GRAPHIC NOVEL AND TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

Spider-Man reviews page 5


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Spider-Man published by Marvel Comics

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


coverSpider-Man and the Fantastic Four: Silver Rage  2007 (SC TPB) 90 pgs.

Written by Jeff Parker. Pencils by Mike Wieringo. Inks by Wade von Grawbadger, Andy Lanning.
Colours: Pete Pantazis. Letters: Nate Piekos. Editor: Stephen Wacker.

Reprinting: Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four #1-4 (2007).

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

Number of readings: 1

Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four seems like one of those projects where, with Marvel's continuity increasingly tied up in on going story arcs, and "grim" sagas (like Civil War) they offer up a little relief with a self-contained, all-in-fun little romp. Nor can one escape the fact that it was released, presumably, to coincide with the movies Spider-Man 3 and Fantastic Four 2 -- Marvel no doubt expecting curious movie goers to flock to the comic stores, seeking something Spidey and/or FF related.

And the resulting mini-series is largely harmless, occasionally amusing...but not too much more.

The story has Spider-Man investigating when the Silver Surfer soars by overhead -- only it turns out it isn't the Surfer, but the FF's occasional ally/pest, the mischievous Impossible Man, come to warn earth of an impending alien invasion -- an invasion that takes the form, not of a physical assault, per se, but of a kind of conversion, as most of humanity is possessed by an alien, parasitic species. Quickly, the FF become involved as well.

Although Spidey and the FF have teamed up many times before (a whole other TPB has been released collecting some of their team ups), the fantastical nature of the story maybe isn't ideally suited to Spider-Man. And despite the grandiose concept...feels a bit thin. Lots of action scenes, but not too much story twists or turns. Once again, we have a multi-issue mini-series that might've made a swell annual. Writer Jeff Parker clearly wants to keep things light and fun, with jokes and quips. I think I read some reviews that said it was "old school", and that's probably the intention (the very title -- Silver Rage -- is a play on the phrase used to denote 1960s comics, The Silver Age). But what Parker (and his editor) sort of forget is that what made the jokes and quips in the old Stan Lee scripted comics funny, was they were often grounded in a certain realism, and contrasted with a human angst. When Spidey and the Human Torch used to trade barbs, it was funny because it seemed like they meant it -- they really were caught up in a petty little feud. Here, they sometimes just seem to be trading quips like a vaudeville act that has played this scene a hundred times before.

As well, you don't really feel that the world is truly in danger. When Spider-Man discovers Mary Jane and Aunt May have been taken over by the aliens...his response is to quip: "Oh, this just gets better and better." It's a cute line...but one that doesn't really seem appropriate for a man who's witnessed loved ones transform.

The art is by Mike Wieringo (who, I believe, tragically died shortly after completing this) and he's a popular artist, and he has a clean, sure style. But, I'll admit, it's not necessarily my preference. Kind of cartoony and plastic-y (even hair seems to shimmer with a plastic sheen), like the script, it lacks a certain edge of reality.

I mentioned that the series was presumably intended for newer readers, as a kind of jumping in story, and the basic plot of the alien invasion is original and self-contained. But there also seems to be an intent to make this serve as a primer on the Marvel Universe, as well, so instead of avoiding continuity, it's a bit top heavy with cameos and references, including the Impossible Man, Dr. Doom, Wundagore Mountain, and more.

Ultimately, I picked this up hoping it would be a self-contained escape from the continuity morass that is Marvel's current "universe" -- and it is. But though moderately enjoyable, with some cute quips from time to time, that's all it really manages to be...moderately enjoyable.

This is a review of the story as it originally was serialized in the mini-series.

Cover price: __


Spider-Man: Fear Itself - cover by Joe JuskoSpider-Man: Fear Itself  1992 (HC & SC GN) 64 pgs.

Written by Gerry Conway and Stan Lee. Illustrated by Ross Andru. Inks by Mike Esposito.
Colours: Bob Sharen. Letters: Rick Parker. Editor: Danny Fingeroth.

Published in over-sized, tabloid format.

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

Number of readings: 2

When a megalomaniac, the Baroness (with ties to wartime Nazi, Baron Zemo), steals a dangerous, fear-inducing chemical from Osborn Chemicals, Spider-Man and the lady mercenary, Silver Sable, must travel to the Baroness's Bavarian stronghold to prevent her unleashing it upon the world.

