Sunday, 24 June 2012

Essential Spider-Man volume 8

We turn now to Essential Spider-Man volume 8 which reprints Amazing Spider-Man #161-185, Annual #11 and The Man called Nova #12, which contains half of Amazing‘s first-ever crossover with another title. As a bonus we also get the cover for Giant-Size Spider-Man #6 (an all reprint issue as the line entered its final days) and the entry on the Green Goblin from the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe.

A quick word on Nova. This series lasted from 1976 to 1979 and featured a new young school student who suddenly gains special powers from aliens. (There’s a whole lot more about intergalactic police forces and things, but none of that comes up here.) It was an intentional homage to Spider-Man, and a less intentional homage to the Silver Age Green Lantern, created by Marv Wolfman (who wrote the series) and Len Wein.

Most of the stories in this volume are written by Wein, from #161-180, with Wolfman writing #182-185 and also the Nova issue. In between, we get a single issue by Bill Mantlo, who also scripts the main story in Annual #11 over a plot by Archie Goodwin. There’s also a short second story by Scott Edelman which is, I think, his only Spider-Man work. Almost all of the regular issues are drawn by Ross Andru apart from #181 which is by Sal Buscema, who also does the Nova issue. The main story in the annual is drawn by Don Perlin and the back up by John Romita Jr, doing his first ever Spider-Man work (although he had a thanks credit way back on Amazing #78 for suggesting the Prowler). What the above may not make too clear is that issue #181 is by the-then regular Spectacular team, and has all the hallmarks of a fill-in, right down to the preceding #180 announcing as next what turned out to be #182’s contents.

Publication-wise this is the period when the restraints on using Spider-Man really began to loosen. (As I’ve said previously, Spidey Super Stories doesn’t really count in this context.) We get the first ever crossover between Amazing and another title, whilst Spider-Man’s third regular title, Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man launched the same month as Amazing #163. In addition Marvel Team-Up had its first annual just about the same time as Spectacular was launching, whilst the Amazing annual came out about the same time as the Nova crossover. And on top of all that 1976 also saw the publication of Superman vs. the Amazing Spider-Man. Whereas at the time of Giant-Size Spider-Man there was a notable restraint that, whether deliberately or not, prevented the character from appearing even three times in a single month, by 1977 such restraint was slipping out of the window. Okay it wasn’t yet at the point where Spider-Man had five monthly titles, most with annuals, a quarterly, various limited series and one-shots (some of which are essential chapters in the continuity) plus a few spin-off series and crossovers with other titles, but it was drifting that way.

(And if all that wasn’t enough this is also the period when The Amazing Spider-Man began on television. I’ve seen no more of that show than the odd clip on YouTube so I can’t comment on its quality (although other live action adaptations of Marvel characters were generally poorly received by fans until the Blade and X-Men movies, with the partial exception of The Incredible Hulk TV series). Overall it doesn’t seem to have overtly affected the comics – there was no attempt to introduce Captain Barbera or Julie Masters, let alone alter J. Jonah Jameson to match his screen portrayal – but from issue #184 onwards the legend “Marvel’s TV Sensation!” appeared on the cover of the issues. It may also have contributed to the decision to move Peter on from undergraduate to postgraduate study, though there had been a long running debate in the letter columns over whether he should graduate or not so this may just be a coincidence.)

The main saving grace of multiple titles and specials is if each of the various books has its own distinct niche and generally doesn’t require readers to pick up the other titles just to know what the heck’s going on. The latter was a problem back at the time of the original publication when most readers relied on newstand distribution but is equally a problem with the Essential series when the other titles may not yet have been reprinted, or else are not easily available on the bookshop shelves (and even when they are the price stacks up for multiple volumes) whether because they’re out of print or limited stock selection or whatever. In this regard Amazing does quite well at this stage (I’ll address the other titles when I get to those volumes), with only a few references to other books and the only “seen first elsewhere” appearance is the Hitman and it’s not really a problem. Far more of an issue is the return of Silvermane now restored to adulthood but noticeably younger and more active than before he sought to youthen himself. (This was covered in issue #123 of Daredevil, reprinted in Essential Daredevil #5.) The only other point of surprise is that in issue #173 Peter gets a letter stating he won’t be graduating this year due to too many failed grades, only to (almost) graduate in #185 – okay they’re a year apart publication-wise but the story speeds through far more quickly and presumably Peter made up (nearly) all the missing grades in night school, perhaps over in Spectacular but it’s not explicit.

