Monday, 2 July 2012

Essential Spider-Man volume 9

Now we come to Essential Spider-Man volume 9 which reprints Amazing Spider-Man #186-210, Annuals #13 & 14 and Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man Annual #1, which crosses over with Amazing Annual #13, the first ever crossover between two Spider-Man titles.

(If you’re wondering what happened to Annual #12, it was another all reprint issue representing Amazing #119 & 120 – Spidey’s battle with the Hulk, no doubt to tie in with both characters’ TV series which were running at the time.)

The issues in this volume cover the bulk of Marv Wolfman’s run from #186-204 & Annual #13, then the start of Denny O’Neil’s run from issues #207-210 & Annual #14. #205 & 206 are fill-ins written by David Michelinie (his first ever Spider-Man story) and Roger Stern respectively, whilst Spectacular Annual #1 is written by Bill Mantlo. The art is a little more unstable, with Keith Pollard forming the backbone up to #205 but with Jim Starlin, John Byrne, Al Milgrom and Sal Buscema all doing various issues en route. Then the book enters a state of flux with John Byrne, Jim Mooney, John Romita Jr and Alan Weiss each handling an issue in succession before the final issue announces John Romita Jr as the permanent penciller. The Amazing annuals are drawn by John Byrne and Frank Miller, and the Spectacular one by Rich Buckler. Due to the large number of creators, the labels have been placed in a separate post.

Wolfman’s run is practically non-stop, taking Spidey through some incredible highs and lows. In the first issue contained here, Spidey gets some wonderful luck as District Attorney Blake Tower clears him of the accusations of murdering Captain Stacey and Norman Osborn. This gives him relief from the hassle of the police and a period of general popularity, with even interest from merchandisers (and some good in-jokes about the Spider-Man TV series), but there’s always one dissenter and J. Jonah Jameson keeps up the pressure. Jonah has his own cycle of despair in this volume, starting with his son’s kidnap and seeming death in battle with Spider-Man, and culminating in a nervous breakdown. In the course of events Jonah at one stage winds up shackled to Spider-Man and a bomb due to go off after twenty-four hours and we get one of the best looks at Jonah’s relationship with Spider-Man. In subsequent issues Jonah breaks down completely and starts firing key Bugle staff, including both Robbie and Peter, before succumbing completely and being hospitalised. Robbie is brought back to the Bugle to take over from Jonah, only to find he too is succumbing to stress and anger. It’s a strong look at the trials and tribulations many bosses go through and offers us a strong insight into the kind of man Jonah is beneath the bluster...

Or rather, it would if not for an abrupt change of tact. Issue #206 is perhaps the most dreaded type of all – a fill-in assignment that tries to wrap up previous authors’ plotlines in a single issue. And so we get the revelation that the Bugle editor’s office has been the target of Dr Jonas Harrow’s Mental Attitude-Response Variator Ray. Harrow had been a shadowy figure over many issues, creating or modifying supervillains like Hammerhead, Will o’ the Wisp and the Kangaroo, but now he gets rapidly taken down by Spider-Man, whilst Jonah and Robbie end the story with their mental states back to normal. As well as being an incredibly glib way to treat the subject of mental illness this also bears all the hallmarks of a Reset Switch approach to the series, as development is chucked aside in favour of a quickie restoration of the traditional status quo.

The same approach is taken to Peter’s time at the Daily Globe. As noted above Peter is fired by Jonah, but then gets snatched up by the Bugle’s rival with the mysterious publisher, K.J. Clayton, being especially keen to have him aboard. (Peter’s actual arrival at the Globe is a little blurred in this volume, with his first assignment taking place in Fantastic Four #207 which isn’t reprinted here – and for that matter it hasn’t yet been reached by Essential Fantastic Four – possibly because that issue was a fill-in and may have been taken from file. It’s hard to say what happens there without the issue to hand.) With Peter on staff and even having his own office there’s a whole new set of dynamics in the workplace, particularly in his interactions with journalist April Maye who finds his running off infuriating, especially as on their first meeting she was trying to get lunch with him. Throw in Editor-in-chief Barney Bushkin who is almost over-enthusiastic for Peter’s work and it’s a good change of pace from the familiar routine of the Bugle, whilst the never-seen Clayton brings a strong mystery. Unfortunately this is all ditched in a single issue in which Clayton is revealed as an old woman who hired a young actress to pose as her and circulation manager Rupert Dockery (an import from the Spider-Woman series, and I'll discuss him in more depth there, although curiously the former Courier publisher has been accepted into middle management) tries to have them both killed to take over the Globe. The confrontation ends with Clayton retiring without ever revealing why she was so interested in Peter’s work, the Globe suspending publication and the very final panel of the issue (and volume) shows Jonah ringing Peter to hire him again. Once again the Reset Switch is thrown and everything is undone. Before Spider-Man had gone through many changes and avoided the inertia of an unchangeable status quo. But here we get the tendency for new writers to rapidly wipe the slate clean and undo their predecessors’ developments, an unhelpful sign.