Spider-Man: Fear Itself is a nice action-adventure, well-structured and well-paced. There's plenty of action scenes, but they tend to push the story forward, rather than stopping it as can sometimes happen. Conceptually, there are obvious hints of a James Bond-style adventure, even to the point of the Baroness having a powerful henchman, the White Ninja. And the story is reasonably self-contained, with the Baroness, the White Ninja and the fear-crystals all created solely for this story (though there is some recounting of Marvel Universe history at one point to explain who Baron Zemo is).

The Lee-Conway dialogue is pleasingly effective. Stan Lee and Gerry Conway aren't cut from quite the same cloth as, say, an Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman. They aren't "artists", per se, rather they belong to an older, and perhaps more honourable, guild -- storytellers. Their job isn't so much to wow us with clever phrases and poetic turns that'll rain kudos and awards upon their heads, their job is simply to make us believe...and they do. There's an easiness to the dialogue that sometimes makes you forget you're reading it.

With all that being said, Spider-Man: Fear Itself suffers from being a little too breezy. Sure, there's Peter Parker character stuff. And Spidey, naturally, gets exposed to the crystals and must confront his deep-rooted insecurities and fears. But overall, the action takes precedence over the drama -- ironic since, in Lee's day, Spider-Man was a comic where the super-villain-of-the-month often seemed subordinant to the human saga. As well,  it's fairly straightforward -- there are some surprises (including a big one near the end) but, overall, the story unfolds like a good, but fairly predictable, action movie.

There's also some iffy morality, with Spidey never questioning why the U.S. government was holding on to this chemical weapon to begin with.

The art team of Ross Andru and Mike Esposito was part of what attracted me, since it made Spider-Man: Fear Itself a bit of a nostalgia piece, reuniting writers and  artists who had, variously, chronicled Spidey's adventures in the early '70s. But the art was a little scratchier then I remembered their work being in their heyday. Still, like the dialogue, it remained compelling "readable".

However, I'll admit I'm not a fan of letterer Rick Parker.

I assume Marvel doesn't regard Silver Sable as a marquee-type heroine. When Spidey teams up with Doc Strange, Strange gets his name on the cover. Here,  even though it's equally a team-up, Silver Sable only gets a mention on the back cover.

In the end, Spider-Man: Fear Itself is another graphic novel that is a victim of its own format. Other than the oversized pages -- the equivalent of watching a movie on aa big screen as opposed to TV (a regular comic) -- there's nothing in story, art, or colour to distinguish this from, say, an Annual.  It's certainly enjoyable -- and I appreciate it even more having just watched a bad spy movie -- but is it really deep enough, or special enough, to justify the hefty price tag that goes with the format?

Soft cover price: $15.00 CDN./$12.95 USA


Spider-Man: Hobgoblin Lives 1998 (SC TPB) 112 pages

cover by FrenzWritten by Roger Stern. Pencils by Ron Frenz. Inks by George Perez, Jerome Moore, Scott Hanna, Bob MacLeod.
Colours: Christie Scheele, Joe Andreani. Letters: Jim Novak. Editors: Glenn Greenberg, Tom Brevoort.

Reprinting the three issue mini-series, Spider-Man: Hobogoblin Lives

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

Number of readings: 2

Additional notes: afterward by Stern; notes and annotations.

Going into this, I knew little about the Hobgoblin.

I knew he was a Green Goblin substitute -- he got his powers raiding the Green Goblin's secret stashes, and wore a similar costume. And, in another homage to the Green Goblin, creator Roger Stern decided to keep Hobgoblin's identity a mystery for a long time (as had been done with the Green Goblin). Stern eventually left the Spider-Man comics, leaving the Hobgoblin's identity unrevealed. Eventually, another writer revealed the Hobgoblin as supporting character Ned Leeds. Ned was killed, and a new villain, Jason Macendale, adopted the identity.

But that wasn't the solution Stern had intended. So, a few years later, Stern returned to pen this mini-series -- 32 pages an issue, with no ads! -- finally revealing who was the "true" Hobgoblin.

