GRAPHIC NOVEL AND TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

Spider-Man reviews page 3


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Spider-Man published by Marvel Comics
 

Spider-Man: Clone Genesis 1996 (SC TPB) 190 pages

Written by Gerry Conway, with Archie Goodwin, Len Wein. Pencils by Ross Andru, with Gil Kane. Inks by Frank Giacoia, Dave Hunt, Mike Esposito, John Romita.
Colours/letters: various. Editor: Len Wein.

Reprinting: Amazing Spider-Man #141-150, plus additional pages from Giant Size Spider-Man #5 and Amazing Spider-Man #151 (1974-1975)

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

This story arc is significant on a couple of levels. One: sometime in the mid-1990s Marvel decided to do a massive, shocking story arc in Spider-Man comics that became known as the "Clone Saga" wherein it was revealed that the Spider-Man fans had been reading about for the last few decades wasn't the real Spider-Man. It was Marvel's answer to DC's Death of Superman and Batman: Knightfall sagas that helped boost sales for DC and shake-up the fandom.

Apparently it backfired -- big time. Instead of boosting sales, sales apparently plummeted, as fans were outraged and Marvel hastily amended its saga to reveal that, no, s'okay, it really was Spidey all along. Anyway, the infamous Clone Saga had its beginnings in a mid-1970s run of stories and, to tie in with their modern saga, Marvel collected much of the original story in the TPB, Clone Genesis.

This is also significant on a personal level, because when I got back into reading comics after a many year hiatus, I wondered if there were any TPBs collecting Spider-Man stories from the eras of which I had fond memories -- namely Lee-Romita and the Conway-Andru eras (eras, ironically, which I had mainly read in reprints anyway, as they were a bit before my time). Anyway, imagine my delight on discovering there actually was a TPB collecting a run of Conway's era...but I learned this just as the TPB was falling out of print! I can't tell you how many times I almost had this (once I even held it in my hands...but opted to buy Spider-Man vs. The Green Goblin instead...when next I went to the store...it was gone!) In fact, I never did get this TPB...I've only now read the story because it was included in Essential Spider-Man vol. 7!

Needless to say, that's a lot of expectation this story has to live up to.

The story begins already in the midsts of a long on going sub-plot involving a recurring, but mysterious, foe named The Jackal who is frequently harrassing our harried hero. Indeed, though The Jackal becomes front and centre in the final issues, he is only referred to once or twice in the first half of this collection. But the "clone" story begins when Spider-Man a.k.a. Peter Parker catches a glimpse of Gwen Stacey...the girl he loved, and who died, some years before. Needless to say, this throws Spidey for a loop, particularly as he's only just begun to commit himself to his latest love, Mary Jane Watson -- the romantic epiphany portrayed with a nice mushy maturity for a super hero comic in an airport lounge. Gwen is back, with no memories of having died, or of the last couple of years. Of course, the Jackal is behind it all, building to a final confrontation and the revelation of the Jackal's identity.

Along the way, there are other issue (or two) adventures as Spidey battles Mysterio, and goes to Paris to rescue J. Jonah Jameson from kindnappers (and the first appearance of the Cyclone). Plus the Tarantula and the Scorpion crop up.

And the result...is generally quite entertaining. Conway doesn't really seem to know what to do with his core premise -- dealing with the emotional fall out of bringing Gwen back into Peter's life. Peter mainly deals with it...by not dealing with it, running off to Paris or what have you. His reaction is more as if Gwen returning is an inconvenience, rather than something that's tearing his heart in two. And the revelation that Gwen is a clone -- part way through the saga -- is tossed in almost nonchalantly.

Maybe the problem was that, as the guy who killed off Gwen, and subsequently made Mary Jane the love interest, Conway just wasn't as into Gwen as his readers probably were. As such, what should have been a moving, tragic, profound saga...isn't so much. At the same time -- and after reading these issues a second time -- Conway does offer some nice scenes between Peter and MJ, perhaps indicating the story was less about the "return of Gwen" than it was about providing a dramatic hiccup for the evolving and maturing relationship between Peter and MJ.