I’ll start with the irregular material. Least essential is the cover to Giant-Size #6 – yet curiously the back cover reproduces it and trumpets a team-up with the Human Torch, suggesting copy written by someone unfamiliar with the contents – similarly Stan Lee is listed as an author on the front cover. The story in question originally saw print in Amazing Annual #4 and is available in either the original edition of Essential #4 or later editions of #3. The other single page is the Green Goblin’s Official Handbook entry from the early 1980s, possibly doubling as an unspoken advert for the Essential reprints of those. There’s a few new details in there such as birthplaces and physical statistics, but what really caught my eye is the absence of any reference to Norman Osborn having super strength due to the chemical explosion, suggesting this is a latter day retcon. Of the “bonus” stories, both pieces in Annual #11 are rather forgettable and whilst the main situations are new, some supporting events such as Mary Jane being left alone to her annoyance are starting to grate. Aunt May is shown at her most feisty as she goes protesting (more on this later), but compared to a similar scene in the regular issues it’s surprising her health can stand it.

The crossover with Nova may have been an important event in that title (or not, I’ve never read it but there is an Essential Nova reprinting the whole run), but from Spider-Man’s perspective it’s a completely ignorable story with no repercussions outside it. I wouldn’t be surprised if overseas reprints skipped it altogether. It just feels like a simple way to bring Marvel’s biggest and newest stars together. No real attempt is made to explore the similarities between the characters even though one hero’s uncle has just been killed. Really this story should have run in Team-Up but it was probably trying to boost sales on Nova.

The other unusual tale is #181, which as I noted above is a fill-in issue by the-then Spectacular team. It also feels like it was hanging around on file as it shows Aunt May up and about midway through an extended hospital stay, triggering a caption saying it takes place before all that. (However it may have been a rush commission – both Bill Mantlo and Sal Buscema were particularly good at doing fast fill-in issues – and the error down to poor communication.) The story is a very simple vehicle for extended flashbacks to Spidey’s origin and the main characters in his world. It’s what the industry might now call a “jumping on” point that introduces all the extended details in one go. This might have been best run in Spectacular early on (ideally as the second story in a double-sized first issue but they didn’t do those back then), but here it can’t disguise its filler purpose.

What about the regular run? Well we’re on a roller coaster of events, but we also get one of my bugbears – subplots that appear very infrequently and take years to resolve. We get a particularly bad one here with the mystery of the Spider-Clone photos – back in issue #151 (in the previous volume) Spidey sensed he was being watched when disposing of the clone’s body. It’s not until issue #168 that we learn photos were taken to expose him, and it’s only in issue #180, over a year after Peter’s persuaded Jonah they’re fakes in #169, that we find out who took and sent them. It’s all too long given the overall importance of the incident. Another dangler comes in issue #170 when a mystery man rents Aunt May’s house, being willing to pay any price, but there’s no follow-up at all in the remaining fifteen issues in the volume. There’s a difference between carefully nurtured seeds and long forgotten ideas, and these veer towards the latter. On original reading it must have seemed an eternity between advancements (and even in the Essential era the time between volumes can mean more lengthy weights between threads).

