Sunday, November 18, 2007

SM:FBFW - The Rant

Spider-Man: For Better or For Worse?

This Week's Reading List: None.

First things first: This is a rant. This was originally the scorekeeping post, but it really wasn't about scorekeeping. The problem is, I'd read it and re-read it, and it still said what I think. I couldn't just delete it. So I moved it to this post. Sorry if you're getting tired of just reading my thoughts as opposed to Spidey happenings. In any case, this is a rant, you're welcome to disagree, and I'd be happy to discuss any of this with anybody who posts. Just don't spit in my eye over this, as it is, after all, my blog, and I'm not interested in fighting. Discussing, yes, arguing, possibly, but fighting? Insulting? No thanks. That's what Newsarama is for.

Look, here's the deal. I am not really enjoying the current crop of Spider-Man comics. JMS just... doesn't get the character. Not all of his stories have been bad, but he doesn't. Quesada doesn't get the character. Paul Jenkins started strong, I thought, and then it devolved into a sticky-sweet nostalgia trip that was boring. Peter David, one of my two favorite authors of all time (tied with Stephen King), did a run on FNSM that seemed to me bound and determined to push fans away in droves--I enjoyed it, but it's hard for me to imagine the casual reader picking up a book about the time-traveling Spider-Man 2211 and thinking, “Hey, all right! NOT the guy I wanted to buy!”. Mark Millar should never be allowed near Spider-Man again. Sacasa... I just never, ever cared about his stuff one way or the other. Kaare Andrews and Reign... Look, Dark Knight was cool for Batman, but Batman isn't Spider-Man. There have been mini-series, and some of them were maybe good, but I got burned too bad buying all the Spider-crap in the 90's. If I'm buying a mini at this point, I'll buy it in trade or digest, and I probably won't care.

That's my gut-reaction to the 616 stuff over the last four years or so, plain-and-simple. No, I haven't gone back and reread much of it. No, I didn't read it all that carefully the first time, most of it. You know what? That's a sign, Marvel. That's a big, freakin' sign that something is wrong with your comics. I have been a Spidey-fan since before I could read. Spider-Man got me in to comics (a Marvel Tales reprint of ASM 19 and Amazing Spider-Man 247 were the first comics that went into my collection). I haven't missed an issue of Amazing since 251. I went to all the movies on opening night. I used to look forward to visiting my cousin in Ohio because they got the 60's cartoon there and I could watch it. I have VHS copies of all the Nicholas Hammond episodes. (No, you can't have any, so don't ask.) I am the biggest Spider-Man fan I know (personally) and I don't care about your Spider-Man comics anymore, Marvel. Buy a clue!

“Back In Black” was a joke. “One More Day” is even worse. Why are they doing this to us? Seriously! Why? Maybe--maybe--”Brand New Day” will solve the problems, but if they do something cheesy with the marriage, I'm going to be mad. Mad enough to stop buying the books? I don't think so. I know I should vote with my wallet, with my dollars, but when you haven't missed an issue in twenty-four years, it's hard to stop, you know? That doesn't matter. The basic facts are there: The books just aren't good. Reading over these old books has convinced me more than ever that the current crop sucks and should simply be plowed under. Why do I believe this? For a couple of reasons:

1) I can enjoy the old stuff and still see its limitations. Ditko's art is in a class by itself, literally. I like it, I've grown up with it, I think it's cool, but it's certainly not modern in style. Still, I enjoy the stories. Don Heck's Spidey work is, in my opinion, sloppy, but Romita's stuff has power, and Mooney's stuff is more than tolerable. No, I'm not sure it'd pass muster today in terms of style, but in terms of energy, composition, storytelling? Hell yeah.

2) I want to like the new stuff. Every single frakkin' time Marvel does another damned reboot/revamp/relaunch thing with Spider-Man, I really do read it with an open mind. Not a tabula rasa mind, you understand, but an open one. I want to enjoy Spider-Man. I try to enjoy Spider-Man. The material fails me.

3) Ultimate Spider-Man. I think Bendis has lost it on his Marvel stuff these days, to be honest, but when this book came out in 2000, I was absolutely floored. I originally bought it for the sake of completeness: “Oh, well, I'll buy this for the ten issues it lasts.” I loved it. So did everyone else. It was a perfect mix of classic and modern... for a while. Then Bendis did the Ultimate version of Monkey Sex on it. (For info on “Monkey Sex” in this context, read THIS, among other things. I don't entirely disagree with this then-current review). The problem is, one does NOT do “Monkey Sex”--a complete and utter change in direction and tone for a series--with a book like Spider-Man. No, no, no. What was a great mix of classic and modern suddenly became the crazy effing kaleidescope of Brian Michael Bendis' acid trip vomit. Carnage, Bendis? Friggin' CARNAGE? CLONES? Where's the damned supporting cast? Why the hell did you kill Gwen? What the hell is happening in this book now? Can anyone tell me? Is there a secret identity to keep anymore? GAAAAAAHHHHHH!**

See? That's my point. I. LOVED. Ultimate Spider-Man. Loved it. And then, because he can, because no one at Marvel has any kind of a vision of what a monthly comic should be month-in, month-out, Bendis started tripping out and it started to suck. And it has continued to suck.

