Friday, 27 July 2012

Looking to the future...

Having now looked at all the Essential Spider-Man volumes that have been released so far, and all the guest appearances that have also been reprinted in the Essentials, it’s naturally time for a pause in this blog. But I promise this is only a pause and that when further volumes are released I’ll post my thoughts on them and on anything they miss out. And yes, that includes filling in gaps in the existing guest appearance posts. (I’ll both edit the original post to add my thoughts but also generate a new post so that long-time readers of this blog can see the additions.) I can’t say how long that will take although I’m not expecting a sudden rapid surge of Essential Sub-Mariner volumes that will take the series up to Spidey’s appearance in issue #69 anytime soon.

However it’s more reasonable to expect there will be future Essential volumes from the main Spider-Man series rather sooner. After all we’ve had them in most years since the Essential series began back in 1996, although checking the dates I was surprised to see there were none in 2008 or 2010, both years that saw lots of Essentials released, and rather less surprised to see none in 1999, 2001 or 2003, back in the earlier, leaner years. With no less than twenty-one volumes from four series (not counting the Spider-Woman or Punisher volumes reviewed here), there’s been on average more than one volume a year, a very healthy sign.

That said it would be helpful if the next few years could help bring the different titles to more or less the same point. As I noted in my review of Essential Web volume 2, it can be very confusing to be reading issues dealing with the aftermath of developments in other series that haven’t been reached yet, particularly when two entire issues of Web were devoted to wrapping up the loose ends from a major storyline that mainly ran in Amazing, whilst another major storyline is in part a sequel to an unreprinted issue of Marvel Team-Up. And it’s also a real shock that Essential Marvel Team-Up has only had three volumes so far, especially as the Thing’s equivalent title Marvel Two-in-One has been Essentialised in its entirety, and we’ve also had two volumes from Team-Up’s replacement title, Web.

Were I in charge of deciding which volumes to release next… the line would probably rapidly end in bankruptcy due to my decisions being heavily biased towards my personal preferences. (Away from Spider-Man there’d be quite a bit more Daredevil, Fantastic Four and Silver Surfer released but not too many X-everything books.) But I would certainly try to level the Spider-Man volumes so they wouldn’t be years apart. That would probably mean three more volumes of Team-Up, two of Amazing and one of Spectacular before I would release Essential Web 3, although I might be prepared to be a little flexible so that crossovers like “Inferno” and “Acts of Vengeance” don’t all appear in the same volumes in the same year (which might be the long term reason for the staggered releases). But certainly I’d want to get Team-Up completed as soon as possible, although there’s the other problem that a few individual issues may have to be omitted due to the rights on the guest stars. The most obvious ones are Red Sonja in #79 and King Kull in #112, both characters ultimately coming from the works of Robert E. Howard. #84 & #85 guest star Shang-Chi, the Master of Kung-Fu, and are possibly also a mess as although Shang-Chi himself is Marvel property, large elements of his backstory and supporting cast are drawn from the Fu Manchu novels by Sax Rohmer though I’m not sure if any of Rohmer’s creations are used in those issues and Marvel has Essentialised other appearances of Shang-Chi in the likes of Giant-Size Spider-Man and Marvel Two-in-One).

Looking beyond the imbalance amongst the current titles, there’s other material to collect in future volumes. In 1990 Spider-Man gained a fourth title, imaginatively entitled Spider-Man, and then in 1993 there was a fifth, Spider-Man Unlimited. As the 1990s went one there were ever more one shots and limited series, and also two interesting ongoing “past tales” series – Untold Tales of Spider-Man and Web-Spinners: Tales of Spider-Man which told stories from earlier periods of the webslinger’s history. It would be a pity to miss any of these out, though whether to include them with the best relevant ongoing series or to do some special grab bag collections is a decision to be taken later. I’ve already looked at the looming problems from the deluge of crossovers in a previous post so won’t repeat my thoughts here.

But as well as the continuing present day adventures of Spider-Man there are a few other series to consider. What If... is a concept of alternative history that Marvel has devoted several series to, with many issues focusing on alternative twists in Spider-Man’s life (and he’s also appeared in many other stories as well). It would be nice to see some Essential What If... volumes at some point. And then there are two reasonably well-known alternative futures. The 2099 line of comics is one of the best known and Spider-Man 2099 lasted forty-six issues, the longest of any of the books. There was even a one-shot in which Spider-Man met his present day counterpart. Later on the MC2 uiverse was spun out of a later issue of What If.... Set about a generation into the future of the current Marvel Universe, it featured the offspring of many of the heroes, including Spider-Girl, the daughter of the true Spider-Man. However as that series only began in 1998 it may be too recent to consider for the Essentials for a good while. The same applies to the present day alternate reality Ultimate Spider-Man from 2001.

I doubt that even in fifteen years time everything I’ve listed above will have been collected – that is if there are still trade paperbacks around then (I’ve long given up on believing any predictions about what will and won’t vanish with a particular technology emerging). But in the near future we should see some more volumes.

One of my favourite periods on Spider-Man is the Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz run on Amazing from #251 until #283 when an awful lot happened in rapid succession. It will be a joy to see this Essentialised and it’s due very soon. Further down the line there are other runs that are amongst the best, particularly those by creators like J.M. DeMatteis and Sal Buscema. And as astonishing as it seems, Essential Web is not that far off the period when it finally had a regular creative team. So there’s plenty to look forward to.

I’ll be aiming to keep up with the volumes as they come and share my thoughts here. I’ll also make some other posts on related points of interest. And in the meantime I’ll be posting my opinions on some related series. So one way or another this blog won’t be going away.

See you in due course!

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Maximum Crossovers?

In my last couple of posts (for now) I’m going to look at the future of the Essential Spider-Man line. I’ll talk more about the general direction in my second post, but here I want to consider what could be a fairly major problem for future volumes – the proliferation of crossovers both within the Spider-Man titles and between them and the wider Marvel line. The issues Essentialised so far have generally preceded this development and consequently only included at most one or two extra issues. But the most recently published volume (Web 2) contains four additional issues in order to carry the full story “Kraven’s Last Hunt”. As the crossovers increase, how can the Essential volumes cope without producing volumes that only advance their own series by a few issues and contain tonnes of crossovers the reader will be buying in other volumes as well, but equally without running storylines that make no sense without issues in other volumes that may not be available on the shelf (or even published yet)?

It’s certainly a tricky dilemma, but in order to put it in context it probably helps to draw a list of the crossovers yet to come. In the interests of sanity this list only covers storylines that ran in more than one Spider-Man title. When only one of the titles crossed over with other Marvel titles (e.g. “Sabotage”, “Spirits of Venom”, “Infinity Crusade” or “Civil War”) then it’s not included. So here goes...

“The Wedding” – Amazing #290-292 & Annual #21 and Spectacular Annual #7.

“Mad Dog Ward” – Web #33, Amazing #295 and Spectacular #133.

“The Evolutionary War” – Amazing Annual #22, Spectacular Annual #8, and Web Annual #4, plus eight other annuals (or nine if you include Alf).

“Inferno” – Amazing #311-313, Spectacular #146-148, Web #47-48, plus lots and lots of other Marvel titles – one list I’ve seen has forty-two issues on it!

