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

10 June 2009

Essential Spider-Man, v. 9

Collects: Amazing Spider-Man #186-210, Amazing Spider-Man Annual #13-4, and Spectacular Spider-Man Annual #1 (1978-80)

Released: May 2009 (Marvel)

Format: 600 pages / black and white / $19.99 / ISBN: 9780785130741

What is this?: A slice of late ‘70s / early ‘80s Spider-Man that introduced the Black Cat and features the return of the Burglar who killed Uncle Ben.

The culprits: Writers Marv Wolfman and others and artists Keith Pollard, John Byrne, and others

Can you have nostalgia for something you never experienced?

Marvel sure wants you to. The Brand New Day continuity is a direct throwback to the Spider-Man you can find in Essential Spider-Man, v. 9, which reprints Amazing Spider-Man issues from 1978-80. Some readers will remember those days, and long for their return, but most of us only have second-hand evidence those days ever occurred.

The parallels between Brand New Day and v. 9 are striking. In each, there’s no MJ or other steady girlfriends, but there is poverty aplenty, Harry Osborn (and the rest of the supporting cast) hanging around, and a non-J. Jonah Jameson boss supporting Peter’s photography. Other than a healthier Aunt May and no Black Cat in BND, it almost feels like BND writer Dan Slott or editor Tom Brevoort gave pre-publication copies of Essential Spider-Man, v. 9, to the other writers and said, “This is what we’re looking for.”

Essential Spider-Man, v. 9 coverAnd v. 9 is at a level of quality the Spider-titles haven’t seen for years, so that would be good, even though I just made that anecdote up. Marv Wolfman, who wrote #186-204, was in a sweet spot in Spider-Man lore here: after the doldrums following Gwen Stacy’s death and leading into the revitalizing run of Roger Stern (who wrote #206). Wolfman brings back the Burglar and gives him a reason to have killed Ben Parker. In an interesting story that shouldn’t work but does, Wolfman slips in an unnecessary retcon, uses Mysterio and the Kingpin as blocking figures, and still writes a story that hits all the important Spider-Man notes, managing to be moving while both using past continuity and advancing the characters.

This is not an empowering book for any female readers. (Any out there? And how can I tell if those chirping crickets are female or not?) Wolfman creates the Black Cat in this volume, which is a mixed blessing; she’s a big part of the ‘80s, but although she comes across as level headed and capable in her first arc, he and David Michelinie portray her as a crazy stalker in the second. Given the way Wolfman writes Betty Brant, as a clingy ex-girlfriend who has to have a man after leaving her husband, no one was going to be giving him any awards for positive portrayals of women. Denny O’Neil, who wrote #206-10 and Annual #14, balances things (a little) by introducing Madame Web, a criminally underused supporting character. But back on the other hand, Peter also treats Deb Whitman, departmental secretary at his graduate college and occasional date, like crap no matter who was writing him.

The villains are among Spider-Man’s best: Electro, Dr. Octopus, Kraven (with Calypso!), Chameleon, the last appearance of Alistair Smythe, Man-Wolf, and the aforementioned Kingpin and Mysterio. Smythe’s attempts to kill Spider-Man and Jameson are especially good; his final plan, which involves strapping both to a bomb, is one of the better Spider-Man stories, and his attempts to use John Jameson to do his dirty work show a man who’s thought about his revenge and decided to make it as cruel as possible. (The strapping Spider-Man and Jameson show a man who has not thought things through completely.)

The long-term subplots in this book lack a satisfying end. Betty Brant’s attempts to win back Peter were wrongheaded to begin with, and Peter’s attempt at getting her to go away was cruel and almost villainous. The resolution to Jameson’s long-running bout of insanity feels … well, stupid, really, but I’ll settle for “rushed.” And Peter’s entire employment at the Globe is contained in this volume; I thought his employment at the Bugle’s competition was cut too short, as his smarmy boss at the Globe offered a nice contrast to Jameson’s fury.

(One more thing: The linked annuals — Amazing #13 and Spectacular #1 — tell a story about Dr. Octopus’s plot to steal a nuclear sub. Wolfman wrote the first part in Amazing Annual, while Bill Mantlo wrote the second. God bless Mantlo — and he should, at least once more — but seeing the two parts juxtaposed like this reveals some … stylistic excesses in Mantlo’s approach.)

Keith Pollard isn’t going to be listed among the top Spider-artists of all time, but he takes the torch handed to him by the likes of Ditko, Romita, and Andru and carries it admirably. His work looks a little like a modified version of Ross Andru’s; if there were an early house style for Spider-Man, Pollard would be an excellent example of it. His Spider-Man is athletic and flexible without being distorted or overstylized, and his supporting characters are all distinct and recognizable. (Of course, most artists could do that in those days.) Pollard also created the Black Cat’s signature costume, which you can take as a criticism or compliment.

John Byrne does a few fill in and annuals, and his work is outstanding — although I enjoyed Pollard, I would have really enjoyed seeing Byrne on Amazing rather than on Marvel Team-Up, where he had worked a little earlier. Byrne’s work in v. 9 is everything his early work was — beautiful, imaginative, stylish. Sal Buscema, Frank Miller, and John Romita, Jr., also contribute excellent work to the volume, as do Jim Starlin, Al Milgrom, Alan Weiss and Richard Buckler. Really, if you weren’t one of the best, Marvel wasn’t going to let you near Amazing Spider-Man (although technically Buckler worked on the Spectacular Annual).

There’s a lot to like in Essential Spider-Man, v. 9. And there’s a decent amount that comes across as lacking. Although I enjoyed the book throughout, I couldn’t shake a nagging feeling that it just missed being great. So it has to settle for good.

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

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