Thursday, 14 June 2012

Essential Spider-Man volume 5

We come now to Essential Spider-Man volume 5 which reprints Amazing Spider-Man #90-113. In case you’re wondering about the annuals, these switched to being all reprint for a few years, then were displaced by the Giant-Size quarterlies, and it wasn’t until #10 came along that they returned to carrying new stories. Annual #10 won’t appear until volume 7.

This volume covers the last of Stan Lee’s regular writing on Spider-Man. He wrote issues #90-100 and returned for #105-110. Issues #101-104 are by Roy Thomas whilst #111 starts Gerry Conway’s first run on the character. The art is by a mixture of Gil Kane and John Romita.

This was the last period before 2008 during which Spider-Man had only a single title, with Marvel Team-Up debuting the same month as Amazing #106, although it didn’t go monthly until issue #7. And the very concept of Team-Up meant that few long-term developments would happen there so there wasn’t a great impact from spreading the character out at this stage.

My reviews of recent volumes have commented on how the series seemed to be stalling to a while, with few developments for Peter Parker or his supporting cast in many issues and instead there was a danger of settling down in a permanent status quo where the characters endlessly go through the same routines. The first issue in this volume blows that away when Captain George Stacy dies saving a child’s life during Spider-Man’s battle with Doctor Octopus. On his deathbed we learn that he had figured out Spider-Man was Peter after all – but never shared the secret with others. As I’ve said killing off good supporting cast members can be a risky move for a series because over time the character base gets eroded whilst the individual death stories can be a little too sensationalist. But here I feel it works – Stacy’s character had in fact had a negative effect on Gwen, turning her ever more into a clingy Daddy’s girl, and the effect his death has on her and her relationship with Peter becomes a key element over subsequent issues. And more widely Stacy had been the nearest Spider-Man had to an ally in the law & order community. With Spider-Man accused of his murder, relations with the police sour and a constant theme for many issues to come is of Spider-Man having to deal with numerous cops trying to take him in or worse. Stacy’s role as Spider-Man’s near friend is assumed by Robbie but it’s a much more distant relationship based on sharing information and news.

The death of her father gives Gwen some good material as she blames Spider-Man and this creates a further wedge between her and Peter. Eventually she briefly moves to London to stay with her Uncle Arthur and Peter follows her, but when Spider-Man is spotted and reported dealing with terrorists, Peter feels that he cannot see Gwen without her making the connection. However he neglects to take this precaution with Robbie. Later in a trip to the Savage Land he’s more cautious, with the aid of Ka-Zar, with the result that nobody can make the connection. It’s nice to see the problems of maintaining a secret identity and going into action when travelling being explicitly addressed though. Also the London portrayed here is better than some comics’ attempts which can annoy Londoners like myself – whilst there’s a lot of focus on world famous landmarks (albeit with the usual poor geography – for the record Tower Bridge is nowhere near Parliament) there’s no depicting the streets as though they were still the Victoria era or having everyone speaking cockney. Peter returns home but Gwen eventually finds that absence makes the heart grow fonder and also heads back where the two reconcile and get engaged in a rather understated scene. Unfortunately after this Gwen drifts back into a more generic superhero girlfriend role, spending many of her appearances worrying about Peter and even at one point preventing him from running off. She gets the odd good moment such as when she turns on Aunt May and tells her to stop mollycoddling Peter, but otherwise she’s not really being developed.

Peter and Gwen’s engagement seems to have become a forgotten part of the Spider-Man mythology but it does raise the invariable question of whether or not Spider-Man should get married. At this point in the cycle I think marriage would have been a big mistake, especially as Gwen had been so poorly developed as a character. It’s also notable that Peter thinks he can keep his identity secret from his wife – a rather optimistic approach. By the time Gwen says yes (issue #99) there had already been two big weddings in the Marvel universe but both were of two heroes to each other – Mr Fantastic and the Invisible Girl, and Yellowjacket (the latest identity for Ant-Man/Giant-Man/Goliath) and the Wasp. A hero marrying a non-hero was less chartered territory – the only Marvel or DC example from the period I can think of is the Elongated Man who had also gone public with his identity and so he doesn’t really count in this context, especially as his wife became his partner in solving mysteries. But in view of all the subsequent controversy and arguments about whether or not Spider-Man should be married, it’s worth noting the engagement comes at the end of Stan Lee’s initial run on Spider-Man – was this the character’s co-creator setting down that the character could indeed get married? The engagement is followed up in a few of the subsequent issues but by the end of the volume it’s mentioned so little that one could be forgiven for thinking it had never happened. And I doubt an actual marriage would have been early on the horizon – after all Ned Leeds and Betty Brant had been engaged for some sixty issues by this stage and were no longer even mentioning wedding planning in their appearances. So at this point I think it’s more another step in the relationship rather than a definite move for the series.