The story has Macendale being convicted of his crimes, but then blurting out that he had Ned Leeds killed and Ned was the original Hobgoblin (a fact previously known only to Spidey and a few others). When Macendale is murdered, Spidey realizes Ned was a brainwashed pawn of the real Hobgoblin. So Spidey, along with familiar supporting characters like Betty Brant (Ned's widow) and Flash Thompson do some snooping. This involves a host of (apparently) familiar faces who were previously tied into the Hobgoblin mystery, including the Kingsley brothers, a Senator, and more. I say "apparently" because I really wasn't that familiar with the era of Spidey comics this story harkens back to. The only issue I have is the one that first introduced Roderick Kingsley -- ironically I didn't recognize him here, because when Kingsley was first introduced, he seemed like a one-time only character and a (presumably gay) fashion designer -- whereas he clearly somehow evolved into a more hard boiled big business man!

From the point of view of a neophyte, interested in a good story more than whether this really answers any burning questions, Hobgoblin Lives is an O.K. read.

There's a nice, low-key atmosphere, emphasizing the people over the pyrotechnics, even as there are some good actions scenes, and occasionally suspenseful sequences as well. The emphasis on the supporting cast that make up Spider-Man/Peter Parker's life, is quite welcome, even if Stern doesn't do much with them. He spends a lot of time cutting to various characters, familiar and not so familiar, reacting to the news that the Hobgoblin is still out there, but there isn't much fleshing out of them. Even Betty and Flash aren't really given much to do.

Stern intends this as a whodunit, but it doesn't entirely work out that way. For one thing, when the Hobgoblin kills Macendale, we see his face -- it turns out he's disguised, but it means we aren't even sure he's one of the suspects (when the original Green Goblin was to be unmasked, one idea considered was to have him be revealed as a perfect stranger). Nor do we really buy into a lot of the potential suspects Stern offers up, at least, as presented in this story. Though published as a mini-series, Stern seems to be writing this more as the final chapter of a longer epic, cramming his pages with lots of back story, referring to past incidents, explaining inconsistencies, but not always crafting this into a stand alone tale. He wants it to be a mystery, even as it doesn't really convince us it is one by offering clues and viable suspects.

And while the Ned-as-villain story presumably was a "shocking" solution, and opened the door to lots of Spidey-style angst and soul searching, in Stern's story, the true Hobgoblin's identity doesn't really offer much as an emotional pay off.

Stern, in an afterward, claims he knew the Hobgoblin's identity from day one but it doesn't entirely feel that way. The convolutions necessary to arrive at the right culprit -- including a kind alter ego of an alter ego -- seem almost like Stern was scrambling to pull a rabbit out of his hat. It doesn't really hold up to scrutiny. Stern claims he threaded clues throughout his original run of stories...but doesn't detail them, not even in the extensive footnotes and annotations at the back of the TPB collection, detailing the scenes that are referenced in the story itself. It's also funny that Stern claims he happily told his writing successor to write his own solution...and now, years later, negates that writer's story because it was "wrong"? (Actually, Stern harps on the notion that if Leeds was the Hobgoblin, he couldn't have been killed so easily, which seems a bit too much of the fan-boy talking -- I mean strength level of comic book characters are notoriously inconsistant, with even Spidey himself duking it out with a mugger in one story, then lifting a car over his head in another!)

The art by Ron Frenz is quite effective. He's come a long way from his work on Thor: Alone Against the Celestials -- well, not too long a way. It's still heavily influenced by the two Buscemas -- John and Sal. It's just more clear, more confident, more dynamic, than Frenz used to do. And his style is nicely understated enough that it serves the story, not as an indulgent showcase for him to show off. The final chapter is particularly strong, inked by Bob MacLeod. Because of the evocation of the two Buscemas, both of which have drawn Spidey over the years, there's a nice, comfortable familiarity to it all. It's also nice to see Spidey as his leanly muscular self rather than the skinny, knobby version that has become the image in more recent years. The subdued, earth tone colouring also creates a low-key, moody atmosphere.

Hobgoblin Lives is a bit too focused on recapping previous continuity, and a bit too talky in its own right -- Stern so busy trying to work in all the characters (and suspects) that the plot itself is a bit thin. And it's a bit pricey.

But for all that, I liked it -- actually, quite a bit. It's well drawn, and the humanity of the Spider-Man character is properly evoked, and the emphasis on the characters/mystery (such as it is) means that, though there's action and fighting, it's not a lame 90 page slugfest. I'd suggest that someone more familiar with the Hobgoblin mystery would get a lot more out of this than I did (and they would) but they also might get less, as they're more likely to notice inconsistencies, or feel the pay-off isn't quite the "event" that was promised. After all, though Stern may have felt he had proprietary dibs on revealing the Hobgoblin's identity, to a lot of fans this'll just seem like another extraneous "retcon", rewriting stories that were probably seen as in no need of a "fix".

