Thursday, 12 July 2012

Essential Spider-Man volume 11

The next in line is Essential Spider-Man volume 11 which reprints Amazing Spider-Man #231-248 and Annuals #16-17. In addition we get Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entries for Captain Marvel and the Hobgoblin.

All the issues are written by Roger Stern, apart from #237 and annual #17 which are plotted by Stern and scripted by Bill Mantlo. The bulk of the regular issues and annual #16 are drawn by John Romita Jr, with a fill-in by Bob Hall and a back-up story by Ron Frenz. Annual #17 is drawn by Ed Hannigan.

This is a remarkable degree of stability for the title which hasn’t experienced it for a while, and it fortunately combines two of the best creators to ever work on Spider-Man. Stern and Romita Jr produce a high octane run that not even an individual weak entry can detract from, and it’s not hard to see why this era of Spider-Man remains so popular with many. By far the most lasting contribution comes in about the middle of the volume when we get the introduction of the Hobgoblin. Rather than putting Harry Osborn back in his father’s costume, or creating yet another Green Goblin, we instead get a variant on the theme, allowing for an intriguing new character. Wisely he’s built up steadily and we see his evolution as he first obtains the Green Goblin’s equipment and costumes and starts adapting them for his own, and then his ruthless quest to obtain the first Goblin’s super strength formula in a form that won’t have the dangerous side effects of explosives and madness. Despite appearing over four issues, the real Hobgoblin only clashes with Spider-Man on just six pages, instead using surrogates as he builds and consolidates his power base. He is a careful, scheming foe who plans ahead and seeks to learn from his mistakes, adapting whenever he can. He’s also ruthless, casually killing off his underlings once they’ve served their purpose. And there’s the mystery of his identity.

A huge amount has since been written about the Hobgoblin’s identity and the behind-the-scenes problems that resulted in it eventually being revealed the way it was. But nearly all of that relates to later periods. For now we have a straightforward mysterious villain with only a few clues to his identity – he’s clearly got contacts in the underworld, he already has the money to afford a country mansion and hi-tech (for the era) computers, he already holds some shares in Osborn Manufacturing and he doesn’t appear to be an old enemy of Spider-Man’s. Oh and he also knows how to adjust and dye clothes and create a new mask. Back in the Silver Age it was a cliché that villains were usually able to do this regardless of their powers or other skills. Did this rule still apply in 1982 or was this another clue? There are only a few suspects at this stage though it’s hard to imagine J. Jonah Jameson could be seriously considered one even if he was unusually wandering around with a new sports bag. Otherwise Lance Bannon and Blake Tower seem to be in one place at a time when the Hobgoblin is in another but beyond that the mystery itself isn’t really developed. It’s easy to see why it gripped readers so much at the time.

The other story from this run that’s much acclaimed is “The Kid Who Collects Spider-Man”, which is also Ron Frenz’s first work on Amazing Spider-Man (he had previously drawn a few issues of Marvel Team-Up and one of Spectacular). Frenz’s art is quite different from what had been the standard for Spider-Man since the late 1960s. Whereas most other artists had been following the style of John Romita (Sr), Frenz’s art owes a great deal to the style of Steve Ditko. It makes for a pleasant bit of variety. As for the story, this is one of a small handful of tales that probably more has been written about them than within them. It also appears on numerous lists of “best ever Spider-Man stories”. It’s not hard to see why. The tale is wonderful in its simplicity with a real punch at the end. A newspaper column has featured Tim Harrison, a young boy who is a huge fan of Spider-Man and collects things related to him, who wants to meet his hero and here he gets his wish, with his hero even unmasking in front of him. It’s a wonderful piece but then on the final page we learn the sad reason – “Tim Harrison has leukemia, and the doctors only give him a few more weeks to live”. That’s brought tears to many an eye. It’s also a reminder of how in the real world many sports stars, actors and other celebrities have found themselves similarly granting terminally ill children their greatest wish just by meeting them – a sign of the celebrities’ core decency but few would ever fulfil a wish such as this. The story was presumably commissioned as part of “Assistant Editors’ Month”, one of the earliest and most unusual Marvel line-wide events (which I’ll talk about more when Spectacular reaches it), but nothing on the cover showed it as such. Whilst radically different from the norm it just wasn’t part of the more general madcap approach that month.