But that’s not say all reversions are necessarily bad. Way back in issues #141-142 the death of the original Mysterio was casually announced and we were given a new Mysterio who wasn’t really that bold or different enough to justify a replacement. Now the original is brought back, having merely faked his death so that a successor would take on his role whilst he worked more discretely. Mysterio’s new scheme of running a retirement home and inducing the residents to leave their property to him is a far more subtle (and more borderline legal) crime than his past exploits but it shows the character learning from the past cycle of crime-fight-imprisonment and the realisation of a need for a more subtle approach out of sight. Unfortunately he hadn’t reckoned on the problems that would follow from the admission of one resident, May Parker.

It’s worth remembering that for a long time many fans wondered if Aunt May would ever be allowed to die given her numerous heart attacks, and this led to some quite vocal demands for her to be killed off altogether – one such is the article entitled “Aunt May Must Die!” in FantaCo’s Chronicles Series #5, the Spider-Man issue of an early 1980s series focusing on the background of popular comics series. (Its check-list of all the issues printed up until mid 1982 has been incredibly helpful in writing these reviews as I can verify issue numbers at a glance.) So when at the end of issue #195 Peter gets home to find a telegram telling him that Aunt May has passed away (and on this occasion I think the off-panel nature of the death works as it increases Peter’s sense of despair), to be followed by the cover of the next issue showing Peter at May’s grave, I am sure many readers believed that Marvel had finally done it. Just to twist the knife in Peter even further is the involvement of the Burglar who killed Uncle Ben all those years ago.

With distractions en route by Mysterio and the Kingpin (another return from the dead but it was a classic “disappeared in a collapsing structure” “death” so that doesn’t count) the series races towards the double-sized issue #200 in which Spider-Man takes on his very first foe once more. It’s a surprisingly intense and personal issue, made all the stronger as Spider-Man has been injected with a depressant that makes him lose his spider-powers. But there is so much more to Spider-Man than strength, the ability to stick to walls and his spider-sense, as we see Peter going all out to track down the mystery of who trashed Aunt May’s house and why. There are no super-villains in the issue, and instead we see Peter playing detective as he discovers the Burglar (who is wisely never actually named here) is involved and why – the Parker home was once owned by a gangster in the Prohibition era who hid his money there when he went to prison, where he shared a cell with the Burglar before dying. The Burglar was trying to recover the loot. (I am a little sceptical about this because whilst I don’t know how many times US notes have been changed, inflation was such that by the late 1970s what had been a fortune fifty years earlier would now be worth rather less. But then criminals in comic books aren’t always the most rational of beings and once committed to obtaining something many will keep going no matter what.) The story also sees Spider-Man revisit the site of his first great failure, the television station where he refused to stop the Burglar. Now he gets the chance to partially redeem himself by stopping another thief being chased by the same security guard. Just to add to the sense of full circle the climax of the story takes place in the same warehouse where we learn that Aunt May is alive after all, her death having been faked by Mysterio and the Burglar just to stop Peter finding out what they were up to. We also get the first ever flashback that actually shows Ben’s death as he tried to protect May that night. In just a few panels we see that Ben died a hero, and that Peter has inherited his values, and that May had the horror of seeing her husband shot and die at her side. All of these revelations fit perfectly around the original story in Amazing Fantasy #15, never once altering any of the key details or introducing unnecessary aspects. We get an amazing climax as Spider-Man chases the Burglar through the warehouse, revealing his identity in the process, but declaring that he won’t kill his foe as that would make him no better “and if I’ve learned anything – it’s that with great power there also comes GREAT RESPONSIBILITY!” However the Burglar is so scared and dies of a heart attack. Finally we get a major step forward in Aunt May’s relationship with Spider-Man as she learns to trust him and let him help her. The epilogue sees her recovering, and brings the ironic revelation that silverfish had long ago eaten away the money, whilst the final page sees Spider-Man realise that his powers have also enhanced his moral values and he can never give up. This is a magnificent anniversary issue that revisits the character’s origins and literally propels him forward as a permanent fixture.

(Oh and issue #200 has an interesting note on the question of who created Spider-Man. The splash page begins “200 issues ago, Stan Lee & Steve Ditko created a classic!” but further down it states “Spidey’s creator Stan (the Man) Lee...” So I assume the banner line means the story rather than the character. I’m reluctant to take this as a “definitive Marvel statement” on the matter because I don’t know if the issue was disputed at high level back in 1979, and one should always be cautious in situations where fans are more obsessed with a disputed question than the companies involved, with the latter not always making an effort to ensure every single utterance is consistent.)