“Atlantis Attacks” – Amazing Annual #23, Spectacular Annual #9 and Web Annual #5, plus eleven other annuals.

“Acts of Vengeance” – Amazing #326-329, Spectacular #158-160 and Web #59-61, plus lots and lots and lots of other Marvel titles – if you thought “Inferno” was big, for “Acts of Vengeance” one list I’ve seen has a total of sixty-eight books on it!

“Spidey’s Totally Tiny Adventure” – Amazing Annual #24, Spectacular Annual #10 and Web Annual #6. Marvel switched away from running epics across all its annuals to running smaller crossovers.

“The Spider And The Ghost!” – Amazing Annual #25, Spectacular Annual #11 and Web Annual #7.

“The Hero Killers” – Amazing Annual #26, Spectacular Annual #12, Web Annual #8 and also New Warriors Annual #2.

“Maximum Carnage” – Spider-Man Unlimited #1-2, Web #101-103, Amazing #378-380, Spider-Man #35-37 and Spectacular #101-103. This is the one where things start to get tricky.

“Pursuit” – Spider-Man #45, Spectacular #211, Web #112 and Amazing #389.

“The Clone Saga” – This saw lots of individually named story arcs, and complicating things further there was a period when Amazing & Spectacular focused on Peter Parker/Spider-Man whilst Web & “adjectiveless” focused on Ben Reilly/Scarlet Spider. Then the books all fused together, telling a virtually weekly story. Then midway through Ben’s time as Spider-Man there was a move back towards keeping the titles reasonably separate subject to further crossovers. To save my sanity I’m going to list this as the whole lot:
Web #117-129, Amazing #394-418, Spider-Man #51-75, Spectacular #217-240, Unlimited #7-14, Web of Scarlet Spider #1-4, Amazing Scarlet Spider #1-2, Scarlet Spider #1-2, Spectacular Scarlet Spider #1-2, Scarlet Spider Unlimited #1 and Sensational #0-11; plus the limited series and one-shots: Jackal Files, Maximum Clonage Alpha, Maximum Clonage Omega, The Lost Years #0-3, The Parker Years, The Final Adventure #1-4, Redemption #1-4, The Osborn Journal and Dead Man’s Hand.
And if that isn’t enough, The Complete Clone Saga and The Complete Ben Reilly Epic collections of this period also include Spider-Man Team-Up 1-5, “Planet of the Symbiotes” in the 1995 annuals (see below), and various specials and issues of other series. Some of these issues can be trimmed off if focusing upon a single series but it would take an extended process to work out what should and shouldn’t be added to the general Essential volumes for each.

“Planet of the Symbiotes”/”Ghosts” – Amazing Super Special #1, Spider-Man Super Special #1, Venom Super Special #1, Spectacular Super Special 1, Web Super Special #1. These are basically annuals by another name and whilst taking place amidst the wider Clone Saga they form two distinctive crossovers in their own right. (Clones and symbiotes – what more could you ask for?)

“Onslaught” – Amazing #415 and Spider-Man #72. Another Marvel Universe wide crossover (and still during the Clone era) though Spider-Man managed to get away with a rather minimal contribution.

“Spider-Hunt” – Sensational #25, Amazing #432, Spider-Man #89 and Spectacular #255.

“Identity Crisis” – Sensational #27-28, Amazing #434-435, Spider-Man #91-92 and Spectacular #257-258 This one’s complicated by Peter Parker adopting four separate new identities and each title focusing upon a different one.

“The Gathering of Five” – Sensational #32-33, Amazing #440, Spider-Man #96 and Spectacular #262; and “The Final Chapter” – Amazing #441, Spider-Man #97-98 and Spectacular 263. Although they have separate names, these are basically one extended story which served to bring all the titles to a close before a major relaunch of the line.

Now we come to the relaunch era when the line was cut to two present day titles and the numbers were reset. Also with only two regular titles not all crossovers were explicitly branded. I’m broadly following SpiderFan.Org’s lead here.

‘Introducing Spider-Woman’ (I can’t remember if this has a formal title) – Amazing #5-6 and Peter Parker #5.

“Another Return of The Sinister Six” – Amazing #12 and Peter Parker #12.

“We’re All Doomed... Again!” – Amazing #16 and Peter Parker #16.

‘Green Goblin V revealed’ – Amazing #18 and Peter Parker#18.

“Maximum Security” – Amazing #23 and Peter Parker #23, plus lots of other Marvel titles. However if memory serves the two Spider-Man issues largely stand separately from one another.

“Revenge of The Green Goblin” – Revenge of the Green Goblin #1-3, Amazing #25 and Peter Parker #25.

‘The Return of Mary Jane’ – Amazing #29 & Annual 2001 and Peter Parker#29.

Then the original numbering was restored on Amazing, but in the same period the second (and briefly third) books went through other titles, some of them recycled.

“The Other” – Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man #1-4, Marvel Knights: Spider-Man #19-22 and Amazing #525-528.

“One More Day” – Amazing #544-545, Friendly Neighborhood #24 and Sensational #41.

This list surprised me as I would have expected many more storylines running in multiple titles. But unless I’ve overlooked some the pattern is clear – after “Kraven’s Last Hunt” and Mad “Dog Ward”, the only crossovers between Spider-Man titles for the next five years were either in the annuals or part of wider mega crossovers with the Spider-Man titles opting to tell extended Spider-Man arcs within them. In general it should be relatively easy to carry on the separate volumes for Essentials until 1993, though it would probably help to make the volumes covering “Acts of Vengeance” extra large so the crossovers don’t slow the series down too much.

It was “Maximum Carnage” in 1993 which began the pattern for routine storylines across the multiple Spider-Man titles, and the following year this was tested with “Pursuit” before coming with a vengeance with the numerous storylines that made up “the Clone Saga” and at times saw the Spider-Man books effectively serving as one continuous story (the Superman books did this even more explicitly in this period). Following that there were a few crossovers in 1998 in the lead up to the relaunch. Then in the early relaunch years there were a handful of storylines told in both titles, perhaps due to sharing the writer, plus a couple of events. And then it dropped back to only the occasional crossover, largely as part of a big event. The switch to multiple issues of Amazing each month has (for now) seemingly ended Spider-Man crossovers.

The Essentials will have to do some real headscratching about how to incorporate “Maximum Carnage”, let alone “the Clone Saga”, when they get to those in due time. Since there are five other Essential series that are chronologically ahead of the Spider-Man titles it’s possible that how they handle similar crossovers may offer a solution. Here’s a quick rundown:

Essential Silver Surfer – Volume 2 gets up to issue #18 from 1988 of the Surfer’s 1980s/1990s series. The only crossover so far is “The Evolutionary War” and just the Surfer’s own annual is included.

Essential X-Men – Volume 10 gets up to issue #272 of the Uncanny X-Men (the titles of the X-Men books and the Essential series can really confuse). This time round there are rather more outside issues with crossovers and of those from 1986 onwards it runs through “Mutant Massacre” (also containing the New Mutants, X-Factor, Thor and Power Pack issues), “The Evolutionary War” (just the Uncanny X-Men annual), “Inferno” (also containing the X-Factor issues but none of the New Mutants, X-Terminators or any of the other books), “Atlantis Attacks” (just the Uncanny X-Men annual), “Acts of Vengeance” (just the Uncanny X-Men issues), “Days of Future Present” (also containing the Fantastic Four, New Mutants and X-Factor annuals) and “X-Tinction Agenda” (also containing the X-Factor and New Mutants issues).