In terms of long term impact on the wider Marvel universe, annual #16 is probably the most significant issue in this collection but as a Spider-Man story it’s a real oddity. It primarily exists to introduce the new Captain Marvel, yet another female superhero who owed her existence largely to Marvel’s desire to secure key intellectual property (in this case the trademark on the name). It also at times rather forgets just whose annual it actually is, especially as pages 9-25 are the detailed origin of the new hero, told in flashback, without a sign of the character whose name is on the logo. Indeed those seventeen pages could easily be extracted to be reprinted on their own, though I don’t know if that option was ever taken up. Following that she goes searching first for the Fantastic Four and then for the Avengers to seek help to contain her power, with Spider-Man following at a distance. Eventually he arrives to lend a hand as Iron Man succeeds. After all of this Captain Marvel (by whatever name, she’s gone through a few as superior claimants to her original name appear) would rarely be seen in the Spider-Man titles again, certainly no more than most other titleless forgotten Avengers. This debut should have taken place in Avengers, especially as only a couple of months later Captain Marvel was being accepted into their ranks. The annual also has two single page back-up features. One is a guide to the Daily Bugle staff and the other is “The Many Loves of Peter Parker!” Curiously the latter includes both Liz Allen and Glory Grant, despite nothing ever really happening between either of them and Peter and indeed their speech bubbles try to row back, telling us that Liz just had a crush and Glory didn’t get to know him better before moving out of his building. Was this a case of the art being drawn first, possibly from a confused list, and the text added afterwards to try and limit the error?

The other annual is surprisingly more conventional, despite having a less regular creative team. However the story is rather rambling, telling of the Kingpin’s attempts to neutralise information held by a sleazy publisher, whilst Peter Parker attends a high school reunion and comes across one former classmate being blackmailed by another over his links to the publisher. It’s a rather dry tale of down to earth crime and subterfuge and when compared with the regular issues at the time it just feels rather out of place and forgettable.

But the remaining regular issues are anything but that. We get a strong mixture of villains with some familiar Spider-Man ones like the Vulture, Will O’ The Wisp and the Tarantula, but also several more familiar from other Marvel titles including the Cobra, Mr Hyde, the Mad Thinker and his Awesome Android, Stilt-Man (who realises that by now no-one takes him seriously and tries to change that) and Thunderball. Many of these external foes seem out of Spider-Man’s class at first but that just adds to the tension as he has to find ways to bring them down. With Thunderball, Spidey winds up way out on the depths of Long Island and discovers his biggest problem isn’t defeating his foe but dealing with irate drivers furious that the road’s been brought to a standstill! The mixture of tension, pathos and comedy that is so vital to Spider-Man’s success remains present throughout this volumes and never lets up.

There’s also a willingness to develop existing villains rather than simply bringing them back for yet more rounds of the same, and this is most prominent with the Vulture. After twenty years we finally get to learn his origin as he comes out of hiding to get his revenge on his crooked ex-business partner. Whilst the precise scenario feels a little too close to that of Mendel Stromm the Robot Master for my liking, there are original elements such as how the flying harness was developed in the last days of the partnership and how the Vulture’s initial attack on the business pushed him into crime. It’s a strong origin for the character that has since lasted and shows a good sign of a writer willing to help enhance a previously underdeveloped villain. But all writers have their off days when they produce poor ideas and we get a major one here with the Tarantula being turned into a real giant man-spider and then being killed off. The Tarantula had been a relatively minor foe whose main point of interest is the spider motif, and he hadn’t appeared in the Spider-Man titles for over five years, so one could easily justify killing him off without much loss to the series overall. But his whole fate feels utterly out of step with his normal pattern, even if he is seeking a power upgrade, and just plain silly. The story also involves Will O’ The Wisp and the Brand Corporation, a subsidiary for Roxxon, Marvel’s usual hi-tech Evil Corporation that carries out unethical and illegal actions in many a story. But they’re just window dressing to the final fate of the Tarantula.

