Sunday, December 2, 2007


Spider-Man: For Better or For Worse?

This Week's Reading List: Amazing Spider-Man 78-83

Okay, the hits just keep happenin' this week, cats! We start out with the conflicted two-part origin of the Prowler, then we move on to a string of villains of the month including the Chameleon, the Kangaroo, Electro, and the Schemer. I have to say right up front that these next couple of weeks may make for short blog entries, Spider-philes, because Stan gets in a bit of a rut through the eighties and nineties. Not a horrible, “Oh, God, why am I reading this?” rut, but just a “okay, ready for the next issue, now!” rut.

To start off this week, though, we have the two-part introduction of the Prowler, a.k.a. Hobie Brown, who is one of the many African-American superheroes who was created to be a second-stringer, and the story makes it really hard to decide what was going through Stan's head. On one hand, there is a really strong anti-racism theme that runs through Amazing Spider-Man. Hobie Brown's boss, Mr. Clark, complains to Hobie that he's “had it with [Hobie's] type” (ASM 78; 14, 8), which, by itself, might mean a lot of things. Jameson's reaction, however, is to threaten that Clark had better “shut [his] big yap” or JJJ will “do it for [him]!” (ASM 78; 14, 8). Given that Jameson is shown repeatedly to be powerfully and consciously anti-bigotry, the only conclusion to draw here is that “[Hobie's] type” is African-American. I take the time to describe the scene for those who aren't actually reading along with the blog (most of you, I'd assume) and to demonstrate how oblique many of the references to race are in this book. They're there, sure, but they can be a little roundabout in getting mentioned.

On the other hand, there's the set-up of Hobie Brown as a second-rate Peter Parker. He's young, inventive, and tired of being pushed around. All of that would be great, except that it's yet another example of a black character who is designed as a lesser copy of a white character. The whole time I was reading this, I couldn't decide if I should take it as, “Well, certainly there are many young minority men in Hobie's position, where they have more potential than society recognizes, and some of them might certainly turn to costumed crime if such a thing were 'the thing to do' (as it is in Marvel Manhattan)” or if I should be reading this thinking, “Oh, so a black Peter Parker would have just turned to crime and needed a white hero to explain to him that it's a mistake.”

Let me say this before we go any further: I am not an expert on race relations. I'm really NOT interested in hosting a discussion of the treatment of African-Americans in Marvel comics on my blog. If anyone posts anything about it, I'm going to ask that we move the discussion to the ever-excellent Spider-Man Message Board so that Erik! and Comp can moderate the thread. So, to summarize: I'm just throwing out my questions about the race issue here. I don't want to moderate a discussion of it. If someone wants to have that discussion, I'm happy to head over to the SMB as a participant. Fair enough?

Other than the whole race thing, this is a middling two-parter. Several issues about the Prowler have always stuck in my craw. First, he designs much of his stuff to duplicate Spider-Man's powers. That's fine. But he's in no way a match for Spider-Man. Not even a little bit. Spidey should never, ever, ever have trouble with the Prowler. We're talking an untrained inventor who climbs walls using claws. Any Hand ninja is ten times the fighter Hobie is, and Spidey fights them by the dozen. Second, the “cliffhanger” of Peter in JJJ's office not knowing what to do isn't half as interesting as the following splash page of Peter falling out the window of JJJ's office. They should have ended the previous issue with that happening and Peter thinking, “And without my web-shooters, I have no way to save myself!” or something similar. Finally, I am a little tired of the on-again, off-again Peter-Gwen thing. In these issues, Peter has seen her talking with Flash Thompson, who's back for a bit, and he naturally assumes that she's two-timing him, so he acts like a jerk to her. Of course, we know she's talking to Flash because she's concerned about Peter, and Flash has known him for years. Ugh. Spare me.

Then comes another “flashback” issue for me. ASM 80, featuring the Chameleon, was reprinted many years ago in the Children's Press kid's book Spider-Man: The Secret Story of Marvel's World-Famous Wall-Crawler by Roger Stern. My library had this book, and I checked it out often. It was a good little summary of Spidey's then-current powers and history. I always wondered why they chose this particular story. The Chameleon is a boring villain, and this is a completely run-of-the-mill impostor story. At the same time, it's not a bad story, and it is done-in-one. Buscema's art has vastly improved over his earliest Spidey outing, and the ending, where the Chameleon chooses to be Peter Parker and that gets him caught, is moderately interesting. I did like reading this story in context, finally. The sub-plots made more sense to me in 2007 than they did back in 1983. (It should go without saying on this blog that the overall story still does make sense, and that is key to comics being accessible to new readers.)

After that... the Kangaroo. He lived with them (kangaroos) in Austrailia long enough to know how to jump like them and box like them, so now he's a super-villain. I kid you not. Yech. The only interesting thing about this story is that when Peter leaves a web-dummy upstairs in Aunt May's house, she actually discovers it, freaks out, and faints. Heh. I just wish she would have died at this point, since we're still dealing with Aunt May, the stupidest old biddy in the world!

The Electro story that follows is average in every way. Remember this. It's not a great story, it's only a serviceable one. And yet, because Stan has the story-engine in place, because we're given a little soap-opera, a little plot, angst, decent art, and a lot of action, the story comes through. These are the stories that Marvel has lost. These are the stories that keep readers going for that one- or two-month stretch where the writers are uninspired. These are also the stories that make others seem really cool but still connected. Give us more of these, Marvel, instead of some of the dreck you foist on us, and you'll have more consistent sales.

