SPIDER-MAN in the 1980s, pt. 11 of 12
Pray to your Spider-Gods, he says... Okay, Vulture. Spider-gods prayed to. Destiny likewise embraced. Make way for 1988.
1. THE EVOLUTIONARY WAR
This was Marvel's summer '88 event, unfolding over all the various annuals. It kinda blew. SequArt pretty much nails why - see there for the full scoop. All we need to know for this series is that a Gwen Stacy clone/ variant makes her way into Peter's and MJ's lives. Rather forgettably. "There’s never a convincing scene which ever explores this set-up in anything other than the most cursory, clichéd fashion (...) as if the most important aspect of a story which dealt with the two greatest loves of Parker’s life was a punch-up involving a small platoon of obscure and profoundly uninteresting super-people who Spider-Man had never met before."
|Old school. The Gwen Stacey clone returns years later, but outside of our scope here.|
Steve Ditko returns to Amazing in the annual as co-creator (with DeFalco) and illustrator of the unfortunately-named Speedball, but the character never appealed to me. He eventually joined New Warriors, a popular late-80s title though likewise, something with which I never connected.
2. MARVEL TALES #209
Reprinting ASM 129, written by Gerry Conway and penciled by Ross Andru.
The Punisher was big news in '88. Two mega-selling titles (one of which had Marvel's other hot artist of 1988: Jim Lee) and guest appearances galore. If Marvel had been more on the ball, they could've scooped the Batman hysteria of 1989 with a fully-committed Punisher movie for Christmas '88. Instead, the straight-to-video version with Dolph Lundgren materialized three months after the summer of Batman in '89 and disappeared without a trace.
Nevertheless, the character's popularity in the comics was through the roof. As the original appearance of the Punisher was out of my 14-year-old price range, I was more than content getting to read it in Marvel Tales.
|Fun stuff. As is this little backstage aside:|
3. SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN 134 - 145
Written by Peter David (134 - 136) and Gerry Conway (137 - 145). Penciled by Sal Buscema (134 - 145).
Peter David returns for a solid Sin Eater sequel, and Gerry Conway - coming back to the company he once Editor-in-Chief-ed (for a handful of stormy weeks between Marv Wolfman and Archie Goodwin) and the character where he made his reputation from 1972 to 1975 - took over after him.
|The Tarantula is brought back, this time as a shadowy assassin sent to El Notre to extradite or exact revenge on political exiles.|
|The US Govt. lends him the new Captain America (aka John Walker) to help. To his credit, he eventually turns on his partner, but the political symbolism is appreciated.|
Elsewhere, the big story is a mysterious man from Joe Robertson's past returns and puts him in the hospital. The case slowly brings Spider-Man and The Punisher together for a trip to Texas on the Kingpin's business and yadda yadda.
|Relevant takeaway: enter Tombstone, and the Lobo Brothers.|
4. WEB OF SPIDER-MAN 34 - 45Written by Jim Shooter (34), Gerry Conway (35 - 36), Jim Owsley (37), Fabian Nicieza (38 - 39), Peter David (40 - 44), and Alex Blaustein (45). Penciled by Sal Buscema (34), Alex Saviuk (35 - 36, 38 - 45), and Steve Geiger (37).
Both SSM and Web were overshadowed at the time by the McFarlane-ings over in ASM, but these 24 issues are some solid Spider-entertainment. Solid Bronze Age sensibility on the cusp of the Copper Age.
4a. HOBGOB O'LANTERN
The former Jack O'Lantern continues to try and make a go of it as the new Hobgoblin. Audience confidence is undermined by every character in-frame telling him he's a complete loser. One of next year's crossover-events is Inferno, and within its pages, Macendale gets his own unique (and brief) angle on the character.
4b. FLASH F**KING THOMPSON'S FURIOUS CULT OF LOVE
I quite enjoyed this 4-part Betty-joins-a-cult story:
|Still traumatized by recent events, Flash becomes concerned when he sees her in the company of a mysterious stranger.|
When Betty disappears, Peter approaches Kate Cushing and shares his suspicions that she's been kidnapped by the Students of Love (!), a mysterious cult centered around an eccentric healer. Kate knows the cult - her sister disappeared into them some time ago. She pairs him with Ben Urich, and they go off to investigate. As Spidey, Pete runs into Flash's independent fact-finding; he promises to keep him apprised. Then he infiltrates the cult as a would-be acolyte.
