truly momentous happened to Spider-Man. Could it be that TPTB at Marvel are just too ADD to let their “big” Spidey stories have any weight? Of course, their big events would have to involve character changes and not just bone-claws, and they would have to make sense and not just turn Tony Stark in to the biggest super-villain in the Marvel Universe, but still... Hmm. Something to think about.

3) Peter Parker is not just a secret identity. Note the use of the web-shooters to escape the fire in ASM 12. Peter's scientific knowledge (in creating them) and his often-mentioned practice at using them save his life here. I really like that Stan and Steve made Spider-Man more than a collection of powers and a sense of nobility, something that recent Spidey writers seem to have failed to do. Granted, Spidey used some thinking skill to defeat Morlun the first time, but all-in-all, with the extra powers granted in Disassembled and then The Other, including lame organic web-shooters, I think that the current Spidey team needs to remember some of what this character is about. Note the importance of the supporting cast in UTSM, also. Spider-Man saving people is just more interesting if we know and care about those people, but for that to happen (and to have it NOT be MJ or May every single friggin' time), he has to have a supporting cast, and they have to be given face time in the book.

All right, that's it for this week. Up next week will be Amazing Spider-Man 13-14 and Untold Tales of Spider-Man 12-14! Until Spider-Man has only two characters in his supporting cast (and one of them's in a coma, with the other in hiding!), Make Mine Marvel!