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:
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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!
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!