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
 

The Amazing Spider-Man: The Death of Jean DeWolff1990 (SC TPB) 96 pages

cover by Rich BucklerWritten by Peter David. Pencilled by Rich Buckler. Inks by various.
Colours: various. Letters: Phil Felix, with Rick Parker. Editor: Jim Owsley.

Reprinting: Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #107-110 (1985-1986)

Additional notes: commentaries by Peter David.

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

Number of readings: 2

Again this is a comic which I read and reviewed the first time around but where a second reading maybe made me think my initial reaction was overly harsh. As I've said before, it's not that I necessarily disagree with some of my initial comments, but they seem of lesser importance a second time through. So, without further adieu, my slightly revised review...

The Death of Jean DeWolff begins with the brutal murder of a recurring Spider-Man supporting character, police captain, Jean DeWolff -- the first of a series of murders perpetrrated by a vigilante/serial killer, the Sin-Eater. Spider-Man sets out to hunt the killer, forming a relationship with the police detective investigating the case, while fellow super hero, Daredevil, also pursues the killer. When the two heroes eventually cross paths, they don't so much team up as butt heads, with DD attempting a dispassionate investigation, while Spidey is in danger of letting his desire for vengeance run away wih him. (for another Spidey/DD team-up TPB, go here)

Writer Peter David is clearly trying for an ambitious work, mixing elements of a police procedural with an examination of a social climate (in a way that Spike Lee tried, years later, in his movie about the Son of Sam killings) -- as fear of the killer grips the city -- while also grappling with issues of law vs. vigilantism. When it works, it does so pretty well, particularly when David incorporates supporting characters, such as having Marla Jameson invite Betty Brant over to spend the night while both their husbands are out of town, illustrating the idea of a city in fear. Portraying the story, at least nominally, as an investigation, is also nice, along with cutaways to a strange man visiting a confessional which provide threads that we're curious to see in what way they relate to the main plot.

At the same time, characters can engage in awkward conversations that are meant to provide a forum for the story's issues and themes, but which sometimes lack verisimilitude -- the characters being driven by the story, not the other way around. There are a few drawn out fight scenes that aren't very interestingly staged or exciting, and don't serve the story much either, such as a Spidey-stopping-muggers, or a prolonged sequence of Spidey (and DD, in turn) doing the usual roughing up criminals, seeking a clue to the Sin-Eater's identity. But serial killers aren't, generally, part of the "underworld", so even the reader can surmise it's a pointless excercise. Not surprisingly, the sequence results in a dead-end. (With that being said, compared to a lot of comics, the fights are definitely subordinant to the story and characters, which I appreciate).

The ideological conflict between Spidey and DD is also a bit unconvincing. David handles DD very well, portraying him as the level-headed one, and doing something that even a lot of Daredevil's regular writers don't: remembering that he's a lawyer, and that this should influence his motivation both in and out of costume. Too many writers, uninterested in the philosophy behind the law, treat DD's alter ego's profession as about as important to his character as his shoe size. It's David's portrayal of Spidey as a reactionary, "I'm gonna kill 'im" type that rings slightly false, even given the personal nature of the crimes (DeWolff being a friend of his). This is particularly awkward in a drawn out fight between Spidey and DD. Spidey losing his temper in the heat of the moment is one thing -- Spidey chasing DD across the city in a rrunning fight is something else. Much of the final issue, in fact, turns into a polemic as David has his characters, Spidey, DD and others, acting as mouth pieces debating the issues. The Sin-Eater is captured part way through the final issue, so the story, then, literally takes second chair to the idealogical debates. Which might've been okay except, as mentioned, Spidey's behaviour isn't entirely convincing for him, bordering on petulant.

Maybe what adds to it is that David doesn't sustain a sense of Spidey walking an emotional edge, or unravelling over the course of the story. In fact, for much of the story, Spidey seems fairly collected.

Back to the pluses. David delivers some nice, emotionally effective suspense moments, playing up the frailty, the vulnerability of the heroes. DD is torn by indecision a couple of times, resulting in the killer's escape. Sure, David does it so the killer can escape, but they still work as character bits. There's a nice scene of DD, in his alter ego, detecting the Sin-Eater in a crowd with his super senses, but hesitant to say anything for fear of betraying his secret identity. When finally he throws caution to the wind and runs forward, shouting...it's too late, the crowd has dispersed and DD is left alone.