Essential X-Factor – Volume 5, coming out soon, will take the series up to issue #70 from 1991. Again there are multiple crossovers in this run including “X-Factor” (which launched the series via the Avengers and Fantastic Four), “Mutant Massacre” (also containing the Thor and Power Pack issues but not the Uncanny X-Men or New Mutants ones), “Fall of the Mutants” (only the X-Factor issues), “The Evolutionary War” (just the X-Factor annual), “Inferno” (also containing two of the Uncanny X-Men issues but not the other two or any of the other books), “Atlantis Attacks” (just the X-Factor annual), “Acts of Vengeance” (just the X-Factor issue), “Days of Future Present” (also containing the Fantastic Four, New Mutants and Uncanny X-Men annuals), “X-Tinction Agenda” (also containing the Uncanny X-Men and New Mutants issues), “Kings of Pain” (also containing the New Mutants and Uncanny X-Men annuals but, on the information I have, not the New Warriors one) and “Muir Island Saga” (also containing the final Uncanny X-Men issue but not the previous two).

Essential Punisher – With volume 4 again coming out soon the series is up to #59 from 1992. Once the Punisher’s own ongoing series is reached at the start of volume 2, the only crossover issue from another series included is Daredevil #257 which is half of a two-parter. Otherwise it just has the Punisher’s own issues of “The Evolutionary War”, “Atlantis Attacks”, “Acts of Vengeance” and various shorter annual crossovers that didn’t involve Spider-Man titles. Also note it doesn't include issues of Punisher War Journal or Punisher War Zone, but I’m not sure how many crossovers there were between the Punisher’s three titles.

Essential Wolverine – Volume 6, coming out soon, will take the series up to #128 from 1998. So far the series has only had a single outside issue (Uncanny X-Men #332) despite running through several crossovers including “Acts of Vengeance”, “Fatal Attractions”, “Phalanx Covenant”, “Onslaught” and “Operation: Zero Tolerance” though notably the “Age of Apocalypse” issues are absent, however as the book was temporarily notionally renamed and renumbered then one can claim exemption as not part of the actual series.

Well... The experience of Essential Punisher and Essential Wolverine would suggest that it’s relatively easy to get through many wider crossovers by just reprinting the issues the title character was in. The Essential X-Men and Essential X-Factor experiences suggests that not all crossovers are equal and in some cases it’s possible to limit the number of additional issues that are brought in to complete the story. Again there’s an obvious difference between books starring separate, albeit related, teams (Essential X-Men has not quite reached the launch of the second X-Men title) and books starring the same character but they offer hope. It also seems clear that with the smaller annual crossovers it’s advisable to run all the parts in each relevant Essential (though space can be saved by not reprinting their back-up features). All five series are in agreement that the epic annual crossovers can be limited to the individual annuals for each series (although for Atlantis Attacks the Spectacular and Daredevil annuals are closely tied together so may been an exception). One concern is how the crossovers can slow down the pace of reprinting the main title. Essential X-Men volume 10 has just eight of the regular issues and one of the regular annuals, and almost half the volume given over to completing the “Days of Future Present” and “X-Tinction Agenda” crossovers.

More intriguingly the experience of Essential Wolverine in completely side-stepping the “Weapon X” title that appeared during the “Age of Apocalypse” suggests that the Spider-Man Essentials could potentially get away with not carrying all the “Scarlet Spider” books in each volume – maybe instead they could be a standalone affair or even help fill up the end of Essential Web? Of course that’s some way off, and there’s the previous deluge of Clone Saga material to tackle first.

But for the next few years worth of issues it should be relatively easy. For “Inferno” and “Acts of Vengeance” decisions will have to be taken on which issues can appear just in their own titles and which ones need to also appear in other books, but it shouldn’t be too much of a problem. “Mad Dog Ward” must appear in all three series. Each of the smaller annual crossovers will probably have to appear in each volume, whilst the Evolutionary War and Atlantis Attacks annuals can be confined to their own series. And both of the Wedding annuals should probably appear in both Essential Amazing and Essential Spectacular, though I note the Spectacular annual, featuring the honeymoon, was omitted from The Wedding tradepaperback, an omission that may be repeated. But otherwise there’s at least three more volumes for each Spider-Man series (and at least one for the adjectiveless) before the crossover problem will hit on a regular basis. And hopefully by then Essential X-Men will be deep into the two-titles era and can offer more precedents.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Some thoughts on Goblin identities

Over the years the Green Goblin has spawned many successors and imitators. Common to many of these characters has been a mystery about their secret identity... and unfortunately many of the reveals have either come amidst creative turbulence and/or been met with dislike by fans. As I promised way back in my review of Essential Spider-Man volume 2, here’s a look at how the Green Goblin revelation stands up compared to later reveals.

For starters how many Goblins have there been and how many have had mystery identities? Off the top of my head we’ve had the following:
  • Green Goblin I – (mystery)
  • Green Goblin II – (no mystery)
  • Green Goblin III – (mystery)
  • Green Goblin IV – (mystery)
  • Green Goblin V – (mystery)
  • Hobgoblin I – (mystery)
  • Hobgoblin II – (no mystery)
  • Hobgoblin III – (no mystery)
  • Demogoblin – No other identity (no mystery)
  • Grey Goblin – (mystery)
And if we include the three main alternative universes/timelines featuring a Spider character:

2099
  • Goblin 2099 – (mystery)
  • Hobgoblin 2211 – (sort of a mystery)
MC2 (Spider-Girl)
  • Green Goblin – (no mystery)
  • Golden Goblin – (no mystery)
Ultimate – I’ll admit I’m not too familiar with these stories (yes I know, I hear the cries of “SHAME!”)
  • Green Goblin – (no mystery?)
  • Hobgoblin – (no mystery?)
Now some of these mysteries lasted rather longer than others. Green Goblin III and the Grey Goblin were revealed in the same storyline as they were introduced. Green Goblin IV’s identity was a mystery in the couple of issues that trailed his own series but was then revealed when it began. Goblin 2211 didn’t have her identity revealed until many years later – technically a later revelation but it was more a filling out of an existing character than a longstanding tease of the readers. In all these cases the original creative team controlled the character from introduction to revelation and things didn’t get out of control.

The other four – the first & fifth Green Goblins, the first Hobgoblin and Goblin 2099 – were all longer running mysteries. In at least three out of four cases their (first) revealed identity was not what was intended by their creator, and in two cases later issues sought to undo the damage by retconning the original reveal into a set-up. And in all four cases there’s much to criticise the revelations for.

Whilst it’s good advice that if an author introduces a mystery identity villain they should make sure they do a revelation before they leave the title, it’s not always a guarantee of success. Peter David included as near to a revelation of Goblin 2099’s identity as he could in the space of his final issue of Spider-Man 2099 – only for subsequent editing to change it before the issue hit the shelf. (See Peter David (1996-04-27), “who is GOBLIN 2099. – alt.fan.peter-david for his contemporary reaction to having just seen the printed version.) A later 2099 one-shot did at least contain a panel that retconned this away as a shapeshifting impersonator. Roger Stern had left the Spider-Man titles some three years before the Hobgoblin was first revealed in what’s widely considered a mess. A decade later he went back to fix the identity of the Hobgoblin the way he had intended but the new identity was a character who hadn’t been seen in a decade and not all fans were happy. And I remember posts on Usenet in 1998 leaking that the Spider-Man writers and editors had never actually decided who Green Goblin V was before chucking him in the titles.

