GRAPHIC NOVEL AND TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

Spider-Man reviews page 8


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Spider-Man published by Marvel Comics


Peter Parker, Spider-Man: Trials & Tribulations  2003 (SC TPB), 128 pages.

coverWritten by Paul Jenkins. Pencils by Mark Buckingham. Inks by Wayne Faucher.
Colours: Transparency Digital. Letters: Randy Gentile, RS & Comicraft. Editor: Axel Alonso, John Miesegaes.

Reprinting: Peter Parker, Spider-Man #35, 37, 48-50 (2001-2002)

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

A lot of TPB collections these days just reprint a consecutive run of issues. Here -- although presenting issues from the same creative team and from within a few months of each other (spanning a little over a year) -- this isn't an unbroken run.

And the result is a pretty nice collection.

In fact it says something about writer Jenkins (and artists Buckingham and Faucher) that after picking up this TPB on a whim (at a discount), I found myself keeping an eye out for more Spidey tales by the same creative team. Jenkins seems to have a nice feel for juggling the various tones essential to Spidey, mixing the fun wisecracks, the humorous misadventures -- without sliding too far into just being silly and self-reflective -- with the human pathos and angst of everyone's favourite hard luck hero. (Though he indulges in a few sexual innuendo jokes that are a bit out of place). While Buckingham has an appealing style that, though a little cartoony, nonetheless is grounded with a certain realism, and his depictions of Spidey-in-costume (particularly with Faucher's ink lines) kind of evokes Jack Kirby -- but in a good way.

And the nice thing about this collection, as a "collection", is that it reflects a variety of tones and styles, making it a nice little Spidey sampler.

The first story falls into the "A Very Special" Spider-Man story category, in that it's an off-beat tale of a young inner city kid who gets by with Spider-Man as his imaginary friend. The story doesn't quite deliver on any real "climax", per se, but Jenkins tells a nicely subtle kitchen sink drama that manages to make its points without losing the sense of the characters as people, rather than ciphers (well, except the panel of the social worker on the golf course). And the way the kid's imaginary Spider-Man says words that echo what others say to him is cleverly effective. It's not even clear if the story is supposed to take place in the Marvel Universe or not -- since it could just as easily apply to our world where Spidey is a fictional character (the kid even has a Spider-Man trading card).

Then from the opposite end comes "Snow day", a humorous misadventure tale of Spidey stuck out on a miserable, blizzard-y day, forced into an unwanted confrontation with old foe The Vulture (as Spidey says: "I swear, whatever you're doing, I don't want to know--"). It's funny and silly but -- and this is the important part -- it's funny because it stays true to the realism of the character. It's funny because there's a kind of plausibility to the jokes and such (at one point the Vulture refers to the Austin Powers movies -- that's not funny; what's funny is when Spider-Man then wonders when the geriatric Vulture would've seen Austin Powers!)

The most "mainstream" of the stories here is the two-parter from #48-49, although even here Jenkins maybe errs on the side of off-beat, as it involves Spidey getting involved with an enigmatic East Indian mystic and her quest for justice against a U.S. company whose toxic disaster killed thousands in an Indian village. The story can be too vague, where you have to kind of fill in some blanks through inference, but it still works as a decent "suspense" story, given an added bite by its obvious echo of real life tragedies. There's also some nice writing in the voice over narration.

Then the collection closes with the double-sized 50th issue in which Spidey is dealing with an escalating gang war -- which provides the action and the humour and wisecracks -- while also having a series of heart-to-hearts with Aunt May who recently learned about his secret ID and wants him to be honest with her about his life and past adventures -- which provides the human drama. It's a nice tale.

As I say, Jenkins demonstrates a nice feel for what makes Spider-Man...Spider-Man, mixing the humour and the human in equal dosages, and managing to do so without straying too far into self-conscious or pretentious as some other writers can. When he's writing Peter Parker, or Aunt May, you feel he's letting the characters speak for themselves, not using them as mouth pieces for his ideas.

What's enjoyable about this collection is the variety of tones brought by the different tales. Admittedly, if you're looking for hardcore action, or dark n' gritty brutality, that's not really represented much, but there's a little bit of everything else here.

