Sunday, 22 July 2012

Essential Web of Spider-Man volume 2

The most recent Spider-Man Essential volume, both chronologically and in order of publication, is Essential Web of Spider-Man volume 2 which contains Web of Spider-Man #19-32 & Annual #3, plus Amazing Spider-Man #293-294 and Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #131-12, the latter four issues being part of the “Kraven’s Last Hunt” story which ran across all three titles. In addition, we get the original pencils for the covers to issues #31 & 32.

Given Web’s reputation for very short runs and umpteen fill-ins, once again I’ll give a full breakdown of the writers and artists:

  • 19-20. David Michelinie
  • 21. Larry Lieber
  • 22. Plot: Jim Shooter (although he denies it) Script: Len Kaminski
  • 23-24. Plot: David Michelinie Script: Len Kaminski
  • 25. Larry Leiber
  • 26. Plot: Stefan Petrucha Script: Len Kaminski
  • 27. Dwight Jon Zimmerman
  • 28. Bob Layton
  • 29-30. Jim Owsley (now Christopher J. Priest)
  • 31. J.M. DeMatteis
  • (Amazing 293. J.M. DeMatteis)
  • (Spectacular 131. J.M. DeMatteis)
  • 32. J.M. DeMatteis
  • (Amazing 294. J.M. DeMatteis)
  • (Spectacular 132. J.M. DeMatteis)
  • Annual 3. Danny Fingeroth & Roger Stern
  • 19-20. Marc Silvestri
  • 21. Larry Lieber
  • 22. Marc Silvestri
  • 23. Jim Fern
  • 24. Del Barras
  • 25. Larry Leiber
  • 26. Tom Morgan
  • 27. Dave Simons
  • 28-30. Steve Geiger
  • 31. Mike Zeck
  • (Amazing 293. Mike Zeck)
  • (Spectacular 131. Mike Zeck)
  • 32. Mike Zeck
  • (Amazing 294. Mike Zeck)
  • (Spectacular 132. Mike Zeck)
  • Annual 3. Lots. Rather than tell any stories the annual is full of short descriptive features.
(Issue #20, #22 & #32 carry no credits themselves. It’s my understanding that subsequent letters pages revealed them, and they’re listed on the contents pages of the volume. As noted above Jim Shooter denies plotting issue #22 so either this plot credit is inaccurate or it only refers to emergency orders from the editor-in-chief to drastically alter the issue for reasons I’ll come to or he’s misremembering.)

(Once again that's a lot of creators so some of the labels have been placed in a separate post.)

It says a lot about the creative instability on Web that the longest continuous run in this volume by either a writer or an artist, let alone a team, is a crossover that the title contributed only two issues to. Otherwise David Michelinie had written seven issues in a row (#14-20) whilst Marc Silvestri had done five in a row (#16-20) and these would remain the records for each until Alex Saviuk drew the sixth of eight issues in a row with #43 whilst the writing record would be broken by Gerry Conway on #57, part of a run of twenty continuous issues. So regardless of whether the title later managed to turn the corner, at this stage Web’s reputation for no stable creative team was unfortunately well deserved.

As you might expect this is very much a volume of bits and pieces, exemplified by the annual not actually carrying a story but instead being full of features. Coming out when Spider-Man had a major publicity boost due to his wedding to Mary Jane, the annual feels a bit like one of the [Something] Files one-shots that came out in the 1990s designed to introduce new readers to the detailed continuity of a character. Half the annual is taken up introducing various Spider-Man, most of his supporting cast, his regular locations such as his apartment, the Daily Bugle building and the Empire State University campus, and three of his biggest current foes – the Hobgoblin, the Kingpin and the Rose. The other half is aimed much more at the long term reader with “A Gallery of Spider-Man’s Forgotten Foes!”, presenting one page pieces on such memorable villains as the Big Wheel, Cyclone, Drom the Backward Man, the Grizzly, the Man Killer, the Men-Fish, Midas the Golden Man, Rocket Racer and more (but no Hypno-Hustler). About half the foes listed first appeared in Marvel Team-Up and several had never returned. It’s an odd feature to devote so much space to, especially as it’s the sort of thing that appeals to the complete opposite of the presumed target for the other half of the annual. Overall the annual sums up the mess the series is in with a few good ideas pulling in different directions and absolutely no overall coherence.

