Thursday, 28 June 2012

Essential Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man volume 1

Now we come to a landmark point in Spider-Man's history with Essential Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man volume 1 containing the first 31 issues of Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man (later The All New, All Daring Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man, later still the rather more manageable Spectacular Spider-Man). As previously discussed this was the point on which the restraints upon using Spider-Man began to loosen as he now headlined a second regular title (his third overall). Over at DC a number of heroes had had multiple titles for many years, but Marvel had up to now been more restrained and tended to be more diverse – for example Marvel Team-Up instead of a straight second title four years earlier, or, in earlier days, following up the Fantastic Four with a solo Human Torch feature in Strange Tales rather than yet more FF. Now a major step forward was taken but it wasn't all smooth sailing at first.

This is first illustrated by the fact that "The Spectacular Spider-Man" was a title already used for the brief-lived magazine format series in 1968. Although the 1976 series slightly modifies the title it's still not the most original name and it's a sign perhaps of not too much thought going into how to make another series bold and distinctive. Further problems are best illustrated by a full list of writers and artists on the issues in this volume. First the writers:
  • Gerry Conway #1-2
  • Jim Shooter #3
  • Archie Goodwin #4-5
  • Gerry Conway #6
  • Archie Goodwin #7-8
  • Bill Mantlo #9-10
  • Chris Claremont #11
  • Bill Mantlo #12-15
  • Elliot Maggin #16
  • Bill Mantlo #17-31
And then the artists
  • Sal Buscema #1-5
  • Ross Andru #6
  • Sal Buscema #7-10
  • Jim Mooney #11
  • Sal Buscema #12-20
  • Jim Mooney #21
  • Mike Zeck #22
  • Jim Mooney #23
  • Frank Springer #24
  • Jim Mooney #25-26
  • Frank Miller #27-28
  • Jim Mooney #29-31
To have no less than five writers on the first eleven issues is a worrying sign, suggesting there wasn't a very clear purpose and direction for the book. Additionally issue #6 mainly reprints the bulk of Marvel Team-Up #3 with a new framing sequence to anchor it to current events. Whilst most of the early Amazing annuals had carried reprints, some consisting entirely of them, and Giant-Size had followed the same course, no previous issue of any of the monthly books had resorted to such a move. The art situation is more stable at first, bar a fill-in but then gets messy towards the end. Was Spectacular a book that few wanted to work on? Fortunately there were exceptions about such as Bill Mantlo, who had a long history of taking on failing titles or obscure properties and completely failing to treat them as such, instead giving them a strong raison d'être and turning out high quality work. (Away from Spider-Man he wrote especially fondly remembered titles like The Micronauts and ROM, taking obscure toys that didn't last very long and churning out epic series.)

But even when the series gets a stable writer the problems don't stop. There are some repetitive moments such as Spider-Man twice discovering the White Tiger's secret identity (both times with the same writer) whilst there are some notable other continuity errors over matters such as Empire State University's head – is it Chancellor Richard Gorman or President Dwyer, both of whom play supporting roles in respective stories? More niggly is Peter's limited knowledge of foreign languages. Back in Amazing in the 140s he found himself limited around the French as he only had a bit of high school Spanish. Now in a reverse he finds himself unable to understand various Spanish phrases because he only has a bit of high school French! In general, a recurring irritation is the way that Hispanic and Latin American characters regularly break into bursts of Spanish midway, some of which are then repeated in English. As well as being hard to follow (and I admit I may be biased as I'm from a country where it's very rare to hear Spanish and I did French & German at school – not that I can remember much of either now) it also makes the characters seem rather stereotyped, even when the story is presenting them with dignity such as the two-parter where ESU's night school faces closure and the point is made (rather unsubtly) that this will disproportionately harm the chances of young blacks and Hispanics. Maybe back in the late 1970s ex Latin American revolutionaries and Hispanic university lecturers and students regularly did go around New York speaking Spanglish in their everyday conversation but I'm sceptical. There's a similar effect with the French Cyclone and his supporting thugs, with some French words and lots of "zee"s and "eef"s to portray an exaggerated French accent. Again this just sounds twee.