The story behind the Hobgoblin revelation is messy due to writers and editors not always remembering things or agreeing with each other and, it appears, one writer throwing out a particular name as a bluff only for others to operate on the basis that that really was the intended identity. The storyline dragged out over four years with multiple writers and editors (and it appears marketing got involved – there was a one page advert in early 1986 promising major Hobgoblin revelations that year) and the revelation came in an issue by a fill-in writer. Peter David was given one double-sized issue to resolve what everyone else had written up to that point and found all the clues literally going down a dead end. So he wrote the issue that way. (Whilst a lot of people don’t like that particular revelation, about the only person who seems to blame Peter David is the man himself. Just about everyone else either accepts he was caught in a mess created by others, or claim that he was ordered to write it this way.) A decade later the revelation would be overturned.

Of course a major problem with all this is that if you reveal a major villain to be a key member of the supporting cast you are potentially destroying both the villain and cast member. Perhaps this is why Green Goblin V was revealed to be the ultimate disposable character. But that revelation is a sign of the trouble when you go the other way – make them someone obscure and you get a collective “so what?” with the revelation. And once you get into shapeshifters and clones it gets even sillier.

By these standards the original Green Goblin mystery was probably the best of the longer running ones. He may have turned out to be a character introduced only two issues earlier, but the revelation has stood the test of time with no later writers rewriting this piece of Spider-history, unlike the first Hobgoblin and Goblin 2099. And whilst the revelation story took the Green Goblin in a new direction, the character and his alter ego remained powerful forces in Spider-Man’s life, even when seemingly dead. Perhaps that’s why the later mysteries have all ended in such confusion – it’s very difficult to produce a character with such long lasting impact and that makes it even harder to find suitable successors.

And despite decades of comic book folklore that Steve Ditko was so opposed to Norman Osborn being the Green Goblin that he left the series and Marvel over this, he has since written the essay “The Ever Unwilling” in Robin Snyder’s The Comics Vol. 20, No. 3 [March 2009]. To the best of my knowledge it’s not available on the web but quotes are including at Greg's Blog of Clue-by-Fours: And the Green Goblin is?, and they state:
“So certainly, the GG [Green Goblin] could hardly be any reason for me quitting Marvel.
Now digest this: I knew from Day One, from the first GG story, who the GG would be... I planted him in J. Jonah Jameson’s businessman’s club.” [prior issues of the newsletter had a contest to identify all the planted appearances of the character]
“I planted the GG’s son (same distinct hair style) in the college issues...” [referring here to Harry Osborn]
As I said in my review:
...if true then the criticism shifts from things not being planned out but instead having a quick and poorly devised revelation, to a grand plan that wasn’t properly implemented early enough. Nobody could read the Goblin stories in issues #23 & #26-27 and guess that the Goblin was “the man with funny hair in the background at Jonah’s club”. In the heat of the moment the revelation must have amazed contemporary readers, but looking at the run as a whole in the cold light of day and it falls rather flat.
But unlike the rest it still stands. No later writer tried to overturn this. But it’s easy to see why. By the time anyone might have even thought about revisiting the original Green Goblin’s identity there had been too many later developments that made it impossible to undo. Once again it shows that the Green Goblin, at least in the first couple of decades, really only became incredible after the fact.

The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe – Spider-Man related entries

(WARNING: This is a long, very dry listy post. You may wish to skip it if that’s not your sort of thing.) As we’ve seen when going through these reviews, there are a number of Essential volumes that contain entries from the various editions of The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. Whilst I don’t intend to review in full the eight volumes that contain the original, Deluxe and Master editions, it’s useful to at least note all the various Spider-Man characters who were considered significant enough to rate an entry at each stage. I’m using as my definition characters who either debuted in the Spider-Man titles or who debuted outside but are strongly associated with them (e.g. the Beetle who first appeared in the Human Torch’s slot in Strange Tales before regularly clashing with Spidey). Quite a few of the entries on these lists that this approach produces are characters who made their first appearances in an issue of Marvel Team-Up but are more associated with that issue’s guest star than with Spider-Man. But I felt it best to include all.

With that said here are the relevant entries in the original edition:
  • Arcade
  • Basilisk
  • Beetle
  • Belladonna
  • Black Cat
  • Captain Britain (His entry gives Marvel Team-Up #65 as his first appearance but I guess Marvel US weren’t explicitly including his Marvel UK stories)
  • Captain Marvel (Monica Rambeau)
  • Cloak & Dagger (combined entry)
  • Doctor Octopus
  • Electro
  • Fly
  • Frog-Man
  • Hobgoblin
  • Kingpin
  • Kraven the Hunter
  • Lightmaster
  • Lizard
  • Madame Web
  • Mysterio
  • Punisher
  • Rhino
  • Sandman
  • Scorpion
  • Silvermane
  • Speed Demon
  • Spider-Man
  • Swarm
  • Vulture
  • Will O’ The Wisp
And in the Book of the Dead and Inactive:
  • Green Goblin
  • Jackal
  • Man-Wolf
  • Morbius
  • Spider-Woman
  • White Tiger
Finally the Book of Weapons, Hardware, and Paraphernalia:
  • Doctor Octopus’s Arms
  • Hobgoblin’s Bat-Glider
  • Spider-Man’s Belt-Camera
The list has a lot of familiar names but also some surprises. Spidey’s camera is an interesting choice for the Book of Weapons et al (his web-shooters are covered in a section of his own entry), whilst I’m amazed that Belladonna merits an entry, even half a page – maybe someone had plans to make more use of her but she is rather limited by her motivation and that’s probably why she’s only appeared in one storyline. Otherwise most of the big name Spider-Man villains are there but some from the next tier like the Chameleon and the Shocker are absent. Morbius and the Man-Wolf may seem like other candidates for exclusion but both had prominent careers outside the Spider-Man titles, whilst the Speed Demon may have debuted in that form in Spider-Man but went on to become a more generic villain across the Marvel Universe. I presume Basilisk and the Lightmaster fall into this category as well.

