Monday, 18 June 2012

Essential Spider-Man volume 6

The next volume under consideration is Essential Spider-Man volume 6 which reprints Amazing Spider-Man #114-137, plus Giant-Size Super-Heroes #1 & Giant-Size Spider-Man #1-2. First, a quick word about the latter books.

The Giant-Size titles were a brief lived Marvel line, which combined new extra long stories with classic reprints, all at a higher price (and later went over to all reprints before finishing completely). Some of them tied into the relevant regular comic quite well – for instance Giant-Size Avengers advanced the Celestial Madonna storyline considerably – but some were completely stand-alone. Giant-Size Spider-Man is a little unusual in that continuity-wise it’s closer to Marvel Team-Up than Amazing Spider-Man, but apart from the first issue tying in with Team-Up #23 it’s not particularly noticeable, hence the ongoing debate over which series it should be collected with. Looking back it’s easy to see why they didn’t last – readers were paying twice as much as a regular issue but not getting twice as much new story, whilst they also relied on retailers carrying them alongside the regular series – a familiar problem to later generations. In the 1990s Marvel tried something similar with the Unlimited line, which lasted a bit longer.

Giant-Size Super-Heroes #1 appears to have been the prototype for the line, as the series was quickly replaced with named individual titles. This issue unfortunately suffers from being the only one in this volume to be reproduced from printed pages, as opposed to the separations used elsewhere. I guess that’s the curse of being a single-issue series without the hero’s name in the recorded title and thus an easy target for clearing out the archives. Otherwise the issues are reproduced quite well, with no obvious howlers.

Nominally we’ve reached a period when Spider-Man now had three regular titles – or indeed four if we include Spidey Super Stories. However there were sufficient exceptions that this didn’t happen in reality. Marvel Team-Up adopted the practice of instead starring the Human Torch in the same months as Giant-Size Spider-Man was published. And Spidey Super Stories was the first example of a Spider-Man comic that was outside the regular continuity, being aimed at a very different audience altogether. It was a simple comic of very short stories designed to help young children learn to read and was produced to tie in with Spider-Man’s appearances on television in a segment of The Electric Company for much the same effect. But because all of this was aimed at a very different audience with no impact on the regular titles, it doesn’t really count as excessive use of the character. (That said, in about 1984 Marvel UK decided that the audience for their weekly Spider-Man comic was too young for the current US material, and were especially worried about Spider-Man’s costume change. So they dropped the reprints of the latest US stories in favour of other material including Spidey Super Stories and after a year and a half the title folded. If you’ve ever been horrified by some of the many things Marvel US has done to try to make the character “younger” and “more accessible”, it could have been so much worse.)

Turning back to the main series, all the stories in this volume are written by Gerry Conway with the exceptions of Amazing #116-118, which carries an amended reprint of Spectacular Spider-Man magazine #1 by Stan Lee, but with modifications by Conway to place it in the current continuity and add some mystery, and Giant-Size Spider-Man #1 & 2 which are by Len Wein, the-then regular writer on Marvel Team-Up The art is by a mixture of John Romita, Gil Kane and Ross Andru.

Quite a lot happens in these issues with several ongoing themes including the war between Doctor Octopus and Hammerhead, the death of Gwen Stacy and the steadily growing bond between Peter and Mary Jane, the death of the original Green Goblin, Norman Osborn, and his son Harry’s descent into madness as the new Green Goblin, and the creation of the Spider-Mobile. On top of all that we get many other individual stories. In general the run is pretty solid with peaks of excitement, particularly issues #121 & 122 which carry probably the most famous of all Spider-Man stories – The Night Gwen Stacy Died/The Goblin’s Last Stand.

So much has been written about these two issues that it’s hard to know what to add. For many this is the end of the Silver Age and it’s not hard to see why – the Silver Age comics operated in an innocent, clean, almost childlike world where the hero would always triumph, the girl would always be saved and so forth, and on another level where the real world didn’t intrude so much. Now the Spider-Man series up to this point had defied that last bit somewhat, featuring everything from school bullying to drug taking to the atrocities of the Vietnam War, so in one regard you can ask just how innocent the Spider-Man stories really were. That said there are aspects where I think the Silver Age fantasy rules did still apply (and where later retcons have trodden all over them). Much has been written about Peter Parker’s sex life and whether Gwen Stacy was still a virgin (at least until “Sins Past” came along). I’m going to go with that she was and thus they had never done it – not because of forensic analysis of the number of stories where Peter calls at her home and is explicitly shown leaving etc..., but rather because of the whole ideal of childhood innocence that the Silver Age comics embody is at odds with it. Attempts to retroactively flesh Gwen out into a “real character” appropriate for today’s comic audience thus miss the point – she’s a part of the Age of Innocence and her death symbolises the death of that age.

