THE SPIDER’S WEB: Plus, a look at the launch of Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man…
Welcome to The Spider’s Web — an ongoing feature by novelist and Archie Comics Co-President Alex Segura that looks at Spider-Man’s development since his start in 1962’s Amazing Fantasy #15. (Alex has been re-reading from the beginning.) Each installment covers a specific period in Spidey’s history, with Alex giving you a kind of bouncing ball approach, as opposed to an issue-by-issue breakdown. Click here for the complete index of columns. — Dan
By ALEX SEGURA
Now, this is where things get a little tricky, web-spinners.
Around Issue #164 of The Amazing Spider-Man, Marvel decided to launch a second, more Peter Parker-centric book, aptly titled Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man. Now, the initial plan for this reread was to just enjoy the early issues of ASM for as long as I could. I didn’t really envision a time where I’d have to read two books at once. We kind of side-stepped the issue a bit by not really paying attention to the first-ever Spidey spinoff book, Marvel Team-Up. I dipped into the series here and there, but it didn’t stick, so I stayed on ASM. But PPSSM was a solo Spidey book — and decisions had to be made!
So, to get even more picayune stuff out of the way, I decided that, yes, I’d have to read Spectacular, but I wasn’t going to alternate issues. It just didn’t work, at least not the way I was reading the Amazing issues (via Marvel Masterworks). The imperfect solution I came up with was to alternate Masterworks.
And, so here we are, on a Spider-Man reread that encompasses two ongoing Spider-Man books. We’re currently at Amazing Spider-Man #180, the grand finale of Len Wein’s memorable run as writer and Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #9, the beginning of (for the most part) Bill Mantlo’s seven-year run on the title after some major hiccups out of the gate. We’ll get to those in a sec.
First, let’s tackle the closing chapters of Wein’s run as writer on Amazing. As some of you may know, this is a time of great disarray atop the editorial ladder at Marvel, with various writers stepping in at different times to serve as editor-in-chief. A roulette wheel that will, finally, settle on Jim Shooter a few years down the road. But, as you can imagine, this affected many of the writers handling the adventures of Spidey — including the departed Gerry Conway, Len Wein, Marv Wolfman and Archie Goodwin. (Not a history lesson, just something to keep in mind as we see the names come and go.)
But back to the comics themselves. Like I said last week, I felt like the Wein run started off slow at first. Very capable, with a bit more grit than the Conway run, but safe. But by the time we get to #168, Wein is at full power, spinning subplots masterfully and doing a really smart job of not only evoking classic Spidey concepts (like the Spider-Slayers, courtesy of future Mrs. Jameson, Marla Madison!), but leaving lasting, thoughtful imprints on some, like his epic, concluding Green Goblin run. At the same time, like Gerry Conway before him, Wein doesn’t hesitate to introduce new villains and characters that still resonate today — like Will o’ the Wisp, Stegron, Jigsaw and Rocket Racer.
That’s the good stuff. The big disappointment, for me, at least, is that we lose Wein so early. Now, I have no clue as to whether he wanted to leave the book or was fired, those are stories for others to tell. But creatively, we did lose him at his peak, as his subplots kicked into high gear and we got some great stories with tons of gravitas.
Before we get to the epic Green Goblin five-parter, though, we’re saddled with two kind-of clunkers in a Dr. Faustus battle (which is preceded by a quickly-resolved “JJJ discover’s Pete’s ID!” subplot that Wein had been brewing for months) and Nova crossover two-parter (co-written with Wein’s eventual replacement, Marv Wolfman). Then we get the first appearance of Rocket Racer — which seems to be a big deal but is quickly brushed aside in favor of the issue’s B villain, the reconstituted Molten Man.
Wein does a nice job of adding even more drama and anxiety to Mark Raxton’s story, building off Conway and Lee’s earlier takes on the tragic character. Now, again, I don’t know what was happening behind the scenes — but I do know Wein had a plan for which villains he wanted to use, which ones he wanted to bring in from other books and which characters he wanted to introduce — and at a certain point during the wind-down of his run, it all feels a little… rushed?
It’s fun, mind you — each issue blends into the next and there’s a genuine feeling of momentum and, dare I say, reality in how the stories are told. Wein writes a great, conflicted and problem-saddled Spidey/Peter, and his stories carry a New York grit and grime that earlier writers could only evoke.
But yeah, there’s a moment or two where I thought to myself, “Hmm, this could be an entire issue unto itself!” But, Wein, forever the pro, made it work and did a solid, effective job.
These comics are breezy, well-plotted and woven together. You feel like you’re reading one author’s vision for the character, and though the big drawback of Wein’s run to some critics was that he left no lasting changes on Spidey — Peter’s basically where we left him at the end of Conway’s run, arguably — he did add a few meaningful coats of paint to Gerry’s work: adding depth and humanity to the core relationships of the Spider-Man mythos — Mary Jane/Peter, Harry/Pete, Aunt May, JJJ… the list goes on.
In many ways, Wein amplified the strengths of Conway’s run, perhaps sacrificing some of his own acclaim for the greater good. I dunno. Just spitballing here. There’s an interesting Hitman/Punisher two-parter that ends (for now) the life of a character that was never much more than a Punisher clone to begin with, and adds some historical connective tissue between the vigilantes.
The final five issues of Wein’s run are his crowning Spider-Man achievement — an intense, hyper-speed romp through Manhattan with a killer twist that must have been a treat to fans reading for the first time. If you haven’t read these and live under a rock, stop here and go enjoy those comics. Let me know when you’re back.
You’re back? Good.
The final issues have all the elements of a classic Lee/Ditko take, with Ross Andru at the top of his game: Aunt May in peril! Someone close to Pete battling their inner demons! The return of another classic villain!
