Saturday, 30 June 2012

Essential Spider-Woman volume 1

We now come to Essential Spider-Woman volume 1, which reprints Marvel Spotlight #32, Marvel Two-in-One #29-33 and Spider-Woman #1-25. In addition there are Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entries for Spider-Woman and the Shroud, a pin-up of Spider-Woman and Carmine Infantino’s pencils for the unused cover to Spider-Woman #1.

As noted previously, Marvel Two-in-One was the Thing team-up book equivalent to Marvel Team-Up, although as the Thing had no solo title of his own there’s a greater emphasis on him here than Team-Up has on Spider-Man. Marvel Spotlight was one of a number of try-out titles to test new concepts on the market before launching them in their own title, as well as to secure trademarks.

As I mentioned in my previous post, Spider-Woman (like She-Hulk) was created primarily so that Marvel could secure the trademark on the name and copyright on the concept of a female version of their lead hero. The main concern were the plans by the Filmation animation company (best known to my generation for He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and She-Ra: Princess of Power) to create several original superheroes to appear in slots in a cartoon package hour. (This a concept that seems to be unique to the United States in that era. Basically, two or more cartoon characters share an hour-long slot which alternates between various shorts featuring either the banner characters or some of their supporting cast. This often makes it easy to combine new material with repeats. For both later repeats and the international market the cartoons are often depackaged back into their separate components.) This particular package would be Tarzan and the Super 7, following on from the success of The Batman/Tarzan Adventure Hour. On of the Super 7 slots was to be “Spider-Woman”, a woman with, you’ve guessed it, spider powers. Marvel reacted quickly to this and rapidly created their own “Spider-Woman”, filed the trademark and got her into print in order to secure it. Filmation’s creation became “Web Woman”. (Many thanks to Comic Book Resources: Comic Book Urban Legends Revealed #28! for the details on this.) My understanding of US trademark law is limited, but in general companies can’t just sit on a trademark but instead have to actively and continually use it in order to keep it secure. Hence an ongoing Spider-Woman series. This may also be the reason why Spider-Woman got her own cartoon in 1979, but that only lasted one season and it’s easy to read the issues in this volume and be totally unaware of it.

And to be honest this awkward birth shows in this volume. The most obvious signs are the major changes in Spider-Woman’s origin between Spotlight and her own title, and also the modifications to her costume. Less obvious are some of the changes throughout the series as the book seems to be in a state of flux, with the location changing abruptly after the first two issues, the supporting cast and alter-ego status quo also changing quite rapidly, and even little things like whether Spider-Woman’s long black hair is real or a wig change between issues. This is a serious sign of a character rushed into print before being properly thought through and it shows. There’s a bit more stability on the writing and drawing front, but still rather a lot of regular writers for twenty-five issues. Marvel Spotlight #32 is written by Roy Thomas, then all the Marvel Two-in-One issues and Spider-Woman #1-8 are by Marv Wolfman. Mark Gruenwald writes #9-20, with Steven Grant co-plotting #20. Michael Fleisher then writes #21-25. The art fares better – Spotlight is drawn by Sal Buscema, then four of the five Two-in-One issues are by Ron Wilson with John Buscema filling in on the other. Carmine Infantino draws Spider-Woman #1-19, then Frank Springer on #20-22, Trevor von Eeden on #23-24 and finally Steve Leialoha on #25 (and he continues into the issues in the next volume). (With so many creators, their labels have been placed in a separate post.) Again this reinforces the idea of nobody really knowing why the series is there other than to protect Marvel’s corporate interests.

But in several areas the series avoids doing the obvious. Most of the other female spin-off heroes up to this point tended to have a clear connection to the male hero and obtained their powers either the same way or through them. Mary Marvel was the hero’s long lost sister. Supergirl was a long lost cousin. She-Hulk was a previously unmentioned cousin. Ms. Marvel was a supporting cast member. Batgirl the daughter of one. Bat-Girl was the niece of Batwoman. I totally forget the background of the various Hawkgirls and Hawkwomen (but in my defence Hawk continuity is more complicated than brain surgery). It beggars belief that as a result of this the Wasp (the daughter of a murdered previously unseen associate of Ant-Man) and Batwoman (a wealthy heiress who admired Batman from afar but had no pre-existence or previously unseen connection) should be the most original in this regard. But in both her origins Spider-Woman beats them all hands down. As for powers, the Bat characters had none but developed their skills in imitation of their hero. Ms. Marvel and She-Hulk were both involved in accidents with their male counterparts whilst the Wasp was given hers by Ant-Man. Supergirl was of the same race as her cousin and so gained her powers the same way, whilst Mary Marvel found that the Marvel family all had access to powers. So it would have been totally natural to make Spider-Woman a woman close to Spider-Man who gained powers very similar to him – perhaps the radioactive spider could have tracked him down and bitten her by accident? Or a blood transfusion? (Oh wait, Aunt May had that way back in the Lee/Ditko years and nobody’s ever seen the Amazing Spider-Aunt.) Or even an experiment to try to reproduce Spider-Man’s powers? But instead they tried something different that’s completely detached from Spider-Man, who in turn doesn’t show up for an obligatory guest appearance until issue #20. Spider-Woman shares the ability to stick to walls and super strength, but she lacks both a spider-sense and webshooters (and probably the ability to crawl along rope and cables as though they were webs). Instead she has the ability to generate “venom blasts” of electrical discharges, and the ability to glide on air currents, though the way that’s usually portrayed she might as well be flying outright. And then there’s her two origins.

The first origin we’re offered is that Spider-Woman was a real spider who was evolved to humanoid form by the High Evolutionary and named “Arachne”, but she found she didn’t fit in with his other evolutions and left to wander in confusion. Eventually she fell under the spell of Hydra and became an agent for them, but in her first appearance she discovers Hydra’s true nature and breaks from them. (And since she was created to see off Filmation’s plans, it seems almost appropriate that Filmation in turn went on to borrow this latter element of her origin for She-Ra.) This is all rather messy (and reportedly was originally planned for Wolverine!) and it’s hard to see how the character could have lasted in a workable way as an animal in human form with no real roots at all. The original version of costume is also a little too generic – other than the underarm webbing it’s just a standard issue jumpsuit with only the design and colours to mark it out. The first couple of Spider-Woman stories aren’t much either – an assassination attempt on Nick Fury in which she discovers the true nature of Hydra, and an overlong adventure with the Thing in London in which Spider-Woman once more starts out as an agent of Hydra (did something got lost in communication) but winds up allying with Ben Grimm against a string of foes. The team-up doesn’t really add anything beyond the revelation that she is actually a woman after all, and that comes at the very end. A five part epic in the Thing’s title with yet more guest stars wandering in and out doesn’t strike me as the best way to build excitement for Spider-Woman’s own series. It also doesn’t help that so much of the Marvel universe is centred on New York, but up to this point all of Spider-Woman’s stories have been set in Europe (although the London depicted is more of a tourist postcard than the real thing, as is so often the case in American comics).

Once the series gets going things start to change, although the justification isn’t always the best. After encountering a SHIELD agent who pulls her mask off, Spider-Woman decides she needs to disguise herself further in both identities – and so dies her hair black and cuts the mask to let said hair flow freely. No I’m not sure how that works either. Still it brings a greater degree of originality to her design, although it’s not always the most practical, especially as her Spider-Woman hair gets longer and longer to the point where it’s hard to believe that Jessica is able to compress it all in her every day hairstyles. I’m also astounded that it’s not until issue #16 that a villain grabs her by the hair – and this brings the revelation she’s wearing a wig with her costume (so what was the point of having the same hair colour in both identities?). But it’s the origin that’s revamped.

We are now told that Spider-Woman is a real human, Jessica Drew, who succumbed to radiation sickness when her father worked with the High Evolutionary to build Mount Wundagore (all part of wider Marvel mythology and best not gone into here). Jessica’s father had noted the ability of spiders to survive extreme conditions and so injected her with an experimental spider-serum to save her but it wasn’t enough, so the High Evolutionary proposed to place her in a genetic accelerator to enhance her chances. The strain of Jessica’s condition and arguments over cures killed Jessica’s mother and her father disappeared, whilst she remained in the accelerator growing at a reduced rate. Eventually she emerged in adulthood and cured, with the ability to resist all venoms, toxins and the like, but also highly detached from the world around her, both because of the ignorance in her knowledge but also because most other people (and the High Evolutionary’s creations) sensed something about her that made them distinctly uneasy in her presence. Further on in the series this is revealed to be down to abnormal pheromone production but as soon as Jessica starts taking special pills the problem magically disappears.

There’s some real magic in these stories as well but after the first year it fades, which just adds to the sense of confusion about the direction. In the second issue Spider-Woman befriends the mysterious Magnus, but it’s never really explained how he found her or why – points explicitly acknowledged in issue #13 when the character is written out and he doesn’t reappear in this volume. There are things such as long running subplots and mysteries, and then there are unexplained points that are just forgotten about, and this comes under the latter heading. Magnus appears at a point when there’s quite a lot of magic flying about due to the presence of Excaliber (sic) – a thief who has been transformed by the legendary sword – and Morgan le Fay. Once the scene shifts to Los Angeles the magic is toned down apart from some individual issues and Magnus becomes less a mentor to Jessica than a convenient plot device, most obviously when he magics up her costume at a party and wipes all the guests’ memory of her presence. Magic can work in specific stories, most obviously the climax of the Brothers Grimm storyline, but as part of the overall set-up it fails because the attempt is to present Spider-Woman as an adventurer and crime fighter, and a magical supporter who can fix so many of the problems, but curiously doesn’t solve others such as Jessica’s aura putting off others, jars with that.

