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!