Saturday, 14 July 2012

Essential Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man volume 4

Next up is Essential Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man volume 4, containing Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man #75-96 and Annual #4. As bonus material we get Spider-Man’s entry from the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. This one’s from the Deluxe Edition, as shown by the length and a villains’ list from about 1987 that doesn’t yet include Venom.

The writing is pretty solid with Bill Mantlo writing the first two-thirds and also the main story in the annual, and Al Milgrom writing the last third. A back-up story in the annual is by Bob DeNatale. Most of the issues are drawn by Milgrom, apart from fill-ins by Ron Frenz (his first ever Spider-Man work), Greg LaRocque and Dave Simons, and a special issue drawn by a mix of Milgrom and cartoonist Fred Hembeck. The annual stories are drawn by Kerry Gammill & Sal Buscema and Ron Randall.

There’s a strong degree of consistency throughout the volume. Unfortunately the flow is at times slightly distorted by attempts to tie in explicitly to individual issues of Amazing which gives the impression that Spider-Man has abandoned a situation only to return to it. It’s most prominent with issue #87 where Spider-Man reflects upon having lost his spider-sense in an Amazing issue, despite having used it in Spectacular #86 which led directly into this one, and with issue #96 where instead of going straight after the Answer who’s captured Dagger, Spider-Man detours into events in Amazing where he ditches his black alien costume and resumes wearing the red & blue one. I presume there was a Marvel policy at the time to keep the placing of events clear, but when a character has multiple titles it gets messy with multi-part stories. And of course there’s a major exception to this in the era with the whole of Secret Wars taking place in the gap between Spectacular #89 & 90, written by the-then editor-in-chief, so such a strict chronological approach isn’t always necessary. When Spidey returns from the Secret Wars he comes with a new black costume that responds to his thoughts, can change its appearance into civilian clothes and flows on and off at will. The saga of the costume is primarily focused upon in the contemporary Amazing issues (not yet reached in the Essentials but I’ll rant about that elsewhere), and when this volume is read in isolation the developments with the costume can come as a surprise at times.

However whilst the costume may be developed elsewhere there’s a very important aspect of Spider-Man’s life developed across this volume as it charts the growth of his relationship with the Black Cat. Having once again survived a seeming death, Felicia Hardy returns for good and sides with Spider-Man in the conflict between the Owl and Doctor Octopus. This shows the clear chemistry between the two and the Cat’s bravery, but she comes to grief when she gets cornered and badly shot and stabbed, leading to a prolonged stay in hospital. But in pain comes joy as both she and Spider-Man come to realise their true feelings for each other. Spider-Man saves her again from Doctor Octopus and then after she is released from hospital the two start swinging across town together and jointly facing menaces such as the Hobgoblin. Unfortunately the two take some time to adapt to each other’s style and there are moments when Spidey is over concerned about the Cat. However he decides to share more of his life with her. This leads into what could have been a crucial issue which is unfortunately played all wrong by wider events.

Assistant Editors’ Month was one of the earliest company wide events at Marvel. The premise was that as all the regular editors were away at the San Diego Comic Convention, and in their absence their assistants were in charge for a month and were doing things a bit differently from the norm. Some books had little more than a one or two page story featuring the assistant editor in question (e.g. New Defenders), others went further and put the characters into some quite bizarre situations (e.g. Avengers which saw the team appear on David Letterman’s late night chat show, or Alpha Flight which saw two all white characters having a fight in a snow-storm represented by just blank panels and dialogue/captions). Crack Comics: Assistant Editors’ Month is a section and Assistant Editors’ Month Online is a whole blog both devoted to his event. Each looks at individual books from the month, giving a flavour of what was going on. The premise sounds good and it did lead to some quite fun titles – an especially hilarious one was Marvel Team-Up #137. Unfortunately the crude nature of company wide events is such that they often intrude upon the regular flow of a title and can cause unfortunate consequences. This is certainly true of issue #86 in which cartoonist Fred Hembeck draws the main story in his own unique style, alongside some pages set at the Marvel offices in which regular penciller Al Milgrom learns this from Assistant Editor Bob DeNatale. Even without the art the story is played for more laughs than usual, featuring the Fly discovering that his insect nature is taking him over, to the point where he’s stealing garbage to eat, and sees a fight in the Daily Bugle offices. On its own this would be fine, but the issue sees Spider-Man starting to share the secrets of his alter-ego with the Cat, climaxing in his decision to take her home and reveal his identity. The tone of the script and the artwork is all wrong for such an event – indeed in the comic itself Hembeck’s art is prematurely ended by the return of editor Danny Fingeroth who quickly arranges more regular Milgrom art for the last two pages – and it would have been better to defer that a month. Unfortunately another company-wide event created a hard point that prevented such a pushback, as issue #89 ends with Spider-Man disappearing off to appear in Secret Wars.