“Do you know how hard it is to find supervillains in Los Angeles?” That was the reaction of the Angel many years after the Champions series, but it could apply just as much to Spider-Woman. As I said above the Marvel universe is concentrated on New York and it’s been rare for a title to successfully locate elsewhere. Avengers West Coast is the longest lasting I can think of but in general it’s hard to escape the orbit of the Big Apple in a universe with a high degree of interaction and crossover. And this shows with the threats Spider-Woman has to face. In a series where the civilian side of Jessica’s life is poorly developed it’s natural to hope for some good villains to up the tension. But instead the foes here are a generally dire collection with few having had much prominence elsewhere other than Morgan le Fay which is usually a sign of just how forgettable a foe is. Early on were are presented with the mysterious Brother Grimm, whose personality varies at times and who appears to be in two places at once. I wonder how long it took contemporary readers to work that one out! And whilst the mystery of his identity isn’t shoved down readers’ throats it isn’t actually that hard to guess. Others like the Hangman, Gypsy Moth, Madame Doll, the Clown (no relation to the Circus of Crime member) and Nekra all feel rather uninspired, whilst Congressman Wyatt is just a straightforward corrupt politician who serves a single purpose. The Needle is an exception, providing a strong degree of real fear, though his origin is full of plot holes (just how does an old man beaten up suddenly gain such powers?) and unfortunately much of his impact depends on his novelty, making it hard to reuse him. Then there’s the Gamesman, who rather improbably falls in love with Spider-Woman to the point where she tries to get him early parole but the romance rapidly evaporates after an encounter with his successor.

Romance and the supporting cast also get poor development. Early on Jessica and Magnus take up residence in the home of Mrs Dolly but she and her sons aren’t really developed until a two-part story that reveals they are the Brothers Grimm (the revelation that there are in fact two could be sign a mile off) and she has powers of her own. That story in #11-12 quickly removes them from the scene and soon after Magnus departs to work in showbusiness. The other early supporting cast member of prominence is Jerry Hunt, a SHIELD agent who falls for Jessica at first sight but who has an up and down relationship with her before assignments take him away and it becomes clear the two are incompatible. This helps wipe the slate clean midway through these issues, and Jessica develops a friendship with Lindsay McCabe who she meets at group therapy. Lindsay is one of the few people who does not instantly recoil from her and the two become close, though Jessica neither confides her big secret nor takes steps to protect Lindsay who is targeted by the Clown after he spots Spider-Woman entering her apartment. Jessica also briefly has her first job as a receptionist at the clinic but this is dropped after the revelation the clinic was being used by Nekra and the Cult of Kali for their own purposes.

We get a few guest appearances by other heroes but two stand out the most. The Shroud pops up during the Nekra storyline together with his origin that’s a cross between Batman and Dr Doom. Despite an initial fight Spider-Woman rapidly comes to trust him, even letting him stay at her apartment when he tracks her down, before taking out the Cult of Kali. However the encounter everyone must have been waiting ages for comes in issue #20, showing remarkable restraint, when Spider-Woman finally meets Spider-Man. However neither is aware of who the other is – Spider-Woman has managed to maintain a degree of secrecy about her existence and is generally ignorant of the New York superhero scene (Peter Parker is on a photo assignment out west). The two have a fight that shows off their respective powers before a final conversation in which Spider-Man gives her some useful tips for the future. It’s also notable that he never learns her name so doesn’t get worked up about infringement.

Issue #21 sees a new status quo suddenly dropped into place whereby Spider-Woman is now working at times as a bounty hunter, delivering criminals direct to Police Captain Walsh (with rewards sent to a secure box), operating in tandem with Scotty McDowell, a would-be agent who has been confined to a wheelchair and so now uses his genius and computer to help others catch criminals (this was a decade before the similar Oracle at DC). And yes he’s carrying a torch for Spider-Woman but she doesn’t notice it. Spider-Woman has also somehow obtained a theatrical costumer’s due to some unexplained tragedy. The last few issues here follow this status quo but it’s yet another change of direction for a young series.

As I said at the start, Spider-Woman was created and kept around for corporate reasons and creatively it shows. The early issues of her series are by Marv Wolfman who at the time was turning in a fantastic run on Amazing Spider-Man but here his work feels like an afterthought, written to satisfy a mandate. Mark Gruenwald’s work tries to undo some of the problems and then take the title in a clear direction, but all that takes a while and by the time the book is clearly repositioned he was about to move on, then Michael Fleisher comes in with a whole new status quo. When combined with the shifting supporting cast the whole thing is very much a series that exists for the sake of existing, rather than because it had developed a strong identity and purpose. It’s to be commended for keeping for the originality in not becoming a crude feminised version of Spider-Man and instead having as little to do with the wall crawler as possible, but this may have gone too far in the other direction, resulting in a series set in an awkward location with poor villains and a badly defined, ever shifting status quo. At this stage it’s quite forgettable.

Essential Spider-Woman volume 1 - creator labels

Again we have a volume with a lot of creators, so here's a separate post to carry the labels for some of them.

Friday, 29 June 2012

Spider-Woman: An introduction

1976 saw the creation of a new character, Spider-Woman, debuting in Marvel Spotlight #32 (cover dated February 1977 – a sign of how confusing the years can be). In 1978 she received her own ongoing series, which has been collected in two Essential volumes, and in 1979 she secured her own cartoon which lasted one season. Her title lasted fifty issues – until 1993 that was the record for a Marvel comic headlined by a female superhero.

Yet her impact on the Spider-Man titles was almost nil. She had a few cameos but her only substantial appearance during her original run was in Marvel Team-Up #97 (not yet reached by the Essentials) and that was a rare non-Spider-Man issue in which the Hulk instead headlined. As we’ll see she has no direct connection to Spider-Man (although later Spider-Women would do better in this regard) and is really a spin-off in name only.

I did consider for quite some time whether to include Spider-Woman in this series or not because of this. Ultimately I came down in favour of inclusion because creatively she only existed because of Spider-Man and it’s worth considering just how much originality and distance from the male character she actually received. But first it’s necessary to consider the track record on female superheroes, particularly for Marvel in the late 1970s.

Until I sat down to write this piece, I was under the impression that female superheroes have generally not been successful in their own titles. True it’s hard to forget that DC has had Wonder Woman for seventy years (her solo title debuted in the summer of 1942) but I assumed that’s very much the exception that proves the rule (and I’ve read that historically her title has never been a top seller and at times it’s only survived because the character was held under a “keep her in regular print or the rights revert to the creator” clause and the merchandising opportunities were too good to loose). The other historic exception of note is Supergirl, which is a sign of where the creativity and interest goes, and also an indication of the commercial factors behind them – DC was quick to secure the trademarks for various Superman spin-offs but took time to actually use them. Eventually both Superboy and Supergirl were firm features, able to stop other companies cashing in on the Super-franchise.

It seems in digging about that there have in fact been a few more female titles that actually lasted some time – Mary Marvel (the younger sister of Fawcett’s, later DC’s, Captain Marvel), Batgirl (just how many Batgirls have there been by now?), Catwoman and Superman’s Girl Friend, Lois Lane although it was her boyfriend who (usually) did the superheroing. (And no doubt more that I’ve overlooked.) Spot the pattern? It seems as though a female title has normally only succeeded if it’s spinning off an established male title and/or there are strong corporate demands to shore up the male character, either by blocking rivals from creating female derivatives or to boost sales (and in the case of the second Batgirl, TV ratings).

Marvel’s female titles generally fall into this vein as well. The longest running female led title I can think of is Spider-Girl – the adventures of Spider-Man’s daughter in an alternate future which lasted 100 issues from 1998 until 2006 (despite constantly being under threat of cancellation), followed by a renumbering & retitling as The Amazing Spider-Girl which lasted 30 more issues until 2009. Second comes the second She-Hulk series which ran for sixty issues between 1989 and 1994 (although in Marvel’s modern numbering style later She-Hulk series have seen the numberings shoved together to have an “issue #100”). In joint third place with fifty issues each is the original Spider-Woman series between 1978 and 1983 and the second Ms. Marvel series between 2006 and 2010. (After that comes Dazzler with forty-two issues from 1980 to 1985. Then it gets into various series that only lasted up to three years maximum such as the first Ms. Marvel, the first She-Hulk series, Silver Sable, Elektra and X-23 amongst others.)

