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GRAPHIC NOVEL AND TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

Spider-Man reviews page 7


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Spider-Man published by Marvel Comics

Peter Parker, Spider-Man: One Small Break 2002 (SC TPB) 160 pages

cover by Kaare AndrewsWritten by Paul Jenkins. Pencils by Mark Buckingham. Inks by Wayne Faucher, with Dan Green, Rodney Ramos.
Colours: Joe Rosas. Letters: various. Editor: Axel Alonso.

Reprinting: Peter Parker, Spider-Man #27, 28, 30-34 (2001) - with covers

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

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed July 22, 2009

I had picked up this TPB for the reason (other than it being on sale!) because I had read another Jenkins/Buckingham Spidey collection and was sufficiently impressed. This collection (featuring stories from before that other TPB, though I read it second) still boasts some of the strengths I saw in their work, even as it didn't quite impress me as much.

What I like about Jenkins handling of everyone's favourite hard luck hero is that he really seems into the character of Peter Parker/Spider-Man, as evidenced by the heavy use of internal monologue captions he employs, filtering the stories through Petey's perceptions. Jenkins does a good job of making us believe it's Peter ruminating, unlike some other Spidey comics where there can be a sense Peter is simply a mouthpiece for the author. Sure, in an issue in which Peter reflects on the New York Mets one suspects we're seeing Jenkins' obsessions as much as Peter's, but it feels more organic. The Peter Parker portrayed here is very much of the melancholic, brooding type -- the Charlie Brown of the super hero set. Yet Jenkins also portrays a Spider-Man quick with a witty quip or funny put down, so there's a nice balance between dark and light, serious and whimsy.

At the same time, it's Jenkins very pretensions that maybe is what holds the stories back, a feeling that there's too much of a consistent tone in the stories (whereas that other TPB boasted more variety). And that by trying to be introspective, Jenkins is stretching out plots and scenes more than they need, even the whimsical scenes!

What I really liked about the Stan Lee-scripted Spidey stories of the 1960s was the emphasis on Peter living in real world, with real concerns, and surrounded by a semi-real cast of supporting characters. But even though Jenkins employs supporting characters -- they only really seem to exist as props for Peter to play off of, as opposed to people with their own lives. And even these scenes can feel a bit belaboured when a chance encounter with Flash Thompson takes up two pages! (And Flash seems to have regressed a bit -- there's more of the jock persona I thought he had out grown). Peter has yet another sexy next door neighbour who flirts with him and, again, her scenes can seem a bit stretched out for what are basically minor humorous bits (in the 1970s, when Gloria Grant was in a similar role, she usually only got a few panels per issue).

Buckingham's art is fairly strong and effective throughout, the faces and figures slightly caricatured, but mainly realist, and the Spidey-in-costume scenes dynamic and well composed. Likewise, the talky, character scenes -- of which there are a lot -- are nicely presented, the composition adding nuance and mood to the scenes.

The first story has weird electrical discharges plaguing the city that Spidey suspects are connected to an old foe, the Robot Master. The first part is deliberately paced, but effectively builds the tension. Then the second half, reflecting Jenkins' "serious" pretensions, tries to turn into a bit of a debate relating to euthanasia. Jenkins' portrayal of Peter may not gel a hundred percent with how another writer might've handled him, but its consistent with the character he's trying to portray. My objection has more to do with the metaphor itself, as nowhere but a fantasy-tinged super hero comic would the character in question be anything but already dead and buried! Yet Spidey contemplates the possibility of a cure!!!

The centrepiece of the collection is a three-parter where Spidey encounters an implacable new foe, Fusion, apparently able to mimic the super powers of almost any hero or villain and who seeks revenge on Spidey because Fusion's son -- a Spidey-fan -- died while trying to mimic Spidey's webswinging. It's a perfectly good tale, with Spidey up against a truly formidable adversary, and with a healthy dollop of angst and soul searching given the villain's motive. But feels a bit stretched at three issues. Also, in Fusion's quest for revenge, he blows up hundreds of people. I dunno. Me, I'm tired of the way comics just seem to throw in huge body counts cavalierly, as if one or two deaths are no longer worth getting upset about -- which kind of runs counter to the whole tone of Jenkins' compassionate Spidey.

Actually, with mass murder by building explosion, and a villain who presents himself as a victim seeking redress, I initially assumed this was Jenkins' way of dealing with the 9/11 attacks. But I think this was written shortly before that real life tragedy.

