Monday, August 27, 2007

SM:FBFW ASM 36-40

Spider-Man: For Better or For Worse?

This Week's Reading List: Amazing Spider-Man 36-40.

Okey-dokey, here we go, folks. The first three issues are relatively run-of-the-mill. First, let's talk villains. The Looter is pathetic, but he's obviously meant to be. No decent villain really uses a helium balloon as their escape vehicle (or as transport to the Arctic, I might add.) Stromm is a little more interesting, if only for his interesting robot designs and relatively novel revenge motivation (novel for Spider-Man, anyway). Joe Smith is another born loser, and my main question about him is why we never see movie posters in the background of the Marvel U.: “Starring Joe Smith...” etc. The best thing to come out of Joe Smith's “villainy” is the villain making out better than Spidey by the end.

Good things in these three:

  • Norman Osborn, who is clearly being groomed for his reveal in ASM 39, starts his appearances. I'm ashamed to say that I just noticed today, for the very first time, that Norman's hairline and the Goblin's wacky hat-line are the same. I've been reading since 1983, folks. Someone please hit me. I have to say, I really, really like how Norman's treatment of his son clearly had an effect on how Harry treated others, and it says something for the overall theme of the series that Harry is, in many ways, redeemed through his friendship with Peter Parker, who treats him much more fairly.

  • Ned Leeds showing up. Whoops, I guess he hasn't married Betty, yet. What's going on with her? I absolutely love the ongoing nature of these storylines. Even though each issue's A-plot is self-contained, the B-plots go on forever! I also love Spidey punching out the Ned-looking mannequin. Ah, angst.

  • Peter lost in thought from his too-accurate Spider-Sense. Check out ASM 38, 6;3-5. Joe Smith is tearing stuff up, but Peter, unlike everyone else, doesn't really notice. Why? He's thinking too hard, and he's really come to rely on his Spider-Sense to alert him to such things. The various rocks and things aren't going to hit him, so they pose no danger. It's not until one passes across his line-of-sight that he perks up.

  • Gwen's consideration of Peter. It's too bad that, over time, Gwen lost the personality that she so clearly has here. She's an independent thinker who is finally starting to break with the crowd. She's also fiery in a way that Spidey girls haven't been so far. The sparks between these two, especially in ASM 37, 5, are just plain fun to watch. It's almost like being young again, but fictional. You know?

Bad things in these three:

  • Crappy villains. We get Meteor-Fart, Master of Tinkertoys, and Cordrazine-Addict Man. True, Osborn's working kind-of behind the scenes, but still.

  • The cover to ASM 38, which is also inexplicably chosen for the cover of Marvel Masterworks: The Amazing Spider-ManVolume 4. Between this one, ASM 33, and ASM 39 or 40, I can tell you that this one (which consists solely of cut-outs from the interior) is clearly the (sarcasm) BEST ONE OF ALL (/sarcasm)

Amazing Spider-Man 39 and 40

Ah, the “end” of the Green Goblin. These issues are remarkable for several reasons, both positive and negative. First, the basic story is a worthy culmination of two years of ongoing storytelling. After several meetings where one or the other escapes and there is no solid resolution, Norman locks them in a room and they have to fight it out to the finish. It's worth adding also that for once, a super-villain schemes to discover the hero's secret identity and the scheme works. As with so many other things in Spider-Man (and Marvel), making things a little more realistic in key areas really increases the tension of the story.

When I was re-reading these stories to write this article, it struck me as both cliched and annoying that Osborn is so willing to tie Peter up and blab for an entire issue, but I'm not sure that's really being fair. A) The ranting villain is a long-standing tradition in serials, and it's not a terrible one as long as it's not overdone. B) No Spider-Man villain had ever ranted quite this long. C) The Goblin is shown repeatedly to be quite mad, and it had been building to this point of release. D) There has to be some sort of narrative mechanism for explaining how all the clues come together, and this is as good as any. So I forgive Stan for this old chestnut.

The supporting characters are given some face time in these issues, with a little more Anna Watson than we usually see. All of them are clearly being groomed for their post-Ditko roles, with Harry warming to Peter, Gwen already losing some of her personality (“If Peter Parker becomes one of our crowd, it'll be just wonderful--for me!” - ASM 39, 6;3), Flash becoming more of the grumpy man than the bully, and Anna Watson preparing for her increased “camera time” as MJ's Aunt.

