Monday, 16 July 2012

Essential Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man volume 5

Essential Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man volume 5 is the most recent volume released from the series (which, during these issues, saw the title at its longest ever – The All New, All Daring Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man), containing issues #97-114 & Annual #5. A notable omission is Amazing Spider-Man #273 which crosses over with Spectacular #111 as part of the wider Secret Wars II crossover. The omission is all the more noticeable as Essential Web of Spider-Man volume 1 includes an Amazing issue for that very reason.

The volume covers the end of Al Milgrom's run on the series and then the start of Peter David's run. Peter David has been one of the biggest names in comics for so long now that's it's a surprise to be reminded that here is where his comic writing career began. Additionally there are fill-ins by Cary Burkett, Bill Mantlo, Jim Owsley (now known as Christopher J. Priest) and Len Kaminski. The art is less stable until Rich Buckler starts a firm run, with other issues drawn by Herb Trimpe, Al Milgrom, Juan Alacantara, Larry Lieber, Vince Giarrano, Luke McDonnell, Mark Beachum, and Joe Brozowski. With so many creators, some of the labels have been placed in a separate post.

As I've noted before, Spectacular took a while to find a focus that made it distinct from the other Spider-Man books but eventually found one, first focusing upon Peter's days in graduate school and then on Spider-Man's partnership with the Black Cat. However the former situation had ended before the start of this volume, whilst the latter relationship comes to an end within the first few issues. And to add to the concern, the break-up issue (#100) came out immediately before the first issue of Web of Spider-Man, giving the character a third headline title. Fortunately at this stage the book finds and retains a niche, this time in tone rather than set-up by refocusing as a gritty crime series. This isn't as jarring as it might seem, as even in the last handful of Al Milgrom issues the focus is on the Kingpin, the most prominent of Spider-Man's non-powered foes, and the fill-ins also add to the down to earth approach. Spider-Man also slowly comes to use both his traditional red & blue costume and also a non-living version of his black costume, but for much of the latter run it's the black costume which almost exclusively appears. And it does much to fit the tone of the stories.

There are relatively few super powered villains in this volume – it may introduce the so-silly-he's-great Spot but he's very much an exception to the rule. The other big exceptions are Puma and the Beyonder, but they're confined to a single issue (#111) crossing over with Secret Wars II which can otherwise be ignored. A few other villains show up but they generally have no powers beyond the technology of their costumes and weapons – these include the Kingpin, Blacklash, Killer Shrike, the Rocket Racer and then various generic thieves, muggers, thugs, corporate criminals and so forth. We get a few new villains such as the Bounty Hunter and the Sin Eater plus the Blaze costume – albeit only the costume at this stage. There's also the mysterious anti-hero "Ace" introduced in the annual. But few of these villains lasted in the long term and they largely served their individual stories. On the guest cast side we get a few more additions. Reporter Joy Mercado had previously debuted in an issue of Moon Knight but has now been transferred to the Daily Bugle and Peter is frequently assigned to work with her, leading to some disagreements about the ethics of journalism and their different levels of commitment to the job. On the more comical side Peter gets three new neighbours – Candi (landlady Mrs Muggins's niece), Randi and Bambi who provide some awkward moments for Peter (and would also regularly take to sunbathing on the building's roof, making it difficult for Spider-Man to sneak out of the skylight, though there's not too much of that in these issues). In issue #112 we learn Bambi has a son, who mostly lives with his father, but otherwise there aren't too many developments with them.

But it's the changes and losses amongst the existing characters that are remembered to most from this run. The first few issues see Spider-Man and the Black Cat's relationship finally break apart. Despite their strong feelings for each other their incompatibilities are too high. Felicia's bad luck powers add to the mess and she discovers what a fool she's been when the Kingpin tells her the powers will grow to consume those around her, hence Spider-Man has repeatedly had awkward moments. This leads to Felicia making a rare selfless decision that she and Spider-Man must split up for his sake. However before she gets the chance to tell him, he dumps her because he feels she's too amoral and unable to accept that there is more to him than just his costumed adventuring, when his life as Peter Parker is a part of the whole package and cannot be ignored. It's probably Peter/Spider-Man's most sophisticated dumping of a girlfriend so far as he tells her the score straight, rather than adopting a false harsh tone to make her hate him, as seen most vividly the two times he broke off with Betty. There's no vicious angry finale, just a calm acceptance as the two walk off, each deeply saddened by events. The Black Cat later resurfaces towards the end of the volume as a crime fighter on her own, but with the twist of giving the goods (or the money raised on them) to the needy, rather than returning them to the victims. It's an interesting twist showing how her time with Spider-Man has had some effect on her but not taken her all the way to his ethics level, and hints at a good future confrontation between the two.

