Sunday, January 6, 2008

SM:FBFW ASM 99-102

Spider-Man: For Better or For Worse?

This Week's Reading List: Amazing Spider-Man 99-102

You know, I'm a pretty forgiving guy when it comes to old comics. I remember reading many of them when I was eight or nine, and I can put myself back in that mindset in order to enjoy older stuff. With this week's so-called storyline, however, I'd have to actually bash my own brains out to enjoy my comics. This four-issue run is easily the worst we've seen so far (not including the Marvel Super Heroes story from a couple of weeks ago--that wasn't a “run”.) So, join me for an extremely brief review of when Spider-Man had six-arms.

First and foremost, my Gil Kane love has waned since last time. I'm not sure what happened to him and Frank Giacoia in-between 98 and 99, but all of a sudden the art--and the inking, especially--has just gone insane. Every detail is revealed. If you have a copy of Amazing Spider-Man 99 handy, look at page two, panel seven, as Peter Parker, freaky marionette from Hell, looks at Gwen and talks about popping the question. Then check out Captain Lipstick on page three, panel four, and Smylex-Victim Peter in panel eight. Seriously--AAAH!

Okay, 99's story isn't half-bad. Peter starts getting serious about Gwen and starts making some changes. He gets himself a staff job at the Bugle, talks tough to JJJ, and breaks up a hostage situation (using info from the Bugle to find out about the crime and then take pictures of it). IF this were actually going to go anywhere, it'd be a good story. However, since Marvel, even in the early 70's, was dead-set against Peter growing and changing in any meaningful way, this doesn't go anywhere, so it's only average.

Then come the drugs. Spidey decides that he can't be Spidey and be married to Gwen, so he makes up a potion that he's “been working on... for years--ever since [he] first got [his] spider powers” (ASM 100; 6, 5). Yeah, right. He finishes it in about two seconds using his magic potion-making machine that has never really appeared before, and then he drinks the potion. We're treated to a pity-party acid trip for Peter Parker that was billed in the last issue as “The Summing Up!” Boo-frickin'-hoo, Peter. And then... he wakes up... and has two extra pair of arms.

Good Lord. I have to say that I'll never hear Switch's last words in The Matrix the same way again after seeing Spider-Freak on the last page of this comic wailing, “Not like this! Not Like THIS!

Peter then freaks out (understandably), calls Gwen, and tells her he's going to be “out of town” for a while. He calls Doc Connors, gets instructions to go to his beach house, and takes off. Meanwhile, one of my personal least favorite characters of all time, Morbius, is introduced. Then Morbius fights the Lizard, since Connors showed up to help Spidey. Morbius escapes, recalls his origin, and Spidey and a half-Lizard realize that Morbius' bite reduces mutations. Fight, fight, fight, Spidey gets the bite-enzyme, and is cured.

The above paragraph covers three full issues of material. Three full crappy issues. The plot is asinine, the art is still terrible and inconsistent, and the dialogue is that special brand of shrill that comes from a writer trying desperately to make his characters matter. I feel dirty just writing about these issues.

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

1) Spider-Man stories were better then than they are now. Ecch.

2) Spider-Man's supporting cast is essential to good Spidey stories. “I love Gwen! We want to get married!” becomes “Gwen, I'm going to be out of town. I secretly hate you.” “Sob! Choke!”

3) Peter Parker is not just a secret identity. I wish these issues were still a secret to me. Yecch.

All right, that's it for this week. Up next week will be Amazing Spider-Man 103-107, and hopefully they'll be better! Until Spidey is a zombie who eats his family, Make Mine Marvel!

Eric

8 comments:

Omar Karindu said...

In slight defense of Stan and Roy, this story strikes me as one similar to the drug storyline as well; Stan had just bucked the CCA on that matter, and in this arc he and Roy were rolling back the Code's prohibitions of horror characters like...vampires.

They slipped Morbius in under the CCA by giving him a scientific origin, by avoiding the verboten word "undead," and, maybe most importantly, by deliberately aping literary depictions by giving Morbius the exact same shipborne arrival as Dracula in Stoker's novel and the classic 1931 film version thereof.

They also made the arc into a "monster mash" was probably as much a product of nostalgia for the old Universal horror films in which Dracula and Frankenstein's Monster and the Wolf Man and, heck, Abbot and Costello all wound up improbably entangled in a fashion that makes X-crossovers look less contrived by comparison.

This would likewise be part of the pitch to the CCA, tying the horror elements into the "wholesome" and fondly recalled entertainments of decades past rather than their association with the very comics that the CCA had been designed to destroy.

It worked, too: within a few years, the CCA approved the use of the classic horror characetrs os long as their depiction was, to paraphrase, understated on the gore and done in the traditional or literary manner rather than the Tales from the Crypt style, and thus the rise of the various 1970s horror comics like Tomb of Dracula, Son of Satan, and so forth.

None of this makes it any better a Spider-Man story -- I'm with you, it's goofy and Morbius, while a potentially interesting anti-hero, is a poor fit in Spider-Man's world -- but it's worth noting that Stan, Roy, and the rest were playing a bit of a behind-the-scenes game, one that perhaps required hijacking Marvel's flagship character to have its desired effects.

