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

25 January 2013

Spider-Man: Identity Crisis

Collects: Sensational Spider-Man #25-6, Amazing Spider-Man #432-3, Peter Parker: Spider-Man #88-9, and Spectacular Spider-Man #254-5 (1998)

Released: May 2012 (Marvel)

Format: 200 pages / color / $24.99 / ISBN: 9780785159704

What is this?: Spider-Man assumes four new identities as he tries to avoid arrest and a bounty on his head.

The culprits: Writers Todd DeZago, Howard Mackie, Tom DeFalco, and J.M. DeMatteis and artists Luke Ross, Todd Wieringo, John Romita Jr., and Joe Bennett

Spider-Man: Identity Crisis is Marvel’s follow up to Spider-Hunt — and by “follow up to,” I mean “Part 2 of,” as Identity Crisis is a continuation of the previous storyline, with an added gimmick.

As Identity Crisis begins, Spider-Man still has a $5 million bounty on his head and is still wanted for murder. To avoid arrest, he takes on four new identities: Hornet (in Sensational Spider-Man), Ricochet (in Amazing Spider-Man), Dusk (in Peter Parker: Spider-Man), and Prodigy (in Spectacular Spider-Man). To aid in the deception, Peter tries to put on different personalities for each costume, with mixed results. Prodigy and Hornet are straitlaced heroes, although Hornet is more inexperienced (and Peter’s slips quickly revealed Hornet is Spider-Man). Ricochet is the closest to the Spider-Man persona, quipping and jumping around like a 5-year-old who has mainlined Pixie Stix, but he is willing to work with criminals. Dusk, a man of mystery, is even shadier, openly consorting with the Trapster.

Spider-Man: Identity Crisis coverThe multiple-identity idea has merit. I’ve always thought Peter should have a road uniform, an identity he dons outside New York to keep people from linking his travel patterns with Spider-Man’s.68 But no matter how good the idea is, two issues per identity and two months overall isn’t enough to explore Peter’s “identity crisis,” and it was never going to last more than the two months. God forbid Peter use the Dusk or Ricochet identities to infiltrate the criminal underworld or Marvel devote one of the Spider titles to Peter donning different identities.69 In any event, Peter blows the Hornet identity and compromises the rest, and in less than a year, the costumes and identities went to new characters who starred in the short-lived Slingers.

Marvel’s inability to capitalize on the gimmick is frustrating — and no matter what writer Todd DeZago says in the included promotional material, Identity Crisis is a gimmick, as Peter never seriously considers exploring the other identities. The bounty / murder investigation plot is largely ignored, and Identity Crisis feels like two months of waiting for everything to wrap up. Spider-Man should use his new identities to avoid bounty hunters and clear his name, but mainly he uses them to tweak Osborn and go about his regular business. As Hornet, he fights the Looter and the Vulture. Ricochet goes after the Black Tarantula’s goons, Bloodscream and Roughhouse. Prodigy rescues a foreign diplomat’s daughter from Jack o’ Lantern and Conundrum, an illusionist. Only as Dusk does Peter do anything related to his current problems: protecting the life of the Trapster, the man who framed him, and trying to tape record a confession. That doesn’t work, but off panel, he convinces Trapster to admit in public what he’s done and clear Spider-Man. Ta-da! That’s heroism!

I don’t really blame the writers — DeZago in Sensational, Tom DeFalco in Amazing, Howard Mackie in Peter Parker, and J.M.DeMatteis in Spectacular — for this lack of narrative drive. Editor Ralph Macchio has to take a good deal of the blame; the books would have improved with a firmer editorial hand or steadier eye. In a minor and yet annoyingly distracting mistake, Mackie and artist John Romita Jr. show Peter accidentally donning pieces of all his different costumes in Peter Parker #91; in Amazing #435, DeFalco and Joe Bennett use essentially the same unfunny gag, mixing and matching the Spider-Man costume with his Ricochet costume. More seriously, Macchio allows each writer to advance subplots, which range from the Scriers, Alison Mongrain, and Kaine’s Grecian holiday in Amazing to Aunt Anna’s secret origins in Spectacular. The former is important to the “Gathering of Five / Final Chapter” storylines that relaunched the Spider-titles six months later, but it made the rest of the subplots irrelevant. Letting subplots continue during an event was a step forward for Marvel, which tried to minimize or excise them from the big X-crossovers of the early ‘90s.

