Sunday, November 25, 2007

SM:FBFW ASM 73-77, MSH 14

Spider-Man: For Better or For Worse?

This Week's Reading List: Amazing Spider-Man 73-77, Marvel Super Heroes 14.

We've got three basic storylines here this week: The finale of the ancient tablet, the return of the Lizard, and a one-off from Marvel Super Heroes. I'm sorry to say that the quality of the stories goes steadily down as we work our way through the list, but it does start pretty high.

First and foremost, the tablet storyline. This is, as mentioned last week, an absolute classic run of page-turning excitement. While Man-Mountain Marko might not be the classic villain that Stan's hype wants him to be, he serves well enough for these stories. He reminds me of Johnny Cash, but surlier. In any case, what's really happening here is that happy convergence of storylines that happens every so often in good serial storytelling. A couple of different plots are brought together, the stakes are raised, the clock is ticking, and readers are treated to awesomeness--especially those readers who've been with the book for a few months at least and are interested to see what's up with the tablet.

Ultimately, the secret is revealed, and the guilty are punished through no help of Spider-Man's. It is interesting to see just how powerless he really is to stop anything here. Even though Silvermane doesn't “win” in the end, Spider-Man fails to regain the tablet, to save Doc Connors, to stop Silvermane before he can use the tablet, and to rescue Martha and Billy. I mean, he does eventually break down their door, but not until all the gangsters run in fear of what's happened to Silvermane. This, I think, illustrates an important point in several different types of Spider-Man stories that really makes him relatable as an “everyman” character: things happen in his book that are bigger than him. Not just a little bit bigger, not “bigger” in the philosophical sense. We're talking bigger in every sense.

A few years ago, Paul Dini and Alex Ross did their whole set of big DC Universe stories, and the first one was about Superman trying to end world hunger. In the story, IIRC, Superman's efforts are essentially foiled by human greed. When he delivers grain shipments, the dictators of certain unnamed countries poison the shipments to maintain control over their people. The message, as I recall it, is that not even Superman can conquer the human heart--we have to do that ourselves. It's a good story. It's an interesting take on the questions that inevitably come up when considering someone of Superman's power, questions that find an alternate answer in Alan Moore's Miracleman. However, it's ultimately a hollow answer, because Superman allows the problem to be bigger than him. He takes the high ground of “I can't rule the world, I can't be a dictator.” Several stories show the downside of this in alternate universes. Even the Miracleman world, a utopia with super powers for everybody, has its negative sides (namely, that no one who lives in such a world is really human anymore). However, the key here is that Superman allows the problem to be bigger than him. If Superman ever decided to rule the world, he could. There'd be logistical problems, sure, but he could.

Spider-Man can't. Spider-Man cannot make himself bigger than these problems. Bendis drives this home often in Ultimate Spider-Man, where Spider-Man is clearly a sixteen-year-old kid fighting the very adult problems of organized crime. I don't always like the way Bendis handles it, but there is a strong sense in that book that Spidey is in over his head, and it makes him relatable. Sure, he's super-strong and can stick to walls, but in a world of Hulks and Captain Americas, he's just one more guy doing the best he can, and sometimes his best just isn't enough. That is so big for the character, and it separates Spider-Man from many, many other super heroes. Sure, Superman, Batman, Thor, they might come up against a problem that they allow to be bigger than them, but it's always for a special issue: the Christmas issue, or the standalone by some big-name. With Spider-Man, it happens all the time, and there's no real moral to it other than, “You're not big enough to fix things by yourself.”

Anyway, then comes the two-part Lizard story that's pretty much non-stop action. For me, at my age (32), this is boring. Sure, it's another good example of how to take a villain like the Lizard, who could be taken down by the FF or the Avengers at any time and is dangerous enough that, in the “real” world, he would be, and make the story into a compelling Spidey story. Spidey can't fight at full power because he promised he wouldn't hurt Dr. Connors. However, the lack of soap opera, the weak art by John Buscema (who would become a much stronger and more dynamic artist in later years, so don't hate-mail me about my dig at JB), and the one-note story all drag this down. Oh, yeah. If the Lizard gets really thirsty and dehydrated, he turns back into Curt Connors. If the plot calls for it.

