Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Essential Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man volume 3

We come now to Essential Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man volume 3, containing Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man #54-74 and Annual #3.

The writing is quite consistent with Roger Stern handling issues #54-60 and plotting #61, then Bill Mantlo scripts that issue and writes #62-74. The only other writer is David Anthony Kraft on the annual. However the art situation remains unstable, with Ed Hannigan handling nine issues between #60 and #72, and others being drawn by a mixture of Marie Severin, Luke McDonnell, Jim Shooter, John Byrne, Greg LaRocque, Bob Hall, Rick Leonardi and Al Milgrom, whilst Jim Sherman & Alan Weiss handle the annual. For those wondering, yes that’s the Jim Shooter who was Marvel’s Editor-in-Chief at the time. The art can be a little variable but the whole run is held together by some strong writing, with both Stern and Mantlo having a strong grasp on what makes Spider-Man work best.

Several themes run throughout this volume with a major one being Peter’s relationship with various women. The Black Cat reappears right at the very end but otherwise the focus is on Debra Whitman and Marcy Kane, both of whom are largely confined to this title as the focus remains primarily on Peter’s graduate school work (with perhaps a few too many raids on the campus but fortunately there are no more menaces being directly caused by lecturers), albeit with some notable appearances by the Daily Bugle side of affairs and the inevitable clashes of the two’s demands. It’s these clashes that are the main wedge between Marcy and Peter even as other barriers between them fall, especially after she is humiliatingly revealed to be a fake blond now forced to wear a wig because dye is destroying her natural hair. Peter’s sympathetic shoulder makes her start to reconsider her view of him as does his saving her life when the department is attacked by Moonstone, and she offers to help him study, leading to his attempts at a come on one evening with “Come here beautiful”! But it all comes to a crashing halt when he runs off to fight Electro and her harsh critical attitude returns. It’s hard to tell if there was ever that much potential for a proper relationship between the two without making major changes to Marcy’s character to what was originally shown. It’s true that many a real life ice-queen has melted and long term development could have shifted her over time, but at the core the basic conflict between them was Marcy’s single-minded focus on her academic career and Peter’s inability to commit in such a way because of all his other obligations and responsibilities. No amount of pleading about his financial circumstances could change that, and there would only have been one way that Marcy could have accepted he had higher purposes. But it would have been Catch 22 – a relationship could never have become serious enough for him to reveal his identity without him having already revealed it! (And remember he had proposed to Mary Jane without doing so.)

It’s not just any chance with Marcy that founders on this problem but also Peter’s teaching assistantship, with Dr Sloan sharing the view that Peter isn’t committed enough to devote the time required for his duties. Was this also an attempt to youthen Peter? His teaching duties hadn’t been that prominent but might there have been worries that by putting him on the far side of the lectern he was being made “inaccessible” to the perceived readership? It’s hard to say for sure and it would be wrong to assume that the recurrent belief amongst creators in the 1990s and 2000s that Spider-Man had “aged” and was “too inaccessible” was necessarily the prevailing concern of the early 1980s. But what this development definitely doesn’t share with the later decades is a sense of being suddenly forced upon the character. Instead it comes across as an entirely natural development of the problems that had been plaguing Peter for many issues.

There’s more development of Debra Whitman, and again it shows one of Peter’s worse sides as he fails to realise what’s going on around him and comes out with sharp comments that hurt her far more than he realises or intends. Debra is nervous and insecure but also clearly full of affection and seeking someone to give it all to. Instead she winds up obsessing over a guy who seems out of her league, repeatedly rushes out on her and who can be rather dismissive at times, whilst her alternative suitor Biff Rifkin seems to care more for her than she does for him. But whilst Debra may have difficulty when she tries to understand a physics text book in the hope that she can pull herself up to Peter’s level, she does demonstrate herself to be one of the most intelligent people in Spider-Man’s entire world when she puts together all her observations of Peter’s running off and his incredible strength as she follows him up a staircase and sees Spider-Man swing away. It’s a bold step forward for one of the supporting cast to now be in the know and there were no end of story possibilities – to take just a few, Debra could have confided her discovery to Peter and it became the spark for their relationship to really take off, or Peter could have tried to convince her that she was mistaken as he’d done whenever other got close in the past, or Debra could have kept the secret to herself and provided Peter with support and cover without him realising it, (though the latter is a bit close to Pete Ross and Superboy). We do at least get the realistic scenario of Debra’s initial reaction being sheer worry that Peter is out there constantly risking his life and her confiding her fears in a therapist, but then the story takes a very silly and rushed turn in order to wrap everything up before the return of the Black Cat and issue #75.