The regular series begins with reasonable promise, starting with the debut of Humbug, another entry in silliest villains stake (he’s recorded lots of insect sounds and amplifies them as a weapon!), but it’s largely a interlude as Peter make preparations for an overseas assignment. Then issues #20-22 see Peter and Daily Bugle reporter Joy Mercado in the United Kingdom, being sent to cover a speech on terrorism by Margaret Thatcher but in the process they run into the Provisional IRA and follow the trail to Belfast. Or rather what the story presents as the Provos, but it gets so much wrong people could and did get seriously offended.

Where to begin with all the mistakes? Some are the straightforward poorly researched portrayal of countries that owe more to clichéd stereotypes than reality, particularly the portrayal of London. It would be nit-picking to go through all the errors, so suffice it to say that it just shows the writer and artist did not do proper research. Offensive on a totally different level is the presentation of the Northern Ireland conflict. The idea that it’s all down to sixteenth century fear of Spain is... interesting to say the least. Equally so is the idea of an IRA unit fighting for the “Red Hand”, a symbol of Ulster/Northern Ireland that is normally used by loyalist terrorists. And contrary to the implication of Joy Mercado’s explanation, the Republic of Ireland did not sponsor terrorism during the Troubles or try to take over Northern Ireland by armed force. And she’s supposed to be a top journalist! And as for the opening scene where a bomb detonates prematurely in an airport and two terrorists whip out sub-machine guns, fatally wounding a six year old child? Was this story trying to cover all bases to ensure that no-one was left unoffended?

The idea of putting Spider-Man into a grim, real world situation is not a bad one. But it’s the sort of thing that should be handled delicately and with proper research to have a clear understanding of the characters and situations. This is doubly so when writing for an audience who can easily form opinions on subjects about which they know only a little. Major mistakes were made with this issue and there’s a lot in issue #20 that can offend a lot of people. At the time it led to a bomb threat at the Marvel offices. (Jim Shooter: Untold Tales tells of the incident.) This is presumably the reason for the bizarre course taken in the next couple of issues. First we get a scene on the Liverpool-Dublin ferry (yes Dublin, rather the direct route to Belfast; another sign of writers not doing their research properly) where Peter starts sneezing, leading him to reminisce about a previous time a cold nearly proved disastrous for his activities. Cue a flashback to a rather lame fill-in story about Spider-Man back in New York having to deal with an attempt to frame him by two brothers who blame him for the death of their father, who was a bystander shot when Spider-Man foiled a bank raid. The general concept is quite good, but the execution poor. Then issue #22 sees a change of writing team as Peter and Joy arrive in what is presented as Belfast, though part of it is likened to Berlin at the end of the Second World War. Whilst someone has now actually done a bit research and realised that the “Red Hand” is not a term to use for a group around the IRA there are still plenty of stereotypes. And there’s a total shift in direction as the focus shifts to the “Black Hood” gang, who turn out to be agents of Roxxon, Marvel’s regular Dastardly Evil Corporation, stirring up trouble as part of a grand plan to hoodwink the British government and sell laser weapons to them. What began as an attempt to put Spider-Man into a gritty real world situation ends up as a rather wild piece of silliness that detracts from moments of pathos such as when a man finds the Black Hood he’s just killed is his brother.

And the timing of this reprint hasn’t been the best either. This volume was originally published on 11th July 2012. However because of the time to transport copies across the Atlantic the UK gets its comics a day later. So the story dealing with the Troubles in Northern Ireland first hit the shelves here on no less than the 12th of July. What fantastic timing. (I know someone’s going to point to a 25th July date listed on the likes of Amazon, but as far as I am aware booksellers get their supplies of Marvel trades via a different route from the Diamond distribution that supplies comic shops and the former often take a little bit longer than the latter.) But I don’t subscribe to conspiracy theories when coincidence and cock-ups are more likely – the volume’s timing probably owes more to The Amazing Spider-Man movie’s release than anything else.

The sudden change in direction and writer also has an effect on two ongoing subplots. Successive issues had seen Joy investigating the Roxxon corporation as part of a planned big exposure but the plotline is suddenly rushed forward to bail out the mess in Northern Ireland and the wider matters are forgotten under the replacement writers. And with Peter so often accompanied by Joy on his trips outside New York there was the growing question of whether she’d deduce his identity. But as they fly back across the Atlantic at the start of #23 they have a confrontation in the aeroplane toilet about her view that he lacks professionalism, and she assumes that he only takes assignments when tipped off by Spider-Man about the opportunities for easy photos. It’s bizarre that she reaches this conclusion rather than the more obvious one, but it’s a result of a hasty approach to ditching Web’s brief direction, and after this Joy is relegated to occasional guest cast appearances with so much of the development (and Peter’s growing feelings for her) ignored.