And with that being said, it's still quite enjoyable. Conway had a good feel for the soap opera-y aspects of Spider-Man -- something that seems to have been lost in most of the Spider-Man comics I've read in recent years. Juggling Peter, Mary Jane, Betty Brant, Ned Leeds, etc. Conway manages to convey a sense of real people living real lives, with equal mixtures of angst and whimsy. Mary Jane, inparticular, was a far more interesting, slightly edgier character than she became (or than the homogenized character in the motion pictures). In fact, why is it that reading these decades old comics, Peter/Spider-Man actually seems like a more mature, three dimensional person...than he does in a lot of the modern Spider-Man comics I've read, supposedly written by and for a more sophisticated audience? For one thing, a lot of the modern comics are written with too much of a "sitcom" vibe, where the dialogue is often a little too clever, too witty, too contrived to sound like how people really talk. Here, Spidey's quips are funny, sure, but there's a reality, too -- he and his gang seem like, well, people.

And the adventures are interesting enough, even if none quite emerge as instant classics. Even here, there is some nice handling of the characterization of the villains like Scorpion, again making them seem like human beings, not just super villains. As well, the plotting can have a nice grounding -- as much as stories about super beings can. In the telling and the unfolding, from kidnapping gangs in Paris, to Spidey's fears he's battling the ghost of Mysterio, to just how the fight scenes are staged, the action-plots are more than just ten page fight scenes. There's a nicely off beat battle with the Tarantula that takes place in a darkened room, the figures popping in and out of a spotlight.

Ross Andru's art is nicely effective, with an emphasis on realism. He has a knack for Spider-Man, recognizing the character should cling to walls and crouch almost ferally...but he still looks like a man, and the supporting cast are likewise depicted as real people. And in a Spider-Man comic, where the human/soap opera aspect is so important, you kind of want the people to look like people, not cartoony exaggerations. In fact, re-reading this, I find I'm even more enamored of Andru's art than I used to be. His backgrounds caught my eye, augmenting the sense of realism. There's his use of detail, drawing in bricks, and cracks in cements, and little minutia (Mary Jane's purse lying on the floor in Peter's apartment). But also his choice of buildings and locations -- and the angles used to depict them -- add to an authenticity. Gil Kane draws the final, epilogue issue, and Kane's a great artist, but his city scape looks like a generic city scape, while Andru's looks like you really are seeing snapshots of New York locales, of clock towers, and construction sites. Again making Spidey a real man in a real environment. What also complements all this is the use of shadow Andru and his inkers employ, giving a sense of deapth and three dimension to the pictures.

Getting back to the scripting, some of the secondary plot threads seem a bit loose. In one story, we discover J.J. Jameson was actually bankrolling a villain in JJJ's mad quest to get revenge on Spider-Man -- fearing discovery, Jameson takes a quick "business" trip to France, where he is kidnapped. But once that's over, the whole reason Jameson fled to France seems forgotten, as if Conway figured his readers wouldn't remember -- or care -- a few months later (publishing-wise). For that matter, Spidey muses that there's something odd about how the kidnapping is conducted, and so you're waiting for some later revelation...but none comes. You sometimes wonder when that happens (and happens it has in many comics over the years) whether in the press of deadlines and crush of page restraints, plot threads literally get forgotten, or explaining dialogue gets cut. In that vein, I'm not sure it's explained how/when the Jackal learned Spider-Man was Peter Parker -- Conway gets so wrapped up in explaining all the other plot points, and explaining twist revelations, he seems to have forgotten that kind of crucial one!

Actually, on a side point, the use of a clone plot, and the casual way the characters accept it as an explanation might seem a bit odd in an otherwise "real world" setting. But in the mid-1970s, talk of cloning was all the rage, with even dubious non-fiction books coming out purportedly "revealing" human cloning experiments. Clones weren't the stuff of everyday reality, but for the sake of storytelling, Conway might have seen them as being closer that just the stuff of Star Trek-style science fiction.

When we get to the climax, the story takes on some interesting aspects...not the least of which is a weird questioning about identity, lending it some thoughtful maturity and character analysis. It's not surprising, decades later, Marvel staffers thought their Clone Saga idea was a great story...in a sense, Conway kind of puts the idea out there himself, as Spidey ends up battling a clone who thinks he's Spidey! How can Spidey, or the reader, be sure who is the real Spider-Man by the end? The final issue, essentially an epilogue, written by guest writer Archie Goodwin (Conway having ended his long tenure on the title with the climax to the saga in #149) tries to settle the question, but still... (And Goodwin's issue also maybe further shows the strengths of Conway's writing -- because Goodwin's is a perfectly okay issue and, let's be fair, he was just keeping the seat warm for the next writer...but it's a far more conventional super hero action tale than Conway's plots).

Though the real question about a clone is: should it matter? If he looks, acts, and thinks like Spider-Man...isn't he Spider-Man, even if a clone?

