Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Essential Spider-Man volume 4

Next in order is Essential Spider-Man volume 4 which in the original edition reprints Amazing Spider-Man #69-89 and Annuals #4 & 5. Later editions moved Annual #4 to volume 3 and brought forward issues #66-68 from that volume, then even later ones added the previously excluded Spectacular Spider-Man magazine #2. Once again I’ll focus the review on the original edition’s contents but come to the magazine at the end. All the issues here are written by Stan Lee. The art credits are more complicated, not least because some unusual terms are used. The regular issues from #69-88 are drawn by John Romita, Jim Mooney and John Buscema either individually or in various combinations, with issue #89 by Gil Kane. The two annuals are drawn by Larry Lieber.

Taking the two annuals first, both see a return to the double length format, ditching the reprints (by now Marvel Tales was running regularly). Annual #4 sees a team-up with the Human Torch as he and Spidey are lured to Hollywood to take part in a movie, but it’s actually a plot by Mysterio and the Wizard to defeat both their foes at once. Throw in the obligatory sequences in which the heroes are tricked into fighting each other and you get a rather formulaic adventure that’s been done before. Annual #5 (incidentally a rare issue with reproduction problems as some pages are scanned from the originals – presumably the only breakdowns are from a truncated reprint) instead seeks to add a lot to Spider-Man’s mythology by finally tackling the question of his parents. It wasn’t until issue #39 that we even got the first mention of them when Peter stated that he can’t even remember his father. Now when Peter is moving a trunk for Aunt May and accidentally opens it he finds an old newspaper clipping about how Richard and Mary Parker, his parents, died in a plane crash in Algeria and were found to be traitors to their country. Aunt May explains she and Ben tried to find out more but to no avail, and choose to never tell Peter to save him the worry. Now Peter decides he must find out the truth and gets a lift to Algeria from Mr Fantastic, then goes in search of information. He discovers his father worked for the Red Skull! After further fights Spider-Man learns the truth – his father was in fact a double agent who had infiltrated the Skull’s organisation. Feeling vindicated Spider-Man swings away in triumph.

There’s a lot that I feel is rather awkward about this story even though it’s notionally an important part of Spider-Man’s mythology. I say notionally because it’s an aspect that’s only been touched upon a few times since in the comics (but his parents will be a key part of the forthcoming film). We’ll leave aside some of the sillier points in the present day such as Spider-Man thinking he can get around Algeria without knowing the language, or not even arranging a return journey, or the way one of the Red Skull’s men is able to programme a missile to pursue Spider-Man specifically based purely on a torn piece of costume. No the real problem is the whole backstory. Whilst I can understand that Ben and May wanted to protect Peter, it’s bizarre they never even kept a photo of Richard and Mary on display. (Incidentally Richard looks like an older Peter, and Mary like an older Betty Brant. Given all the theories about men being attracted to women who resemble their mothers, does this mean Betty is meant to be Peter’s one true partner?) Equally it’s curious that Peter has never found out by accident – given how unpopular he was in school I can easily imagine him being taunted about this as soon as one or other of the pupils heard the story which was, afterall, in the national newspapers – surely some parent would have remembered? And then Peter himself has worked around a newspaper for some years – did it never occur to him to have a look in the Bugle’s morgue to see if there was anything about his parents there? But three problems stand out above all. The first is that part of Spider-Man’s whole appeal is that he’s a everyday, ordinary hero. Making him the son of spies doesn’t easily fit with this, which is probably why very few writers have revisited this. Then there’s the villain behind their deaths being the Red Skull. The Skull is very much Captain America’s foe and hasn’t really widened out into a foe for the whole Marvel Universe (unlike Doctor Doom). Making him responsible for a key part of Spider-Man’s life is simply out of place. Maybe the medium term intention was to have a follow-up crossover with Captain America but that never happened. Finally at the time of publication the revelation that the Red Skull had been running a spy ring in Algeria was completely at odds with established Captain America continuity.

(A very brief guide to Captain America’s publication history and continuity on this point: Originally Captain America was published from 1941 right up until 1950, and then briefly revived in 1953-4, along with the Red Skull, to little success. Then in 1964 the character was revived more permanently in the Silver Age Marvels. However the 1964 revival established that Captain America had been out of action since the Second World War, frozen in ice, whilst the Skull similarly had been in suspended animation in a Berlin bunker since 1945. Thus all the adventures from the years in-between were initially invalidated as not having happened. The Amazing Spider-Man annual came during this stage and as a consequence in 1968 it was simply impossible in the established continuity for the Skull to have been operating in 1949. Later in the 1970s further writers reincorporated the 1945-1954 stories by establishing that after the original Captain America had disappeared several others had taken up the role. [This led to an interesting story in which the 1950s Captain America was revived, leading to a battle between the two which reflected changing political values in the wider America as the more liberal original Cap faced down his jingoistic, racist, anti-Communist paranoid counterpart.] The Red Skull in both the late 1940s & 1950s stories and the Spider-Man annual was subsequently established as a different man, Albert Malik, who had taken on the identity after the original’s disappearance. He went on to be a rather minor player in the modern Marvel universe, occasionally clashing with the original Red Skull until the latter arranged his assassination.)