Both the Marvel Essential and DC Showcase Presents series are biased toward the pre 1990s output but how do the female titles fare there? Well DC has put out volumes containing Wonder Woman, Supergirl and Batgirl (largely collecting her strips in various other titles), whilst Superman’s Girl Friend, Lois Lane is in the Superman Family volumes (the latter title combined Lois Lane with Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen). Showcase Presents didn’t launch until late 2005 and the first female headline titles came in mid to late 2007 with Batgirl, Wonder Woman and Supergirl all debuting that year. Marvel’s Essentials have been around since 1996 but took longer to snowball and initially focused on just the big name series. However from 2002 onwards some of the smaller and less successful series began to get their own Essentials, starting with Ant-Man in February that year. It wasn’t until December 2005 that any female title got an Essential, with Spider-Woman being the first. Savage She-Hulk, the character’s original 1979-1981 series, followed in July 2006, then came Ms. Marvel in February 2007 and Dazzler in August 2007. Make of that what you will.

All of the relevant Marvel titles so far Essentialised originated during a short period in the late 1970s, although Dazzler was delayed for various reasons. And in all but one case there were well-known corporate mandates crawling all over them. I don’t honestly know if this was also the case with Ms. Marvel but I don’t think it’s entirely coincidental that a female with a name including the company’s name appeared just a few years after DC had revived Fawcett’s Captain Marvel and his supporting cast. (Captain Marvel had originally been published by Fawcett in the 1940s and early 1950s until a lawsuit by DC for similarities to Superman led to the character being ditched. Then in the next twenty or so years Marvel adopted that name and established their own Captain Marvel character, securing the trademark. DC subsequently obtained the Fawcett stable of characters and revived them in their own titles, though they’ve never been able to get the “Captain Marvel” trademark back for the original.) Other points that strongly suggest corporate rather than creative design are the fact that her origin was unclear for many issues and the original writer was Marvel’s then Editor-in-Chief (although that title wasn’t yet used), Gerry Conway who left after just two issues. The character was a pre-existing member of the Captain Marvel supporting cast who had gained powers from him due to an accident – as though it was hard to come up with something more original. Her title lasted just twenty-three issues and then the character went on to be used in other ways (and I very much mean used but that’s for a consideration of the Avengers). (EDIT: Since drafting that I’ve since seen this comment by later Marvel Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter that supports the corporate mandate theory.)

It’s reasonably well known that both Spider-Woman and She-Hulk were created because Marvel were concerned to secure the intellectual property to female versions of their highest profile characters. I’ll come to Spider-Woman below, but in the case of She-Hulk this was because of fears that the success of the Hulk TV series would lead to spin-off characters (this was an era when The Six Million Dollar Man had spawned The Bionic Woman) and decided to create a female version themselves to ensure they retained the copyrights. The Savage She-Hulk began in late 1979 (cover date February 1980) but benefited from a clear origin at the outset and, after the first issue by Stan Lee, a single writer for the rest of her run. But she was still a clear knock-off of her male counterpart – she was his hither-to-unmentioned cousin who gained similar powers due to a blood transfusion, though generally she’s retained full intelligence & control in both identities, unlike her cousin’s multiple personalities and combinations of minds & bodies. Her original title last just twenty-five issues but she’s been revived several times since and has built up quite a fan base.

The Dazzler was even more corporate driven, originating out a plan by Marvel to have a singer-superhero with a real-life singer to do promotional appearances. Over time there were even proposals to work with a record company and even produce a movie (it all gets complicated – have a read of Jim Shooter: The Debut of the Dazzler for more details). The project kicked around for a few years, by which time the disco scene began to die. However a desire to test the potential of the direct market by doing a direct market only title that was only available in comic book shops that pre-order on a non-returnable basis (unlike the newsstands that operate on a sale-or-return basis that can lead to hundreds of thousands of copies printed that never get sold) came about. Wanting to minimise the backlash from the newsstand distribution, an obscure character was picked and so Dazzler was one of the first ever direct market only titles. The series was initially quite successful and lasted a total of forty-two issues but suffered various problems such as turnover of creative teams, unsuccessful spin-offs and a switch to bimonthly publication before eventual cancellation. Still the character had some originality, not being a derivative of any existing Marvel character. However her origin was one of the simplest for Marvel – she’s a mutant and thus born with her powers. Okay she made her first appearance in X-Men but she was an early sign of what would become a rather lazy approach to origins in later years.

This was the broad background to the environment in which Spider-Woman was created in 1976 and provides the obvious points of comparisons for the series as I go through the two volumes in future posts.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Essential Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man volume 1

Now we come to a landmark point in Spider-Man's history with Essential Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man volume 1 containing the first 31 issues of Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man (later The All New, All Daring Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man, later still the rather more manageable Spectacular Spider-Man). As previously discussed this was the point on which the restraints upon using Spider-Man began to loosen as he now headlined a second regular title (his third overall). Over at DC a number of heroes had had multiple titles for many years, but Marvel had up to now been more restrained and tended to be more diverse – for example Marvel Team-Up instead of a straight second title four years earlier, or, in earlier days, following up the Fantastic Four with a solo Human Torch feature in Strange Tales rather than yet more FF. Now a major step forward was taken but it wasn't all smooth sailing at first.

This is first illustrated by the fact that "The Spectacular Spider-Man" was a title already used for the brief-lived magazine format series in 1968. Although the 1976 series slightly modifies the title it's still not the most original name and it's a sign perhaps of not too much thought going into how to make another series bold and distinctive. Further problems are best illustrated by a full list of writers and artists on the issues in this volume. First the writers:
  • Gerry Conway #1-2
  • Jim Shooter #3
  • Archie Goodwin #4-5
  • Gerry Conway #6
  • Archie Goodwin #7-8
  • Bill Mantlo #9-10
  • Chris Claremont #11
  • Bill Mantlo #12-15
  • Elliot Maggin #16
  • Bill Mantlo #17-31
And then the artists
  • Sal Buscema #1-5
  • Ross Andru #6
  • Sal Buscema #7-10
  • Jim Mooney #11
  • Sal Buscema #12-20
  • Jim Mooney #21
  • Mike Zeck #22
  • Jim Mooney #23
  • Frank Springer #24
  • Jim Mooney #25-26
  • Frank Miller #27-28
  • Jim Mooney #29-31
To have no less than five writers on the first eleven issues is a worrying sign, suggesting there wasn't a very clear purpose and direction for the book. Additionally issue #6 mainly reprints the bulk of Marvel Team-Up #3 with a new framing sequence to anchor it to current events. Whilst most of the early Amazing annuals had carried reprints, some consisting entirely of them, and Giant-Size had followed the same course, no previous issue of any of the monthly books had resorted to such a move. The art situation is more stable at first, bar a fill-in but then gets messy towards the end. Was Spectacular a book that few wanted to work on? Fortunately there were exceptions about such as Bill Mantlo, who had a long history of taking on failing titles or obscure properties and completely failing to treat them as such, instead giving them a strong raison d'être and turning out high quality work. (Away from Spider-Man he wrote especially fondly remembered titles like The Micronauts and ROM, taking obscure toys that didn't last very long and churning out epic series.)

But even when the series gets a stable writer the problems don't stop. There are some repetitive moments such as Spider-Man twice discovering the White Tiger's secret identity (both times with the same writer) whilst there are some notable other continuity errors over matters such as Empire State University's head – is it Chancellor Richard Gorman or President Dwyer, both of whom play supporting roles in respective stories? More niggly is Peter's limited knowledge of foreign languages. Back in Amazing in the 140s he found himself limited around the French as he only had a bit of high school Spanish. Now in a reverse he finds himself unable to understand various Spanish phrases because he only has a bit of high school French! In general, a recurring irritation is the way that Hispanic and Latin American characters regularly break into bursts of Spanish midway, some of which are then repeated in English. As well as being hard to follow (and I admit I may be biased as I'm from a country where it's very rare to hear Spanish and I did French & German at school – not that I can remember much of either now) it also makes the characters seem rather stereotyped, even when the story is presenting them with dignity such as the two-parter where ESU's night school faces closure and the point is made (rather unsubtly) that this will disproportionately harm the chances of young blacks and Hispanics. Maybe back in the late 1970s ex Latin American revolutionaries and Hispanic university lecturers and students regularly did go around New York speaking Spanglish in their everyday conversation but I'm sceptical. There's a similar effect with the French Cyclone and his supporting thugs, with some French words and lots of "zee"s and "eef"s to portray an exaggerated French accent. Again this just sounds twee.

The aforementioned White Tiger is, at this stage, one of the few exceptions to the general rule that Spectacular hasn't yet developed a clear niche with specific situations and supporting characters who could be developed pretty much exclusively within its own pages. Whereas Amazing and Team-Up in this period generally stand alone with only passing references to events in Spider-Man's other titles, Spectacular has much more of the feel of being the extended bits. At times it feeds directly off events in Amazing, such as issue #2 which opens with Spider-Man dealing with the aftermath of the events of Amazing #164 where the Kingpin seemingly perished in the harbour whilst Spidey recovered his life force thanks to Curt Connors's device. Other moments are more subtle but we get quite a bit of the relationships with both Mary Jane and Betty, feeding off developments in Amazing but not really explaining them. In this regard Spectacular is relegated very much to being an additional book for Amazing readers rather than trying to find distinct hooks of its own. Even the first issue feels like just another adventure for Spider-Man rather than taking the opportunity to remind & reintroduce the character. And the book goes beyond feeding off just Amazing, with one two-part story serving as an epilogue for The Champions, telling how the team disbanded.