Which is actually kind of eerie in its prescience.

This is followed up with one of those "a very special Spidey story" things, in which there's no villains, no fighting, just Peter reflecting back on his uncle Ben and their once a year trip to see a New York Mets game. It's a decent "slice of life" tale, but again, maybe Jenkins' reliance on voice over hurts it a bit, so that we are being told the story more than allowed to experience it.

The final story has Spidey taking on a strange menace at a fun park -- again, with lots of introspection, some whimsy, and a villain who is more tragic than evil.

All these issues are eminently readable, with Jenkins offering up some good dialogue, some clever quips, and really seeming in command of his Peter-the-man (even if he has scenes implying Peter's science is rusty...this for a guy who past writers suggested had a genius level intellect when it came to science!) The stories try hard to be more than just mindless smash 'em ups. But in actual plotting can be a bit thin and with a certain lack of energy to them, the very introspection actually threatening to rob the stories of their kitchen sink reality as much as enhance it.

As mentioned, what I used to like about Spidey was the use of a supporting cast and, by extension, the idea of bubbling sub-plots (which, admittedly, can be problematic if you're picking up a random TPB). There's not too much of that here, but there is one strangely intriguing thread involving...Peter's neighbour's dog! Peter muses that the dog, Barker, seems as though it has a secret "doggy agenda" as it stares at him with almost sinister intensity even as he then scoffs, and thinks he's being ridiculous to even think that. And what makes it intriguing is you aren't sure if it's just a running gag...or really is hinting at things to come? Is it a, ahem, a shaggy dog plot? Or will it turn out Dr. Octopus has his brain in the pooch's head or something?

I was honestly curious (aided by Buckingham's effectively realist drawing of the dog adding to the whimsy/eeriness). But I have no idea if anything every became of it. Certainly in the other TPB I read, Barker was still around, still weird, but with no indication that plot had progressed any in a year-and-a-half of comics! I even did a google search...but found no reference to Barker being anything more than the neighbour's dog.

Cover price: $16.95 USA


The Amazing Spider-Man: Revelations 2002 (SC TPB) 96 pages

cover by Kaare AndrewsWritten by J. Michael Straczynski. Pencils by John Romita, Jr. Inks by Scott Hanna.
Colours: Dan Kemp & Avalon Studios. Letters: RS & Wes Abbott. Editor: Axel Alonso.

Reprinting: Amazing Spider-Man (2nd series) #36-39 (2001-2002)

Rating: * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1 (some parts twice)

It used to be that, if a comicbook story line was considered strong enough, it might be republished in a collected, trade paperback form (or, sometimes, unconnected tales would be collected as "Best of..." collections). But as TPBs have become more popular, publishers often treat TPBs, not as occasional indulgences, but as a natural result of an on-going series, much like a novel will be published in hardcover, then automatically in paperback. These days, some comics have their entire run collected in a series of TPBs. Such is the case with J. Michael Straczynski's run on the Amazing Spider-Man, as Marvel is collecting every issue in consecutive TPBs.

If you are collecting the complete run, then Revelations (the second volume) is a necessary part of your collection. However, if you're just looking for something to read on its own, then that's where things become problematic. The stories in Revelations seem as though they're intended as "special" or "change-of-pace" stories -- the sort of stories that are interesting sandwiched inbetween more conventional adventures, but which lose something when placed side-by-side. And Spider-Man only appears in costume sporadically!

The first story is Straczynski's attempt to deal with the horror of September 11th, 2001, as viewed through the eyes of Spider-Man. It's a not uninteresting effort, and perhaps, as a social document, necessary (since I can't help thinking how few movies, TV shows, and comics even acknowledged the terrorist attacks took place). Because of its serious subject, it's kind of immune to criticism, but it's not really a story, per se. It takes on the form, more, of an illustrated essay as Straczynski -- through Spider-Man -- ruminates on thatt day and its repercussions. As such, I couldn't help feeling there was more of the author than of the character in the narration, and Straczynski almost seems as though he's angling to be political speech writer. He effortlessly, and perhaps opportunistically, oscillates between expressing Left Wing and Right Wing reactions, so that he has crafted a piece liable to offend few and challenge even fewer.

At the same time, how do you deal with that day? So I can't judge him harshly.

