Lifeline #1 - cvr by Steve RudeSpider-Man: Lifeline

(2001 - three issues, published by Marvel Comics)

Writer: Fabian Nicieza. Art: Steve Rude, Bob Wiacek.

In the comic book industry where a character like Spider-Man appears in three or four different titles a month -- and that's not including any crossover stories with other characters' magazines -- Lifeline was billed as a three issue stand alone mini-series. That is, a reader doesn't have to be intimately familiar with the last six years of Spidey lore, or buy seven other titles in the same month, just to glean what's going on.

It's also meant to be more than a, with plenty of quips, one-liners, and running about wildly.

The story has Spidey becoming involved when various mobsters and costumed types get into a struggle over some ancient stone fragments that, when properly assembled, spell out an ancient formula for great power.

Despite some initial reluctance on my part, Lifeline ultimately delivers a refreshingly fun, fast-paced story, with just enough heart to remind you that this is Spider-Man, after all -- arguably comicdoms most human super-guy. Why "reluctance", you ask? Well, it turns out this "stand alone" story is a sequel to a multi-part epic scribed by Stan Lee wa-ay back in 1969 -- admittedly, a story I highlight in my They Ain't TPBs section. It also features various established bad guys, from mobster Hammerhead, to the Eel, to the Lizard, as well as good guy cameoes from Dr. Strange and the Sub-Mariner, and has Spidey reflecting on various past tragedies in his life. So much for "stand alone".

Maybe what they meant was that previous events are detailed in flashbacks, unlike many modern comics where even footnotes are seen as somehow crass and pandering to an unwanted audience -- the (gasp!) casual reader. As such, a non-fan shouldn't have any real trouble following the story and motivations. Which is good. In fact, maybe Lifeline was seen as something of a primer, allowing someone unfamiliar with Spidey to get a story that concludes after three issues -- no dangling plot threads or anything -- but gets them up to speed on Spidey and his world. Which is also good.

At the same time, it makes one despair about the industry turning around slumping sales if even when they set out to do a "stand alone" story, they prove that they just can't quite cut it.

What's also annoying about such "sequels" is how often they seem less like sequels and more like re-makes. Once again Spidey is after the ancient tablet, once again a mobster wants it to acquire great abilities, once again Curt Connors (a.k.a. The Lizard) is recruited by the mobster to decipher the formula. If you've read the original (as you might in the Essential Spider-Man books) it might seem a tad familiar.

Now all of the above is harping maybe excessively on the negative. Spider- Man: Lifeline was a pretty entertaining read, my quibbles not withstanding. It clips along at a breakneck pace, cramming enough into each of its issues that you don't feel like you're being gyped on content, and Nicieza actually got me to chuckle at some of the badinage... and even the situations. If there's a criticism to be levelled at Nicieza's humour, it's that it sometimes goes beyond (plausible) wisecracks and into out-and-out comedy ("You're outta time... an' we're outta donuts," says a cop). Sure, I laughed, but it stops having the ring of "reality" that Spidey usually maintains (if a story about a human spider can have any reality). The story veers about, and if it isn't quite as complex as Nicieza probably wanted -- there are few unexpected twists -- it nonetheless maintains interest and excitement throughout.

It also provides an interesting exercise in contrasts. I liked the touch of urban melodrama to Stan Lee's original -- the sense that his Spidey really was prowling an urban jungle peopled by mobsters only a shade or two removed from reality, where the loyalty of henchman, "Man Mountain" Marko, toward his boss, Silvermane, added a touch of depth to the character. Nicieza's version is far lighter, far more colourful and "comic booky", but he also delivers a more touching conclusion that adds a touch of depth to the story, and a shade of humanity to the bad guys.

Admittedly, there are more than a few spots where there's a Road Runner mentality to plotting -- run fast enough and don't look down, and no one'll notice the logic chasms yawning beneath your feet and you can make it to the other side. And given the way comics are frequently accused of sexism, it's awkward the way Spidey seems more choked up remembering the death of Capt. Stacy than he is remembering the death of his long ago love, Gwen. Likewise, there's only a passing reference to the death of his wife, Mary Jane. That latter may be excused, though, by the fact that Mary Jane wasn't going to stay dead, and Nicieza presumably knew it, so why waste time on it? But it would've been better to have left it out entirely, and assume the story takes place a little earlier in Spidey's life. There's also none of Peter Parker's private life, which, to me, is part and parcel of Spidey. J. Jonah Jameson crops up in a couple of scenes to berate the Wall-Crawler, but Robbie Robertson doesn't even have any lines.

The art by Steve Rude suits the tone of the story well, evoking older Spidey artists like John Romita, Sr. in its clean, understated style of well realized faces and figures, without bizarre musculature or other garish exaggerations. The action is well-composed and the story unfolds well through the pictures. And it's great to see old pro, John Costanza, still hard at work as a letterer.

In tone, seeming a little like a blast from the past, Lifeline is a fun read that managed to win me over quite nicely. Hardly profound, but if it's just a romp, it's a pretty classy one.