Why? Because absolutely no one who has managed Spider-Man for the last ten years has understood the concept of the story engine. (Please note I said “managed” and not “written.” Peter David understands the story engine. He's just not editing Spider-Man books.) Oh, they might get it intellectually, but none of them understand that what we readers want it a reliable story engine every single month. Spider-Man is a brand name. Spider-Man is a thing in and of itself. There are things that Spider-Man is, there are things that Spider-Man is not, and no one at Marvel who controls the work done on Spider-Man understands the difference anymore. (Tom DeFalco understands, but as much as I love his current work on Amazing Spider-Girl, his last Spidey run also did not work any more than anyone else's.)

I remember reading an interview with or essay by Frank Miller--whose current work I also cannot stand, BTW (I tell you simply in the interest of full disclosure)--a while back where he talks about working on Daredevil. And he talks about what Daredevil stories are, and what they aren't, and how his editor shut him down more than once because the story he gave her was “a Batman story” and not a Daredevil story. That confused me at the time, but I think I get it more, now. See, the Daredevil story engine is not the same as the Batman story engine. When people buy Batman they want a Batman story, and when they buy Daredevil they want a Daredevil story. The Batman engine is more popular than the DD one, but that doesn't make one better than the other, and there are DD fans who don't like Batman and vice versa. Different strokes for different folks, you know?

The first... thirty issues or so of Ultimate Spider-Man were “Spider-Man” again. The story engine had been tweaked for Y2K, but what was old was new again, and it was working, working, working. It was working in a way that NO Spider-Man ongoing had worked in many years, even then. And then Bendis started throwing away the series' potential just as the 616 writers had, but worse. He offed Captain Stacy with no development. Jean DeWolff. Gwen Stacy (minimal development for a maximum-importance character). The whole damned supporting cast. SHIELD showed up constantly. In Spider-Man. Once again, that “Spider-Man” feel that so many of us had been missing--that the whole industry had been missing, judging from the sales--had disappeared.

By the by, “Monkey Sex” is okay for Powers. It really is. Powers is Bendis' baby (with Oeming, of course). He can do whatever the hell he pleases with it. If Bendis wants to turn Powers from a super-film-noir into 2001 and Greek mythology, that's is just peachy-keen with me. I know that he's writing for himself and that I'm along for the ride. I totally dig that, no complaints.

“Monkey Sex” is not okay for Spider-Man. “Sins Past” is NOT okay for Spider-Man. Constant SHIELD appearances. Living in Avengers Mansion. Killing every supporting character in sight. “Back In Black.” “One More Day.” “The Clone Saga.” “The Gathering of Five.” All of it. NOT OKAY. It's just not.

Many of you reading this (all five of you, for all I know) may disagree with me. I'm ranting, I know, and I reserve the right to clarify anything in this post. I also fully admit that I may not cite my sources particularly well here. You know what? I don't have to. This is one fan's gut reaction to what he sees as the long-term degradation of one of his favorite storytelling institutions. I'd call it unreasonable, but the old books and the good new ones (the first 30 issues of USM, as I said) can get me stoked again just like I was ten and dying to bike to the comics store. Marvel has lost it, Spider-Man has lost it, and I'm not sure if it's ever coming back.

The scoresheet from last week shows that Spidey comics weren't always good. It shows that they were often mediocre. Of course they are. Of course they were. They're serial storytelling, and sometimes a writer or an artist just needs to get the issue done whether it's good or not. (Not Bryan Hitch, but most others.) That's okay. The storytelling engine that we all knew and loved fed something inside us, and we took the blah meals with the great meals, and we had very few stinkers.

We had many more good meals than bad back then, and that's just not the case anymore. I suspect that the coming weeks, especially after Gwen's death, will fill me with blah stories or stinker stories. I don't have a great deal of optimism over the seventies' material. That's okay. If it's bad, it's bad. I don't think it'll be that much worse than today.

All right, that's it for this week. Up next week will be Amazing Spider-Man 73-77 and Marvel Super Heroes 14! Despite my usual sarcasm about the state of the current books (sarcasm which, according to the score this time, is generally justified), Make Mine (old-school) Marvel!


**("Brendis" typo fixed!)


Anonymous said...


This is not a rant.

This is passionate, insightful, well-written, hard-hitting, and right on the mark!

Spider-Man is a street-level superhero, who should be dealing with street-level problems and villains. He's not really suited for being part of some grand mystical legend (totems), flipping out and wanting to kill people (Back in Black), getting his eye ripped out by Mary Sue and then eating Mary Sue alive (The Other), parading around without his mask, living with other superheroes, being involved in global conspiracies with SHIELD, traveling through time, other weird mystical mumbo-jumbo (Gathering of Five), and everything in between.