The story is a little rushed and there are some omissions that are surprising from a modern perspective. Gwen and Peter’s last moments together take place off-panel, and our last image of a conscious Gwen is as she stands alone in Peter & Harry’s flat just as the Goblin shows up in the distance. She’s unconscious throughout the fight – not a person, just an object to be fought over – and dies without knowing why she’s been kidnapped. If the story were told today there would be far more focus on Gwen, giving her a send-off and yes, she would die knowing her boyfriend was Spider-Man (in fact she’d probably have known for some time by now) and that’s why she’d been targeted.

There’s also a bit of repetitiveness here. Harry is on drugs again – okay addiction isn’t something you just press a reset button on and get cured but it seems a little easy to keep turning to it as a way of creating problems for the Osborns, and only for that purpose. The Green Goblin is also becoming ridiculously clichéd – this the third time Norman Osborn suffers a breakdown that makes him remember he’s the Green Goblin and must dispose of Spider-Man/Peter Parker. The villain had done nothing else for over ninety issues and was becoming tired. Sometimes I wonder why the Green Goblins are considered Spider-Man’s greatest enemies when for much of their history they’re not terribly effective villains. Yes they have spectacular moments, and the long term effects of Norman Osborn’s legacy were pretty devastating, but as recurring foes they generally lack that something that conventional arch enemies have on each appearance. The edge of being responsible for the death of the hero’s girlfriend is blunted by the Green Goblin being killed off in the very next issue – also incidentally a sign that not all the Silver Age conventions were gone just yet, in later years he’d have flown away without meeting justice. I’m in two minds about this – leaving aside the convention of the villain meeting a deserved fate, he was a worn-out character, but on the other hand it was the real beginning (after a false step with the Vulture) of the process of killing off too many members of the rogues’ gallery without providing adequate long-term replacements.

Needless to say the story is still a strong one that deserves its impact on the whole genre.

The volume picks up where the previous one left off in the midst of the Doctor Octopus/Hammerhead conflict as they fight to be the new crime lord of New York. Now just how many villains have wanted this? Hammerhead at least comes with an explanation as we learn how he has no memories of before his surgery and he is now driven by his imagination of Prohibition era gangster movies. But Doctor Octopus is an archenemy without a great purpose who needs more development. And not the development we get – his relationship with Aunt May, leading up to their unsuccessful wedding. Erm... well... yes... Okay they do have a history of fondness for one another, going right back to the first annual, but I have a hard time accepting that May would so readily agree to marriage, especially without telling Peter or Anna Watson. And the coincidence of her inheriting the island complete with nuclear power plant and uranium mine? Sorry, I just find it all too silly.

This run of issues introduces several new villains as well, including Hammerhead, Jonas Harrow, the Tarantula, the Man-Wolf and the Jackal. The last remains an unknown quantity by the end of this particular volume, but there’s a sense of big things to come. However of even greater significance is the arrival of the Punisher. And he’s quite some way from the most familiar portrayal of the character. We don’t find out much about him at this stage (despite #135’s cover promising his origin) and he’s not yet at the stage of casually gunning down every criminal going, but with hindsight there’s something odd about the way Spider-Man is twice willing to team up with him, or for that matter do little about the bullets flying around.

Going the other way, as well as the original Green Goblin we also see the seeming deaths of Doctor Octopus and Hammerhead when a nuclear power plant explodes, and the Kangaroo whose arrogance and stupidity leads him to leap into a nuclear furnace. As deaths go, these aren’t as dramatic as the Goblin’s, and there are no bodies shown, so it’s hard to say if these were intended to be anything more than typical “villain seemingly perishes but will return” moments, though I don’t think this Kangaroo ever returned.

On the villain replacement front, we briefly get a new Vulture. For some reason many Spidey writers have tried to either transform the Vulture or replace him altogether, but have never managed to make the new versions stick (and sometimes in story the original has returned to dispose of the replacements). Perhaps some villains just can’t be replaced.

Not that writers stop trying. The other story arc involves Harry Osborn’s descent into becoming the new Green Goblin. On paper there’s a lot to be said for the idea, as it makes for even more tension in the conflict than when Norman rode the glider. But Harry doesn’t quite live up to expectations. Sure he concocts an elaborate threat and presents Spidey with a real challenge, but there is something lacking at this stage. The idea of replacing the father with a vengeful son would be revisited a few times, most notably with Spencer and Alistair Smythe, but here it’s not just yet developed.