The Deluxe Edition went for more detail with some characters getting a second page and also ran for longer, thus taking up many more Essential volumes. From the Spider-Man titles we get:
  • Arcade
  • Beetle
  • Black Cat
  • Captain Britain
  • Captain Marvel (Monica Rambeau)
  • Captain Universe
  • Cloak
  • Dagger
  • Daily Bugle
  • Doctor Octopus
  • D’Spayre
  • Jessica Drew
  • Electro
  • Enforcers
  • Frog-Man
  • Hobgoblin
  • Hydro-Man
  • Jack O’Lantern
  • J. Jonah Jameson
  • John Jameson
  • Kingpin
  • Dr. Michael Morbius
  • Misty Knight
  • Kraven the Hunter
  • Lightmaster
  • Lizard
  • Mysterio
  • Puma
  • Punisher
  • Rhino
  • The Rose
  • Sandman
  • Scorpion
  • Shocker
  • Silvermane
  • Silver Sable
  • Sin-Eater
  • Slyde
  • Speed Demon
  • Spider-Man
  • Spider-Woman (Julia Carpenter)
  • Tinkerer
  • Vulture
  • Will O’ The Wisp
And in the Book of the Dead:
  • Basilisk
  • Big Man
  • Carrion
  • Cyclone
  • Jean DeWolff
  • Green Goblin (despite the 2nd not actually being dead)
  • Hobgoblin 1 (his death and revelation came during the Deluxe Edition’s run)
  • Jackal
  • Kangaroo
  • Ben Parker
  • Gwen Stacy
  • Tarantula
  • Wraith
(There was no Book of Weapons, Hardware, and Paraphernalia this time with that information incorporated into the main entries.)

1989 saw the release of Update ‘89 which I’ll treat as part of the Deluxe Edition despite it not actually using those words in the title, since it built on the contents of the Deluxe rather than starting again. This one primarily carries new and previously omitted characters but also updates for those who’d had major changes in the intervening few years. The Spider-Man entries are:
  • Chameleon
  • Chance I
  • Foreigner
  • Hammerhead
  • Hobgoblin II
  • Betty Brant Leeds
  • Carlos Lobo
  • Madame Web
  • Harry Osborn
  • May Parker
  • Prowler
  • Razorback
  • Joe Robertson
  • Rocket Racer
  • Speedball
  • Swarm
  • Tarantula II
  • Flash Thompson
  • Tombstone
  • Venom
  • Mary Jane Watson-Parker
The Essential Update ‘89 volume also includes several entries that were modified for the first trade paperback collection. However none of them are Spider-Man related.

The larger length means more characters could be included, though in Spider-Man’s case this largely results in key supporting cast members getting entries. However it’s a surprise to see the likes of Slyde, the Kangaroo and Carlos Lobo getting entries. This probably suggests there were big plans for using them (and resurrecting the Kangaroo) but they never came to fruition. Some of the other entries may seem surprising but as I said they’re often characters who first appeared in Marvel Team-Up and went on to bigger things outside the Spider-Man titles.

The Master Edition rather skimps on actual biographical details, giving just a list of key issues and one line summaries of them. The format was completely overhauled so instead of purchasing complete comics containing entries, it was now a series of loose-leaf files which could be compiled and reordered in a binder. This time we get:
  • Answer
  • Arcade
  • Beetle
  • Black Cat
  • Captain Britain (His entry now acknowledges his first UK appearances but lists his US debut in Marvel Team-Up #65 as well)
  • Captain Marvel (Monica Rambeau)
  • Captain Universe
  • Carnage
  • Carrion
  • Chameleon
  • Chance
  • Cloak
  • Cutthroat
  • Cyclone
  • Dagger
  • Demogoblin
  • Doctor Octopus
  • D’Spayre
  • Electro
  • Foreigner
  • Gardener
  • Green Goblin
  • Grizzly
  • Hammerhead
  • Hobgoblin
  • Hydro-Man
  • Jackal
  • Jigsaw
  • Kangaroo
  • Karma
  • Kingpin
  • Misty Knight
  • Lightmaster
  • Lizard
  • Madame Web
  • Mirage
  • Molten Man
  • Mongoose (a shadowy appearance in Amazing Spider-Man before appearing in full in Thor)
  • Morbius
  • Mysterio
  • Orb
  • Princess Python
  • Prowler
  • Puma
  • Punisher
  • Razorback
  • Rhino
  • Rocket Racer
  • Sandman
  • Scorpion
  • Shocker
  • Silver Sable
  • Silvermane
  • Solo
  • Speed Demon
  • Speedball
  • Spider-Man
  • Spider-Man 2099
  • Spider-Woman (Jessica Drew)
  • Spider-Woman II (Julia Carpenter)
  • Tarantula
  • Tinkerer
  • Tombstone
  • Venom
  • Vermin
  • Vulture
  • White Tiger
  • Will O’ The Wisp
  • Wraith
(The original publishing format means this time there was no separate Book of the Dead.)

Once again it’s a mixture of the big names and those who made it elsewhere. The name that really shocks me this time is the Grizzly. Maybe one day the Gibbon will get an entry!

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

A few Essential previews

In the interests of completism, there are a few issues of the various Spider-Man titles that haven’t yet been reached in their own title’s Essential volumes but have been reprinted in other Essentials. A quick run through them, with all the headline stars of Marvel Team-Up listed:

First, there’s the handful of issues included in various other Spider volumes that we’ve already covered:
What this list shows above all else is that Essential Web is somewhat ahead of the other titles and running into the era when crossovers between the Spider-Man titles were common. It probably should be paused until the others can catch up.

However there are also seven other issues that have been reprinted in other Essential volumes but not the series’ own and we turn now to them:

Marvel Team-Up #80, featuring Spider-Man and Dr. Strange and Clea, & #81, featuring Spider-Man and Satana, by Chris Claremont and Mike Vosburg, reprinted in Essential Marvel Horror volume 1

This two-part story sees Dr. Strange turned into a werewolf to capture his soul as a result of a previous adventure, and it takes Spider-Man, Clea and Satana (the devil’s daughter) to free him. As might be expected this is full of the magic and weirdness associated with Dr. Strange, but Spider-Man gets drawn in for personal reasons when Peter and Cissy Ironwood are attacked by the werewolf in Central Park, hospitalising Cissy, and then he finds himself compelled to stay to restrain Dr. Strange’s physical form whilst Satana performs her magic. At the end Satana dies, giving her life to save Dr. Strange and Spider-Man and resolving the conflict between her human and demonic sides. With four billed characters and a few supporting cast members this is quite a packed story but ultimately it feels like the resolution to Satana’s story more than anything else, presumably due to previous titles featuring her being cancelled. She’s not a character I’m familiar with so I don’t know if she’s been brought back to life since. As a general Team-Up story this isn’t bad, but it isn’t worth getting Essential Marvel Horror just for the sake of this one.

The story is also this blog’s first encounter with Cissy Ironwood, bar a one page feature in Amazing annual #16, and in fact is her first actual appearance following a mention in Team-Up #79. (Her surname is spelt “Ironwode” here but “Ironwood” in other appearances.) Cissy is by far the most obscure of all of Peter Parker/Spider-Man’s girlfriends as she only appeared in the pages of Team-Up and was hardly ever mentioned in the other titles. There’s not much to learn about her from her brief appearance in these two issues bar that her name is short for Priscilla and from the conversation at the start it appears to be an early date. However note that the story came out the same months as Amazing #191-192 and thus in the middle of Peter and Betty Brant’s affair. With Mary Jane having also remained on the scene somewhat for some months after rejecting Peter’s proposal we either have our hero playing the field all at once or poor communication between the various Spider-writers (or a lot of head scratching for fans to work out a chronological order that reduces the number of women at any one time).