I don’t know what standard operating practices and ethics in the field of therapy were back in 1982 but I seriously doubt they involved breaching patients’ confidentiality to the objects of perceived delusions, or having third parties listening in on sessions, let alone the deliberate engineering of treatment designed to shock a person out of their delusions. But this is precisely what happens as the therapist tries to get Peter to pretend to be Spider-Man in order to convince Debra she’s deluded. Peter to his credit wants nothing to do with the plan, even when the therapist arrogantly assumes that this means he doesn’t care, but does try to help in his own way. This leads up to issue #74 where we get the major revelations about Debra, namely that she is a battered wife who has run away from her husband with help from Biff. This could have led to some further significant developments such as Peter helping to coax Debra out of her fantasies and face up to her past, perhaps even a trip to the mid-west to settle things with her husband. But instead we get one of the most simplistic cures of mental problems imaginable. Peter, to his great credit, decides to reveal to Debra that she’s not deluded at all and that he really is Spider-Man, so he visits her at her flat and lets her unmask him. And suddenly in an instance, everything is made right again. Debra realises that Peter couldn’t possibly be Spidey and has only done this to help her, and suddenly her delusions, fantasies and insecurities fade away. The next day she boards a bus to head back to the mid-west to divorce her husband and start over, with a hint that she will eventually settle with Biff (who also gets a one issue turn around as we learn that he’s been devoted to Debra since they were undergraduates but her delusions prevented her from realising it). Debra wouldn’t be seen again for over two decades (although she appeared in the 1990s cartoon where she was turned into Peter’s lab partner and scientific equal, who took to dating Flash Thompson!) and the whole thing just feels like a long-term plot plan was suddenly rushed through in a few issues when big changes were looming and Debra had become surplus to requirements.

It’s not the only rapid change thrown on us. In another issue we learn that Peter has had limited contact with Flash Thompson of late – okay good friends do often drift apart when their life courses no longer bring them into regular contact – and that both have drifted away from Harry Osborn and Liz Allen, who’ve disappeared off to the suburbs and got married with neither Peter nor Flash present. It’s an astounding revelation considering how close all four had been for years even if Harry did want to sever his ties to the past. It’s hard to know who to blame for this one as Harry had basically drifted out of the titles with his last major storyline some four years earlier and only a handful of background appearances since then. But it would have been better to actually show the wedding as a sign of the character evolving and make that the happy ending moment. Instead we get a glimpse of married life in New Jersey suburbia, as Liz’s past catches up with them in the form of the Molten Man. The story itself is a straightforward tale of Spider-Man blundering into a difficult situation and causing the Molten Man to go on the rampage, but in the course of it we see Harry showing more strength than in a long time as he stands up to his step-brother-in-law and fights back. The Osborn home may be burnt down but the ending of the story shows Harry and Liz have found their happily ever after as the neighbours come to their aid. Spidey’s comments that it’s a paradise in which he and his villains don’t belong helps to underline the sense of final closure.

That story also ends with the Molten Man seemingly transformed after being shoved into a swimming pool causes him to revert to his premolten form. It may be typical comic book science but it’s one of a number of cases in these issues of villains undergoing transformations of one sort or another. We also get a closure for the Man-Wolf as the moonstone is finally expelled from John Jameson’s system, whilst Will o’ the Wisp is restored to his form, the Smuggler and the Gibbon both seemingly go straight, the Beetle gets a new set of armour, the Robot Master is sort-of revived as a robotic duplicate, and Silvermane is transformed from an aged man in a broken body to a psychotic cyborg. For some villains there’s a sense of closure, for others their threat level is enhanced, particularly the Beetle whose previous costume always looked rather goofy. Silvermane’s transformation is the one I’m least comfortable with. Whilst the character when first introduced was initially seeking to revitalise his ageing body, his more recent appearances had shown him with a young enough body to be credible as a senior crime lord. And yes non-costumed crime lords are quite common in the Spider-Man stories, with the Kingpin standing at their apex, but Silvermane was the second most important one and didn’t really need to be transformed to maintain his threat level. The new cyborg body initially sees him as a rampaging creature, which could be a familiarisation factor, but it just feels like a new creation tacked onto an existing character when they could have been made an independent entity without drastically altering the story.

There aren’t many new villains introduced in these issues, but there are several brought in from other Marvel titles such as Moonstone, Nitro and the Ringer, whilst the Boomerang, Killer Shrike and the Owl had all  previously fought Spidey in Marvel Team-Up but now make it over to his headline titles for the first time. By far the most significant of these imports for the long run is the Jack O’Lantern, brought over from the pages of Machine Man (where he was co-created by Steve Ditko), who would later go on to assume the mantle of one of Spider-Man’s main foes. He gets but a single issue here though it establishes some of his key features including strategic thinking but also a willingness to turn tail and run when he realises he’s outclassed.