Omar Karindu said...

To clarify, I'll quote from Morbius's Wikipedia entry:

"Morbius was created in large part because Marvel Comics Editor-in-Chief Stan Lee wanted to launch an indirect challenge on the ban by the Comics Code Authority on vampires. Working with writer Roy Thomas and artist Gil Kane, they created Morbius, a living man who is given vampiric abilities via scientific means, and not the supernatural ones prohibited by the Code. Kane was instructed to specifically avoid Gothic fashion elements and design a costume for Morbius that was akin to what any other Marvel supervillain would wear, and he specifically chose the red and blue primary colors which were the staple of characters from Spider-Man to Superman."

Within just a few issues, Stan Lee managed to roll back multiple provisions of the Comics Code. Pity he had to tell such a weak Spider-Man story to do it the second time around.

Eric Teall said...

Well, those are details that are certainly interesting and explain why the story was told, but you're very right when you say that none of this makes it a good Spider-Man story. I respect what Stan was trying to do in loosening the strictures of the CCA, but... yeesh, this story!

Jared said...

Boy oh boy, do I have a lot of catching up to do. I was in Ottawa for this youth politics thing, so...

First off:

There's not too much Eric and Omar have said that I wouldn't have said in their place, although obviously their knowledge of this era and the background of the stories is superior to my own.

I hope Eric will forgive me for another John Semper rant, but Spider-Man mutating into a man-spider first began with his growing four additional arms, and then mutating into a man-spider. This was one of the many times when the show was clogged with unnecessary guest stars who simply stole Spider-Man's thunder and often did more to stop the villains than he did-one episode was nothing but the Punisher and Kraven tracking Spidey down so they could temporarily cure him.

Blech.

On one level, I also have a hard time feeling much in the way of sympathy for Morbius, not through any defect on his part but rather because I feel about vampires the same way I do about Princess Diana-they've been mentioned and fawned over so often for so long that I'm thoroughly sick of them. It didn't help Morlun's case either-vampires simply aren't compelling characters to me.

As for Eric's mentioning of the various things that could be done with a married Peter, suffice it to say that I agree. Any of what Eric mentions are things I could agree with and happily accept-there's no mucking about with origins or supporting characters who should rest in peace.

Spidey doesn't need any new powers, any new costumes, new origins, nothing like that. What he does need are new members of the supporting cast, done-in-one stories or story arcs that don't turn his life upside down, a team-up with Sleepwalker, in short good meat and potatoes stories. Hopefully Dan Slott will be doing these things, as well as bringing some old Sleepwalker villains out of retirement.

There is one postscript I'd like to deal with-Eric mentions that one of the things that has drawn new people into comics over the years has been "No Spandex".

Does that mean no traditional masked superheroes?

Does that mean superheroes are unable to attract new fans?

Secret identities and masks are viewed as irrelevant by new readers?

Anonymous said...

I liked ASM #99, though I have no idea who the guitar player who appears on the right side of the first page is supposed to be or what he has to do with the events in the issue. I actually liked Spidey's acid trip in #100, though it was largely a rehash of the summary of his Spidey career from #94 (my solution, had I been planning that far in advance, would've been to remove the summary from #94). However, Peter's decision to take away his own powers was poorly reasoned (what if he needs superhuman powers to save Gwen a la #83 or Aunt May a la #94?), and his assumption that he could somehow hide from Gwen, after they were married, that he was acting as Spidey, even with a "great strain," was ridiculous.

The Morbius plot was hideously contrived -- "Hey, Spidey has six arms, but he just happens to find the one guy who produces an enzyme that can remove the extra arms" -- scientifically dubious -- "If the enyzme can remove the Lizard's extra arm, it must be able to remove Spidey's extra arms as well" and "Morbius can't live without the enzyme, even though his body produces it naturally and he injects the enzyme into his victims anyway" and, most significantly, "There's no such thing as amputation" -- and inconsistent with previous issues -- "Hey, Spidey knows in advance when he's going to run out of webbing and exactly how much he has left."

Comic Book Guy

Eric Teall said...

There is one postscript I'd like to deal with-Eric mentions that one of the things that has drawn new people into comics over the years has been "No Spandex".

Does that mean no traditional masked superheroes?


For some people? Yes. See, there used to be Westerns, Romance, Comedy, Sci-Fi, etc. genres in comics in ADDITION to super heroes. For many years, however, comics offered ONLY super heroes. Since Manga, especially, offers different genres, it is more popular.

I certainly would NEVER argue for no super heroes AT ALL.

Does that mean superheroes are unable to attract new fans?

No, it means that they are unable to attract ALL fans. I'd argue that, when one considers the number of "potential" comics readers, superheroes are unable to attract MOST potential fans.

Secret identities and masks are viewed as irrelevant by new readers?

Some, yes. I think that a key idea here is that there are some readers who just don't want traditional superhero stories. THOSE readers view secret ID's as irrelevant. Fair enough.