The aforementioned White Tiger is, at this stage, one of the few exceptions to the general rule that Spectacular hasn't yet developed a clear niche with specific situations and supporting characters who could be developed pretty much exclusively within its own pages. Whereas Amazing and Team-Up in this period generally stand alone with only passing references to events in Spider-Man's other titles, Spectacular has much more of the feel of being the extended bits. At times it feeds directly off events in Amazing, such as issue #2 which opens with Spider-Man dealing with the aftermath of the events of Amazing #164 where the Kingpin seemingly perished in the harbour whilst Spidey recovered his life force thanks to Curt Connors's device. Other moments are more subtle but we get quite a bit of the relationships with both Mary Jane and Betty, feeding off developments in Amazing but not really explaining them. In this regard Spectacular is relegated very much to being an additional book for Amazing readers rather than trying to find distinct hooks of its own. Even the first issue feels like just another adventure for Spider-Man rather than taking the opportunity to remind & reintroduce the character. And the book goes beyond feeding off just Amazing, with one two-part story serving as an epilogue for The Champions, telling how the team disbanded.

(The Champions were one of the most obscure superteams, lasting just seventeen issues. They consisted of the Angel, the Iceman, the Black Widow, Hercules and the Ghost Rider, later joined by Darkstar – not the most natural of combinations! They were also based in Los Angeles when few Marvel series set outside the New York bubble have ever really lasted – as the Angel would moan in later years "Do you know how hard it is to find supervillains in Los Angeles?")

It was actually a Marvel policy in the period that if a series was ended suddenly, the major plot points would be wrapped up in another title. But there was several more obvious titles to wrap up The Champions – either the solo Ghost Rider series or the X-Men or even Daredevil. Okay Spectacular shared The Champions‘s writer and none of the others did, but Bill Mantlo was already established as a fill-in king and could easily have been given a couple of issues of one of the other titles to wrap things up. But instead we get an intrusion onto the title. We get several other appearances by other heroes, such as the Inhumans and Moon Knight, but in the former case the story eschews being a team-up in the wrong title (especially helpful as it's by Chris Claremont who had just taken over Team-Up) whilst the latter develops the ongoing story of Spider-Man's fight with the Maggia.

More localised are two other heroes. Making his first appearance is Razorback, the CB radio using trucker hero (well it was the 1970s) from Arkansas who manages to strike a balance between comedy and seriousness in a battle against the Hate Monger. The White Tiger is brought over from The Deadly Hands of Kung Fu which had now ended (the martial arts fad having faded) and hangs around for a while as a supporting character. Whilst his dialogue is clichéd Spanglish at first it does calm down a bit and we get to see some contrasts with Spider-Man as the Tiger's identity is exposed to the public, causing his alter ego Hector Ayala to experience problems of his family's disapproval of his super hero activities, the risk of being targeted and the turbulence his identity has on his relationship with his girlfriend, Holly Gillis. Since at this stage Spider-Man's identity was not yet known to any of his family or friends, let alone the wider world, the use of the White Tiger allows both Peter and the readers a glimpse at some of the problems that he might face in revealing himself beyond the prospect of Aunt May having yet another heart attack.

Holly Gillis is about the only new ongoing supporting character created in this run of Spectacular and she seems to slot into Peter's circle of friends remarkably quickly – I was quite surprised to see her in the group who drag Peter to the disco in issue #24 (more on this story later). Otherwise the main development amongst the supporting cast is the reintroduction of Sha Shan, the girl Flash Thompson fell in love with in Vietnam, and her liberation from Brother Power and the Hate Monger. It's nice to see Flash get a happy ending (in so far as there are any endings) for once but this is one of the first signs in the Spider-Man books of the straining credibility of "Marvel time" whereby events in the comics take place on a much shorter scale than publication and we just ignore contemporary cultural & political references. Normally references to characters' involvement in a particular war get modified over time to having been in a generic conflict or the references are dropped altogether. But with Flash and Sha Shan it's much harder to do this as Vietnam is a fixed point in history and by 1978 it was already five years into the past, making it a bit hard to accept the notion of a then-current college student having a past as a soldier in the war with that past having caught up with up with him. The comics may not have been specific about how much time had yet passed but this was already beginning to stick out and it's probably the main continuity stumbling block in the flexible timeline. If Sha Shan had not returned at this point then it would have been possible to overcome this but as it stands it's a point that does actually age the characters in a way that few other developments do.

