Sunday, 8 July 2012

Essential Spider-Man volume 10

Next in line is Essential Spider-Man volume 10 which reprints Amazing Spider-Man #211-230 and Annual #15. In addition we get Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entries for the Black Cat and the Juggernaut. The writing is split between the bulk of Denny O'Neil's run and the start of Roger Stern's, with fill-ins by Michael Fleisher, Bill Mantlo and Jan Strnad, and one O'Neil plot that's scripted by J.M. DeMatteis (who had recently started a run on Marvel Team-Up that the Essentials haven't yet reached), plus a brief Aunt May solo story by Mike W. Barr. Most of the art is by John Romita Jr, with individual issues by Luke McDonnell, Bob Mcleod, Win Mortimer, Alan Kupperberg, Bob Hall and Rick Leonardi and the annual by Frank Miller. Again that's a lot of creators so the labels have been place in a separate post.

(We're into another period when Spider-Man hit the TV screens with not one but two cartoons. One of them, simply named Spider-Man but renamed Spider-Man 5000 for the DVDs, is probably the least well known of all the Spider-Man cartoons. The other, Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, saw Spidey in a team with Iceman and Firestar, an original character substituting the otherwise licensed Human Torch. I have a fondness for Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends as it was still being rerun on the BBC into the mid 1980s and it's almost certainly where I first encountered Spider-Man. However once again the screen adventures had no real impact on the comics. There was no sudden increase in team-ups with Iceman, whilst Firestar wasn't introduced to the Marvel Universe proper until late 1985, by which time Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends was no longer in production. And thankfully, the regular comics never saw appearances by Miss Lion, let alone Videoman.)

As for the stories in this volume. Well it's probably best to slit them in two, taking first the O'Neil run, including the fill-ins, and consider issues #211-223 plus the Annual. And this is... erm... erm... Denny O'Neil's run on Spider-Man has achieved something of a legendary status for being so bad. In part this is probably a case of high expectations - O'Neil by this stage had, together with Neil Adams, overhauled Green Lantern by teaming him up with Green Arrow for a run of down to earth "socially relevant" stories, and at the same time the pair had radically overhauled Batman by taking him away from the TV series inspired camp and back to his dark and gritty roots. And O'Neil had also been a part of revamping Superman for the 1970s. So naturally readers at the time were probably expecting a similar era of greatness for Spider-Man. Instead they got one of the most static eras of Spider-Man to date, in which most developments were thrown out the window. At the end of the previous volume Peter's time at the Daily Globe had been brought to a rapid conclusion and he quickly returned to the Daily Bugle - was this a conscious "back to basics" move? Part of the problem is that Spider-Man had never veered off to the extremes - the series had never gone all camp like Batman, it wasn't excessively fantastical like Green Lantern and the hero had never been so overly powerful that nothing could threaten him unlike Superman. And the series was already grounded in urban reality with stories covering some of the social and political controversies of the day (the Spider-Man drug story predated the Green Lantern/Green Arrow one by few months). So it would have been impossible to repeat the initial bold moves that had made O'Neil's name. But that wouldn't have been a barrier to a high energy exciting run, like both Marv Wolfman's and Roger Stern's, to take just the writers on either side.

Instead we get a run that is generally unmemorable and the exceptions are for all the wrong reasons. The biggest mystery is over who is Peter's neighbour who sings country and western music rather badly at all hours, and there's hardly any doubt for the reader with the two suspects introduced at the same time and one having blatant red herrings all around him. Perhaps the real mystery is why Peter never simply knocked on his neighbour's door and politely asked for some consideration for the neighbours (and if he had no success, why not complain to the landlady?). As supporting cast members go there's not much to the culprit, Mr Pincus, and he has just one notable story, "Blues for Lonesome Pinky!" (#221, O'Neil's last full script on the regular title) which shows that he chose the wrong genre and should have picked the blues, but has the endurance to play for 90 minutes straight holding the attention of drugged bar customers while Spider-Man rushes to obtain an antidote. We get a couple of other recurring supporting cast members introduced here, but neither would go on to be of much significance in the long run. Biff Rankin is a rather obnoxious preppie type who becomes Peter's rival for Debra Whitman. There's a touch of the old Flash Thompson about him but without the redeeming features (such as Flash's support for Spider-Man) but it does at least hammer home to Peter how poorly he's treated Debra. A more minor recurring character is Roger Hochberg, a fellow graduate student and total reclusive nerd whom Peter tries to draw out. But again he's only a minor footnote in Spidey history. We also have a further appearance by Madame Webb that just underlines how the character doesn't really work in conventional Spider-Man stories. When Spidey overhears crooks planning a murder at the end of a race, does he turn detective to try to work out who the victim will be? No, he rings up his friendly neighbourhood psychic and asks her to try and find out, and in return she always manages to ring the nearest phone to him. In only her second appearance Madame Webb has become an all too convenient plot device that just subtracts from the tension.