Some of Spider-Man’s more traditional foes make appearances, including Electro, Kraven and Doctor Octopus. The last comes at the end as part of the build-up for a major storyline that sees him in conflict with the Owl, which is best covered in the next Essential Spectacular volume, but we do get the touching story of Ollie Osnick, a lonely child who idolises Doc Ock to the point of getting his own tentacles and forming his own supervillains’ fan club. It makes for an interesting and comedic prelude to the main event as Spider-Man tracks down Ollie in a city nervous about the real Doc Ock being on the loose. It’s fortunate that Ollie abandons his worship of Doc Ock and never meets the real thing, who at the end passes a bin with the artificial arms and ripped up posters… and couldn’t care less. The Electro story is more conventional but shows Peter developing a special suit to tackle a particular foe. Whereas Iron Man or Batman can easily just have a new special costume manufactured to spec, Spider-Man has to take an old rubber mattress to create a special insulated suit that’s not 100% protection and is boiling hot to boot. Kraven’s story adds a bit to the character, showing how much honour means to him and that it is not enough to have Spider-Man dead but that he can only be satisfied if he does it rightly, a point that eludes his mistress Calypso.

The main creation in these issues are Cloak and Dagger. The two survivors of horrific experiments with drugs, they find their bodies transformed into powerful weapons and they now launch a war on drug dealers, showing a willingness to murder. This willingness brings them into conflict with Spider-Man in both their stories, but he isn’t always able to stop them in time. Wisely, the anti-drugs message isn’t overdone, nor is the debate over vigilante execution against criminal rights. However, another issue is less reserved on a controversial matter. Issue #71 focuses on the issue of hand gun control with Peter and Robbie as the voices of control – Robbie comes out with so many statistics that it’s not credible even for a newspaper editor to have off the top of his head – whilst Lance Bannon mutters the anti-control arguments of self-protection and Jonah is surprisingly balanced, ending the issue by asking what’s to be done about illegal guns in a city that already has one of the strongest control laws in the country. The presentation of the characters are rather one sided although the narrative aims at more balance by showing a number of gun deaths in breakout panels, including cleaning accidents, a father accidentally killing his son who is make a surprise visit, two parents gunned down in the street by a mugger whilst their child watches (a homage to Batman – wisely we don’t get a reminder of Uncle Ben’s death as it would have been the third time in a dozen issues) and a couple murdered in bed by a burglar. In the main story we get further killings, including a shopkeeper gunning down a robber (who had already been neutralised by Spider-Man) and a policeman dying taking on gun smugglers. Gun control is an awkward enough subject to write about at the best of times (and I’m merciful that the debate in the UK is tame compared to the US) but this issue feels rather preachy whilst at the same time trying to present itself as a more balanced take on the subject. There’s a credit of “Additional dialogue by Tom DeFalco” – was this a case of a writer and editor bringing different political perspectives to the issue? (Whilst I’ve heard that Mantlo’s politics were generally liberal and progressive I’ve no idea about DeFalco’s – or for that matter if he was adding on his own initiative or to orders from on high.)

As I mentioned, the gun control issue doesn’t touch on Uncle Ben’s death, probably because other issues do. Issue #68 sees Peter and Aunt May visiting the cemetery, with Nathan watching from a distance (a nice subtle sign that Nathan has been fully accepted into the family by Peter), whilst issue #60 is a double-sized issue celebrating five years of Spectacular and includes a seventeen page retelling of the original story from Amazing Fantasy #15 (including previous additions from Spectacular Spider-Man magazine #1 and Amazing Spider-Man #94). Much of the retelling matches the original story but there are some individual additions and enhancements to scenes. Amongst the most significant additions are an announcement that the demonstration is showing just how safely radiation can be controlled, hence the openness that allows the spider in; Peter actually killing the spider after it bites him (so there’s no possibility of anyone else having got powers at the same time); and there’s some more fleshing out what I feel is the most awkward part. Far too often in comics a special accident gives a character great power... and the ability to make costumes, to manufacture special equipment and to somehow obtain all the raw materials necessary without anyone noticing. Here we get the addition that the Spider-Man costume is adapted from a suit thrown away by a dance class whilst Peter now develops the web fluid in extra time in the school labs (and it’s credible the school über science geek would be allowed to do this) and has been studying polymers for two years. Whilst it’s still not perfect, it’s probably the best that can be done with the material available that has long established that Peter has no supporting help and uses artificial webs (with all the problems he’s had with weakened formulas, empty cartridges and badly maintained webshooters over the years). It’s easy to understand why so many latter day versions of Spider-Man, including the alien costume, Spider-Man 2099 and the Sam Raimi movies, have instead gone for built in organic webs but it’s impossible to retcon this in the original comics. Otherwise this retelling is pretty standard – maybe it’s a few pages too long but it shows that the original story can be retold without having to add too many layers (for instance there’s no mention of the Burglar’s motivations as this is primarily about the birth of Spider-Man). The only slight discontinuity is the same as in Amazing#94, namely that Peter is shown committing himself to use his powers to protect others immediately, when in the original comics it took a few more stories before that became his primary purpose.

In general, this is a solid run on the title but there isn’t anything that really leaps out as truly awesome. But sometimes spectacular highs are matched by equally spectacular lows and a solid consistently good run is overall more preferable. Both main writers have a strong grasp of both Spider-Man’s character and his past, and all the elements are respected to show the character at his classic best, fighting to help others despite the gruelling toll it takes on his alter-ego’s life.

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