Cover price: ___ CDN./$11.99 USA


Spider-Man vs. The Black Cat  2005 (SC TPB) 128 pages.

coverWritten by Marv Wolfman, Roger Stern, David Michelinie. Pencils by Keith Pollard, John Romita Jr. Inks by Jim Mooney, Frank Giacoia, Pablo Marcos, others.
Colours/letters: various

Reprinting: The Amazing Spider-Man #194, 195, 204, 205, 226, 227 (1979-1982)

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

Additional notes: covers; character profile/history recap; pin-ups.

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed April, 2011

The Black Cat was a latter day addition to Spidey's rogues gallery (introduced almost twenty years after Spidey was created) obviously filling the role of Batman's Catwoman -- not only is she a female burglar adopting a cat motif (and less prone to homicide than the usual costumed foe) she also develops a romantic tension with Spidey. In fact, her later evolution modelled Catwoman further, as she eventually became a nominal heroine.

Anyway, this TPB collects her first three appearances, in three separate two-part tales (well, the last is almost more two interlocked single issue tales). And assembled, they do form a kind of character and narrative arc (rather than just seeming a collection of three thematically related but otherwise unconnected tales) even as with a few writers involved, one can see how a successor writer maybe tweaked things in a different direction.

Written by Marv Wolfman, the first two-parter introduces the Black Cat as an enigmatic figure, assembling a small gang for a mysterious job -- one that turns out to be more emotionally complex than simply a jewelry heist. Along the way, we learn something of her background. The next two-parter has the Black Cat seeming determined to collect a series of objects -- and though not as emotionally compelling a mystery, at least the puzzle as to "why?" helps sustain two issues. Wolfman writes the first issue, then David Michelinie takes over for the second half. I've often been curious what that means in comics when, as here, there's no plot credit (ie: script by Michelinie from a story by Wolfman). So was Michelinie working from a pre-existing plot...or was he left to his own devices to come up with a conclusion to Wolfman's half?

Along the way, Wolfman and Michelinie also tease along on going sub-pots -- some minor, relating to romantic or relationship troubles (including an awkward one where teaching assistant Peter Parker rebuffs a student's advances because he feels dating her would be unethical -- then he dates her anyway). Other plots are more dramatic, hinting at sinister things to come (in tales not reprinted here). But such sub-plots are to be expected from this era of Spidey, and don't take away from the readability of the main stories. Although in the opening two-parter, a sub-plot involves Peter's beloved Aunt May dying -- yet though this was revealed as a hoax and resolved just a few issues later, in the other issues reprinted here, Aunt May doesn't make any further appearances, which might lead a reader of this TPB to assume she was still believed dead in the other comics reprinted here.

Anyway, not much is then heard from the Black Cat for a few issues, until Roger Stern brings her back. Here's an example of how different writers will put new spins on things, even as it is meant to seem like a single narrative. Because Stern basically re-imagines Michelinie's story -- which ended with the Black Cat seeming a little crazy, and a compassionate Spidey reassuring her he'll get her professional help -- by having it be that the Black Cat was just feigning insanity in order to avoid prison. At the same time, Stern continues with the existing theme that the Black Cat is infatuated with Spidey (presumably he just wanted to re-position the relationship as a genuine romantic tension, rather than as a kind of stalker obsession). Stern's issues make less use of on going soap opera-y sub-plots than had Wolfman (making them more tidily self-contained) yet his issues are perhaps even more character focused on Spidey and the Black Cat. A repentant Black Cat announces she'll give up crime for Spidey's love...but whether a (black) cat can truly change her, um, spots forms the crux of the dilemma, building to a typical (for Spidey) pathos-tinged climax.

Another way the changing scripters affects things is in the nature of the Black Cat herself. Although Wolfman gives us her character background in her first story, he is a little vaguer about her abilities, implying she has some supernatural ability to cause bad luck for her opponents, and in one scene, her eyes are depicted as glowing almost hypnotically. Yet Wolfman never offers an explanation for the source of her abilities, either because he didn't think she'd prove a significant enough character to bother, or because he genuinely intended to later...but then left the series before he did (something not uncommon in comics with their ever changing creative teams). So later Stern just summarily dismisses her bad luck abilities as "tricks" and "gimmicks" as opposed to a real super power -- which, given the circumstances, seemed a little implausible that she could set up some of these traps ahead of time! (Later she did, I guess, gain real bad luck causing powers, then lost them, then gained new...ah, why worry about it? As I say, new writers are constantly trying to re-imagine characters to suit themselves).