The one-shot from Marvel Super Heroes is actually set around ASM 50, judging by the hair styles, and my God, I wish it had stayed there. Spider-Man is controlled by the super-voodoo of the Sorcerer, who makes him fight a big rubber robot. Then the Sorcerer's doorbell rings, and he's defeated. I kid you not. Poor Ross Andru art, pathetic story... no thanks.

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

1) Spider-Man stories were better then than they are now. The tablet story is better, the Lizard story is an average comic for the time, and the Sorcerer story wouldn't have made the cut for Tangled Web, if that tells you anything.

2) Spider-Man's supporting cast is essential to good Spidey stories. Well, except for the corny dialog (again) and Peter being more that ga-ga over Gwen (“She must have taken a double dose of pretty pills this morning!”), yeah, the soap opera helps the tablet story. It especially helps if we count Martha and Billy for the sake of argument. However, the other three issues lack it enough that it might as well not be there.

3) Peter Parker is not just a secret identity. Meh. He pretty much is in these issues, but the stories paid their Peter dues last week, so we'll take it for the climax of the tablet tale.

All right, that's it for this week. Up next week will be Amazing Spider-Man 78-83! Until Bendis wastes yet another Ultimate version of a character as he did with Ultimate Silvermane (and Ultimate George Stacy, and Ultimate Jean DeWolff, and...), Make Mine Marvel!


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You make an interesting point about how there are some problems Spider-Man just can't overcome. It's well-taken, and in the context of the comics, I can accept it, since there are more than enough occasions when Spidey saves the day, confirming that he's a competent and skilled hero.

But what really galled me about the 1990s Spider-Man cartoon was how often Spidey needed to have his bacon pulled out of the fire. John Semper's Spider-Man was, more often than not, an incompetent boob who couldn't get the job done on his own, and needed someone else to do it for him.

-The ceiling of a building is about to give way, and Spidey's webs aren't strong enough to stop them from falling. An anonymous mutant uses her powers to do it for him.

-Spider-Man is at the mercy of the Smythes, and his hide is saved by the Vulture and the Black Cat.

-Spidey is initially helpless against Hydro-Man, until he whips up a special brand of gelatin-laced webbing, meant to paralyze Hydro-Man...and it DOESN'T WORK, and Mary Jane eventually defeats him by simply running like a squirrel until the heat of the sun weakens Hydro-Man and he finally vaporizes.

Was Spider-Man even needed here?

-In a variation on the Kid Who Collects Spider-Man story, Spider-Man is put under Doc Ock's control, forcing his fan Tania and her friend Mousie to rescue Spidey. The title of the show is "Spider-Man", not "Tania and Mousie the Cab Driver." Spider-Man is supposed to save them, not the other way around!

-At Spidey's wedding, Harry unleashes the Scorpion and a stream of armed robots. Spider-Man smashes a grand total of one robot, and the Scorpion is taken care of by a Kingpin-sent robot. Then, instead of an epic showdown between Peter and Harry, he's upstaged by LIZ FREAKING ALLAN, who simply gets Harry to calm down.

Talk about your anitclimaxes.

For this reason, I admit, I really have it in for Semper. Sure, there were occasions when Spidey managed to pull things off, but too often he was portrayed as an incompetent and ineffective fighter, and the day was more often saved by the intervention of outside characters, such as the Black Cat, Kraven, the Kingpin, the Vulture, Iron Man, or whoever is the week's guest star.

Again, I don't mind in the comics when, say, Mary Jane bails her husband out against Styx and Stone or the Spider-Slayers, or something like that. After all, in the comics Spidey has proven himself time and again against worthy opponents, from technological thugs like the Shocker to cosmic entities like Firelord. But Semper's Spider-Man needed help too often for my liking, and rarely seemed able to get the job done on his own.

I despise incompetent heroes-even when he was fairly inexperienced, Peter still was not a bumbling fool who always needed someone else to spring him from his problems. Similarly, Sleepwalker needed and got assistance on a few occasions, but there were other occasions when he clearly had the bad guys beaten, and it was only problems beyond his control that resulted in their not getting busted.

There's a difference, I think, between making the hero more relatable by showing that he can't solve everything, and making him an ineffective doofus, and Semper went too far in that direction, I feel.