Sunday, July 8, 2007

SM:FBFW ASM 22-24, UTSM 24-25

Spider-Man: For Better or For Worse?

This Week's Reading List: Amazing Spider-Man 22-24 and Untold Tales of Spider-Man 24-25

Okey-dokey, here we go. The big news on the FBFW front this week is that I've reached the end of Untold Tales. This is good, in that I'll finally be able to make some headway in Amazing, which has seemed to move at a snail's pace to me because of UTSM, but also bad, in that UTSM was a fantastic series that, in some key ways, was superior to the original Lee/Ditko comics it enhanced. But don't worry--we'll get there.

On the Amazing Spider-Man front, we have the Clown and his Masters of Menace showing up to “menace” an art show in ASM 22. In terms of villainy, this issue is a waste. If the Clown is the best leader your group can come up with, go home. In terms of action, the fight scenes are expertly rendered by Ditko--moreso than usual. This is the first issue of ASM that I've read in my current quest where each panel in a fight scene really flowed into the next without exception and where no “shot” seemed inferior to any others. If it weren't for the fact that Spidey's fighting a couple of trapeze artists and the Human Bullet from The Tick, these would be absolutely fantastic fights. Still, it establishes Spidey's supreme agility more decisively than any previous issue, IMHO, and it's worth mentioning. On the character front, we see Peter and Betty making up (for the moment) and JJJ acting like a buffoon, as usual. This issue also features the “foot wearing a red sock with a hole in it” painting. I, too, wish I could draw feet like that.

ASM 23 features “The Goblin and the Gangsters.” This is an inferior Goblin appearance for me because of his rather pedestrian motivations. “I want to be crime-lord of the city!” Whatever, Norman. Get in line. At the same time, this issue does for the Goblin what the last issue did for Spider-Man: it gives the character a chance to demonstrate just how far above average thugs and criminals he really is, thus sweetening the eventual confrontation between the two in ASM 26. I have to add that I love the scene where Peter can't tail the villains because his Spidey suit is wet. Let's just hope we never get a statue of Aunt May wearing a thong and lifting the costume out of the laundry basket. (Shudder.) On the character front, while Ned Leeds may be in Europe, he's still writing to Betty, and Peter finds out. This sort of tension, the “misunderstanding caused by a lack of communication,” is one of my least favorite tricks when done poorly, and I don't feel that Stan uses it well here. It reads like cheap soap opera in this issue.

ASM 24 features Mysterio trying to convince Spider-Man that he's going mad. Whatever. All this issue really has is some Peter/Betty development. They finally talk about the letters, and that conversation reads true to me, especially Peter's sarcastic and conversation-ending response. Liz's attempts to get Petey all to herself just bug me. I have a hard time accepting Liz as that much of a schemer. I know she's been portrayed that way already, but this part does not work, and her thoughts at the end, “Now I'm finally making progress with Petey!”, etc., sound too much like Pasty Walker tripe for me to care. I won't be sad to see Liz disappear for a while after graduation.

Okay. The main event this week: The end of Untold Tales of Spider-Man. First up is the sub-standard #24. In its favor is the fact that it ties up the two major loose ends of the series: Batwing and Jason. Against it stands... everything else in the issue, honestly. DeFalco's script doesn't fit the style of the series. It reads like a bad issue of Spider-Girl. Don't get me wrong--I'm thoroughly enjoying his work on Amazing Spider-Girl. I mean to write a special FBFW column on ASG 8 and how it's a fantastic example of a done-in-one story in the Mighty Marvel Manner. I'm not sure when that'll happen, but it's coming. When DeFalco's on, he's good. When he's off, though... So much of this issue is just heavy-handed, like the alcohol captions during the scene with Flash and his drunken father. We already know that Mr. Thompson is drinking, and the art and the dialog get that across admirably. The captions just push it too far. And the thing is, this issue isn't so much “bad” as in “terrible,” it's bad as in “it doesn't sound like Stan at his best.” Busiek's scripting on this series does. McLeod's art looks phoned-in, which surprises me for two reasons: first, I'm a McLeod fan most of the time; second, his finishes over Frenz's breakdowns in UTSM 25 are fantastic. I have to wonder if Pat Oliffe's departure after last issue meant that McLeod was facing the dreaded deadline doom. Everyone looks far chunkier than they should, anatomy is off, etc.

My biggest problem, though, lies with the whole point of the story, and I'm not sure where to place the blame for this. I just do not buy Batwing somehow managing to “hold the [cure] in abeyance” because his mommy hasn't been nice to him or because he doesn't want to be Jimmy anymore. I understand it as a plot device allowing for a reunion between him and his mother, but I don't believe it for a second, in part because we have been given no reason to believe that Jimmy has had any conscious control whatsoever over any aspect of his transformation thus far. It's not like the Thing, where dozens of cures didn't take over the years and that such constant reversions needed explanation. Also, what's up with Batwing's mother suddenly showing up out of nowhere after so many issues? I wonder if Busiek was hard-pressed to finish the Batwing story in one issue and didn't explain all of this as well as he might have otherwise. Oh, well. If I ever get the chance, I'll ask him about it.