As for the art, I have mixed feelings toward Buckler's work in general. But it's one of the ways that my latest reading splits with my first reading, because I liked it a lot more the second time through. Buckler goes for an unspectacular naturalism that's kind of nice, particularly in a story that's trying so hard to be a story about just people in the urban jungle. His face and figure work is quite good at times, but it can be uneven, and his eye for accentuating the drama of a moment in his panels isn't that great. Of course, the varying inkers don't help, with the results sometimes good, sometimes not, and there are a couple of spots toward the end where the art is so crude, I'd swear another penciller pinch-hitted a couple of pages here and there. I'm also reminded of a comment made by long ago Spider-Man artist John Romita Sr. (in the documentary, Once Upon a Time...the Super Heroes) where he said that he always tried to draw Spidey in unusual positions, hanging from walls and ceiling; that if Spidey was just standing around like a normal person, the character wasn't being used to his fullest. And Buckler tends to draw Spidey just standing around like a normal person. Nor are things helped by the fact that this was when Spidey was wearing his black costume -- a visually dull affair that, I'm convinced, only lasted as long as it did because Marvel didn't want to acknowledge they had blundered in making the change from the red and blue (kind of like the infamous Clone Saga years later). That's probably why Spider-Man isn't depicted on the cover -- modern fans might wonder who the guy in black is.

But, as mentioned, the second time through, flaws accepted, I actually liked the art for the most part.

And just a technical quibble: a couple of pages are switched around in the climax in this collection, making for momentary confusion. Though I did enjoy David's afterward, providing some insight into the story's origin (and explaining some minor dangling plot threads).

Ultimately, when I picked this up I didn't realize Daredevil was a co-star (not quite an equal star, but given a fair amount of page space and character exploration) and it's actually his scenes, and character, that work the best, making this as memorable as a Daredevil saga as it is a Spider-Man one. Alternating between being thoughtful and ambitious, and kind of heavy handed, a second time through I appreciate the strengths and ambitions a whole lot more, making it definitely worth a look as a more ambitious than average Spidey saga, rooted where Spidey is best -- in an approximation of the real world, peopled by real people.

Though since I wasn't that familiar with Jean De Wolff, I can't say whether her death was handled with aplomb, or whether it would leave long time fans with a bad taste in their mouths.

Cover price: $13.25 CDN./$10.95 USA. 


Spider-Man / Doctor Octopus: Out of Reach

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

Number of readings: 1

   For my review at www.ugo.com, go here.


Spider-Man / Dr. Strange: The Way to Dusty Death 1992 (SC GN) 64 pgs.

The Way to Dusty Death - cover by Michael BairWritten by Roy Thomas (story: Roy Thomas & Gerry Conway). Illustrated by Michael Bair. Inked by Michael Bair (with Mark Beachum, Mark Texeira).
Colours: Bob Sharen. Letters. Joe Rosen, Rick Parker. Editor: Rob Tokar.

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Preventing the suicide of Melinda Morrison, Spider-Man finds himself besieged by demons from the Death Dimension. Teaming up with the sorcerer, Dr. Strange, Spidey finds himself dragged into that eerie other-dimension, all part of the machinations of the sorcerer, Xandu.

Spider-Man/Dr. Strange: The Way to Dusty Death is an enjoyable read. However, despite the Shakesperian title, and some brooding at the beginning, it's not quite the high minded, serious opus it's selling itself as. It's basically just a fast-paced action/adventure (with some introspection).

Roy Thomas writes Spidey well, both the quips and the melancholy (I'd never read any Spider-Man stories by him before), and Michael Bair's art is enthralling and extremely lavish, mixing dark atmosphere with kinetic action -- something my previous experience with his work (a Batman Annual) would not have led me to realize he could do. There's even a propensity toward pulchritude in the presence of the scantily clad Melinda -- not something one would necessarily expeect from a Spidey tale.

Roy Thomas' take on Dr. Strange, however, is altogether too flippant and colloquial. It's almost as if he couldn't make the switch from Spidey's "voice" when it came to writing the good doctor's dialogue. Also, it's not quite an even team-up. It's close, but it's more Spidey's story than it is Dr. Strange's.

This also raises a question about the whole "graphic novel" format. Spider-Man/Dr. Strange: The Way to Dusty Death is an enjoyable romp, but it is just a romp. The story isn't even all that self-contained, since it requires the usual comic booky technique of characters recalling previous adventures in order for the new reader to understand what's going on (Spidey and Dr. Strange first teamed up back in the '60s...against Xandu). Though it's not to be continued, I should make it clear.

