THE SPIDER’S WEB: The acclaimed writer kept up the high standards in the midst of Spidey’s Bronze Age heyday…
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
Hey, Web-Heads! As I mentioned last week before we took a detour into the launch of Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man, we’re closing in on Amazing Spider-Man #200 in the center lane of this re-read.
Two weeks ago, I wrote about how Len Wein departed the series on a high note — with a killer Green Goblin story that feels cinematic and forward-thinking (click here) — setting the stage for his friend and editor Marv Wolfman to step in as the regular writer.
And that’s where we are now.
But before Marv can come in, we get in Issue #181 a (mostly forgettable) origin rehash from Bill Mantlo and Sal Buscema, who were at this point the regular creative team on Spectacular Spider-Man.
I’m not sure why they thought to have an origin story here, aside from maybe they needed some breathing room between writers, but it doesn’t feel important or essential. Still, it’s two pros, so the take is decent and readable. But after the explosiveness that we felt coming off of Len’s run, this issue felt meh. (NOTE from Dan: For an opposing perspective on ASM #181, click here.)
All that changes when Wolfman steps in with Issue #182.
As regular SPIDER’S WEB readers will recall, my big note about Wein’s run — and the reason I think it isn’t usually listed among the best — is that not a lot changes. Pete is, for all intents and purposes, in the same spot he was in at the end of Gerry Conway’s seminal run — dating MJ, struggling for money, mourning Gwen… you get it, right? While Wein’s run was spectacular at its best, solid and professional at its worst, it didn’t leave any lasting changes. Not so with Wolfman, who comes in guns blazing.
And further proving my point that it’s the relationships and subplots that drive the best Spidey comics, Wolfman steps in with a kind of dud villain — as he brings back Rocket Racer for an awkward two-parter that also introduces the Big Wheel, who, is…um…a big wheel? Yeah.
But the heart of the issue is Pete’s realization that he needs to get his life in order, and in classic, hyper-emotional and reactionary Parker fashion, he tries to — by proposing to Mary Jane!
It’s a ballsy move yet I don’t think it’s executed with the nuance and knack for characterization Wolfman will become known for, but man, does it feel good to see him come in and just shake the tree.
Wolfman’s a legend, and he knows how to step into a series and respect what’s come before, while still doing his own thing. He doesn’t ignore any of the groundwork laid by Wein but it’s clear he wants to make some changes — and what better time than now?
We got a taste for Wolfman’s Spidey a few issues back, when he wrote the first part of a Nova/Spider-Man crossover that hopped between both characters’ titles. Wolfman’s great with the quips and his subplots feel organic and genuine — you really ache for Pete as he struggles financially and with the tension that comes with being Spider-Man. While Wein seemed to create a bit of distance between Pete and his alter ego, Wolfman makes clear that they’re one and the same — a three-dimensional guy with foibles and imperfections.
Wolfman continues his shake-up in his second issue — with MJ’s rejection of Pete’s proposal. The way Mary Jane disses him is flip and distant, and at first glance, cold. But as we’ll learn, MJ’s got her own insecurities, and they reveal themselves when she puts up her party girl defenses. Wolfman is very savvy in how he plays this, and Pete’s reaction — surprise, anger, confusion — comes off as realistic and heartfelt. We feel bad for Peter, who probably jumped the gun by popping the question, but maybe didn’t deserve to get dumped.
Then Wolfman triples down — by bringing in a blast from the past: Betty Brant Leeds, who’s bolted from her married life with Ned Leeds (in Paris) to try and reunite with her old flame, Peter Parker.
Now, I love Betty Brant. I think she got short shrift by Stan Lee in the early issues and was then relegated to C-List supporting character for the bulk of the following issues. She had complexity and depth, a rarity in a female character written by Lee, and was shrugged off too quickly — replaced by the mysterious MJ and then, soon after, by the kind of boring Gwen.
Wolfman maybe picked up on this, too, and bringing her back feels like such a boss, power move — and adds a layer of complexity and depth to not only her relationship with Pete, but to the series as a whole. Suddenly, Spider-Man feels much more adult, with Peter dealing with a married woman’s affections. Not to mention Wolfman’s not-so-subtle sex joke that’s revealed to just be Pete and Betty “drinking coffee and catching up all night” — perhaps a nod to the end of Conway’s run, which featured MJ making a similar move that was not as easily resolved.
