Reviews of Spider-Man Novels

Goblin's Revenge
(1996) by Dean Wesley Smith (pub. by Byron Preiss/Boulevard Books)

An insanity-inducing chemical is stolen from Spidey's hands by someone dressed like the deceased Green Goblin. As well, serial killer Carnage has been mysteriously busted out of prison and is slowly making his (bloody) way back to New York.

I picked up this book for two reasons. One: it promised to play around with the ramifications of Gwen Stacy's death (Spidey's long ago girlfriend), and, therefore, would presumably be rife with pathos and sensitive character scenes. Two: it was short, and my feeling with a lot of the recent ByronPreiss published superhero novels is that the writers only come up with the most meagre plots they think they can get away with, and then pad ruthlessly. I figured, a shorter novel would be about right. I was wrong on both counts.

Though ostensibly "adult" novels, these books are written to be family friendly -- yet gore seems to fall into the category of "acceptable". And Smith lathers it on with gusto. One of the villains is a super powered serial killer and Smith treats us to seeming endless scenes of heads being ripped off, limps hacked away, etc. As bad as the explicitness of the violence is, the lack of ramifications is worse -- people are killed horribly, but Spidey still trades friendly quips with the villain Carnage, ignoring the fact that his job is to save lives, not apprehend the bad guy after he's killed dozens.

I thought a short novel would mean less blatant padding. Instead, Smith concocted an even thinner story to go with the fewer pages. Part of the problem is it's built around the culmination of the bad guys' plan, meaning Spidey can't accomplish a single solitary thing because that would derail the baddies' plan (and bring Smith's meagre plot to a screeching halt). As an example, Spidey goes to investigate a deserted warehouse he knows is connected to things, but it's getting dark, and he forgot his flashlight (aw, shucks), so he turns around and goes home. Is this the actions of a man driving himself to distraction with his sense of guilt and responsibility over what's already transpired? No, this is the actions of an author who knows that, if his hero enters the warehouse, the story would basically come to an end, so he'd better not.

The love of gore is disquieting, the plot thin to the point of insulting, the characterization almost nil (there's no progression, no character development or arc), and I won't even comment on the clunky prose style. This is easily the worst of the super hero novels I've read recently. It's a sequel to Carnage in New York but, after reading this, I'll give the prequel a miss. A much better Spidey novel, in terms of story, action, and just plain writing, is Diane Duane's Spider-Man: The Venom Factor.

Spider-Man: The Venom Factor
(1994) by Diane Duane, pub. Byron Preiss/Boulevard Books (in both hardcover and paperback)

I quite enjoyed this one. Probably the best of the Byron Preiss books, Duane develops the plot well. Each chapter leads into the next, things happen, twists arise, and the action starts early...instead of Duane dragging her feet for half the book (like some authors). Spidey investigates a strange monster sulking around New York that is initially mistaken for Spidey's foe, the crazed vigilante, Venom. Venom, of course, shows up to clear his "good" name...meanwhile the villainous Hobgoblin is planning to blackmail New York with a nuclear bomb. And all the plots end up converging. Thanks in part to the mysterious monster, the novel had less of a generic feel than some of these books -- too many of these superhero novels seem formulaic, relying on familiar characters and trappings (such as this one using Venom and Hobgoblin) rather than telling individualistic stories.

Duane has a good prose felt like a grown-up book. It's fun and exciting, though some of the chapters are a bit dragged out. The chief problem is that Duane wrote this as part of a's self-contained, but with a minor subplot that gets expanded upon in the later two books. So what's the problem? Well, though I keep toying with the idea of buying the sequels, I  haven't done so yet. Which, I suppose, obviously means that I wasn't that blown away by it.

The Ultimate Spider-Man
(1994) edited by Stan Lee, pub. Byron Preiss/Boulevard Books

This collection of 12 stories is entertaining and diverting enough, though admittedly there's nothing here that rises above being "O.K." There's the adage that "a picture is worth a thousand words" and short stories based on comic books seem to prove it. The average story in this collection is about twenty pages, but read like they'd only fill up a few pages of an actual comic book; vignettes rather than true stories. "Cool", by Lawrence Watt-Evans, about a kid's hero worship of Spidey leading to tragedy, is a case in point. It tills ground similar to an old Daredevil comic (#191), but this is just an idea, while the Daredevil comic was a fleshed out story with plot twists, pathos, soul-searching and character insight.

The opening 90 page novella written by Peter David (with Stan Lee) retells Spidey's origin, but throws in the villainous Doc Octopus for good measure. In a way, it can be seen as a blueprint for a Hollywood treatment of Spider-Man (since his real origin didn't involve Doc Ock or the flamboyant kidnapping of an entire building!). It's entertaining...but a distressingly shallow read. It lacks any real emotion...and Spidey's origin, of all superheroes, should be rife with pathos and power.

Craig Shaw Gardner's "Kraven the Hunter is Dead, Alas" bucks my prejudice against "novelty" stories, in that it's a clever piece following villain Mysterio around who, for the first time in his life, needs Spidey's help -- but, like the old joke, there's never a super hero around when you need him, 'cause Spidey's at home, ruminating on his life. "Thunder on the Mountain", by Richard Lee Byers, is one of the better examples of just telling a story.

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