Monday, 23 July 2012

Even more non-essential Spider-Man Essentials

It’s time once more to consider Spider-Man’s guest appearances in other titles. However I’m taking a different approach this time with the issues from 1982 onwards. As I said last time, the Essential programme doesn’t have widespread coverage of the 1980s & 1990s Marvel series. Most of the series that run continuously from the Silver Age haven’t had enough volumes to reach the 1980s yet (Spider-Man is the main exception) and instead we have a mixture of various X-Men titles, Marvel Two-in-One and the Defenders who have so far made it to the early 1980s (the latest volume of the latter literally just reaches the “New Defenders” era) and a handful of other 1980s series such as Dazzler, Silver Surfer and Punisher. Consequently I’ve decided to limited the list here strictly to guest appearances that have been Essentialised:

Defenders #107-109, scripted by J.M. DeMatteis (solo #107) and Mark Gruenwald (jointly #108-109) and drawn by Don Perlin, reprinted in Essential Defenders volume 6

Spider-Man had previously guest-starred in issue #61 but these issues arguably see him briefly become a Defender and is thus a candidate the first time he was a member of a team in any way shape or form. You can argue it either way – the Defenders famously had no fixed membership rules and the dividing line between a member and an ally is very blurred, but he only stays around for this story.

The story follows on from the death of Nighthawk in issue #106 with the Valkyrie dying at the start of this issue, and sees Spider-Man one of a number of heroes who attend the funerals. However unlike many others he stays around afterwards. Then it’s discovered that the Valkyrie is not dead but her spirit is free, pleading for them to rescue her true body then taking residence in her sword. The Enchantress has her true body, which is occupied by the spirit of Barbara Norris, the woman, whose body Valkyrie had occupied. (Again we have a female hero with a rather complicated backstory due to multiple attempts to get her origin right.) The Enchantress offers the body if the Defenders will undertake a quest to find the Rose of Purity for her. If the body is recovered the Defenders can restore the Valkyrie’s spirit they will bring her back to life, but at the cost of the death of Barbara Norris, currently in a vegetative state and previously insane. The Defenders split in two over the dilemma, with Spidey siding with Dr. Strange, the Beast and the Gargoyle being opposed to this course of action, whilst Damon Hellstrom (the Son of Satan), Hellcat, the Hulk and Namor the Sub-Mariner choose to undertake the quest. In the end Barbara’s spirit is rescued by a powerful entity, Valkyrie is restored to her true body and battles the Enchantress and in the aftermath Spider-Man leaves with the Gargoyle in tow. Spider-Man’s overall role in the story is limited to a supporting member, rather than a high profile guest star, and it’s possible the main purpose of his role was to set up an issue of Marvel Team-Up with the Gargoyle. Still he actually works quite well alongside the Defenders and one can only speculate about what if he’d stayed around for longer. The team was traditionally based around “outsider” heroes and Spider-Man fitted that definition all too well. By this stage he had worked with most of the more regular members and this appearance showed how he could slot in. But the Defenders so often encountered magical and mythical threats, and I don’t think they were regularly based in New York. So there would have been logistical difficulties and Spider-Man would frequently have been out of his league. But of all the teams around then, this might have been the least worst choice.

Marvel Two-in-One #90, scripted by Jan Strnad and drawn by Alan Kupperberg, reprinted in Essential Marvel Two-in-One volume 4

This is quite a simple tale in which Peter takes Debra Whitman to a Renaissance Fair (which is closer to Mediaeval in theme) where the Thing’s girlfriend Alicia Masters has an exhibition of her sculptors. Whilst there a conjuror is possessed by a wizard from another dimension named Sardeth and the Thing and Spidey have to deal with the resulting madness. Order is restored when the Thing literally scares Sardeth out of the conjuror’s body, though there’s the small problem of what to do with one of the monsters he magicked up. Spider-Man’s role in the story could be taken by almost any hero, though it does allow the Thing to save the day in his own book and thus make up for Spider-Man doing so back in Annual #2. Peter’s thoughts about Debra are surprisingly frank, especially for a guest appearance, as he ponders about how he doesn’t feel that strongly for her but finds her difficult to shake off. However he almost does lose her when his attention is elsewhere and she feels ignored, thus deciding to walk off but then events explode. It’s surprising to get this kind of character detail in a guest appearance but adds to the general way Debra was handled around this time. And it’s a change from the guest appearance norm for Peter to be a jerk instead of Spider-Man.

Uncanny X-Men #190-191, scripted by Chris Claremont and drawn by John Romita Jr, reprinted in Essential X-Men volume 5

Once again in the X-Men we see a sort of sequel to an issue of Marvel Team-Up, in this case #79 featuring Red Sonja (which was left out of Essential Marvel Team-Up volume 4 when it arrived because Red Sonja is now licensed to Dynamite Entertainment; however it’s been reprinted in the Spider-Man/Red Sonja tradepaperback along with their 2007 inter-company crossover limited series). That issue saw the magician Kulan Gath briefly reincarnated in the modern age, now Gath returns and transforms New York into a city of his own time. Everyone in the city, including the also guest-starring Avengers, is physically and mentally transformed into the respective, save Spider-Man to torture him, and the alien New Mutant Warlock. Spider-Man wanders through the first part of the story facing a hostile city and trying to work out what’s going on until he is captured and strung up in Gath’s palace. Even when being crucified Spider-Man’s inner courage shows through as he breaks free to help the others and tell them how to defeat Gath, before being killed. The story is pretty apocalyptic with many other heroes being killed but at the end Dr. Strange combines his magic with that of the New Mutant Magik to turn back time and prevent the whole thing happening. Whilst Spider-Man’s appearance is at least justified by his past encounter with Gath, I feel the Avengers’ presence in the story is unnecessary (even though New York itself is transformed – after all the Fantastic Four don’t show up) and I’ve never particularly liked stories that seemingly casually kill off major cast members, only to throw a reset switch at the end. It’s also bizarre that Spidey shows no concern whatsoever for his friends in the city.

And that’s it!

I was expecting rather more appearances in this period, but this is probably down to Spider-Man tending to guest star in series that either haven’t yet been Essentialised or whose reprint runs have only got as far as the 1970s. There haven’t been that many Spider-Man appearances in the X-Men titles, and these account for a large chunk of the 1980s & 1990s Essentials. More surprisingly he didn’t guest-star much in the Punisher’s 1980s-1990s title. I guess that these series either didn’t spend so much time in New York (which also accounts for Spidey’s absence from another Essential from this period, Silver Surfer volume 2) or the books were selling so well guest appearances were deemed unnecessary (whilst sales figures are generally hard to find at a glance, one set of facts available is that at the end of 1987 the nine top selling Marvels – and thus the ones subject to a price increase – were the three Spider-Man titles, the three X-Men titles, the Punisher, the Silver Surfer and the Avengers).

All three of these appearances see Spider-Man caught up in the world of myth and magic, which his own series normally avoids. It’s hard to get any general impression of where the character stands in the overall Marvel Universe by the time of these appearances (early 1982, mid 1982 and late 1984 respectively), especially as one involves a temporarily altered world. But they all show Spider-Man as a pretty regular part of events and he slots in well enough with those around him without much comment bar the Thing’s mock horror at running into Spidey again.

(Oh and as per my previous promises if and when further guest appearances are Essentialised I’ll try to remember to add my thoughts on them to the relevant posts.)

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