Saturday, October 20, 2007


Spider-Man: For Better or For Worse?

This Week's Reading List: Amazing Spider-Man 62-65 and Spectacular Spider-Man (Magazine) 1.

BTW, don't get too excited over a Saturday post. I'm still just trying to post once a weekend, but it's one of those Saturday nights where I have nothing better to do then post, so here you go. ;-)

Also, I've added a little bit of Java to the site so I can track traffic. If it gives anyone any trouble, let me know. I hate sites that take a long time to load, especially because of some stupid plug-in.

Okey-dokey, here we go, folks. Wow, wow, wow. Last week was so “meh” and this week... Again, it's so easy to see sometimes what the appeal was to kids back in the sixties. This week's books are just jam-packed with excellent action, fantastic fights, and dynamic character interaction! See, it's issues like these that remind me why I'm bothering with this crazy project in the first place (the reading, not the blog): These five issues are head-and-shoulders above any Spider-Man book published in the last year. Yes, they're a little cheesy. Yes, they're full of sixties weirdness. Yes, the art is old-fashioned much of the time. None of that changes the fact that each one of these issues tells a full story's worth of plot and excitement, does interesting things with the supporting cast, and puts Spidey into situations that aren't tired.

Okay, it starts out weak with the Medusa issue. Still, this little guest appearance does serve to tie Spidey in to the larger Marvel framework, so that's okay. It's also got good use of supporting characters like Harry and Gwen, and it really builds the “Return of the Green Goblin” plot, which must have been great for sales.

Then comes a strange little experiment in Marvel publishing history: Spectacular Spider-Man Magazine 1. This black-and-white magazine features excellent Romita pencils and fine Jim Mooney inks (possibly pencil finishes as well--I'm not sure). (Let me throw in here that I have noticed Jim Mooney's work in this volume of Marvel Masterworks for the first time. I'm not sure I ever gave him much thought before--I've seen his work now and again--but he is a better Romita-substitute than Don Heck. He has nice, clean lines and solid penciling, as well as inking, skills.) For more info on the publication history of the Spectacular name, check out its Wikipedia entry.

The story itself is a long done-in-one about a NY mayoral candidate who creates an underworld threat against himself to cement his reputation as a fearless crusader against crime. Spider-Man, of course, gets in the way, uncovers the plot, and undoes the candidate. It's not the single best Spidey story ever, but as a magazine that may have attracted some readers that weren't regular Amazing fans, it covers all the bases of the Spidey mythos. More importantly, it is a more “mature” story, more science-fiction/social commentary than “comic book villain-of-the-month,” which would presumably make it more palatable to an older audience. It's not a bad issue at all, and it's interesting to me that the story clearly does have a social critique angle without seeming unduly heavy-handed or super-specific in its execution.

There's also a little “Origin of Spidey” back-up that is clearly the template for the 1960's Spider-Man cartoon version of the origin. A great many of the lines and scenes in the origin episode of the cartoon are taken directly from this version. It feels weird reading this because it's so close to the cartoon. Of course, over the last couple of issues, I've noticed several pictures of Spider-Man in the comics that were obviously lifted by the cartoon. Since I saw the cartoon first, decades ago, there's a bit of a chicken/egg thing going on in my brain.

Okay, then comes a two-part Vulture story starring one of my least-favorite characters of all-time: Blackie Drago. Before these two issues, I would have said that the only good thing to come from Blackie Drago is his daughter, the Raptor, who is a villain in the Spider-Girl universe. However, these issues do something so right with a pathetic usurper like Drago that they deserve a special place in Spider-Man history: they allow the original version to beat the crap out of the pathetic usurper. Toomes, the old Vulture (who was presumed dead BUT never died on-panel) comes back and publicly humiliates Drago. This fight also serves to set Toomes up as a more credible threat than before, so that when he fights Spider-Man above the city, there is real suspense.

During both of these stories, Gwen discovers that Peter didn't really betray her and her father, and she tries to find him, to no avail. Yes, it's an old plot device, but it's used well enough here. Honestly, I think that originality is a little overrated in serial fiction, as most plots are a rehash of some other plot. What's more important is execution, and here the old chestnut is well-executed. There's also the Norman Osborn sub-plot, so that's okay, too, I guess.

