Sunday, September 30, 2007


Spider-Man: For Better or For Worse?

This Week's Reading List: Amazing Spider-Man 46-50

Okey-dokey, here we go, folks. These books don't deserve a ton of individual discussion, but they touch on a couple of trends that have been going on at Marvel for years now, so that provides something useful.

First and foremost, what we have in these five issues is run-of-the-mill Spider-Man action. Perfectly serviceable, but completely uninspiring. I'd be very surprised if any of these issues have ever “made” a Spider-Man fan, or if any of them have ever been on a “best of” list of any kind (other than 50, which we'll get to). Again, we get a two-parter, but generally we're dealing with done-in-one villain-of-the-month fare with B-list baddies and minor issue-to-issue connections. The soap-opera is reasonably interesting, with Gwen apparently unconsciously aping MJ's style in her desire to be closer to Peter, and Pete and Aunt May finally moving out of the old house, but there's really not enough of it to deserve close scrutiny.

An issue that often gets some attention and scrutiny, but doesn't really deserve it, IMO, is Amazing Spider-Man 50. This is one of those classic, go-to Spidey plots that show up every five years or so, when the audience has recycled itself enough to make it a “new” idea for 80% of the fans of the day. The “Spider-Man No More” idea was done better back in Amazing 16-18, and it was more natural in its storyline evolution. What Amazing Spider-Man 50 has that the others didn't is that it's a clean done-in-one, easily reprintable issue that features very iconic Romita art. If Marvel had ever tried to make what you might call an “easy classic,” then this issue would be it. That said, I don't think it holds up terribly well in a long-term reading situation. Not bad, just blah.

And... we're done! At least, we're done as far as the typical round-up stuff goes. So let's take a second and look not at the individual villains themselves, but at the treatment of all these villains both in these issues and in their relative past and future. I was really surprised (shocked?) to see just what a bad-ass the Shocker was in this first appearance. Sure, Spidey beats him by webbing up his thumbs(!), but the Shocker proves to be a credible threat. He's also someone who has a) the brains to make his own equipment and b) the ingenuity to use that equipment to maximum effect. If he were to solve that thumb-trigger weakness, he'd really be a major street-level villain, if the presentation in this issue is to be believed. And yet... the Shocker is a joke character now, and has been for YEARS. Over in Ultimate Spider-Man, this character actually doesn't have a name, and he only ever shows up for Spidey to beat the snot out of him in three pages. Ultimate Spidey calls him “The Vibrator” on at least one occasion. I laughed when I read that a couple years back, but now I'm not so sure that Bendis is doing anyone any favors by treating the character that way. Ultimate Shocker could be a decent mid-level threat, providing some much-needed one- or two-parters in the Ultimate universe. Instead, he's a one-note joke that's already stale.

It's disappointing to me to see whole companies (not just Bendis, don't get me wrong) eliminating the concept of “B-listers” the same way the publishing industry has eliminated the concept of the mid-list author. You're either a star, or you're nothing in either case, and that's just silly. Nowadays, if you believe the hype, Ultimate Spidey (and 616 Spidey, for that matter) faces only three types of villains: Stars, SUPER-Stars, and Losers. The only real difference between a star and a Super-star at that point is the kinds of sales they generate. Story-wise, it's still hyped as “Spidey's greatest challenge!” Part of what makes the Kraven/Vulture story or the Shocker story work in ASM 46-49 is that these AREN'T world-shaking villains, but they are a challenge, and Peter's already got too much on his plate.

When every villain is a MAJOR challenge, the books get boring, the fights all become routine, and the villains that deserve Super-Star (or A-list) status have to be ramped up to impossible degrees of difficulty. Look at the female Doctor Octopus, who had a force-field. A force-field! Spider-Man could NOT hit her. When you look at her list of powers, she was essentially unbeatable, especially at a Spider-Man story level. She was a pathetic character that eventually had to be flushed, but it wasn't her fault--it was the fault of the kind of power-creep that lazy writing and editing brings.