Even the "epicness" of Spidey and Doc Strange travelling to the Death Dimension it turns out is old stuff to them. Spider-Man, for one, had been there before.

And if there's nothing in the subject to set this apart from a regular comic, neither is there anything in the presentation: there's no cussing; despite Melinda's intriguingly form-hugging wardrobe, there's no actual nudity; and Roy Thomas and Michael Bair (thankfully) resist going over-the-top with the nightmarish horror aspects of the story. There's nothing here that couldn't be depicted in a conventional (and cheaper) comic book. Even the colour, though very striking and effective, isn't the painted hues some graphic novels employ.

Although, re-reading it, I realize that Melinda's wardrobe is, uh, extremely form hugging in a couple of panels.

The Way to Dusty Death is enjoyable, particularly for Spidey-fans -- I doubt anyone would be disappointed reading it. It's just that it's not necessarily a must read, either.

Cover price: $8.70 CDN./$6.95 USA.


The Amazing Spider-Man: Election Day 2009 (HC & SC TPB) 176 pgs.

cover by Romita, JrWritten by Marc Guggenheim, with Zeb Wells, Matt Fraction. Pencils by John Romita, Jr, with Barry Kitson, and others. Inks by Klaus Janson, others.
Colours/letters: various. Editor: Stephen Wacker.

Reprinting: Amazing Spider-Man #584-588, and selected short stories from Amazing Spider-Man Extra #1, 3, Amazing Spider-Man President's Day Special (2008-2009), with covers

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

Number of readings: 1

Election Day collects a five part arc (plus a few shorter tales). But even though the first issue is labelled "chapter one" -- it's actually the climax to plots that began much earlier. Still, at least modern Spider-Man comics begin with a tabloid newspaper type opening page, recapping what's been going on, making it more new reader friendly than you might think. Granted, other stuff is just assumed -- like things relating to Harry Osborn's background (though even that is more or less filled in as you go). Now why the fourth issue in the arc is labelled "chapter three" is anyone's guess!

Anyway, the main thrust of this arc is that we're counting down to the election for Mayor of New York (yes, despite real life president Barack Obama being featured on alternate covers for this collection, it's not his election to which the title refers), which some of the regulars have stakes in. Meanwhile, a super villain, Menace, also has an interest in the outcome. And Spidey is the chief suspect in a string of murders where his spider tracer devices have been found at murder scenes.

And to be fair, most of these threads all come to a climax in these pages and, more or less, resolve.

And I wish I was more enthused about the results.

alt coverPart of the problem with series that have been around for so long (almost 50 years of Spidey!) is it's hard to find that new or novel story to tell -- at least while still staying within the parameters of the characters and their world. And, more, being a reader who has read so many comics over the years, it's awfully hard for me not to see echoes of other tales. Yet I recently read Clandestine Classic and in my review remarked that the opening arc for that series was vaguely cliched...yet I still thoroughly enjoyed it, because writer/artist Alan Davis managed to take a familiar idea, and enliven it with his unique telling of it.

Unfortunately, writer Marc Guggenheim and company don't manage the same trick. I couldn't help thinking how much of this was familiar. Municipal politics, and where inexplicably the candidates' fortunes are rising and falling on crime and super hero related issues over which they have little jurisdiction. Then there's Menace -- yet another Green Goblin wannabe (so this makes, what? Two Green Goblins, three or four Hobgoblins -- not to mention Jack o'Lantern -- and now Menace?!?) A sequence where our hero is thrown in jail and must fight alone against a cell block full of cons who hate him. And once more Spider-Man tackles a baddy so much tougher than himself (Spidey even referring back to his battle with Morlun), allowing artists John Romita Jr and inker Klaus Janson to indulge in a lot of brutal grittiness, with Spidey ending up bloody and his costume torn -- I half thought I was reading a Daredevil comic (the epitome of the character who's put through the physical wringer every few issues). Etc.

Old plots can be refreshed by the characters who inhabit them. And here there's certainly a use of a supporting cast -- but not in a way that they particularly make an impression. Granted, a long-time reader might have a different view. Nonetheless, this is five issues...plenty of time to make me interested in, or care about, the characters -- and it didn't. Heck, mayoral candidate Bill Hollister barely exists as much more than a plot point. I mean, are we supposed to be rooting for this guy or not?