So we’re ultimately left with a messy revelation that sits heavily at odds with Spider-Man’s world and which hasn’t really led to any significant developments, and which also didn’t actually fit the continuity of the villain it was using. If this story had never happened it wouldn’t have made much of a difference. I noted in an earlier post that a lot of the early Marvel heroes had lost at least one parent, but I’m hard pressed to think of one whose parents’ story matters less to their adventures than Spider-Man.

Turning now to the main issues we get a number of additions to the series including a few new villains but they’re generally the more forgotten ones. Silvermane is by far the most well known, and the others include Man-Mountain Marko, Caesar Cicero, the Kangaroo (an early entry in the “so silly he’s actually good” stakes) and the Schemer, revealed as the Kingpin’s son Richard who has popped up in other identities over the years. We also get the introduction of the Prowler who starts off hoping to be a villain but is rapidly convinced of the error of his ways – too rapidly for my liking but a caption at the start of the second part tells us that a decision has been made to drop continued stories. This policy is fortunately soon reversed and we return to more epic events.

The epics in this volume include the saga of the ancient clay tablet that contains the secret of eternal youth – too eternal as Silvermane discovers to his horror when he drinks the potion it describes and deages all the way back to a baby and beyond. It’s quite a rollercoaster adventure as it brings multiple villains in succession – first the Kingpin (continuing on from the previous volume’s cliffhanger), then the Shocker, then Silvermane and the Maggia (I wonder what that’s named after!) and finally in the aftermath the Lizard, plus a fight with Quicksilver in the middle. The story itself is quite dark at times, especially issue #75 which comes with a very downbeat cover, and shows the foolishness of pursuing immortality. We also get feuding within the Maggia as Caesar Cicero seeks to usurp the ageing Silvermane, who in turn is seeking restoration to hold onto his power base. The Maggia are an interesting addition because up to this point the impression has been given that the Kingpin has managed to organised the bulk of New York’s crime, but now we get a rival organisation. However this isn’t explored in this volume.

Speaking of the Kingpin we get two multi-part tales with him but in both he seems a little out of character from what’s gone before. In the first he is personally active in stealing the tablet from the university, even though it ultimately leads to his arrest, rather than sitting back and sending lieutenants. However he escapes and gets away, leading to his second storyline where his control of New York comes under attack from a new villain, the Schemer. This storyline also introduces the Kingpin’s wife Vanessa, who amazingly is able to control and restrain him, and who doesn’t fully approve of his activities. Nor does their son, who turns out to be the Schemer. The revelation that his son is alive and working against him sends the Kingpin into a state of catatonic shock. All in all these two tales have really reduced the character more than they’ve added to him.

We get some more additions with the supportive cast, and there are two particular moments with Jonah that both stand out for their own reasons. In one in issue #80 Jonah berates a cop and shouts “Do you know who I am?” and the cop replies “I was hopin’ you’d ask… Yer a loud-mouthed beetle-brained, chicken-livered nincompoop! And that’s only the beginin’, flat-head!” Jonah’s facial reaction is priceless. But Jonah also has his good side, and we see it come through in #78 when he warns window-cleaner Hobie Brown that his employer is about to check up on him, and then sides with him against the said employer’s racism. Hobie Brown’s story is truncated but offers us some signs of a contrast with Peter Parker. Both are exceptionally intelligent young men, but whereas Peter has got several breaks (even if he doesn’t always realise it) and uses his skills for good, Hobie finds himself unable to advance, restricted by the racism around him and rejected by his girlfriend. A determination to use his inventions to be somebody leads him into becoming the costumed Prowler, and a belief that it’s easier to make it as a villain than as a hero initially drives him towards crime, albeit with the plan to recover the goods as Hobie Brown, but it seemingly goes wrong. After a couple of fights with Spider-Man he is eventually restrained but Spidey realises Hobie was unlucky and talks him into giving up his identity then sets him free. In a later issue Hobie returns the favour.

The other multi-parter in this volume is a three-part tale at the end but once again the volume ends on a cliffhanger, with the final part not coming until the next. Doctor Octopus returns and engages in a lengthy fight with Spider-Man across New York. The first part sees him hijacking a plane also carrying a “General Su” on his way to the United Nations (I’m guessing he’s a South Vietnamese general by the reaction of protestors at the airport) but there’s little exploration of the political impact of this and instead we get continued battles and ransoming. It repeats my feeling that Doctor Octopus isn’t a very well defined villain, even by the standards of his contemporaries, with few consistent motives beyond hatred of Spider-Man. Otherwise he wanders between demanding money with menaces to more elaborate schemes. Still here we get a strong fight and an exciting cliffhanger (although that’s slightly undermined in the original volume by the decision to place Annual #5 at the very end).