Briefly, note the changes to the Vulture in these stories and the changes that would affect Kraven later. First, Stan and John unwisely replace Toomes with yet another evil thug named “Blackie.” Blackie is virtually guaranteed to be a failure as a character from the start because he's supposedly somehow MORE dangerous than the genius that invented the wings in the first place. The only thing that could make such a replacement interesting is the story of how unworthy of the weapons the replacement turns out to be, and the villain's struggle with his own inadequacy. So even back before #50, Marvel was falling prey to the kind of one-upsmanship that ruins characters. Second, Kraven actually was a threat back then. Yeah, okay, I'm not big on the “jungle potion” concept behind so many of his powers (Kraven's basically a super-B.O. Detector), but I'd forgotten why Spider-Man should ever have been afraid of Kraven, and these stories remind me when taken with a grain of salt for their sixties-ness. Again, though, Kraven is eventually turned into a joke--multiple times, even, by Zimmerman and Bendis, who each have their own takes on why Kraven is ridiculous. Bendis probably does more lasting damage to the character in the Ultimate book by making him into just another genetic freak in Ultimate Six. Congratulations, Marvel. Instead of figuring out a way to make the jungle aspect work and reinventing a character with a relatively unique concept (evil Tarzan), you once again turn him into a one-note joke who then gets his power the same way that everyone in the Ultimate universe gets their powers.

This problem isn't going to be solved, nor the questions answered, in one post, but I wanted to note this idea, because it's something that's been a drag on comics for far, far too long, and it's been a particular problem for Spider-Man's rogues gallery. It bears watching.

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

1) Spider-Man stories were better then than they are now. Meh. Better soap-opera, mediocre villains, many of the same mistakes modern comics make, just in a swingin' sixties' style.

2) Spider-Man's supporting cast is essential to good Spidey stories. The stuff that keeps ya comin' back for more in these is the soap-opera, but every storyline is in a gestation phase in these five issues. Nothing to write home about yet.

3) Peter Parker is not just a secret identity. I don't know. These issues made him seem pretty much like a basic alter-ego. Comments welcome here, especially.

All right, that's it for this week. Up next week will be Amazing Spider-Man 51-55 and Amazing Spider-Man Annual 4! Until the Shocker is renamed “The Vibrator”, Make Mine Marvel!


Sunday, September 16, 2007

SM:FBFW ASM 41-45, Annual 3

Spider-Man: For Better or For Worse?

This Week's Reading List: Amazing Spider-Man 41-45, Amazing Spider-Man Annual 3

Okey-dokey, here we go, folks. After several “milestone” posts, the Spider-Man saga seems to have settled into a bit of a groove. If my memories from being ten serve, the Stan Lee/John Romita, Sr. years provide a steady stream of entertaining, if slightly shallow and repetitive, Spidey-tales. That's certainly what we get this week.

On the super-villain front, we get two: the Rhino and the Lizard, while John Jameson gets mutated by space-spores and begins his quest to become the Jimmy Olsen of the Marvel Universe. I have to say that five issues in a row (six, if you count the annual) of Spidey fighting bricks gets a little old. “Oh, look! Spidey hurt his hand hitting that guy! Does Spidey have a chance of beating him like he did the last two?” Meh. It makes me wonder a little why Spidey was able to tire out the Rhino but not Jameson or the Lizard. On the other hand, having Spidey go up against villains like this means he actually has to think and use his scientific brain, which I'm always asking for, so I can't complain too much.

As for the supporting cast, Betty Brant returns... again... and she and Peter find that their romance is dead. Peter thinks of her as a sister now, apparently, and he couldn't be happier over her impending nuptials. Fair enough, I've had that happen. Mary Jane finally puts in an appearance, and... AAARRGH! Her mouth is full of Stan Lee Sixties Slang at its worst! Seriously, if she calls Peter “Dad” one more time, I think my head will explode. However much I may hate Mary Jane talking, I'll say two things for her as I read: First, she makes Gwen jealous, and I like that because I like Gwen. Second, it's interesting to look at her reactions to Peter with the ret-conned knowledge of his secret ID. Originally, I imagine, Stan planned for her to just be the most laid-back girl in the world--or possibly the shallowest. I'm a bit ignorant on Mary Jane's original conception, I'll admit. Still, it's pretty cool that so many of her reactions in these early issues jibe with the idea that she knew what Peter was doing and she was afraid to get to close to it.