Issue #99 more generally feels like a happy ending issue for the series. Peter is back with Gwen and they’re engaged, whilst Peter has also stood up to Jonah about the amount he gets paid for his photos. Spider-Man has had a triumph in ending a prison riot and escape attempt and also makes it onto television where he gets a good reception and makes a rather preachy speech about prison overcrowding then rushes off when the cops show up. Was this intended to be Stan Lee’s final issue? If so it’s a good point to go out on and also a more limited collection of the series could stop here with most issues resolved. However Lee did one further issue before his first departure, the bizarre issue #100 where Peter decides to give up being Spider-Man and takes a potion to remove his powers. He falls unconscious and has a weird dream where he encounters many old foes before an image of George Stacy tells him he must accept both sides of his life. Peter then wakes up to discover the potion has gone wrong and he’s grown four extra arms.

It’s one of the most absurd developments in the series and fortunately rectified within a couple of issues. Unfortunately the resolution involves the introduction of one of the few new villains in this volume – Morbius, the Living Vampire. The 1970s saw a horror revival so it’s understandable that trends were jumped on, whilst Morbius is hardly the first scientist whose attempt to cure himself backfires disastrously. But there’s something about a vampire created by scientific accident that just doesn’t work for me. It’s an uneasy blend of the supernatural and science-fiction genres, and the character never really offers that imaginative a threat or a direct personal connection to Spider-Man. He’s just a monster seeking victims to sustain his existence. The final part of the story was the first ever oversized issue of the series. From a modern perspective it’s curious that it was #102 not #100 that got this treatment, but it may have been a way to sugar the pill of a price rise - #101 was 15c but from #103 the price was 20c. Issue #102 itself was 25c – I hope there weren’t many readers at the time who turned up at the newstands to find the price had exceeded the money they brought with them.

The only other recurring villains introduced here are the Gibbon, who is presented upfront as an underachiever that few take seriously and it’s hard not to join them, and Hammerhead, who debuts in full in the very last panel and really belongs to the next volume. There are more appearances by existing villains, with the volume bookended with appearances by Doctor Octopus, and we also get two encounters with Kraven, the return of the Lizard, a multi-part tale with Spencer Smythe and his latest Spider-Slayer. And then there’s the Green Goblin.

Issues #96-98 are amongst the most reprinted of all Spider-Man issues, featuring a clash with the Goblin but also the consequences of drug abuse. As often told, the US federal Department of Health, Education, and Welfare asked Marvel to run a story depicting the horrors of drug use, and the story was duly written. However the Comics Code Authority, the industry’s self-regulation mechanism since the moral panics and public attacks on comics in the early 1950s, had a bar on all references to drug use and denied the issues the CCA seal that appeared on other covers, reassuring retailers and parents that the comics were safe. Stan Lee and publisher Martin Goodman decided to go ahead and publish the issues without the CCA seal and attracted much favourable publicity for taking this risk. The CCA was soon revised for the first of many times, allowing negative portrayals of drugs. (One of the first approved stories was the Green Lantern/Green Arrow story a few months later where Green Arrow’s sidekick Speedy became a junkie.)

But is this all completely accurate? The covers for issues #96 & #98 in this volume show the Comics Code Authority symbol (although #97 doesn’t), but a look at the cover scans on the listings at Spider-Fan.org show that none of the three have the symbols (#96, #97 and issue #98). So were there multiple copies of these issues in circulation in 1971, some with the CCA symbol and some without? Was the CCA actually amended even as these issues went to press, and it was added midway through the print run? Or were the masters of the issues later amended to carry the CCA symbol for some reason or other, and this volume has used a mixture? The issues were later reprinted with the CCA symbol in Marvel Tales issues #77-79. (They were reprinted in Marvel Tales again, this time all together in issue #191. That issue’s scan on SpiderFan.org doesn’t show the CCA symbol, but looking at other issues from around the time it seems the different cover designs meant the direct market copies omitted it whilst the newstand versions carried it.) Does someone out there know the answer?

The story itself addresses the problems of getting the anti-drugs message out and also how to show it’s not a problem confined to one section of society, a complaint voiced strongly by Randy Robertson. Spider-Man himself ponders on what the answer is whilst Jonah and Robbie discuss the angle the Bugle will take on Harry’s troubles, coming to focus on showing that drugs aren’t just something that happens to the poor in ghettos but hit the rich as well. Some of these scenes could be a little preachy but in nearly all cases the characters behave much as they have before, although Randy seems to have developed more confidence than in previous appearances and is now willing to berate Norman Osborn for not using his influence where he can. Randy is also drawn a little older than previously, now looking more like a contemporary of Peter and the gang, so perhaps this is just a sign of the character maturing. As for the drugs, it would have been easy to make the victim someone never seen before, or succumb to cliché and make it the young black man (even though the Robertsons appear more middle class than average), but instead it’s Harry. This was a bold move but one that’s in line with the problem he’s been having for many issues, particularly with a near permanently absent best friend, a girlfriend who’s blowing him off and a father who was rarely there for him. The story confronts head on the idea that taking a substance is a solution to one’s personal problems and in this regard works well.

