Friday, 22 June 2012

Essential Spider-Man volume 7

We come to Essential Spider-Man volume 7 which reprints Amazing Spider-Man #138-160, Annual #10 and Giant-Size Spider-Man #4-5. However it’s missing Giant-Size #3, due to rights problems as it contains a team-up with Doc Savage, a licensed character Marvel no longer has the rights for. This is the first of a handful of omissions in the Essential series, though whether it’s because the fees for use are too high or because current licenses make it simply impossible to clear regardless of money I have no idea. Fortunately, the story isn’t of any great significance and so can be easily skipped.

The volume covers the end of Gerry Conway’s run, ending with #149 and including the two Giant-Size issues, and begins Len Wein’s run with issue #151, including the Annual. In between, we get a single issue by Archie Goodwin. The art is mainly by Ross Andru with the exception of issue #150 and the annual by Gil Kane, and two other issues (#154-155) by Sal Buscema. As the credits suggest, the issues of Giant-Size reprinted here are a bit more integrated into the Amazing continuity, whereas the earlier ones shared Marvel Team-Up‘s then-writer and continuity. The Goodwin/Kane issue has credits suggesting a fill-in but it’s actually a very important part of the continuity, which I’ll come to a little later.

Otherwise it’s worth nothing that issues #140-149 coincided with Gerry Conway’s second run on Marvel Team-Up and thus was the last time a single writer handled all Spider-Man’s ongoing appearances. (Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man didn’t launch until the same month as Amazing #163.) There’s slightly more acknowledgement of Team-Up than usual with direct references across the two books to the encounters with the Scorpion (Amazing #145-146) and the Meteor Man (Team-Up #33-34) taking place back to back, with Team-Up #33 explicitly taking place between identified panels of Amazing #145. However we don’t get any direct crossovers between the two books and it’s possible to read one and not the other. In an era when most comics were purchased on the newsstands with mixed distribution, crossovers were a risky affair because not all readers could be expected to have reasonable access to all the titles involved. And even if they can, crossovers bring greater expense for those not regularly buying all the titles. But crossovers also risk trampling on individual titles’ own identity and ideally each book should have its own raison d’être. That’s a theme I may return for later volumes.

Amongst the new villains introduced are the Mindworm, the Grizzly, a new Mysterio, the Cyclone and the Fly, but none of them are really major long threats. And this brings up one of my bugbears – the casual killing off of major villains, just to replace them with ill-conceived successors. Whereas with the earlier (temporary) replacement of the Vulture there was at least a desire to have a younger version of the character, there is no particularly compelling reason for the replacement of Mysterio beyond creating a shock cliff-hanger of the revelation of the original’s death. And we don’t even get a dramatic death, just a statement of the fact long afterwards. It’s the beginning of the “off panel developments” that try to speed the storytelling up but just succeed in irritating.

There are a few other villains’ deaths in the volume but they’re handled more traditionally. Hammerhead is brought back from the dead in a fairly ludicrous way as an intangible ghost-like being who tricks Spider-Man and Dr Octopus (whose return is at least comic book science plausible – he found an escape chute and wrapped his steel arms round him) into using a device that restores him as a physical living being. The whole thing is silly enough (and it’s never really properly explained just how Hammerhead could become such a being) but the idea that a gangster throwback like Hammerhead has the scientific knowledge to engineer his resurrection just takes it even further. However at the end of the storyline his helicopter crashes into the river but there’s no body and so in the traditional manner he could easily come back. The Jackal’s death is clearly intended to be a permanent affair, but as he’s only been around for twenty issues and largely used in a single extended story arc he stands out more as a one off character – and indeed death preserves his dignity rather than turning him into a run of the mill recurring adversary. The revelation of his identity is a bit of a surprise and I honestly find it a little difficult to accept that an ageing college lecturer could be the Jackal, especially as he didn’t gain special powers or anything – the villain is physically highly agile and also has great access to resources that would be beyond the average lecturer’s salary. Now back in the Silver Age it was one of the conventions that all supervillains gained the additional abilities to produce their own costumes and equipment no matter their powers or background, but the further one gets from that age the sillier this convention gets. As for the storyline behind Miles Warren’s descent into the Jackal I find it actually quite believable (though as ever one has to accept the comic book science for what it is) – a lot of childless lecturers and teachers do find themselves looking at their students almost as the children they never had and a sudden unexpected death can be a shock. For someone who had developed the ability to reproduce life the opportunity to try and overturn the tragedy – and the horror at nearly being stopped would bring a natural violent reaction and subsequent descent into the madness of the Jackal is understandable.

What about the Clone Saga itself? Well it’s the most notorious story in this volume, but on reflection it’s actually not as large as it seems. We get the steady build up of who the mystery woman is and the effect she has on those around her (including shocking Aunt May into yet another hospital bout – was she ever going to die?), but these are background events to fights with the Cyclone and Scorpion. The Jackal’s revenge only takes up three issues, with the Spider-clone appearing in just one and even then purely to provide a fight sequence, and the story is primarily about dealing with the ghost of Gwen Stacy rather than about introducing confusion about who is who. The latter point is dealt with in the course of a single issue as the surviving Spider-Man wonders if he’s the original or the clone, but eventually realises he’s the original because of his emotional response to Mary Jane. It’s a single issue that settles the matter, even if it was seemingly forgotten in the mid 1990s (amazingly so when one learns that a Marvel Milestone reprint of it was actually put out bagged with one of the regular issues during the 1990s Clone Saga) and there’s broadly a clear deck as Len Wein takes over.

