GRAPHIC NOVEL AND TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

Spider-Man reviews page 2


Click here for other GN and TPB reviews

Spider-Man published by Marvel Comics
 

Essential Spider-Man volume 4  2000 (SC TPB) 528 pages.

1st edition cover by Bruce TimmWritten by Stan Lee. Pencils by John Romita Sr., John Buscema, with Larry Lieber and Gil Kane. Inks by Jim Mooney, and others.
Letters: various.

Reprinting: The Amazing Spider-Man (1st series) #69-89, Annual #4, 5 (1969-1971) - plus covers

Black and white.

Rating: * * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Note: Later printings altered the contents so this included issues #66-68, and only Annual #5.

One of Marvel's popular "Essential" books which reproduces an entire, chronological run of issues, with the only drawback being its black and white. But that's to keep the price down. Essential books contain over five hundred pages -- while being cheaper than regular TPBs that might only be 150 pages!

Re-producing Spider-Man stories from the late 1960s and early 1970s, this is a particularly strong book. The advantage to an Essential book is that it can be a mix of stories, ranging from epic multi-parters, to single issue adventures.

The book begins with an epic storyline involving various mob factions and villains struggling over an ancient tablet with, possibly, mystical properties. Actually, the story began in the previous Essential Spider-Man volume (but don't worry, you can easily pick up the thread) and continues, more or less, for the next nine issues or so. Although it could threaten to get tedious (and annoying if you were following it, month after month, at the time) it doesn't. That's partly because writer Stan Lee weaves more than one story around the tablet, meaning it's not just the same plot issue after issue -- heck, the conclusion to the story, with Spider-Man battling arch foe the Lizard, has nothing to do with the tablet, even as it arises directly from the tablet story. Lee really seems comfortable with his angst-riddled, manic depressive, wall-crawling hero, and the story works precisely because Lee kind of roots it in an almost gritty, urban milieu. Sure Spidey has super powers, and everyone's after a mystical tablet, but the villains are inner city thugs and mobsters and shyster lawyers that, in a way, actually come alive as real characters from time to time. The art is well handled by such luminaries as John Buscema and John Romita (Senior), largely inked by Jim Mooney. And these Spider-Man issues, with the clear pencils embellished by Mooney's thick inks and heavy shadows, takes to the black and white presentation quite well, retaining a lot of mood.

Marvel recently produced a mini-series (Spider-Man: Lifelines) that was a sort of sequel to this epic. And though I enjoyed Lifelines, I kind of preferred the edge to Lee's original. If Marvel ever wanted to publish this as its own TPB (running from, I'd guess, Amazing Spider-Man #68 to #77 -- the conclusion of the Lizard story) they could choose worse stories.

But that's not the end of the book, of course. Instead we get Spider-Man vs. The Prowler, a two parter that beautifully tells a super hero story but with the heart of an urban drama, as Spidey fights a villain who didn't intend to be a villain, and there's a nice three parter that adds a little poignant depth to the Kingpin's character (this at a time when the Kingpin was Spidey's foe, not Daredevil's). There are also some one-shot tales that are very good, like a return of the Chameleon story (#80) that delightfully encapsulates the spirit of Spider-Man -- comicdoms most hard luck hero. And a battle with Electro that was included in Spider-Man's Greatest Villains, and remains a really good tale for its character drama.

The story from Spider-Man Annual #5, with Spidey going to Algeria after learning his parents died branded as traitors, was also reasonably good, even if I was less fond of Larry Lieber's art (though it has its moments, particularly in the care applied to the backgrounds).

There are other, less noteworthy efforts, of course -- wouldn't want you to think I'm just praising this book blindly. There are stories that are thin or forgettable.

Of course, part of the appeal of this period of Spider-Man was Lee's whole attention to the characters and the soap opera-y aspects. As such, there's plenty of Spidey brooding about his relationship with Gwen Stacy, and concerns that various characters might clue into his secret identity, or a sub-plot involving J.J. Jameson having a heart attack. At its best, Lee's Spider-Man really did make you believe he was writing as much about the man in the costume -- Peter Parker -- as about the guy with the super powers, with Spidey emerging as one of the most vividly realized characters from Lee's writing heyday.

The main drawback with this collection is that the final story line ends on a cliff hanger that won't be resolved until Essential Spider-Man #5 -- what, it would've killed 'em to reprint one more 20 page comic?

Other than that, though, this is a superior collection. Granted, I've always had a fondness for Lee's run on Spidey, and with the art chores (mainly) handled by Romita and Buscema, I've got little to complain about, with the few poorer issues easily compensated for by the stronger ones. One of the best of the Essential books I've come across.

Cover price: $21.95 CDN./ $14.95 USA 



The Essential Spider-Man volume 7  2005 (SC TPB) 528 pages.

cover by John Romita, Sr.Written by Gerry Conway, Len Wein, with Archie Goodwin, Bill Mantlo. Pencils by Ross Andru, with Gil Kane, Sal Buscema. Inks by Frank Giacoia, Mike Esposito, with Dave Hunt, John Romita.
Letters: various.