What bugs me is when THOSE readers become the superhero writers and want to screw up the conventions that make superheroes possible. (For example: Alan Moore's Miracleman? One of my favorite comics ever. Awesome. Had Alan Moore done that to Captain Marvel--the obvious and clearly stated inspiration for Miracleman--and the DCU? I would have been furious.)

Here's my overall point:

There has been plenty of superhero fare for many years. To an extent, it was probably either a fad or something that provided a certain kind of outlet when there were no other outlets. Now there are more, and superheroes are not as popular.

COMICS, I think (and if someone wants to correct me on this, go right ahead), are as healthy as they've been in, say, twenty years. SUPERHERO COMICS are NOT. The comics that have exploded are Manga, by and large, and the comics that reach new audiences are not superhero comics.

At any given moment, the total potential 21st century audience for Spider-Man in North America is probably... say... 400K readers. IIRC (using comichron.com), that's close to the circulation of Spidey comics in 1969. I think they might have gone higher (steadily, not as a blip) in the 70's-90's, but I can't support that.

The thing is, the total potential 21st century audience for ANYTHING in a comic is undoubtedly MUCH higher--what are Manga sales in this country?. I'd argue that Spider-Man can't pull in ANY more than 400K readers, and that he WON'T pull in any more than... 150K (steady, not as a blip).

Therefore, what I was trying to say is that the elements truly necessary to create a growing comic audience are NOT the elements changed by OMD/BND. In fact, the elements changed by OMD/BND will, I think, shrink Spider-Man's audience.

We'll see.

Does that answer your questions? If not, please LMK. I don't feel I'm being clear enough here.

Eric

R. W. Watkins said...

Your thoughts on Nos. 100 through 102 shocked me just a little. The vast majority of comics fans I've chatted with over the years love this story arc. A good friend of mine, who's been devouring Spider-Man since he was a child in the '60s, insists that its Amazing Spider-Man at its zenith—“the best thing they ever did”—and that it was all pretty much downhill after this storyline. I'm not sure I'd go that far by any means, but I would say its the best handling of an extreme storyline in the classic (1963—1975) Amazing Spider-Man issues.

I think, for example, that it functions much better than Nos. 91 and 92 in the Octopus/Stacy's Death/Bullitt five-issue storyline (88 through 92). The first three issues still manage to stand on their own because of the Doc Ock theme, but 91 and 92 are ruined by the presence of Iceman—one of the most unbelievable and ridiculous mutant superheroes to share an issue with the more plausible Spider-Man. (It's too bad, really, for Kane's images of Gwen aboard the funeral car really stand out as great impressions of the ill-fated Ms. Stacy.)

Nos. 100 through 102 can also be interpreted as the point at which the 1970s truly begin for AS-M. The horror sub-theme (Morbius), the isolation (Gwen alone in her flat), the strike and pop-culture references—all tend to suggest that point where the '60s began to morph into the '70s with its decadence, darkness and extreme individualism. Especially given its importance as a numeric milestone (100th-issue anniversary), I'd go so far as to say that it's the Spider-Man equivalent of the first Black Sabbath album or A Clockwork Orange.

Then there's the artwork. True, Gil Kane was rather inconsistent in his depictions of the characters during his early issues on the title (his style seems to change roughly every three issues, compounded by Romita's inking in some cases; e.g., compare Nos. 88—92 with 100—102), but his images of Gwen Stacy—alone in her flat, with the calf-high boots and orange wardrobes—have become somewhat iconic. I also like the film-like quality of those Gwen panels: check out the panel where she's bent over weeping on the sofa, followed by a panel offering a second view of her from outside the building; these two panels suggest scenes in a movie where the camera has ‘dollied out’.

Speaking of Gwen in her flat, one of my favourite examples of blatant discontinuity in AS-M can be found in Nos. 99—102. On the final page of 99, we see Peter visiting Gwen's new apartment, No. 3A. A couple of panels later, we see a long shot of them standing in the apartment, obviously not on the third floor, but actually on the second floor from the top. In No. 102, we see long shots of the apartment again, and this time Gwen appears to be living on a floor in the middle of the building. Boy, that girl got around for a policeman's daughter!

And exactly who is that guitarist on the opening page of No. 99? Kris Kristofferson? What is his relevance...? Truly a mystery for all for all time....

Great blog you have there, by the way. Please check out my Google site, The Comics Decoder. The lead-off essay in Issue One compares classic AS-M to David Lynch's Blue Velvet. I'm currently putting together Issue Two....

Eric Teall said...

RW:

Well, it just goes to show that one man's trash is another man's treasure. I still can barely stand even thinking about these issues, much less reading them.

I really think that a lot of what old comics readers (including me) like in their stories is based on what they read when they first started. I started with ASM (and comics in general) in about 1983/4. To me, honestly, no Spidey relationship is going to match Betty Brant (from my Marvel Tales reading) or Black Cat (ASM/Peter Parker circa 1984). I am also a big fan of the street-level, crime-oriented stories of that era. The pseudo-horror and sci-fi stuff of the 70's leaves me cold - hence the lack of updates on this site for the last two years.

But that doesn't mean those stories are good for nothing; they're just not good for me!

Thanks for reading!

Eric