And reflecting the modern trend in comics, there are a lot of big panels, and a lot of stretched out scenes. There's the obligatory scene of J. Jonah Jameson going on TV to rant about Spider-Man -- things he's been doing since the 1960s! Yet Guggenheim devotes a whole page to it. Part of the fun of long running series is the cosy cliches, sure...but don't belabour them unless you have something new to say/do with 'em. And in what seems to be de rigeur these days, as hot comics scribes show what "real" writers they are, we get the whole-issue-devoted-to-a-single-conversation schtick.

The story can move at a glacial pace at times -- supporting character Carlie Cooper makes a discovery in #584, leading instantly to a conversation...that she's still having in #587! Although in that time/spatial distortion common to storytelling in any medium, in that same five minute span...Spidey is able to cross the city, get into a fight with Menace, and get captured and arrested by the police!!!

Which then becomes the opposite complaint. When the story isn't crawling along...it's whipping by quickly, presumably so the reader won't stop and question the logic of things too closely. And there's a lot of questionable logic in a story dealing with politics and police procedures.

It's not that Election day is bad, but I just found myself flipping through it to get to the end, rather than because it involved me as a story. A little while back, Marvel did a controversial Spidey story to re-set the bar on the series (hence why long dead Harry Osborn is now healthy and hale and back on the team), and supposedly it was to provide a needed shot in the arm for the franchise. But I'm just not seeing it, based on this and the few other recent Spidey stories I've read (like Kraven's First Hunt). It all feels like the creators are running on fumes, recycling old ideas, without finding that new or inspired twist to make them live again. Even Spidey's quips, though amusing, feel a bit belaboured -- sometimes the funny, snappy line is funny because it's, you know, snappy. And everyone seems to talk with the same sort of patter. And that's not even getting into the idea that there used to be a contrast, with Spidey both the wisecracking smart ass...and the grim, melancholy brooder (something better reflected in the back-up story, "With Great Responsibility Comes Great Power").

And I have a long, up and down relationship with John Romita Jr's art. I do kind of like his sense of composition, of storytelling, the action and energy he brings to fight scenes. But he also has a deliberately stripped down, cartoony style. Sometimes that sort of style can actually add to the realism of a story -- ironically -- as through caricature the characters can come alive. Yet here, his faces and expressions are fairly rudimentary and bland. If you were to remove the dialogue balloons from many of the scenes...you probably wouldn't be able to guess what the underlining emotion of the scene was.

Rounding out this collection are four short tales, most decent enough, some filling in gaps in the main story, some unconnected. One story is the "famous" one where Spidey meets President Obama (hence why the prez gets his face on the cover of some editions of this collection) -- Republicans need not feel slighted, though, as Sen. McCain also appears, and is also treated with uncritical adoration.

Now, obviously, this collection will probably read differently for someone who has been following the issues leading up to it. But as I've said before, I often just review these things from the point of view of saying, I picked this randomly off the shelf, an' here's what I thought of it.

There are lots of different criteria for judging the success of a story -- no one more valid than the other. But one of them is to ask, not just how much did the story interest you, but how much did it interest you in the greater series. Despite being the climax of long brewing threads (the election, the Spider-Tracer Killer, the identity of Menace) nothing here really made me curious to track down the preceding stories to fill in blanks. Nor inspired me much to see where things went from here.

SPOILERS: Okay, there were just some things that pushed me out of the story. Namely that it turns out the Spider-Tracer Killer thing was a conspiracy by some New York cops to frame Spidey, and that regular character, police officer Vin Gonzales, was involved. Okay, aside from the fact that presumably means the killings were one big red herring, I'm guessing Marvel wants us to see Gonzales as basically a good guy who got over zealous. But...OH MY GAWD! He was involved in framing an innocent man (in a state with the death penalty) and, by doing so, it meant that all the real killers were walking free (possibly, even probably, to kill again). The guy's as sick and psychotic as any deranged super villain Spidey's ever encountered! But then there's also the technical problem, that after Gonzales is framed by his own conspiracy, Spidey breaks him out of jail, and Gonzales arrests the ring leader... Uh, what? Why just because he's pulled a gun on the ringleader does it make his side of the story any more credible than it was before he was arrested? Basically it means we have a plot threaded through many issues (the Spider-Tracer killings) that presumably wasn't much of a "plot" (with suspects and clues) since it turns out there was no serial killer, and then after a lot of running and fighting..."resolves" simply because, um, well, 'cause writer Guggenheim says it does, not because the resolution makes any real sense.

Hard Cover price: $29.99 USA.



 

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