Betty convinces Spidey she's joined the cult of her own free will and is quite happy there. After taking a look around and satisfying himself she's in no danger, he decides to respect her wishes. He doesn't like it but likes forcibly disenfranchising her even less.
|Flash reacts badly to the news.|
Spidey tells Flash to stay away. You think Flash gives a toss? If you do, brother, you don't know Flash Thompson.
|With the help of some of the cops and ex-cops in his pick-up b-ball league -|
|they extract Betty from the cult, with extreme prejudice.|
Everything else plays out more or less as you might expect:
It has been suggested that Flash Thompson needs a Lifetime movie. I agree - and a whole damn series to follow. You wouldn't even have to change anything: just take every Flash appearance in the 80s (including Marvel Tales) and film it as-is. Extra points if the same actor plays Flash as an older man and as a high schooler, and extra-extra points if that actor is Sean Penn.
I probably could've put this Cult Betty story in -
5. PETER PARKER SOAP OPERA
but as you can see, I had plenty to work with already. Without further ado:
5a. MOVING ON UP
So long skylight hi-jinks and crazy neighbors and Mrs. Muggins. MJ and Peter throw a going-away shindig. Peter accidentally drinks some of the spiked punch before web-slinging. Classic Parker.
|So long Bambi, Randi, and Candi - one last time to shape-shift into completely different-looking ladies between panels/ titles.|
The swanky life in Bedford Towers quickly turns dangerous, though, when their landlord, Jonathon Caesar - spelled annoyingly with a "thon" throughout the issues themselves but with a "than" at the official Marvel wiki - obsesses on Mary Jane and kidnaps her.
|She ends up shooting her way out before Spidey gets a chance to save her.|
And speaking of MJ:
5b. MY WIFE'S, LIKE, A LINGERIE MODEL, AND STUFF
|After a somewhat sweet beginning with the wedding last year, things quickly descend into parody.|
The basic trend here is that MJ goes off on her modeling shoots and thinks about Peter's happiness. Then, she goes home and makes her own erotic photographs for Peter or waits around for him in some frilly number. Then Peter comes home and they go off-panel with some "let's go make our own photos, lover!" dialogue, then Peter web-swings off. Rinse wash repeat.
There's a pretense of career-tension and occasionally something mixes up the routine (see "kidnapped by a stalker!' above) but it's all very much a 14-year-old boy's idea of what a kick-ass-bro marriage must be. Mary Jane was once the cool girl in Peter's life, but here she becomes interchangeable "cool girl" in a generic adolescent fantasy. And McFarlane's ever-shifting character model for her makes it almost seem as if these different leggy redheaded women are playing the role of Mary Jane Watson-Parker from issue to issue, sometimes panel-to-panel.
5c. BACK TO SCHOOL
Peter decides to resume his classes at Empire State and Dr. Sloan (remember the guy who was always chewing him out?) even gets him a job at the lab.
|"I'm sure there's nothing to see here" re: Anne-Marie's remark in that rightside panel.|
5d. WEBS AND BOOK TOUR
The Bugle, asserting its rights as the legal owner of Peter's work product, sells all of the Spider-Man photos it bought from Peter over the years to a publishing company, who collects them all into an oversized, overpriced hardcover and sends him on a book tour to promote it. (Read into that as you will re: the work for hire controversy of the era - our own era, too - and the considerable slice of Marvel's bottom line accounted for by trade paperbacks and Marvel Masterworks, etc.) Peter protests at first until they tell him he'll make $25k for doing it, and even extra if he can get Spider-Man to appear alongside him from time time.
|And off he goes!|
This gives the Spider-staff an excuse to send Peter to various locales. Which gives rise to a problem we'll discuss below, but it also stretches believability at certain points.
|Such as when Peter reveals himself to be a huge fan of Tama Janowitz, and the two become fast friends.|
|Or when Peter finds himself on Carson.|
5e. THE MORE THINGS CHANGE
|From ASM 129 (1974)|
|From Web 39.|
Written by David Michelinie (296 - 310.). Penciled by Alex Saviuk (296 - 297) and Todd McFarlane (298 - 310).
Legend has it that Sol Harrison, DC's President in the 70s, was asked why Marvel was selling more than DC month-to-month. His answer: "Bad art." I'm sure it's likely only anecdotal, but it always makes me chuckle. I don't particularly think of 70s Marvel as afflicted with bad art - everything I can think of off the top of my head is pretty great, actually: Gene Colan, Ross Andru, John Buscema, Gil Kane, John Romita Sr., Dave Cockrum, etc. - but there's something to the idea of art that is appreciated by other artists or upholds a historical standard vs. art that is popular with the masses. Sometimes there's crossover between these two groups, and sometimes they're mutually exclusive. But if they're ever in direct opposition, the popular-with-the-masses art is going to win everytime.
I'm sure you don't need me to draw you a map to see where I'm going with this.