Once Assistant Editors’ Month is over normal service is resumed as Spider-Man takes the Cat home to his flat and reveals his identity. And then we get a twist on a problem for many superhero relationships where the other-half is aware of both sides of the hero’s life – Felicia can’t stand his life as Peter Parker, finding it mundane and boring and preferring him to be Spider-Man all the time. This side makes a lot of sense as Felicia is a thrill seeker who doesn’t care much for her life out of the costume. But it can get silly such as when she almost freaks out at Spider-Man taking the mask off, preferring him with the mask on. It’s one thing for a person to wish their other half focused exclusively on one side of their lives, but to be so repulsed by the other side strains credulity. It also leads to problems as Felicia is frequently careless in searching for Spider-Man, turning up at his flat or the Bugle or even Aunt May’s home searching for Peter without appreciating just how important keeping the secret is to Peter. Despite this the two continue as partners but a further fight, this time with Mr Hyde and the Cobra, leaves Felicia realising she is severely weak in battle without any powers. This leads to her searching all over the city for a super-power and foolishly accepting help from a shadowy form who turns out to be the Kingpin. The Cat winds up with enhanced agility, and the bad luck powers that a real black cat is supposed to bring. The latter is a curious probability based power that causes those attacking her to suffer exceptional bad luck – floors give way, weapons break apart or slip out of hands, people trip and so forth. However she doesn’t seem to realise that the Kingpin has ulterior plans as the powers slowly start to affect Spider-Man as well. Despite this, once Spider-Man returns from the Secret Wars the two continue their teaming together, with a back-up story in the annual even showing the two aiming for a quiet evening in together, albeit with complications caused by a visit from one of the Cat’s ex partners in crime. By the final issue in this volume Spider-Man has discovered where the powers came from but not yet their full extent and there are signs of tensions that could potentially crack the relationship wide open. But up to now the relationship has developed with general credibility, other than Felicia’s reaction to the unmasking, and the two do work well as a team. It’s a bold development for the series but it pulls it off well.

One significant development happens outside these pages but impacts on the series nonetheless. Up to now Spectacular had found a particular niche by focusing upon Peter’s life in graduate school, providing a separate supporting cast to spread the load of multiple titles. But during the time of these issues that life comes to a close when he decides that, due to all the conflicting pressures in his life and the high cost of the Cat’s medical bills, he must take a leave of absence from graduate school and drops out. However curiously this development is shown in the pages of Amazing rather than Spectacular, and the epilogue to his graduate school days comes in Marvel Team-Up. Really all these should have been shown in the series where they were the main focus, and it’s not as if there wasn’t room for them as issues #80 and #84, both one part stories with no long term developments, could easily have been dropped to make room. (Or for that matter #85 which sees the Hobgoblin gaining super-strength, a development that belonged in Amazing so the complaint runs both ways.) Given the heavy focus upon the Black Cat at this stage the loss of the graduate school doesn’t immediately cause problems as the series still has a distinct focus from Amazing. But it leaves the series one Black Cat away from the risks of over-exposure and creative burnout that can come when a character has too many titles without each offering something distinctly different.

As part of this we get some developments with the more traditional supporting cast, particularly towards the end of the volume with Flash Thompson who is repeatedly disappearing for activities he won’t share with Sha Shan, and then coming back bruised. When Sha Shan turns to Peter for help, Flash assumes they’re having an affair, setting things up for a potential confrontation. Now although Sha Shan had been fully returned to Flash’s life in the early issues of Spectacular the storyline really belongs in Amazing, both because of Flash’s traditional status but also because of the ongoing mystery of the Hobgoblin’s identity. It’s another sign of the barriers that kept the titles distinct starting to break down and it’s questionable whether this was a wise move. Another sign of this comes with issue #80 which tells a story of Jonah Jameson setting out to prove he still has his journalistic skills as he exposes corruption on the docks, with some unwanted help from Spider-Man. Again this story really belonged in Amazing. So too should have the main annual story, which sees Aunt May receiving letters from her first suitor, a Depression era criminal who has now been released and each finds their minds wandering back to their youth whilst Ben and Peter between them save May from making a mistake.