Actually, you wonder if there was a bit of waffling back and forth behind-the-scenes on how the saga should end. After Spidey has defeated the Jackal and his own clone, he tells another character the clone got away...even though the artist clearly has drawn the clone's arm buried under rubble. And by the next issue, it's just taken as a given that the clone died. You half wonder if Conway had intended to leave the clone as a dangling plot thread but the next creative regime decided they'd rather just move on (a lesson Marvel's 1990s editorial regime might well have heeded). Actually, Conway does leave an obvious loose end in another character -- one which I'm not sure any other writer re-visited until Conway himself did in Spectacular Spider-Man Annual #8 (1988)...in which Conway, perhaps long bothered by the scientific implausibility of his 1970s tale, attempts to re-write his own saga with another explanation. But it's not really important to enjoying this original tale (and, indeed, Marvel itself pretty much ignored it because, in essence, it undermined the very foundation of their later Clone Saga!)

The other intriguing thing here is the handling of the Jackal's motivation -- I don't want to give too much a way, of course. But the Jackal claims he had a platonic love for Gwen Stacey, yet his actions seem oddly obsessive, and his stammering dialogue hints otherwise, as if maybe we're supposed to infer that his infatuation with Gwen is more carnal (and creepy) than that, but we're meant to read between the lines. An unusual use of sub-text for a 1970s comic book (though perhaps necessary in the Comics Code era).

The end result, though not as emotionally powerful as the "return of Gwen" premise would promise, and suffering from a few lapses in logic, is nonetheless a solid collection of Spider-Man tales. And despite my comment about "loose ends" it does wrap up satisfactorily -- nothing is obviously "to be continued", no burning questions or mysterious sub-plots are left unresolved. And it benefits precisely from it being a saga made up of smaller stories, interconnected by sub-plots that build to a climax -- allowing it to be both a story...and just a grab bag of tales spotlighting a creative era. Spider-Man and his friends, I'll admit, always seeemed just a little more real in stories from years ago than today, more emotionally complex, their world just a little messier, yet yes overblown. Even the fight scenes are a nice mix of outlandish battles across rooftops...with a kind of mundane grittiness that really puts you in mind of two guys brawling, sometimes clumsily.

It took me a long time to finally get to read this and, flaws accepted, it entertains quite nicely.

Cover price: ___


The Amazing Spider-Man: Coming Home 2003 (SC TPB) 152 pages

cover by J. Scott CampbellWritten by J. Michael Straczynski. Pencils by John Romita, Jr. Inks by Scott Hanna.
Colours: Dan Kemp, Avalon Studios. Letters: Comicraft. Editor: Axel Alonso, John Miesegaes.

Reprints: Amazing Spider-Man (2nd series) #30-35 (2001)

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

Number of readings: 2

For all that there is the perception that comics are driven by the "kewl" pictures, writers enjoy a greater position of respect than they do in, say, movies. More recently, comics have seen an influx of writers from other disciplines eager to work in the four-colour field. Indie filmmakers, hot TV writers, and best-selling novelists have all been embraced as figures adding legitimacy to the comics field.

Whether they really do write better stories than the average comics pro is a debate for another day.

Best known for science fiction TV series like Babylon 5 and Jeremiah, J. Michael Straczynski has created his own projects for comics, but is also writing one of the monthly Spider-Man comics for Marvel Comics (specifically Amazing Spider-Man). Coming Home collects his first story arc (hence why it's labelled volume one) as he tackles one of the most recognizable figures in comics, and star of some of the highest grossing films of all time.

Like a lot of writers, Straczynski goes into this wanting to make his mark -- not content to just be one in a string of writers, he quickly tries to say: "now everything changes." In fact, there can be something a little distractingly self-conscious when in the first chapter Spider-Man meets a character named Ezekiel who boldly states "I'm about to yank your chain like nobody else." And then he -- and Straczynski -- proceeds to add a whole new twist to Spider-Man's traditional origin. No longer is he just the high school nerd, Peter Parker, who was accidentally bitten by a radioactive spider. No. Ezekiel speaks of totemism, and suggests there are ancient forces at work that wanted Peter to aquire his spider powers.

I have mixed reactions to such revisionist interpretations (more than a few comic writers have gone into a series determined to say, everything you thought you knew about this character was wrong!). Though Straczynski gets points for suggesting a significance to the propensity of Spidey's foes to likewise adopt totemic identities (Doctor Octopus, the Vulture, etc.).