The second story has Spidey's alter ego, Peter, at his job as a substitute teacher, discovering one of his falling-behind students is homeless and looking after a junkie brother. Again, Straczynski is so determined to be real and gritty, and to "deal" with difficult subject matter, that the story as a story seems to suffer (and seems more to be setting things up for a later story). It reminds me of a few earnest comics I've read over the years, where the writer has clearly studied the subject, and consulted experts...except that Straczynski didn't entirely convince me he had even done that kind of homework. It seemed like an earnest story by a guy whose earnestness has started to morph into a sense of superiority. But I could be wrong.

Straczynski exposes his issue -- street kids -- but then offers no solution. This is a pet peeve of mine with "relevant" stories, and the realist might respond: "that's because there are no easy solutions." Fine. But then what's the story about? Besides, as in the Sept. 11th story, I felt that Straczynski was sacrificing Spidey's character for the sake of his story. Once more Peter seemed like a mouthpiece for Straczynski to express his ideas, rather than as a character with his own passions and attitudes.

The third story, which presumably inspired this collection's title, has Aunt May revealing to Peter that she knows his secret identity (learned at the end of the previous TPB, Coming Home). Again, this is an atypical story, amounting mainly to a twenty page conversation between Peter and his aunt. And for a story that, basically, builds on forty years of history...it was a bit bland. No real surprises, nothing that interesting. A little sappy. Straczynski's Aunt May seems a little tougher, a little more vigorous than the Aunt May who used to have heart attacks at the drop of a hat (one of the reasons Peter didn't tell her his secret). And I think it's a shame. It seems almost to be saying that we can't care for her and respect her if she's frail.

I've read other comics that tried the "20 page conversation" gimmick (Cerebus #36, for one), but this just wasn't on the same level.

I also had a bit of a problem when Peter explains how he feels responsible for his Uncle Ben's death, and May assures him he's not. Sorry -- what? Batman feels baseless guilty over something he couldn't prevent: his parents' murder. Superman might even feel irrational survivor's guilt over having survived the destruction of Krypton. But what made Spider-Man's an interesting, edgy origin, is that he really was (at least partly) responsible for his uncle's death. And if you don't understand that, or don't agree with it, than you probably shouldn't be writing the comic. That's the freakin' basis of the whole "with great power comes great responsibility" idea!

Besides, since when was Uncle Ben killed while going for a walk (as is implied here)? Last I knew, he was killed in his home, with May at his side, by a burglar who was trying to rob the house.

The final story was published during "'nuff said" gimmick month, when all of Marvel's comics were published as pantomime stories without dialogue. Straczynski and artist John Romita Jr. do a pretty good job telling the action clearly (though Straczynski cheats a bit by having a character write out a few letters that we can read!), as we look in on Peter's estranged wife, Mary Jane, his aunt, and the man himself. There's even an interesting idea that, now that she knows he's Spider-Man, Aunt May takes it upon herself to act as his unofficial PR department. It's a cute, plausible notion, and one that could jeopardize his secret in a later story. But as the title of this issue -- "Meanwhile" -- implies, it all seems like a filler piece.

I continue to have mixed feelings about Romita Jr's art. It can be expressive, and demonstrate some interesting panel choices and compositions, but it's also very stylized and cartoony, in a way that doesn't entirely drawn me into the action.

As mentioned at the beginning of this review, Revelations seems like a collection of stories that are interesting in their vague ambitions, but a whole book of them leaves one kind of unsatisfied. I picked this up because I had read Straczynski's initial collection (Coming Home), and, though not sold on it whole-heartedly, was interested enough to see what Straczynski did next. But there's a feeling that both Straczynski (and Romita Jr) have fallen in love with their own pretensions, sacrificing plot and character -- and fun -- in order to show us how daring and artistic they are. Which might be forgivable, if they pulled it off half as well as they intended. But I just didn't think they did.

Not wholly enjoyable as just a Spidey adventure, exploring the trials and tribs of our friendly neighbourhood hero, yet neither quite the profound, High Art it's maybe hoping to be, Revelations is an unsatisfying collection.

Cover price: $14.95 CDN./ $8.99 USA.


The Amazing Spider-Man: Soul of the Hunter  1992 (SC GN) 48 pages

coverWritten by J.M. DeMatteis. Pencils by Mike Zeck. Inks by Bob McLeod.
Colours: Steve Buccellatto. Letters: Rick Parker. Editor: Danny Fingeroth.

