Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Essential Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man volume 2

We come now to Essential Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man volume 2, containing Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man #32-53, Annuals #1 & 2, Amazing Spider-Man Annual #13, which crosses over with Spectacular Annual #1, the first ever crossover between two Spider-Man titles, and finally Fantastic Four #218, which contains another crossover. I don't think the FF need any special introduction.

The writing is split between the end of Bill Mantlo's first run and Roger Stern's. Mantlo also writes the first annual, a later fill-in and the Fantastic Four issue. Ralph Macchio handles the second annual and Marv Wolfman takes the Amazing annual and also scripts an issue over a co-plot with artist Steve Leialoha. We also get fill-ins by Tony Isabella and Tom DeFalco (his first ever Spider-Man work). The art is more inconsistent with an initial stretch by Jim Mooney giving way to a turbulent period with contributions on regular issues by Lee Elias, Sal Buscema, John Romita Jr, Frank Springer, Mike Zeck, Steve Leialoha, Marie Severin, Denys Cowan and Rick Leonardi. The Spectacular annuals are handled by first Rich Buckler then Jim Mooney, whilst both the Amazing annual and the Fantastic Four issue are drawn by John Byrne (as an aside, the latter is the last issue of FF he drew but didn't write). With a lot of creators the labels for some have been placed in a separate post. It's quite a turnaround from the early days of the series when the art was generally stable but the writing quite turbulent. Fortunately most of the artists are good at maintaining visual continuity with one another so the changes aren't too jarring.

I don't normally comment on the quality of reproduction as the Spider-Man Essentials for the most part have some of the best pages. However three issues in this volume – #40, #43 & Annual #2 – are of decidedly poor quality compared to this norm, with some fuzzy lines on many pages. I'm not sure what could have caused this as they don't show any signs of being scanned from coloured published copies, though as a few pages seem fine it's possible the separations in the archives for these issues were damaged. It's particularly unfortunate given the significance of issue #43, although that didn't become apparent for another seventeen years. Still given the remarkably cheap cost of the Essentials there's hardly any budget for remastering and so it's inevitable that from time to time an issue will be of less than excellent quality.

As for the stories themselves, my main criticism of the previous volume and the basic concept of Spectacular up to now is that the title didn't seem to have a very real purpose for existing and was instead floundering about, despite some good individual contributions. However that criticism is met from the very first issue in this run (#32) as we a distinctive focus on Peter Parker starting his days at graduate school. Leaving his newspaper career primarily to Amazing we thus get a separate supporting cast. As if to emphasise the drawing of lines, the same issue sees Flash Thompson announce he's taking a year out to get himself back together, whilst Hector Ayala and Holly Gillis also move on to run a mobile school in the Bronx. The slate is thus cleared for the introduction of several new characters, such as Dr Sloan, the head of the graduate science department, his secretary Debra Whitman, and fellow teaching assistants Marcy Kane, Steve Hopkins and Chip Martin. In addition Philip Chang, who appeared in a two-part story in Amazing #184-185, returns although his role in most of the stories is a side-kick to Steve and his practical jokes.

However whilst this set-up brings new tensions and dynamics, it also increases one of the main absurdities that Empire State University is one of the biggest breeding grounds for supervillains and treats, to the point that one has to wonder why it hasn't been shut down. In the space of just eight issues we get one visiting professor (Curt Connors) accidentally releasing a new monster the Iguana, whilst the head of the graduate science school (Dr Sloan) accidentally triggers the growth of Swarm, a colony of bees with a collective consciousness and one graduate student (Chip Martin) succumbs to madness and his mental powers, all causing devastation in their wake. It's fortunate that Peter's identity isn't known as he too succumbs, turning into the Spider-Lizard, but he does bring Doctor Octopus's severed tentacle onto campus and cause more destruction, whilst Belladonna's men also raid the science labs to obtain a key chemical. Fortunately after all this there's a stepping back from these endless crises on campus, but when you consider the earlier volume also saw the university spawn the Lightmaster and Carrion it's a wonder nobody has said anything.