Then from issues #23 until #30 the series becomes a succession of fill-in issues and never really attempts to take the title in any direction at all. Occasionally it tries to feed off the crumbs of Amazing and Spectacular by following up on events there, but rarely to any great success. And this amplifies a problem with the way the Essentials have been released as all the issues in this volume post-date the most recent Amazing and Spectacular ones, so at the moment the Essential reader is seeing the follow-ups to adventures they can’t easily access.

This is most prominent with issues #29 & #30, which are the most important for wider Spider-Man continuity as they serve as the epilogue to the saga of the first Hobgoblin (which at the time was assumed complete). Issue #29 is a very awkward issue, taking place simultaneous to events in Amazing #289 and trying to expand on the Rose’s role in everything. It also serves as a mini-sequel to the Spider-Man vs. Wolverine one-shot which I hope will be included when the Amazing reprints reach this period. But if you haven’t read either of those issues then this one is just convoluted and confused, trying to wrap up loose ends from another series. Issue #30 is similar as it tries to make sense of the Hobgoblin and Rose saga. In it the Rose goes into a church confession booth and tells the story of how Richard Fisk, Alfredo and Ned Leeds sought to bring down to the Kingpin but instead found themselves consumed by the world they were in. We’re given the supposed origin of how Ned Leeds became the Hobgoblin, but it just doesn’t match up well with the villain’s portrayal in his early issues. Whilst I can buy the idea of the Daily Bugle’s crime reporter wanting to do his bit to bring down the city’s leading crimelord, there was nothing in the original Hobgoblin stories that implied this. Nor is it easy to reconcile the calculating criminal who used and discarded aides with the noble crusading journalist presented here. And when the Hobgoblin first met the Kingpin his reaction was one of complete shock, the opposite of one who’s primary motivation was bringing down this man. There’s a big “end of an era” feel to this story as it tries to tidy things up before the marriage and Kraven’s Last Hunt, and the result is a confused rush job. Most of the Hobgoblin saga, including the revelation, hasn’t yet been Essentialised but it did have a feeling of the resolution being written by joining a messy series of dots, rather than working to a single plan. This wrap-up similarly tries to join up the dots and reconcile stories that were taking the characters in a very different direction, and it just doesn’t answer all of the problematic questions.

The series also meanders through a series of fill-ins, with issues #26 & #27 appearing to have come straight from inventory as they feature Spider-Man in his red and blue costume when this had been destroyed in favour of the black suit back in Web #17-18. Issue #26 carries the caption “An untold tale of Spidey’s past, in the Mighty Marvel Manner!”, perhaps trying to limit the problem. Issue #28 features the black suit and starts in the present day but the main action is told in flashback as Spider-Man crosses the country in pursuit of the Statue of Liberty’s torch and his clothes hidden on it. With three issues in a row telling stories from Spider-Man’s past, was there perhaps a plan to make Web into a series with a rotating creative team presenting stories set anywhere during his career? This format was later used by DC’s Legends of the Dark Knight and then by Marvel’s Webspinners: Tales of Spider-Man and (with a more consistent team) Captain America: Sentinel of Liberty, but I’m not aware of it having been done before. Had one of the Spider-Man titles tried this it could have broken new ground and also eased the problem of having three monthly titles without distinct raisons d’être. But it would have been a bold move and I suspect the real reason for these stories was an attempt to clear out the standby fill-ins before the major status quo changer came with the wedding.

The six months of fill-in see Spider-Man in quite a mix of situations. In one issue we get a rematch with Slyde, the frictionless thief, then we get a trip to Atlantic City where Spider-Man gets into a fight with the Vulture only for the Hobgoblin and Rose to show up in a totally needless appearance. Then we get one of the silliest of all in “Beware the Stalker from the Stars!” in which an incredibly powerful alien device that can change the course of an intergalactic war accidentally lands on Earth and rival rulers come in person to recover it. I guess an outline for an issue of Fantastic Four wound up in the wrong office. The past set stories then see Spidey facing two backstabbing brothers who’ve stolen a huge sum of charity money, then Head-Hunter the enforcer for an organised crime preying on a car magnate, and finally pursuing the Liberty torch. Only the alien issue stands out and that’s for all the wrong reasons. None of the issues in this volume introduces any long lasting foes of significance and indeed the only new foe with any recurring potential is Humbug, and even he’s only good for a Legion of the Losers style gathering of the deliberately silly foes. There are a few more indications of something coming as Spidey has a second encounter with a mysterious arm that doesn’t set off his Spider-sense, and there’s a one page introduction to Solo, an anti-terrorism vigilante, in issue #19. I’m guessing that Solo may have been intended to appear in the Northern Ireland story but both he and the mystery arm subplot disappear along with David Michelinie.