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

Number of readings: 1

Soul of the Hunter is a follow-up to the critically acclaimed Spider-Man story, Kraven's Last Hunt, from the same creative team. Actually, one could argue it's less a follow up (or sequel) and more a belated epilogue.

In Kraven's Last Hunt, Spidey foe Kraven captured Spidey and buried him alive for a time, the story culminating in Kraven's suicide. It's now months later (Spidey's back in his traditional red and blue costume -- Kraven's Last Hunt took place during his black costume phase), and Peter Parker (Spider-Man) is still traumatized by that ordeal, deep rooted anxieties tugged to the surface while attending the funeral of an acquaintance. Things aren't made any easier when Peter is visited by the ghost of Kraven, trapped in limbo by his act of self-murder, and needing Spidey's help to pass on. Or maybe it's a dream, hallucination. Spidey's not sure which.

More character drama, with supernatural overtones, than super hero adventure, Soul of the Hunter is both an unusual Spidey tale...and yet one that's fully appropriate to the character. He hates Kraven for the trauma he put him through, and instinctively wants to turn his back on him in his hour of -- spiritual -- need...but can't quite do it. As Mary Jane remarks, Peter was "born (feeling) guilty." He subconsciously blames himself for Kraven's suicide, feeling he should've been able to prevent it. There aren't too many super heroes where such a scenario could be applied to the hero without seeming like it was imposed on him by the writer. But Spidey's the exception.

Like with Kraven's Last Hunt, this is a brooding, melancholy tale, entirely absent of the usual Spidey quips and wisecracks.

It's well intentioned, attempting to be deep, thoughtful and, above all, spiritual -- DeMatteis a writer who, more than most, has often tried to infuse his tales with a seeming sincere, if non-denominational, spirituality. The art by Zeck/McLeod tells the tale well enough, imbuing the scenes with a necessary spookiness and mood and, particularly the scenes with Spidey in costume, with dynamic effectiveness. All aided by Steve Buccellatto's colours.

At the same time, the problem is it wears its sincerity on its sleeve, with a plot tacked on as an after thought. In a way, the comic can come across a bit like one of those comics commissioned by some government or social agency ("Spidey says: Just Say No to Drugs") with the earnest topic-of-the-day being an anti-suicide message. (Perhaps DeMatteis felt his earlier story might have unintentionally romanticized suicide for any troubled, impressionable teen readers).

But you could argue the litmus test is whether you get anything from reading the story...you wouldn't get reading the synopsis. And the answer is: not really. The plotting is minimal, more just an excuse for a lot of brooding and ruminating. Eventually a bit of action kicks in, as Spidey must battle Kraven's mouldering corpse, but it feels just tossed in to provide action as opposed to really being a logical extension of themes. I mean, how does battling Kraven's animated corpse mean that Kraven's soul will be freed? Of course, since the sub-text is this may all be a dream, one could argue it is more about Spidey conquering his traumas, but then that's a pretty obvious conceptualization of his inner turmoil.

In a way, the story reminds me a bit of The Death of Captain Marvel. A story which does have some moody effectiveness, some decent attempt at philosophizing, even as what it has to say isn't particularly unusual or surprising; it too threw in a last act "symbolic" fight which, likewise, seemed a bit shy of symbolism.

Ultimately, Soul of the Hunter is sufficiently atmospheric and moody, sufficiently true to the character of Peter Parker, that it is a decent read. But it would just as easily have fitted into a regular, 22 page comic. DeMatteis fails to really wrap his themes and message in sufficient plot to entirely justify the 45 page, prestige format treatment. And yet I suppose another test of a story's success is whether you could picture yourself dragging it off the shelf some quiet, melancholy evening for a re-reading.

And, to be fair, I can.

Original cover price: $6.95 CDN./$5.95 USA 


Spider-Man: Strange Adventures  1996 (SC TPB) 176 pages

cover by Steve LightleWritten by Roy Thomas, Stan Lee, Chris Claremont, Denny O'Neil, Steve Gerber. Art by Gil Kane, Michael Golden, Frank Miller, Frank Brunner. Inks by Frank Giacoia, Tom Palmer, Michael Golden, Steve Leiahola.
Colours/letters: various.

Reprinting: Marvel Fanfare #1-2 (the lead stories), Amazing Spider-Man (1st series) #100-102, Howard the Duck #1, Amazing Spider-Man Annual #14 (1971-1982) - plus covers.

