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!


1 comment:

Jared said...

Great reviews. I always thought myself that Spider-Man offered a useful model for most superheroes to follow: namely, use the hero's 'real life' as an anchor to provide an ongoing storyline and continuity while the villain-of-the-week's scheme may only last one or two issues, but offer enough action for the readers to enjoy seeing two super-powered guys in costumes beating the living crap out of each other...which is pretty much why I read comics back in the day, heheheh.

In fact, as a kid, I remember being annoyed at the amount of screen time being wasted (from my eight-year old point of view) on the lives of Joe Robertson and Flash Thompson, when what I wanted to see was Spider-Man whale on Electro for the umpteenth time, sending him back to jail only to have Doctor Octopus break out, get his ass kicked by Spidey, and then Sandman busts know the drill. I probably would have been annoyed by all the time spent on the likes of Liz Allen and Flash Thompson, too, come to think of it.