Absolutely everything is different in the next issue, however. The final issue of Untold Tales of Spider-Man is a fantastic issue in every single way. The art by Frenz and McLeod is darn near perfect. It recalls the clean lines of Romita, Sr. and the dynamism of Ditko. I love the use of the polyptychs, where Spidey dodges or jumps around multiple times in a single panel. (That is still a polyptych, right?) They allow for a lot of action in a little bit of space.

More importantly, however, is the writing, which really makes this whole issue a gift to dedicated Spidey fans. There is not a single wasted cameo here. Much of the story, while it feeds the main plot, serves to illuminate or explain other things in Spidey's “future” that every single panel is a gem. As I've said before about UTSM and other prequels at their best: they enhance but do not fundamentally contradict a reader's perception of what happened in a previously published issue. In this issue alone, we've got Professor Miles Warren appearing on-panel with his brother, Mr. Warren. Miles is distracted by a pretty blond outside, who happens to be none other than Gwen Stacy. That will end well, I'm sure. We've got references to Peter's run-in with Johnny Storm at State U., Mary Jane's burgeoning modeling career and her audition at Kingsley Ltd., and Peter being considered for a science scholarship by Prof. Warren. Each of these is a little nugget of gold that builds (even if just a little) some element of future Spidey stories (Warren seeing Gwen for the first time, MJ modeling for Hobgoblin Ltd.) or that reinforces the connections already made (Showing the relation between the two Warrens, referencing the Parker/Storm run-in).

The biggest enhancement, though, has to be the revelation that the Goblin never revealed his true identity to the Crime-Master. Instead, he disguised himself as J. Jonah Jameson! This is great on several levels. First, it reinforces the reader's eventual understanding of Norman's paranoia and his need for complete control of a situation. Second, it pays a little homage to those old “who is the Goblin” guessing games played-out in the letter columns of the 60's and the 80's, because Jameson was a relatively common guess. Third, it creates a sense of poignant irony about the Crime-Master's eventual death, when he tried so desperately to reveal the Goblin's ID to the cops. As with anyone who ever pairs with someone as treacherous the Goblin, the Crime-Master's every effort was completely in vain.

The main plot is relatively standard, but it provides good action and a “new” fight between Spidey and the Goblin before either knew the other's identity. It also provides for a couple of humorous bits like Spidey's meta-fictional question, “Aw, nuts. Is everyone in the entire world here today?” and Jameson's ill-fated attempts to get through a door. Even these latter comedic moments come from a well-thought-out moment in the plot where Norman knows he must change into the Goblin and realizes that he has to hide Jameson, as the two of them cannot be seen in the same place at the same time. Not only is this excellent attention to detail on Busiek's part, but it also allows Busiek to do what he does so well, which is playing with the conventions of the super-hero and turning them on their ear. For most characters, the problem is that the character and his secret ID are never both in the same place. Norman has the opposite problem when the Goblin and his “secret ID” are going to be in the same place. It's a small moment, but when Busiek is really on his game, many of his best comics are loaded with them.

In any case, while I look forward to making greater numerical progress through Amazing and getting to some issues that I've never read (most of them above #50 and up to #175 or so), I will miss having Untold Tales to look forward to. In terms of character development and dialog, this book is really superior to the Lee/Ditko Amazing Spider-Man. UTSM is nowhere near as groundbreaking as ASM, of course, but it was never intended to be. As an homage and an enhancement to early stories, this book is without peer. Busiek is a fantastic writer blessed with the gift of creating the sense of wonder in adults that so many of us had as kids. I haven't liked all of his work, but when Busiek is on, he's absolutely one of the best in the business. I'm not just saying this because he's read this column before, either. He's just that good. If anyone reading this column hasn't read Marvels, Astro City, or Conan, RUN, do not walk, to your local comic shop and buy some of it right away. You won't be sorry.

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

1) Spider-Man stories were better then than they are now. Honestly? Despite my Busiek love above, four of this week's five fall short. I'm going to call it even, though, because UTSM 25 is off the scale.

2) Spider-Man's supporting cast is essential to good Spidey stories. The best parts of every issue this week are because of the supporting cast. Check-er-oonie!

3) Peter Parker is not just a secret identity. Sigh. This week, he pretty much is. In ASM 24, when Peter's running around, he's just Spider-Man in a suit. Ugh.

All right, that's it for this week. Up two weeks from now will be Amazing Spider-Man 25-29 and Amazing Spider-Man Annual 2, and up next week, a special Q&A session with one of my favorite writers! Until Spidey is a magical spider totem, Make Mine Marvel!

Eric

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