Reprinting: The Amazing Spider-Man (1st series) #138-160, Giant-Size #4, 5, Annual #10 (1974-1976) - plus covers

Black and white.

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Another of Marvel's "essential" volumes, reprinting more than twenty consecutive issues of a series in black and white (to keep the price down) -- this is the seventh Spider-Man volume.

It's not always easy to know what to say when reviewing these books since, after all, there's not a specific story or plot to be commented upon. It's a run of issues, invariably with some high and low points. With that being said, this a solid collection.

The first half of the book reprints the last of Gerry Conway's first tenure on the series -- Conway who was the first writer to succeed Spidey creator Stan Lee, other than Roy Thomas who pinch hitted a couple of issues. Conway would, of course, return to the character a decade or so later. And this includes his original clone saga (which was earlier collected in a colour TPB as Clone Genesis) -- a saga that had a significant effect on a massive story arc written in the 1990s. This is also part of, and concludes, a long running sub-plot (begun in issues reprinted in Essential Spider-Man volume 6) involving a mysterious adversary, the Jackal, who had been harassing our hero for many issues, off and on.

Then Len Wein takes over the scripting and, though I had read somewhere that Wein's tenure was disappointing in contrast to Conway's, I'd say it maintains a decent level of entertainment, including a few high points, such as a clever, three-parter in which Spidey finds himself reluctantly teaming with his foe, Dr. Octopus, or an off-beat one where he is menaced by his own, remote-controlled Spidey-mobile, and where Ross Andru's art does milk some eerily suspenseful moments out of disembodied head lights looming in the fog -- an issue that may actually have anticipated the horror movie The Car by a few months!

Along the way, Conway and Wein both do a decent job of alternating between returning "classic" foes, introducing new costumed villains (like the Cyclone), and presenting original, one-time threats.

With a volume like this, it's not like one expects -- or demands -- a classic on every page, but the entertainment level remains pretty consistent throughout. There's also a nice recognition by both Conway and Wein that Spider-Man is as much Peter Parker as he is the guy in the mask, and that he should have a supporting cast. Neither quite play up the soap opera-y stuff that much, but there's still a nice swirl of familiar faces circling about, from the usual Daily Bugle characters, to Flash Thompson, Liz Allen, Harry Osborn, etc. During these issues we see the deepening of Peter's relationship with Mary Jane, the beginning of the Liz Allen-Harry Osborn relationship, and the marriage of Betty Brant and Need Leeds, as well as the introduction of Glory Grant (who may not be used much anymore, but was a recurring supporting character in the 1970s and early 1980s).

Of course, Wein starts to introduce new sub-plots, some of which go unresolved in these issues, but at least there aren't any blatant cliff hangers left dangling. And one sub-plot, involving a mysterious, hulking foe lurking in shadows but smoking a cigarette in a long stem filter is probably easy enough to guess (the Kingpin, anyone?)

The art, primarily by Ross Andru, is effective, with Andru employing a generally realist style where people look like people and move like people, while also having a good feel for the powers of Spidey, maintaining a slight eeriness to the way he clings to walls or leaps about. To me, Spidey is always best served rooted in a kind of reality, swinging over the smoke drenched roof tops of New York, and Andru captures that. Indeed, Andru's eye for backgrounds, and architecture, is particularly good, really rooting the stories in a real New York of fog shrouded docks and church steeples, rather than just generic square buildings. And Andru's use of shadow not only rounds out and further adds reality to the figures and buildings, but means the art takes to the black and white presentation exceptionally well. Andru may well be excelling himself in this era, as -- though a decent artist -- I don't necessarily associate this level of care and detail to all his work -- even some later Spider-Man comics can seem a bit rougher. Gil Kane offers his dynamic art on a couple of stories, including the double-sized annual. And Sal Buscema pinch hits a couple of times.

Even with the original clone saga, there aren't necessarily too many "classic" issues here, per se...but there aren't many true duds, either. The result is an enjoyable, eminently readable run of everyone's friendly neighbourhood wallcrawler.

Cover price: $__ CDN./ $16.99 USA


Fantastic Four / Spider-Man Classic
is reviewed in the Fantastic Four section


The Spectacular Spider-Man 2002 (SC GN) 64 pages

Written by Stan Lee. Pencils by John Romita Senior (and Larry Leiber). Inks by Jim Mooney, Bill Everett.
Black and White. Letters: various.

Reprinting: The Spectacular Spider-Man (magazine series) #1 (1968)

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man (later shortened to just The Spectacular Spider-Man) was the second on going Spider-Man comic, first begun in the 1970s -- yeah, it's hard to believe, in this age of proliferating Spider-Man titles, that Spidey managed to get through the entire 1960s just starring in one series: The Amazing Spider-Man. Gosh! However, the Spectacular Spider-Man title had actually surfaced a few years before the 1970s series, which is where this graphic novel comes in.