Except the story is presented in what feels like a more realistic space, with room to breathe. The long simmering Bart Hamilton subplot finally springs to life, and it’s a doozy: It still affected me seeing him revealed as the third Green Goblin, despite knowing how things would end. The homage to Norman’s first battle with Spidey, which ended with him with amnesia, confused about how he got there, was a stroke of genius.
The return of Silvermane — which was inevitable, despite the perfect ending Lee had written for him at the close of the Stone Tablet Saga — worked well, though you never really think an aging gangster can go toe-to-toe with Spidey. Heck, I had a hard time believing Bart Hamilton could, especially without Norman Osborn’s patented Goblin formula. But Wein keeps it realistic, showing Green Goblin III as egomaniacal and inexperienced, but terrifying. You almost cheer when you see Harry don his dad’s spare suit to take down the impostor.
So, the issues — and Wein’s run — end on the highest of high notes, with Aunt May recovering, Harry blind to his sordid past and Peter and MJ working toward something serious. It echoes, again, how Conway closed out his run, too — with a sense that if the series were to have ended with this issue, it would have been a solid, serviceable one.
I think Wein’s run gets short shrift from many because it had the unenviable task of following one that featured so much change — the death of Gwen alone is huge — and didn’t really alter the landscape much. But for my money, it’s up there with the best. Solid, well-crafted stories that respect what came before and inject new, memorable elements into the mythos.
Can’t do better than that.
Now, before we close out, let’s hop over to the new Spider-Man book, Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man. This book was supposed to put the focus on Peter and his supporting cast, but from what I could tell by revisiting these comics, that proved hard to do with most of the big fireworks happening in the flagship book.
So, what does PPSSM become? Well, I don’t know yet. The much-ballyhooed return of Gerry Conway is a nonstarter, as the legend bails after two issues — mid-arc! Eventual Marvel Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter steps in for a serviceable third issue, introducing forgettable Spidey villain Lightmaster and revealing him to be the mastermind behind Conway’s two-issue mystery. Does anyone know if that was the plan from the get-go? It certainly doesn’t feel like it, but it also seems like Conway left it vague enough for anyone to jump in.
The balance of the first nine issues are manned by the sharp, professional Archie Goodwin, who crafts a solid, if not, ahem, spectacular Vulture two-parter, featuring Hitman (in his first appearance, I believe?), followed by an awkward Marvel Team-Up reprint (setting up a Morbius two-parter by Goodwin). How hard-pressed were they for content that the felt forced to reprint an MTU issue? Written by Conway, no less! I dunno, but it all feels very slapped together and a bit rushed.
The book’s saving grace in those early issues is the beautiful, spot-on and comforting art of Sal Buscema, who will continue to evolve and grow while drawing the wall-crawler, mainly on this very title. He adds humanity and torment to otherwise meh characters like Lightmaster or, uh, Empathoid — and his Morbius is terrifying!
My initial batch of issues ends with veteran writer Bill Mantlo’s first on the book, also drawn by Sal and featuring a somewhat heavy-handed but enjoyable White Tiger story that really feels like the first issue of a lengthy run.
The thing these issues lack is continuity. Aside from subplots being handed (surprisingly well, I might add!) from one writer to the next — like Flash’s obsession with his Vietnam lover Sha-Shan working at a local restaurant — the stories feel very out of time. Even the return of Adrian Toomes as the Vulture, which follows the rise and fall of the third Vulture, Clifton Shallot, during Conway’s run, makes little mention of the impostor.
The stories just feel evergreen and lacking in momentum. But, hopefully with a regular writer, that’ll resolve itself. I’m there for the Sal art alone, at least.
A few more thoughts:
— I haven’t said much about the art because Andru and his cadre of inkers (usually Mike Esposito!) continue to kill it, getting better and better with each issue. I’m glad they stick around a bit to provide an anchor of sorts for the next run (Marv Wolfman), before Keith Pollard steps in. We’ll be diving into those issues of Amazing next.
— How weird is it that Silvermane was head of Hydra before his return as a Spidey villain?!
— Man, Gerry Conway loves the Tarantula. I don’t mind the guy, but his Spanish is groan-worthy, and it gets slightly worse or better depending on who’s writing him. Still, it felt like having him play second fiddle (or third, of you count Kraven) to Lightmaster doesn’t really elevate Lightmaster or help Tarantula, and it definitely hurts Kraven’s value.
— I wonder if Hitman was introduced to be the kind of villain the Punisher couldn’t be because of his growing popularity?
— The Aunt May/Gray Panther stuff is pretty painful to read, but funny — so, mission accomplished?
— My one bit of confusion about the Aunt May stuff at the hospital at the end of Wein’s run: What were the docs going to do if Pete never showed? Just let Aunt May die on the bed? It definitely made for some high drama, but felt unrealistic. Then again, it’s a comic.
— You almost never want to see Harry again. Just have him ride off into the sunset with Liz. It makes what eventually goes down all the sadder, especially if you also stan J.M. DeMatteis’ Spectacular Spider-Man #200, drawn by Sal.
— The cover of JJJ showing Pete images of him burying his clone was dynamite — but the execution of the story itself felt really sped through. I wonder what Wein originally envisioned for that issue, and if editorial pushed back on any lasting changes.
— Next time: We welcome Marv Wolfman and Bill Mantlo as the regular captains of our two Spidey ships and see what insanity they can cook up for Peter Parker. Do we hear wedding bells? Hmm, maybe not just yet!
MORE From THE SPIDER’S WEB
— How Len Wein’s SPIDER-MAN Stacked Up Against Gerry Conway’s Run. Click here.
— For the Complete THE SPIDER’S WEB Index of Features. Click here.