Cover price: $21.00 CDN/$14.99 USA 


cover by Berni WrightsonSpider-Man: Hooky 1986 (SC GN) 64 pages

Written by Susan K. Putney. Illustrated by Berni Wrightson.
Colours: Berni Wrightson, Michelle Wrightson. Letters: Jim Novak. Editors: Archie Goodwin, Margaret Clark, Daniel Chichester.

Published in over-sized, tabloid format.

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

Number of readings: 1

In this fantasy adventure, Spidey travels with a spunky, 12 year old sorceress to her dimension of floating islands to help her battle a threatening creature.

Hooky revolves around only two characters, Spidey and the girl Mandi. The rest of her dimension isn't even inhabited! That kind of limits the story options and the room for character development. And the plot is pretty straight-forward. Once Spidey and Mandi arrive in her dimension, it becomes basically an extended brawl with a creature that metamorphoses into ever more horrific incarnations every time Spidey seeming defeats it.

The art by Berni Wrightson is nice. Better, in fact, than I'd expected since I've never been that fond of his work when tackling super heroes. But perhaps Spidey, often given to eerie contortions, is a super hero better suited to Wrightson's gothic style. And, of course, the book quickly leaves Spidey's New York milieu for the otherworldly stuff, where Wrightson is more at home. The visuals are striking, particularly the beautiful, painted skies of Mandi's world which is, after all, nothing but sky. There's a weird blending of the beauty of the landscape (or skyscape) and Mandi's floating boat, with the grotesque in the form of the dreaded Thunder-Roach monster, in which Wrightson unleashes all his bag of tricks of pulpy flesh, bulging veins, and gnashing teeth.

Susan Puntey's scripting is perfectly O.K., and despite the horror aspects, the tone is surprisingly good-natured. There are underlying themes relating to responsibility and coming-of-age, but overall Hooky is a bit thin. I'm not even entirely sure of the significance of the title, though I suppose it has something to do with playing hooky from adulthood (Mandi is trapped by a spell permanently at the age of 12).

A 64 page graphic novel should smack, at least nominally, of being something of an epic. But the whole thing could've been shoe-horned into a 20 page comic and lose nothing in story or characterization. In fact, the only reason it consumes as many pages as it does is largely thanks to Wrightson's penchant for single and double-page spreads. The visuals weave between beautiful and grotesque, and the story is sweet-tempered...but awfully thin.

Original cover price: $6.95 CDN/$5.95 USA


coverSpider-Man: Identity Crisis 1998 (SC TPB) 208 pages

Written by Todd Dezango, Tom DeFalco, Howard Mackie, J.M. DeMatteis, Glenn Greenberg. Pencils by Mike Wieringo, Joe Bennett, John Romita Jr., Luke Ross. Inks Rich Case, Bud LaRosa, Scott Hanna, Al Milgrom, with Dan Green.
urs: Gregory Wright, Bob Sharen, John Kalisz. Letters: Richard Starkings, Kiff Scholl. Editor: Ralph Macchio.

Reprinting: Sensationl Spider-Man #27, 28, Amazing Spider-Man #434, 435,

Peter Parker, Spider-Man #91, 92, Spectacular Spider-Man #257, 258 (1998)

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

Number of readings: 1

Additional notes: intro by editor Ralph Macchio; production designs and commentary by various involved; covers.

Almost a decade before "Identity Crisis" was a notorious DC Comics story, it was a story arc that crossed throughout the various Spider-Man monthly comics. Prior to the stories collected here, Spider-Man had been framed for murder. So here, unable to function effectively as Spider-Man, Peter Parker adopts four new costumed identities -- the different alter egos serving different purposes, ranging from stalwart heroes...to pseudo-villain types all the better to ferret out evidence to clear Spider-Man. The Hornet, Ricochet, the sinister Dusk, and the iconic Prodigy, with each persona generally featured in one of the titles, handled by the same creative team (ie: the Hornet appears in the Sensational Spider-Man issues, the Dusk in Peter Parker, Spider-Man.

A Spider-Man collection without, essentially, Spider-Man?