JMS never really understood the character he was writing. Spider-Man is supposed to be an Everyman, the guy down the street, not part of some weird magical destiny, nor is he supposed to threaten to kill people, nor is his old girlfriend supposed to jump in the sack with anyone with a bad haircut and a lot of money, nor is he supposed to be criminally irresponsible and put his loved ones in danger by exposing his secret identity to all the crazed villains out there who'd love some sort of revenge.

Beyond all this is a personally infuriating trait, in that how all this weird stuff is happening, but how there is very little in the way of explanation. We don't know much about the Great Weaver, the Ancients or their society, these mystical orders of Spider-worshippers, why Spider-Man got so sick and the greatest brains of the MU couldn't figure it out (which is very hard to believe in the first place), how the totem buisness affects other animal-based characters, how Morlun came back from the dead, how come none of the other heroes managed to detect him...

What did it all mean?!?

Spider-Man is supposed to be a semi-ordinary guy. He has bills to worry about, has to fret over his romantic life with his girlfriends or wife, has to deal with family problems (we could have seen other members of the Parker family, for example), he might have to worry about his social status, about office politics at the Bugle, things like that that we have to deal with in our ordinary lives as well.

Spider-Man is an individual, as are most of his villains. Most of their schemes and plans are New York-centric, and certainly not vast national or global conspiracies; such schemes are the department of the Avengers, SHIELD, and the X-Men if they're mutant-related. Gang wars, plots to hijack advanced technology, kidnappings and murders...these are the things Spidey ends up dealing with on a regular basis, whether he's in New York, on a book tour for "Webs", or in some place like France, Canada or Ireland. The conflict can put many innocent people in danger, and in some cases even put the world at risk, but usually it's something Spider-Man can handle on his own, or at least in an impromptu team-up with other street-level folks like Daredevil, Darkhawk, or Sleepwalker. They're mostly solo operators, but they can team up with Spidey as needed.

Sending Spidey into sci-fi, horror, or mystical stuff works if it's done in small doses, and usually in a series like MARVEL TEAM-UP or as a guest star in someone else's book. One of his biggest appeals, for me, is the very fact that his book often DOESN'T go into these areas. I like Spidey's down-to-earth approach; Sleepwalker has his share of strange mystical business, but he's not Dr. Strange, as he deals with street-level stuff too. It's also why I like Darkhawk, and is why I'm seriously considering giving Daredevil and Spider-Girl a try.

The 15 or so issues of ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN I've read so far I've really enjoyed, and it's a damn shame Bendis was forced to bow down to fan pressure to include Venom, although why he included Carnage and the Clones is up in the air. From what Eric says, Bendis should have stuck with Peter Parker's teen troubles and the problems he had with his supporting cast. Seeing Aunt May ground him after a spectacular victory over Doc Ock is cool; seeing SHIELD forcibly recruit him is not.

Again, let me thank Eric for a fantastic, well-written, piercing and insightful look at what's wrong with Spider-Man today. Just like Madgoblin, Eric is not a "fanboy" in the Comic Book Guy sense of the term, the kind of person who bitches about the smallest change-he's a passionate, devoted fan who calls shenanigans when he knows something deserves it.


Eric Teall said...

Thanks for the kind words, Jared.

Bruce Buchanan said...

I only recently discovered this blog, but man, what a great idea! Going back and re-reading these issues from the beginning in order is almost guaranteed to make you feel good about Spider-Man again.

I agree with everything that's been said so far. Spider-Man was better in the 1960s because the book wasn't all gloom-n-doom. Sure, Peter had plenty of problems, but he also had hope, which has been in short supply in modern times. And like Jared says, he's a street-level hero - a character many of us can relate to.

But rather than harp on the bad, I'd prefer to focus on just how good Spider-Man was in the 1960s and '70s.

- The Stan Lee/Steve Ditko era created the perfect template - it's amazing to look back and see just how many villains, supporting characters and key concepts were introduced in these first 39 issues. Unlike, say, the Fantastic Four, which took a little while to find its legs, Amazing Spider-Man is clicking on all cylanders from the beginning.

- The Lee/John Romita issues kept the good and added some important new elements. For the first time, Peter has a real love life and friends. Plus, the book tackled some pretty heavy subjects (racism, the Vietnam War and especially the Harry Osborn drug issues), but did so in a way that were "all-ages" appropriate.

- I know you haven't gotten there yet, but I hope you continue your reviews into the Gerry Conway/Ross Andru era of the 1970s. To me, that was the high point for Amazing Spider-Man. From the period between issues #121 (death of Gwen Stacy) and #149 (the end of the Jackal saga), we get classics on almost a monthly basis.

Anyway, keep up the good work and I look forward to reading about your journey through Spider-Man history!