Finally, JJJ and Robbie are put in danger by the fight between the two Vultures. Again, this illustrates one of those unrealistic things about serial fiction that readers should simply learn to live with: There's no way that so many super fights would happen this close to the Daily Bugle building and never next to, say, the Daily Globe building or the Empire State Building. Except, of course, that the people the readers care about don't work in any of those other places, they work at the Bugle, so that's where the jeopardy is. Also because of this, writers should give up their constant and boring attempts at “realistic” detective fiction, having characters in the story suddenly go, “Hey, Spidey's always around the Bugle--he must be a Bugle staffer!” or somesuch. The real cause of such strange geographic anomalies is outside the story, and thus should be given a wide berth by the majority of writers.

Anyway, Spidey is captured at the end of 64, which leads into one of the best done-in-one Spidey stories I've ever read: “The Impossible Escape!” Spidey is in jail and has to get out, but there's a jailbreak. The jailbreakers take George Stacy hostage, so instead of simply mopping the floor with these normal cons, Spidey has to work around them. This is a wonderful use of situation to change the level of threat posed by a non-major bad guy, and Spidey books should do it more often. One doesn't always have to have a newer, bigger, stronger bad guy to fight. Instead, a writer can either weaken the main character or present him with some other, more important objective that makes the basic objective more difficult. Spidey having to go all ninja-style on these cons is great, great fun to watch, as is George Stacy's competent handling of his role as hostage. All the way around, this is a shining example of the potential of post-Ditko Spidey. Bravo.

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

1) Spider-Man stories were better then than they are now. Except for the gratuitous Medusa issue, yes. They're old-fashioned, but the basic foundation and execution of the story ideas and pacing are light-years ahead of, say, “One More Day.”

2) Spider-Man's supporting cast is essential to good Spidey stories. Well, duh. Again, nearly every hostage or civilian-in-trouble role goes to a Spidey regular, which ramps up the action. Also, the constant tension in Peter's social life gives even the “boring” parts something to do.

3) Peter Parker is not just a secret identity. You bet he's not. Every single part of these issues, except for the villains themselves, is really about Peter, and not Spider-Man, and that's how it should be.

All right, that's it for this week. Up next week will be Amazing Spider-Man 66, 67, Annual 5 and Spectacular Spider-Man (Magazine) 2! Until Spidey continuity is honored better in his daughter's book than his own, Make Mine Marvel!



Anonymous said...

I've definitely got to find that Spectacular Spider-Man issue; as for right now, I'm reading a B&W trade paperback of the first 20 Lee and Ditko issues and, and the first Annual, that I checked out of the library.

Right away, I find myself loathing both Thompson and Jameson, and wanting to see bad things happen to them-I'm assuming it's only later that Stan took steps to make them both more sympathetic-as Ditko depicts them, I find myself wanting bad things to happen to Flash...and this probably explains why I make him the butt of so many jokes in my Sleepwalker series.

One of the first Spidey stories I read as a little kid was that classic Spidey-versus-the-cons one, and I enjoyed every minute of it, as did you. Captain Stacy's got some major stones keeping cool the way he did under pressure, which couldn't have been easy, given the situation. Thinking back on it now, I imagine the theme music that played at the end of every '60s cartoon playing over Captain Stacy standing calmly amidst the pile of convicts as the police show up, and then Jameson arguing with Stacy as Spidey hangs overhead watching.

That was actually one of Stan's plots that Ralph Bakshi adapted for the 1960s cartoon, and believe it or not he actually did a pretty good job of it, except that he changed it from being the Vulture that knocked Spidey out to a gang of generic thugs, probably because it was a one-shot cartoon, and not an ongoing serial thing like the comics, and the Vulture would have been a loose end.

And the comic story where Peter is forced to sell his cycle, but at the same time patches everything up with Gwen, is to my mind an example of why Stan did better without Steve; sure, Peter had it rough, but things also went his way more often than they seemed to under Steve. And, again, Romita's Gwen is nicer to look at than Ditko's. Romita's art doesn't look as dated, either-men don't wear fedoras or bow ties anymore, skirts that long are a thing of the past, and the bouffant hairstyles are pretty much extinct, and so when I look from my 2007 point of view at Ditko's characters, they look like they're from another century. Romita's designs, at least, with less emphasis on ties, fedoras and long skirts, at least seems more in touch with the times.

