THE SPIDER’S WEB: Other than Sal Buscema’s art, the first dozen or so issues of the Bronze Age title came up short…
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, welcome back to THE SPIDER’S WEB — my weekly look back at some classic Spidey issues. As I noted in the first installment, this all started as a sleep-deprived lark, soon after the birth of my daughter. I was reminded of my love for Spidey and his world and decided it’d be fun to see how far I’d get rereading Amazing Spider-Man.
Well, we’re closing in on Issue #200, and I’ve expanded my reread to include the early issues of the second Spidey solo book, Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man. So, let’s divide and conquer, shall we? We’ll look at the start of Spectacular this week and return to Amazing next.
As I noted last week, the launch of the second Spider-Man book was not without problems. There were about four writers in the first 10 or so issues, and while they did an admirable job of passing the baton to each other, the stories just didn’t quite measure up.
Gerry Conway, who wrote a stellar run on Amazing, was gone after two issues, followed by a mediocre Jim Shooter fill-in, a few serviceable Archie Goodwin stories and the debut of regular-ish writer Bill Mantlo. The saving grace of these issues was the art — done by Spidey legend Sal Buscema, who would be a pillar for this series for a big chunk of the book’s run.
Sal’s a master, hugely underrated and could make a phone book look interesting. But here’s the big problem with a secondary book that’s supposed to explore the inner workings of Pete’s world — you always have to defer to what happens in the main book, Amazing Spider-Man.
Just check out the editorial captions that litter the early issues of PPSSM: There’s one an issue or so, explaining a minor status quo change to Pete and his world… that happened in the main book. This is pretty standard comic fare, I know, but it makes the editorial intent of the book hard to accomplish, and probably explains why Conway left (and why he changed his strategy when he eventually returned to the book — and decided to carve out his own supporting cast for the series, to much greater success).
Anyway, last time we spoke, Mantlo had stepped in and brought some much-needed stability to the writer’s chair, but his early run is not without problems. I’m admittedly not familiar with Mantlo’s pre-Spidey work, though I know he had a great run on the Hulk.
Still, he comes out of the gate blasting, and basically picks up pieces from his earlier Marvel work, as can be seen in the conclusion of the White Tiger arc and the introduction of Brother Power and Sister Sun, which (finally) concludes the Flash Thompson/Sha-Shan subplot by bumping it up to the main story.
These two issues sandwich an awkward drawer story/fill-in by Chris Claremont with OK interior art by veteran inker Jim Mooney. Aside from adding another writer’s credit to the book’s first dozen issues, it delivers little and feels immediately forgettable, which is a shame, because you’re getting Claremont as he rose to prominence. (We’ll have to check out the Claremont/Byrne Marvel Team-Up issues for a better sense of how the X-scribe would handle Spidey on the regular.)
So, here’s the rub, dear readers — these first 15 issues of PPSSM are painfully mediocre, amazing art aside. Mantlo is clearly still trying to get his bearings, probably being shunted onto the book with little prep time. Sal’s art continues to save the day, but it becomes a really tough slog — the new villains introduced feel like low-rent Gibbon knock-offs (see Razorback) or ham-fisted plot devices, like Brother Power.
Again, Mantlo is solid — he gets you from Point A to Point B, but he also tends to devolve into the melodramatic and while he sometimes busts out a literary flair, he often spirals into the absurd and confusing. Take the “reveal” in the later issues that Hate Monger is the big bad. At first blush, this seemed kind of cool — but then Mantlo doubles-down and reveals, bizarrely, that it wasn’t Hate Monger at all, but someone named Man-Beast. It falls flat, and waters down the kind of cool moment earlier.
The writing doesn’t feel ready for prime time, and since the series can’t make any meaningful changes to Pete’s status quo, we’re left rudderless. Because, let’s be frank: Sometimes the saving grace of a Spidey comic isn’t what Spidey does in costume, it’s the drama of his personal life — dating, caring for Aunt May, money problems. These are the things that keep us coming back. It’s the crux of the character. But if that’s gone — and our sole focus is on the tights and action, then those things better damn well hold up, and they don’t here.
So, where does it leave us? I made a deal with myself that if I ever got bored, I’d pull the pin. Well, I’m not bored — but I’m definitely not as engaged with these issues, and the future looks a bit rudderless, too, with Elliot S. Maggin stepping in for an issue before Mantlo takes the wheel again. My hope is things stabilize and Mantlo is allowed to really cut loose, because that — plus Sal’s art — can save the book in my view.
Fingers crossed. I honestly have very little recollection of these issues, so it feels like I’m reading them for the first time.
A couple more thoughts:
— Winner of funniest/lamest story title? “Killing Me Softly…With His Hate!”
— Next week, we swing back over to Amazing, as Marv Wolfman takes hold of the web-shooters.
MORE From THE SPIDER’S WEB
— GREEN GOBLIN III: Len Wein’s Crowning SPIDER-MAN Moment. Click here.
— For the Complete THE SPIDER’S WEB Index of Features. Click here.