Sunday, December 23, 2007


Spider-Man: For Better or For Worse?

This Week's Reading List: Amazing Spider-Man 96-98

Ah, the famous pill-popping drug saga to which the Comics Code of the time would not give its seal of approval. Good times, good times. For the next sixty issues or so of ASM, btw, I'm going to be moving in and out of my trusty volumes of Essential Spider-Man. They're handy in terms of packing in a lot of material, but it's pretty sad to try to read these stories without color. This week, for example, I pulled out my old copy of Marvel Tales 191, which reprints ASM 96-98 in glorious full-color so that I could get the full effect of this story.

These issues are yet another set that have some real personal connections for me, and I feel that it's only fair to reveal those before I go on. I've had several good friends and relatives pretty much destroy their lives through drug and alcohol abuse. It scared me very badly when I was younger--it scared me enough that I've never actually tried an illegal drug and I'm more than a little shrill in my objection to them. Even when I first read this story back in 1986, I knew that Harry was getting into the same kinds of things that people I cared about had already used to screw up their lives. Yeah, the heroin-thing from Green Arrow is probably a more accurate depiction of abuse and withdrawl, and the “pills” thing in ASM is kind of pathetically vague, but there's a power to this story nonetheless. Ultimately, what I'm saying here is that I'm a sucker for this story, so if this review isn't entirely objective... deal with it.

Okay, so here's the plot: Mary Jane treats Harry like crap and comes on to Peter. Peter's hung up over Gwen, who's in London. Harry gets jealous of Peter and starts taking drugs. Meanwhile, Norman Osborn becomes the Green Goblin again. Instead of fighting the Goblin and just beating him down, Peter gets the Goblin to look at Harry's predicament (he's almost comatose because of an overdose of “drugs.”). The Goblin personality retreats, leaving only Norman Osborn. The end.

(Quick question: Does anyone know what exactly Harry was taking? The Harry Osborn Wikipedia entry has it listed as a “cocaine overdose”, but I don't remember anything about this particular drug being cocaine. Any info would be very welcome!)

So let's get the bad stuff out of the way right away, shall we? This story hits you over the head with it's anti-drug message. These three issues are pretty much a PSA that you get to pay for. Stan doesn't bother with subtlety here, but you know what? Given that this was pretty much the first instance of drug abuse being shown in a comic, I don't blame Stan for being very explicit about what was “good” and what was “bad” about these situations. Parents would have had a field day with this comic had it been the least bit vague or ambiguous.

The drugs themselves are almost comically vague by today's standards. We don't know what kind of high Harry's getting--it's just a bottle of pills. The drug dealer is pathetically unthreatening, because the only person he ever threatens is Peter who, of course, is in no danger whatsoever. However, the dealer is shown to be an opportunistic guy with no morals who's in it for the money. Again, the kids reading this comic back in the day needed clarity and simplicity for this issue, and they got it.

As far as the story itself goes, this three-parter is pretty good. Sure, it has all the amnesia cliches you can think of, but that's an unfortunate necessity to having the father of the main character's best friend be the arch-foe and still maintaining the concept of secret identities. Still, the Goblin is presented as a credible threat who is still harder to defeat because Peter doesn't want to hurt him (that old chestnut is getting a bit old in the Spider-Man series, as well, but that's an issue for another day).

The drug part of the story is, I think, well constructed considering the time and the novelty of the idea. Harry's insecurities appear suddenly and with surprising force, but they don't seem wildly inconsistent with the character. The serious consequences of drug abuse, the pervasiveness of the problem, and a brief run-down of the stereotypical beliefs of many people in regards to the issue are all handled in a way that a younger reader can understand. When I read it, I hear the same commitment to fairness that I often hear in Stan's social commentary. This is definitely workable.

It's the soap-opera that's interesting to me as I read it now. For the first time, I'm reading this story in context, and it makes it especially entertaining. Mary Jane comes of as a bit of a bitch, in my opinion. The way she dumps Harry and hangs on Peter goes beyond my idea of “party-girl” good taste. I'm honestly surprised that Peter will even consent to talk to her after this. (Think about it: his best-friend's girlfriend puts the moves on him in front of the friend? And he himself is vulnerable over the apparent demise of an important relationship? Who does this red-headed hussy think she is?) Of course, after the crap-fest to which we are about to be treated in the next four issues, everyone probably gets amnesia and forgets what a ho MJ is.

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

1) Spider-Man stories were better then than they are now. Written for the time? Yep. Still readable and interesting today? Yep.

2) Spider-Man's supporting cast is essential to good Spidey stories. Without Harry as the victim of drug abuse here, the whole storyline would lose power. MJ provides adequate impetus for Harry to start drugs, and Gwen provides the happy ending. Yep, pretty essential.

3) Peter Parker is not just a secret identity. I'm not sure there are any Peter-exclusive skills that Spidey really needs in these issues. However, the whole secret identity tension thing goes up a notch when Norman's involved, you know?

All right, that's it for this week. Up next week will be Amazing Spider-Man 99-102! Until Harry Osborn is a better character in the movies than in the comics, Make Mine Marvel!



Jared said...

Madgoblin made some pretty interesting comments on this storyline, not the least of which is the irony in the Comics Code refusing to approve the story, even though it was written at the behest of the U.S. government.

His "Goblin Prince" series also describes the intense pressure Harry must have been under, most notably in his desperation to win the approval of the father who physically and psychologically abused him, and that same desperation only made him look weak in the eyes of the old man. IMO, Mary Jane is far from being the only one to blame here-part of the blame goes to Peter for being too wrapped up in his own problems to lend Harry an ear, although at least there I can cut Pete some slack, since his life isn't a bed of roses either.

Worst of all, though, is Norman. Madgoblin points out-quite rightly, I think-that even if Norman had never decided to get into the costumed villain game, he would have still had his fingers in just about every illegal pie you could name. It especially stands out if you go for Mark Millar's proposal that most supervillains are in fact bankrolled by a cabal of businessmen to keep superheroes distracted-if Osborn hadn't taken up the Green Goblin mantle for himself, he would almost certainly have been involved in the creation of guys like the Scorpion and the Vulture to harass heroes like Spider-Man and Daredevil, who might otherwise probe into his illegal dealings.

Incidentally, I think it's more believable that someone like the Kingpin would pay the Stillwells or the Smythes to create the various mechanical and super-powered villains to go after Spider-Man; I simply can't fathom Jameson doing something that basically amounts to kidnapping and unlawful confinement. In my own version, the Kingpin was the guy who sponsored the creation of the Scorpion, given that Spider-Man's interference was getting to be a problem.

As for the drug abuse thing, on the one hand I can't quite fathom what would lead anyone to take coke, meth, or anything like that in the first place. Even something as supposedly harmless as pot can be laced with all kinds of noxious stuff by unscrupulous dealers. I myself have dealt with some very severe personal problems and depression, and I could never take these kinds of things. I simply can't understand the mentality that would, for instance, lead people to put this crap in their systems in the first place.

Anonymous said...

ASM #121 establishes that the drug Harry took in #97 was LSD (or, as Captain Kirk would call it, LDS ;) ). I've seen that Wikipedia entry naming cocaine as the drug, and have no idea where that idea came from. Perhaps a subsequent issue misstated Harry's drug, and the Wikipedia poster relied on that.

Comic Book Guy

James Edmunds said...

My copies of 96 and 98 don't have the CCA mark on them, but the covers reprinted in Essential 5 do. Anyone know what's up with that?