The relaunch was a bit of a relief, though, as it made this book’s difficult continuity irrelevant. Identity Crisis reprints the issues in order of publication, but the story doesn’t make sense in that order — Spectacular #254, for instance, leads directly into #255, but it’s near impossible to order the other issues around them. The editors weren’t considering reprints at the time, but it must have been aggravating to read in 1998.

Macchio also could have mandated a consistent portrayal of Peter’s wife, Mary Jane. Identity Crisis falls between the Clone Saga, the first real salvo in the war vs. Peter and Mary Jane’s marriage, and The Next Chapter, the first time the marriage was done away with, so it’s interesting to see how Mary Jane is characterized. The portrayal varies; Mary Jane ranges from a co-conspirator in the costumed chicanery to a borderline shrew. It’s no surprise the former is more appealing. She designs the costumes (except for the Dusk outfit) and endorses the four-identity plot, but she also complains about the idea and nags her husband about his feelings of responsibility. DeZago plays her as supporting but worried when appropriate; DeFalco’s Mary Jane turns from enthusiastic to nagging on a dime; Mackie goes for nagging first, then to support; DeMatteis’s MJ is a callback to previous times, slightly resenting Peter’s duty but loving him anyway. Part of the various characterizations are because of different contexts, but DeFalco and Mackie seem convinced Mary Jane is a stumbling block for Peter to overcome. (Given what Mackie does to Mary Jane in The Next Chapter, that’s not surprising.)

A Spider-Man crossover in the ‘90s means at least four artists. Mike Wieringo’s work on Sensational is extremely pretty and expressive, easily the best in the collection. Romita’s work on Peter Parker is weak, even by my low expectations for his ‘90s work; for instance, if Norman Osborn didn’t have cornrows, he would be identical to Trapster, according to Romita. Spectacular’s Luke Ross does some nice design work with Conundrum, but he has trouble with subtle expressions (especially during Peter and Anna's talk in #257). Amazing’s Bennett turns in fine work, especially in the Buscema-ish touches on Roughhouse.

The book does have a couple of bewildering visual touches, though. Again, I think Macchio needed to step in and ask a few questions. Delilah, the Rose’s henchwoman, occasionally has a more ornate, larger font within her word balloons, and the font varies in both size and color. The dialogue stands out, but not in a good way; I have no idea what Amazing letterers Kiff Scholl and Richard Starkings are trying to communicate with the font. (Bold text or slightly larger text means a louder volume or emphasis, but this goes well beyond that.) The same goes for the Conundrum’s puzzle-shaped speech boxes in Spectacular; they are visually interesting, but what are Scholl and Starkings saying? I don’t need to be told they’re Conundrum’s dialogue, and I have no idea what a puzzle piece sounds like. The colorist on Amazing, Bob Sharen, makes an odd but Comics-Code inspired choice when the villain Bloodscream makes Delilah “bleed … through her skin!” From the colors, I’d say she bleeds milk from her eyes and A-1 Sauce from her nose.

I’m glad I read Identity Crisis. It completed Spider-Hunt, and it bridged part of a gap in Spider history I wasn’t familiar with. However, it was a stunt, and the actual story is fluff, with no long-lasting consequences or outstanding moments of characterization. Unless you’re a big Spider-fan, you should read the summaries on Yes, DeFalco sets up plots that lead to the relaunch, but these are plots involve the Scriers and Alison Mongrain, which are better summarized than endured.

Rating: Spider-Man symbol Half Spider-Man symbol (1.5 of 5)

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