In 1968, Marvel first experimented with a magazine-sized comic that would be sold on the magazine racks as opposed to the comic shelves. Although Marvel would later achieve success with Savage Sword of Conan, Marvel Super Special, and a few others, this initial Spider-Man led foray into the field only mustered two issues before cancellation. Thirty-some years later, Marvel has re-released the first issue of the Spectacular Spider-Man in a square-spined, graphic novel format, still in its original over-sized, tabloid dimensions, and still in black & white (only the second issue of the magazine was in colour).

The back cover proclaims this had been a bold publishing experiment in 1968, and that this is the first time it has been re-published in its entirety since then. According to one source I have the story was later used, in one form or another, for Amazing Spider-Man #116-118 -- though whether it was a re-working of thhis story, or literally the same art and dialogue, I don't know. But that seems to mean this isn't quite the "lost" classic Marvel's hyping it as.

As a bold experiment, the story, "Lo, This Monster" seems like, well, a pretty regular Spider-Man comic. Sure, it's printed in black and white, and not just black ink on white paper as though the colour was accidentally left off -- like a few black and white comics that come to mind -- but given grey hues and shading, indicating this really was meant to be seen in black and white. But other than that, there's not much to distinguish it, not even any "mature" subject matter, which was kind of the incentive back then behind comics-as-magazines (as they fell outside the purview of the Comics Code Authority).

As written by Stan Lee and drawn by John Romita, Sr., the story has Spider-Man being embroiled in the rise of a populist politician, who's really a megalomaniacal nut, leading to Spidey tussling with ten foot tall man-monster who seems to be intent on sabotaging the politician's career.

It's an O.K. read but not much more. Lee throws in appearances by most of Spidey's supporting cast, but the soap opera-y angst that made Lee's tenure so involving is entirely absent from this story -- perhaps so the story can stand alone. Spidey's alter ego, Peter Parker, seems to be going through a good spell, emotionally speaking, and isn't even that hard up for cash as J. Jonah Jameson owes him money! Without that brooding human factor, all that's left is the story. And the story just isn't that complex or unusual.

There's some well-intentioned (if broad) political satire, and Lee's painting of villain Richard Raleigh as a (nominally) right-wing demagogue is an unusual touch. Most comics that use political sub-plots, particularly Batman over the years, have tended to embrace right wing, law & order candidate characters, while reserving villain status for -- gasp! -- weak-kneed liberals. Not that RRaleigh's politics are especially well-defined. But Lee doesn't really go far enough to actually make the story qualify as social commentary, nor is Raleigh anything more than a one-dimensional bad guy, eliminating another potential for human drama. And all of this is delivered with Lee's not-always subtle dialogue. Even Lee's humour isn't as pronounced here as in the monthly comics he was writing, though there's a particularly amusing bit juxtaposing a florid text caption with a thug's crude exclamation.

With that being said, this isn't a bad saga, exactly. The pacing is O.K., and there are some reasonably entertaining suspense scenes, like Peter, sans Spidey costume, trying to preserve his secret I.D. while going into Spidey action in a crowded banquet hall, or the build up to the climax, with the ten foot guy going after then-regular supporting cast member, Capt. Stacey, with Spidey rushing to the rescue. Because some of Spidey's gals n' pals make appearances, big and small, it at least seems reasonably ensconced in its era of Spidey mythos.

With its politically-edged story, Lee probably thought he was telling a smart, grown up tale to suit the magazine format, but it isn't particularly sophisticated or complex. And it doesn't really live up to its hyperbolic intro proclaiming this a story you won't soon forget. (Funnily, the second -- and final -- issue of this magazine run is actually the better regarded story. Maybe Marvel should've reprinted them together as a "complete" collection).

Also thrown into the mix is a ten page back up story (illustrated by Larry Lieber and Bill Everett) re-telling Spidey's origin. It's fairly workmanlike, but covers the key points if you've never read the origin before.

A final thought. This is supposed to be a re-presentation of the original magazine in its entirety, but in the credits a "re-letter" is credited, and there are certainly spots where the letters look like the product of modern, computer techniques (where the letters, though slanted to look hand written, are a little too uniform). I don't know if the modern letterer should be faulted, or the original magazine, but I don't think I've ever come across so many spelling mistakes and grammatical screw ups in one story in all my years of reading comics. It's inexcusable!

In the end, this is a largely run-of-the-mill tale, neither particularly terrible (except for the lettering) nor particularly great -- and somewhat over-priced for a black &ammp; white reprint. If you want a better sample of what made the Lee-Romita era work, including angst, soap opera, witty lines, and occasional villains with dimension, you'd be better picking up something like Essential Spider-Man vol. 4.

Cover price: $12.75 CDN./ $7.95 USA 



 

< BACK NEXT >

Back to