In general the villains are a mix. One the one hand we get some forgettable non-costumed characters like the would-be assassins of a congressional candidate, or a crime syndicate selecting a new secretary on the basis of who steals enough wealth first (although that's in Michael Fleisher's fill-in), or Armand DuBroth, an inmate at Ryker's Island (subtly renamed for the comics) who organises break-outs for particular inmates. On the other hand we get a number of supervillains better known from other heroes' series, such as the Grey Gargoyle, the Red Ghost and his Super Apes or the Frightful Four, this time with Namor the Submariner's old foe Llyra as their fourth member. Namor himself also shows up twice, first for an obligatory fight over a misunderstanding and again for another misunderstanding fight followed by the Wizard briefly transferring Spidey's Spider-Sense to Namor but the two defeat the Frightful Four and get Reed Richards to reverse the effect. Spider-Man's own villains make only limited appearances - the Sandman shows up in the Frightful Four and then again in an encounter with Hydro-Man that I'll discuss below. The annual features Doctor Octopus with his latest scheme to murder five million people, simply to prove that he can, by poisoning the ink in the Daily Bugle. It's a sign of how Doc Ock has become a generic arch-enemy who on this occasion isn't even interested in taking a ransom instead. The annual also features the Punisher and does at least show a subtle shift in Spider-Man's approach to him, leaving his erstwhile ally webbed up to be captured by the police. The Punisher finds himself unable to kill cops and is finally arrested and taken to jail. The story does at least give us some classic Jonah and Robbie moments as they contemplate the front page of the Bugle amidst an ever changing situation. The annual also has a few back-up features including "Just How Strong is Spider-Man", an attempt to place his strength category in comparison to contemporary Marvel heroes. It's presented as Spider-Man's own rankings, with the other heroes' reactions to their placing - it would be an interesting exercise to compare the placements here with how strong the heroes have been shown in actual stories, though I doubt many writers would feel bound by a feature of this nature.

The one major long-term development of the O'Neil run is the introduction of a new villain, Hydro-Man. Whilst he's never been one of the A-List foes he has proved highly durable over the years. But a villain who gets his powers in a scientific accident that transforms his body into one composed of a common substance which he can shape, separate and reform at will? Yes it's hard to see Hydro-Man as anything over than a variation on the Sandman (indeed when the 1990s Spider-Man cartoon was unable to use Sandman because he was scheduled for the ultimately unmade James Cameron movie, they just put Hydro-Man in his place). And the similarity is compounded by Sandman showing up in the very next issue. Perhaps because of this we get the inevitable conflict between the two - and it's over a middle aged barmaid - with Spider-Man showing up and accidentally causing the two leap into each other, fusing into a single mud monster dubbed the "Mud-Thing". This leads to a poor parody of King Kong as the monster is paraded on the stage (in the Marvel Universe where weird monsters are two a penny!) and then goes mad, grabbing the woman and climbing a very tall building. It's also a rare Spider-Man story where his contribution to the resolution is solely to save the woman when the monster disintegrates - the real "heroes" are the New York Police Department who fly in with helicopters and release a gas that dehydrates the Mud-Thing (though curiously it doesn't demerge it back into the separate villains). In Spider-Man's own title it should be Spidey who either finds the solution to the problem or endures indignity at being beaten to it, rather than being a casual bystander.

