Sunday, September 30, 2007


Spider-Man: For Better or For Worse?

This Week's Reading List: Amazing Spider-Man 46-50

Okey-dokey, here we go, folks. These books don't deserve a ton of individual discussion, but they touch on a couple of trends that have been going on at Marvel for years now, so that provides something useful.

First and foremost, what we have in these five issues is run-of-the-mill Spider-Man action. Perfectly serviceable, but completely uninspiring. I'd be very surprised if any of these issues have ever “made” a Spider-Man fan, or if any of them have ever been on a “best of” list of any kind (other than 50, which we'll get to). Again, we get a two-parter, but generally we're dealing with done-in-one villain-of-the-month fare with B-list baddies and minor issue-to-issue connections. The soap-opera is reasonably interesting, with Gwen apparently unconsciously aping MJ's style in her desire to be closer to Peter, and Pete and Aunt May finally moving out of the old house, but there's really not enough of it to deserve close scrutiny.

An issue that often gets some attention and scrutiny, but doesn't really deserve it, IMO, is Amazing Spider-Man 50. This is one of those classic, go-to Spidey plots that show up every five years or so, when the audience has recycled itself enough to make it a “new” idea for 80% of the fans of the day. The “Spider-Man No More” idea was done better back in Amazing 16-18, and it was more natural in its storyline evolution. What Amazing Spider-Man 50 has that the others didn't is that it's a clean done-in-one, easily reprintable issue that features very iconic Romita art. If Marvel had ever tried to make what you might call an “easy classic,” then this issue would be it. That said, I don't think it holds up terribly well in a long-term reading situation. Not bad, just blah.

And... we're done! At least, we're done as far as the typical round-up stuff goes. So let's take a second and look not at the individual villains themselves, but at the treatment of all these villains both in these issues and in their relative past and future. I was really surprised (shocked?) to see just what a bad-ass the Shocker was in this first appearance. Sure, Spidey beats him by webbing up his thumbs(!), but the Shocker proves to be a credible threat. He's also someone who has a) the brains to make his own equipment and b) the ingenuity to use that equipment to maximum effect. If he were to solve that thumb-trigger weakness, he'd really be a major street-level villain, if the presentation in this issue is to be believed. And yet... the Shocker is a joke character now, and has been for YEARS. Over in Ultimate Spider-Man, this character actually doesn't have a name, and he only ever shows up for Spidey to beat the snot out of him in three pages. Ultimate Spidey calls him “The Vibrator” on at least one occasion. I laughed when I read that a couple years back, but now I'm not so sure that Bendis is doing anyone any favors by treating the character that way. Ultimate Shocker could be a decent mid-level threat, providing some much-needed one- or two-parters in the Ultimate universe. Instead, he's a one-note joke that's already stale.

It's disappointing to me to see whole companies (not just Bendis, don't get me wrong) eliminating the concept of “B-listers” the same way the publishing industry has eliminated the concept of the mid-list author. You're either a star, or you're nothing in either case, and that's just silly. Nowadays, if you believe the hype, Ultimate Spidey (and 616 Spidey, for that matter) faces only three types of villains: Stars, SUPER-Stars, and Losers. The only real difference between a star and a Super-star at that point is the kinds of sales they generate. Story-wise, it's still hyped as “Spidey's greatest challenge!” Part of what makes the Kraven/Vulture story or the Shocker story work in ASM 46-49 is that these AREN'T world-shaking villains, but they are a challenge, and Peter's already got too much on his plate.

When every villain is a MAJOR challenge, the books get boring, the fights all become routine, and the villains that deserve Super-Star (or A-list) status have to be ramped up to impossible degrees of difficulty. Look at the female Doctor Octopus, who had a force-field. A force-field! Spider-Man could NOT hit her. When you look at her list of powers, she was essentially unbeatable, especially at a Spider-Man story level. She was a pathetic character that eventually had to be flushed, but it wasn't her fault--it was the fault of the kind of power-creep that lazy writing and editing brings.

Briefly, note the changes to the Vulture in these stories and the changes that would affect Kraven later. First, Stan and John unwisely replace Toomes with yet another evil thug named “Blackie.” Blackie is virtually guaranteed to be a failure as a character from the start because he's supposedly somehow MORE dangerous than the genius that invented the wings in the first place. The only thing that could make such a replacement interesting is the story of how unworthy of the weapons the replacement turns out to be, and the villain's struggle with his own inadequacy. So even back before #50, Marvel was falling prey to the kind of one-upsmanship that ruins characters. Second, Kraven actually was a threat back then. Yeah, okay, I'm not big on the “jungle potion” concept behind so many of his powers (Kraven's basically a super-B.O. Detector), but I'd forgotten why Spider-Man should ever have been afraid of Kraven, and these stories remind me when taken with a grain of salt for their sixties-ness. Again, though, Kraven is eventually turned into a joke--multiple times, even, by Zimmerman and Bendis, who each have their own takes on why Kraven is ridiculous. Bendis probably does more lasting damage to the character in the Ultimate book by making him into just another genetic freak in Ultimate Six. Congratulations, Marvel. Instead of figuring out a way to make the jungle aspect work and reinventing a character with a relatively unique concept (evil Tarzan), you once again turn him into a one-note joke who then gets his power the same way that everyone in the Ultimate universe gets their powers.

This problem isn't going to be solved, nor the questions answered, in one post, but I wanted to note this idea, because it's something that's been a drag on comics for far, far too long, and it's been a particular problem for Spider-Man's rogues gallery. It bears watching.

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

1) Spider-Man stories were better then than they are now. Meh. Better soap-opera, mediocre villains, many of the same mistakes modern comics make, just in a swingin' sixties' style.