Marvel Team-Up #101, featuring Spider-Man and Nighthawk, by J.M. DeMatteis and Jerry Bingham, and a solo Nighthawk back-up feature by Mike W. Barr and Steve Ditko, reprinted in Essential Defenders volume 5

I’ll take the back-up feature first. At just five pages it feels like emergency padding. Regular Marvel comics increased from seventeen pages of story to twenty-two in this period, but I’m not sure if this is the first issue affected or not. The story is a simple tale of Nighthawk overcoming doubts about himself as he saves a crippled girl from a collapsing wall, and nothing really to remember. However the art is by Steve Ditko, who had recently returned to Marvel but refused to draw his most famous creations, instead working on more obscure heroes and features. Sadly this and other back-up features in various Spider-Man annuals are about the nearest to a second Ditko run the character and series will ever see.

The lead story is focused on Nighthawk facing his past as he gets attacked by a robot resembling his university girlfriend who died in a drunken car crash and then lured to a reunion at the old university. Spider-Man gets caught up in events at the former and then tags along because he recognises Nighthawk’s guilt over his actions. Once at the university it transpires the girl survived but Nighthawk’s family paid her off and suppressed that fact, and she’s seeking revenge. Spider-Man saves the day when he appeals to her true feelings for Nighthawk, buried by anger and bitterness, and both start to bury her past. Once again Spider-Man is given a slight reason for intruding into a rather personal affair, but his saving the day justifies his presence.

Marvel Team-Up #111, featuring Spider-Man and Devil-Slayer, by J.M. DeMatteis and Herb Trimpe, reprinted in Essential Defenders volume 5

Spider-Man gets caught up in a plot by the Cult of the Serpent Men, one of the ancient races that inhabited Earth, to recover their race from the realm of limbo. With the rest of the Defenders captured, Devil-Slayer recruits Spider-Man to first recover an artefact from the temple of the Spider-People, the remains of another ancient race, and then to use it to defeat the Serpent Race and free the other Defenders. However it’s all a set-up to trick Spider-Man, the only human that the temple’s magic recognises as similar to the Spider-People, into obtaining the artefact for the Serpent Men. Spidey sees through the deception, frees the real Defenders and destroys the artefact, with the remaining Serpent Men banished to Limbo. At the end Dr. Strange discovers Spider-Man was bitten by one of the Serpent Men, with grave consequences... (which aren’t followed up in Essential Defenders). This is a somewhat convoluted story with deceptions all over, and it’s a pity Spider-Man didn’t get a chance to team up with the real Devil-Slayer, another obscure Defenders member. It’s hard to tell if the impersonation was accurate and the character really is a hard edged jerk, or if that was just the impostor. Otherwise this is a confused run around that throws Spidey into some grand mythology of the Marvel Universe but doesn’t take the opportunity to expand on his role in it, such as exploring just how far he resembles the Spider-People and how their survivors regard him.

Marvel Team-Up #116, featuring Spider-Man and Valkyrie, by J.M. DeMatteis and Herb Trimpe, reprinted in Essential Defenders volume 5

This is the follow-up to the previous issue (not reprinted in Essential Defenders) where two rival aliens fought over a weapon that ultimately destroyed them both, with Spider-Man and Thor mixed up. Now the two aliens’ spirits have fused into one and want revenge, so the entity possesses Valkyrie’s sword and in turn the Valkyrie herself, then seeks out Spider-Man to attack him. At the end Thor shows up and, amidst pondering the recent revelation that he and Valkyrie were once lovers but then had their memories wiped by Odin, he helps destroy the sword and banish the entity into a space warp. Once again it’s an unusual team-up because of Valkyrie’s possession and none of the protagonists really knowing just what’s going on.

There’s a nice scene where Spider-Man comments on these situations:
*Sheesh* If I had a dime for every time somebody has tricked another super-type into trying to clobber me – I’d be one rich web-slinger!
But these kinda phony set-ups always end the same way!
We stop beating each other over the head long enough to compare notes, and then we track down the goon responsible for the dirty works!
It’s good to see him occasionally acknowledge the formulaic nature of many stories.

Marvel Team-Up #119, featuring Spider-Man and Gargoyle, by J.M. DeMatteis and Kerry Gammill, reprinted in Essential Defenders volume 6

This isn’t really a team-up so much as a comparison between heroes. Following Spider-Man’s recent appearance in Defenders, he and the Gargoyle head to New York where they prevent a gang mugging an old woman. The heroes then go their separate ways, with the Gargoyle befriending the woman and helping her and her daughter come to terms with her life and impending death. Meanwhile Peter learns that Nathan has left Aunt May after hearing of another friend’s death, and goes to a theatre in a slum where in better days he performed in his youth. Unfortunately the gang from earlier evaded arrest and now confront him. Spidey slowly picks them off one by one when Aunt May appears and berates the remaining. When the gang, but not May or Nathan, see Spider-Man they flee again. Later Spidey and the Gargoyle bump into each other and reflect on their experiences. A caption on the opening page said this would be a different team-up from normal and it certainly is. There’s limited action and instead a strong focus in characters and situations, focusing on how they face up to mortality. All in all it’s a nice little character piece that also takes May and Nathan that little further forward as they prepare to leave the rest home and open a boarding house (yes sometimes there were developments in Team-Up – not many but they did happen).

It’s actually surprising that these last four issues wound up in Essential Defenders as apart from Nighthawk’s story they don’t appear to add much to the characters. I can’t help suspecting the primary aim was to pad the volumes out (they also include an issue of Captain America and an Avengers annual) in order to allow volume 6 to end at the point when the Defenders are transformed into the New Defenders (which was quite a radical change, introducing a more formalised team structure rather than the “non-team” grouping that had previously existed).

Amazing Spider-Man #274, by Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz, reprinted in Essential Ghost Rider volume 4

This was the final Spider-Man crossover with Secret Wars II and comes at a point when the all-powerful Beyonder is preparing to wipe out all of existence. The demon Mephisto seeks to stop this (as wiping destroys the souls he covets) and agrees a challenge with the Beyonder – each would have a champion in a duel and if Mephisto’s champion wins then the Beyonder will wait for twenty-four hours. The Beyonder’s champion is Zarathos, the spirit of vengeance previously bonded to the first Ghost Rider (hence the story’s appearance in that volume), whilst Mephisto’s is Spider-Man – precisely because he is an ordinary human. Zarathos has to get Spider-Man to renounce his responsibility in some way, with the test selected to be to prevent an assassination attempt on the Kingpin. Zarathos torments Spider-Man by appearing to him both in his own form and disguised as the likes of Norman Osborn, Peter’s parents, Captain George Stacy, Gwen Stacy and finally Uncle Ben, each reminding Spider-Man of his past failures and trying to weaken him. It’s a story set on two entirely different levels, with Spider-Man never aware of the wider significance of his turmoil. Instead he just keeps on trying in the face of tremendous odds, no matter what Zarathos throws at him, to the amazement of Mephisto. It’s a twist on the classic tale of a hero facing temptation in the form of a demon, but Spidey remains true to his inner core values, no matter what it costs him and no matter how odious the person he has to save, eventually knocking Zarathos aside and then preventing a gunman shooting down the Kingpin. This is a triumph of the will and a reaffirmation of just what makes Spider-Man tick. The wider context of the battle to save existence for at least another twenty-four hours is far less interesting in this context. What matters is that Spider-Man has proved himself without even realising he was being tested. This is one of my all-time favourite Spider-Man stories.

