Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

08 August 2008

Essential Spider-Man, v. 8

Collects: Amazing Spider-Man #161-85, Amazing Spider-Man Annual #11, Giant-Size Spider-Man #6, Nova #12 (1976-8)

Released: April 2007 (Marvel)

Format: 512 pages / black and white / $16.99 / ISBN: 9780785125006

I really enjoy older Spider-Man stories — and by that, I mean stories before 1990. Back when Spider-Man’s simple life was very complicated, when the supporting cast was regularly used, when Norman Osborn was dead, when Spider-Man’s rogues gallery cold be taken seriously (even if everyone knew how ridiculous they were) without making them dark and gritty.

Essential Spider-Man, v. 8 cover So I have been a supporter of Marvel’s Essential Spider-Man series (as well as the Essential Spectacular Spider-Man and Essential Marvel Team-Up). The series has now reached Essential Spider-Man, v. 8, a landmark of sorts; this volume markes then end of Amazing Spider-Man runs for writer / editor Len Wein (with #180) and artist Ross Andru (with #185). Andru’s style is almost the epitome of Spider-Man art; like Romita, his Spider-Man is streamlined, sleek but muscled, with no distracting, unnecessary details (like Ditko’s underarm webs — which I like — and McFarlane’s many eccentricities — which I don’t). Andru is best known for his Spider-Man work; this is, in many ways, the apex of his career.

Too bad the stories aren’t quite worthy of him. Spider-Man is always judged by his villains, and there’s a decided lack of quality villainy here. There’s Jigsaw, essentially someone to be the Punisher’s foil; the Lizard-knockoff Stegron; the ephemeral Will o’ the Wisp; the forgettable Dr. Faustus; and a host of even lesser lights. Wein did pull the Kingpin and Molten Man back from obscurity, but I’m not sure making Molten Man Liz Allen’s stepbrother was a wise idea at the time, since he serves more as a complication than a character. Kingpin’s return is welcome, but he’s put out of commission again immediately, and the whole “draining life-force” plot is a little out of place in Spider-Man. (Fine for the Fantastic Four or Superman, though; each is more high-concept sci-fi than Spider-Man.)

Wein succeeds in the subplots. He gives Aunt May a purpose beyond Peter, making her a militant Gray Panther; this doesn’t go very far for later writers. Jameson becomes suspicious about Peter’s secret ID in the aftermath of the Clone Saga; Peter dissuades him distressingly easily. In building another Spider Slayer, Jameson meets Marla, his true love. This is probably most lasting legacy, humanizing Jameson.

Wein’s lone excellent job is a Green Goblin story that introduces the third version of the villain. It’s filled with suspense, drama, and ethical dilemma’s for Spider-Man; it ends with a Green Goblin vs. Green Goblin fight. This was really the last hurrah10 for the Goblin, upstaged by the Hobgoblin a few years later, but Wein and Andru give him a hell of a sendoff.

After a fill-in issue by Bill Mantlo, Marv Wolfman takes over for Wein, and his four issues … well, they ain’t exactly masterworks — Rocket Racer, the Big Wheel, and the somewhat less-than-sociopolitically-correct White Dragon. It isn’t really fair to expect greatness in just four stories, but they don’t help the volume. Wolfman also has Peter fail to graduate for not completing a gym credit — incredibly stupid, I’ve always felt — and writes Mary Jane out of the book before having the married Betty Brant throw herself at Peter.

Compared to a modern comic, there’s a lot going on in this background: Peter and his supporting cast are changing, usually in an interesting way. But Spider-Man … His stories, other than the Green Goblin arc, are nothing exceptional. Spider-Man is reduced to being a co-star for Nova in a crossover, for heaven’s sake. 11

Amazing Spider-Man is going into the doldrums here and in v. 9. It won’t stop me from buying the next volume, but I can’t recommend v. 8 for the non-Amazing Spider-Man fan.

Rating: Spider-Man symbol Spider-Man symbol Half-Spider symbol (2.5 of 5)

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