Sounds like a problematic premise. But it works better than you might think, because the best Spider-Man comics are fundamentally about Peter Parker. Sure, the concept has been tried before in other titles, with varying success. But if Bruce Wayne were to drop his snazzy cloak and pointy ears, his utility belt and cave...would his adventures be as interesting? Who knows? But the point is, these sans Spidey comics still manage to feel, well, like Spider-Man.

Part of the effectiveness is that they've put some thought into the ideas, and how they apply to Spidey. So there's the way that avoiding using his tell-tale Spidey powers means veteran crimebuster Peter finds himself fighting like an amateur. Or his using a jet pack as the Hornet (designed by Spidey's old pal, Hobie Brown) that is too heavy for anyone but a guy with the proportionate strength of a spider to carry. There's also the cute idea that it's the Vulture -- one of Spidey's oldest foes (first appearing in Amazing Spider-Man #2!) -- who is the one to realize that it's Spider-Man under new threads.

It also helps that the various alter egos are moderately interesting and designed -- in fact, the Dusk wears and all black costume that is pretty cool...despite the fact that I never felt Spidey's old black costume worked. Of course, there are some questions. There are references to the black costume (including in behind-the-scenes notes) to being from another dimension...with no explanation, in these issues, where Peter got it! Or as Prodigy, one assumes Peter is just jumping around...but it's drawn in spots as though he's actually flying!

Because this is a collection of the various Spidey titles, by various creative teams, it acts as a fun snap shot of that era of Spidey comics and the supporting cast...but that can also be a problem.

The murder for which Spidey is blamed happened prior to this collection (though it's sufficiently explained). And though this collection ends with Peter clearing Spidey's name and bringing an end to his need for multiple identities, there are plenty of other sub-plots left dangling, from the minor (a deaf and mute child knowing his secret identity) to more serious, such as discovering a recurring mobster, the Black Tarantula, is targeting someone. Plus Norman Osborne is acting as a permanent nemesis.

But as a grab bag of that era of Spidey comics, it's enjoyable. The conflicts set up within these pages (a battle with the Vulture, a kidnapping by the enigmatic Conundrum) are resolved. There's plenty of Peter at home, dealing with his domestic trials and tribs.

The art throughout is pretty strong. It all leans a little toward the cartoony or stylized, but fairly restrained for all that. And artists who I've had mixed feelings toward before (such as Joe Bennett) left me more impressed and John Romita Jr's art on the more moody Dusk issues is particularly strong on atmosphere. The writers all manage to capture the essence of Peter Parker/Spider-Man, even as they write to different tones (the opening issue is almost comedic, while others are more sober).

There's a problem with the multi-Spidey titles (or the multi-Superman titles, or X-Men). Granted, there's an attempt to compartmentalize the various sub-plots -- the deaf neighbour, for example, only seems to appear in the Sensational Spider-Man issues, while the Black Tarantula seems mainly a presence in the Amazing Spider-Man issues. But even if you were intrigued enough to want to see how a plot thread played out, the idea of sifting through the back issue bins seems a bit pointless, knowing even if you bought the next year's worth of ___ Spider-Man issues, you might still not get the full story because it would overlap with one of the other titles.

And, of course, comics writers can stretch out plots...endlessly. Heck, I think Norman Osborne is still basically playing the same role in current Spidey comics -- a decade later!!!

And as an aside, I'm just not sure I like the idea of Norman as basically the post-Crisis Lex Luthor -- super rich, all powerful respected businessman who is secretly a master villain. Norman used to be successful...but not super-rich. And surely the essence of the character was the split-personality, which made him kind of tragic. As well, bringing him back just kind of makes a mockery of Gwen Stacy's death. In fact, one could argue bringing him back ultimately led to the editorial mindset behind the whole recent, controversial Brand New Day story idea in Spider-Man comics, where the editors decided to change the status quo simply with a wave of the magic wand. Surely the point of Spider-Man comics is when things happen, they happen, and Spidey has to deal with the repercussions and move on, not "hey, this character's dead...let's bring him back" or "hey, we don't like Peter's marriage...let's just say it never happened."

Just a thought.

Anyway, Identity Crisis has enough on going threads and unresolved sub-plots that it can't be wholly satisfying...but it's pretty entertaining anyway as a grab bag sample of Spidey comics (although Truth in Reporting laws compell me to point out I got this on sale). A Spider-Man comic where Spider-Man barely appears? Yeah...'cause Peter Parker is the real star.

Cover price: $27.95 CDN./ __ USA.


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