Of course, it's hardly fair to criticize Ditko for that-but that's just how it seems to me, as a guy reading stories that were penned when his dad was a little kid.


Eric Teall said...

The Essentials line is definitely cool, although if I were looking to complete an Amazing Spider-Man collection at this point, I'd probably just go for the CD-ROMs or DVD-ROMs, whatever I could find. For the price of three volumes of Essentials, I'd have a complete Amazing collection.

If you can find more of the B&W trades, though, read fast and catch up! Having a Spider-Man reading club is half the fun, right?

As far as Flash goes, even Ditko makes him a little more sympathetic as time goes on. It's important to remember that both of them are juniors in high school and that Flash has clearly not been taught lesson #1 in sensitivity. As he matures (both under Ditko and Romita), he becomes a more tolerable character. Jameson, on the other hand, really requires Busiek's influence in Untold Tales of Spider-Man to be anything less than a cartoon for a long, long time.

I'm not sure that I'd say that the lack of constant losing situations is an improvement over the Ditko years. For a while there, Peter has it pretty sweet with his hot blond girlfriend and free apartment. I've never liked the "Peter's life is a constant shit-storm" attitude of, say, Sam Raimi, but I don't think Ditko was particularly unfair to Peter. Notice as you're reading through the very early issues that Peter has some attitude and self-control issues that contribute to his difficulties. (That is totally consistent with Ditko's Randian philosophy, BTW.)

As far as Ditko's women being unattractive, I've never really seen it that way. I've never known a pretty girl who wasn't weird-looking from some angle, and I've known ugly girls who look totally hot from the right angle. I always liked that Ditko's women actually looked like people.

Besides, I'll tell you right now that Romita's stuff in the issues I'm reading screams late sixties. I think that Ditko's style is a holdover from the fifties, and people just dressed differently back then. I like it--it's like a time machine. That said, it was a bit weird when I was reading Speedball in 1988 that everybody looked like 1962 Spidey's contemporaries.


Anonymous said...

Yeah, that's something I noticed about the early Ditko issues. I was baffled, for instance, as to why Peter insists on crashing the Torch's guest party-I failed to see what good could possibly come of it. I have to admit, seeing Flash and Peter in a boxing ring to settle their differences would be unthinkable today. This may just be me, but it seems like there was more pressure on guys back then to prove their "manliness", if you get what I'm saying, in that you have to fight, or somehow prove yourself, especially if someone insults you.

Eh, maybe it's just me. I wonder whether I don't like Ditko's Randian philosophy-the sheer bleakness of the world is just...jarring to me.

And I suppose it's not so much Ditko's women themselves that I find ugly, it's more the '50s in general. The hairstyles, the clothes, the music, the social attitudes, all those things grate on me in one way or another.

And it's funny, but I'm honestly not bothered if Peter _isn't_ made out to be a loser. That Comp fellow over at the Comicboards spider-forum claims that David Micheline never really "got" Spider-Man, but I've never really bought in to the character on that level, now that I think about it.

What I like about Spider-Man isn't even so much the Peter Parker side of him, so much as it is seeing him beat the crap out of his villains and leaving them webbed up for the police. It also helps that Spider-Man doesn't deal with all the wacky alien science fiction stuff the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, and even the Hulk all deal with at some point or another. If Ditko is the one responsible for keeping all that stuff OUT of the spider-comics, then for that I'm very grateful.

Of course, now I have an appreciation for the supporting cast and Peter's role in the dual identity, but as a kid I viewed the "interludes" and shifts to the supporting cast as irritating time-wasters that wasted precious space that could be used to show Spidey pummelling Electro for the umpteenth time. Being only ten years old, all I wanted to see was Spidey kicking ass and taking names. Seeing Peter Parker get shit on was just a downer that kind of detracted from the fun.

Different strokes for different folks, I guess.

One last note: If I'm not as keen on Ditko as I am on Stan being the full-time scripter and Romita being the artist, I still vastly prefer Ditko's spider-art to Erik Larsen's and-ugh-Todd McFarlane's. Even today, I still don't get the appeal of McFarlane's vastly overrated art-his webbing looks to me like lumpy spaghetti more than anything else.

Then there's the fact that Spawn was part of the whole "tormented antihero" mentality that made the Punisher, Ghost Rider and Wolverine appear everywhere, and led to attempts to turn Venom into a "hero"...

...Aye caramba...