There are other developments in the run too, although it gets a bit repetitive as Empire State University becomes ever more a breeding ground for villains. True Ramon Vasquez is an honourable man turned rogue when faced with the closure of the university's night school, but fighting funding cuts is also the motivation for Edward Lansky to change from the university's vice chancellor to the Lightmaster. And then at the climax of the run we get the sort-of resurrection of another academic turned villain as we discover that Carrion is the clone of Miles Warren, the Jackal. There's a few other new villains introduced but few are of lasting effect except for the Hitman and the Hypno-Hustler.

The Hypno-Hustler has become one of the most notorious villains amongst fans for all the wrong reasons, with a divide over whether he's just silly or so bad he's good. I actually don't mind him. Issue #24 is the notorious issue, entitled "Spider-Man Night Fever", as the series briefly rides the disco fad (a more successful spin-off was the super hero Dazzler) and Peter finds himself forced into a white suit and dragged to a disco by his friends where the live act is the Hypno-Hustler and the Mercy Killers – only their real aim is to hypnotise the guests and steal their valuables. If we're absolutely honest this is little more than a remake of the Ringmaster and the Circus of Crime's original scheme. And that one doesn't generate much discussion – perhaps because the characters date from the Silver Age when the rules & tolerance levels were different, or perhaps because circuses are not as much of a brief fad as disco. But here we get a harmless one-off tale that is something to laugh about but certainly not a contender for the worst story of all time.

Up until issue #24 there aren't really that many stories in this volume that really stand out. But then after the humorous turn we get a strong seven-issue run that combines two mini-epics and brings a minor benefit from the inconsistent art front as we get a guest appearance by Daredevil partially drawn by Frank Miller, his first ever work on the character. Story-wise we get the culmination (for now) of Spider-Man's fight with the Maggia and their leader, the Masked Marauder, but the highlight is when Spider-Man is temporarily blinded and Daredevil seeks to help him without giving away that he too can't see. Spidey's determination to bring down the Marauder as his final act, and Daredevil's concern for his comrade's confidence and sanity make for a good pairing. Following this we head straight into the first Carrion storyline which brings a very personal confrontation home. Carrion himself is an intriguing villain, a walking corpse with deadly powers and a very personal vendetta against Peter Parker/Spider-Man – he also knows the secret. It's easy to see from these details and the characters' design (especially the shoulder bag) just why some contemporary readers assumed he was the return Norman Osborn, and I vaguely recall reading that Bill Mantlo had suggested this identity but that may just be Chinese whispers. The revelation that Carrion is a clone of the Jackal gone wrong brings a new level as we get the battle between Spider-Man, the product of a happy accident of science, and Carrion, the product of a not-so happy accident, with vengeance thrown in for good measure. My only slight irritation is the presence of the White Tiger, both because I find it hard to believe he wouldn't figure out Peter's identity in these events (especially with Carrion saying "Parker" a lot), but also because in such an intense personal tale outsiders are a distraction. All that said it's a strong ending to the run.

As I've said throughout this review, this volume shows a title taking its time to find a real purpose. It's to Marvel's credit that they didn't go down the route of running stories in both Amazing and Spectacular so that Spider-Man was effectively fortnightly (I'm not sure if DC had begun that practice with Batman and/or Superman by this stage) but equally after thirty-one issues they still hadn't found a particular focus. Whilst some individual stories are good, overall the title was at this point still very much just another chance to see Spider-Man each month and sometimes was a bit too reliant on feeding off Amazing. This was a worrying sign for the character, but a change for the better is hinted at on the very last page...

1 comment:

  1. Apologies to anyone who had a comment or direct link but the original version of this post was being bombarded by spam bots so I've had to replace it with this one.

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