The relationship with Mary Jane is steadily built up over Conway’s later issues, with the two finally kissing as Peter departs for Paris, but the seeming return of Gwen Stacy places a major obstacle in their paths. Following on from my comments on volume 6 about what Gwen represented, it’s perhaps fitting that the final scene of Conway’s run sees Peter and Mary Jane going into his flat and closing the door behind them (remember this was still an era when things weren’t so explicit but it’s clear what’s happening – this is also widely reckoned to be Peter’s first time).

As well as these major developments we also get several more straightforward adventures, with some particular good moments in a two-parter with the Scorpion that shows Spider-Man at his angriest but also has a hilarious epilogue as the Scorpion is forced to apologise to Aunt May for frightening her – and gets an earful from her, including the declaration that he’s worse than Spider-Man. It’s a good reminder that the Scorpion is perhaps the villain most like Spider-Man gone wrong – an ordinary man whose gained powers based on an insect but who lacks responsibility and is just out for himself. This may also be why some more explicitly spider-derived villains like the Tarantula don’t work so well, as they’re more derived from the costume and insect name rather than deeper elements of the character.

Another point not handled so well is Spider-Man’s appearance in Paris. The coincidence of Spider-Man showing up in distant cities and countries that Peter Parker is visiting is one that’s always been awkwardly handled. Here Spider-Man makes an initial effort to avoiding being seen by Joe Robertson, even going to the point of knocking Robbie back out, but once he’s spotted he has to resort to remote controlled tape recorders to make it seem both he and Peter are present. Now maybe it would be too much of a stretch in a book entitled Spider-Man, but I would experiment with giving Peter a nondescript second identity as a totally mysterious figure who could do the heavy lifting overseas without the risk of the red and blue giving things away. Here it just strains belief that Robbie hasn’t figured out the identity (and his reaction in other issues, particularly the Annual when the Fly shows up at the Bugle, suggests he hasn’t), even if Jonah is too obsessed to work it out.

As well as the regular issues we get two Giant-Size issues, though as noted above one other has been omitted. However I didn’t really notice its omission, especially considering the two that are included. One of them gives us a rather forgettable team-up with the Punisher that takes Spidey well out of his normal element to fight an international arms dealer with the battle ending in the South American jungle and Spidey being taken home by UN authorities – is this the same Spider-Man who spends much of his time fleeing the authorities in New York?! The other is an encounter with the Lizard and the Man-Thing in the Florida swamps that feels a bit of a retread of old material, though material set back in New York does advance the Gwen Stacy subplot.

The second half of the volume covers the beginning of Len Wein’s run on the title. It’s here that we get what has become another irritating feature of comics – the tendency for long running mysteries and subplots that leak out a few panels at a time before being seemingly forgotten about for months at a time. We also get some good developments, particularly the return of Harry Osborn and the start of his relationship with Liz Allen, and some long awaited events such as the wedding of Ned Leeds and Betty Brant, where curiously Peter serves as best man and Mary Jane as matron of honour. Leaving aside Peter and Betty’s history making that awkward, Peter and Ned have never been shown as such close friends that this would be a natural choice. Yes Ned is a poorly sketched out character about whom we know very little (which is probably why contemporary readers repeatedly suspected him of being various mystery villains) and crucially we’ve never seen his friendships outside the Bugle and Betty, but it just feels like convention for the sake of convention (although in later years it would give an added edge to certain events).

I’ve already covered the silliness of Hammerhead’s return, whilst we also get Doctor Octopus still turning to Aunt May as yet another writer continues this rather unbelievable state of affairs. Otherwise the main stories here are a mixture of short events, though several see matters being manipulated by the same unseen villain, and we get everything from the tragedy of issue #153 as an ex football star turned computer scientist dies saving his daughter to the comedy of the final showdown with the Spider-Mobile. Once again I’m surprised at just how little Spider-Man’s car was ever actually used – was this down to the writers actively resisting it, or did the merchandising agreements fall through meaning no toy was ever produced to need promoting? (A quick internet search shows no sign of one.)

Annual #10 sees a newly written story for the first time in eight years, though it’s not the most original of tales as we get the introduction of the Fly, in a somewhat recycled plot as J. Jonah Jameson decides that what’s needed to bring down Spider-Man is a new superhero and turns to the brother of the Scorpion’s creator, only for a fugitive criminal to get in on the act. Whilst in the early years Jonah’s hatred of Spider-Man could naturally lead to the financing of such projects, it’s hard to believe he hasn’t finally learnt his lesson by now and resorted to more subtle methods such as investigators (particularly given the number of characters who’ve by now worked out the places where Spider-Man is most likely to be found). Jonah is a tricky character to handle who can descend into parody at times (in particular watch as Robbie counts the number of secretaries he goes through after Betty Brant leaves upon marrying Ned) but surely some steps forward can be taken?

As I’ve indicated somewhat, I find this volume more so-so than many of its predecessors. In some regards the series is beginning to tread water again with a number of good individual tales but other than the Clone Sage there are generally repetitive and/or silly developments. Now this may be part of the curse of reading by the Essential volume as plot arcs get cut off arbitrarily, but some of the developments in story telling such as off panel deaths of major villains and random scenes setting up subplots that are then left aside for many issues, are ones that tend to irritate far more than they reward.

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