I have to say that, despite the clean lines of Romita's art, I already miss Ditko's energy. Romita does a fantastic job with basic storytelling and between-panel continuity. If I wanted to give a kid a pair of comics to “get them started” with Spidey, ASM 39 and 40 would be at the top of my list because Romita's art is clear and easy-to-follow. It's also a little bland and boring here after 38 issues of Ditko. Ditko's influence on Spidey's fighting style wouldn't be consciously felt for years, IMO, and it's definitely missing here.

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 Ditko stories are average, and while the Goblin two-parter has its problems, it pays off months and months of build-up and mystery.

2) Spider-Man's supporting cast is essential to good Spidey stories. They're all that's interesting about the first three. While many of them are pushed aside in 39 and 40 (and rightfully so), the tension in Peter's initial out-of-costume confrontation with the Goblin is significantly heightened by trying to hide it from Aunt May, and more tension is created in the final battle by her worry over Peter. Sure, it's an overused thing, but it's a reasonable part of the story engine here, so we'll accept it.

3) Peter Parker is not just a secret identity. No, he's the driving dramatic force in 60% of the stories here and the key weakness in the Goblin issues. A good use of the Parker persona, I'd say.

All right, that's it for this week. Up next week will be Amazing Spider-Man 41-45 and Annual 3! Until Spidey's entire supporting cast is dead, amnesiac, or absent, Make Mine Marvel!

Eric


Tuesday, August 14, 2007

SM:FBFW ASM 31-35 (The BIG Post)

Spider-Man: For Better or For Worse?

This Week's Reading List: Amazing Spider-Man 31-35

Before we really get started, let me apologize for the lack of posts the last couple of weeks. Again, summer, summer, summer. As a teacher, my rule in the summer is that fun and weird-schedule stuff comes before everything else, because I have to be exactly the opposite for the whole school year. So, the last couple of weekends have been extra fun for me, and that means no posts for you! Expect a more normal schedule at the start of September or so. At least this post is chock-full of content, right? Brownie points for anyone who actually reads the whole thing.

Okey-dokey, here we go, folks, our last all Lee/Ditko week ever. A moment of silence please? Ah, the pain of creative changes. But what a week this is. It's interesting to note that Stan openly acknowledges in the intro to my copy of Marvel Masterworks: ASM, Vol 4 that he was doing none of the plotting on these Ditko issues, that all he was doing was supplying the dialog. That's absolutely true, of course, but I think that many casual fans are unfortunately unaware of just how big an influence Ditko was (and should be) on Spider-Man. So kudos to Steve Ditko this week for a fantastic run. We'll be saying the actual good-bye next week, of course, but since the big event next week is the unmasking of the Goblin, I think it's better to say good-bye this week as Ditko provides the high-water mark for his Spider-Man run, the Master Planner Trilogy! Without further ado...

Amazing Spider-Man 31
In ASM 31, the action portions really take a back seat to all of the developments in Peter's personal life, developments that will affect Spidey in big ways in the days to come, and that's good, because the action in this ish is a little sub-standard for a couple of different reasons. First, we have the Master Planner's gang now actually working for the Master Planner instead of for the Cat, but they haven't changed their goony costumes. Echh, what a color scheme! Second, we have the Master Planner's secret under-river hideaway, which is actually a pretty cool idea... if you can imagine for even ten seconds how he built it! I know it's 1965 and all, but it's Spider-Man and the Marvel Universe! How in the world did this structure get underwater? AAAAH! It really shouldn't bug me that much, I suppose, but my brain just doesn't want to let it go.

Anyway, here we have our first Amazing appearances of Gwen Stacy and Harry Osborn (who both previously popped up in UTSM), and Peter starts college. All of which would go perfectly smoothly if not for the old Parker luck. With Aunt May suddenly hospitalized, Peter is too concerned about her to pay attention to the other kids. I really, really like this set-up for a couple of reasons. First, despite the fact that Harry is someone who, by his own admission, “[doesn't] like squares”(ASM #31, 10;4), he's much fairer than Flash, which makes him a new kind of character for Amazing. Even though Peter has been ignoring the whole gang (which is interpreted by all as Pete being stuck-up), Harry is still willing to give Peter some chances. They go so far as to invite Pete out for sodas, but to no avail. Second, Gwen is presented as a smart, head-strong girl with a personality. While Stan interprets her through the lens of 42 years past, she's still not as clichéd as Betty and Liz. Don't get me wrong--like Busiek, I really like Betty, but especially without Busiek's embellishments from UTSM, she's not as strong of a character after 31 issues as Gwen is after one! Both Betty and Liz are handled well, and they aren't just cardboard cut-outs, but by the time Ditko leaves the book, both of them have exhausted much of their potential. Notice that when each reappears later down the line, she is significantly different, as the “old version” just didn't have enough stories left in her.

