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!