One little bit in the stories that didn't seem to ring true to me was Peter's rather open-minded response to Harry's suggestion that Peter work for Norman. I would have at least thought that Peter's first response would acknowledge that he'd be working for the former Green Goblin, but he doesn't. Hm. Oh, well.

Annual 3 is a great all-star issue that answers several “what-if” questions without actually changing anything, and it's advertising in the Mighty Marvel Manner to boot. I'm sure that Marvel was getting all kinds of mail in those days asking why Spidey wasn't an Avenger, or when he would meet the Hulk again, or whatever. This story does a good job of showing why Spidey really wasn't ready for Avengers membership.

What really struck me during the reading of Annual 3, and then during the rest of the issues, was John Romita, Sr.'s art. First and foremost, it really lacks the personality and fluidity of Ditko's work, and that's disappointing for me. Second, and this really isn't an “art” issue, the stories immediately devolve into formulaic villain-of-the-month fare with some soap-opera thrown in. This isn't to say that the stories are suddenly bad, but there's a “fluff” feeling to the book with Romita that there wasn't for most of Ditko's run. Third, Romita has to have some of the cleanest, clearest storytelling on the planet. Virtually every panel with Spidey in it is pin-up quality, for good and for ill. It's stiffer than Ditko, as I said, but Romita's art works harder than anyone's I can think of, classic or modern.

I'm going to have to find some of his Marvel Tales reprints (or maybe some Essentials, even though they're black and white) for my three-year-old to read. Don't mistake me--I'm not insulting the art or trying to call it childish. It's the same thing I noticed with his work on the Richard and Mary Parker story in Untold Tales--Romita, Sr. understood how the eye moved over the page and he used that understanding to tell a story more clearly than just about anyone I've seen in recent memory. So, even though I miss Ditko's quirks, oddities, and depths, I look forward to giving Romita's clean, classic art the attention it deserves as I move through the Spidey-books.

BTW, I have to say that Foggy Nelson is a strange little man. In ASM 43, page 4, panel 6, when he gets frustrated by his client's behavior (client: Rhino. behavior: jailbreak), he declares, "I HAVE FELONIES!" This made me laugh out loud. I also had to smile at Matt Murdock's strange sense of generosity: "I wish Daredevil could go after [the Rhino] now--but the Web-Slinger deserves first crack at him!" (same panel) Yes, Daredevil is all heart.

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

1) Spider-Man stories were better then than they are now. You know, this is a tough one for me this week, but I think the answer is ultimately “yes.” The stories are reasonably self-contained, but the storylines are also clearly connected. We get supporting cast, character development, and plenty of action. That we also get shallower ideas than we did with Ditko is unfortunate, but ultimately every single one of these issues delivers a fun Spidey story. How many recent issues of Spider-Man can say that? (I guess we'll have to wait for Brand New Day to see if Marvel's going to put the fun back into Spidey.)

2) Spider-Man's supporting cast is essential to good Spidey stories. Well, they're here, but it's a little too much Mary Jane for me, as she's always been one of my least favorite characters. At the same time, almost every single fight Spidey suffers through in these issues is enhanced by a connection with or a complication from the supporting cast, so we'll give this a check, too.

3) Peter Parker is not just a secret identity. Science beats the Rhino and the Lizard, and heart keeps Spidey from luring the Hulk to Avengers Mansion. Yep.

All right, that's it for this week. Up next week will be Amazing Spider-Man 46-50! Until the Lizard accidentally clones himself from his tail, Make Mine Marvel!