(The Champions were one of the most obscure superteams, lasting just seventeen issues. They consisted of the Angel, the Iceman, the Black Widow, Hercules and the Ghost Rider, later joined by Darkstar – not the most natural of combinations! They were also based in Los Angeles when few Marvel series set outside the New York bubble have ever really lasted – as the Angel would moan in later years "Do you know how hard it is to find supervillains in Los Angeles?")

It was actually a Marvel policy in the period that if a series was ended suddenly, the major plot points would be wrapped up in another title. But there was several more obvious titles to wrap up The Champions – either the solo Ghost Rider series or the X-Men or even Daredevil. Okay Spectacular shared The Champions‘s writer and none of the others did, but Bill Mantlo was already established as a fill-in king and could easily have been given a couple of issues of one of the other titles to wrap things up. But instead we get an intrusion onto the title. We get several other appearances by other heroes, such as the Inhumans and Moon Knight, but in the former case the story eschews being a team-up in the wrong title (especially helpful as it's by Chris Claremont who had just taken over Team-Up) whilst the latter develops the ongoing story of Spider-Man's fight with the Maggia.

More localised are two other heroes. Making his first appearance is Razorback, the CB radio using trucker hero (well it was the 1970s) from Arkansas who manages to strike a balance between comedy and seriousness in a battle against the Hate Monger. The White Tiger is brought over from The Deadly Hands of Kung Fu which had now ended (the martial arts fad having faded) and hangs around for a while as a supporting character. Whilst his dialogue is clichéd Spanglish at first it does calm down a bit and we get to see some contrasts with Spider-Man as the Tiger's identity is exposed to the public, causing his alter ego Hector Ayala to experience problems of his family's disapproval of his super hero activities, the risk of being targeted and the turbulence his identity has on his relationship with his girlfriend, Holly Gillis. Since at this stage Spider-Man's identity was not yet known to any of his family or friends, let alone the wider world, the use of the White Tiger allows both Peter and the readers a glimpse at some of the problems that he might face in revealing himself beyond the prospect of Aunt May having yet another heart attack.

Holly Gillis is about the only new ongoing supporting character created in this run of Spectacular and she seems to slot into Peter's circle of friends remarkably quickly – I was quite surprised to see her in the group who drag Peter to the disco in issue #24 (more on this story later). Otherwise the main development amongst the supporting cast is the reintroduction of Sha Shan, the girl Flash Thompson fell in love with in Vietnam, and her liberation from Brother Power and the Hate Monger. It's nice to see Flash get a happy ending (in so far as there are any endings) for once but this is one of the first signs in the Spider-Man books of the straining credibility of "Marvel time" whereby events in the comics take place on a much shorter scale than publication and we just ignore contemporary cultural & political references. Normally references to characters' involvement in a particular war get modified over time to having been in a generic conflict or the references are dropped altogether. But with Flash and Sha Shan it's much harder to do this as Vietnam is a fixed point in history and by 1978 it was already five years into the past, making it a bit hard to accept the notion of a then-current college student having a past as a soldier in the war with that past having caught up with up with him. The comics may not have been specific about how much time had yet passed but this was already beginning to stick out and it's probably the main continuity stumbling block in the flexible timeline. If Sha Shan had not returned at this point then it would have been possible to overcome this but as it stands it's a point that does actually age the characters in a way that few other developments do.

There are other developments in the run too, although it gets a bit repetitive as Empire State University becomes ever more a breeding ground for villains. True Ramon Vasquez is an honourable man turned rogue when faced with the closure of the university's night school, but fighting funding cuts is also the motivation for Edward Lansky to change from the university's vice chancellor to the Lightmaster. And then at the climax of the run we get the sort-of resurrection of another academic turned villain as we discover that Carrion is the clone of Miles Warren, the Jackal. There's a few other new villains introduced but few are of lasting effect except for the Hitman and the Hypno-Hustler.

The Hypno-Hustler has become one of the most notorious villains amongst fans for all the wrong reasons, with a divide over whether he's just silly or so bad he's good. I actually don't mind him. Issue #24 is the notorious issue, entitled "Spider-Man Night Fever", as the series briefly rides the disco fad (a more successful spin-off was the super hero Dazzler) and Peter finds himself forced into a white suit and dragged to a disco by his friends where the live act is the Hypno-Hustler and the Mercy Killers – only their real aim is to hypnotise the guests and steal their valuables. If we're absolutely honest this is little more than a remake of the Ringmaster and the Circus of Crime's original scheme. And that one doesn't generate much discussion – perhaps because the characters date from the Silver Age when the rules & tolerance levels were different, or perhaps because circuses are not as much of a brief fad as disco. But here we get a harmless one-off tale that is something to laugh about but certainly not a contender for the worst story of all time.

Up until issue #24 there aren't really that many stories in this volume that really stand out. But then after the humorous turn we get a strong seven-issue run that combines two mini-epics and brings a minor benefit from the inconsistent art front as we get a guest appearance by Daredevil partially drawn by Frank Miller, his first ever work on the character. Story-wise we get the culmination (for now) of Spider-Man's fight with the Maggia and their leader, the Masked Marauder, but the highlight is when Spider-Man is temporarily blinded and Daredevil seeks to help him without giving away that he too can't see. Spidey's determination to bring down the Marauder as his final act, and Daredevil's concern for his comrade's confidence and sanity make for a good pairing. Following this we head straight into the first Carrion storyline which brings a very personal confrontation home. Carrion himself is an intriguing villain, a walking corpse with deadly powers and a very personal vendetta against Peter Parker/Spider-Man – he also knows the secret. It's easy to see from these details and the characters' design (especially the shoulder bag) just why some contemporary readers assumed he was the return Norman Osborn, and I vaguely recall reading that Bill Mantlo had suggested this identity but that may just be Chinese whispers. The revelation that Carrion is a clone of the Jackal gone wrong brings a new level as we get the battle between Spider-Man, the product of a happy accident of science, and Carrion, the product of a not-so happy accident, with vengeance thrown in for good measure. My only slight irritation is the presence of the White Tiger, both because I find it hard to believe he wouldn't figure out Peter's identity in these events (especially with Carrion saying "Parker" a lot), but also because in such an intense personal tale outsiders are a distraction. All that said it's a strong ending to the run.

As I've said throughout this review, this volume shows a title taking its time to find a real purpose. It's to Marvel's credit that they didn't go down the route of running stories in both Amazing and Spectacular so that Spider-Man was effectively fortnightly (I'm not sure if DC had begun that practice with Batman and/or Superman by this stage) but equally after thirty-one issues they still hadn't found a particular focus. Whilst some individual stories are good, overall the title was at this point still very much just another chance to see Spider-Man each month and sometimes was a bit too reliant on feeding off Amazing. This was a worrying sign for the character, but a change for the better is hinted at on the very last page...

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Omitted material: Marvel Team-Up 74

Time for another little diversion from the Essentials to consider an issue that was left out due to Marvel no longer having the rights to publish the guest stars. Today it’s the turn of Marvel Team-Up #74, in which Spider-Man teams up with the Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time Players from Saturday Night Live. The specific members are Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, Bill Murray, Laraine Newman and Gilda Radner – i.e. almost the original team but by this stage Chevy Chase had moved on and been succeeded by Murray. We also get appearances by SNL‘s producer, Lorne Michaels, plus the edition’s presenter is none other than Stan Lee! Rick Jones is mentioned as the musical guest but I can’t actually spot him on panel. We even get cameos by a couple of old men called Statler and Waldorf.

As you might guess this is a rather different issue of Team-Up from the norm, with a great emphasis on slapstick and celebrities. Was this just a one-off story that allowed Spider-Man to tap more deeply into the SNL audience demographic? Or was it an unsuccessful pilot for a proposed Saturday Night Live comic? Marvel has often gone beyond superheroes (and equally often found itself pushed back to them) and it seems surprising that they would go to all the trouble of licences just for a single issue.

I’m aware that whilst Saturday Night Live has become a firm part of America culture since it began back in 1975, it’s not so well known in other countries, perhaps because the humour and focus is heavily domestic. I don’t know if it’s ever actually been screened in the UK, although a few videos and DVDs have been released here over the years including the complete first season. So in quick summary it’s a late night comedy & variety sketch show, with the bulk of the material performed by a regular cast of comedy actors (dubbed “the Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time Players”) but with each edition hosted by a special guest celebrity. There are a variety of recurring themes and gags that have helped build the show’s cult status, including the regular line at the opening (and story title) “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!”

And herein lies the major problem with the issue (written by Chris Claremont and drawn by Bob Hall). If you’re familiar with Saturday Night Live, especially this particular era (the issue went out at about the end of the third season) then many of the scenes, jokes and gags will be familiar. However if you don’t have that familiarity then a lot of this stuff can go over your head. (And the issue probably did circulate outside the US – pence copies were printed for the UK, though I don’t know if Marvel UK’s weekly Spider-Man title ever reprinted this story.) For example when Peter Parker leaves his seat to go and change into Spider-Man a camera zooms in on him and adds the caption “Super-hero in his spare time!” To a regular SNL viewer this is just the familiar practice of randomly adding any old caption to any old audience member. However to the unfamiliar reader this scene could be another case of Marvel’s awkward presentation of itself in the comics – is this Peter being identified because his identity is clear in the comics? It’s best to try not to think about it.