Straczynski's other "shake up" is more true to the character's roots, given that the original vision of Spider-Man was that of a "real" person, living in a "real" world. Peter Parker, seeing the state into which his old high school has fallen, takes a job as a part time science teacher. It audaciously demonstrates how much the character has grown over the years...the one time high school student now a teacher. "Welcome Back, Parker".

Back to Ezekiel, who warns of an unstoppable villain, an immortal being who feeds off people with totemic abilities, and who's looking to get Spidey. The villain, Morlun, is a cross between Dracula (complete with Victorian-style clothes and a human servant) and The Terminator.

Coming Home follows the formula of a lot of comic book sagas of threading its plot through the first few issues as largely a sub-plot until it explodes into the main event. Ezekiel warns Spidey about Morlun, and we cut away to Morlun beginning his hunt for Spidey. But front and centre are the more "kitchen sink" aspects of Peter Parker deciding to work at his old school, and becoming involved in a school shooting wrenched from the headlines. Straczynski's tackling of inner city schools, teen violence, and bullyism, is well-intentioned if, perhaps, a tad simplistic, but re-roots the character in the reality of today. Granted, one might wonder if there's an unfortunate subtext to the fact that most of the bullies and obnoxious teachers are black, and the victims poor misunderstood white kids. Though whether that was the writer's choice, or the artist's, is its own question. Straczynski does a decent job of keeping the pace up, the interest level at a reasonable level, despite the action being kind of minimal -- throwing in the occasional mugging or car jacking. Even the school shooting functions more on a dramatic level than an action-adventure level.

Straczynski does a good job with Spidey/Peter himself, capturing the brooding angst, mixed with the flippant quips and wisecracks. One of my nephews once asked me who was my favourite super-hero. And on a certain level, I had to think it might be Spider-Man, at least when handled right, simply for his humanity -- and Straczynski does a fair job of capturing that. (And forty years after his creation, Spidey's powers and costume remain among the most idiosyncratic).

I had read some of these issues before, and had mixed feeling towards them, feeling Straczynski was maybe trying too hard. Tackling his big themes (school violence, human nobility, etc.) while not entirely couching it in the human drama I liked about earlier Spider-Man comics (a supporting cast of friends and colleagues, save his ubiquitous Aunt May, is not readily apparent). But I enjoyed it a more this time through, enjoying it for what it was...and as a build up to the Morlun conflict.

Morlun is meant to be the Big Bad Villain, hard to do when Spidey's been fighting super foes for decades. But Morlun is truly unstoppable and implaccable. When he shows up, the action begins big time as their dust up tears apart city streets and leaves Spidey battered, broken, and bloody. For a while, it works pretty effectively, the energy high, and the tension reasonably well conveyed. Straczynski wisely realizes an extended fight alone isn't enough, so he filters it through the character, playing the conflict against Spidey's compassion, by having Spidey caught between fighting Morlun, and saving innocent bystanders who Morlun is only to happy to exploit. (Though it strains credibility -- why are there still pedestrians hanging about when these guys are smashing each other into walls and through cars?)

But, as too often happens, it maybe starts sooner than it should (in the fourth chapter)...and goes on longer than it warrants. It's not boring...but it's not quite consistently riveting, either. Even when things promise to get interesting, as Spidey decides to start using his brains, his final strategem against Morlun is both a touch dodgy, plausibility-wise...and seems like something he could've thought of earlier.

Straczynski even backs off his own revelation about Spidey's origin a bit. You spend the story wondering: is this really going to be the "new" take on Spider-Man's origins...or will we learn Ezekiel was lying? In the end, neither happens, and Spidey dismissively muses that "Maybe it's true. Maybe it isn't." And that's about it.

This TPB ends with a final scene meant to push you into the next collection (Revelations) -- another "nothing will ever be the same" sort of thing. But it's not relavant to this saga (and it's not a death defying cliff hanger or anything) so it shouldn't hurt the ability to enjoy this on its own.

The art is by John Romita Jr, who's association with the character goes back years. He drew the character back in the 1980s...and his dad, John Romita Sr., is regarded as one of the premier Spidey artists from the 1960s. Junior's style has changed markedly over the years, from an early, non-descript, style, to a penchant for blocky figures in the mid-1980s. Now his style is more caricaturish, with nobby limbs and cartoony faces, inspired a bit, presumably, by Frank Miller (before Miller's style was consumed by its own excesses). It works surprisingly well. There is an inner consistency to the work, and a dynamism to the figures, and the composition, not just in the action scenes, but even when characters are standing around, talking. I've had mixed feeling for Romita Jr.'s style, but I rather liked it here, benefitting from Scott Hanna's restraining inks and some bold colours.

