Sunday, 10 June 2012

Essential Spider-Man volume 3

Now we come to Essential Spider-Man volume 3 which, in its original edition, reprints Amazing Spider-Man #44-68. Later editions have modified this a little, first swapping issues #66-68 with Essential Spider-Man volume 4 for Amazing Annual #4 and even later adding Spectacular Spider-Man magazine #1. I’m going to take the issues as they appeared in the original editions, but will come to Spectacular Spider-Man magazine at the end of this piece.

For what it’s worth the absence of material isn’t really noticeable in the original edition. When Mysterio appears in issue #66 there’s a reference to his last fight with Spider-Man “in last year’s Spider-Man Special” but it doesn’t go into details and one could easily just assume that this was a reprint (there are a number of times when captions reference more recent reprints than the original printings – after all it wasn’t easy to obtain back issues). There is a subplot in the later issues as Norman Osborn steadily recovers his memories, to the point where he once more dons the Green Goblin costume, but one could just assume this would be resolved in the next volume. (Although that’s what happened in later editions, the placing of that story means it would have come between issues in this volume, given enough extra space.) The real problem when the volumes originally came out was that this one ends on a cliffhanger and #4 didn’t come out for another two and a half years – the single longest wait between volumes for Essential Spider-Man. (However the Spectacular reprints would run it close whilst Marvel Team-Up has had waits of over four years. Some other Marvel titles have been worse – depending on how one counts it the record holder is either Uncanny/Classic X-Men which had a seven year gap between volumes #1 & 2 reprinting the 1960s X-Men stories, Silver Surfer which had nine years between volume #1 with the 1960s series and volume #2 with the 1980s, or Howard the Duck which had volume #1 out a decade ago but no sign of a follow-up. Okay that would be the post Steve Gerber issues but still... I don’t count Conan which had just one volume out twelve years ago, as Marvel lost the rights that year and are unlikely to reprint the rest.)

All the issues are written by Stan Lee. John Romita draws issues #44-56, 65 & 67-68 and does breakdowns for issues #57-64 & 66 with Don Heck doing the finishes. We’re now into a period when Spider-Man had been firmly established as one of the most popular Marvel series but we also start to see things slowing down a bit – this is most obvious with the way Ned Leeds and Betty Brant seem to be forever planning their wedding (which would eventually appear in issue #157!) but don’t appear to actually run into any obstacles or resets. Was this a sign of the series settling down with Spider-Man as a near permanent university student?

This was also the period when Spider-Man was first adapted for the television. Of all the cartoons this is the one that’s had the most outreach thanks to the catchy theme song “Spider-Man! Spider-Man! Does whatever a spider can!” But, like many later screen adaptations, there was no noticeable impact on the comics themselves. In particular some of the villains had details and names altered for television, yet stayed the same in the comics. (Modern viewers may ask about the Vulture but timing-wise this was a case of a very recent development in the comics being picked up by the television series.) It’s probably for the best as it prevented the comics from being blown off course by versions the creative teams had no control over, but I wonder how new readers lured in by the cartoon found the slightly different settings in the comics.

As another sign of the times we start to see elements of politics and current affairs entering the series, albeit in a small way. When Peter hears that a benefits office has been robbed he immediately feels concerned for those who depend on welfare – and lists the most vulnerable. Was this Stan Lee firing back at those who dismiss all welfare recipients as scroungers? It’s a nice touch but can feel a little forced. Standing out even more is the handling of the Vietnam War. Early on in the volume Flash is drafted into the army, a common occurrence at the time. Flash’s attitude to the war is gung-ho, but with hindsight it’s amazing that there are no voices of counter opinion. The universal attitude presented, albeit usually implicitly, is that the US Army’s presence in Vietnam is A Good Thing and Flash is one of The Good Guys. Now some of this is a product of timing as Flash was called up around the turn of 1966/1967 (real time), when US public opinion was generally still in favour of the war and the anti-war movement had not yet snowballed. And of course it’s unfair to blame soldiers, particularly drafted ones, for being involved in wars they did not start. (What they do when they get there is a different matter.) But it’s still strange to see Vietnam treated as though it were the Second World War or some other less divisive conflict. Back home the final issue in the run shows a student protest. In contrast to the “protesting the protest meeting” back in #38, the protest is presented as serious and legitimate – over the university turning a building into luxury accommodation for visiting alumni when the students need low rent accommodation – and Peter takes a balanced approach in wondering what the university’s line is.