(And indeed for much of Spider-Man’s history Marvel Comics and its staff generally don’t appear in the stories, bar the odd crowd cameo, although such appearances have a long history in other titles, going right back to Fantastic Four #10 when Dr. Doom dropped in on Stan Lee and Jack Kirby as they planned the next issue.)

Otherwise the story is one of chaos behind the scenes on a live performance, and the struggle to keep this from appearing on the air, as the Silver Samurai and a bunch of thugs search for a power ring that has accidentally wound up on John Belushi’s finger thanks to a smudged mailing address. With Belushi regularly playing a samurai on the show this leads to the inevitable fight, but in the meantime Spider-Man and the other cast members have to round up the various thugs, helped by the show’s costumes including various other superheroes like Ms. Marvel and Thor, and so they can trick the thugs into thinking they’re facing the real things. It’s also unusual in that the issue sees the villain win by obtaining the ring, which is part of a teleport device, and escaping without being followed up immediately in the next issue.

1978 was a year that saw several of the more notorious comedic or silly Spider-Man issues with this issue coming out a couple of months after the Big Wheel debuted in Amazing and a month before the Hypno Hustler in Spectacular. The clear intention was to try and boost Spider-Man’s standing in modern pop culture but looking at these issues now they can seem excessively silly. Being in Marvel Team-Up allows the issue to get away with more fun than usual and there are some good moments, but overall this is not a “lost classic” whose absence from the Essentials is bitterly regretted.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Essential Marvel Team-Up volume 3

Now we come now to the third volume of Essential Marvel Team-Up, containing issues #52-73 & #75, plus Annual #1. Note that issue #74 is omitted due to the guest-stars being the Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time Players from Saturday Night Live, and Marvel presumably no longer has the rights to publish them. As bonus material we get Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entries for the Black Widow, Captain Britain, Havok, the Living Monolith, the Silver Samurai and the Stranger, plus a gallery of covers from Marvel Tales #193-199, #201-207, #235-236, #255 & #262-263, all of which reprinted stories contained in this volume (some with new covers, some with the originals) plus Giant-Size Spider-Man #1, presumably because the cover states “...in the tradition of our smash-hit Marvel Team-Up mag!” The entries and covers are interesting to see but I suspect they’re only here because the volume was initially prepared to include issue #74 and by the time it was discovered unavailable the page count had already been committed to, requiring filler material.

This run includes the last few issues of Bill Mantlo’s run on the book, though he returns even here for a fill-in, and then the bulk of the volume is written by Chris Claremont. Whereas Mantlo, Gerry Conway and Len Wein have all had notable runs on other Spider-Man titles this is Claremont’s only significant work with Spider-Man. In addition we get a few fill-in issues by both familiar hands like Mantlo and Conway, and new writers Gary Friedrich (his only credit on a core Spider-Man title) and Bill Kunkel (one of only two credits, the other’s a later issue of Team-Up), plus Ralph Macchio scripting one of Claremont’s plots, clocking up a rare writers’ credit (though in the late 1990s he edited the core titles) and the annual is plotted by Claremont and his then-wife Bonnie Wilford, and scripted by Mantlo. The art is mainly by Sal Buscema and John Byrne, the latter doing his very first work on the character, with three fill-in issues by Dave Wenzel, Jim Mooney and Kerry Gammill.

Here’s the by now familiar run down of the stars of each issue.

52. Spider-Man and Captain America
Annual 1. Spider-Man and the X-Men
53. Spider-Man and the Incredible Hulk (and Woodgod)
54. Spider-Man and the Incredible Hulk (and Woodgod)
55. Spider-Man and Warlock
56. Spider-Man and Daredevil
57. Spider-Man and the Black Widow
58. Spider-Man and Ghost Rider
59. Spider-Man and Yellowjacket and the Wasp
60. Spider-Man and the Wasp
61. Spider-Man and the Human Torch
62. Spider-Man and Ms. Marvel
63. Spider-Man and Iron Fist
64. Spider-Man and the Daughters of the Dragon
65. Spider-Man and Captain Britain
66. Spider-Man and Captain Britain
67. Spider-Man and Tigra
68. Spider-Man and the Man-Thing
69. Spider-Man and Havok
70. Spider-Man and Thor
71. Spider-Man and Falcon
72. Spider-Man and Iron Man
73. Spider-Man and Daredevil
75. Spider-Man and Power Man

Note also that unlike the previous Essential volumes there are no issues without Spider-Man. Giant-Size Spider-Man was long over and, as I discussed in my review of Essential Spider-Man 8, this was a period when earlier restraints on using the character were being eased, with a third regular series launched plus new stories in the annuals, crossovers with other titles and so forth (and also a live-action TV series). Spider-Man was becoming ever more a phenomenon, but with that could come the risk of over-exposure and stilted development due to separate writers. However at this stage there doesn’t seem to be much impact on Team-Up, perhaps because the general format left it mostly immune.

However there are several multiple part stories, including a mini-epic as Spider-Man is transported first to the Nevada desert, then to New Mexico and finally to the Moon in a succession of tales as he joins with the X-Men, the Incredible Hulk, the mysterious Woodgod and finally Adam Warlock. Woodgod is almost the only one of the characters in this run whom I didn’t recognise, either from the earlier Team-Up issues or from being big name Marvel stars (or usually both). The only other ones are the Daughters of the Dragon (apparently their appearance here was the first time they were billed under that title; more normally they are part of Iron Fist’s supporting cast). Woodgod is especially confusing as I don’t really understand what “Scream” is or know his origin to get the various references to it. Also a little confusing is the team-up with Captain America which is an epilogue to a storyline in his own title that saw Cap and the Falcon battle monsters in another dimension, and now return home. It’s at once both a fill-in issue and an intrusion from another title (and curiously the author, Gerry Conway, wasn’t writing Captain America at the time – it was Jack Kirby’s last run on the series).

The other multi-parters demonstrate another formulaic feature whereby the banner guest star in the first issue is usually incapacitated for the bulk of the second issue, sometimes with their fate as a driving element of the plot either to motivate characters to save them (as with Havok or Iron First) or to motivate other characters to act out of revenge (as with Yellowjacket’s seeming death spurring on the Wasp). A notable exception is the two-parter with Captain Britain. Chris Claremont and Herb Trimpe had created the character for Marvel UK the previous year and with this story they unleashed him onto the American stage. I assume Marvel UK didn’t have much Stateside distribution back then as the first part is an extended scene setter that devotes no less than four of the seventeen pages available to telling his origin. Unfortunately the actual threat in the story just doesn’t seem an appropriate vehicle for introducing such a character as we get a second part in which Spidey and Captain Britain fight their way through new villain Arcade’s giant fun house.

The Captain Britain two-parter also brings up one of the bigger clichés of comics that is a bugbear of mine whereby heroes and their alternative identities both show up in strange cities and countries without everyone deducing their alter egos. True on this occasion Spider-Man does rapidly realise that Captain Britain is Peter Parker’s temporary roommate Brian Braddock, but others don’t, despite the fact that the Maggia have Braddock on their long list of fifty suspects and hire Arcade to kill him just in case, who instead goes for the real thing. Just to add to the risk, Brian/Captain Britain’s girlfriend Courtney Ross has been captured and brought to the United States without the connection leaping out to her or others. Now it’s true this is a limitation of the medium as readers want to see the familiar heroes in action in their usual costumes, which probably rules out the otherwise obvious solution of having an “away” identity with a different costume and different emphasis on the powers to limit the risk, but within the narrative it’s never really properly addressed one way or another.

There are, however, occasional exceptions such as Spider-Man and the X-Men’s adventure in Nevada in the Annual, where at the end Professor X uses his powers to block the memories of the civilians and thus preserve everyone’s identities. It does, however, see a little clanger where Spider-Man talks too freely in front of the X-Men about his problems explaining his sudden absences to Mary Jane Watson. Okay Professor X himself is a powerful telepath and probably already knows Spider-Man’s identity (and just about everything else) by default, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s shared the information with the other X-Men and I would expect Spidey to be more careful than to give his girlfriend’s name away. However what slips on the one part is made up in another as we get what I think is the first ever explicit confirmation that Daredevil is able to identity Spider-Man out of costume by recognising his heartbeat, even if on this occasion he has to rush out before discovering Spidey’s civilian name. It’s a point that later writers would return to.

Another point I found familiar in a different sense was the large number of times Spider-Man explicitly remembers the death of Gwen Stacy once Chris Claremont takes over the writing. Readers of Claremont’s later X-Men work (and/or John Byrne’s latter day criticisms of Claremont – see for instance Byrne Robotics : FAQ : What’s the story behind the return of Jean Grey?) will be aware that after Jean Grey/Phoenix was killed off she was repeatedly referenced and remembered by the characters, to the point where it went beyond natural grief. In general up to now the Spider-Man comics had avoided excessive references to Gwen, other than when the story specifically called for it (for instance the Clone Saga or the various returns of the Green Goblin) so the sudden increase in casual references really stand out as an exceptional turn. Chris Claremont is probably the Team-Up writer with the longest run who has never worked regularly on the other Spider-Man titles and so one can only but speculate as to what he might have done had he had the chance to write one of them, especially given how successful the X-Men became on his watch. Would he have turned in an equally memorable run? Or would it have been another example of an-otherwise comics legend coming unstuck and turning in a run that everybody just couldn’t wait to finish? Or would it have been somewhere in between, perhaps limited by the strains of multiple titles, multiple authors and not always sympathetic editors? We’ll probably never know.