Ultimately, for all the brooding angst, for all the novel "revelations" that may or may not be true, for all the ancient evil, Coming Home falls into the rut of a pretty traditional superhero story: villain shows up whose sole motivation is to fight the hero. In that sense, it fails to rise to any particular heights, and the action-fighting is kind of protracted. And it lacks the "kitchen sink"/soap opera realism that I loved about Spider-Man from the days of Lee, Conway and others. Yet, it's an enjoyable enough read. The energy level is high, and Straczynski has a feel for the core of the character. He straddles the needs of the serious and the fun, the character-driven and the adventure-driven, the thoughtful and the popcorn. It's not the classic Straczynski was, presumably, hoping for, but it gets you turning the pages.

Cover price: $__ CDN./ $13.95 USA


Spider-Man: The Death of Gwen Stacy  2000 (SC TPB) 112 pages

Written by Stan Lee, Gerry Conway, J.M. DeMatteis. Art by Gil Kane, John Romita, Sr.
Colours/letters: various.

Reprinting: Amazing Spider-Man (1st series) #96-98, 121-122, Webspinners #1 (a 10 page back up story)

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

I haven't actually read this, but I've read most of the material reprinted in it -- at least as described on the back cover. This TPB collects the pivotal story, published some 30 odd years ago, in which Spidey's true love, Gwen Stacy, was killed by his arch foe, the Green Goblin. At the time it was something of a radical story -- such pivotal characters didn't usually get killed off in comics (it would be kind of like killing Lois Lane or something). More to the point, Gwen has stayed dead -- no miraculous resurrections for her. As well, Gwen's death hasn't been forgotten in Spidey's mythos, but from time to time is still conjured up in Spider-Man comics. Amazing, isn't it? A death in a comic book that is treated like a real death, with lingering repercussions for the characters years later.

But a forty page story apparently isn't enough to justify a big, expensive TPB, so they've also included a couple of other stories, including a three part tale from A-SM #96-98, and a 10 page Gwen/Peter back up story from Webspinners: Tales of Spider-Man (a comic telling self-contained story arcs rather like Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight). That story is by J.M. DeMatteis and classic Spidey artist, John Romita Senior.

Now what's curious about all this is that most of this TPB (the Amazing Spider-Man issues) had aleady been collected in the TPB Spider-Man Vs. The Green Goblin (which also included a couple of other tales). What's the point of that? Whose got enough money that they can afford to buy two expensive TPBs which are almost -- but not quite -- identical?

One can't help but wonder if someone decided to throw together a Death of Gwen collection, but was too lazy to spend time going through hundreds of old comics looking for appropriate stories to reprint. So they just cannibalized a previously published TPB.

What makes the decision more curious is that Gwen barely appears in the story from A-SM #96-98! Surely if you're doing a Gwen Stacy TPB, you'd select stories in which Gwen is featured!

With that being said, the story from #96-98 is a superior tale of Spidey tussling with the Green Goblin -- the only villain who knew his secret ID -- rooted in a social drama as Spidey's roommate, Harry, develops a drug addiction. It was a ground breaking tale that had an industry-shaking significance at the time (comics weren't supposed to tackle drug abuse). And the death of Gwen story, as noted, was also pivotal, at least as far as Spidey comics was concerned. It isn't as strong, or as emotionally powerful as I expected it to be, seeming too much like what it presumably was: a marketing stunt rather than an artistic expression. And writer Gerry Conway, like a lot of comicbook writers, puts more emphasis on Spidey's anger than his grief. Still, it was a decent tale with some heart tugging moments.

I've covered all of this more extensively in my review of Spider-Man vs. The Green Goblin.

Ultimately, these are good-to-great stories, and pivotal, ground breaking ones to boot (a lot of comics are billed as "classics", but these actually are). But as a Gwen Stacy TPB, the selections might have been better, putting more focus on Gwen and the relationship (so that her death actually has context). And if you have a choice between buying The Death of Gwen Stacy and Spider-Man vs. The Green Goblin, I'd suggest going with Spider-Man vs. The Green Goblin -- but, then, I haven't read the short story from Webspinners, so I don't how good (or bad) it might be.

Cover price: $21.95 (?) CDN. / $14.95 USA



 

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