2) Spider-Man's supporting cast is essential to good Spidey stories. The stuff that keeps ya comin' back for more in these is the soap-opera, but every storyline is in a gestation phase in these five issues. Nothing to write home about yet.

3) Peter Parker is not just a secret identity. I don't know. These issues made him seem pretty much like a basic alter-ego. Comments welcome here, especially.

All right, that's it for this week. Up next week will be Amazing Spider-Man 51-55 and Amazing Spider-Man Annual 4! Until the Shocker is renamed “The Vibrator”, Make Mine Marvel!



Anonymous said...

Totally agree with you on the B-list concept. In fact, something that really bugs me is that B-list heroes seem to be treated as jokes nowadays-I personally love the 1990s SLEEPWALKER series, and get more than a little peeved at the people who keep calling Sleepwalker a minor-leaguer or a loser.

Just look at the cover of MS. MARVEL #18-she has her hand in her forehead as if she's groaning over the fact that the best the Initiative could offer her were a pair of second-rate rejects like Sleepwalker and Machine Man.

I hate that attitude as much from comics fans as from writers. If you deliberately write a character for laughs, fair enough, but if it's being played straight, then the characters deserve respect.

Sleepy and Darkhawk defeated the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants...Omega the Unknown defeated Electro and Nitro...Machine Man defeated Jack O' Lantern...Darkhawk helped Spidey defeat the Hobgoblin and Captain American and Daredevil defeat the U-Foes...hell, even SQUIRREL GIRL defeated no less than Doctor Doom!

All of these villains were or eventually became A-listers. So who's to say that they couldn't take on Magneto or Dr. Octopus?

But no, they're viewed as losers because their books don't sell in the hundreds of thousands and they aren't subjects for major motion pictures.

Doesn't matter who they beat, or if they defeat villains that would give Spider-Man or the Avengers a rough time, as Sleepwalker did on a few occasions; they're minor-leaguers no matter what.


Eric Teall said...

Well... I'm a bit disinclined to agree on the B-list heroes thing because I can never believe that some of these B-list heroes could ever take a super star villain and win. I mean, Sleepwalker? He shouldn't be taking on the Brotherhood.

However, I do agree with you that such characters should NOT be treated as jokes. Honestly, I'd like to see someone like Sleepwalker or Darkhawk go up against Norman Osborn alone and get his ass kicked, thus proving the superiority of the villain and his usual arch-nemesis (Spidey, in this case). I'd also then like to see Sleepy or Hawky go up against a true B-Lister like the Beetle or the Shocker and really, really struggle but win. That'd be fair, IMO.

Squirrel Girl should not defeat Doctor Doom. Spider-Man should not defeat Firelord. Some of these things are simply ridiculous.

But I definitely agree with you at the end: making a character more powerful because of the number of books he sells is absolutely stupid.

(Speaking of stupid, it took me three tries to spell it right! I am so smart! S-M-R-T!)


Anonymous said...

Well, I admit it's the idea of their being perceived as weak that bothers me. After all, Sleepwalker is supposed to be an experienced warrior who's fought the parasitic demons of the Mindscape for years. He's not an inexperienced bumbler.

I suppose part of this comes from resentment that characters I like are automatically perceived as second-rate. I don't necessarily think Spider-Man is any more powerful or better than Sleepy-they're my two favorite Marvel characters, and I think each could stand up fairly well against the other's rogues galleries.

And logically, Sleepwalker could just as easily take on cybernetic foes that the A-list heroes would have a hard time with. One shot from his warp beams, for example, and he could turn Ultron into an oversized pop can. Or, he could tie Doc Ock's arms in a knot, or simply shatter them.

Again, that's just me. I just dislike the concept of "A-list" and "B-list" heroes and villains-to me, a character's 'status', if you absolutely insist on giving them one, consists of their actual head-on abilties, intelligence, and capacity for taking on worthy opponents.

Granted, the fact that I'm probably one of the very few Sleepwalker boosters you'll find, even to the point of creating an Ultimate fanfic series about him with Peter and Gwen as semi-regular members of the supporting cast, probably has something to do with this.


Eric Teall said...

Well, I respect your dedication, that's for sure. I didn't read enough Sleepwalker to actually know anything about him, so I can't really comment on power levels.

That said, I do wish sometimes that the editorial staff would have some RPG-style limits posted in the office somewhere so that the power creep that has been going on for decades would stop. Would it really make the Hulk a lesser character to point at, oh, say, a whole frakkin' mountain range and say, "He can't lift that. Sorry." Would it really ruin him?


Anyway, thanks for the comments, Jared. I always look forward to your thoughts.


Anonymous said...

What really broke it for me was having Wolverine being able to regenerate from [I][B]one freaking cell[/I][/B].

I just thought of something-if you really want to show someone like Norman or Doc Ock as the badasses they are...instead of having them beat on B-list heroes, why not have them shove the faces of some overrated characters in humble pie?

Candidates that immediately spring to mind are, of course, Wolverine, Sabertooth, Carnage, and Morlun.

Glad to be of service.


Eric Teall said...

Ooooh, you are so not kidding about Carnage and Mr. Invincible himself, Wolverine. What fun is there in reading about a character that is invincible? Bah. Wolverine used to be cool, back in 1982. I agree with you on both of those characters.

I don't pay much attention to Sabertooth, and Morlun to me was always supposed to be a Spider-Man-Bane character, so the fact that Peter couldn't really touch him didn't surprise or bug me. Now, if Morlun had gone up against Thor or something... and then had WON... but he didn't, so that's okay.