However we have had the opportunity of seeing both Sal Buscema and John Byrne draw Spider-Man many more times over the years and can compare their work. Buscema may have been limited here by being a fill-in king with all the problems that rush jobs can bring but it’s certainly competent and more than holds its own. John Byrne’s contributions are all in the regular assignment category and we’re looking at work very early in his career, before he became a bankable name on first the X-Men and then the Fantastic Four. Here he contributes both a dynamism and a quick handling on the rotating guest-stars and this makes the action stand out.

Overall this third volume of Marvel Team-Up shows a title that by this stage had settled down into a stable format. As ever it wasn’t the place for major advancements in Spider-Man’s life, though some of the guest stars do have their own developments such as Adam Warlock reversing the curse of his body having grown so much due to the universe expanding at different rates that he dwarfed the Earth, or the Man-Thing being restored to freedom after the events at the end of his first series. We also get a few further developments of other characters, such as Jean DeWolff, who is at this stage probably the nearest thing the series has to a specific supporting cast. But, as ever, the purpose of Marvel Team-Up was to showcase Spider-Man with other heroes and take him to places he would or could never go to in his regular titles. Indeed considering the many intense events in those books during this period (the issues here are parallel to Amazing #163-186 and Spectacular #1-24) Team-Up offers a welcome respite, a chance to enjoy a different style of adventure and a tour round very diverse parts of the Marvel Universe. It meets those aims extremely well.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Essential Spider-Man volume 8

We turn now to Essential Spider-Man volume 8 which reprints Amazing Spider-Man #161-185, Annual #11 and The Man called Nova #12, which contains half of Amazing‘s first-ever crossover with another title. As a bonus we also get the cover for Giant-Size Spider-Man #6 (an all reprint issue as the line entered its final days) and the entry on the Green Goblin from the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe.

A quick word on Nova. This series lasted from 1976 to 1979 and featured a new young school student who suddenly gains special powers from aliens. (There’s a whole lot more about intergalactic police forces and things, but none of that comes up here.) It was an intentional homage to Spider-Man, and a less intentional homage to the Silver Age Green Lantern, created by Marv Wolfman (who wrote the series) and Len Wein.

Most of the stories in this volume are written by Wein, from #161-180, with Wolfman writing #182-185 and also the Nova issue. In between, we get a single issue by Bill Mantlo, who also scripts the main story in Annual #11 over a plot by Archie Goodwin. There’s also a short second story by Scott Edelman which is, I think, his only Spider-Man work. Almost all of the regular issues are drawn by Ross Andru apart from #181 which is by Sal Buscema, who also does the Nova issue. The main story in the annual is drawn by Don Perlin and the back up by John Romita Jr, doing his first ever Spider-Man work (although he had a thanks credit way back on Amazing #78 for suggesting the Prowler). What the above may not make too clear is that issue #181 is by the-then regular Spectacular team, and has all the hallmarks of a fill-in, right down to the preceding #180 announcing as next what turned out to be #182’s contents.

Publication-wise this is the period when the restraints on using Spider-Man really began to loosen. (As I’ve said previously, Spidey Super Stories doesn’t really count in this context.) We get the first ever crossover between Amazing and another title, whilst Spider-Man’s third regular title, Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man launched the same month as Amazing #163. In addition Marvel Team-Up had its first annual just about the same time as Spectacular was launching, whilst the Amazing annual came out about the same time as the Nova crossover. And on top of all that 1976 also saw the publication of Superman vs. the Amazing Spider-Man. Whereas at the time of Giant-Size Spider-Man there was a notable restraint that, whether deliberately or not, prevented the character from appearing even three times in a single month, by 1977 such restraint was slipping out of the window. Okay it wasn’t yet at the point where Spider-Man had five monthly titles, most with annuals, a quarterly, various limited series and one-shots (some of which are essential chapters in the continuity) plus a few spin-off series and crossovers with other titles, but it was drifting that way.

(And if all that wasn’t enough this is also the period when The Amazing Spider-Man began on television. I’ve seen no more of that show than the odd clip on YouTube so I can’t comment on its quality (although other live action adaptations of Marvel characters were generally poorly received by fans until the Blade and X-Men movies, with the partial exception of The Incredible Hulk TV series). Overall it doesn’t seem to have overtly affected the comics – there was no attempt to introduce Captain Barbera or Julie Masters, let alone alter J. Jonah Jameson to match his screen portrayal – but from issue #184 onwards the legend “Marvel’s TV Sensation!” appeared on the cover of the issues. It may also have contributed to the decision to move Peter on from undergraduate to postgraduate study, though there had been a long running debate in the letter columns over whether he should graduate or not so this may just be a coincidence.)

The main saving grace of multiple titles and specials is if each of the various books has its own distinct niche and generally doesn’t require readers to pick up the other titles just to know what the heck’s going on. The latter was a problem back at the time of the original publication when most readers relied on newstand distribution but is equally a problem with the Essential series when the other titles may not yet have been reprinted, or else are not easily available on the bookshop shelves (and even when they are the price stacks up for multiple volumes) whether because they’re out of print or limited stock selection or whatever. In this regard Amazing does quite well at this stage (I’ll address the other titles when I get to those volumes), with only a few references to other books and the only “seen first elsewhere” appearance is the Hitman and it’s not really a problem. Far more of an issue is the return of Silvermane now restored to adulthood but noticeably younger and more active than before he sought to youthen himself. (This was covered in issue #123 of Daredevil, reprinted in Essential Daredevil #5.) The only other point of surprise is that in issue #173 Peter gets a letter stating he won’t be graduating this year due to too many failed grades, only to (almost) graduate in #185 – okay they’re a year apart publication-wise but the story speeds through far more quickly and presumably Peter made up (nearly) all the missing grades in night school, perhaps over in Spectacular but it’s not explicit.

I’ll start with the irregular material. Least essential is the cover to Giant-Size #6 – yet curiously the back cover reproduces it and trumpets a team-up with the Human Torch, suggesting copy written by someone unfamiliar with the contents – similarly Stan Lee is listed as an author on the front cover. The story in question originally saw print in Amazing Annual #4 and is available in either the original edition of Essential #4 or later editions of #3. The other single page is the Green Goblin’s Official Handbook entry from the early 1980s, possibly doubling as an unspoken advert for the Essential reprints of those. There’s a few new details in there such as birthplaces and physical statistics, but what really caught my eye is the absence of any reference to Norman Osborn having super strength due to the chemical explosion, suggesting this is a latter day retcon. Of the “bonus” stories, both pieces in Annual #11 are rather forgettable and whilst the main situations are new, some supporting events such as Mary Jane being left alone to her annoyance are starting to grate. Aunt May is shown at her most feisty as she goes protesting (more on this later), but compared to a similar scene in the regular issues it’s surprising her health can stand it.

The crossover with Nova may have been an important event in that title (or not, I’ve never read it but there is an Essential Nova reprinting the whole run), but from Spider-Man’s perspective it’s a completely ignorable story with no repercussions outside it. I wouldn’t be surprised if overseas reprints skipped it altogether. It just feels like a simple way to bring Marvel’s biggest and newest stars together. No real attempt is made to explore the similarities between the characters even though one hero’s uncle has just been killed. Really this story should have run in Team-Up but it was probably trying to boost sales on Nova.

The other unusual tale is #181, which as I noted above is a fill-in issue by the-then Spectacular team. It also feels like it was hanging around on file as it shows Aunt May up and about midway through an extended hospital stay, triggering a caption saying it takes place before all that. (However it may have been a rush commission – both Bill Mantlo and Sal Buscema were particularly good at doing fast fill-in issues – and the error down to poor communication.) The story is a very simple vehicle for extended flashbacks to Spidey’s origin and the main characters in his world. It’s what the industry might now call a “jumping on” point that introduces all the extended details in one go. This might have been best run in Spectacular early on (ideally as the second story in a double-sized first issue but they didn’t do those back then), but here it can’t disguise its filler purpose.

What about the regular run? Well we’re on a roller coaster of events, but we also get one of my bugbears – subplots that appear very infrequently and take years to resolve. We get a particularly bad one here with the mystery of the Spider-Clone photos – back in issue #151 (in the previous volume) Spidey sensed he was being watched when disposing of the clone’s body. It’s not until issue #168 that we learn photos were taken to expose him, and it’s only in issue #180, over a year after Peter’s persuaded Jonah they’re fakes in #169, that we find out who took and sent them. It’s all too long given the overall importance of the incident. Another dangler comes in issue #170 when a mystery man rents Aunt May’s house, being willing to pay any price, but there’s no follow-up at all in the remaining fifteen issues in the volume. There’s a difference between carefully nurtured seeds and long forgotten ideas, and these veer towards the latter. On original reading it must have seemed an eternity between advancements (and even in the Essential era the time between volumes can mean more lengthy weights between threads).