However we do get some good developments amongst the villains. Most prominent throughout the run is the Kingpin, who more than ever before is now a permanent presence in the series, sitting up I his office block directing the crime below him. When the 1990s animated series made so much use of the Kingpin in this way many were surprised, but here is where that all began. The Kingpin is given quite a lot of good material, whether facing down the Punisher, negotiating information with Jonah, arranging for the Black Cat to obtain super powers or seeking a cure for his wife’s condition. The character is treated with dignity and respect, reinforcing his sense of menace but also showing his understanding of his role in the wider city, such as when he willingly helps Spider-Man to locate Doctor Octopus and the Owl, lest the city be otherwise destroyed. The Kingpin also seeks to develop new henchmen and assassins, but the revival of Silvermane proves messy due to Dagger having absorbed his life-force, resulting in the Maggia leader’s cyborg body going on a rampage in search of her. The one new villain introduced here, the Answer, only lasts a few issues before he too is absorbed. The Answer is an interesting character, a super-smart intellectual who always seeks to work out “the answer” to each and every problem he encounters. He makes for a foe who is very difficult to defeat and ultimately only falls when he inadvertently sacrifices himself to revive Dagger so she can stop Silvermane.

We get several other villains in the course of the story, including the aforementioned Hobgoblin, Fly, Mr Hyde and Cobra, plus a brief appearance by the Rose and also some others normally associated with other series such as the Blob from the X-Men, and the Gladiator, more normally a Daredevil foe. In the latter case Spider-Man does find himself wondering if he should get involved or not, but eventually does get involved. Another Daredevil foe who shows up is the Owl, but he’s very much playing second fiddle to his rival, Doctor Octopus who gets some of his best ever material here.

The rivalry between Spidey and Doc Ock reaches its fiercest here. Ock is even more of a nasty, vicious toad of a man, seeking to blow up New York with a neutron bomb as a means to demonstrate his genius. This truly is a warped individual driven by a determination to make a name for himself and it’s little surprise that Spider-Man is so enraged that he tears off Doc Ock’s tentacles. The Black Cat then shatters the controls but finds that Doc Ock can still control his detached tentacles as they grab and hold her, then his men shoot her repeatedly. Each crawls away to recover, but a return showdown looms, with Doc Ock refusing sedation for the operation to reattach his tentacles and then showing up in the Cat’s hospital room to tell Spider-Man that in one day’s time they will fight for the last time. This leads to a dramatic climax as Peter goes through what could be his final day of life, spending some time with friends, negotiating much more firmly with Jonah over the price of photos then ever before and answering back about his absences and seeming lax attitude to his studies. We then get a tremendous battle in which Spidey beats Doc Ock not just physically but also emotionally, especially when he humiliates his foe by saving him. This is one of the best Doctor Octopus stories the Spider-Man books have yet done, finally getting a clear grasp on the character and working with his warped objectives for once.

Conflict of a different kind comes in encounters with multiple vigilantes. A strong two-parters sees the return of both Cloak and Dagger and also the Punisher. Whilst Cloak and Dagger are much the same as before, punishing just those who push drugs (whilst curing the addicts) and going all the way up to the Kingpin, the Punisher is even worse than usual, shooting any infraction of the law whatsoever. In a rampage he shoots a man for throwing away a newspaper and missing the bin, and then when a taxi driver panics and flees through a red light he too gets shot. The Punisher also goes after the Kingpin, but makes the mistake of taking the Kingpin’s wife Vanessa hostage, and is beaten up by her husband. As a gesture of contempt the Punisher is left alive and taken to court where he’s confined to a mental institution, leaving Peter wondering if he too will one day succumb to the same fate of extreme madness.

Whilst this volume contains its fair share of action, the real focus is on ongoing character development, building up not only Spider-Man and the Black Cat but also many of their foes. If there’s any weakness, it stems from wider Marvel policies such as the one that mistakenly forced too rigid a chronology upon Spider-Man’s multiple titles and also tried to develop subplots in more than one book at a time, or the interference by line wide events like Assistant Editors’ Month. But whilst there are signs that the distinctiveness of the multiple titles could break down in future, it hasn’t happened at this stage and instead we get an extremely solid run where successive issues build on their predecessors to give a solid and rounded whole.

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