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Generally Spider-Man is seen as a fairly urban, down-to-earth hero who, despite his super powers, can be likened to Batman or Daredevil as a character most often set against crimes in the mean streets of a big city. But he has certainly had more than his share of outrageous, fantastical adventures over the years, and this TPB collects four of them. Yes -- despite its 176 pages, only four stories are represented, including one originally published over two issues, one over three, and one is a forty page annual.

There's a fair amount of teaming up at work here, which also makes for some curious choices. Spider-Man teams up with the X-Man Angel and jungle hero Ka-Zar for a romp through Ka-Zar's prehistoric jungle, but with Ka-Zar taking prominence in the second half, while the story from Howard the Duck features Spidey as a guest star who only appears in a few pages. On the other hand, there's a Spidey/Dr. Strange team up in which Strange is quickly relegated to the sidelines (likewise, that story starts out seeming as though Dr. Doom and Dormammu will be the main villains, but then they quickly retreat into the background in favour of another, more light-weight bad guy). For that matter, Dr. Octopus appears on the back cover, but he only shows up in a brief dream sequence.

The art chores can't be faulted, with Michael Golden, Gil Kane, Frank Miller and Frank Brunner providing pencils. But the stories are more uneven.

By far and away the best story in this collection is the earliest, and the longest. Originally published in Amazing Spider-Man #100-102 and coming in at 70-some pages (#102 was double-sized), it's vividly drawn by Gil Kane and written, at first, by Stan Lee. Then Roy Thomas takes over for the lion's share and proves even more adept at both character angst and plotting (Lee's opening chapter was a bit thin on story -- though Lee, ever the romantic, nicely puts more emphasis on Spidey's feelings for then-love Gwen Stacy than does Thomas). It's a twisty story as Spidey experiments to get rid of his powers, in order to live a normal life, only to have it go terribly wrong. But as he seeks to cure his bizarre new affliction, he encounters, for the first time, Morbius, the living vampire. If that's not enough, the Lizard shows up. It nicely satisfies its epic length, and is just a fine read, full of both pathos and pugilism, where even the villains are given character depth. Though the science is a bit dodgy.

The Howard the Duck story, by Steve Gerber and Brunner, is fun, and no doubt more eclectic for a modern audience to whom the satirical duck is a character they might have heard of, but never read. But, as noted, Spidey is a minor part of the proceedings.

The remaining stories are more uneven.

The Spider-Man/Angel/Ka-Zar team up from Marvel Fanfare is nicely drawn by Golden, and written by the well regarded Claremont. It starts out well, as Spidey joins an expedition headed by Angel to the prehistoric Savage Land. Spidey and, to a lesser extent, Angel are featured in the first half, then the second half becomes all jungle hero Ka-Zar's as both Spidey and Angel undergo transformations that render them non-participants for much of the story. The story has a woman going to the Savage Land to find her lover she thought was dead, the Jekyll-Hyde character, Karl Lykos. The second time through I enjoyed it more than the first time, accepting it as just a romp, but it's not much more, relying on too much past continuity (from earlier X-Men and Ka-Zar stories, some involving Lykos -- such as X-Men Visionaries: The Adams Collection and Essential X-Men Vol. 1) to be a great stand alone read, and it evens ends a little inconclusively (Ka-Zar's solo adventures would continue through the next couple of issues of Marvel Fanfare).

The Spider-Man Annual is written by Denny O'Neil and drawn by Frank Miller, and though a breezy, okay read, it never really drew me in. O'Neil writes with a glibness, where even the villain is more comical than threatening (even as he wants to destroy the world), but I kind of found myself reading it in fits and starts.

Ultimately, if not for the great Amazing Spider-Man three-parter, this would be a somewhat pedestrian TPB. But with it, and with the Howard the Duck story, I regard the collection rather better. At the same time, though the original Amazing Spider-Man issues would be pricey, Spider-Man has been reprinted over the years, in Marvel Tales and in the recent Marvel Selects which reprinted 12 consecutive Spidey issues beginning with #100. So if this TPB seems a bit expensive for only one great story, you might be able to track down the Spider-Man/Morbius/Lizard tale for cheaper (not to mention it is printed in Essential Spider-Man vol. 5. Though, with that being said, the Howard story is good, and the remaining pieces are O.K.

Cover price: $23.75 CDN./$16.95 USA 


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