Saturday, 23 June 2012

Omitted material: Giant-Size Spider-Man 3

As I’ve noted in my reviews of the Essentials so far there are a handful of comics excluded, usually because Marvel no longer has the rights to print some of the guest stars. So occasionally, I’ll take a little diversion from the regular series to look at some of these issues. In that vein today I’m going to look at Giant-Size Spider-Man #3, written by Gerry Conway and drawn by Ross Andru, which contains a (sort-of) team-up with Doc Savage (and also a reprint of Amazing #16 but I covered that back with Essential Spider-Man volume 1).

Doc Savage is another character I can’t recall ever hearing about outside of this series so I did a little digging. He was the star of a long running series of pulp magazines in the 1930s and 1940s, which were later reprinted as paperback books in the 1960s through 1990s, and popped up in several other media over the years including radio and comics, with Marvel adapting a number of the books in the early 1970s. Less than a year after Giant-Size Spider-Man #3 came out, there was a movie Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze and Marvel (under the Curtis Magazines label) produced eight issues of a tie-in magazine comic. Nowadays DC own the rights to the character and have actually reprinted those eight issues in their Showcase Presents series (the equivalent of the Essentials). But it’s much harder to easily reprint what is now effectively an inter-company crossover.

The character himself is an adventurer/scientist who has been trained to excellence in numerous fields from birth. His skin isn’t actually made of bronze – I think it’s just tanned – and he operates from an office on the 86th floor of an unnamed New York City skyscraper, which is normally implicitly the Empire State Building but the art in this particular issue suggests otherwise. Doc Savage is frequently accompanied by up to five aides, later billed as “The Fabulous Five”, known as Ham, Johnny, Long Tom, Monk and Renny. All are skilled in particular fields. And this is all more information than you get in the issue itself.

This is a general irritation of mine that often guest stars are featured with a heavy assumption of familiarity. Now I’m writing this over 37 years after the issue was printed and I don’t live in the country of origin so maybe every American reader at the end of 1974 could be expected to know all about Doc Savage as much as, say, the Human Torch. But this issue was reprinted in the UK (in the Spider-Man Annual 1977) and Marvel would later have a key philosophy that “every issue is someone’s first” so I don’t think it unreasonable to expect better introductions.

Storywise this is an incredibly simplistic tale but told in an awkward flow that throws up internal contradictions. As it’s not too widely available, I’ll quickly summarise it:

Spider-Man is summoned to the site of a building due to be demolished by Desinna, a lady from a parallel dimension, who seeks his help and tells, via a projection, of her visit back in 1934 when the building was constructed. Back then she enlisted the help of Doc Savage and his aides to fight Tarros, a renegade scientist from her own dimension who through an accident had become a monstrous electrical aura. In the present day, Spider-Man fights off an appearance of Tarros through disrupting his electrical field by throwing a jackhammer into him. Back in 1934, Doc Savage and his aides eventually sealed Tarros in a cadmium foundation stone, but in the present day the demolition of the building is expected to release him again. Having heard the rest of Desinna’s story, Spidey picks up the jackhammer again and demolishes the foundation stone, declaring that he can sense the pain, and knows enough linguistics, to realise Tarros was only angry with Desinna and not the rampaging monster she claimed. Spidey comments on the different values of his era and Doc Savage’s – in Savage’s day “women were supposed to be demure little things, but nowadays we don’t take anything for granted.” The story ends with Tarros pulling Desinna home and Spidey swinging away, imagining Doc Savage and the five smiling approvingly at him for righting an old wrong.

To be blunt this is one of the worst Spider-Man “team-ups” I’ve read. It’s not completely necessary for the two leads in a story to meet but it’s a hard trick to pull off successfully. Here we get an incoherent mess because of the switching between timezones to keep both heroes in the picture, with the result that we get an appearance of Tarros in the present day before he’s been released which makes no sense at all. The tale itself is extremely simplistic and doesn’t deserve the extended 33 pages. Maybe the original Doc Savage pulps were over simplistic and formulaic, but by the 1970s one would expect so much more. And Spider-Man’s comments about how women were regarded in the 1930s? Again they’re vastly over-simplistic, though they may at least reflect the values of the original Doc Savage pulps.

All in all I don’t think this is a great loss to the Essentials and I hope its absence doesn’t give it a mythical status it doesn’t deserve.

(However the story could have benefited in a couple of areas from an Essential reprint. Both Desinna and Tarros are completely miscoloured on the cover compared to the inside pages, and black & white would have hidden that. There are also a few cases of printer errors where one of the colour plates, usually dark blue, has slipped out of line on an individual page creating misplaced blobs. The Essentials invariably filter out these.)

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