Spider-Man: For Better or For Worse? This Week's Reading List: Amazing Spider-Man 41-45, Amazing Spider-Man Annual 3 Okey-dokey, here we go, folks. After several “milestone” posts, the Spider-Man saga seems to have settled into a bit of a groove. If my memories from being ten serve, the Stan Lee/John Romita, Sr. years provide a steady stream of entertaining, if slightly shallow and repetitive, Spidey-tales. That's certainly what we get this week. On the super-villain front, we get two: the Rhino and the Lizard, while John Jameson gets mutated by space-spores and begins his quest to become the Jimmy Olsen of the Marvel Universe. I have to say that five issues in a row (six, if you count the annual) of Spidey fighting bricks gets a little old. “Oh, look! Spidey hurt his hand hitting that guy! Does Spidey have a chance of beating him like he did the last two?” Meh. It makes me wonder a little why Spidey was able to tire out the Rhino but not Jameson or the Lizard. On the other hand, having Spidey go up against villains like this means he actually has to think and use his scientific brain, which I'm always asking for, so I can't complain too much. As for the supporting cast, Betty Brant returns... again... and she and Peter find that their romance is dead. Peter thinks of her as a sister now, apparently, and he couldn't be happier over her impending nuptials. Fair enough, I've had that happen. Mary Jane finally puts in an appearance, and... AAARRGH! Her mouth is full of Stan Lee Sixties Slang at its worst! Seriously, if she calls Peter “Dad” one more time, I think my head will explode. However much I may hate Mary Jane talking, I'll say two things for her as I read: First, she makes Gwen jealous, and I like that because I like Gwen. Second, it's interesting to look at her reactions to Peter with the ret-conned knowledge of his secret ID. Originally, I imagine, Stan planned for her to just be the most laid-back girl in the world--or possibly the shallowest. I'm a bit ignorant on Mary Jane's original conception, I'll admit. Still, it's pretty cool that so many of her reactions in these early issues jibe with the idea that she knew what Peter was doing and she was afraid to get to close to it. One little bit in the stories that didn't seem to ring true to me was Peter's rather open-minded response to Harry's suggestion that Peter work for Norman. I would have at least thought that Peter's first response would acknowledge that he'd be working for the former Green Goblin, but he doesn't. Hm. Oh, well. Annual 3 is a great all-star issue that answers several “what-if” questions without actually changing anything, and it's advertising in the Mighty Marvel Manner to boot. I'm sure that Marvel was getting all kinds of mail in those days asking why Spidey wasn't an Avenger, or when he would meet the Hulk again, or whatever. This story does a good job of showing why Spidey really wasn't ready for Avengers membership. What really struck me during the reading of Annual 3, and then during the rest of the issues, was John Romita, Sr.'s art. First and foremost, it really lacks the personality and fluidity of Ditko's work, and that's disappointing for me. Second, and this really isn't an “art” issue, the stories immediately devolve into formulaic villain-of-the-month fare with some soap-opera thrown in. This isn't to say that the stories are suddenly bad, but there's a “fluff” feeling to the book with Romita that there wasn't for most of Ditko's run. Third, Romita has to have some of the cleanest, clearest storytelling on the planet. Virtually every panel with Spidey in it is pin-up quality, for good and for ill. It's stiffer than Ditko, as I said, but Romita's art works harder than anyone's I can think of, classic or modern.
I'm going to have to find some of his Marvel Tales reprints (or maybe some Essentials, even though they're black and white) for my three-year-old to read. Don't mistake me--I'm not insulting the art or trying to call it childish. It's the same thing I noticed with his work on the Richard and Mary Parker story in Untold Tales--Romita, Sr. understood how the eye moved over the page and he used that understanding to tell a story more clearly than just about anyone I've seen in recent memory. So, even though I miss Ditko's quirks, oddities, and depths, I look forward to giving Romita's clean, classic art the attention it deserves as I move through the Spidey-books.
BTW, I have to say that Foggy Nelson is a strange little man. In ASM 43, page 4, panel 6, when he gets frustrated by his client's behavior (client: Rhino. behavior: jailbreak), he declares, "I HAVE FELONIES!" This made me laugh out loud. I also had to smile at Matt Murdock's strange sense of generosity: "I wish Daredevil could go after [the Rhino] now--but the Web-Slinger deserves first crack at him!" (same panel) Yes, Daredevil is all heart.
Anyway, let's check my Spidey-Standards against this week's reading list: 1) Spider-Man stories were better then than they are now. You know, this is a tough one for me this week, but I think the answer is ultimately “yes.” The stories are reasonably self-contained, but the storylines are also clearly connected. We get supporting cast, character development, and plenty of action. That we also get shallower ideas than we did with Ditko is unfortunate, but ultimately every single one of these issues delivers a fun Spidey story. How many recent issues of Spider-Man can say that? (I guess we'll have to wait for Brand New Day to see if Marvel's going to put the fun back into Spidey.) 2) Spider-Man's supporting cast is essential to good Spidey stories. Well, they're here, but it's a little too much Mary Jane for me, as she's always been one of my least favorite characters. At the same time, almost every single fight Spidey suffers through in these issues is enhanced by a connection with or a complication from the supporting cast, so we'll give this a check, too. 3) Peter Parker is not just a secret identity. Science beats the Rhino and the Lizard, and heart keeps Spidey from luring the Hulk to Avengers Mansion. Yep. All right, that's it for this week. Up next week will be Amazing Spider-Man 46-50! Until the Lizard accidentally clones himself from his tail, Make Mine Marvel! Eric