Peter’s campus life continues to develop in these issues as he builds up a circle of good friends, helped in part by the presence of Mary Jane, and he finally buries the hatchet with Flash, gets on with Harry Osborn to the point where they become flatmates, and there’s his growing relationship with Gwen Stacy. It’s steady with interruptions but slowly each comes to realise the other has the same feelings for them. En route there’s some fun, particularly the catty relationship between Gwen and Mary Jane, which Peter at times seems oblivious to! One of the signs of this is when Gwen changes her hairstyle to resemble Mary Jane’s which does seem to mark a softening of the character. Mary Jane later changes her own hairstyle to a radically different short and curly one and thankfully Gwen never copies that! Instead Gwen remains softening ever more.

There are few questions about this era of Spider-Man that generate more heat than the question of Mary Jane or Gwen. And for many the answer is probably biased by whichever era of Spider-Man was their first. I personally prefer Mary Jane – but I’m someone who discovered the Spider-Man comics only after Peter had married. Reading these issues one can see the rivalry between the girls but also the way in which Gwen’s character became a mess. She started off as a firm, hard edged woman who was both annoyed with and attracted to Peter, but over the course of these issues she develops ever more into a rather weaker character who spends a lot of time crying on her father’s arm and worrying about Peter. It’s a clingy, needy characterisation that’s in some ways reminiscent of Betty Brant, but whereas Betty was a working woman who had experienced grief, Gwen just degenerates into a daddy’s girl. Sure there needed to be a clear contrast between Gwen and Mary Jane, but there were plenty of obvious alternatives, not least that Gwen was a science major, like Peter, whereas Mary Jane was an aspirant actress and dancer. Instead we get a daddy’s girl versus a good time girl (well not that sort of good time, this was a chaste era), and it’s perhaps understandable that Peter, never the most with-it of characters, ends up with the gentler one – for now.

“Mary Jane” may be slang for marijuana but Stan Lee has always claimed he was unaware of this when he created the character. I suspect the same is true for another character who has an unfortunate name, or this may just be a British/America difference. At the end of this volume we’re introduced to another student who would be a key supporting cast member at times over the years, Randy Robertson. However at this stage his portrayal is far from, erm, randy. As drawn in his first appearances he looks almost too young to be a university student but there are many who look younger than they are and who find themselves swept up by events around them. Of even more significance are the arrivals of two fathers, Joe “Robbie” Robertson and George Stacy. Robbie is one the first black supporting characters in a serious role and he’s presented as likeable, sympathetic but also very strong and capable, particularly when standing up to Jonah. And wisely race is rarely made an issue around him, bar a moment during a protest when a student tells Randy his father is an “Uncle Tom”. George Stacy is, at this stage, the more intriguing character. A retired police captain and father who’s older than most of his daughter’s contemporaries’ parents (perhaps the similarity is another reason why Gwen and Peter mesh so well) he is both a voice of reason in the law enforcement community and a shrewd individual whose interest in Spider-Man seems to be getting dangerously close to deducing his identity. All the new characters fit easily into the series.

However we get three early examples of what would be recurrent irritations in the series – the killing off of a supporting cast member, the killing off of a major villain & replacement by a new character, and the return of a major villain with an outrageous explanation for his survival. Taking these in turn:

Frederick Foswell had originally been a one-off villain, the Big Man, but since his return he had settled down as the Bugle’s sharp-witted crime reporter and had almost discovered Peter’s secret until some quick thinking put him off the scent. However when it seems that the city’s crime will finally be fully organised, after many failed attempts, he rapidly reverts to earlier type in trying to usurp the Kingpin and then gets dragged into a lieutenant role, before losing his life in a shoot-out while protecting Jonah (the one person who gave him a second chance). Now Foswell was not the most developed of characters and he was replaced by a mixture of Ned Leeds as the most prominent Bugle reporter and Robbie as Jonah’s main source of banter, but he gets disposed of a little too quickly for the sake of an individual storyline and is a sign of how the supporting cast can be easily eroded without realising it.

Another uneasy moment is when the Vulture is killed off and replaced in issue #48. It seems that almost every decade of Spider-Man has seen one attempt or another to have a younger Vulture around – either by putting someone else in the wings or by literally deaging him. Unfortunately most of these attempts produce stifled characters who lack the grace of the original and offer nothing new to fights with Spider-Man. Here the Vulture dies in prison in issue #48, and his cellmate, Blackie Drago, breaks out and dons the wings (and also a helmet with a radio – a sensible move but he never actually uses it). Drago has the honour in that in all of his encounters with Spider-Man he’s never defeated directly by the wallcrawler – instead first he defeats a weakened Spider-Man, the second time he’s blasted down by Kraven’s lasers, and finally the original Vulture beats him so badly he decides to abandon the wings – and has never returned to them. Drago is the first example in the Spider-Man stories of replacing a villain with a new version, but it’s not a terribly successful replacement. It’s easy to see why they rapidly did what they did.