5a. TODD McFARLANE
Full disclosure up-front: I'm not much of a Todd McFarlane fan. I wasn't at the time, and this re-read just drove it home all the more. This is the sort of bad art that took over the industry in the late 80s and beyond. Here's why:
- All the Crazy Capes -
Look, I'm not someone who demands a huge amount of realism in my comics art. I like a cleaner style, sure, but I can appreciate some over-stylizing. You want your character to have a bunch of non-functional pouches and armbands because you think they look cool? No worries. You want a big target on your chest for bad guys to aim at? Go for it. By all means, choose what looks cool over what would be technically correct; comics are first and foremost a visual medium. But sometimes you can go a little too far. McFarlane never drew a cape that was the same size from panel to panel, nor made even the slightest functional sense.
I mean, every last one of these folks would be killed almost instantly from getting their capes stuck in everything. But for some reason, this really caught on with the readers, and before you knew it, everyone was wearing capes that measured anywhere between ten and fifty feet long.
|That's the Prowler on the left and the Taskmaster on the right. In case you thought it was Spawn and some wizard.|
For some reason, McFarlane was perfectly capable of drawing people the way they normally looked while in costume, but as soon as they took it off -
|or even in t-shirts, as evidenced by Flash and Robbie's tickets to the gun show (l, below):|
|or even an old, skinny dude like the Black Fox (r) -|
everyone got all 'roided out. This even extended to flashback sequences, such as when Peter remembers first getting the black costume:
|He even adds planets that weren't there to the Battleworld skyscape. I mean, there's a caption right there - "for more info, see SW #9," daring you to compare the panels yourself.|
- Muddy Design -
Sometimes I just can't tell what the hell is going on.
|What is up with Peter's hair? Why are he and Aunt May holding huge 2001 bones to their heads and speaking into them as if they were phones?|
McFarlane favored these sort of thin, long panels with seemingly random zoom-ins or crops:
Maybe it's just a you-say-tomato sort of thing, but man, this just looks bad to me. It's true I prefer a more traditional panel layout. Too many jagged or askew panels rarely do anything but clutter up the visual narrative. To what end? McFarlane's style is cluttered enough already - why draw attention to it?
You know who disagreed? Every other kid in 1988.
- The Webs -
From The Comic Book Heroes by Gerard Jones and Wil Jacobs:
"DeFalco called me in the office and said 'Quit drawing your spaghetti webbing.' I said, 'Yes, sir. 'Don't make the eyes so big. How come you put so much black into his costume?' I said, 'Oh, yes, sir, I'll change it right back, sir.' Then the next issue I'd make the eyes twice as big, I'd make the spaghetti webbing twice as long, and the sales would go up even more."
|Sal Buscema's more traditional take on the webbing on the left for contrast.|
Changing the look of the webbing isn't the biggest deal in and of itself, of course - ditto for making the eyes bigger or for all of the above for that matter. But as part of the general design overhaul initiated by McFarlane (on the sly, as quoted above) the web thing didn't always make a lot of sense. Stan Lee once wrote that there's a reason Spidey tends to stay in Manhattan - that's where all the skyscrapers are for web-slinging.
|But when the Webs tour has him traveling all over the country, little thought is given to the lack of skyscrapers in, say, rural Kansas:|
|where this panel (from 302) takes place. Just one of countless examples.|
|Is Gerry Conway - no stranger to Stan Lee's fundamentals on the character - busting on his ASM colleagues in this panel from Web 40?|
Hell, Spidey doesn't even have to leave New York for the conceit to fall apart. Here he is seemingly miles above the South Bronx:
Google the South Bronx and tell me if you see anything that would sustain this sort of web-slinging. Only a year or two ago, we saw how Spidey fared in another of the five boroughs (Queens) - yet here he is, slinging himself along with mile after mile of webbing. Marvel's NYC doesn't have to correspond one-to-one with the real world, of course, but I'd feel better shrugging it off if the attention-to-detail wasn't already so compromised.
It has been suggested that a poll for greatest Spidey villain ever would probably return only one overwhelming result: Venom.
I agree - he probably would be picked for such an honor. But over my strong objections. Venom is actually one of the dumber characters going, for me. I've never understand the crazy appeal he has for people. Neither Venom as a character or Eddie Brock as an alter ego ever interested or made any sense to me in the slightest.
Watching my Spider-colleagues go apeshit for this generic weightlifter with a leftover look baffled me at the time and still gives me a pang of irritation 27 years later. More from The Comic Book Heroes:
"McFarlane designed a horrific new villain named Venom - actually the black costume Spidey wore for awhile after Secret Wars, but transformed by Todd's courageous grotesquerie into an animated embodiment of menace."
Horrific? Courageous? It takes courage to take someone else's visual design and then just not follow the normal rules of anatomy/ visual consistency? Didn't that used to be called laziness? McFarlane would repeat the same formula with Spawn (compare to the Prowler, above) a few years later and "make history."
One thing about the character is certainly ominous, though: he is a harbinger of things to come, both at Marvel and elsewhere. Within a few years, the McFarlane model would dominate - and cannibalize - the industry.
NEXT: I Will Spider-Man No More Forever: The Shocking Confession!