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

16 January 2009

Spider-Man Visionaries: Kurt Busiek, v. 1

Collects: Untold Tales of Spider-Man #1-8 (1995-6)

Released: August 2006 (Marvel)

Format: 176 pages / color / $19.99 / ISBN: 9780785122043

What is this?: A collection of Spider-Man stories told in the ’90s but fitting into his early days.

The culprits: Writer Kurt Busiek and artist Pat Olliffe.

With certain writers, you know what you’re going to get. Alan Moore is going to give you stories with nearly impenetrable depth, many literary allusions, and bits of magic. With Grant Morrison, you’re going to get new versions of Silver Age stories that seem like they were originally read by a 9-year-old on LSD and were written by a 40-year-old on peyote. J. Michael Straczynski writes stories that … well, I don’t know actually, but it might come out a little late. Joss Whedon writes stories with sharp, cutting-edge dialogue that come out much, much later than Straczynski’s stories.

Kurt Busiek writes straight superhero stories. Some of them have disarmingly retro feel — well, all of them do now, because Busiek don’t do decompression. But they are often the kind of stories that would fit in with the ‘80s or even earlier, and critics often say they are excellent — not as nostalgia pieces but in their own right.

Spider-Man Visionaries: Kurt Busiek, v. 1 coverSpider-Man Visionaries: Kurt Busiek, v. 1 comes near the beginning of Busiek’s career. The stories in Visionaries are from Untold Tales of Spider-Man, a title that filled in the gaps between Spider-Man’s early adventures in the ‘60s. Usually, I dislike retcon series and stories, because they can’t tell any stories that change the status quo. But early Spider-Man — and probably all of Marvel’s Silver Age, for that matter — is a better fit. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko told the original stories with relatively broad strokes, allowing Busiek the opportunity to fill in some detail work. And if you can write a good Spider-Man story, it doesn’t have to be of earthshattering import; it just has to be entertaining.

There’s no worries there. Busiek has a firm grasp on both Spider-Man and the era. His Peter Parker is neurotic, simultaneously shunning and desiring acceptance from his classmates, learning to date for the first time with the confidence his new powers have given him, and fretting over money and Aunt May. The stories are fun, although his new villains aren’t all that interesting. (Which isn’t a problem; if they were supposed to appear for the first time at the beginning of Spider-Man’s career and haven’t been since, they have to lack something.) Two stories stick out for me: Spider-Man and the Human Torch teaming up to unravel the Wizard’s riddles and capturing him (#6) and Harry Osborne dealing with Spider-Man, the Enforcers, and his father’s deteriorating mental state (#8).

As I mentioned in the review for Last Hero Standing, I like Pat Olliffe’s work. It’s easy to see why someone could see his work on Untold Tales and think of him for the retro-styled tales of Spider-Girl and other retro-feeling tales. His Spider-Man and Peter Parker aren’t swipes of Ditko, but they do echo the first Spider-Man artist’s work, especially with the underarm webs on Spider-Man’s costume and giant glasses on Peter. The storytelling is simple and at times elegant, with little flash but with plenty of style. Shifting inkers don’t help his cause but aren’t a major source of concern.

If I were a quibbler, I’d note most of Busiek’s contributions to the Spider-Man canon have disappeared without a trace, and I don’t care about Sally Avril and Jason Ionello, his additions to Peter’s high school. But that’s not fair; it would have been extremely difficult for anything in this short-lived, set-in-the-past series to stick. It’s more useful to concentrate on Busiek and Olliffe’s work in bringing out a series of simple, worthwhile stories with a supporting cast at a time when such stories were in short supply.

Rating: Spider-Man symbol Spider-Man symbol Spider-Man symbol Spider-Man symbol (3.5 of 5)

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