Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Essential Web of Spider-Man volume 1

1984 was a big year for Marvel and for its flagship character. The company printed one of its most successful series of the modern era, Marvel Super Heroes: Secret Wars, bringing together most of their major characters for an epic adventure. Such tales may now seem commonplace, but at the time this was a novel venture. The series had many ramifications including Spider-Man returning home with his new black and white costume. However it subsequently turned out to be an alien entity that tried to bond with Peter until Mr Fantastic separated the two with a sonic gun. But like all bad pennies the costume would turn up again...

Alongside this and many over developments that year came a major transformation in the range of titles available. Marvel Team-Up had run for thirteen years with 150 issues and seven annuals but was now brought to an end. I suppose that with team-ups between heroes becoming ever more common in both regular titles and special series – and Secret Wars was the flagship for this development – a dedicated team-up book was considered surplus to requirements (although the concept has been tried again several times since). It’s worth noting that this was a period in which most of the team-up books at Marvel and DC were being phased out - the previous year had seen the Thing's team-up book, Marvel Two-in-One replaced with a solo series and DC had similarly replaced their Batman team-up book, The Brave and the Bold, with the team book Batman and the Outsiders, whilst the regular Batman/Superman team-up in World’s Finest would only outlast Team-Up by about a year. Superman team-ups were a little more durable with DC Comics Presents lasting until the mid 1986 relaunch of the line, when Action Comics initially became a team-up book for the new incarnation, though it only lasted in this form until mid 1988.

In the place of Team-Up came a new title, Spider-Man’s third regular series – Web of Spider-Man, and we now turn to the first Essential Web volume containing issues #1-18, Annuals #1 & 2 and Amazing #268 which featured a crossover with Web.

(And yes, I know that I’ve only covered the first half of Marvel Team-Up in my previous reviews. But that’s because Marvel has yet to Essentialise the other half of the series. But I’ll save my thoughts on where the volumes have got to for a finishing post.)

The traditional criticism of Web is that the title lacked stable creative teams and at times was little more than a permanent fill-in series. How true is that of the issues in these volumes? Here are the full lists of writers and artists:

  • 1-3. Louise Simonson
  • 4-6. Danny Fingeroth
  • (Amazing Spider-Man 268. Tom DeFalco)
  • 7. Peter David
  • 8-9. David Michelinie
  • Annual 1. Ann Nocenti
  • 10. Danny Fingeroth
  • 11. Plot: Danny Fingeroth Script: Bill Mantlo
  • 12-13. Peter David
  • 14-18. David Michelinie
  • Annual 2. Ann Nocenti
  • 1-4. Greg LaRocque
  • 5. Jim Mooney
  • 6. Mike Harris
  • (Amazing Spider-Man 268. Ron Frenz)
  • 7. Sal Buscema
  • 8-9. Geof Isherwood
  • Annual 1. Tony Salmons
  • 10. Jim Mooney
  • 11. Bob McLeod
  • 12. Sal Buscema
  • 13-15. Mike Harris
  • 16-18. Marc Silvestri
  • Annual 2. Arthur Adams (main story)/Mike Mignola (back-up)
(Due to the huge number of creators, some of the labels have been placed in a separate post.)

Well it’s certainly true there were five different writers on the first eleven issues, a trait shared with Spectacular. But even worse than its sister title it also couldn’t hang onto a regular artist at the same stage. The last few issues suggest a regular creative team had finally been found, but as we’ll see when we get to volume two it didn’t last very long (although for a few years Michelinie would retain the record for the longest serving Web writer). It’s perhaps a further sign of the problems that the very first issue has two editors, although the incoming one stayed around for the rest of the volume. There have been many columns, posts, interviews and articles about the behind the scenes situation on the Spider-Man books in this period, with several of the key personnel in strong disagreement about what happened, and I’m reluctant to wade into that quagmire. However if there was a chaotic situation as the background then it’s easy to see how Web was crippled from birth, lacking an initial purpose and clear direction. Now it’s true that Spectacular had also had an equally messy start but after its first year it found a regular writer and then carried first some highly memorable adventures and then found its own niche by focusing on distinct situations and characters. But at the very same time Web was launched, Spectacular had just lost the last of its distinct supporting cast and would take some months to find a new distinct position based on tone. To have a third title also trying to find its way in the same crowd couldn’t have helped. And whilst David Michelinie’s stories do indeed bring something unique in the form of Peter Parker being sent out of New York on assignments for Jonah’s revived magazine, they also bring to the forefront the awkwardness of Peter and Spider-Man regularly showing up in the same towns and cities (and later countries) without his identity being discovered.