All in all I found the O'Neil run dire and dreary but not so wretched as to be the worst period in Spider-Man's history. Still considering the heavy excitement of so much of the previous 200+ issues it does feel like an awful slamming on the braes and wallowing in nonsense, rather than the grand excitement so many were expecting. And the shortness of the run - at this point the shortest in Amazing‘s history (bar four issues by Roy Thomas stories that were virtually an extended fill-in) - suggests that the problems were recognised at the time as O'Neil stayed at Marvel for several years (including a four year stint on Iron Man) so it wasn't a sudden departure due to being lured over to a rival company as had happened with some other writers over the years.

Fortunately this volumes contains seven further issues that show strong signs of improvement, as Roger Stern took over for the start of a far more dramatic run. Here his work hits the ground running with a good Vulture story that shows the old bird finding a new leash of life after meeting Nathan Lubensky, and also establishes his full name (Adrian Toomes) for the first time. Another revitalisation comes in a two-parter with the Black Cat that reveals her state of mind at the end of her past appearance was all just an act to ensure she'd be sent to a hospital that's easier to escape from than a prison. Unlike the previous wiping away of mental illnesses I don't find this one so bad since the original revelation was such an out of field moment in the first place that it's best overcome quickly. We get further developments in her relationship with Spider-Man as the two find themselves getting ever closer but each tries to pull the other over to their side of the divide. There's an almost tragic climax as the Black Cat seemingly rolls to her death because she believes she faces nothing but jail, only for Jean DeWolff to subsequently tell Spidey that there is a conditional offer of a pardon for the Cat. However since she's shown before that cats have multiple lives, it's clear that this isn't the end of the Cat and she could return as strong a character as before.

There's also a one-off story as Spidey fights the Foolkiller, a madman seeking to rid the world of fools who tangles with Spider-Man - and then gets told that only a fool would do that. We also have a fill-in by Jan Strnad in which an unnamed scientist develops a method to make spiders attack and kill people, and then hires out the technique. It's an okay tale in itself but coming so soon after the end of a turgid run it does feel like a worrying step back. Fortunately the final two issues in this volume are a dramatic highpoint, so much so that one of them provides the volume's cover.

On paper the idea of Spider-Man fighting the Juggernaut is absurd given their respective power levels. But the story takes the imbalance and works with it so well, with the Juggernaut setting out to kidnap Madame Webb and Spider-Man discovering he's the only hero available to stop him. Then when it seems Madame Webb may die from being pulled out of her life support, Spider-Man is hit by guilt and remorse over his failure, and becomes determined to make amends by stopping the Juggernaut "or die trying". We thus get an explosive climax as Spidey tries again and again to stop the unstoppable, with girders, wrecking balls and petrol explosions all failing. Eventually he succeeds by tricking the Juggernaut into stepping into wet concrete foundations forty feet deep from which the behemoth doesn't emerge. The epilogue shows that Madame Webb has suffered memory loss, and possible power loss too, thus removing an all too convenient plot device from the picture and adding to Peter's guilt. All in all this story brings to the forefront many of the key elements that make Spider-Man what he is, and serves as an excellent climax to the volume.

This volume is very much one of two halves (okay two-thirds and one third), with the first thirteen issues and annual showing the series at a weak dull point in which nothing of any real significance happens and everything just goes through the motions. The last seven issues show a corner has been turned and starts improving things, both by enhancing some of the villains and by really taking Spidey to his roots without casually jettisoning storylines or glibly dismissing what had previously been shown as very real problems. This volume ends with a strong sense that there's even more excitement to come.


  1. Isn't the dog Ms. Lion not Miss Lion?

  2. It seems you're right - Comic Vine: Ms. Lion is mainly about the modern comic character but has a scan from the early 1980s tie-in one-shot and it is indeed "Ms. Lion".

    I can only plead a mixture of ignorance and others making the same mistake. The pronunciation in Spider-Man & His Amazing Friends doesn't easily distinguish and the subtitles on the DVD (at least here) are very difficult to turn on & off to check little details. Plus when I first saw the series in the 1980s I had never heard of "Ms." (it wasn't taught to us at school and no woman around me used it) and "Miss Lion" is used a lot on the web, presumably because many others could only go by what they heard.


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