In addition we see the return of Liz Allen after over a hundred issues, with the revelation that she is the step-sister of the Molten Man. That revelation is reasonably believable (she’s hardly the first supporting character to have a villain in the family), but her return also brings some poor continuity about the high school years, with statements that Mary Jane knew Peter and Liz during those years, that Liz and Mary Jane didn’t get on, that Peter fought Flash over Liz, and then that Peter and Liz were an item until she broke off and disappeared. None of this really matches what we saw in those years – Peter and Flash may have clashed over Liz but it was down to her flirting to make Flash (and Betty) jealous, and she was the one with the unrealised crush. This is a fairly major change in the continuity, and ultimately unnecessary. I presume the idea was to have an ex-girlfriend back on the scene as a potential spanner in the works of Peter and Mary Jane, but there’s none of this in sight and instead Liz rapidly slots into the group of friends without any tensions.

Now I have no idea how accessible the Ditko years were to the average reader in 1974. It may have been the case that there had been no substantial reprint run and one could only read the early days if they’d been reading and keeping since 1962, and thus few people would have noticed or cared at the time. (The fact that issues #116-118 could get away with a modified reprint of a story from about four years earlier doesn’t actually tell us much on this score as the Spectacular Spider-Man magazine was a flop with poor distribution.) But even if that was the case it’s still sloppy to make such an alteration to the characters’ back stories and thus the story potentials from them. (And nothing much was actually done with the changes – but was this more sloppiness or did someone point the error out?)

We get several guest stars from other Marvel titles, despite Spider-Man now having a dedicated own series for such encounters. Of these, the Hulk storyline contains a memorable battle and does at least work with the flow of the ongoing storyline. So too does the appearance of Luke Cage as Spider-Man faces the accusation of murdering Norman Osborn. I am not particularly familiar with either Cage or the black stereotypes of the era so I’m not well placed to comment on whether he’s a stereotypical or mould break character, other than to say I didn’t notice anything I’m aware is perceived as insulting. The Giant-Size Spider-Man issues offer us Dracula and Shang-Chi, the Master of Kung-Fu. These came during waves of horror & martial arts crazes and now stand out as tie-ins, with somewhat hackneyed plots. The former story also sees Spidey easily borrowing a plane from the Fantastic Four in order to reach a liner at sea. I’m not too keen on the idea of Spider-Man having such easy access to equipment. This is probably why the Spider-Mobile is used so sparingly – it’s an awkward commercial intrusion into Spider-Man’s life (as indeed it was in the real world) and doesn’t add much other than some comedy.

The one other moment that caught my eye is Mary Jane’s dilemma about reporting her witnessing of a murder, and the implication that a silent witness is almost as bad, given Conway’s late 1980s storyline involving the consequences of a similar situation. It’s very easy to pontificate on such a situation from the comfort of a keyboard, without having to face the consequences of either reprisals or the law (or both), but confidence in witness protection is so often lacking, resulting in many never coming forward.

In terms of inclusions and omissions, it was sensible in my opinion to retain the Richard Raleigh storyline, even though it’s pretty weak and doesn’t make a great deal of sense, as it hadn’t previously been reprinted in the original Essential run (although subsequent new editions have changed that). Some changes have been made here, the main one being that the crooked Raleigh now does his villainous activity in disguise as the Disruptor, a rather forgettable villain. Giant-Size Super-Heroes #1 also fits in quite well, even though I’m no fan of Morbius or the Man Wolf, but Giant-Size Spider-Man would probably have been better off in the relevant Marvel Team-Up volumes. The one thing I might have included that isn’t here is King-Size Spider-Man #9 which despite the name is in fact the ninth Amazing annual. This is another (truncated) reprint but of Spectacular Spider-Man magazine #2, a rare Green Goblin story that up to this point hadn’t to my knowledge been seen anywhere else despite being set-up in the regular continuity of the series. This should have been reprinted back in Essential Spider-Man #4, and indeed was in the later editions, but this would have been the first chance to right that wrong.

All in all this is a generally solid run and possibly the single most significant period for Spider-Man after Stan Lee stopped writing the character. It does have its bizarre moments such as Doc Ock & Aunt May or the Man Wolf, showing that every writer can have their bad moments, but these are more than outweighed by the high drama points. And it’s worth noting that the volume ends at one of those rare points in Spider-Man’s history when just about all the ongoing plots have been resolved (the Jackal is just a villain on the loose rather than a mystery identity at this point). It’s perhaps the end of the first long era of Spider-Man, an era in which so many of the traditions and conventions had been broken.

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