Better handled are the developments relating to Harry Osborn and his psychiatrist, Dr Bart Hamilton, leading up to one of the best known stories in the volume, the third Green Goblin saga. It’s a good epic that combines may of the threads of Wein’s run, giving a suitable climax for most of the characters particularly Harry who finds redemption as he finally conquers the curse of the Green Goblin in a rather Freudian way and finds a happy ending. However we also get another round of Aunt May being taken ill by a sudden shock and I’ve lost count of just how many times that has been now. You can understand why some fans were just wishing she would just die and get it over with. And whilst Hamilton has a reason for his actions it’s still a Silver Age throwback “explanation” in lieu of a substantially fleshed out motive. Still it’s good to see a Green Goblin doing something other than torment Spider-Man/Peter for the first time in over 150 issues. Even if it is the same old “control the city’s underworld” aim – although that’s credible in the aftermath of the Kingpin’s apparent death in issue #164. And I don’t mind the killing off of the new Green Goblin – he’s a strictly one-story character and there’s always the possibility that one day something might make Harry re-don the costume so there’s no substantial loss.

The Kingpin drowning is equally not a problem as a standard “villain seemingly perishes but no body is seen” moment that doesn’t write the character off for good, comes at the end of another little epic, albeit one that doesn’t actually reveal itself as one until the final two issues where we learn that the Kingpin was behind schemes seen in various past issues as part of a master plan to bring his son Richard back from near death. This does, however, bring some more silly science and silly handling of scientists, as Spider-Man’s life force is transferred to Richard, then he staggers to Curt Connors’s who just happens to have the knowledge and equipment to temporarily re-energise him, then whip up a gadget to permanently recover the life-force. The whole transferable life-force idea sits uneasily with me anyway, but it’s also a bit silly that Connors seems to be an expert in just about any field of science that Spider-Man might have a major problem with, rather than a more specific biologist. Awkward problems often require such awkward solutions.

The other major ongoing thread are the developments in the life of J. Jonah Jameson as he continues his occasional schemes against Spider-Man, both trying to expose Spidey as having murdered Peter Parker and then taken his place (his interpretation of the Clone photos), and then he commissions a new Spider-Slayer, but this time from a different scientist, Marla Madison, and in the process is shown falling for a woman for the first time in the series. On a more tragic note he learns that his son is seemingly incurable of the Man-Wolf curse, giving us a chance to see a father’s grief. It’s good to see the character being developed beyond the easy cliché that he can so often be.

The series adds only a few villains to the Rouges’ Gallery and none of them are at all memorable for the right reasons – as well as the brief third Green Goblin and Spidey’s first encounter with Doctor Faustus (more normally a Captain America foe), we get just Jigsaw (although in the long run he’s more usually a Punisher foe), Will o’ the Wisp and the Rocket Racer in Wein’s issues. Marv Wolfman only has four issues in this volume but he gives us both the White Dragon and the Big Wheel. Yes stop laughing at the back. (It was quite a time for the sillier villains as the Big Wheel debuted just three months before the Hypno Hustler over in Spectacular.) Fans tend to split on the character between those who see him as a monumentally bad move for the series and those who just see a so-bad-he’s-good villain you have to laugh about. I’m inclined towards the former view as this isn’t a one-off story but a part of the continuing saga of the Rocket Racer (who, it has to be said, is another silly jump-on-the-latest-fad villain) and the storyline is presented in quite serious terms. Furthermore the same two issues we get a major development in Peter and Mary Jane’s relationship and really that shouldn’t be combined with intentional silliness.

That development comes as he asks her to marry him and she declines. Now the issue of Spider-Man marrying is always a touchy one that can set keyboards raging so for now I’ll primarily limit this to whether or not marriage was a good idea at this stage in the run. In my mind Peter Parker has always been the type who would settle down with the right woman if he met her and she would say yes. He may be young – only just about to graduate – but in a number of ways his values are those of an earlier generation. Remember he was raised by his aunt & uncle, a couple significantly older than most of his contemporaries’ parents – there are references in some stories that indicate they got engaged during the Great Depression. (And in the real world Peter Parker was created by two men both born in the 1920s. Stan Lee started work at 17 and got married in his mid twenties. Nobody seems to know anything about Steve Ditko’s personal life.) During his teenage years Peter was generally an extreme loner with the exception of his close relationship with his aunt & uncle. All of this points to his being quite likely to have an outlook on marriage that is at least a generation older than his contemporaries’, which probably includes couples not living together beforehand. And for a long time May (with some help from Anna) has played Cupid, introducing Peter and Mary Jane and then later encouraging both of them at key points – and here on her hospital bed she drops a blatant hint. Finally this is a time of great change for Peter as he’s about to graduate and move onto the next stage of his life and it’s understandable he doesn’t want to take that step on his own. So I can see this is entirely natural for Peter. And Mary Jane is a plausible wife – at this stage she is a university student and occasional actress, though as shown in Annual #11 in this volume her career is still at the crowd extra stage, who is on much the same level as Peter. Whilst she has her flaky, party loving side we’ve also seen a more serious side to her, as she’s come to care not just for Peter but also for May over their troubles – and she picks up on May’s hints faster than Peter. Ultimately at this point there would be nothing implausible about the two taking the next stage. Would it have aged Spider-Man? Well Spider-Man had been ageing for a while anyway – he started off midway through high school and the proposal comes just before he graduates with his first degree – a pretty major step forward in a person’s life. A couple being married in their 20s don’t automatically age overnight so from one perspective a marriage at this stage between these characters would have been quite workable and a natural development. Plus marriage was present in Peter’s circle of friends already, with Ned and Betty having tied the knot only recently, whilst Harry and Liz were now engaged and involved in wedding planning. So it’s not as if either marriage or changes to the status quo were alien to the series.

But Mary Jane says no, stating that she’s too free a spirit to be tied down. Which again is plausible. We don’t actually know very much about her background and family at this stage beyond having been a regular visitor to her Aunt Anna rather than being raised by her, and she’s less likely to have grown up being isolated from all but her parents, natural or de facto. So whilst Peter has the views and expectations of May’s generation, Mary Jane’s outlook is far more that of a younger generation where people were more cautious about rushing into marriage at so early an age. Plus there’s the elephant in the room or rather the Spider – could Peter really marry Mary Jane without revealing his identity to her first? After all several of his foes had already worked it out and this was the reason Gwen died. In the real world there are many married police officers et al, with spouses potentially at risk of reprisals, but they know about their spouses’ careers and have made an informed choice over a period of time. Could Peter really have gone through with this without telling her? The track record on married heroes is mixed in this regard but it’s one that would have to have been faced. Whereas Aunt May’s health was a justification for not telling her, with Mary Jane there could be no such excuse and that could have been the stumbling point, especially if he suddenly sprung it on her.

Finally from the point of view of story possibilities a marriage at this time would have cut off various options. At this point Spider-Man had not yet had any relationship in his costumed identity or even had any woman developing a crush on him. There were also other possibilities to explore for Peter Parker, such as an ex on the rebound. Which we get almost immediately with the return of Betty Brant Leeds who has found life with Ned in Paris impossible to take and so she returns to New York and seeks out Peter. Coming in the penultimate issue of the volume we naturally don’t get very far with it, but there are hints that she wants to renew things with Peter, whilst he is worried about where it’s going. In my review of the previous volume I noted my surprise at Peter serving as Ned’s best man, but here that brings a potential additional angle to these developments as there’s probably no-one it’s more hurtful to lose your wife to than your best man.

The remaining tales in this volume are more incidental, but still generate thrills and excitement as we charge through events. The very last story is a short six-page affair sees two major developments, one in the narrative and the other in production. Ross Andru did a five-year run on the title and bows out here (and largely stayed bowed out from Spider-Man for the rest of his life, drawing only a couple of annuals and a graphic novel in later years). He’s not the greatest Spider-Man artist of all time, but he brought to Amazing both an ability to maintain strong visual continuity with what had gone before and a solid dramatic style that complemented the action over five eventful years. Thus he leaves big shoes to fill.

In-story the final development is Peter Parker graduating – or not as the case may be! He’s one measly credit short because he failed to take a gym class – of all the things for Spider-Man to miss! But he can take that final class over the summer, and so we get a final page as Peter stands on the university steps facing the future with confidence. All in all this volume is a strong one with only a few individual lapses that don’t detract from the energy moving the series forward.

(Apologies for a rather longer piece than usual, but given one of the topics raised by this volume I felt extra space was needed to do it justice.)

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Omitted material: Superman vs. the Amazing Spider-Man

We come to another side-step to look at an issue not covered by the Essentials (although I’m not sure it would have been included even if the rights were available) – Superman vs. the Amazing Spider-Man, the first meeting of Marvel and DC superheroes from 1976.