We get only a few other developments with the supporting cast. The mystery of what Flash Thompson is up to is resolved when Spider-Man follows him to discover he's trying to revive his American football playing as a professional. Flash is also entering into an affair with Betty Leeds, though after a change of writer the subplot is transferred over to Amazing. Another development begun right at the end is when Randy Robertson is heading back to New York – and he has married a white woman but is nervous about telling his family. Certain hairstyles and a character listening to Duran Duran on a walkman aside, this is probably the point in the volume that seems the most dated. It was printed less than twenty years after the last laws banning such marriages were struck out in the US (and Randy's father first appeared almost the same month as that ruling was handed down) and acceptance has only slowly grown over time. But again this comes so near the end of these issues that the main developments await the next volume.

But the biggest developments come in by far the best known storyline in these issues is "The Death of Jean DeWolff" which runs in issues #107-110. Looking back it's actually quite a surprise that Jean DeWolff did not appear that all that often in the Spider-Man titles, with several other semi-recurring police officers competing for attention. But despite this she was Spider-Man's only real friend on the force and her murder is quite sudden and unexpected. I've written enough times before about the risks inherent in killing off supporting cast members – sure the actual stories themselves can be quite good (and this is one of the most popular Spider-Man stories of all time) but long-term it can have a corrosive effect if the characters aren't adequately replaced. In this particular case though the series was entering into an ever more gritty phase and it was probably to its advantage to weaken Spider-Man's ties to the police. Furthermore being a relatively minor character, her death did not leave that massive a hole in what had come before. And in one regard Spider-Man gains a new strong ally in the form of Daredevil, with the two heroes learning each other's identity. The story sees an upping of the tension with Spider-Man particularly going over the edge after discovering what he meant to Jean and seeing other friends such as Betty Leeds nearly killed, whilst innocents on the street die from stray blasts when the Sin Eater shoots at him. On top of that there are the Sin Eater's murders of others including a priest who campaigned for prison reform and a liberal judge. Then comes the revelation that the Sin Eater is Stan Carter, the police officer in charge of investigating the murders. In such circumstances it's unsurprising that Spider-Man's reaction to a cop turned killer is a brutal response, almost killing him, and it takes the intervention of Daredevil to stop him, leading to a clash between their respective outlooks. Elsewhere one of Aunt May's lodgers is mugged but when the muggers are released without bail he decides to carry a gun, using it the next time he's attacked. On one level, the story is a strong tale of drama, but on another it showcases the debate on justice, law and order, and whether the system is effective at controlling crime or whether it's justified to step outside the law to achieve justice and if so by how far. It's a strong, thought provoking piece and stands up well.

There aren't many other issue based stories in this volume, but one fill-in issue by Bill Mantlo (#104) explores the problems of high bails and a system of loaners called bail bondsmen who've emerged to provide the funds at a profit. The Rocket Racer's family find themselves indebted to one such loan shark who thus employs "the Bounty Hunter" to make an example of him. A couple of years after this story was Bill Mantlo went on to become a lawyer who worked as a public defender for the New York Legal Aid Society, representing those who could not afford lawyers, and it's easy to see his crusading zeal in his depiction of how a system meant to ensure attendance at court has turned into an exploitative market that just exacerbates the problems of poverty.