Better handled are the developments relating to Harry Osborn and his psychiatrist, Dr Bart Hamilton, leading up to one of the best known stories in the volume, the third Green Goblin saga. It’s a good epic that combines may of the threads of Wein’s run, giving a suitable climax for most of the characters particularly Harry who finds redemption as he finally conquers the curse of the Green Goblin in a rather Freudian way and finds a happy ending. However we also get another round of Aunt May being taken ill by a sudden shock and I’ve lost count of just how many times that has been now. You can understand why some fans were just wishing she would just die and get it over with. And whilst Hamilton has a reason for his actions it’s still a Silver Age throwback “explanation” in lieu of a substantially fleshed out motive. Still it’s good to see a Green Goblin doing something other than torment Spider-Man/Peter for the first time in over 150 issues. Even if it is the same old “control the city’s underworld” aim – although that’s credible in the aftermath of the Kingpin’s apparent death in issue #164. And I don’t mind the killing off of the new Green Goblin – he’s a strictly one-story character and there’s always the possibility that one day something might make Harry re-don the costume so there’s no substantial loss.

The Kingpin drowning is equally not a problem as a standard “villain seemingly perishes but no body is seen” moment that doesn’t write the character off for good, comes at the end of another little epic, albeit one that doesn’t actually reveal itself as one until the final two issues where we learn that the Kingpin was behind schemes seen in various past issues as part of a master plan to bring his son Richard back from near death. This does, however, bring some more silly science and silly handling of scientists, as Spider-Man’s life force is transferred to Richard, then he staggers to Curt Connors’s who just happens to have the knowledge and equipment to temporarily re-energise him, then whip up a gadget to permanently recover the life-force. The whole transferable life-force idea sits uneasily with me anyway, but it’s also a bit silly that Connors seems to be an expert in just about any field of science that Spider-Man might have a major problem with, rather than a more specific biologist. Awkward problems often require such awkward solutions.

The other major ongoing thread are the developments in the life of J. Jonah Jameson as he continues his occasional schemes against Spider-Man, both trying to expose Spidey as having murdered Peter Parker and then taken his place (his interpretation of the Clone photos), and then he commissions a new Spider-Slayer, but this time from a different scientist, Marla Madison, and in the process is shown falling for a woman for the first time in the series. On a more tragic note he learns that his son is seemingly incurable of the Man-Wolf curse, giving us a chance to see a father’s grief. It’s good to see the character being developed beyond the easy cliché that he can so often be.

The series adds only a few villains to the Rouges’ Gallery and none of them are at all memorable for the right reasons – as well as the brief third Green Goblin and Spidey’s first encounter with Doctor Faustus (more normally a Captain America foe), we get just Jigsaw (although in the long run he’s more usually a Punisher foe), Will o’ the Wisp and the Rocket Racer in Wein’s issues. Marv Wolfman only has four issues in this volume but he gives us both the White Dragon and the Big Wheel. Yes stop laughing at the back. (It was quite a time for the sillier villains as the Big Wheel debuted just three months before the Hypno Hustler over in Spectacular.) Fans tend to split on the character between those who see him as a monumentally bad move for the series and those who just see a so-bad-he’s-good villain you have to laugh about. I’m inclined towards the former view as this isn’t a one-off story but a part of the continuing saga of the Rocket Racer (who, it has to be said, is another silly jump-on-the-latest-fad villain) and the storyline is presented in quite serious terms. Furthermore the same two issues we get a major development in Peter and Mary Jane’s relationship and really that shouldn’t be combined with intentional silliness.