But one thing that does get said a lot is Marcy Kane's attitude to Peter, both for his seeming neglect of his studies and his apparent cowardice, often running off in the face of danger. The latter point is not dissimilar to Gwen Stacey's original disdain for Peter (and the coincidence is enhanced by both the fact this is the first major advancement in Peter's academic career since he began college and that once again we're in the #30s of a Spider-Man title) but Marcy isn't taken too far down such a retread route. Instead we get a clash of extremes as Marcy has seemingly worked hard to get where she is and is disdainful of Peter's almost cruise-control journey to the same place. There are hints that there might be relationship potential, but within this volume it's not taken anywhere, in part because there's a growing focus on Debra Whitman instead. Of course for those who've either read or heard about the later Jack of Hearts mini-series will know that Marcy eventually turned out to be concealing a rather extraordinary secret. All I'll say about that for now is that there is absolutely no hint of this whatsoever in these issues so make of that what you will. (For what it's worth the eventual revelation was written by Bill Mantlo, who introduced Marcy in the first place, so at the very least this is not a case of a later writer adding things onto someone else's creation. Whether Mantlo had this planned from the outset or not I have no idea.)

If Marcy has some elements of Gwen about her, it's hard to deny that Debra Whitman has elements of Betty Brant. (However I didn't spot a third woman with elements of Mary Jane.) Debra is Dr Sloan's secretary, and in contrast to the bombshells who normally frequent Peter's dating game, she's more normal. However she's also full of self-doubt, doubts that aren't helped by Peter's sometimes callous attitude to her when he runs out on her. Despite this she's also shown to have her moments of courage, particularly when she smashes Mysterio's helmet. But it's her self-doubt and admitted desire for a man to lean on that seemingly weaken her, making her excessively clingy, especially towards a guy who doesn't quite realise how she's fallen for him. There's some potential there but it's not yet developed and at this stage Peter comes out looking the worse for it, not realising the effect he's having on Debra.

A much faster development comes for Aunt May, who announces her engagement to fellow resident Nathan Lubensky. I guess at their age and with her health especially it's understandable that they know they can't wait around forever, but equally understandable is Peter's shocked reaction and facing the prospect of having a "step-father", given how much he reveres the memory of Uncle Ben. We don't get to see a great deal of Nathan at this stage but he's both a pleasant fellow who makes May happy and brave, showing a willingness to stand up to the aliens who come to kidnap her in the restaurant.

One notable sign of the run is that several villains from the early years are used but rather than just having repeat fights with Spider-Man that get tired there are often additional factors and layers added to them. In this regard Doctor Octopus's appearance in the Amazing/Spectacular annual crossover is very much the exception but I've already given my criticisms of that when covering it in the Amazing run. Amongst other villains we get the first developments of the Vulture's background as we get to meet his sole living relative, his nephew Malachai Toomes, and I think this is the first time that surname has been used. There's a real sense of familial loyalty between the two, making for an ever greater sense of pain when Malachai dies taking a bullet intended for his uncle. Nor is he the only villain with an unlikely sidekick who meets a tragic death – the Tinkerer is similarly distraught over the death of Toy, who turns out to be a real living action figure. Another notable development comes with the latest appearance of Morbius, who for once ends a story seemingly cured of the vampire curse, thanks to a combination of Spider-Man's blood and lightning. Whilst you can never rely on any villain being neutralised permanently, it's good to see some effort finally being made to limit a character who's never really fitted well into Spider-Man's world. More intriguingly is the first ever reuse of the aliens from wayback in Amazing #2. Whilst the Tinkerer had long since been retconned to be a human after all, the aliens had not been revisited until now and they remained one of the more outlandish concepts of the early years. We now learn that they weren't aliens afterall but in fact an early scheme by Mysterio before he first donned his goldfish bowl. It's an interesting addition to the early tales that helps undo one of the early absurdities in such a way that the aliens can't be reused. As they weren't the most memorable of early villains it's no significant loss. Another Ditko-era villain who reappears for the first time since then is the Cat Burglar, who now becomes the new & criminal incarnation of the Prowler. Once again he largely performs an henchman role, this time serving Belladonna.