There are also a few developments in Peter’s civilian life of which by far the most significant is his decision to take a leave of absence from graduate school, with many expecting that he will ever return. And frankly this major decision, and the handling of it are in the wrong series. Up until now the bulk of Peter’s graduate school activities, and his supporting cast around him, have been featured in Spectacular as part of a wise move to allow each title a distinct focus. But here we get the sequence of events from Peter’s concern about his exam results through to his decision to leave, and the comedy as he has to navigate the endless queues and absent administrators who have to sign off his forms, in Amazing and it just feels out of place, particularly as one of his key motivating factors is the cost of the Black Cat’s hospitalisation, again something that happened in Spectacular. (Oh and just in case you were worried, Marvel Team-Up wasn’t left out of this either. In issue #134, which is quite some way off in the Essentials, it got to carry the epilogue to the graduate school days by showing the story where Peter cleared out his locker and said a final goodbye, as well as getting caught up in yet another crisis on campus.) And earlier on there’s a short scene where Peter clears out his desk after giving up his teaching duties (this decision actually was taken in Spectacular), but his luck runs true to form and he misses the surprise party held for him by his office maters. Whatever the reason for telling these stories where they were, it’s a worrying indication of a trend away from keeping each title distinctive and instead seeing the books slowly fuse together to the point where burn out and redundancy is risked.

Peter’s romantic life also sees some developments. At first he has to fend off the unwanted attentions of Amy Powell as part of her complicated relationship with Lance Bannon, Peter’s main photographer rival at the Bugle. Peter’s involvement in the whole thing is quite short as he manages to evade and avoid Amy at first, and then soon learns what’s going on and does his best to get Lance to sort it out. However there is the uncomfortable moment when Amy turns up unexpectedly at his flat and starts kissing him strongly, then suddenly Mary Jane walks in!

It’s quite clear that a lot of people think Peter and Mary Jane should be together, and soon there’s no end of attempted matchmaking as friends and relatives lure them separately to meals to find the other already there – by the time he arrives at a table to find just Aunt May and Anna Watson, Peter is expressing relief at the change. Then Mary Jane arrives with Nathan! We also learn that there’s seemingly more to Mary Jane than we’ve previously thought, particularly when Aunt May tells Peter that both he and MJ have “both lost so… so very much”. And in one interesting issue we see Mary Jane daydreaming and imagining herself a successful actress who even has a play dramatising her own life starring herself – and then she’s interrupted by the appearance of her sister, a working class single mother of two, and something about the thought freaks her out. Together with the odd other moment that suggests there’s quite a serious side to her as well as her ever outgoing, funloving personality, it’s clear that there are greater depths to the character but at this stage it remains uncertain whether she and Peter will rekindle their romance. At this stage Peter has an alternative in the form of Felicia Hardy, the Black Cat, currently hospitalised following contemporary events in Spectacular, which is where nearly all the developments in their relationship occur. However in the daydreaming issue we see Felicia imaging a glamorous adventure with Spider-Man, who unmasks to reveal… Cary Grant. (Well Grant at his prime – when the issue, #246, was printed he was 83.) It’s a sign of just how great a gulf there is between Felicia’s hopes and the reality of Peter’s life, which she has not yet been introduced to.

In general this volume shows the series in one of its best periods. The writing and art complement each other well, whilst the stories put both Spider-Man and Peter through a quite diverse range of situations without once stepping into the ridiculous. Apart from some minor slippage in allowing the boundaries between the two titles to blur at points, and an annual where the title character is reduced to a supporting guest star, there aren’t really any lapses. Most of the individual stories are at the very least good to very good, and there are some individual tales that really stand out, whether for what they do with the villains or how they go in a very human direction. This is definitely one of the best runs in Spider-Man’s history.

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