Overall these issues are a mixed bag. The ones from Team-Up are relatively representative of the series as a whole – some intense, personal tales with small, focused casts and some world saving ones with huge numbers. But they’re not such important stories that one can’t wait for the next volumes of Essential Marvel Team-Up to reach them. The Amazing issue is more intense, though as it’s some thirty-six issues later than the end of the most recent volume and part of the first massive Marvel crossover it may be best to also wait for it to be reached in the normal course of events.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Even more non-essential Spider-Man Essentials

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s it!

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

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

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

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Essential Web of Spider-Man volume 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Essential Web of Spider-Man volume 2 - creator labels

Yet 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, 20 July 2012

Essential Punisher volume 1

As a little side step I'll now turn to Essential Punisher volume 1. This is one of the most unusual of all the Essential volumes as it is made up of many of the Punisher's appearances across multiple Marvel titles prior to getting his own ongoing series. Since over half the issues in this volume come from the various Spider-Man titles I've decided to include it in this series as another special. For what it's worth the volume originally came out before any of the issues in it had been reached by the other Essentials (and whilst all the Spider-Man issues have now been caught up with, at the time of writing the Captain America and Daredevil issues are still later than the most recent Essential volumes).

The issues contained here are:
  • Amazing Spider-Man #129, #134-135, written by Gerry Conway and drawn by Ross Andru
  • Giant-Size Spider-Man #4, written by Gerry Conway and drawn by Ross Andru
  • Marvel Preview #2, written by Gerry Conway and drawn by Tony Dezuniga
  • Marvel Super-Action #1, written by Archie Goodwin and drawn by Tony Dezuniga
  • Amazing Spider-Man #161-162, #174-175, written by Len Wein and drawn by Ross Andru
  • Captain America #241, written by Mike W. Barr and drawn by Frank Springer
  • Amazing Spider-Man #201-202, written by Marv Wolfman and drawn by Keith Pollard, & Annual #15, written by Denny O'Neil and drawn by Frank Miller
  • Daredevil #182 (part) & 183-184, written by Frank Miller & Roger McKenzie, drawn by Frank Miller
  • Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #81-82, written by Bill Mantlo and drawn by Al Milgrom, and #83, written by Bill Mantlo and drawn by Greg LaRocque
  • The Punisher (limited series) #1-4, written by Steven Grant and drawn by Mike Zeck, & #5, plotted by Steven Grant, written by Jo Duffy and drawn by Mike Vosburg
Also included is the Punisher's entry from the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. This appears to be from the Deluxe Edition. Because there are so many creators, some of the labels have been placed in a separate post.

This is a very different approach from the standard Essentials. Whereas most of the other volumes focus on a particular series and present an absolutely sequential run, only including issues from other series if they constitute the build up for the series or carry a crossover, this one is closer to a more conventional tradepaperback drawing together appearances from multiple titles, and also willing to present only the pages relevant to a character or storyline from a particular issue. It's a style that doesn't seem to have been repeated, probably because it steps a bit too far from the normal Essential approach. Nevertheless it's an interesting one-off, showing the Punisher over the years before he got his own ongoing series. (By all accounts for a long time a lot in Marvel had severe reservations about an ongoing series featuring a gun wielding protagonist who kills his opponents, despite having printed many Western comics in earlier years. But then that was a different age.)

In terms of continuity, reading this on its own can be a little confusing as it jumps through some ten years worth of Spider-Man developments. Some of them are mentioned in passing, such as taking a leave of absence from graduate school, or Jonah's breakdown, or twice we see people about to become the Green Goblin, but without the wider context it may confuse at first. Similarly the Daredevil issues overlap on Matt Murdock proposing to Heather Glenn whilst there are dark developments in her company, and the Captain America issue comes from a now forgotten period with Steve Rogers was working as a commercial artist. But this is par the course for crossovers and it's to the volume's credit that it (generally) didn't follow the pattern of early trade paperbacks that sought to cut out subplots and even rearrange the artwork in order to focus just on the reason for being collected. Instead it's nice to see the whole issues altogether, which better suits the collector that the Essential line appeals to. There is an exception with Daredevil #182 which only has the eight pages featuring the Punisher. This may have been part of a bigger Daredevil storyline but on their own the pages stand out. Still they are necessary for explaining the Punisher's escape after his previous capture.

But what about the Punisher himself? Well reading through these issues altogether it's clear that he was at times a victim of the Comics Code Authority rules, forcing Marvel to present a rather tamer version of the character than he could be, seen most notably with his use of "mercy bullets" that merely stun. The contrast is starkest between his 1970s appearances in the Spider-Man titles, printed with CCA approval, and those in Marvel Preview & Marvel Super-Action, both of which were part of Marvel's non-CCA approved magazine line aimed at somewhat older readers. Going into the 1980s issues, which start with Amazing Spider-Man Annual #15 there are signs that suggest the CCA rules were relaxed with the Punisher becoming harsher in his appearances, culminating in his first limited series where the character is more brutal and the violence more graphic than in anything previously seen with the CCA symbol on it.

This is also a sign of changing values in comics. The earliest superhero comics, and indeed the pulps that preceded them, emerged during a simpler era. Authority was good. Corrupt politicians, police officers and the like were rogues, not part of wider systemic failings. Heroes caught criminals but it was down to the system to deal with them. And the system invariably did, with many a villain's return mentioning either they had been released or they had escaped. Although it took a few years, heroes usually had a clear relationship with the law-enforcement community that gave their actions a stamp of legitimacy. And above all heroes were noble crusaders for the "right" values. Sometimes they even led the way - the first issue of Captain America had a cover showing him punching Hitler, months before the US entered the Second World War. The Silver Age broadly stuck to these conventions - Spider-Man might have been an outsider with a poor relationship with authority but there was never any doubt that he was on the side of right.

And then came the shocks of the late 1960s. American public opinion turned against the war in Vietnam. At home social changes and a backlash against them were causing ever more confrontation. And corruption was exposed at the very top of the system. Many of the old certainties fell away and the world was now a confused places. What was "right" now?

It was in this environment that both the Punisher, and his near contemporary Wolverine, were created. Both characters had an approach that was very different from the older generation of noble crusading heroes. Both took a much more dubious approach. Both characters enjoyed an early surge in popularity but also presented Marvel with a challenge given their nature. Consequently neither received an ongoing title until the late 1980s. But whereas Wolverine was in constant use due to his membership of the X-Men, the Punisher was used more sparingly.

Fundamentally the Punisher is a vigilante who serves as judge, jury and executioner. A soldier gone rogue, he perhaps reflected the 1970s belief that not all soldiers were noble crusaders and instead the military had produced monstrous killers who chose for themselves who would live and who would die. The Punisher might commit his atrocities on the streets of America rather than in the jungles of Vietnam, but he is a brutal killer never the less. His methods are such that at one stage he is shooting at any breach of the law no matter how minor - in one scene he shoots at a man merely for throwing aside a newspaper and missing a bin, and then when a taxi driver panics and jumps the lights he too is shot at. This particular storyline (Spectacular Spider-Man #81-83) focuses on the Punisher being apparently mad and ends with him being ruled insane. Later in the limited series it's revealed that he was in fact reacting to drugs he'd been unknowingly doped with, and once his system flushes them he reverts to normal - well for him that is.