On top of all this the distinctions between the Spider-Man books began to break down even further in this period with the rise of crossovers between them. Whilst the titles had for a long time referenced one another and sometimes even had a sequel to events in one in another, formal crossovers between them had been limited to one year when the Amazing and Spectacular annuals carried a two part story. But within this volume we get the first crossover in the regular series, starting with the Secret Wars II tie-ins as we get a two-parter in which Spider-Man deals with the aftermath of the Beyonder turning a skyscraper into gold. (We don’t, however, get the Secret Wars II issue itself so we miss out on the scene where the Beyonder visits Peter in his flat and has to learn how to perform a basic human function. That’s probably for the best.) But there’s another crossover also stemming from these issues, though reading just Web on its own one could be mistaken for missing it. Issues #16-18 carry the “Missing in Action” storyline as Peter and Joy Mercado investigate events in Appalachia and at one point an underground base explodes with Spider-Man inside, leaving only a tattered costume behind (which was also used as the opportunity to temporarily stop using the red and blue costume for a couple of years). It’s a strong cliffhanger in its own right but was boosted by that month’s issues of Amazing and Spectacular tying in by featuring events in the absence of Spidey. Fortunately the issues in this particular crossover can all be read on their own, but it was again an indication of how the titles could so easily be blurred together if not handled carefully.

A sign of that blurring comes right at the start. The first issue isn’t a debut issue in any way. There’s no attempt to introduce Spidey afresh or his current supporting cast – a one page scene with Aunt May and Mary Jane discussing Peter dropping out of graduate school provides little of the wider context and sums up the general problem that the issue is another chapter in the ongoing Spider-Man saga rather than taking the opportunity to introduce or refresh readers. The bulk of the issue is taken up with the final chapter (for now) in the story of Spider-Man’s alien costume, which had already run over Secret Wars, Amazing and Spectacular. Putting the final showdown in the new book may have seemed like a way to lure existing Spider-Man readers in at the start but as well as being new reader repellent it also adds to the general identity problems the series had.

Although notionally a successor to Marvel Team-Up, there are very few issues that actually guest-star other Marvel characters. The Hulk turns up in Peter’s nightmare in issue #7 which is apparently actually set in the realm of Nightmare and features the real Hulk, but it’s such a confused story and if one isn’t familiar with contemporary events in Incredible Hulk the story makes very little sense. Dominic Fortune pops up in issue #10 as an older present day version of the Second World War hero – in 1985 it was just about credible for him to be young enough to be somewhat active but not as young as he’d like, but twenty-seven years later and it would be necessary to add one of the various “extra youth” explanations that are used for the likes of Nick Fury and other who were active in the war and stayed so into the present day. The second annual features Warlock of the New Mutants and sees the bizarre alien trying to understand “real life” and getting investigated by scientists in an utterly unsubtle parallel to animal testing. None of these appearances really stand out as anything particularly memorable.

The second annual also features a back-up in which Peter experiences another nightmare, this time reflecting on how to balance the different parts of his life, but it doesn’t really add anything at all. The first annual is also easy to forget, telling the story of a disabled science nerd child who gets manipulated into building a suit of armour for a criminal actor who keeps shifting characterisations and movie quotes. Annuals are tricky beasts at the best of times, but when they’re not written by a writer experienced with the character and title they often wind up as completely inconsequential one-offs that focus more on the story’s original characters and/or guest stars than on the actual title character. Whilst Web’s regular issues had yet to settle on a clear team, there’s no sign that Ann Nocenti was considered at this stage, and thus the two annuals are her very first work on Spider-Man and basically fill-ins like most of her later contributions. (I believe she’s a contender for the record for the most prolific fill-in writer on Spider-Man who never had regular stint on any of the titles.) Nor does the second annual fit into the travelling Peter/Spidey format that Web had adopted by the time it came out (it’s placed at the very end, after #18).

As for the rest of the regular issues, we get quite a mix. There’s a few classic big name villains including the Vulture, the Kingpin, Doctor Octopus and the Shocker, plus return appearances by lesser known ones like the Arranger, the Black Fox and Magma. The only first appearances of recurring foes are Chance and the Vulturions, neither of whom were used much in later years. The Vulturions appear to be yet another attempt to replace the Vulture with younger, more active characters and this time we get a gang of four who’ve managed to duplicate his wings. But they’re generally incompetent poor knock-offs of the real thing, and it doesn’t help that their storyline occupies the first three issues, so it’s a relief when in issue #3 the real Vulture breaks out of jail to put them in their place. And the team wouldn’t be seen again for over twenty years. Otherwise we get a mix of ordinary criminals, random one-offs with particular powers or weapons, and forgettable corporate faces.