We get a handful of one-part stories as well but they’re generally much of a muchness. One of them sees the Black Widow returning to active adventuring after having briefly dropped out when he ex-husband was killed, and adopting a new costume (the one she’s best known for) “more in keeping with the swingy seventies”. I always thought it was the sixties that swung but there you go. A caption is quite open that this appearance was a promotional appearance, presumably for the Widow’s own series in Amazing Adventures. (The caption reprinted here refers to The Champions but I presume it was changed for the Marvel Tales reprint – the dates match up – and not changed back.) On the cover Spidey declares “she’s a female copy of myself!” which sounds strange all these years later given both the direction the Widow’s gone in and the succession of Spider-Women but there you go.

The other one parters include forgettable encounters with the Chameleon (now a generic thief rather than the superspy of earlier appearances) and Electro, plus the Kangaroo, one of the silliest villains seen so far (he’s an illegal immigrant from Australia who grew up in the outback and learnt to imitate the animals he’s named after). However we get a more memorable tale in issue #87 “Unmasked at last!” where Peter thinks his spider powers are fading and decides to give up and reveal his identity, staggering into Gwen’s birthday party with his mask and announcing it before rushing off ill. However he then learns he just has a bad case of the flu from which he soon recovers, then arranges for Hobie Brown to impersonate Spider-Man in order to restore his secret. His friends were all uncertain anyway, knowing that Spider-Man once before was unmasked as Peter but was assumed to merely be impersonating him. It’s a good little story that shows Peter trying to reconcile the two sides of his life in difficult circumstances, as well as giving some good material to his supporting cast.

Speaking of them, we don’t get too many developments for most beyond Harry Osborn briefly adopting a “Fu Manchu” moustache (I guess it was the fashion but Harry’s never been the most fashionable of characters) and Mary Jane’s hairstyle thankfully returns to the original without explanation. We get a few good scenes between Robbie and Randy Robertson as father and son discuss the world they’re in. But the real developments come with Gwen Stacy and her father. Gwen gets the odd moment of strength such as when she stands up for the absent Peter against a student’s taunts he’s a coward, but subsequently she is hit by her father asking if she’s angry because she believes it’s true. She shows some initiative in trying to find out what Peter’s secret from Flash and the when Peter staggers in battered and bruise she gives him an ultimatum to give up the danger of taking pictures of Spider-Man. However the ultimatum is rapidly forgotten and she spends quite a bit of time in this volume as a weak Daddy’s girl upset about either Peter or her father. Captain Stacy dos better, both building a better relationship as Spider-Man’s one friend amongst the law & order community and also showing further interest in both Peter and Spider-Man, seemingly getting ever closer to the truth in spite of Peter twice making it seem like he and Spidey are in the same place at the same time.

In general the stories in this volume continue to tread water rather than doing anything all out spectacular, but equally don’t have any major damaging clunkers. However it does seem as though things are largely standing still for both Spider-Man and his supporting cast, with few actual major developments happening for anyone but the Kingpin. This is a sign of either creative inertia setting in or the series becoming so successful that fear of a backlash against any change had forced it into a rut.

The most recent editions of this volume also carried Spectacular Spider-Man magazine #2. This had become almost the holy grail of 1960s Spider-Man, with the story reprinted only once in a truncated form King-Size Spider-Man #9 which, despite the name, is in fact the ninth Amazing annual. However with this Essential and with a Marvel Masterworks reprinting in 2005 it’s now become much easier to find. The magazine switched to colour (not that that means much in the Essentials) and told the story of the return of the Green Goblin which had been built up to in the regular Amazing issues. Unfortunately the magazine ignored some of that build-up and showed Norman Osborn remembering he was the Goblin all over again, creating a slight discontinuity but at least keeping the magazine story self-contained. Once again we got what is basically the ancestor of the graphic novel – a longer adventure that gives the artwork more room. It’s a straightforward story of Norman Osborn becoming the Goblin once more and seeking revenge on Spider-Man, including a dark sequence where Osborn invites Harry, Peter, Gwen and Mary Jane to a dinner party and teases Peter about his secret identity. The Goblin also has some new tricks including a retractable drill on the front of his glider and a pumpkin bomb that releases a psychedelic gas. However Spidey uses this latter one to turn the tide and, in a piece of very 1960s comic psycho science, uses it to induce amnesia to return. At this point the Goblin had not yet been driven into a corner with repetitive use so the one-off return works here. Overall this is a good one-off story and a vast improvement on the first issue of the magazine, but the format was many years ahead of its time. But it’s good to see the story easily available once more.

3 comments:

  1. Never having seen vols 3&4, I've got to wonder if either included the all-new S-M story from Marvel Super-Heroes #14 from around May, '68? JP.

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  2. None of the editions I've seen have it. However it is available in the Masterworks.

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  3. Thanks,Tim, I havn't got that far through your blog yet as I went back to the beginning to go through the posts chronologically. I"m only up to last August,but I'm having a great time in here! Glad that you cover the Masterworks as well.Pity there is no DEFINITIVE reprints series.J.P.

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