Whilst Spider-Man’s values of justice are enhanced, this volume also sees Peter Parker going through some more dubious personal affairs. His relationship with Mary Jane is finally finished in this volume, following her rejection of his proposal at the end of the last one, particularly after a string of rescue dates are stopped by Spider-Man activities, and she leaves his life for good (for now). In her place we get three concepts in one – the ex, the rebound and the married woman, all in the form of Betty Brant-Leeds. Having left Ned she becomes very clingy around Peter, wanting him clearly. Peter is uncertain at first but then we get the big misstep when he sleeps Betty. (I’m aware some dispute this but I think issue #189 is pretty clear where one page ends with the two snogging and the next page has a caption commenting on discretion and so picking things up several hours later – this is as blatant as they could be at the time.) Following this Peter starts to agree with her that things can happen. But then Ned returns and punches Peter’s lights out before dragging Betty away. Peter soon comes to the conclusion that Betty would be better off with her husband, but goes about this in a monumentally appalling way when he declares them both “loonies” and tells Betty “you were just convenient... you showed up when Mary Jane jilted me.” He doesn’t mean this but is trying to push her back and instead shatters her, in a move that alienates other friends like Flash and Harry as well (although they later learn he didn’t mean it). Betty may well be extremely clingy and difficult to throw off, but Peter can be a real jerk when it comes to personal relations. After this the main focus of Peter’s love life shifted to Spectacular where he started dating Debbie Whitman and the two are seen on dates in the last few Amazing issues here. However we also meet the first woman in Spider-Man’s (as opposed to Peter Parker’s) life.

It’s an unfortunate feature that there are very few prominent female supervillains, not just in Spider-Man’s rogues’ gallery but in comics generally. So my initial reaction to the Black Cat was to assume she was a Catwoman knock-off, though wisely there’s a strong emphasis on her bringing bad luck and her relationship with her father to distance her from Selina Kyle. Her attraction to Spider-Man is upfront from the start but it gets silly at the end of her second appearance where she’s revealed to have developed an obsession with him as a substitute for her father. (This may be another casualty of the changing writers as the issue in question, #205, is the first after Marv Wolfman left.) Otherwise there’s an almost playful element to her encounters with Spider-Man and both acknowledge it, upping the dilemma. At the end of issue #205 Spider-Man takes the Cat off to get psychiatric help and it feels such a waste of an intriguing character. (In fact she would be back later.) For those hoping for a relationship between Spider-Man and another costumed figure, there’s another candidate seen in issue #203 which has an early appearance by the Dazzler in preparation for her own series. After Spider-Man saves her from the Lightmaster, the final panel suggests it could be the start of something. Now there’s a missed opportunity!

The other big “event” of this volume is the first ever crossover between Spider-Man titles with a two-part Doctor Octopus story, but rather than run it in the regular monthlies it instead appears in the annuals, perhaps a sign of continued caution and a wish to keep the two monthly books as distinct as possible. A similar approach is taken with the annuals, with the Amazing part focusing on Doc Ock’s return and Spider-Man’s mission to prove that a secret agent was murdered, with help from a mysterious man who turns out to be the agent’s ghost. The Spectacular part involves Doc Ock’s plan to hijack a nuclear submarine, with the complication that one of his tentacles was torn off in his earlier encounter with Spidey. It’s another action piece but feels a little routine. As the first crossover it was natural to use Spidey’s greatest active villain but this is a bit too formulaic for a series that so frequently went beyond such measures. However it’s hardly the first time, or even the first annual, that Doc Ock has been the lead villain simply because it’s a job for the arch-enemy. The other annual in this volume (#14) is more forgettable, containing a team-up between Spider-Man and Dr Strange as they take on an agent of Dormammu and Dr Doom. The emphasis is a little too much on Dr Strange, with Spider-Man not even appearing until the end of page 14 of this forty-page tale. Whilst there’s an understandable desire to team up the two biggest Ditko co-creations, it should be on more balanced terms. Or else the story should have been run either in Dr Strange’s own title or in Marvel Team-Up.

In general there aren’t that many changes to Spider-Man’s Rogues’ Gallery in this volume beyond the addition of the Black Cat and the return of the original Mysterio. There are a few new villains in the O’Neil issues but apart from Kraven’s lady friend Calypso they all feel silly and one-off like Mesmero or Fusion. However there is one major change as a dying Spencer Smythe seeks vengeance against not just Spider-Man but also Jonah. Smythe was always one of the more minor villains anyway and mad scientists are two a penny so his death (and it’s certainly intended to be a permanent death with a corpse shown) doesn’t really remove anything major from the series. And it comes in a dramatic showdown as Jonah is forced to once again face up to the consequences, even though Smythe in his madness has forgotten his own enthusiasm for the Spider-Slayers.

For the most part this volume shows one of the most consistently solid periods on Spider-Man, apart from the letdown at the end which is an example of how new writers can often be incredibly careless with pre-existing plotlines. Otherwise there’s a lot of development in these issues, putting Spider-Man through some quite intense and personal situations but eventually winning through. My favourite issue in this volume is easily #200 but there are many great moments throughout it.

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