The art is supplied by Keith Pollard on four issues, John Romita, Jr. on the last two -- it's solid, engaging enough work, if unspectacular, but suits the stories and the character, though the inkers can influence things for good or ill. On again/off again Spidey inker Jim Mooney provides cosily familiar finishes, while Pollard is rather ill-served on one issue by M. Hands (a Marvel euphemism for a bunch of inkers pinch hitting at the last minute to meet the deadline -- M. Hands meaning "many hands").

Admittedly, the individual stories are not anything particularly significant or memorable, in the concepts or the telling, nor is there anything that special or intriguing about the Black Cat. Yet, with that said, neither is there anything wrong with these adventures, making this a perfectly okay collection of average Spidey tales, buoyed by Spidey's patented humanity, and with particularly strong emotional threads toward the end. The whole gaining an extra appeal because, as mentioned, there is an attempt (different writers accepted) to form a kind of narrative evolution over these six issues -- a kind of "graphic novel" -- as Spidey meets and battles a new villain, gradually develops an attraction to her, and then genuinely tries to help her leave behind her criminal past...yet with no easy solutions for either of them. Just the way a Spider-Man story should be.

Cover price: ___ CDN./$14.99 USA


Spider-Man vs. The Green Goblin cover

Spider-Man vs. The Green Goblin 1995 (SC TPB), 175 pages.

by: Stan Lee/Steve Ditko; Stan Lee/Gil Kane/Frank Giacoia; Gerry Conway/Gil Kane/John Romita, Sr. Tony Mortellaro; J.M. DeMatteis/Sal Buscema.
Colours: Andy Yanchus, Bob Sharen. Letters: Artie Simek, Sam Rosen. Editors: Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Rob Tokar.

Reprinting: Amazing Spider-Man #17, 96-98, 121, 122, and Spectacular Spider-Man #200.

Additional notes: intro by Stan Lee

Rating: * * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1 (and some)

Spider-Man Vs. The Green Goblin is a truly superb collection, showing what mainstream, men-in-tights comics are capable of. Not only is this an illustration of how Spidey, and comics, have changed over the years, giving us the character's evolution from a nerdy high school student to a married man, but it also includes two of the most talked about stories in Spidey's -- and comics' -- history. The ground breaking three-part drug addiction story (at a time when such stories were forbidden under the Comics Code Authority) and the death of Gwen Stacy, Spidey's love. Both stories were subsequently reprinted in the TPB Spider-Man: The Death of Gwen Stacy.

Who would've thought the ol' Goblin was such a pivotal foe, eh?

Not only does that make this a good book for the comics buff, but just as stories, they hold up very well indeed.

The final two stories -- the death of Gwen (A-SM #121-122) and the death of Spidey's best friend, Harry Osborne (who had become the new Green Goblin) from S-SM #200 -- are the most emotionally charged. Particularly the final story, with its mix of menace and pathos, its simple but achingly powerful conversation between Harry and Mary Jane on the Brooklyn Bridge, and its poignant finale. The death of Gwen was a bit disappointing, perhaps because I'd built it up in my mind over the years. It was powerful at times, but other times smacked too much of Gerry Conway just wanting to get rid of the character, rather than his desire to tell a profound drama.

It's the pieces by Stan Lee, however, that contain the most memorable scenes. Lee had the ability to make Peter Parker wrestling with the complexities of his love life, or applying for a job, or (amusingly) trying to dissuade his aging aunt from seeing "Hair", as enthralling as costumed battles over the streets of New York. The first issue of the drug story contains almost no action...but it's every bit as engrossing as the later parts. At times one gets the feeling that he wasn't writing about a superhero named Spider-Man, but about a guy named Peter Parker (and his friends) -- a guy who happened to be Spidey.

The drug epic, for all its occasional slides into heavy-handedness, also boasts some surprising subtlty and maturity (even when contrasted with later such stories). Lee wisely holds back the development of the habit till the second of three issues so that we can see, not simply that a certain supporting character becomes an addict, but why.