That development comes as he asks her to marry him and she declines. Now the issue of Spider-Man marrying is always a touchy one that can set keyboards raging so for now I’ll primarily limit this to whether or not marriage was a good idea at this stage in the run. In my mind Peter Parker has always been the type who would settle down with the right woman if he met her and she would say yes. He may be young – only just about to graduate – but in a number of ways his values are those of an earlier generation. Remember he was raised by his aunt & uncle, a couple significantly older than most of his contemporaries’ parents – there are references in some stories that indicate they got engaged during the Great Depression. (And in the real world Peter Parker was created by two men both born in the 1920s. Stan Lee started work at 17 and got married in his mid twenties. Nobody seems to know anything about Steve Ditko’s personal life.) During his teenage years Peter was generally an extreme loner with the exception of his close relationship with his aunt & uncle. All of this points to his being quite likely to have an outlook on marriage that is at least a generation older than his contemporaries’, which probably includes couples not living together beforehand. And for a long time May (with some help from Anna) has played Cupid, introducing Peter and Mary Jane and then later encouraging both of them at key points – and here on her hospital bed she drops a blatant hint. Finally this is a time of great change for Peter as he’s about to graduate and move onto the next stage of his life and it’s understandable he doesn’t want to take that step on his own. So I can see this is entirely natural for Peter. And Mary Jane is a plausible wife – at this stage she is a university student and occasional actress, though as shown in Annual #11 in this volume her career is still at the crowd extra stage, who is on much the same level as Peter. Whilst she has her flaky, party loving side we’ve also seen a more serious side to her, as she’s come to care not just for Peter but also for May over their troubles – and she picks up on May’s hints faster than Peter. Ultimately at this point there would be nothing implausible about the two taking the next stage. Would it have aged Spider-Man? Well Spider-Man had been ageing for a while anyway – he started off midway through high school and the proposal comes just before he graduates with his first degree – a pretty major step forward in a person’s life. A couple being married in their 20s don’t automatically age overnight so from one perspective a marriage at this stage between these characters would have been quite workable and a natural development. Plus marriage was present in Peter’s circle of friends already, with Ned and Betty having tied the knot only recently, whilst Harry and Liz were now engaged and involved in wedding planning. So it’s not as if either marriage or changes to the status quo were alien to the series.

But Mary Jane says no, stating that she’s too free a spirit to be tied down. Which again is plausible. We don’t actually know very much about her background and family at this stage beyond having been a regular visitor to her Aunt Anna rather than being raised by her, and she’s less likely to have grown up being isolated from all but her parents, natural or de facto. So whilst Peter has the views and expectations of May’s generation, Mary Jane’s outlook is far more that of a younger generation where people were more cautious about rushing into marriage at so early an age. Plus there’s the elephant in the room or rather the Spider – could Peter really marry Mary Jane without revealing his identity to her first? After all several of his foes had already worked it out and this was the reason Gwen died. In the real world there are many married police officers et al, with spouses potentially at risk of reprisals, but they know about their spouses’ careers and have made an informed choice over a period of time. Could Peter really have gone through with this without telling her? The track record on married heroes is mixed in this regard but it’s one that would have to have been faced. Whereas Aunt May’s health was a justification for not telling her, with Mary Jane there could be no such excuse and that could have been the stumbling point, especially if he suddenly sprung it on her.

Finally from the point of view of story possibilities a marriage at this time would have cut off various options. At this point Spider-Man had not yet had any relationship in his costumed identity or even had any woman developing a crush on him. There were also other possibilities to explore for Peter Parker, such as an ex on the rebound. Which we get almost immediately with the return of Betty Brant Leeds who has found life with Ned in Paris impossible to take and so she returns to New York and seeks out Peter. Coming in the penultimate issue of the volume we naturally don’t get very far with it, but there are hints that she wants to renew things with Peter, whilst he is worried about where it’s going. In my review of the previous volume I noted my surprise at Peter serving as Ned’s best man, but here that brings a potential additional angle to these developments as there’s probably no-one it’s more hurtful to lose your wife to than your best man.

The remaining tales in this volume are more incidental, but still generate thrills and excitement as we charge through events. The very last story is a short six-page affair sees two major developments, one in the narrative and the other in production. Ross Andru did a five-year run on the title and bows out here (and largely stayed bowed out from Spider-Man for the rest of his life, drawing only a couple of annuals and a graphic novel in later years). He’s not the greatest Spider-Man artist of all time, but he brought to Amazing both an ability to maintain strong visual continuity with what had gone before and a solid dramatic style that complemented the action over five eventful years. Thus he leaves big shoes to fill.

In-story the final development is Peter Parker graduating – or not as the case may be! He’s one measly credit short because he failed to take a gym class – of all the things for Spider-Man to miss! But he can take that final class over the summer, and so we get a final page as Peter stands on the university steps facing the future with confidence. All in all this volume is a strong one with only a few individual lapses that don’t detract from the energy moving the series forward.

(Apologies for a rather longer piece than usual, but given one of the topics raised by this volume I felt extra space was needed to do it justice.)

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