That Peter is completely unaware of Gwen's interest and the gang's opinions is wonderful, as it gives the reader a feeling of anticipation, knowing something that Peter doesn't. There is a very strong sense that there will be pay-offs for all the unresolved questions posed by this story, and that keeps readers coming back. Perhaps more importantly, notice that Lee and Ditko are more than happy to give the spotlight over to some of these supporting characters, and notice what the time we spend with Gwen and Harry here in #31 does for the book: First, it establishes them as “real” characters that have their own lives, opinions, and importance. It justifies their inclusion in the story. Second, it provides a different perspective on Spidey/Peter that actually serves to explain (a little) why Peter gets treated the way he does, and it's not a throwaway perspective. This isn't one of those “make up a character who sees Spidey differently to make a 'profound' statement” stories that seem to fill up Spidey anthologies and back-ups. Harry and Gwen are given real weight, and their opinions should matter to the involved reader, which then encourages involvement in the ongoing storyline. Third, since the action is going to take over a bit in the next two, as Ditko certainly foresaw, it paces out their story a bit so that the reader is thinking about them in the back of his mind even while Spidey's fighting for his life under the river. Notice that Mary Jane and Aunt May haven't really had storylines independent (or at least, apparently independent) from Peter's in years. Is it any wonder that so many people (which is to say, ME) feel so bored with Spider-Man today? It's almost like only hearing one song on the radio over and over!

Amazing Spider-Man 32
Anyway, moving on. Right at the start of ASM 32, we're presented with the Betty/Ned sub-plot. Somehow, I keep thinking, “Oh, now Betty's gone,” and she keeps coming back. I'm not complaining--it's just interesting to me that I keep writing her off. In short, Ned has asked Betty to marry him. She hasn't answered, telling him that she needs to talk to Peter first. Now, I don't know about the rest of you, but to me that'd be a pretty clear indication that I (Ned) was second place to the other guy (Peter). Why would he still want to marry her? I wish we'd seen more of Ned's thoughts here, but maybe that would have ventured too far into soap-opera territory. Anyway, Peter shows up at the Bugle, Betty tries to talk to him, and Leeds interferes. I am honestly a little surprised at what a jerk Peter is to Ned, going so far as to shove him into a wall. Peter's obviously upset about the proposal and at his inability to marry Betty (who couldn't stand finding out he's Spider-Man), but wow! This does a really good job of establishing Peter's growing desperation over Aunt May's condition.

What's really awesome about all of this is that Betty cuts right through Peter's BS and confronts him. I still think Gwen is a deeper character, but Betty's true interest in Peter really ramps up the angst here. She wants him to reveal his secret, he's convinced she'd hate him for that thing, so they can't be together. Why can't Peter David have had one extra issue of FNSM to explore the fall-out over this. Certainly Betty has to suddenly understand why Peter dumped her so hard, and she's got to need some closure there. I mean, Peter is “the one who got away” for Betty. AARGH! Why can't the current books do more with the supporting characters???? Anyway, hooray for Betty here.

Then comes my favorite sequence from this issue: Peter finally letting the pressure get to him at home. Page 5, panel 4, coming after three smaller, blue-themed panels, really captures the explosion of anger, frustration, and determination that someone would feel here. Everything else for the rest of this issue, Spidey tracking down Connors, tearing up the underworld, attacking the Master Planner's gang, and beating the snot out of Doctor Octopus flows from this moment. I really appreciate the power that Peter's love for Aunt May gives him, because Ock runs away with his tentacles between his legs, and how many times has that happened so fast?

My only complaint here is the silly dialog Lee supplies when Spidey stops at the Bugle and sees Betty. It totally brings me out of the story to have to read “When I see her that way--so fragile--so helpless--how I long to take her in my arms--!”(ASM #32, 9;4). Puh-leeze.

Amazing Spider-Man 33
Note: For once, Stan's splash page hype is accurate: “Possibly one of the most thoroughly satisfying Spider-Man sagas you have ever thrilled to!” Boy, is that the truth.

And then, of course, we come to the eternally copied moment for Spider-Man, the “I've got to do the impossible for Aunt May, and beat up the Hulk or arm-wrestle Galactus or whatever seems hard to the writer today” moment. I'm not complaining about it here in ASM 33, because this is really the first time it's used, so it's not cliché, yet. I just want to announce that I will be harsher and harsher on rehashes of ASM 33 as time goes on.

What can be said about this sequence? It's just plain awesome. If you haven't read this, why are you reading my blog? Go out right now, find a copy of this, read it, treasure it, worship it. Then come back and give me more traffic.