What works less well is the return of the Green Goblin. Once more Norman Osborn succumbs to stress and memories, with his Goblin memories and persona returning, and on this occasion the Goblin is written very much as a split personality. Yet again the story is resolved when Spider-Man induces amnesia to return. Very little is actually done with the character before he’s reset, and even his new weapon – a pumpkin bomb with a gas that neutralises Spider-Man’s ability to stick to walls – is similar to what was done before when his previous gas neutralised Spider-Man’s spider-sense.

There’s also a handful of appearances by other costumed figures and adventurers. Iceman shows up for an issue and is initially convinced to try and bring Spider-Man in but soon learns he’s been tricked and the two team-up to take down a crooked politician and the gangs behind him. As I said in my introduction I first encountered Spider-Man through screenings of Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends where he teamed up with Iceman (and Firestar) so it’s good to see what could have been the beginning of a long-term friendship to rival his ones with the Human Torch or Daredevil. Ka-Zar shows up in a two-parter whose main purpose seems to be to get Gwen in a bikini as she’s taken to the Savage Land for a photo shoot with a monster, though the story does help enhance Kraven by giving him a greater reason to hate Spider-Man after the alien monster Gog whom Kraven reared dies pursuing Spidey. Closer to home the Prowler also shows up when he tries to capture Spider-Man in the aftermath of Captain Stacy’s death. And Dr. Strange appears for the climax of a storyline that sees Flash Thompson return home permanently from Vietnam but having to face the consequences of his time there when he visited a mystical temple which was subsequently bombed and the monks are seeking revenge.

As I’ve discussed in previous posts the Spider-Man stories up to now have generally steered clear of the negative side of the Vietnam War. This continues even in this story where the destruction of the temple is presented as entirely accidental as it did not appear on the army’s maps and the bombing was to remove enemy cover. Flash doesn’t seem to have memories and concerns about other atrocities and nor is he shown encountering others who take out their anger about the war on him personally. The storyline itself involves a bit too much magic for my liking, with Dr. Strange resolving it all too easily, but it introduces Sha Shann, who would later return as a recurring supporting cast member.

However domestic political matters rear their head a bit more in this run. One issue features a prison riot over conditions with both Spider-Man and the warden publicising the overcrowding and slow workings of the court. Another storyline sees ex-police officer Sam Bullit running for District Attorney on a hardline law & order ticket but concealing both his links and his bigotry until first the Bugle discovers them and then Spider-Man and Iceman expose him. The story shows the dangers of taking bold populists at face value, and also shows Jonah’s better side when he withdraws his support for Bullit. Jonah also comes across well in a later story when the city has installed a system of spy cameras across the city, provoking concerns about civil liberties and privacy, and it’s Jonah who leads the protests against them. Less convincing in the story is the way the entire system gets dismantled after Spider-Man makes an anonymous phonecall explaining that Spencer Smythe has stolen the key computer components allowing him to use the system to aid criminals by keeping track of the police and viable escape routes.

Finally this volume includes the first substantial retelling of Spider-Man’s origin in issue #94 which features a lengthy flashback/recap. 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 plus the addition of Spectacular Spider-Man magazine #1. This time the main addition sees Peter making a vow to always use his powers to help others. This last bit is a slight discontinuity as it shows Peter immediately deciding to use his powers to protect others, whereas in the original comics it took a few more stories before that became his primary purpose. The flashback continues to recap the details of Peter’s relations with Betty Brant and how he came to work for Jonah.

The whole ran has quite a fast pace to it as Spidey goes through the ups and downs. The creative teams vary a bit and Roy Thomas’s contribution feels very much like an extended fill-in (indeed issue #101 explicitly credits him as “stand-in scripter”) but both he and Gerry Conway take the cliffhangers from both of Lee’s departures and provide appropriate follow-ups. With only three issues, none of them telling a complete storyline, it’s hard to fully judge Conway’s contributions at this stage but he offers a good take on the character. The artwork is a little more mixed with Gil Kane generally matching John Romita’s style but the various inkers tend to go their own way. Frank Giacioa inks #97-107 and takes a little time to settle down with the Morbius story in particular looking a bit different from the norm. But in general the run is more solid than its immediate predecessor and sees a smooth transition as the last of Spidey’s creators departs from the title (and unlike Ditko there’s little mystery here – the growth of Marvel had pulled Lee’s focus more onto the administrative and promotional side, and indeed Spider-Man was about the last series he was still writing). The series was shaken up, sometimes in a good way, sometimes in a bad, and was clearly revitalised for the 1970s.

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