Despite all the problems there are some good individual stories. There’s a particularly interesting tale featuring Doctor Octopus (who once again has had his metal arms & harness separated from his body but responsive to his thoughts – this appears to be a continuity error that overlooks that they were refused to him back in the #130s of Amazing) as he suffers from mental breakdowns following both his last fight with Spider-Man and some of the amazing things he witnessed during the Secret Wars. Another story sees Peter stopping a robbery out of costume, and having to deal with the consequences of becoming a local have-a-go hero who inspires others into action whilst the gang he stopped try to get their revenge on him.

There’s also some good developments in Peter’s photographic career, stemming from the arrival of new Daily Bugle City Editor Kate Cushing. Whilst Peter had had problems before with both Robbie being more critical of his work and competition from Lance Bannon, Cushing is even harsher and Peter finds it much harder to sell photographs to the Bugle, even when he resorts to unusual methods such as sneaking into an embassy’s ventilation system to photograph a key summit. However as one door swings towards closed, another opens as he gets assigned first for the Sunday supplement and then for Jonah’s revived Now magazine, taking Peter ever more out of New York and also contrasting his journalistic ethics with those of other reports. The first time (#8-9) sees him in a small Pennsylvania town as he tracks down the story of the Smithville Thunderbolt, a man who has protected the town for thirty years but now finds his powers fading, a local reporter getting close to the truth and another man has gained similar powers and wants to take his place. There’s no happy ending either as the Thunderbolt’s identity is outed in the local paper and fearing ridicule he commits suicide, even as a crowd turns out to thank him. The final page sees the reporter seeing the consequence of her actions yet still pulls out a camera to photograph the corpse. It’s a bitter-sweet tale of how irresponsible the press can be in the pursuit of readership and promotion. The trip to Appalachia that triggers the “Missing in Action” crossover sees Peter teamed up with Bugle/Now reporter Joy Mercado, a teaming that would be returned to and raise the question of how Peter could keep his identity secret from a shrewd reporter when Spider-Man shows up in the same places. However we don’t at this stage get another clash between Peter and Joy’s different approaches to the job, but instead the themes of journalistic ethics are also explored in issue #13 in which Spider-Man’s actions are misreported by the Bugle and he decides to have it out with Jonah once and for all. But after smashing into Jonah’s office, then threatening and berating the publisher he is taken aback when Jonah points out that Spider-Man is acting like the menace he’s accused of being. Afterwards Jonah approves a retraction of the latest charge and then privately comments to himself that he doesn’t have to do this and how both he and Spider-Man might have the wrong impression of each other, but will never admit it.

For several issues there’s an ongoing ethical dilemma for Peter. When helping clear up at the skyscraper turned to gold, together with everything in it, he was incensed to discover the government was paying the Kingpin with several gold typewriters from the building, though he subsequently discovered this was an emergency deal to keep the existence of so much gold secret and save the world economy. But in his rage he opted to take a golden notebook for himself. Subsequent issues see him pondering on what to do with it and whether it’s right to cash it in. Eventually he opts to do so but accepts a ridiculously low amount from a fence and opts to spend what he can get all on Nathan Lubensky’s (Aunt May’s fiancée) hospital bills, feeling better at not personally benefiting despite his apartment needing urgent repairs if he’s to avoid eviction. (In the end Mary Jane pays for the repairs and Peter only discovers this once they’re done.) It’s not the most extended of ethical debates, especially as Spider-Man’s original justification for taking the notebook is soon overturned and so we’re left with him wondering what to do with an item he should never have had in the first place.

In general this volume of issues contains some gems but also shows what a total mess of a title Web was to begin with. It takes a while to find a distinct direction – and even at the time this was noticed with issue #16’s cover declaring “Don’t miss the 1st issue in Web’s daring new adventures into mystery and suspense!” with the “1” quite large. In later years more fuss would be made about this sort of thing being a “jumping on point” for new readers. It’s a sign that the title was probably ill-conceived to begin with as there just doesn’t appear to be a reason to have a third Spider-Man title on the market and the title itself didn’t go out of its way to take advantage of being new to bring in extra readers. Whilst the Team-Up concept might now have been tired (as the near contemporary ending of some of the equivalent DC titles would suggest), that didn’t mean just replacing it with a third Spider-Man solo title was the solution. The failure in the first year to get any writer to last longer than three issues just adds to the problems. Perhaps it might have been better to make a virtue of this and have a rotational title that would allow a mixture of new talent testing the water and big names whose other commitments prevented them from doing a regular run on Spider-Man. But instead the title set out to have an ongoing team with an ongoing distinctive purpose, and only at the end of this volume did it seemingly find such an arrangement. There are very few developments of any significance in this volume apart from the final showdown with the alien costume in the first issue. Even the destruction of Spider-Man’s red and blue costume was a short-term affair (and also a little silly as he’s made multiple costumes over the years). All in all this may have been the point when Spider-Man passed the point of no return on overuse, though it took some time to realise that.

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