Lee's Spidey is also the most human and likeable. In fact these stories chart various evolutions in approaches and attitudes. Spidey starts out a bow-tied, wisecracking high schooler, becomes an angst-riddled but compassionate university student in hippy beads, and closes as a grim, married man. While the original Goblin, Norman Osborne, is also reinterpreted. In the first story he's your standard super-villain thrown in just for excitements sake, becomes a troubled, mentally ill figure who even Spidey has sympathy for, then Conway maintains the mental illness concept, but with less empathy, and finally DeMatteis' story has characters refer to the now-deceased Norman as though he was a monster even out of costume. Perhaps the problem with collections is that it can make too jarring such changes in interpretation.

The artwork is uniformly excellent throughout, from Ditko, to Kane (who provides the lion's share), to Buscema (showing more flare than I expected from him). I would've like something by John Romita Senior, but his presence is felt with some inking and embellishing. And Kane's always dynamic pencils are given extra dimension by the inkers.

This might've beneftted from some editorializing, pointing out subtleties (like that the Liz Allen of the first story is the Liz Osborn of the last) or to fill in some of the blanks between the stories, particularly in spots where there's a feeling there may be missing nuances. In his introduction, Lee doesn't even allude to the industry-shaking significance of his drug story. Of course, Lee's editorials aren't always known for their veracity -- he writes that he can't remember whetheer he or artist Steve Ditko came up with the original Goblin's secret identity...yet in Les Daniels' book, Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World's Greatest Comics, it's stated that a dispute over his true identity led to the break-up of the Lee-Ditko partnership. (Speaking of which, surely an obvious story to have included in this collection would've been the one wherein the Green Goblin is first unmasked!)

As well, by focusing only on "key"stories, some of their meaning might be lost on modern readers. Gwen hardly appears at all, putting her death in a contextual vacuum if you haven't already read stories featuring her. And Harry spends most of his appearances in various stages of instability, not quite allowing the reader to see his friendship with Peter in the good times.

These stories are smart, emotionally complex (moreso than a few "mature readers" collections I could name), and more worthy of the Very Best of Spider-Man appelation than the collection that got that name. Conversely, these aren't happy stories, and probably shouldn't be read all together.

Cover price: $22.35 CDN./$15.95 USA.


Spider-Man's Greatest Villains 1995 (SC TPB), 176 pages

Spide-Man's Greatest Villains - cover by Bradley Peter Parker

With: Dr. Octopus, Mysterio, the Kingpin, Electro, the Vulture, Venom, Carnage, the Lizard, Hobgoblin.

by: Stan Lee/Steve Ditko; Lee/Ditko; Stan Lee/John Romita, Sr./Jim Mooney; Lee/Romita, Sr./Mooney; Roger Stern/John Romita, Jr./Pablo Marcos; David Michelinie/Todd McFarlane; David Michelinie/Steven Butler/Bud LaRosa; Fabian Nicieza/Alex Saviuk/Keith Williams & Mike Esposito.
Colours: various. Letters: various. Editors. various.

Reprinting: Amazing Spider-Man #12, 13, 69, 82, 224, 316, Annual #28, Web of Spider-Man #38

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

Number of readings: 1 (some stories more)

In some respects, Spider-Man's Greatest Villains is a slightly better collection than The Very Best of Spider-Man. Not because the stories are great, but overall, they're reasonably entertaining. Although they suffer from the common weakness of "super-villain" stories in that they can be a bit thin on motivation and plot.

I'm a sucker for the Stan Lee/John Romita, Sr. Spidey, and this contains two, including the best of the collection: "And Then Came Electro", in which the action stuff is subordinate to the usual Lee-era angst and human drama.

The Venom story is awkward, because it's mainly a lead-in to the Venom story in The Very Best of Spider-Man (What? They expect maybe we should buy both?). While "Moving Up" is light-hearted, but awfully slight (though harmlessly so) with Spidey spending most of the story at a party, so that when he finally goes to confront the Hobgoblin in the climax, he's a bit tipsy.

The '70s are ignored entirely, which is a shame, since that era produced some nice work.

"Unmasked by Dr. Octopus" is kind of a clever story in that he really does get unmasked but his secret is saved because (nyah, that'd be telling). But in reprinting it, they left out a page! It doesn't affect the story's flow, but it's odd and mildly annoying.