What's really noteworthy is the stuff that comes after the lifting of the impossibly heavy machine. Ditko's plotting does not let up on Spider-Man for pages. This story would take five issues for Bendis. Let's just admit it. We've got underwater debris dodging, underwater fighting (which is more exciting than Thunderball, let me tell you), out of the water fighting, Spidey resting during the fight, then more “I'll never give up!” stuff, and then... science! Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Spider-Man is a science whiz and can actually do stuff, like invent web-shooters, spider-tracers, gas masks, and stuff.

There are two other great moments in this story, one of which essentially finishes a storyline and one of which should alter a storyline forever, but doesn't. The first is Peter's final (I think it's final) confrontation with Betty, where she confirms his worst fears. Peter's all bruised and cut from his ordeal under the river, and when Betty sees this, she freaks out and runs away. Pretty clear that she couldn't handle the thought of Spider-Man, huh? (You know, I wish we could have seen an Untold Tales issue where Peter really considered giving up being Spider-Man in order to be with Betty. Why does that not cross his mind here?) The other great moment is when Peter stands up to JJJ, saying things like, “Keep liking me enough to give me a check right now--'cause I can use the dough!”(ASM #33, 18;4). JJJ wonders “What's gotten into Parker? Who wised him up?” in the same panel. My question is: why didn't Peter stay wised up? For many years, to me, at least, it seemed like Jameson was taking advantage of Peter's photos and not paying him what they were worth. Why doesn't Peter get tough and stay tough with Jameson? (Not rude, mind you--just not taking so much of Jameson's crap, especially on his checks.)

Oh, and the McGuffin cured the eternally frail supporting character. Hooray.

Amazing Spider-Man 34
Here we have a merely serviceable Kraven yarn. Once again, Stan's “hype” is accurate: “Featuring: The somewhat magnificent menace of KRAVEN THE HUNTER!” If by “somewhat” Stan means “not really”, then I agree. Here Steve and Stan fall back on the Spider-Man impostor story that they've already used twice. The whole plot is basically resolved by “Spidey beats up Kraven and doesn't break a sweat.”

The really interesting stuff is, unsurprisingly, the Peter Parker and supporting cast, but that's a bit light in this issue. Betty has a dream that Peter is Spidey. She apparently can't stop thinking about him and his secret, which “can't be... that!”(ASM #34, 4;2). Still, we get to see her, find out what she's thinking, and that's always good. Peter, finally in a better mood, thanks to Aunt May's improving condition, tries to be nice to Gwen (who protests but is intrigued), but Harry and the gang shut him down pretty quickly. Interestingly, Peter's reaction to being snubbed by this new group is very, very different from his reactions in high school. Here, he recognizes what they think they've seen, doesn't blame them for being annoyed with him, and decides that they'll get over it--quite a mature line of reasoning, really. Peter also decides not to follow some cops as Spidey, as he “still [has] some money left from the last pics [he] sold to Jameson... and Aunt May will be waiting!”(ASM #34, 6;6) Later, however, he doesn't take pictures of the cops picking up Kraven and his flunkies because going to the Bugle means seeing Betty (or so he thinks, as Jameson has replaced her) and he just doesn't “feel up to facing her right now!”(ASM #34, 19;2)

Amazing Spider-Man 35
This issue has even less sub-plot than the last one. Mark Raxton, the Molten Man, has been released from prison early. When, in disguise, he tries to rob a jewelry store, he's foiled by Spidey. In one of the weaker plot points, Peter decides that, since the unidentified robber had a punch like iron, he must be made of metal, so it must have been the Molten Man in disguise. Then fistfight, fistfight, hog-tying and lots of superdickery.com-worthy dialog. HoYay (thanks, twop.com)! The only interesting part of all this is Spidey hanging back for some of Raxton's tomfoolery taking pictures. When he's finally all tied up, Raxton points out that, with no witnesses, it's Spidey's word against his. Spidey's forethought takes care of that, though, and that's the end of the issue.

No college gang, and Betty's apparently moved out to the west coast with Ned. The end.

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

1) Spider-Man stories were better then than they are now. First three, God yes. Second two, meh.

2) Spider-Man's supporting cast is essential to good Spidey stories. Um... did you read this post? Check!

3) Peter Parker is not just a secret identity. Without Peter and his supporting cast, the first three issues wouldn't have been possible, 34 would have been 100% bland. 35 still is boring.

All right, that's it for this week. Up next week will be Amazing Spider-Man 36-40! Until they kill Doc Ock, replace him with a crappy female version, then dump her and bring him back from a computer, Make Mine Marvel!

Eric