After a year and a quarter the original Vulture is back! Broadly there are two kinds of “deaths” in comic books. There’s the kind where a villain is caught in an explosion, a sinking, a plane crash, a collapsing building or whatever and seemingly perishes, but there’s no body and no grand finale. Invariably these villains soon return and don’t always even bother to give an explanation for their survival. The other kind of “death” is much more direct – it’s usually down to a direct and mundane wound such as shoot or stabbing and there’s a body (although it isn’t always shown on panel), plus the death is usually a clear point in the story. The Vulture’s death clearly falls into the second kind, but in issue #63 he’s back. And we are led to believe that an old man injured in an accident and nearly dying somehow found the strength in anger to not only overcome his immediate injuries and weakness but also knock out guards, start a fire and escape disguised, all in a snowstorm. Okay some explanation had to be given and there have been far worse ones over the years, but it’s a little too quick and neat. Perhaps someone realised the mistake in replacing the Vulture in the first place, but it’s a sign of how few major villains would be allowed to stay dead in years to come.

Otherwise on the villain front this volume doesn’t add too many – the only long lasting ones are the Shocker and the Kingpin. The latter gets used a lot – he debuts in issue #50 and by issue #68 we’re into his third multi-part storyline. Whilst a crimelord sitting at the top of a web and ordering multiple actions can be a villain you can adapt to almost anything, his use here is bordering on overkill. Otherwise we get a number of return appearances of foes – as well as the aforementioned Vulture we get the Lizard, Kraven, Doctor Octopus and Mysterio.

Issue #47 is notable as some thirty years later a hilarious Deadpool story saw the character and Blind Al, one his supporting cast, thrown backwards in time and winding up in the events of this story, with Deadpool impersonating Peter Parker and Al Aunt May until they could find the young incarnation of a scientist friend of Deadpool’s to repair his teleport belt to allow him to get back to the future. In the meantime Deadpool wanders through the events of the story (having sent the real Peter Parker on a wild goose chase elsewhere) poking fun at the Silver Age attitudes, conventions and dialogue, and trying to comprehend the Osborn hair, with the artwork a special mix of the original Romita panels and additions to add the new events and characters. Deadpool #11 is one of the most hilarious issues in the series, but don’t even try to think about what, if any, changes it’s made to the timeline.

Issue #50 is probably the best known of these issues, featuring the story of Peter deciding to give up being Spider-Man, as it causes too many problems in his life, but then rediscovering his reason for fighting crime (amidst a backdrop of the Kingpin organising and stepping up a crime wave) and resuming the role. The issue has two iconic images that have been widely homaged – the cover (also used on later editions of this Essential) and the full page shot of Peter walking away from his dumped costume. (The original artwork for this one has sold for quite a bit. Bleeding Cool: Iconic Spider-Man #50 Splash Page by Romita Sells for Record $88,500) It’s a near perfect tale of temptation and redemption and it’s easy to see why its images have been copied so many times.

However much of the rest of the run is more restrained. There are no great stinkers but there is a sense of things starting to slow down, as though having made the series so successful, and seeing the character adapted for television, there was a reluctance to do anything too bold and risk that success. Perhaps the cartoon had more influence than is first realised, or perhaps creative energies were beginning to ebb. However with no disasters, this run is solid enough and a strong read.

What about the Spectacular Spider-Man magazine added in the most recent editions? This was an early attempt by Marvel to crack the magazine market, offering a larger, longer story in black and white with a somewhat older pitch. Unfortunately it suffered distribution problems as the newsstands didn’t know what to make of it, and so many Amazing readers never got to see it at the time, so it bombed after two issues. Going by issue #1 the readers didn’t miss much. The main story, by Stan Lee and John Romita, sees a politician, Richard Raleigh, running for Mayor of New York with unbelievable levels of public trust (though wasn’t the real life Mayor at the time, John Lindsay, a man who could give lessons in charisma to John F. Kennedy?) and a strong law & order platform. Part of his appeal is built on the hostility of the underworld to his candidature, including a giant enforcer. But it turns out that Raleigh is behind the underworld attacks as a distortion to boost his candidature. The story ends with a fight in which Raleigh, his sidekick and the giant all die. It’s rather a long-winded story that would be completely forgotten if it had run in the regular title or an annual. There’s also a ten page retelling of Spider-Man’s origin by Stan Lee and Larry Lieber. Almost every decade sees at least one retelling of the origin and this one is understandably pretty faithful to what was shown back in Amazing Fantasy #15, although it trims out the wrestling match and moves the first encounter with the Burglar to when Spidey shows up at the TV studio. The main additions are a scene where, immediately after being bitten by the spider, Peter encounters a group of thugs in a street and discovers his strength when the fights back, and a framing sequence at Uncle Ben’s funeral where Peter looks back on the events in regret. It was a useful recap in an age when the original story was not so easily accessible to those who came to the party late, but overall this issue is hardly essential.

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