But that’s not all. Wolfman keeps upending the status quo — having Pete try to graduate only to learn he’s a credit short (#PeakPeterParker), a story that allows for some nice moments with his supporting cast and a deeper exploration of the will-they-or-won’t-they situation with Betty Brant.
As if that wasn’t enough, Wolfman flips the script on the Spider-Man identity, with new District Attorney Tower (a character that sprung from Wolfman’s underrated Daredevil run) clearing him of all charges relating to the death of Norman Osborn and Captain George Stacy.
For one brief, shining moment, Spidey isn’t a menace, which drives JJJ insane and really gives you a sense of change and momentum. Unlike things today, where readers know we’ll inch back to some semblance of the status quo, these moves feel more than cosmetic — they feel seismic, especially in such quick succession.
Wolfman comes in strong, and while the villains he uses feel a bit bland — the aforementioned Wheel, Rocket Racer, White Dragon, and the spineless Jigsaw —- he completely nails the Peter Parker side of the story, which, to me, is the heart of the character.
* * *
A quick note on the art: Veteran Spidey artist Ross Andru sticks around for the early part of Wolfman’s run, bringing an experienced hand to the writer’s first few installments, but steps away after Pete’s graduation story. It’s a big loss for the series, I’m not going to sugarcoat it. Andru (especially when paired with Mike Espositio on inks) is a Spidey legend, and his run should be up there with the likes of Romita, Ditko and other luminaries.
I will note that toward the end of his run, he found himself paired with other inkers that maybe didn’t do him as much justice. But he still managed to bring a classic, consistent and memorable look to the Spidey adventures, and it bummed me out all over again to see the editorial note wishing him goodbye.
Superstar Jim Starlin steps in for a fun, unexpected Electro story that features a Captain America guest-spot, and then John Byrne pops in for a two-parter down the line, but the new regular artist role will eventually be passed down to Keith Pollard, who does an admirable job of replacing Andru, but for my money has trouble measuring up.
I’m guessing it’s partially because he’s only doing layouts this early on. I do recall liking his art, so I’m thinking as we roll further into his run with Wolfman, we’ll see the whole thing tighten up a bit more. Don’t get me wrong — Pollard is solid, but a bit unremarkable. While Andru was always workmanlike in his art, he did manage some dynamic angles and great cityscapes. They’re big shoes to fill, no doubt, so I’m eager to revisit how Pollard does it, because I know he’s got it in him.
A couple more thoughts:
— So funny to see an editorial note referencing a prose Spider-Man novel written by Wein and Wolfman — Mayhem in Manhattan.
— The scene where MJ is spotted on a boat with a new beau is handled beautifully by Wolfman and Pollard — really evoking a lot of pain and flashbacks to Pete’s early high school days, loaded with rejection and heartache. The longing look from MJ — and her thought balloon, revealing how she truly feels about Pete — are spot-on. A great scene.
— The John Jameson subplot’s interesting, though we all probably know where it’s heading.
— Nice to see Electro get some depth to his character, even if it’s not that big a departure from previous appearances.
— Pete sobbing to Aunt May about his love for her felt a bit melodramatic but also on the bullseye. Nice to see him actually say this TO her, instead of just in thought balloons to himself as he swings away.
— I don’t remember if anything comes of this, but Dr. Tompkins feels like such a jerk, he’s gotta become a super-villain at some point, right? And hey, Pete should not have choked him out, but boy did the guy deserve it!
— Wolfman does a nice job with the Chameleon, but I’m tiring of the shadowy-villain-pulling-the-strings-behind-the-scenes motif, though it’s handled pretty subtly here.
— Man, Ned Leeds is gonna be pissed when he catches Pete with his wife!
— That’s all for now, Spiderphiles, but next time we’ll look at the ramp-up to Amazing Spider-Man #200 and see if the Spectacular sister series can find its footing.
MORE From THE SPIDER’S WEB
— SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN’s Launch Wasn’t Exactly Spectacular. Click here.
— For the Complete THE SPIDER’S WEB Index of Features. Click here.