Lastly this week, we have the Schemer. He isn't that interesting of a villain, but he gets tied into Kingpin story very early on, and that makes the stakes high enough for me to care. Gwen is put in danger, Peter saves her, he's misunderstood... Again, this is entertaining enough that I went right ahead and read the next issue because I wanted to know what would happen... but it's still just a good Spidey issue. Better than the Electro one, but this is clearly a build-up story, not a climax. You know what? I'd take more of these if Marvel were actually capable of producing good Spidey stories month-in and month-out. Oh, well. We'll see what Brand New Day has in store for us here in the not-too-distant future.

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

1) Spider-Man stories were better then than they are now. This week's books were completely average Spidey-stories for the time, but they made me want to read the next issue. Even the Kangaroo made me look forward to the following issue because I have faith in Stan that the next issue will be better.

2) Spider-Man's supporting cast is essential to good Spidey stories. The soap-opera sustains us even when the plot does not. So says Eric.

3) Peter Parker is not just a secret identity. Nope. Spidey is definitely Peter Parker, even in these average issues. Many of Spidey's decisions and tensions come directly from Peter's life. They are not separate (nor should they be).

All right, that's it for this week. Up next week will be Amazing Spider-Man 84-89! Until a stupid clone of Thor (created by Reed Richards and Tony Stark, no less) kills off Black Goliath for no good reason, Make Mine Marvel!



Anonymous said...

I've never gotten the hype around a couple of the classic villains, namely the Vulture, the Chameleon, and the Lizard.

I mean, unless you count the 1960s cartoon where he could drop bombs from his wings, all he can really do is fly. Whoop-dee-doo, so can about a thousand other comic book characters. I have the same thing about the Angel-he's the X-Men's response to Aquaman; worthless in a real fight, since all he can do is fly...and those wings are incredibly vulnerable, too.

Then there's the Lizard. Don't get me wrong, Doc Connors himself is a cool character, but when he turns into the Lizard AGAIN and AGAIN and AGAIN, it gets tiresome very quickly. The Lizard seems to be a fairly one-note character; he transforms, goes on a rampage, then Spidey stops him. I mean, even common crooks like Electro and second-stringers like Boomerang can be involved in all kinds of schemes and plots as variations on their inevitable confrontations with Spidey...but what does the Lizard really do once he transforms? Goes on a killing spree, Spidey turns him back, etc. etc. At least he showed some originality in his first appearance by trying to breed a race of super-lizards to take over the world...

Then there's the Chameleon. For someone with such a potentially useful power, he's two-dimensional flat. I find him about as compelling an organized crime figure as I do the Arranger, the Kingpin's former lieutenant-that is to say, I find them both dull and uninspired. The Chain Gang have more personality than he does.

Oh well. The Kangaroo is pretty forgettable, but Electro is always good for some excitement, and the Schemer plotline actually works pretty well, I find-too bad it didn't end there, as with all those Roses. Well, the first Gang War worked well enough, but I could have done without the Lobos and Hammerhead and Chameleon.


Omar Karindu said...

The Prowler is also an important character for another reason: he represents John Romita Jr.'s first contribution to the Spidey books.

As to the classic villains anonymous discusses, it should be remembered that they aren't designed to by physical threats to Spider-Man so much as they are villains who are difficult to stop. The Vulture isn't there to kill the hero, he's there to rob and plunder and vanish into the skies. Unlike the Angle, no one's sending him into battle repeatedly to do or die. Unlike a superhero, all the Vulture needs to do to "win" is to get away with the loot. And for that, his power is quite useful. If Magneto survives all his attacks and the Angle flies off in terror, the Angel loses; if Spider- Man survives all of the Vulture's attacks and Vulchy flies off in terror Spider-Man loses.

Likewise the Chameleon, who prior to the 1980s was interested in profit and gain. I will admit that the character was far better used by Stan and Steve Dikto in espionage plots over in the Hulk series from Tales to Astonish; Chammy actually gets away clean in that title after setting the Hulk up to be captured by the Leader.

And the Lizard did become the tiresome act described there, but not really under Stan's watch. Stan used the Lizard but threee times, and each time was different: the first was a rather odd interlude in Florida owing much to Marvel's old monster comics; the second pitted Spider-Man against a physically superior foe who was also an ally and so couldn't be hurt in battle; and the third was mainly about Spider-Man trying to stop an unwitting Human Torch from frying Curt Connors without giving up the Doctor's secret.

Anonymous said...

Well, I admit I'm judging the villains based on what I've seen about them. The way Stan handled the Lizard, as Omar described, obviously works well, since he only appeared a couple of times, and his points on the Vulture are well-taken.

Same thing with the Chameleon-as a kid, I could never really get into the Gang War storyline involving the Lobos, the Chameleon and Hammerhead, and judged him based on those stories. I like Michelinie and Conway, I really do, it's just that some of the central characters in that story arc-the Arranger and the Chameleon-were both flat as pancakes. I can't comment on his Hulk appearances (I only read the Hulk when he fought the U-Foes), and so I'll take his word for it.


Eric Teall said...


The Prowler might not "win" by being a serious threat to Spidey, but when Spidey first encounters him, he thinks something to the effect of "this guy is no pushover!" and is taken out by the Prowler's gas. (That sounds very yucky, BTW.) I'm just saying that, at this point in his career, Spidey towers above the Prowler in skill so greatly that it is ridiculous to believe that Hobie could take him for even two seconds.

As far as the Lizard goes, he was still a fairly one-note character, even with Stan. Perhaps if Stan had used him in done-in-ones each time, it would have been an okay story, but his latter two Stan appearances still drag on for me (largely because of their two-part status).

That said, I completely agree with your comments on "villain win conditions"--they seem to have been forgotten in many modern books.