Or perhaps not. The Punisher is an agent of justice, attacking only those who break the law. The law itself is not infallible - in the Daredevil issues we see Matt Murdock successfully get a man off a murder charge, only for his client to then calmly confess to the crime (Matt hadn't detected the lying because a pacemaker prevented a leap in the man's heart beat). As shown in his origin, the gangsters who killed the Punisher's family for witnessing an execution were able to evade prosecution by producing alibis, but weren't able to evade him. In such an environment the Punisher is a latter day cowboy, enforcing the law in places where the authorities fail and bringing justice to those who would otherwise be denied it. His victims have only themselves to blame for their fates and he is bringing those fats about efficiently. He is willing to work with other heroes and adapt to their values by using mercy bullets, and fundamentally is on their side.

Such are the two interpretations of the character. There are many wider issues flying around relating to the death penalty, to whether or not the police should be armed, to the efficiency of the legal system, to what rights law-breakers are still entitled, to the nature of a civilised society and so forth. Most of those questions are beyond the scope of this post but they do show how difficult the character can be to handle, especially when guest-starring in other titles. He can be a difficult ally of the lead hero or he can come into direct conflict over their values or somewhere in between. The conflict side is best shown in his encounter with Daredevil, whilst his alliance with Spider-Man is at its strongest in Giant-Size Spider-Man #4 when they work together to take down an arms dealer. With Captain America there's a curious reaction on each side. The Punisher admires Cap and finds he cannot bring himself to let Cap die, even if it means not blowing up a meeting of top mobsters. However Captain America is true to the traditional noble values including that even criminals have rights and is firmly opposed to the Punisher's methods, though stopping other criminals prevents him from taking the Punisher down. In many ways I think Cap and Daredevil make for the best characters to interact with the Punisher because they bring such a clash of outlooks and force it to the forefront.

That's not to say that Spider-Man has flawed values, far from it. But whereas Cap and Daredevil are both ultimately wedded to the system of enforcing both order and law, Spider-Man is wedded more to the responsibility to protect people and has always had a tense relationship with that system. He may never have resorted to the Punisher's methods, but he doesn't really serve as the best advocate for the system in this debate of contrasts. And so instead his encounters with the Punisher tend to downplay some of the harsher aspects of the latter, particularly with the widespread use of mercy bullets, and instead focus more on the adventures. In their early encounters the Punisher is willing to believe the word of criminals about Spider-Man's activities, but slowly he comes to accept the wallcrawler is seeking the same ends, if not quite the same means, and the two become reluctant allies in most of their 1970s stories. But two things change with the 1980s - there's both an increase in the bloodiness of the Punisher and also Spider-Man is now far condemning of his methods. A further contrast comes in the Spectacular issues which also involve Cloak and Dagger and contrast between their focused targeting of the drug scene and the Punisher's broad ranging approach to all crime.

When the Punisher gets his own solo slots the focus is invariably different. Curiously there's no attempt made to develop a supporting cast even though this could have helped to ground the character further. Perhaps all involved doubted there'd ever be an ongoing Punisher series (let alone the period when he had three!) and so didn't want to take up time building up things that would have no payoff. At the end of the Marvel Preview issue an FBI agent called Dave Hamilton does publicly declare a determination to bring down the Punisher but it's not followed up on in later appearances. The magazines do bring a personal edge to the Punisher, with the first one seeing him tracking down those responsible for turning ex-Marines into assassins and destroying them, whilst the second has a showdown with the gangsters who murdered his family. Whilst there's no clear chronology, the delay in the showdown is justified by the gangsters being inaccessible until they're moved, supposedly for protection from internal revenge killings for spawning the Punisher. Once that story is told the Punisher feels he hasn't had enough revenge as he didn't kill them all, so his mission continues.

The first solo series was a limited series in 1985-1986. On the face of it, it displays signs of changes midflow. Issues #1, 3 & 4 proclaim on the cover they are "in a four issue limited series", but #2 & 5 state "five issue". And the last issue has a change of creative team plus a caption on the first page thanking the new writer, artist and inker. Many wondered if this was a sign of a late in the day change of plans. However in researching this post it was apparently a combination of the printing department messing up, assuming the series would be the standard four issue length and requests for corrections were implemented then forgotten, and good old fashioned deadline problems. (Comic Book Resource: Comic Book Legends Revealed #196)

The story starts off with the Punisher (now given a name - Frank Castle - for the first time) escaping from jail and being offered help from a shadowy organisation known as "the Trust" which seeks to brainwash criminals into vigilantes modelled on the Punisher, even using his uniform. The Punisher initially goes solo but finds his plans spiralling out of control when he attempts to cause a gang war to make criminals wipe each other out. Eventually the Trust manipulate him into coming to them, in the hope of brainwashing him into their ultimate killer, but the Punisher manages to avoid the techniques and get Alaric, the leader in charge of the operation to leak all the information about the organisation. The ending is a surprise as the Punisher declines to kill Alaric, knowing that he's destroyed the organisation anyway, and sometimes it's best to walk away without killing. Then when he confronts Alaric's girlfriend, who had been using and manipulating him, and her car goes over the edge of a bridge the Punisher decides once again to walk away and do nothing. He also confronts the son of one his past kills who has been urged to take revenge and talks him out of it. It's an interesting ending suggesting that the Punisher is refining and reconsidering his methods beyond simply killing all criminals in sight, perhaps setting up the character to be a little more acceptable for an ongoing series. The limited series also brings back Jigsaw, the villain from Amazing Spider-Man #161-162 as the Punisher's first recurring adversary. Jigsaw survives largely because the Punisher has bigger fish to fry in each encounter, but does offer prospects of an ongoing conflict.

Overall the issues collected in this volume don't have a clear coherent direction, with multiple writers each doing their own thing with the character and some trying to undo previous developments. I doubt the Punisher was expected to be so popular when he was introduced - indeed I've read that co-creator Gerry Conway has said when he was writing Amazing Spider-Man he doubted the comics industry would last even a few more years - so there was never really a grand plan from the outset. As a result the character can oscillate between positions, pushed more by the Comics Code Authority rules than almost any other, but the limited series makes a good effort to find a happy medium between the extreme positions and make the character viable for further solo stories.

The decision to do the volume this way was a curious one, as it would have been far more conventional to lump together the two magazines, the limited series and the early issues of the ongoing series and not bother too much with the guest appearances. But instead an experiment was done in showing the development of the character, and it makes for an intriguing volume. I doubt they could have repeated this format too many times as it would lead to too many issues appearing multiple times, when many people buy multiple Essential volumes to build up an overall collection of classic Marvel runs and wouldn't react too favourably to being asked to keep buying the same material in new combinations. But as a one-off it's a nice approach.

Given this blog's primary focus it's fair to say that this volume's usefulness for the Spider-Man stories has rather diminished over time. When it came out it was the first time any of these issues had been Essentialised and so it offered an opportunity to get an advanced glimpse at them. Whilst this still applies for the Captain America and Daredevil issues, the volume now serves as a general sample of Spider-Man across ten years. The stories are generally good but the lack of the wider context to the many changes over the course of the decade means they can be confusing if one isn't familiar with the wider runs. However as an addition to those runs it serves as a good dip in and out.
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