Spider-Man's lack of many significant female villains has always stood out so when one is created there's usually higher expectations than normal. Belladonna has some potential – a memorable name, a good character design, reasonably unique abilities (in this case her chemical skills to produce the gases), a good degree of ruthlessness and so forth – but is completely let down by having such a focused motivation of revenge on one man, Roderick Kingsley, that there isn't really a way to open her out to be a more reusable foe. But I wonder how many readers of her initial appearance (#43) ever guessed at the time that the also-introduced Roderick Kingsley would go on to become one of Spider-Man's most significant foes, even though the revelation wouldn't come for another seventeen years? Kingsley is portrayed as rather volatile here, on one occasion laying into Spider-Man, on another getting worried when he believes the webslinger is working for Belladonna, which makes one wonder just how he's managed to have been so ruthless in the fashion and cosmetics industry. Of course his creator, Roger Stern, would later reveal how the two different sides of Kingsley co-existed quite easily – was this all part of a plan from the outset or did Stern realise his mistake and seek to work a correction in as part of his late master plan? Of course if one reads these issues without the benefit of hindsight then it just feels like sloppy, inconsistent characterisation.

Amongst other villains brought back is the Meteor Man in a one-off fill-in in issue #41 that also guest stars the Bill Foster Giant-Man (he's changed his name from the rather awkward "Black Goliath" – why did so many black characters have to have that prefix on their name?!). It's an okay story but really it feels like an issue of Marvel Team-Up that's wandered out of that title's filing cabinet and into Spectacular purely to fill in a gap in the run. The second Spectacular annual has a similar feel. Continuity-wise it shows Peter working for the Bugle despite coming out during his Globe days, and for that matter it's very much focused on the newspaper side of his life, and Silvermane has made a remarkable recovery from his fall at the hands of the Goblin. New character the Rapier is a contemporary of Silvermane's, yet appears as young as the Maggia boss has now become, forgetting that he was originally an octogenarian who was rejuvenated. Once again it feels very much like a random story had sat on file for a while before being wheeled out when needed and in whatever title. Whilst presumably a wise move to ensure fill-ins were always available to go to press, from a narrative point of view the practice throws up tales that feel out of place. But at least the latter one is in an annual and not the regular ongoing strip.

There are two-other team-ups of note in the run. The first is the crossover with Fantastic Four, in which Electro becomes the new fourth member of the FF's foes, the Frightful Four (who also contain the Sandman so there is at least one permanent Spider-Man connection). Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four have a long history of interaction and so it's appropriate that they should be the focus of one of the earliest Spider-Man crossovers, whilst it also helps that Bill Mantlo writes both issues (he was just finishing a three issue stint on the title – a very short permanent assignment or a prolonged fill-in job?). However overall this crossover falls into the trap of so many others in that it doesn't really serve a great purpose beyond "forcing" readers of one title to pick up another if they want to get the complete story (although obviously that's less of a hassle when the issue is included in the Essential run). To the best of my knowledge Electro's membership of the Frightful Four never lasted beyond this tale and otherwise there are no significant developments in Spidey's relationship with the Fantastic Four that could merit such a crossover.

A more personalised story comes with the brief return of the White Tiger near the end of the volume's run. This starts with three issues (#49-51) in which the main story is shortened and we get a back-up White Tiger solo strip. This particular production trick of splitting off subplots into separate stories with their own artists may be essential for keeping a book on schedule but can feel like a cheat for the readers, especially if, as in this case, the early parts aren't directly related to the main feature. After all the title is Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man and not Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man and Hector Ayala, The White Tiger. That said the Tiger has been a supporting character in earlier issues and so at least it's one step up from a random outside hero taking pages. And the Tiger's story is certainly advanced as he comes home to find his familiar murdered – again a warning to other heroes about letting their secret identities be revealed. The Tiger's search for the killers almost ends in his own death, leading to a full-length issue in which Spider-Man takes up the task of bringing in the killers, a private terrorist group led by an ex-army officer determined to wipe out the superhero community. The story sees a closure (for now) of the White Tiger's story as Hector decides to abandon the identity, successfully removing the amulets that had fed him power, and he and Holly decide to leave New York completely to start a new life elsewhere. Whilst a pretty dark and downbeat story, it allows the character to be written out permanently with dignity rather than just be left hanging around the sidelines.

In general this volume of Spectacular shows the series permanently establishing itself with its own settings and characters, although as ever these can take a little time to take root and fill-in issues don't help. But in general it does the trick of balancing its own developments and creations with a respect for Spider-Man's long history and a willingness to mine some of the more obscure corners of that history. It also manages to avoid too heavy a reliance upon events in Amazing – indeed one could now conceivably just read Spectacular on its own and generally not have to worry about "missing out" on key points in the other titles. This is a second series for a character that's now clearly on its feet and is all the better for it.

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