The wider Marvel universe makes only a few appearances here. There's a two-part team-up with the Wasp as she and Spider-Man take on corporate criminals who've hired Paladin, but the whole thing feels far more focused on the guest star than on the title character. It also really emphasises some of the sillier aspects of the character – she may be a multi-millionaire, businesswoman and leader of the Avengers but at times she's far more concerned about getting her hair done than anything else! She also still has a rather silly dislike of Spider-Man – "A natural wasp/spider antipathy, you know." In the 1960s stories this was silliness that was fairly standard for the era, but by the 1980s this really looks like nonsense, It's compounded when you consider just how many times she's now teamed up with Spider-Man. In a couple of fill-ins we get appearances by Blacklash and Killer Shrike but both provide backdrops for more focused events. In the first (#101) Spider-Man is remembering Gwen when Blacklash takes a woman hostage and her husband heads off to save her. Whilst the stories have generally avoided dwelling on memories of Gwen, this one justifies being an exception as it's just a few days before her birthday. The other story (#102) is an intense piece as a woman Peter has just met is seriously injured and Spider-Man must find her suicidal twin brother who can provide a transfusion, but Killer Shrike is in the area and assumes Spidey is pursuing him. It's a good little one-off race against time. But by far the most notable intrusion from the wider Marvel universe, and also from Amazing, is issue #111 which crosses over with Secret Wars II & Amazing #273. The absence of the Amazing issue is a surprise and it does leave a hole in the narrative as we're missing the first part of the story of Puma's conflict with the Beyonder which sets up several themes, including the cult of Oneness. The whole issue feels like an interruption in the cycle as we get a tale of a Native American facing his destiny and the most powerful being in the universe at risk, with Spider-Man caught in the middle. It's all rather forgettable. But one point that may surprise is Puma knowing where Spider-Man lives.

It's a recurring theme across the volume that quite a number of people get close to Spider-Man's secret identity. The Black Cat already knows it, and in the contemporary Amazings we found out that Mary Jane does as well. Here we see Daredevil discover it, as his powers allow him to recognise Spider-Man's heartbeat, whilst three college undergraduates set about studying Spider-Man to bring him down and notice the Parker connection. Puma's powers of scent allow him to track down Spider-Man, although he declares he refrains from learning the name, and of course the Beyonder knows everything. Then there's a burglar who breaks in and discovers a box with a spare costume and webshooters, although Spider-Man is able to convince him that it was spare equipment stored with a contact. His neighbours might also wonder why Spider-Man is in their apartment building in time to confront another burglar. Equally the Bugle staff may wonder why they seem worthy of special protection and why attacks on them so enrage Spider-Man. Now it's probably the case that in real life a secret identity would be almost impossible to maintain, especially for someone with the limited resources Peter has. But it's one of the basic conventions of superhero comics that the identity is generally impenetrable to all but those with particular skills or information. Here it seems too many risks are being taken without the secret being credible.

The remaining stories are much of a muchness. There's some of the trademark humour and silliness – one issue set at Christmas sees a burglar disguised as Santa Claus sneaking into homes and promising children great things if they will give him some of their parents' stuff. Spider-Man eventually confronts him when he breaks into Candi, Randi and Bambi's apartment, but the fake Santa is caught by the genuine one(!) and made to give out presents at the Bugle. Maybe I'd think differently at the right time of year, but I've never much liked Christmas issues because they usually involve severe departures from the norm. Another issue I really dislike is annual #5, which introduces the mysterious "Ace", a fashionable biker who started a gang but then stepped back from it and now drives around town becoming a modern day urban legend. It's a rather confusing tale that I just can't get my head around because the central character is so difficult to comprehend, despite the surrounding backdrop of gang warfare that's engulfing innocents. The very first issue in the volume (#97) is a much more humorous piece about a man who finds being around others scary and just wants to be by himself, but his knowledge of human behaviour and how best to present things means he's in high demand both by advertisers and by criminals. Even an attempt to find solace in Tibet failed when people heard about his wisdom and sought him out. And for a man who knows all about what attracts people, he's completely missed how to achieve the opposite effect. It's a fun little piece, especially for the ending where Spider-Man explains how to find the solace he's sought.

In general the issues in this volume offer a good transition from the partnership book to the gritty crime book, maintaining a distinct identity for the title at all times. There are a few individual issues that descend into either comprehensibility or silliness but they're more than outweighed by some quite solid work that both develops the characters and offers good action. The situations may be much darker and grittier from the normal Spider-Man adventures, but they keep the man himself in character, reacting to the situations around him quite naturally and only going over the edge under extreme circumstances. It's a bold move to go in this direction but it's one that clearly pays off.

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