Inter-company crossover stories come in two forms. Either the heroes occupy a shared universe but just haven’t encountered one another before, or else they occupy separate realities and are brought together over the inter-dimensional divide by the events of the special meeting. I have completely lost track of the positions taken by either Marvel or DC as to which crossovers do and don’t count as part of the ongoing continuity (there was a stage when the second type generally did count, albeit as events that were never actually mentioned again) or how they fit into either company’s multiverse. But to be honest that doesn’t really matter – this is just a special bringing together the two companies’ leading heroes (and their respective supporting casts and archenemies of the period) for a fun story

This was originally published as a standalone one shot in the “Treasury Edition” format, which by the standards of US comics is enormous. The regular books from both Marvel and DC were approximately A5 sized; the Treasury Edition format is tabloid A3 and squarebound (and no, I don’t know where the name comes from). To a 1970s child a Treasury Edition must have seemed like the ultimate treasure, although the price might have been more daunting – this one is US $2.00 at a time when the regular Marvels were going for US $0.25 – although some were apparently also sold through bookshops. To both retailers and collectors the format can be more of a pain than a pleasure – squarebound comics from the 1970s often used inferior glue and easily rustable staples that make even the regular sized books difficult to find in top quality, but throw in a huge size that doesn’t easily fit the bags and boxes available (and with many of the Treasury Edition comics being reprints the demand for appropriate storage facilities is reduced further) and you can understand why it’s particularly hard to find these in good nick. Fortunately this story has had a few reprints since, usually to tie in with more recent Marvel/DC collaborations.

The story is written by Gerry Conway, then recently departed from Spider-Man, and drawn by Ross Andru, the-then regular Amazing penciller. Conway had recently moved from Marvel to DC but I don’t know if either he or Andru had worked on Superman before. I have heard that Neal Adams redraw some of the Superman images to maintain visual continuity, although if so this was uncredited.

As for the story? Well we get three prologues, the first two featuring the individual heroes sending their arch enemies to jail on their home patches, then we get a shorter third one as once in jail Lex Luthor and Doctor Octopus team up to escape and have revenge on both their enemies. We also get three pages that introduce the core characters for the less familiar and they’re generally fine, but it can be a surprise to remember that this came out during the period when Clark Kent primarily worked as a TV anchorman rather than the newspaper reporter he’s been for most of his history. (Consequently, although Perry White can be seen in some backgrounds, Morgan Edge is the presented counterpart for J. Jonah Jameson.) Because of these it’s not until page 31 that the villains meet, page 36 when our heroes’ alter egos and supporting casts arrive at the same location, and page 46 when the heroes meet in costume. In a 92-page story this is an very long build up.

The plot itself is relatively simple – a villain hijacks a new piece of technology to demand money with menaces, and two heroes meet, have a misunderstanding and fight, then team up to track down the villain with a climactic fight to save the world. At the time that may have been all that was needed, but I feel it leads to some extended sequences that ultimately don’t contribute a great deal such as the whole trip to Africa. Also whilst the heroes work together and both contribute throughout the course of events, the same cannot be said of the villains. Doctor Octopus is basically superfluous to most of the plot, with everything having been planned and set in motion by Lex Luthor, and his only real contributions are to even up the numbers in the final fight and be the vehicle for saving the day when Spider-Man appeals to his humanity to stop Luthor from destroying the world. Otherwise he could have been left out completely and another way found to destroy the equipment. We also get the strange spectacle of Superman tearing off two of the tentacles, yet Doc Ock doesn’t appear to suffer any pain.

We get lots of good little moments, with an especially fun scene as Peter Parker rushes to find a phone booth only to discover they’ve been replaced with open stalls – this came two years before an equivalent moment in the first Superman movie. There’s also some classic Jonah as he orders the publication of a special edition of the Daily Bugle highlighting Peter’s photos of the capture of Doctor Octopus without checking them first. By the end of the story Peter redeems himself in his publisher’s eyes with photos of Spider-Man and Superman together. There’s a similar strand of Clark learning he’s going to be replaced as anchor when Metropolis hosts a national convention but again he proves his worth by obtaining exclusive footage. However there are some clunky moments, particularly when upon being introduced to Lois Lane for the first time Mary Jane feels the need to comment on her being “Miss” with a mini-feminist rant which feels both rude and out of character (and now very dated).

The obligatory fight between our heroes (triggered by Luthor impersonating Superman to kidnap Lois and Mary Jane, thus Spider-Man has a reason to not trust Superman) could have been either very one-sided or very silly but it’s enhanced by Luthor secretly zapping Spider-Man with red sun radiation (this was also an era when Kryptonite was deliberately made rare) which means he can fight Superman on equal terms, though the fight is inconclusive when the radiation wears off. Personally I would have thought Spider-Man should win such a fight, not because of personal preference, but because he is used to having to hone his technique and develop his fighting skills whereas Superman can rely of just strength and powers alone. So when on physically equal terms, Spidey should have had enough edge to win out. Maybe another time...

In general this is an okay comic for what it is, but there are some opportunities missed and a more original plot that presented a menace that could only be made by two villains combined would have been far more satisfactory. And it may have been published in a much larger format and have 92 pages with no adverts, but I’m not convinced it was worth eight times a regular comic of the era. Of course nowadays the price economics are a very different matter. Pick this up if you can find a copy easily at a fair price, but don’t spend ridiculous prices or amounts of time searching for it.

Omitted material: Giant-Size Spider-Man 3

As I’ve noted in my reviews of the Essentials so far there are a handful of comics excluded, usually because Marvel no longer has the rights to print some of the guest stars. So occasionally, I’ll take a little diversion from the regular series to look at some of these issues. In that vein today I’m going to look at Giant-Size Spider-Man #3, written by Gerry Conway and drawn by Ross Andru, which contains a (sort-of) team-up with Doc Savage (and also a reprint of Amazing #16 but I covered that back with Essential Spider-Man volume 1).

Doc Savage is another character I can’t recall ever hearing about outside of this series so I did a little digging. He was the star of a long running series of pulp magazines in the 1930s and 1940s, which were later reprinted as paperback books in the 1960s through 1990s, and popped up in several other media over the years including radio and comics, with Marvel adapting a number of the books in the early 1970s. Less than a year after Giant-Size Spider-Man #3 came out, there was a movie Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze and Marvel (under the Curtis Magazines label) produced eight issues of a tie-in magazine comic. Nowadays DC own the rights to the character and have actually reprinted those eight issues in their Showcase Presents series (the equivalent of the Essentials). But it’s much harder to easily reprint what is now effectively an inter-company crossover.

The character himself is an adventurer/scientist who has been trained to excellence in numerous fields from birth. His skin isn’t actually made of bronze – I think it’s just tanned – and he operates from an office on the 86th floor of an unnamed New York City skyscraper, which is normally implicitly the Empire State Building but the art in this particular issue suggests otherwise. Doc Savage is frequently accompanied by up to five aides, later billed as “The Fabulous Five”, known as Ham, Johnny, Long Tom, Monk and Renny. All are skilled in particular fields. And this is all more information than you get in the issue itself.

This is a general irritation of mine that often guest stars are featured with a heavy assumption of familiarity. Now I’m writing this over 37 years after the issue was printed and I don’t live in the country of origin so maybe every American reader at the end of 1974 could be expected to know all about Doc Savage as much as, say, the Human Torch. But this issue was reprinted in the UK (in the Spider-Man Annual 1977) and Marvel would later have a key philosophy that “every issue is someone’s first” so I don’t think it unreasonable to expect better introductions.

Storywise this is an incredibly simplistic tale but told in an awkward flow that throws up internal contradictions. As it’s not too widely available, I’ll quickly summarise it:

Spider-Man is summoned to the site of a building due to be demolished by Desinna, a lady from a parallel dimension, who seeks his help and tells, via a projection, of her visit back in 1934 when the building was constructed. Back then she enlisted the help of Doc Savage and his aides to fight Tarros, a renegade scientist from her own dimension who through an accident had become a monstrous electrical aura. In the present day, Spider-Man fights off an appearance of Tarros through disrupting his electrical field by throwing a jackhammer into him. Back in 1934, Doc Savage and his aides eventually sealed Tarros in a cadmium foundation stone, but in the present day the demolition of the building is expected to release him again. Having heard the rest of Desinna’s story, Spidey picks up the jackhammer again and demolishes the foundation stone, declaring that he can sense the pain, and knows enough linguistics, to realise Tarros was only angry with Desinna and not the rampaging monster she claimed. Spidey comments on the different values of his era and Doc Savage’s – in Savage’s day “women were supposed to be demure little things, but nowadays we don’t take anything for granted.” The story ends with Tarros pulling Desinna home and Spidey swinging away, imagining Doc Savage and the five smiling approvingly at him for righting an old wrong.

To be blunt this is one of the worst Spider-Man “team-ups” I’ve read. It’s not completely necessary for the two leads in a story to meet but it’s a hard trick to pull off successfully. Here we get an incoherent mess because of the switching between timezones to keep both heroes in the picture, with the result that we get an appearance of Tarros in the present day before he’s been released which makes no sense at all. The tale itself is extremely simplistic and doesn’t deserve the extended 33 pages. Maybe the original Doc Savage pulps were over simplistic and formulaic, but by the 1970s one would expect so much more. And Spider-Man’s comments about how women were regarded in the 1930s? Again they’re vastly over-simplistic, though they may at least reflect the values of the original Doc Savage pulps.

All in all I don’t think this is a great loss to the Essentials and I hope its absence doesn’t give it a mythical status it doesn’t deserve.

(However the story could have benefited in a couple of areas from an Essential reprint. Both Desinna and Tarros are completely miscoloured on the cover compared to the inside pages, and black & white would have hidden that. There are also a few cases of printer errors where one of the colour plates, usually dark blue, has slipped out of line on an individual page creating misplaced blobs. The Essentials invariably filter out these.)
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