Spider-Man's Greatest Villains covers most of Spidey's main villains -- the Green Goblin is conspicuously absent, perhaps because he has his own collection. The Lizard is also curiously omitted -- he appears in The Very Best of Spider-Man, it's true, but so does Venom, and that didn't stop them from including a Venom tale. Perhaps a sequel should be released featuring those left out as well as lesser, but no less notable, foes (like Kraven and the Molten Man) -- stories that might invest the collection with more off-beat plots and human drama since, often, a hero's main foes tend to be the most one-dimensional.

Cover price: $22.35 CDN./$15.95 USA


Very Best of Spider-Man

The Very Best of Spider-Man  1994 (SC TPB), 176 pages.

by: Stan Lee/Steve Ditko; Lee/Ditko; Stan Lee/John Romita, Sr./Mickey Dimeo; Roger Stern/Ron Frenz/Terry Austin; Tom DeFalco/Ron Frenz/Josef Rubinstein; David Michelinie/Todd McFarlane; Michelinie/Mark Bagley/Randy Emberlin; J.M. DeMatteis/Sal Buscema.
Colours: various. Letters: various. Editors: various.

Reprinting: Amazing Fantasy #15, Amazing Spider-Man #33, 50, 248, 271, 317, 365, Spectacular Spider-Man #189

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1 (some stories more)

If the title of this collection were true, one might wonder how Spidey had thrived for over 3 decades. Not that the stories in The Very Best of Spider-Man are terrible, but few are great, let alone the "best of" the friendly neighbourhood arachnid.

Part of the problem is that the editors seem too keen on collecting "significant" stories: Spidey reflects on his origin, and reaffirms his duty to be a hero, in probably half the stories -- that's a mite repetitious. They'd have been better focusing less on "epochal" stories, and more on just good dramas. Conversely, a couple of the stories (the Venom tale and the Lizard story) are fine, but pretty generic and leave one unsure why they were selected above all others. As well, the collection skips over almost fifteen years from the late '60s to the early '80s, completely ignoring the work of some of comicdoms most influential writers (and artists). This might be because there are other Spidey collections (Clone Genesis and Spider-Man vs. The Green Goblin) devoted in whole or in part to some of that period, but it still makes this "best of" collection weak and unrepresentative.

Included are a couple of awkward partial stories. "The Final Chapter" is the conclusion of a lengthy Dr. Octopus storyline...after Doc Ock has been defeated (he appears nowhere in the story -- making the back cover description misleading). It doesn't entirely work by itself. "Spider-Man No More" (#50) is a fine Stan Lee/John Romita, Sr. tale, filled with angst and character stuff, but it's also a build-up to a confrontation with the Kingpin (in his 1st appearance) that goes unresolved because that aspect of the story is to be continued. Of course, a few years after this collection was released, the stories become a tad more significant in that "Spider-Man No More" was heavily mined for parts of the hit "Spider-Man 2" movie, and "The Final Chapter", with its fondly remembered scene of Spidey heaving debris off him in the ruins of Doc Ock's lair was, likewise, borrowed for the climax of that movie.

The Very Best of Spider-Man's high point is the unsettling, emotionally charged 34 page "Osborn Legacy" (Spectacular SM #189), with Spidey confronting his one time best friend, turned villain, Harry Osborn a.k.a. The New Green Goblin (significantly, the TPB Spider-Man vs. The Green Goblin is a much better collection). Also of note is Spidey's origin & first appearance from back in '63.

"The Boy Who Collects Spider-Man" does succeed in eliciting a lump in the throat, but in a cloyingly manipulative way, and it's predictable and wastes a lot of time reiterating Spidey's origins (again!). While "Whatever Happened to Crusher Hogan?" is an obvious novelty choice, revisiting a character that appeared in just a couple of panels in Spidey's first adventure, but is actually the weakest of the lot, dramatically speaking.

Just looking at my own (modest) collection, better choices might have been "The Spider and the Burglar" (Amazing Spider-Man #200) or the two-part Sha Shan/Flash Thompson tale from Amazing S-M #108-109 or the Prowler story from A S-M #78-79.

Ultimately, The Very Best of Spider-Man has one superb story ("The Osborn Legacy") and other O.K. ones, reflecting various writers and artists over the years (though that '70s leap is problematic at best). It's O.K., but doesn't live up to the title.

Cover price: $23.75 CDN./$16.96 USA

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