The final two issues of Web in this volume see all three Spider-Man titles embark on a bold new venture. Previously crossovers between the different books almost never happened and when they did there was usually some external factor as well. But now we get a storyline by a single writer and artist told over all three books, taking just two months instead of running over six months in a single title. This was followed up by another such storyline “Mad Dog Ward” which lasted a single month (but which will be in the next Essential Web volume). At the time this was a dramatic change of pace but it also symbolised the way that the distinctions between the Spider-Man titles were breaking down and risking over-exposure and burn out. And since the other two books had regular writers at the time, it would have been to Web’s great advantage for this story (recently voted the best Spider-Man story ever over at Comic Book Resources: 50 Greatest Spider-Man Stories #5-1) to have run in this title alone. Yes it would have meant the story lasting six months instead of two, but it would have given the series a tremendous talking point and perhaps helped to set a clear direction rather than leaving it as just the third Spider-Man title.

As for “Kraven’s Last Hunt” itself, it’s easy to see why this story is so revered. This is the point where the grim and gritty deconstructionist movement of the mid 1980s hit Spider-Man and gave us one of the most sophisticated stories yet seen. But one thing that stands out when reading it via the Essentials is that it’s in part a sequel to an issue of Marvel Team-Up, #128 which hasn’t yet been Essentialised. Without knowing the contents of that issue (a team-up with Captain America; it also has a photographic cover), it’s hard to take as definite the assertion that Vermin is Spider-Man’s most unsurpassed challenge, and thus Kraven’s defeat of the rat-man truly represents a surpassing of the real Spider-Man. Otherwise we get a complex, dark tale that takes Kraven, one of the lamest of the big name villains from the Lee/Ditko years, and finally makes him a threat to be reckoned with. Throughout the story we probe deep into the minds of both Kraven and Spider-Man as they each seek to conquer their foes both without and within. The entire superhero genre is replete with conventions and clichés that on the face of them don’t make a great deal of sense and this is rarely more true than with the conflicts between heroes and villains where motivations are often weak and rarely explain just why the villain comes after the hero only to get defeated time after time after time. Here we get a portrayal of Kraven as a man seeking completion in his life, driven by values that he finds are unfashionable in the modern world and who has been driven mad by his failure to defeat Spider-Man. He seeks to achieve his goal and show that he is the better man by temporarily taking Spider-Man’s place and succeeding where his adversary failed. Then when he has found fulfilment he takes his life. This must have been shocking at the time, though today it’s more commonplace to see villains given intense finales that take them to places they cannot return from. It’s a strong piece that finally gives Kraven the credibility and respect he had for so long lacked, and it’s easy to see why so many consider it one of the best Spider-Man stories of all time. However I feel it’s somewhat over intense, betraying its origins as a Batman story and doesn’t completely fit into Spider-Man’s world.

(Incidentally I noticed the name “Kraven’s Last Hunt” doesn’t actually appear in this volume and I wondered where it came from. J.M. DeMatteis says the following:
The Kraven epic was originally called FEARFUL SYMMETRY, Tim. Editor Jim Salicrup (the same guy who decided to run all six parts of the story through all three Spider-Man titles, something that had never been done before) came up with KRAVEN'S LAST HUNT. I think the very first reprint had both titles as one: FEARFUL SYMMETRY: KRAVEN'S LAST HUNT; but over time most folks just called it KLH.
Many thanks for that enlightenment.)

Overall this volume is generally rather poor with only “Kraven’s Last Hunt” standing out and yes that may take up a third of the space (and isn’t yet available in any other Essential volumes) but it’s a crossover and not representative of the typical Web issue. There may have been an idea for a direction at the start to take Spider-Man out into the wider world and deal with grittier, more down-to-earth menaces, but this direction disappears with the mess of the Northern Ireland story and all that replaces it are a string of fill-ins and workings from the crumbs of the other Spider-Man titles. Frankly this made it a title for completists who already had both other Spider-Man books and not much more. This is most emphasised at the end of this volume by an annual that contains nothing but back-up features. In terms of both publication and chronology this is the most recent Essential Spider-Man volume and it’s a pity that the run currently ends with such a dire entry.

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